“Holy cow, we’re old,” I thought, as we found our seats at a recent Joint Service Military Ball in Albany, New York.
The ballroom was filled with over 220 sharp-dressed ROTC cadets and midshipmen from six colleges in the New York Capital Region – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Siena College, Union College, State University of New York at Albany, the College of Saint Rose, and Hudson Valley Community College. By some stroke of good luck or coincidence, my husband, Francis, had been asked to be the guest of honor at the ball, and had enthusiastically accepted.
Back in the 80s when he was fresh out of Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, destined for Intelligence School and his first tour of duty in an EA-6B squadron in Whidby Island, Washington, Francis never envisioned being a guest of honor at anything, much less making a career out of Navy service.
Twenty-eight years later, Francis and I were feeling proud and sentimental.
We’ve attended many military ceremonies over the years – promotions, retirements, commissionings, and balls. There is a particular script that is followed at each event with minimal variation, so it’s easy to overlook the significance of the rituals or let one’s mind wander during the speeches.
I’ll admit it, I’ve been guilty of taking it all for granted, focusing more on who wore what dress or who won the centerpiece or who botched the Electric Slide (it was usually Francis, by the way). But now, as my husband and I enter the twilight of our family’s time in the military, I’ve become a sentimental old fool.
“Please rise for the Presentation of the Colors and the singing of the National Anthem,” a Cadet at the podium announced. I’d seen it a million times, but I was worried about tearing up. In recent years, even the crackly recording of the morning National Anthem blaring over the loudspeakers in our base housing neighborhood makes me patriotically pause between sips of coffee to get a little misty, and Colors in the evening instills a certain melancholy pride in our unique lifestyle.
“Deep breaths,” I told myself, knowing that it wouldn’t be good to start the ball off with an ugly cry face.
The diverse Color Guard marched in precise lock step, placing the flags behind the podium. Four uniformed singers kept perfect harmony, as the entire crowd crooned, “For the land of the free! … And the home of the brave!”
We raised glasses high, in a litany of customary toasts to the flag, the President, the Joint Chiefs, the Cadets, and the Midshipmen. The final toast to the Prisoners of War and Missing in Action did me in, and I swept an escaped tear off my cheek as the MC drew our attention to each traditional item – a rose, lemon slice, salt, candle – on the tiny symbolic empty table near the podium.
“Salmon or chicken, ma’am?” the bow-tied waiter asked before plopping a steaming plate on the table in front of me. I ate enough to test the bounds of my Spanx, before settling in with a cup of coffee to watch Francis’ speech.
Adjusting his cumber bun, Francis spoke to the roomful of bright young men and women about viewing themselves as part of a Joint Military profession that is both ethical and competent. However, he explained, as military servicepersons, they do not just hold a job, “we live a lifestyle and carry on military traditions reaching back for centuries.”
Before leaving the podium, Francis looked up and softened his voice. “As I approach the sunset of my military career, at times I wonder if I’ve made the right decisions in life, and have provided for my family as best I could, recognizing the hardships and sacrifices they’ve had to endure from time to time. But … when I remap my career back to May 22, 1988, when I raised my right hand in the recruiter’s office, I realize I wouldn’t change a single day of it. I am truly envious of you all who are just starting your journey …You have so much to look forward to.”
After his first standing ovation, Francis took his seat, stunned, humbled and grateful.
The MC took the podium one last time to announce the final time-honored military traditions: “We ask that you do not take the center pieces. The dance floor is now open.”