The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(10)

Written By: Rachel Starnes

Once, in Corpus Christi, I showed up at a gathering of Navy spouses that had been mentioned in an e-mail chain I’d received. I was there for a half hour, fielding a flurry of polite but obviously confused questions about where I had come from, before someone finally said, loudly, “Oh, you’re a student’s wife!” The unspoken understanding, at least for this place—which was patiently and politely explained to me as I stood there trying not to let the drink in my hand shake with my humiliation—was that so many students came through the class, and stayed so briefly even if they didn’t wash out and get eliminated from the pilot program, that, though the e-mail list included everyone, the wives’ club was really open to only the instructors’ wives.

I had a friend, Annie, who taught labs alongside me at the community college in Corpus Christi and was married to her college sweetheart, another student pilot. She and I got along well and it saddened me when she quit the job to have a baby and move with her husband to Kingsville, where he had been assigned to the E-2 pipeline, command and control planes. When Ross selected for jets, the silver lining for me was that we’d be moving to Annie’s town, since both the jet and the E-2 communities trained there. It was a few months after she’d had her baby when she invited me to start attending the weekly brunch of a few of the other wives she was getting to know in the E-2 community, and I jumped at the chance to reconnect.

“I don’t think they’ll mind, even though you’re a jet wife,” she said jokingly.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t marry the plane,” I replied. But Annie’s veiled warning turned out to be true. It did matter that I wasn’t one of them. They would all be cycling through the same set of cities in the future, their husbands all on a timeline that meant they would be hitting career landmarks simultaneously. It seemed obvious to me that Annie and I really had more in common as friends than she did with the other E-2 wives, one of whom was downright nasty to her, but what I was learning was that our friendship had an expiration date that was rapidly approaching. She and I might never see each other again, but she would need to find a way to make peace with the other women for years.

Career talk wasn’t the only subject that seemed to bring up an invisible wall between the brunch wives and myself. Though they were all at least five years younger than me—I was twenty-seven at this point and two years married—three out of four of them had children. The hard part was that I wanted very much to have a baby, but I couldn’t imagine how we would manage it with our current lifestyle, and this actually had less to do with Ross’s job and more to do with my own stalled career goals. Some kind of advanced degree, I had decided, would be my way of shoring up a credential before I took the plunge into motherhood, but that would require us to stay in one place long enough for me to get it. Until then, I sat glumly stuffing quiche into my mouth, listening to the impossible challenges of chafed nipples and episiotomy stitches, and realizing I had nothing appropriate to say. The extra years I had on these women had been spent answering phones for a living, dating without any sense of purpose, and getting blackout drunk on the weekends. I hadn’t planned for this life. Ross and I seemed to occupy this weird middle ground between the single pilots we knew who were dating and partying and the married ones with babies and full sets of matching furniture. We had a foot in both worlds, but belonged wholly to neither.

When I finally found my own sort of community, it was in the wives’ club in Kingsville, Texas, while Ross was going through the advanced syllabus in flight school. The Lady Redhawks were exactly the type of group I never would have joined if I hadn’t married Ross. I didn’t consider myself a “club person” even for my own passions, and couldn’t imagine becoming one for a group that existed because all of its members’ husbands worked together. Nevertheless, the Lady Redhawks surprised me. Even going to the first meeting took lots of psyching up. I made Ross double-check with his instructors that I was welcome before I risked another humiliation.

What made the Lady Redhawks different as a group started with its leadership—the commanding officer’s wife, Mariah, was a jeans and beer woman who took the unorthodox approach of encouraging the group to elect a president and a vice president, and a whole board, and then treat her as its very laid-back trustee, as opposed to the more common model of taking on the presidential role, and all the activity planning, herself. The result was a blurring of the lines of rank and seniority among all of us, a more relaxed atmosphere in which it was actually possible to let go, for a moment, of the awkwardness of hanging out with someone whose husband was helping decide the fate of my own. By far, though, the most helpful part about the wives’ club I belonged to in Kingsville was Lady Redhawk Day, an interactive tour of the flight simulators, radar room, control tower, and paraloft for which we were encouraged to borrow one of our husbands’ flight suits. The finale was getting to strap on a helmet, mask, and ejection seat harness and take a brief but thrilling full-speed trip down the runway in the backseat of a trainer jet before the pilot, a very patient instructor who coached us on a few radio calls and warned us to keep our hands off the ejection handle, taxied back to the hangar to pick up yet another wife. Mariah encouraged us all to attend by warning us, “You’ll never get another opportunity with the Navy like this again.”

Throughout Ross’s three-year tenure in flight school, this was one of two official indications I had that the Navy knew I existed. The other was a brief form he brought home just after we first arrived in Kingsville. Where could I be located in the event there was an “incident” on the flight line? The form suggested: “Bridge club, dancing, other service clubs?” Did I have any medical conditions that might make hearing unpleasant news particularly dangerous? Would I like a clergyman present when they notified me? In Kingsville with the Lady Redhawks, I learned to appreciate the comfort of camaraderie with the other women who’d had to fill out such a form, even when it was clear we had very little else in common.

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