I spent half a decade as the world's worst Navy officer's wife. Tom Wolfe should have known me. I would have inspired a sequel to his satire about NASA's astronaut training program.
His book about me would have been called The Wrong Stuff.
(Clarification for anyone who might have missed the point: It wasn't the officer who was the worst. It was me, his loving but malconformed wife.)
It's hard to say what made me ill-suited for a career as wife to a Navy Flight Officer thirty years ago. Maybe it was my fashion sense. I was accustomed to wearing a patched together denim maxi skirt I'd embroidered with roses, rainbows and cats. I wore it with a vest and feather earrings, and silk scarves of every color. Of course, I immediately recognized the need for a change of wardrobe when my husband joined the Navy.
That's why I purchased a black velvet tuxedo.
I wisely surmised that long, tangled curls would not be appropriate at the base in Pensacola, so I cut my hair short, forgetting about Florida's humidity. I made my appearance at our first formal function in a black velvet tuxedo and a Jewfro.
"Wherever did you find that tuxedo?" asked a woman sitting across the table. "I didn't know they made tuxedos for women." She eyed the brillo pad on my head, and my untouched plate. "Is there something wrong with the ham?" she asked solicitously.
"Oh, no!" I exclaimed. "It's perfect!" I leaned over and confided. "I'm dieting."
"Oh, my goodness gracious!" she empathized. "So am I!"
Few people realize the trials that military wives endure. We read about the long separations and the anxiety. We don't read about the hours spent waiting in lines because uniformed personnel take precedence. Or the difficulty finding meaningful work or finishing school when you move every few years. Or evenings spent needlepointing wings at the Captain's wife's house. Or the effort that must be put into conforming. Military life is hard on the family. At least it was for me thirty years ago.
Fortunately, I was too naive to realize I was an utter disaster as an officer's wife. My husband transferred from flight to the Intelligence Corps, and we were sent to northern Japan. He spent most of the year on submarines. I did what any sensible person whose husband needed a top-secret clearance would do. I got a full scholarship to study as an exchange student at an international Jesuit university in Tokyo. It was only four hundred miles away from the base.
I moved into an apartment with a roommate from New Zealand and $40 in my pocket. I'd entered Japan with a military visa. Typically, wives lived on base (or at least within earshot of base) with their husbands. I think I may have been the first wife at the base in Misawa to embark on a private educational venture five or six prefectures away.
The police began to check on me a few weeks after I moved to Tokyo. They didn't speak much English and I hadn't learned Japanese. I showed them my passport. They looked at my military visa, shook their heads and sucked on their teeth (a universal signal of emotional distress in Japan). They asked if I was married.
"Oh, yes, officer!" I said, and showed him my wedding ring. I had not had children yet, so it still fit on my ring finger.
"Ah so ka!" he exclaimed, as if the ring solved everything. "What ah you doing in Tokyo?" he asked.
"I'm a student at Jochi Daigaku."
Both men sucked violently on their teeth. "Eh?" they exclaimed. "Jochi Daigaku! That a good school! You must be a smart girl to go there!" They spoke amongst themselves in Japanese. I heard the words 'Jochi Daigaku' a few times. One of them addressed me again. "You be cahful of bad men," he warned. "This a no good neighbahood for Jochi Daigaku student." I called home that night and told my mother that police in Japan were really friendly and knocked regularly on doors to make sure citizens weren't harrassed by ruffians. I stopped by the police box every night on my way home to say hello and deliver free English lessons. "You be cahful of bad men," they always warned. They stopped by my apartment every few months and checked my passport just to make sure my husband was still in the military and I was still residing in the country with an inappropriate visa.
After a couple of years, I took the visa dilemma to a new level. I left Japan, still not realizing one needed a visa to travel, and set off to explore Korea. I had been planning to go with my husband, but he was sent out to sea on a mission. So I hopped on a ferry in a taifun and left.
In typical naive fashion, I had no idea I'd boarded a ferry in a taifun. I was sitting in the galley eating a bowl of udon when a transom blew open and smacked the side of my head. "Itai!" I exclaimed. "Ow! That hurt! You'd think we were in a taifun!"
The man next to me regarded me with astonishment. "You mean you didn't know?" he asked.
I wandered hither and thither through Korea without a plan for a month. I rode around on a chartered bus for three days with a farm family. I visited the beach in Cheju-do. And I stumbled into a riot in Gwangju on the anniversary of a lethal police crackdown on students.
It started innocently enough. I'd disembarked from a bus and gone off to look for the nearest tourist information box when I became aware of loud noises. "Oh," I thought to myself. "A block party! I'm going to go see what's happening!"
I reached the tourist information box just as a crowd of angry students with bandanas tied over their faces descended on it and smashed it to a pulp. Green clad police in riot gear lined up behind the demonstrators. I snuck closer and hid behind a tree to take pictures. Soon tear gas was everywhere. People ran. A Korean man grabbed me by the elbow and shouted "that's dangerous" in Japanese. He lead me away from the fracas to a hotel. "You go here," he told me. "Don't take pictures of police." I got a room and spent the night coughing violently. And I still had no visa.
I finally learned that one was supposed to obtain a visa prior to travelling abroad when I tried to return to Japan. I obediently handed my passport to the immigration police upon disembarking the ferry. "Where's your visa?" he asked me.
I looked at him blankly. "What's a visa?" I responded.
"You can't come in to Japan without a visa," he barked. "You have to go back to America to get a visa."
I was in my 20s, but I looked 16. I wore my hair in ponytails, and big flouncy skirts with ankle socks. I started to cry.
"Aright, aright, I let you in!" he shouted. "But don't do it again. You go to the embassy and get a visa!"
Please donate to NFTT on behalf of military wives, both ept and inept. You have no idea how hard they have to work even in peacetime not to cause an international incident.
Netroots For The Troops® is holding a blogathon this week, Feb. 20-24, to raise funds to send Care Packages to soldiers overseas and, this year for the first time, we are also sending Care Packages domestically to VA hospitals.
Please join Sen. Kerry, Gov. Dean, Elizabeth Warren and many kossacks as we blog to give our gift of support to our soldiers.
Soldiers have sent letters to express their appreciation for these care packages and posted thanks at Daily Kos:
when we receive this kind of support, it lets us know that we are not forgotten. That is possibly the strongest gift you could give us.
You can donate HERE.