I was married to the United States Air Force for twenty years. Most people don’t marry institutions, but when you marry a person in the military, you marry the military as well. It’s a bizarre, entirely legal polygamy that leads a person on many startling and strange adventures. Ah, the stories I can tell….
It all began in 1988—half my life ago—at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, California, on a dark and stormy night. Well, it was dark, because night is always dark in January in Sacramento. It may have been storming, but I honestly don’t remember. We drove onto base on a Friday night and saw a huge group of women, dressed to advertise, around the guard house. George explained that they wanted to go to JOC (Junior Officer Council…pronounced “jock”) Night at the Officers' Club. A bus would come and take them there.
Suddenly, I realized I had entered the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. These women were trolling for husbands who were officers.
I’d already hooked my officer, and I wasn’t even looking for one. I wanted a PhD, for heaven’s sake, not twenty years as a good little officer’s wife. While I was proud of George’s commitment to flying into the wild blue yonder, I’d have been happier at the time if he wanted to be a professor of aerospace engineering or something equally academic. We would have had something in common.
Oddly, it turns out you don’t need to have much in common at all to build a successful marriage. Go figure.
Back to 1988. We’d been married a year and a half, and I had just joined George after a few months of separation while I finished college on the opposite coast and he started navigator training. We lived in a little one-bedroom apartment near the base in a complex called Chesapeake Commons. I found this name strange, given that I was a long way from Chesapeake Bay; shouldn’t the complex have been called something like “Gold Rush Commons”? Still, its location so close to the base had served George well in the months before I joined him; he could walk home from the Officers' Club after getting drunk without risking a DUI. Little did I know that “Designated Driver” would be a major part of the job description of a military spouse.
JOC Night was a regular occurrence at Mather’s O Club. Since I was off the market, so to speak, it was great fun to watch all the people who were desperately seeking attachment, at least at first. I was gratified when a fairly cute lieutenant hit on me while George got me a nonalcoholic beverage. “This song’s really lame, but there’s a slow dance next. Will you join me?” I coyly held up my hand with its wedding band and said, “Thank you, but I don’t think my husband would appreciate that.” I giggled in a self-satisfied sort of way for minutes after he walked away. Please forgive me. I was only 21 and couldn’t do any better than that.
Most of the guys at JOC Night were happily single and, it turned out, mainly looking to get laid, not married. Some didn’t wait to take their hook-ups back to their rooms. Two little nuggets of information pretty much cured me of wanting to go back to the O Club on a JOC Night ever again. One of George’s friends joined our table and said, with envious delight, “Hey, some guy’s getting a hand job in the corner over there!” Then, another guy reported that someone was getting lucky in the men’s room.
Um, can I go home now?
There’s a very good reason I got married so young, besides the fact that I was stupidly in love and dazzlingly naive. All this pursuit of sex made me horribly uncomfortable. I’d always had guy friends who were my chums, but the idea that boys would pursue me for anything other than friendship pushed me way out of my comfort zone. Except George, of course. I was happy he pursued me because we were simply meant to be together in the biblical sense. Realizing, however, that I was surrounded by a few hundred horny men in the Mather O Club was more than I could take.
I did attend a few more JOC Nights, but only after I had some decent guy friends to distract me from all the unpleasantness. I’m very good at being oblivious if I need to be. It’s a useful survival skill for military life, and I highly encourage young officers’ wives to cultivate it.
George finished navigator training and the follow-on Electronic Warfare Training and was sent TDY (temporary duty) to Castle AFB in Atwater, California, to learn how to do his job in the B-52. He generally came back to Sacramento on weekends, along with two friends whose wives had also elected to stay in Sacramento like I had.
These two women were not, shall we say, fellow nerds. They thought I was highly weird for having taken a couple of classes at Sacramento Valley State University just for fun. (FYI, I took a course in Medieval Literature and a graduate seminar on Satire in the Age of Swift and Pope…yep, I’m a nerd.) These women defined “fun” as going to JOC night and seemed to enjoy the frat house pong of pheromones and alcoholic vomit. They did encourage me to join them on a spur-of-the-moment surprise trip to Atwater. We dressed provocatively and vamped our husbands, which really was well within my comfort zone because it was all blessed by the sacramental bonds of marriage.
We had a night out in Sacramento that no amount of obliviousness could get me through. One weekend, we went out with a few other couples to the Stagger Inn in a somewhat seedy part of Sacramento. I did not want to go but was unanimously outvoted. You see, it was lingerie night. All the servers were tarted up in Frederick’s of Hollywood ensembles, serving beers and raking in huge tips with their barely covered, um, tits.
George actually had the temerity to leave me alone at the bar to order his beer and my cola. Some drunken sot twice my age with greasy hair, bad teeth, and beer breath hit on me immediately. Ewww. I tried to act oblivious but he didn’t take the hint. I was forced to engage the enemy: “I’m ordering for my husband, who just went to the restroom.” He replied, “Oh, that’s cool.” He backed away. Far too slowly.
Oh, the depths to which I had sunk!
When George returned from the restroom, I informed him that he owed me big-time—like evening at the ballet big-time—and he wasn’t to leave my side until we were safely out of this God-forsaken hell hole. Fortunately, we didn’t stay long, probably because the guys were feeling a bit weird ogling waitresses in lingerie while their wives looked on. We headed off to someplace less memorable.
Nothing in my sheltered life before marrying the Air Force prepared me for the testosterone, alcohol, or rampant sexuality of it all. I stayed on the fringes, an observer and commenter and designated driver, never a participant, for which George is grateful. Well, I did get drunk once, but we’ll cover that another time. With help from George, a few friends, and the safe, solid morals of my Methodist upbringing, I made it through with my sense of humor and virtue intact.
I honestly can’t regret any of that year, as weird as it was. Besides, because of my experiences at JOC Night and the Stagger Inn, I didn’t bat an eyelash when we found out we’d just missed all the wife-swapping fun when we arrived at our next base.
But that’s another story.