Sarah Smiley

Farewells: A military reality

Posted March 12, 2011, at 1:42 p.m.
Last modified March 13, 2011, at 11:04 p.m.

Military communities — squadrons, ships, commands — undergo constant change. Every-one from the commanding officer to the physician transfer in and out of jobs, as if inside a revolving door that does not stop. This accounts for military families’ many relocations. It also accounts for inside jokes that do not transcend seamlessly across the years (more on this later).

All the change and new faces can be disorienting for the families, and sometimes, even for the service members them-selves. Dustin learned that in Pensacola, Fla.

One Cinco de Mayo, we hosted a party, complete with a Mariachi band from Guadalajara, in our backyard. The band’s leader’s name was Jesus. That’s “HEY-soos,” with an accent mark over the e. Every-one loved Jesus and hoped he could return for our second annual party the next year. By the time spring came around, however, there had been a rash of deportations in Pensacola, and Jesus was not answering my many phone calls. We feared he had left the country. Co-workers in Dustin’s squadron wanted to know, “Will Jesus be at the party this year?”

Then finally, Dustin ran into Jesus at Walmart. So he sent a mass e-mail to his command. It read:

“I know there has been some concern that Jesus might have left the country, but a late-night sighting in the produce department at Walmart confirms that Jesus is alive and well, and in the USA.”

Oops! Dustin forgot the accent mark over the e.

Dustin’s new boss, who had not been at the previous year’s party, was not aware that Dustin meant Jesus, leader of a Mariachi band. There was a personal reply from the executive officer (XO), and a few frantic moments that included Dustin rushing down to his superior’s office and explaining that, no, he was not making a statement about religion in the United States by mass e-mail at work.

This remains my favorite illustration of how military workplaces are always in flux, and how one cannot assume that what was understood one year will be understood the next.

For the families, of course, this amounts to an endless stream of people moving in and out of your life, which can be both good and bad. If you don’t like the boss’s wife, you know there will be another one before you move. If the holiday party is awkward one year, you can be sure it will be different the next. Then again, when you meet people you admire, respect and enjoy, the experience is entirely marked by the knowledge that it isn’t permanent.

I’ve (mostly) grown used to the here-again-gone-again existence of military life, but my children are just beginning to learn. Two weeks ago, Dustin’s command had a farewell party (the military’s answer to dealing with these series of good-byes) for the command chief, who is moving on to a new assignment. This made no sense to Ford, 10, Owen, 8, and Lin-dell, 4.

For my children, “Chief” has become one of the best reasons to go see Dad at work. They know exactly which desk to go to if they want a piece of chocolate or to toss a football without getting in trouble with Dad. When Chief came to their school as part of Campaign Drug Free and described him-self as having “eyebrows that look like caterpillars,” he be-came somewhat legendary in grammar-school circles. The boys were visibly proud to know him: “Chief — you know, that funny guy? — he works with my Dad!”

So this whole “farewell for Chief” was lost on the boys. “What do you mean he’s leaving? Where’s he going? When is he coming back?”

At a particularly quiet and emotional part of the farewell, Lindell said loudly, yet innocently, “Is it time for cake now, Chief?” Chief has always appreciated — perhaps identified with — Lindell’s humor, so after he made his own comments to the group, Chief invited Lin-dell to the front of the room to help him cut the large, celebratory sheet cake.

Lindell danced and sang his way there. At one point, I think he did the Moon Walk. Then he eagerly took the cake server and cut himself a piece. Everyone laughed.

I thought back to Dustin’s funny moment with his boss and Jesus. And, you know, in a few years, when there is a new Chief and another farewell party, everyone might not understand — they might not “get it” — when Lindell suddenly dances his way onstage and helps himself to some cake.

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. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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