Trip back to Florida enlightening

Posted Aug. 31, 2008, at 8:16 p.m.

This week, I was in Pensacola, Fla., for the release of my new book, “I’m Just Saying … .” I left Pensacola in June, after having lived there for five years (unusual for a military family). My return was an enlightening experience in many ways.

The first event on my schedule was meeting with student-pilot wives at NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Fla. The group consisted of about 50 women, most of them much younger than 25, who are enduring the strange phenomenon that is military flight school.

This is a time when your student-pilot husband has little control over his own life: He doesn’t know his schedule for the next day until midnight, and he calls a disproportionately large number of men “sir.” He is likely to be obsessed with his own health, because flight doctors, the first gate-keepers of military aviation, have the power to change the career path of many aspiring pilots. Mix all this with a demanding curriculum and learning to fly giant aircraft that cost millions of dollars, and flight school can seem overwhelming.

In hindsight, however, flight school is a breeze — for the wife, at least. Because as soon as your husband receives his wings, the military sends him to a new job (again, not in his control), and the real “fun” (i.e., deployments) begins. Getting through flight school is a lot like being pregnant: It seems uncomfortable and tiresome, until the baby actually arrives and you realize that you won’t sleep again for the next 18 years.

I spoke to the student wives at the base auditorium, which, coincidentally, is where my husband, Dustin, received his wings in 1999 — except I remembered the stage as taller, the room darker. I told the audience that it was like going back to elementary school and realizing that the chalkboard, contrary to your memory, was actually very small and low to the ground.

Could time, even a relatively short period of time, really have changed my perspective that much? Apparently not. After going on and on about my skewed memory of the auditorium, I found out later that the building had in fact been renovated since 1999. The stage was taller, the room darker. What hadn’t changed were the wives. Young, slender and tanned, with long hair and hip clothes, they reminded me of what it was like to be 22 again. I would bet money, though, that they didn’t have a single diaper or pacifier in their miniature purses.

The next night was the publisher’s release party in downtown Pensacola, where there was an odd mix of people from different aspects of my life. I actually overheard a conversation that went something like this:

“Susan! Is that you? I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Wow, how are you?”

Both together, with twisted up, curious faces: “So how do you know Sarah?”

“I’m on page 65 of her book. How about you?”

“Our dog, which used to be Sarah’s dog, ate a metal sign in the second chapter.”

At one point in the night, I was standing in a small section of the room with my children’s pediatrician, my pastor, my drinking buddy, my one-time therapist, my old dog’s new owner, my son’s preschool teacher, and my husband’s roommate from his first deployment. What do you say to a group such as this? I chose, “My dress is so darn tight, when I sat down a minute ago, I busted open the zipper.”

Everyone politely looked away and pretended not to hear my nervous, untimely comment.

Then one friend said to another: “So, are you in the book?”

“Several times, actually. I’m a page-65, -82 and -101 kind of guy.”

“You the one who gave her the Friendship Bread?”

“Nope.”

“Tried to run her over with a tractor?”

“Um, no.”

“Broadway show-tunes guy?”

“Yep, I know them all.”

“I should have known. I should have known.”

It occurred to me then that what I had failed to tell the student spouses the night before was that probably the most interesting aspect of military life and the travel it involves is that it allows you to acquire a delightfully eclectic set of friends, which is an education all its own. Just don’t put them all in the same room together.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Read more about Sarah at www.sarahsmiley.com.

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