My War Story
by Elizabeth Aslakson
“Here Lies Lizzy. She cleaned up crap well! This is the epitaph that will go on my gravestone,” I mumbled while stutter stepping on the floating sheets that would not submerge in the whirlpool bathtub. We had just moved from Ft. Leavenworth Kansas to our new rental in Fayetteville North Carolina and all three boys were sick with the flu. The household goods had not shown up, so I had no washer and drier. I flipped the lever and the shrill prattle of water draining began as I wrung the dripping linens. After stepping out of the tub, I slopped the load in a basket and trotted down the stairs to lay the heaps on the back deck to dry.
“Useless!” I muttered. Dank humidity saturated what I had laid out the day before with mildew dotting everything before it could dry. As I picked up musty socks to throw away and every muscle panged as my body fought waves of nausea. I walked up the steps into the living room from the back deck, but my feet became entangled in the Pokémon quilts spread across the floor. It had become the family bedroom because the kids were certain the empty house harbored ghosts. I caught myself from sprawling next to their napping bodies but could not catch the snide remarks that spewed from my mouth. My husband, Eric, stood in the nearby kitchen painting over the floral wall paper. The pink pattern had almost disappeared under the shade of sage called morning mist. He had been working fast since our arrival, finishing a list of renovations before time ran out. I could not help it though. Surrendering to my Slavic temper I blurted out my chosen epitaph along with a handful of expletives, including one in Czech that my mother had recently taught me. Eric roared. Continuing to laugh he wrote the epitaph on the pad of notecards he always carries. The deployment was imminent, and we both knew it was the reason for my pathetic outburst. By time he finished writing, I was lying on my back with arms spread across blankets like a sea star stranded in the dunes of Kill Devil Hills near the Atlantic coast. He laid down next to me, gathering me close as I laughed tears into his green stained shirt.
I felt that same sentiment simmer two weeks later when our household goods arrived in an orange eighteen-wheeler. I squelched the pesky desire to wallow in my expected role as dutiful Army wife when I saw Eric in front of our house using hand signals to guide the moving truck. Sunlight caught the new growth on his face, revealing an auburn beard just long enough it no longer felt like sandpaper against my mouth. The boys watched the movers unload for a brief time before taking the empty carboard boxes into the back yard to create makeshift sleds. Eric and I took advantage, setting up the house while they played. I focused on the kitchen first, using a step ladder to put dishes into the cabinets above the sink. One of the boxes had a crystal serving platter etched with roses that I rarely used. It had been a wedding gift and I just did not want it to break. To store it in the top cabinet I had to stand on the counter top. As I made a careful pivot after setting it on the shelf, I looked down to see Joey on the top step of the ladder below my feet. I reached down to grab him, but he summersaulted off, plopping on the wrapping paper strewn about the floor.
I swooped my arms under my toddler, nestling sweet pulpiness into my chest and kissing mounds of sun-bleached curls. His green eyes blended with the newly painted kitchen. No tears, no blood. His chubby arms pushed on my shirt and I allowed my 18-month-old to nurse. This is not acceptable many had told me. Three months was long enough. But as I fed him sitting between the boxes on the floor, an image from my childhood came to mind. I was about six years old at ballet practice, stretching on a wooden dance floor in my pink leotard when I looked up to see my mother nursing my baby sister in public. She was rocking back and forth, humming, ignoring the looks around her. The knot in my throat subsided.
Just then my three-year-old, Sam, threw open the back door, stomped across the living room and into the kitchen. He stopped in front of me with purple smeared across his face and declared, “Yummy bloop berries!”
“Blueberries?” I asked.
“Yes! Yummy!” He repeated, smacking his lips with his stained tongue.
Wait! We don’t have any blueberries, I had thought to myself. I got up off the floor with Joey snug on my hip. No more chances today. “Sam, take me to the blueberries,” I insisted while holding onto his discolored fingers.
With Joey tucked on one hip, I had Sam guide me outside into the backyard. The previous renters did not landscape, and Eric had only done a cursory cleanup so far. I held Sam’s sticky fist and stepped across a patch of crab grass that led to a clump of unidentified thorn bushes. He pointed to a sapling between thorn branches that held dark berries the size of peppercorns saying, “Bloop berries!”
But, they were not blueberries. “Eric!” I had yelled to him from outside. I gathered the boys, including our oldest, Danny, who had turned his attention to playing football. As I come back into the house with the kids, Eric came running down the stairs. “I have to call Poison Control,” I explained, “Sam has eaten mysterious berries!” He found my purse on the countertop. Reaching inside, he handed me my cell phone while taking the boys from me. I went back outside to call the hotline, describing the berries and the bush they came off in minute detail to the agent on duty. After a few minutes’ discussion, she determined Sam had eaten harmless berries from a Crepe Myrtle, a common plant that grows in the South. After taking a deep breath, I sat on the top step of the deck and looked up to the second floor to see Eric peaking his head out the window. He looked down at me, smiled and gave a thumbs up before turning his attention to the blissful splashing coming from the oversized tub.
Laughter continued to warble from the bathroom window he left open a crack. The heat of the day was sinking while the twittering of insects started echoing between the houses tucked in the sandhills near Ft. Bragg, home of the XVIII Airborne Corps and Special Operations Command. As I sat listening to the crickets’ usher in the twilight, I noticed billows of smoke above the tree line a few houses down. Someone was grilling. A puff seeped through the pines next door. But, it was not the expected aroma of Carolina BBQ I thought I would inhale. Arid vapors stung my eyes instead. Someone’s catfish dinner was burning. I rubbed tears from my cheeks and turned from the rank gust passing and started to think about the last conversation I had with a group of spouses at Ft. Leavenworth before we left.
The tour we came from at the Army Command and General Staff College had been a brief ten months. Compared to usual assignments it was an academic reprieve many families took advantage of even though it meant two consecutive moves within a year. In the wake of 9/11, the operational tempo of most units was high and the promise of long deployments a looming reality. As a result, the typical festive atmosphere on post had a feeling of desperation. Most social events were also late-night block parties. However, with a newborn and two other young children, Eric and I were content with his student hours and the chance to go to bed early soon after we tucked in the kids. We had also just gone through a whirlwind tour at Ft. Belvoir Virginia the year prior. But, being the youngest spouse in that housing area and still relatively new to the expectations required of the military, I was eager to learn from experienced Army wives. The occasional at home sales gatherings were an opportunity to connect with fellow spouses even if I could not always afford their products.
It was at a Longaberger Basket party my duplex neighbor was hosting when I asked what it was like to go through a deployment. It was near the end of business when we finished ordering our handcrafted baskets that we started discussing our husbands’ next duty assignments. Everyone knew what unit they were going to and most knew if their soldier would deploy soon. I asked the group what I should expect when Eric left and if they had any advice.
“It’s a nightmare,” my neighbor scowled as she turned and walked out of the room.
“Your kids will fight the whole time and they will fail out of school,” someone stated matter-of-factly. She looked off in the distance adding, “Expect the worst.”
Two other moms looked at each other and giggled, “You better invest in ear plugs and a lot of wine!” Their guffawing ended the discussion. It made me miss my friends from our first duty assignment in Vilseck Germany. We had come from diverse backgrounds, but the three of us had been like sisters. We still were. Even though I had grown up in a large multicultural family in Cleveland, Niki from Atlanta, and Liz from a small town in Vermont, we had been inseparable. Despite living in an isolated village and our husbands spending hours in the field as Bradley platoon leaders, we found commonalities and took advantage of living overseas. We shared adventures together and brought new wives into our little group as they came to the unit. I thought I would find this bond everywhere.
The chime of my cell phone brought me back to reality. It sounded in time with the crickets behind the thorn branches and Sam’s supposed blueberry bush. I looked to see who was calling. It was Beth, my next-door neighbor from the last time we lived near Ft. Bragg. We had been close friends, but I had not seen her since she came to visit me in Georgia when Sam was born. She was calling to see if I can take care of their dog, Bo, while she and her boys went to visit their family next weekend.
She doublechecked, “Are you sure you are not too busy Liz?”
“Yep!” Bo is the best!” I added, “Plus, it will give me and the boys something to do.”
Monday morning, I loaded the boys into my Suburban and headed to Beth’s to pick up her house key and get the boys reacquainted. The sky was brooding, and the smell of rain was a promise. Climbing into the front seat, Danny turned on the radio. Los Lonely Boys came on. He let out a “Whoop!” Rolling down his window he pretended to play a guitar while I turned up the radio and start singing. Sam and Joey mimicked from their car seats behind us. We sang driving down the narrow road to Hope Mills and into our old neighborhood:
I’ve been locked up way too long
in this crazy world.
How far is heaven?
And I just keep on prayin’, Lord
And just keep on livin’.
How far is heaven?
The kids were still humming when we arrived at Lisa’s, spilling out of the truck and running up to ring the doorbell before I was even out of my seat. They were in the backyard chasing after Bo when I reached the porch. Beth was waiting for me leaning against the door in a plaid blouse and cut off jean shorts. Her straight, long blonde hair glowed while she beamed, reminding me that she grew up on the beaches of California. We hugged. Still grinning she asked, “Liz, I don’t remember you being this thin?”
“I need to talk Beth,” I winced.
“No worries! Let’s go inside.”
We sat at Lisa’s kitchen table in front of the large bay windows facing the backyard, so we could see the kids. Our houses were set up the same. And, it was just like I remembered. Citrus potpourri and sweet tea sat on the checkered tablecloth in the warm room, just large enough to fit the table. It was easy to talk. Beth’s husband was Special Forces and frequently in Africa, so I asked for advice. “All I have heard are horror stories and stereotypes about wives during deployments,” I told her as a light sprinkling commenced from the ominous clouds that hung over the yard.
The boys tore off their shirts and cheered. I grinned, and Beth laughed. “Don’t worry Liz! You will be fine! I know you! It is just the same as everything else. It is all how you handle things and the boys will do the same.” I must have looked doubtful because she repeated, “I know you will do fine!”
Thunder erupted in the distance followed by five boys and a dog coming in from outside. They came in through the garage and charged straight to back bedroom for a game of nerf basketball. I asked Beth if she could do me a favor the following night. The Family Readiness Group for Eric’s unit was having a spouses’ coffee and I needed someone to watch the boys. They were going to be giving out critical information for the deployment and the commander’s wife asked me to be a Key Caller, the point of contact for families, especially if there was an emergency. I knew better than to bring kids. Asked once to leave a coffee when Danny was a toddler, I never went back to another one at that unit. Beth agreed, telling me she will come to my place while giving me another hug.
Tuesday night I showed up at the commander’s house early. Before getting out of the car, I checked my lipstick and made sure my phone was off. I stepped out, fluffing my sweaty blouse and smoothing my frizzy hair. I decided to put it in a messy bun at the last second. Going up the walk way the main door was wide open with a note on the screen that read, “Come In!” I stepped in, walking past candles burning floral bouquets and towards the pleasant chattering. Entering the open floor plan, ladies huddled in groups, sitting in chairs and on the floor talking with anticipation. The counter top had a spread of cheese and crackers, brownies, and white wine. I found a water and tiptoed across the room, careful not to step on anyone or their drink. I located an empty spot in the furthest corner of the room. A couple of ladies next to me smiled politely, asking me why I didn’t take a glass of wine. I leaned towards them, whispering, “I am a light weight.” They gave an appreciative nod and went back to talking to each other.
The commander’s wife stepped into the center of the room and everyone standing took a seat. I sat on floor, careful so my skirt covered my knees. As she took a moment to collect her thoughts, someone passed around schedules and lists of contact information. Five minutes remained before the coffee was supposed to start. A young soldier walked into the room with a toddler in her arms. I knew she was a soldier because she was still in uniform. Everyone looked. There was nowhere for her to sit but in the center of the room at the commander’s wife’s feet. She did so but her little boy squirmed. She was facing the opposite direction, but I saw her ears turn bright pink. The commander’s wife cleared her throat, smiling. Her blond hair was in a perfect blunt cut and did not move when she proclaimed, “I think I need a little something to get me through this evening.” Everyone giggled and one of the ladies next to me opened her purse. She took out a miniature bottle of liqueur, pretending to sneak it up to the commander’s wife. The room clapped but I was not sure what to think. The only thing ladies drank at the other Family Readiness Groups I had attended in previous units, had been coffee or tea.
As the meeting continued, the young toddler in the middle of the crowded room fussed again. Someone turned on the ceiling fan, but the soldier’s face was red. She stood up and walked to the counter to get a couple of crackers. The commander’s wife stopped talking. The little boy did not want them. The soldier sat back down. Still, no talking. The toddler was quiet but stirred in his mother’s lap. No one said anything. The soldier got up and lifted her baby into her arms and walked out. The commander’s wife paused while the soldier left before continuing to detail the calendar through the upcoming year.
Finally, the last item on the agenda had everyone excited. I did not know what it was, but everyone else seemed to know about it already. They had been planning it for months I heard someone say. Another lady passed out flyers with directions to a beach house on the South Carolina shores. I double checked the dates to make sure I read them correctly. It was the weekend after the guys left. Everyone cheered, “A girls’ weekend!” The commander’s wife described how fun the last trip was when the guys were training in the field. They had made their way to a local bar, running into soldiers from another unit who had bought them drinks all night. People clamored to RSVP and set up a down payment for the trip. I slipped out from behind the crowd with my list of people I was responsible to call in case of an emergency.
Later that week I was getting the boys ready for the evening. They sprawled on my King’s sized bed with oversized down pillows propped up around them. A stack of Bill Peet and Dr. Seuss books were on the floor and I had just started reading The Cat and the Hat for the second time that evening when my cell phone chimed. I reached to shut it off but realized it was the commander’s wife calling. I warned the boys to be quiet, telling them daddy’s boss wanted to talk to me. I answered. She thanked me for being a Key Caller and asked if I needed anything. I told her you are welcome and that everything was fine. But she then asked me why I was not on the list to go to the beach. I paused for a second, uncertain what to say, before deciding to use my usual excuse. I told her I was still nursing my youngest, while thinking to myself, maybe this is the real reason why I still am. She was surprised again, so I explained Joey was lactose intolerant. It was true. She suggested I ask my mother to babysit the boys and express milk before leaving. My mother lived in Ohio and had difficulty travelling since having hip replacements years ago. I did not want to ask her to watch the boys by herself. I decided not to tell the commander’s wife this, but said the trip sounded fun and thanked her for thinking of me. I wished her good night and let her know I would call her if I needed anything. I hung up and finished reading The Cat and the Hat. Eric was leaving tomorrow.
It was like the goodbyes shown on TV. We all stood in at the door in a family embrace. Sam and Joey each held on to each of Eric’s legs with Danny squeezed between us, and a football tucked under his arm. Sasha nudged his head between my knees and pushed his way into the group hug. I felt myself falling so I stepped back and watched. I did not think the two youngest knew what was going on, but Danny did. He began to cry as he squeezed his football. Eric held him tighter, cradling the top of his head with tears in his eyes. I had never seen him cry. The only other time I saw him shed a tear was when he had to leave for Germany months ahead of us. That was for our first assignment when Danny was an infant. Outside the front window I saw Eric’s ride show up. One of his friends was going to drop him off. He kissed each of us on the tops of our heads before grabbing his bags and walking out the front door.
I turned my head, so I did not have to see him get into the car. But the boys watched as the car pulled away. Sam and Joey decided to practice driving, so they ran into the back yard to pull out their toddler sized cars called Snuggle Bugs. They each had their own and getting into to them, began shuffling their feet, steering them wildly and crashing them into bushes and into each other. Danny put his football down next to Sasha and went into the garage to grab something from Eric’s work bench. He came back out with a couple of bungee cords and a rope. He went up to his little brothers without saying anything and began to attach the cars to each other with the cords. He then attached the rope from the front of Sam’s car to the back of his two-wheel dirt bike. He opened the front gate and led them to the end of the cul-de-sac on the west side of our house. He put on their helmets and then they all got into their vehicles. He began to ride his bike, pulling them behind as he rode in circles and up and down the little hill next to our yard. It was a perfect autumn day, like someone had painted it on glass. The small maple in the front yard was turning gold and sky was so glossy it shone like a sapphire. The reflection hurt my eyes. As I sat on the front porch to watch the boys, I heard doors closing from next door. I knew my neighborhood friends were coming to join us.