The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(8)

Written By: Rachel Starnes



My mom, laughing, had proposed a contingency plan to avoid thousands of dollars in cancellation fees by exchanging vows at the altar with Ross represented via cell phone (and following up later with a justice of the peace if cell phone unions weren’t considered legal), but I’d been unable to either join her in laughing or come up with a suitable counterproposal. Instead, I’d found myself in the minor emergency clinic with what I believed to be totally unrelated chest pains, and when basic tests turned up nothing, I’d surprised both the doctor and myself by bursting into hiccuping tears when she asked, “Is there any kind of unusual stress in your life right now?” In the end, Ross made it, and the evening was one of those magical ones where time and its passing seem so utterly beside the point that I actually stopped to notice things like the smell of fresh rosemary in the table centerpieces and the crisp precision of Ross’s freshly cut hairline before his Florida tan began on its way down to the stiff white color of his uniform coat. But military life had stepped in quick on the heels of our Friday night vows, and by Sunday morning, we were packed and on the road to Pensacola.

Navigating a new city is difficult in ordinary circumstances. The fallout from a major hurricane added in a new set of obstacles—street signs had blown away, and many of the major landmarks locals would have used to guide a stranger were destroyed, disguised, or displaced. Sailboats from the harbor had ended up wedged on top of park benches downtown; whole cliffsides had eroded, taking homes with them; blue plastic tarps covered nearly every roof in town; and the baseball field near our condo breathed clouds of steam in the mornings from giant mountains of mulch that arrived by the dump truck load, all that remained of Pensacola’s fallen trees.

It was like everyone was lost, but calling myself “lost” at any given moment felt like co-opting a sensitive word. In admitting I was new to the city, I was also admitting that I hadn’t lost anything in the hurricane. My sense of “home” was in flux, but not for the same reasons as the people around me. My landmarks—my maiden name, my job, my friends, having my family nearby, a familiar city and state—were gone, and the loss of them felt profound and disorienting, but not in a way that I felt I had any right to claim. After all, I was a newlywed. I was supposed to be feeling giddy, besotted love and a sense of rightness, the kind of joy that makes you practice writing your new signature over and over and contentedly start feathering a nest. Instead, I found myself devoting whole mornings to sitting, shivering, on Pensacola Beach and watching dump trucks bring load after load of the cold, powder-soft winter sand to a giant conveyor belt to sift out all the forks and picture frames and bicycle tires and chunks of asphalt.

For Ross, the construction of his new life as an Ensign hit snags and delays of its own. As I browsed want ads and planned open-ended tours of the rubble-strewn city, he dressed in his crisp khaki uniform, pinned on his “butter bars” and nameplate, and reported to the base to be told, each morning for the next six months, that his Ground School class was delayed, but to report back bright and early the next morning in case they needed him for random administrative chores. I could tell being “stashed” was driving him slowly nuts, that the wire-edged alertness left over from OCS was dulling, and that my continued bouts of diffuse sadness were utterly perplexing to him, but I was of little help in any of this. I got a job at a bookstore sorting through storm-damaged inventory and spent an unhealthy amount of time baking batch after batch of cookies to compensate for my lack of skill in cooking anything else, battling a continual string of sinus infections from the pink, foamy mold that grew in the storm-damaged walls of our tiny apartment, and reading depressing Russian novels.

When the action of flight school finally kicked back in for Ross, it did so with a vengeance. Over the course of the next two years, he traveled all over the country and was dunked, dragged, thrown, and spun through a variety of training experiences meant to prepare him for the physical rigors of flight, all while cramming volumes of text into his head so that he could be ready at a moment’s notice to repeat, verbatim, any number of restrictions, warnings, parameters, and procedures.

In Florida, they strapped him into a helicopter cabin rigged on a giant rotating hoist above a swimming pool, and then sent the cabin hurtling down fifteen feet into the water, where it flipped upside down—Wait for the cabin to settle and then—quick!—unbuckle yourself, find the nearest exit in the dark, and wait your turn among your cabinmates to swim out the window and follow the bubbles up, up!

In Alabama, “redneck parasailing”: With an open parachute strapped to his back and a harness running from his chest to the back end of a pickup truck eighty yards away, Ross waited for a man with a megaphone to yell, Run! He ran and the truck drove faster and faster until the parachute billowed and Ross’s feet left the ground and he floated up and up and up, and then the truck slowed down and he floated back to earth, the idea now to hit the ground in what’s called a PLF (parachute landing fall), which is like a controlled body crash, and to unclip from the chute before it dragged him to death. They did this just over the border in Alabama since it was illegal in Florida.

Back in Florida, a rigid-hulled inflatable boat dumped him out in Pensacola Bay in his flight gear, where he treaded water for a half hour before a helicopter showed up and squatted over him, blasting rotor wash and noise and dangling a cable connected to a hoist—Grab it! Clip in! Cross your ankles! Also in Pensacola, he sat with a line of guys in a pressure chamber and performed simple calculations as someone drained the oxygen out of the room—Play patty-cake now with the guy across from you! See? You can’t do it! Feel that euphoria? Feels like you’re okay, doesn’t it? But look at yourselves—this is hypoxia!

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