Finding home at a commissary

Posted March 02, 2009, at 12:14 a.m.

Because I grew up in the military (my dad was a Navy pilot) and then married into it (my husband, Dustin, also is a Navy pilot), with only six weeks in between when I did not have a military identification card, I have grown used to many aspects of the lifestyle and in turn have taken some of them for granted.

Take commissaries, for instance. I have never lived in any location where I was not near one. Military commissaries, which are usually found on the base but always require an ID card for admission, are basically large grocery stores with special discounts and tax-free shopping for military families. Commissaries also are recognized for having the best selection of ethnic foods because their patrons (military families), who have lived abroad and everywhere in between, demand it. Prices at the commissary are competitive with civilian grocery stores, especially in areas with a high concentration of military families (such as Norfolk, Va., and San Diego, Calif.), where the military and civilian food industries are fighting for the same customers.

To be sure, the commissary is no Harris Teeter or Hannaford. There’s no fancy signage. No flashy fish tanks in the seafood department. No self-checkout lanes. Like everything else on the military base, the commissary is stripped down to the bare essentials. Most times, you can see the pipes hanging from the ceiling, and the cash registers look like they are from the 1970s. (They probably are.)

When we moved to Maine in August, I mistakenly believed there wasn’t a commissary at our new duty station and considered it a perk to not feel obligated to shop there. I could shop at the fancy civilian grocery store without feeling guilty about the money I would save if I’d just suck it up and make a trip to the commissary. (I don’t know why, but a visit to the commissary takes twice as long as at regular shopping centers.)

After a month or so of overspending in our new city of Bangor, Dustin “helpfully” found the local commissary at the Air National Guard Base for me, which is honestly pretty hidden and small, so it’s no wonder I couldn’t find it before.

Like someone who has been accidentally bumped up to first class or the penthouse suite, I was beginning to enjoy my stint as a pseudo-civilian.

Returning to a commissary seemed like someone taking my boarding pass, inspecting it, and saying, “Oh, you don’t belong HERE, you belong over THERE.” I didn’t want to go.

Surprisingly, however, I felt a sense of comfort — like coming home — when I pulled up to the cement building that is so obviously a commissary (commissary buildings are distinct in the same way that popular fast-food restaurants are; you can change the name or even put a whole new business inside, but it still — and forever will — look like a commissary). For all the things that I’ve had to learn about living up North, and for all the new experiences I’ve encountered, here was something I understood and recognized like the backs of my own hands.

The local commissary is about half the size of what I’m used to, yet even so, there were things here and there that let me know that I was where I belonged. There were the announcements typed up on paper with stars and stripes on them. There were the individual discount signs on red-and-white striped paper taped to shelves below each item. There were posters on the wall featuring people in uniform. There were special coupons with sentiments such as “We value your service” and “To thank you for your sacrifice …” written on them. And then there were the obscure ethnic foods that were so clearly requested by someone who has been stationed in Japan or Italy or Guam. The cashiers had on those blue aprons that they wear at every commissary.

The only things missing were the usual long lines at bigger commissaries, and the automated machine that says “Next, please” when it’s your turn to approach the cash register. This was a smaller, more intimate commissary, designed for a community with less military, more civilians.

But the feelings were still there. In fact, I think you could have blindfolded me and I would have known, by scent and touch alone, that I was in the commissary. It is as familiar to me as my mom’s canvas floor mats or the smell of cooked broccoli at my grandmother’s basement stairs.

After six months of having virtually no connection with a military base, it was nice to be reacquainted, like a kid coming home from college for the first time. Only, for all the perks of commissary shopping, I don’t think I could have left my laundry there for them to do. Yet if I’d asked for a hug, I’m certain someone would have given me one.

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. Sarah Smiley’s new book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. You may reach Sarah at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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