Written by my daughter Alli:
In my life, I could have said “I never signed up for this” thousands of times, but there is one thing I did, quite literally, sign up for, and that was being a military spouse.
When my husband and I met, he was already in the Army, so I was onboard from the outset. Marriage is always a challenge, but military marriage is in a league of its own. I could probably write my own blog about everything that has happened in these past four years; some of it funny, some of it heartbreaking, some of it inspiring, but all of it part of what I agreed to for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in good times and bad, the day I married him. And that’s how I found myself reflecting on our life together (and apart) on the fateful day recently when our trustworthy 1999 Honda Civic broke down in dramatic fashion, sputtering to a stop on the side of Interstate 10 in downtown El Paso, Texas (where we currently live).
The engine was gone for good, after carrying us (and numerous U-Haul trailers loaded down with all of our stuff) through one 15-month deployment to Iraq, 3 duty stations, 5 interstate moves, 11 residences, and over 227,000 miles. After all we’d been through together, I mourned the loss of the Honda the way some people would a beloved pet or relative. But Shane was jubilant for one reason, and one reason only: the Honda had an automatic transmission.
Background: my husband is a manual transmission diehard, whereas I had never driven a stick shift and from what little I knew, never wanted to. (Growing up near San Francisco, I had images of barreling backwards down one of the city’s legendary hills, destroying everything in my path and catapulting directly into the bay.) After years of resistance, with our loyal Honda and its safe, easy automatic transmission resting in peace, I would finally have to learn, in the sink-or-swim, no-safety-net fashion that characterizes so much of military life, to drive our only vehicle left, which was our roommate’s 1987 Nissan 300zx.
Marriage, like driving a manual transmission for the first time, is always an adventure. But just like my military marriage would always be blessed with a little extra excitement, as Murphy’s Law would have it, so would be my driving lessons. Because this car was not just ANY car with a manual transmission; it also had (horror of horrors) a BROKEN STARTER which meant the car had to be push-started EACH AND EVERY TIME the engine stopped, which , as every stick shift driver knows, happens frequently when you are learning, and tends to happen in busy intersections with cars honking behind you. I don’t understand the mechanics of transmissions, but I now know intimately abut push starting. This involves a difficult, time consuming, and extremely embarrassing process of getting OUT of the car and PUSHING until I am running; and then miraculously, so is the car, due to something Shane does inside with the clutch that is completely beyond my frame of knowledge. Think “Little Miss Sunshine” in summertime El Paso, 100-plus degree heat. And I think: OF COURSE, Why would this part of my life be any different?
On this, my first day of driving lessons, once the car is finally started and we both are sweating buckets from the starter ordeal, Shane is in the passenger seat, calmly giving instructions in a language I don’t understand: words like “clutch”,”gear”, and the dreaded “stall.” I am driving, one foot on the clutch, the other on the brake, stomach in knots, ready to walk down the aisle and accept Shane as my husband and his life as my life, whatever the Army decides that life will be. We exchange vows, rings, and a kiss, and I take one foot off the brake and put it on the gas. I take a deep breath as I put the car in first gear, push hard on the gas and take my other foot off the clutch. The car shoots forward at lightning speed; anything to keep from stalling. The engine roars and I shift into second gear with a loud SCREECH. The car jolts with enough force to give us both whiplash, and I tear out of the parking lot–as our first set of Permanent Change of Station orders comes down at 4:00 a.m. on August 4, 2005; eight days later we are on our way to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where we live for six months before getting orders to go to Fort Bliss, Texas.
Out of the parking lot, things get tougher: I come to my first stoplight. I slow into first gear and stop at the light; that’s the easy part. The harder part comes when the light turns green. I push on the gas, but take my foot off the clutch too fast. The car shudders, Shane yells to give it gas and comes home from a 45-day training exercise with the news that his unit will be deploying to Iraq in 30 days for a 12-month rotation. That month is a whirlwind, packing him for combat and me for towing all our stuff back to California, drawing up wills, powers of attorney, and funeral plans. 30 days after we first found out, I put my husband on a plane bound for a war zone–and give the engine gas in the nick of time as it roars back to life and I continue on, shaken but still moving.
Then, at the busiest intersection on the street, things go horribly wrong. I don’t give the car enough gas when taking my foot off the clutch, and the engine never has a chance. The car jerks into the middle of the intersection, where it dies. Heart pounding, I turn on the hazard lights, we get out and push, everyone is honking, traffic is tied up, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces that all active-duty deployments will be extended from 12 to 15 months. I am working ten hours a day, going to school at night, and the time when I will see my husband again seems light years away and it is often days or even weeks between emails or phone calls. We push the car off to the side of the road. Nearly in tears, I tell Shane to drive home; I don’t want to drive anymore. Calmly, he tells me that I have to do it; I have to learn to drive this car alone and besides, we are only going to buy manual transmissions from now on. (Did I mention he is a stick shift die-hard?) Like it or not, this is our future, our life– and I will have to get used to it and learn how to deal with it. I swallow the lump in my throat, get back into the driver’s seat, and mark my calendar for the new dates he will come home, 3 months later than we expected.
As we near home, I am beginning to feel more comfortable shifting gears. But I feel no better stopping and starting and I’m even more afraid of stalling now that I’ve done it. Despite my rattled nerves, I get through the stoplights by flooring the gas pedal. It’s not pretty but it gets the job done. I jerk back into the parking lot of our apartment complex, still shaking but triumphant, and eagerly watch the camouflaged men step off the plane, along with hundreds of other spouses, searching for the one that is my husband. The soldiers march into the air terminal, stand at attention, and are finally released into our arms again…for now. We are both back in El Paso, where life continues, relatively uneventful, until the day our Honda dies on the freeway. I swing the Nissan into a parking space (on a downward slant, of course, for easier push starting). At last. In stick shift driving, as in military life, I’ve survived what I’ve faced so far…but there’s a lifetime of plenty more still to come.