There is an old adage in military-wife culture: as soon as the men leave, the house and car fall apart.
This never fails. My own Navy-wife mom bought most of our family’s new appliances while my dad was on deployment. I grew up believing that’s what moms do; they make all the big purchases.
I’ve been lucky (knock on wood) with appliances and car repairs, but I’ve had my share of emergencies. During Dustin’s various deployments, I’ve locked myself out of the house (with the baby inside and no spare key), had a short-circuiting burglar alarm go off at 2 a.m. and found a colony of fire ants living in our spare closet.
I know women who have bought a new house, sold a car or installed a new air conditioning unit while their husband was gone.
This is why the Navy is so persistent about making sure families at home have a valid power-of-attorney — a handy, and sometimes dangerous (you could probably divorce your husband with one while he is away), document that allows a wife to legally sign her husband’s name in his absence.
But a power-of-attorney can’t help in every situation. (Try telling the furnace repairman that you have a power-of-attorney, and see if he cares.) More often than not, a military wife needs to have good neighbors or knowledge of the toolbox in the garage.
I’m lucky to have both.
Last weekend Dustin was away for a short trip and my military-wife abilities were put to the test. The first morning he was gone, our heater came on and would not shut off.
“It’s really hot in here,” Ford, 10, said at 5 a.m.
“Put on lighter pajamas and go back to bed,” I said from underneath my covers. That’s when I noticed the sweat drenching my nightshirt and sheets. I went downstairs to check the thermostat. It was more than 80 degrees inside the house.
Since moving to Maine and having a basement and heater for the first time, I refer to the furnace as “the beast.” It hisses and sputters, and sometimes it makes bad smells. I keep my distance.
So I did what any military wife would do. I called my neighbor, whom we’ll call Mr. T.
Mr. T is my go-to guy. He is shaped like an inverted pyramid. He can probably lift a snowblower with his pinky finger. Sometimes he climbs on our roof just because he can, but also because Mr. T knows that Dustin might nail his own sleeve to the shingles, Griswald-style, if someone doesn’t intervene.
Before I could hang up the phone, Mr. T and his friend were at my front door.
“I turned off the emergency switch, but I’m worried that gas might leak or something,” I said.
Mr. T covered his mouth with his hands.
“You don’t have gas. You have oil,” he said.
The pair fixed the furnace and left. As soon as they shut the door behind them, however, Ford and I both heard a chirp.
We looked at each other. The chirping grew louder.
Chirp, chirp. Chirp, chirp.
It was a dying fire alarm. But which one?
“We better call Mr. T again,” Ford said.
I protested. I could handle a chirping fire alarm myself. If only I could find the one.
Ford and I snooped around the house, both equally sure that we heard the chirping coming from opposite directions: “It’s upstairs.” “No, it’s in the basement.” “Or maybe the hallway?”
“I really think we should call Mr. T,” Ford said.
But I was determined. I climbed the stairs. The chirping grew louder. And when I walked into our bedroom, I was sure that the dying alarm was the one 10-feet high in the apex of the ceiling. Of course.
I would need Mr. T after all.
Mr. T “fixed” the alarm, but as he was leaving, we heard the noise again: chirp, chirp.
I believe Mr. T wanted to curse. The alarm mocked him.
Turns out, the alarm that needed attention was not the one Mr. T had just climbed up an unsteady kitchen ladder to fix. It was the one in the hallway, a mere 7-feet high. I could have reached it with a chair.
Epic military wife fail.
But the point here is not the fire alarm. It’s not even the furnace.
The point is the exercise — a drill, if you will — we had just completed. I now know that it takes Mr. T maybe 10 seconds to get to my house in an “emergency.”
That’s good to know. Because we do need to take down the gutters, and nothing says “emergency” like Dustin climbing up a sliding ladder set against the side of the house.
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.