Note: In this column, I may or may not be referring to something that did or did not happen last week, something for which I may have specifically been told: “Don’t write about this.” My lips are sealed. Sort of.
Uncle Sam is a horribly fickle fellow. I’m not sure to what extent most civilians understand this. Sure, you know that we military families move and live apart from our spouses often. And by God, you know that we get free health care (Remember: Nothing is ever really “free,” and military families pay with sacrifice). But do civilians know just how much this lifestyle keeps us in limbo — in limbo about everything from our holiday plans to our next ZIP code?
For instance, when I was in the middle of high school, my Navy pilot dad came up for orders. This is military-speak for “It was time to move.” And, by the way, there is a reason transfers are called “orders”: You don’t have a choice. Oh, the military will ask you about your preferences, and sometimes they might even give you what feels like a “choice” in the matter, but in the end, Uncle Sam sends you where Uncle Sam wants you. Period.
One day, Dad came home and said we were moving to Japan. As soon as I got my mind around that, he came home and said we were moving to Bremerton, Wash. I began to imagine (dangerous — military families should never imagine anything) life in Seattle and where I might go to college on the West Coast. Then, by what felt like the next day but was probably several weeks later, Dad came home again with news. We weren’t moving anywhere. Dad was going to New Jersey, and Mom, my brothers and I were staying put.
My in-laws had a similar experience before they were stationed in Meridian, Miss., where Dustin was born. Which is to say, this is par for the course.
In fact, last week (April Fools’ Day, to be exact) marked the three-year anniversary of Dustin coming home, pulling out a kitchen chair and telling me, “I think you need to sit down. We’re moving to Bangor, Maine, in June.” He guessed that I might need to sit down because until the week before, I didn’t even know Bangor, Maine, was an option. I was nearly 99 percent (another danger: estimates!) sure we were moving to Virginia. But I was 100 percent sure we were not moving for at least another year. We already had reservations at a nearby resort for Christmas.
After 35 years of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that detailers (godfathers of the military who have the ability to find service members a new career path and their families a new ZIP code) do their best work with a blindfold, set of darts and a map of the world. Detailers also are a ready scapegoat for husbands afraid to come home with bad news. (“Honey, how could I not say we’d be prepared to move on Monday? The detailer told me there was no choice!”)
Military spouses rarely meet or know their service member’s detailer. And for good reason: We have nothing but four-letter words for them. Also, keeping the relationship impersonal and ambiguous makes it easier for the detailer to give families really bad news. It’s much easier to tell a family they are moving again for the eighth time in 10 years if you don’t know their children’s names or that they have a three-legged dog that is blind.
Yet, even with all the mystery of the detailer, we always feel his presence. Especially in phone calls like the following:
Dustin: Hey, what’s up? How are you?
Me (feeling concerned because Dustin had just left the house one hour ago and, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t need to know how I was doing): Um, I’m fine. What’s going on?
Dustin: Why do you think something is going on?
Me: Because you’re calling me in the middle of the day.
Dustin: Well, I do have some strange news.
Me: Good or bad?
Dustin: I talked to my detailer today … .
I didn’t need to hear anything more. My cheeks went cold as I silently cursed a man — this detailer — I have never met. Until that moment, I thought I knew what our future held. Now I’m not so sure. Will there be a deployment? A new job?
Except this time, I feel like we have beaten Uncle Sam at his own game. Because the kids and I have chosen to stay in Bangor, Maine, even while Dustin takes orders in other locations; there is some sense of control. Our ZIP code will not be chosen by a game of darts. Joke’s on Uncle Sam!
Only, I’m not laughing yet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.