Excerpt (memoir)

IMG_1608I’m writing bits and pieces of what will become a memoir.  Here’s a snippet from my college days….

 Survival

We arrived at the training site late and I was already falling head over heels for the creek.  The other cadets in my 10-person group didn’t seem to notice the water racing below us, the winter run-off on this chilly June night making its rushing passage a chattering crowd. They hurried to collect branches. The sentinel heights of the Ponderosa pines, their color leeching in the fading light, loomed black over sepia-needled footing—ancient watchers familiar with our game. Although we were learning to build shelters in a deepening dusk, everything seemed familiar, comfortable. Racing against night when our military-issue flashlights would only provide watery micro-spheres of vision, we were directed to gather foliage, prop it into spiny protrusions off of the trees, preferably with a corresponding hollow in the ground, and make our new beds. I don’t know why the deep breaths of piney twilight sparked me to life. I felt at home.

Survival training. A summer military education program for U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. This part of the program, out in the woods treated us like pilots who had ejected from aircraft and were trying to make our way back to friendly lines through enemy territory.

Cadets.  I was one that summer, even though I never felt like one.  Looking back across three decades, what I remember most was that USAFA was looking for some sort of ideal prototype (probably a young man, six feet tall, athletic and brilliant) and that I would never measure up. A cadet should have blood that beats Air Force blue and want to act out the poem we had to memorize, “High Flight,” to “…slip the surly bonds of Earth.”  I didn’t find the Earth’s bonds surly.  And slipping them tended to make me airsick.

There were nine-weeks between the spring and fall academic semesters at USAFA and each block of the three-period summer was dedicated to three weeks of training or a three-week period of military leave, a.k.a. vacation. In 1988, between my freshmen and sophomore years, three weeks of survival training were mandatory.

As I slid inside the relic that was my military- issue sleeping bag listening to the forest night sounds and my rustling neighbors, I thought about the challenge ahead of me. I knew these programs were challenges for even that ideal, six-foot tall cadet the Air Force had in mind, so would I be able to do this? In that moment drifting off to the night noises, my fears dissipated, replaced by the unexpected euphoria found in my surroundings. I knew I was an “outdoor” girl—riding my horse no matter the weather and fearlessly walking the grocery store aisles in my dirty riding clothes and muddy boots, my filth more a badge of honor than something shameful. I wasn’t worried about dirt out here. Inexplicably, now I wasn’t worried about anything.

Survival training had portions back at school that involved learning to resist enemy interrogations and study survival tactics, but this next week would be what I considered the real test. After only a few days of teaching us about edible plants, how to signal for help, and camouflaging our appearance, the cadre of instructors would turn us loose to evade enemy captors in the middle of the night.  We would spend four nights and five days moving between “friendly” camps where we would sleep during the day and avoid enemy soldiers who were looking for us while we moved under the cover of darkness. What could go wrong? Never mind that, tonight, we were forced to race against darkness because a cadet from the first group that went last week had been lost for almost two days and whose late recovery meant that my group was launched hours after we should have left for our own week surviving in the woods.

Learning to survive in a high-altitude Colorado forest in the first weeks of June was the equivalent of drawing the short straw in terms of USAFA summer programs.  In the following days, I would eye the American Strawberry plants vining near my feet with envy, picturing their snowy blossoms as tiny bursts of red sweetness. After all, survival training meant we would mostly be living off what was now a prepubescent, spring landscape. Other cadets would tromp over these same pine needles in late July. I envisioned their experience something akin to Maria spinning about the Austrian Alps in The Sound of Music, lips stained with berries and full bellies sagging over their belts

(to be continued)

She Wore Armor

She Wore Armor

(inspired by Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses”)

She wore armor

She wore armor over her beating heart
She wore armor over her pendulous breasts
She wore armor over her curving hips
She wore armor over her mound of flesh.

She wore armor

She wore armor over her good ideas
She wore armor over her strong hands.
She wore armor over her written words
She wore armor over her selfless service

She wore armor.

She wore armor over the cold space in their bed
She wore armor over the spoken wounds
She wore armor over the indifference
She wore armor over the goodbye

She wore armor.

She wore armor when her husband left
She wore armor on the morning metro
She wore armor at her Pentagon desk
She wore armor in her smile.

She wore armor

Her armor shifted under his gaze.
Her armor protested under his hands
Her armor groaned under his kiss
Her armor cracked under his weight

She took off her armor.

Hanging Up My Combat Boots

Hanging Up My Combat Boots

Throwing boots means more than saying goodbye
“Throwing boots means more than saying goodbye” (Photo and cutline by Monica Miller–Peninsula Warrior)

I didn’t think twice about sub-titling my blog with this word-image of combat boots dangling over a wire. Everyone knows that “short timers,” on deployments or people about to leave the military altogether, toss their boots over a nearby wire.

Finishing the previous paragraph, I see my problem.

I didn’t think that I had become institutionalized. I’m obviously institutionalized.

For 31 years total, from a semester in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, through four years as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, to 26 years and two days in the active duty Air Force, I have had at least one uniform perfectly pressed and ready to wear every single day. Usually, I’ve had four different types of uniforms ready to go, anticipating the unexpected formal event, or a grungy need for my combat fatigues. There are four ready to go in my closet now.

I have other clothes. After all, I ride horses and have at least 10 pairs of breeches and 20 “good to get dirty” t-shirts that I wear almost daily at the barn. And flannel pajamas for after the barn and mornings. I knew I would be ready to toss those combat boots over the wire and figure out what other people wear in the middle of the day. But when you’re retired, the middle of the day can be a combination of dirty t-shirts and pajamas.

The thing is, I can’t bring myself to let go…of most things…but of my uniforms in particular. Tuesday will be two official months since I retired from the active duty military and from wearing my uniform. Maybe it’s time to clear out my closet.

Possibly the Air Force is trying to prevent the need to retrieve a bucket lift and pull down combat boots from the power lines around base, because it created a place called the Airmen’s Attic. People can donate their uniforms to this shop and enlisted airmen who make so little money they are often supplementing their families with food stamps and the WIC, Women and Infant Children, program can shop there to find quality uniforms at almost no cost. I have a straightforward solution for disposing of half my clothes rack.

On the flip side, many military retirees hold on to a ceremonial uniform or two. I loved seeing my colleague, who has been retired for nearly 30 years, show up at our formal military dinner in his Mess Dress uniform. It still fits him and reminds all of us that “Bill” is a distinguished pilot with a long history of honorable service.

I’m pretty sure that kind of retiree is not me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my service. But it was a good run and now it’s over.

My grandfather served as a lanky, long bombardier in a glass bubble on the bottom of a B-25 Mitchell bomber in the skies over Italy during World War II. My brother is still a full-bird colonel who will begin his retirement next summer. The color-tinted photo of my grandpa in his khakis lurks in the back of my mind when I brush my hands over the plastic dry cleaner bags protecting shades of blue I no longer need to protect.

Mid-Atlantic Air Museum B-25 image
The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum describes the bombardier compartment as a “spectacular view” — a sentiment my grandpa didn’t share when anti-air artillery was flying up towards him.

Marie Kondo, in her book The Magical Art of Tidying Up, encourages people to examine belongings and, if the items don’t give them joy, get rid of those objects. Uncomplicated. Simple. Perhaps a little too black and white. I have a joyful connection to my uniforms and all they have stood for in my life. I’m even more joyful that I never have to wear them again.

For starters, they were uncomfortable. In every iteration. You won’t believe me when I tell you that the waist of the women’s pants is still designed to fall about a finger’s width below my rib cage. And I have a high waist. A blend of wool and polyester, the pants can only be dry cleaned. Eventually the Air Force designed poly-wool blend shirts that could be washed and come out of the dryer ready to wear, no ironing. Eliminating ironing was a major change in my time distribution. And when someone decided that perfectly pressed Battle Dress Uniforms didn’t make any sense, they designed the Airmen’s Battle Uniform that is also wash and wear. (I’m going to skip a long diatribe about materials, flammability, the increasing danger of improvised explosive devices on deployments, and a sneaking trend to perfectly press these uniforms too). One year “they” took the seductive slit out of the form-fitting, long Mess Dress skirt and made an A-line skirt that supported actual walking. In my Service Dress, the tight sleeves have never allowed me to salute properly. Nonfunctional. Dysfunctional.

What is my hesitation? When I think “uniform,” my mind instantly conjures binding, restricting, itching, feminized androgyny. Do I need the physical artifacts to maintain the sentiment? Do I need half of my closet devoted to this source of confliction? Will my adored grandfather remonstrate me in the afterlife when, to the best of my knowledge, he kept no uniforms from his brief, traumatic time in the military? Do I need dysfunction in my life?

Excuse me, please. I have a closet to go clean.