It was April Fool’s Day five years ago. I was in the bathroom brushing my hair when Dustin came home from work, dressed in his green flight suit, and told me to sit down. In fact, he brought a kitchen chair into the bathroom for me to use.
“Trust me, you’ll need to sit for this one,” he said.
We were living in Pensacola, Florida. Six weeks earlier, Dustin had called me in the middle of the day and said, “The detailer gave me 13 options for my next assignment [spoiler: Bangor, Maine, was not one of the options … yet]. He wants us to pick our top six.”
Detailers are the people responsible for choosing a service member’s new zip code. Yes, I said “choosing.” And, yes, even though the detailer gave Dustin “options.” The word “options” is smoke and mirrors for what really happens: the detailer puts on a blindfold and throws darts at a map.
Also, the detailer probably didn’t include me in the conversation. As in, he didn’t say, “Go home and talk about this with your wife and pick your top six.” (Remember, if the military wanted them to have wives, they’d issue one.) “Us” and “our” were Dustin’s special touches to soften the blow.
In any case, I took the task of choosing our top six seriously. Dustin gave me a folded paper map of the United States, and I promptly marked an enormous X over three-fourths of the country.
“I want to go to Virginia,” I said.
Dustin frowned. “It’s not one of the options,” he said.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Washington state — those were some of the options.
For the next several weeks, Dustin and I worked on a rough draft of our “top six.” This was like choosing a baby name. We each had a finite amount of vetoes as we scratched off and rearranged cities on the list. All the while, of course, I knew the detailer’s dart and map would ultimately pick our next place to live.
In late March, I was washing our van in the driveway. You’ll find this hard to believe, but it was so hot the soap suds sizzled on the concrete. Sweat poured down my cheeks and the back of my neck.
Dustin pulled into the driveway and got out of his car like nothing was wrong. When he passed by me, he said casually, “Oh, the detailer added Bangor, Maine, as a fourteenth option.”
I laughed. “Ha! So that’s not going in our top six.”
Dustin stopped mid-step. “Actually, I added it as number seven.”
“On a list of six?” I turned around and started cleaning the car again. “Well, we can remove that before you turn in the final draft.”
Dustin bit his lip. “I kind of turned in the list today.”
What followed was several hours of me crying and Dustin following me through the house pleading, “They’ll never sent me to Bangor, Sarah. I put it seventh on a list of six!” He slept on the couch that night, and over and over again, through our closed bedroom door, he said, “Think about it; it’s not even in our top six. It’s number seven. There’s no way.”
Eventually, I started to believe him. Sending us to our — excuse me, his — seventh option would be ridiculous. Why tell a family to choose their top six and then send them to the surprise seventh?
Then, on April Fool’s Day, Dustin came into the bathroom with a kitchen chair and told me to sit down. “We’re moving to Bangor, Maine,” he said. He had no explanation for how it could have happened, except that he was likely the only person who even listed Bangor, Maine, and the detailer had to send someone.
I was angry — furious, actually — but I wasn’t sure at whom to direct my anger: Dustin or the detailer?
Our Florida house sold quickly, so we lived most of the summer in a hotel room on base, right across from the National Naval Aviation Museum, which we didn’t visit often enough because the walk was too hot and humid. Everything we owned was already in a storage container in Maine.
On August 26, 2008, we moved to Bangor. The first thing I remember noticing was how many people were outside — in the parks, on their front steps, walking up and down the sidewalk. The next thing I remember was that school began on August 27. By August 28, Dustin had returned to Florida to complete the last two months of his assignment there. And sometime that September, I fell in love with Maine.
Dustin called home to see how we were doing.
“I love this place and I’m never leaving,” I said. “If you move me out of Maine, I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to come back here.”
Dustin laughed. “Is that a joke?”
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 www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.