The rain was positively pelting the car’s windshield. Wipers swished at full blast, but that didn’t make it any easier for the young mom at the driver’s seat to see the road in front of her. Driving across the South into Texas, on the way to their next assignment seemed interminable, especially with her hungry infant tucked in his carseat behind her. Shoulders rounded over the wheel, she leaned forward, tired, worn out, and slightly jealous of her husband, who was an hour behind her with their happy and willing dog. She was thirty minutes from her destination, catching glimpses of the ranches she sped past, and begging her baby to hang on for just a bit longer.
And then finally, finally, she entered Killeen, home of Fort Hood, and saw the sign for her hotel standing over the buildings ahead. Taking a deep breath, she slowed the Corolla and stopped at a light, at last able to take in the surroundings. But her eyebrows furrowed and her stomach dropped when she saw the town that was supposed to be her new home. Old buildings were crammed along the road, with fast food joints and discount car dealerships standing just about anywhere there was a corner of space. The street was cracked and potholed. A few men in ragged clothing huddled under a bus stop. “What… is… this?” she wondered out loud.
The light changed, and she turned into the hotel parking lot. People loitered under overhangs, smoking cigarettes and looking around at seemingly nothing. The pavement was crumbling, and as she drove the car around the back of the hotel, she winced at the peeling paint, dingy railings, and outside-facing room doors. She pulled the car to a stop and thought with a feeling of dread, What have we gotten ourselves into?
If my husband hadn’t cross-trained, I might’ve been basking in the Hawaiian sun while my baby snoozed under a beach umbrella, instead of sitting stunned in what I soon learned was an ill-reputed part of Killeen where we’d unwittingly made a reservation at a well-reputed hotel chain. But as it was, Mike took the career chance of his lifetime, we left Hawaii, and eventually landed smack-dab in the center of Texas.
After that first meeting, you might think I sped away from Killeen three years later, yelling “Yaa-hooooo!” like Sloan did as she sped away from school in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But actually, my experience at Fort Hood turned out to be quite blessed, and it taught me an important lesson about this life: each assignment is almost entirely what you make of it, and even the less glamorous ones might end up surprising you.
True, the first several months at Fort Hood were challenging. While we found a lovely neighborhood and home, close to parks and everyday conveniences (and learned to take the long way around that seedy center of town), it seemed almost no one was around, ready to become friends. Even the squadron seemed mysteriously deserted of wives. Plus, I was a new mom, which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, presented me with a new map of socializing.
Long walks, trips to parks, story times at the library at first yielded no one. I even signed up online with a few social networking sites for moms looking for organized playdates or book discussion groups, and NO ONE RESPONDED TO MY INQUIRIES. I’d joke about it to my husband: “Oh, man, I’m even getting rejected at online dating for moms!” But inside I was feeling really crushed.
What on Earth was I doing wrong? Surely it must be this horrible location, with its triple-digit heat and ghetto center of town. Right?
This just happened to be a place where it took a little extra time.
And thankfully, a happy, fulfilled, enjoyable life began to take shape, and I began to appreciate the gift that Killeen was giving me: a small-town feel, where I’d rarely go anywhere without running into someone I knew, where the six degrees of separation between friends was more like three degrees, where my neighborhood consisted of people who babysat my kids when I had to rush to the hospital, recharged my car battery when it died in my driveway, cooked me dinner when I had my second baby, and stopped in the street for a friendly chat.
And the squadron brought me wonderful men who, when my husband was gone, rushed to my house to fix a faucet when it burst at bedtime, picked me up from the hospital at 3 am, moved furniture when I was too pregnant to stand, and even babysat my kids and did my dishes – did my dishes! – when my usual babysitter got sick (all so I could enjoy an evening with my girlfriends).
I really could not have asked for a better life.
This was an assignment where my husband was gone for roughly 23 out of the 38 months we lived there. But I didn’t feel alone, even when I was alone. My neighbors, friends, and even friends of friends made sure of that.
So did I put on my jacket, slide on my sunglasses, and speed out of town? Absolutely not. I spent the last weeks of my time there focusing on my friends. I gave hugs. I gratefully accepted people’s offers to babysit my kids and the dog while the house was packed up. I enjoyed dinners at homes that had become second homes.
And I left wishing I’d stayed just a little bit longer.