What a moving experience it was.
I couldn’t possibly count all the packing boxes that went into the many military moves of the Donoho family. Thirty years of life in the military was enlightening, fun, tedious, maddening and glorious. We never really took a vacation during all those years. The vacation would invariably occur during our permanent changes of station. We would take cross country trips with loaded cars, pets in tow and somehow managed to make it fun.
After the one five-year period we lived in Indiana during which our children were in the early grades in elementary school, we moved every year or two years thereafter. I will always treasure Indianapolis and West Lafayette, Indiana for those precious years. There was always something interesting going on. Our children loved the Childrens Museum in Indianapolis.
We’ve lived in the far north and near the equator. We lived next door to a house where pro-Noriega police were planning a coup and we lived on a post where deer would appear in the front yard. We absolutely loved living in a house built by the Buffalo soldiers and for six months we more than lived on a beach.
We spent two tours in Germany, the first, early in my husband’s career and the second when my husband was nearing retirement. The travels were more enriching during the last tour because our children were older. We all discovered how much we liked travel by train.
And yet, often we didn’t realize how much we liked a place until we saw it in the rearview mirror. Such is life, I suppose.
But the moves themselves were memorable and once or twice very disheartening. I will never forget the time we were moving from Fort Eustis. When the packers came in our house my heart fell. The packers were so illiterate they couldn’t spell the simplest words on the boxes and I caught a few throwing the packed items into the containers.
I gathered up all of our silver, the family Bible, photo albums and other precious things and packed them myself and put them aside. These possessions would not go into storage. We drove them in our big van all the way to Arkansas to leave with our parents.
Thank heavens we did that. After we had spent two years in Panama and had moved to Fort Drum, New York, on the very day we were to receive our household goods the inspector came out to our house and told my husband that all the things we had left in storage might not arrive because the storage company had gone bankrupt and whatever wasn’t stolen had been left out in the rain.
Missing was the beautiful oriental rug we had bought in Germany on our first tour, the old American flag with the forty eight stars that my husband had inherited from his late grandfather and many other things. Our heirloom dining room furniture was water damaged and warped; the living room sofa and chairs had rust stains all over them and the legs were broken off. It was a mess. We had no living room or dining room furniture to speak of and making matters worse, we were expected to entertain because my husband was a battalion commander.
A battalion command is a big deal in a military family. It was quite an achievement in my husband’s Army career. To prepare for the command both my husband and I attended a course at Fort Leavenworth. We met a lot of great people, some of whom were also headed to Fort Drum.
So, my expectations that we would be able to get settled quickly were dashed. Material possessions aren’t all that important of course, but the government had let us down. I wanted to find out why the storage facility had gone bankrupt and learned that it had filed a chapter 7 bankruptcy. Somehow, no one in the huge bureaucracy thought it important to let military families know that their possessions were at risk.
Then I discovered all the governmental red tape. We first had to file a claim with our own insurance before the government would let us even file a claim with them. Luckily our insurance would cover loss and water damage. I had to document everything and luckily I still had our photo albums and receipts since I had stored that with our parents. But the whole enterprise of dealing with the government bureaucracy took months to do. Once I got around to filing our claim with the government I discovered that all items would be depreciated.
The damaged furniture was unusable so it was put in the garage. We had to keep it around for insurance purposes.
We had our first battalion party in an empty living room and dining room.The food was excellent though (if I say so myself) and we used our old rattan outdoor table and chairs we had bought from the Indians in the interior of Panama. So we had plenty of floor space and everyone was happy with the food and drink.
It was months before we had furniture. Fort Drum is seventeen miles from Watertown, New York and I only found one nice furniture store there. Another town twenty five miles away had an Ethan Allen. We had to go to Syracuse to find a replacement for our oriental carpet. That was fun of course but meanwhile, my husband had been deployed to Somalia. My daughters and I made all the selections.
Along the way our cat family expanded. We had found Abbey in Panama at a U.S. government run humane society and a year after we got to Fort Drum we added Sabby. Then, one cold winter night Captain arrived. Pattertwig, our dog and Sabby really got along well.
Our kids were in junior and senior high school during our two years at Fort Drum. Our son was a senior at the Catholic High School in Watertown and (while his Dad was in Somalia) he had convinced me to let him drive our ten year old van to school a few days a week instead of having to take the bus. We had 224 inches of snow that first winter. Upstate New York road workers really kept the roads clear. The school system never called off school because of the weather and, thankfully, our son drove safely.
I had to make those kind of command decisions that winter and luckily when my husband finally returned home he liked the furniture, our kids had kept up their grades and Drew hadn’t had any car accidents.
Getting back to our move from Fort Eustis, Virginia to Panama. After we had cleared our quarters we decided for economic reasons to stay in the guest house at Fort Eustis. It was an old building but our quarters had a suite with a bedroom and living room. At first, we settled in happily.
Everyone was asleep when around two a.m. the smoke/fire alarm in the ceiling right above our bed went off. We all woke up. Our youngest daughter, Charlotte was sick with fever and a stomach virus. Her precious sleep was disturbed and brought on more moans and misery. My husband tried to get the alarm shut off but it just kept wailing. We checked to see if there was any smoke but there wasn’t any sign of a fire. We waited for the firemen to arrive. They checked out our rooms and decided that there was no fire, we just had a faulty fire alarm. They left. We went back to bed.
One hour later, the fire alarm went off again. The firemen came again. They would not disconnect the fire alarm but checked it out and informed us that it wouldn’t go off again. Of course it did. It went off every hour for the rest of the night.
We named that guest house Hotel Hell. We didn’t stay there another night.
Our van and my husband’s car was loaded and ready to go so we put Pattertwig and the kids in the cars and headed west to Arkansas.
I focus a lot on our two year tour at Fort Drum, New York. For me, it was one of my most enriching experiences in our thirty years of Army life. Perhaps it was because I didn’t work for those two years and had a lot of time to enjoy watching it snow, being with the kids and experimenting with recipes for all the parties we had. Being a Battalion Commanders wife required that I get involved in the military community, the Family Readiness Group and the battalion. I made so many friends with the wives on the post. We played bridge, were in a bowling league (I love to bowl but am not very good) and attended lots of meetings. I was vice president of the Volunteer Support Fund. I learned a lot through that endeavor.
One of my friends did lots of arts and crafts. She made the little houses representing almost everywhere we had lived shown in the above photo. I held parties for the wives and families in my husband’s battalion. I also did what I could to make their lives better. Sometimes all I could do was console.
While my husband was in Somalia his Executive Officer’s son, a yearling at West Point, was in a terrible auto accident with a group of cadets who were on their way back to West Point from Florida after Spring Break. Billy lost his left arm and two other cadets were killed. That was very hard. I still think of that time with sadness. Billy was an outstanding cadet but because he lost his left arm he had to leave West Point at the end of his yearling year. He was determined not to let the loss of an arm stop him. He spent time at Fort Drum on the golf course. His exuberant personality was an inspiration to all of us. Billy went on to finish college and is very successful.
Our children were growing up. My son was headed to West Point when we moved in June of 1994 to Fairfax, Virginia. My husband headed to the Pentagon. I became a fifth grade teacher at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria, VA. We loved living near our nations’ capital and enjoyed our trips into Washington D.C.
Because the Clintons were living in the White House we didn’t take a tour.
A snub to Hillary, yes.
She was reported to have remarked during the eighties that she would “pass on a tour of the White House” during the Reagan presidency until “nicer people” lived there.
I became friends with a lady who lived in Alexandria most of her life and her son was a student in my fifth grade class. She and her husband had an annual Christmas tradition of going on a White House tour. She told me that after the Clintons moved into the White House she questioned a tour guide about the beautiful Italian creche that was always on display during the Christmas holidays at the White House but she didn’t see it in its usual place. The tour guide whispered to her that because Hillary didn’t want to insult Muslims she hadn’t allowed it to be displayed.
Our two years in Fairfax, Virginia went by fast and before we knew it we were on the road to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. My husband was in one car and the girls and I and our three cats and dog were in the van. It was raining. When we arrived at the Army War College and our little house in Smurf Village I was shocked to discover that the movers were moving our furniture into the house during the rain. Our white sofa was covered with plastic but it was sitting on the lawn.
The house was very small but we were so leery of any storage facility we decided to go with all of our stuff. Somehow we managed to make it all fit. The house had five levels. A basement was the first level and the L shaped living room and dining area with a tiny, walk-in kitchen was on the second level. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a bathroom. Third level. One level up, was another bedroom and bath and then up in the attic was another bedroom. Fifth level. It was a tiny little house stacked up like a wedding cake and we loved living in it.
Being in Pennsylvania for that one year was fun. Our son was a little closer to us, it only took four hours to drive to West Point. We brought him home every chance that we could. Our oldest daughter was off to college at Washington and Jefferson, a drive that took three hours. I spent a lot of time on the road and was able to view the exquisite beauty of the state. We went to the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia that year, and Army won in a very exciting game.
Many memories were packed into that one year. Before we knew it, it was over and we were heading to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, one of my most favorite posts. We had lived there years before during my husband’s first tour. Going back was thrilling. We lived on the quadrangle, where all the historic houses built by the Buffalo Soldiers were. Our house on Chickasaw Road was about one hundred forty years old, had five bedrooms, front stairs, back stairs, two fireplaces, a screened in porch and a kitchen with two ovens. There were hardwood floors throughout and built-in bookcases. Our house had a plaque on the wall in the front hallway which listed the names of all the officers who had lived there. After we left our name was added to it.
All the other houses had only four bedrooms. Our house had a story behind it. In the early nineteen hundreds a chaplain and his family lived in our quarters. He had a moonshine still and one day it exploded, causing a lot of damage. When the house was repaired one of the bedrooms was divided in two. I loved that old story.
Life during the two years we lived at Fort Sill was bitter sweet. My husband lost his parents within four months of each other. That was the reason we went to Fort Sill. My husband was being groomed to be a general but he chose to pass on that and move to Fort Sill because it was the closest post we could get to in order to be near his father, who had terminal cancer. We spent many hours on the road to Fort Smith.
The second and last year we were at Fort Sill I suffered empty nest syndrome. Our youngest daughter was off to college. Fortunately, she chose the University of Oklahoma which was only a two and a half hour trip. I took trips up to the University on Thursdays to take Charlotte out to lunch. Meanwhile our son had graduated from West Point in 1998 and was attending his Officers Basic course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Our oldest daughter, Kate was in her third year at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. I took road trips up to Pennsylvania to see her.
In August, 1997, my parents went with us to take Kate back to school. We took two cars because we were going to leave one of them with Kate. When we were driving through the outskirts of St. Louis I looked in my rearview mirror to check on my parents and they were nowhere to be found. This was the days before cellphones. I pulled over on the shoulder of the road, waiting and hoping to see my parents in the car and after about fifteen minutes of wondering what in the world I would do if we had lost them, we saw the car coming down the interstate.
Traveling with my parents has always been an interesting but sometimes flustering experience. On the way home my dad wanted to stop at every antique shop on the way. It was fun but sometimes frustrating for me because I wanted to get back on the road. By the time we returned home the van was loaded with items that would go into their antique shop.
I loved walking around Fort Sill. We lived on the old quadrangle and the parade ground, where all the military ceremonies took place, was just across the street. Atomic Annie was just a few blocks away. The guardhouse where Geronimo was held was nearby.
Thirty years went by as fast as thirty minutes. It seems like it was just this morning that my mother-in-law Martha Ann presented me with a copy of The Army Wife.
The military life stays with you. We moved back to our hometown and found employment. Our children live near us and we are surrounded with all of our family. I still love giving parties, pulling out all the German china, Polish artist signed pottery and French tablecloths.
Still, Summer feels funny if we are not traveling somewhere and I find myself going through all the old photographs of places we have lived. I look around the rooms of our house and have the urge to pack it all up. Moving was not so much fun but the places we lived and people we met all over our country, in Europe and Panama taught us, enriched us, enlarged our minds and made us appreciate our country.
I miss it.
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