In April of 2002, the train ride into the future became more like a hurry-it-up rocket trip to Mars.
It was time to meet the Army.
Meeting the parents had nothing on meeting the Army.
So there I was, sweet, innocent, 21-year-old April, twirling my brand new engagement ring around and around, filled with visions of happily ever after.
Did I skip the fact that I started dating Alan in December, and we were engaged by Spring Break? Well, yes, that’s true. If you’re looking for more on that story you can find it here: The Boldest Thing I Ever Did for Love.
By April, we were getting ready to jump off the proverbial cliff. Alan had his orders, and they were for Fort Hood, Texas. On April 15th, I met with my advisor and learned that I had enough credits to graduate in December 02, rather than wait until May 03, as planned.
So, of course, we moved up the wedding date.
Our date books were exploding with significant events. Alan would be commissioned on May 16, and he would leave May 28th for his military assignment in Washington state. Then in August, we would be married.
But first! There was the annual Alabama ROTC spring ball with my fiancee!! Squeeaaaaal!!!!
I was all giddy and nervous to prepare for my very first formal military event. I did all sorts of things to prepare for it, like buying 10 visits to the tanning bed. (Never do that. I paid for that with an early stage melanoma, 6 years later).
I drove home one weekend and picked up my beautiful indigo prom dress. No one at college had seen it, so it was as good as a new dress.
I hung the dress on the closet door, safely in its plastic bag, not touching the ground. I could just gaze at it and smile and think about how much fun I was going to have, going to the ball with my own Prince Charming. It was going to be the perfect weekend.
I was not in a sorority, so in my 3 years of college, I had never gotten to go to any formal dances.
I was finally getting my chance, but it was going to be complicated to pull this off.
Alan earned the George C. Marshall Award for outstanding ROTC cadets, so he was at the Virginia Military Institute the week of the ball, where he got to see none other than President George W. Bush speak along with many top Generals. This was months after 9/11, y’all, this was beyond exciting.
I’ve done my share of vicarious living through Alan over the years, but that’s okay because you couldn’t pay me all the money in the world to strap on all that protective gear and guns and stand out in the 135 degree desert, away from home for a year at a time. No ma’am. No sir. April stays local. April doesn’t want a heat stroke.
Alan was flying into Birmingham, from VMI, just in time for me to pick him up at the airport and drive us to campus, do a quick wardrobe change, and charge on to the ball. The party must go on!
Around 3pm, I got a phone call from the airport pay phone. Remember those?
“Hey, honey, I’ve got bad news and good news. Um, they overbooked this flight, and anyone volunteering their seat gets a FREE ticket…which will always come in handy…we could even go somewhere fun later. What do you think?”
I tried to hide the disappointment in my voice, “Oh….”
“But honey, even if I don’t give up my seat, the flight is delayed, so I probably wouldn’t make it to the ball in time anyway. I’m sorry. I hope you didn’t have your heart too set on going to the ball.”
Disappointment. Yes, I was disappointed, but I was also relieved. No mad dash to the airport and back and quick change of clothes. No uncomfortable silences trying to make conversation with people I’d never met before.
I put the dress back in my closet. Some other day, perhaps.
I waited until 9 or so, and I drove to the Birmingham Airport to pick up Alan. I had only been in an airport once before, to pick up another friend, and I had never flown on an airplane myself, so airports were still a novelty to me.
During the day, airports are a bustling, upbeat place, but at 9 o’clock at night, it was much different. The airport was a quiet, deserted place that night. It felt like I waited forever, all alone, in an atmosphere that was foreign to me.
Waiting at an airport gives you a dangerous amount of time to think.
I remember feeling contemplative, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this what my life will be like, as an Army wife? Waiting at airports alone? Always watching for his plane to land?”
Just how many times will I sit here, waiting for him to return?
How often will our plans be canceled because the Army had other plans?
How much should a military wife even bother to plan?
Will it always be like this? Is this just a taste of things to come?
What exciting places will I get to go to too? When will I get to go along?
I looked down at my beautiful engagement ring and wondered just what sort of adventure I was setting out on, and I hoped that I wouldn’t always be the one waiting. I wanted to join him too, for some of the fun, not the Afghanistan trips, but certainly there were many places I’d like to travel to with him.
If I had a time machine, I’d go back and give my younger self a hug that night. I’d pat 21-year-old April on the shoulder and tell her that everything will be okay.
Would I tell her that eventually she will stop going to the airport and waiting? That he can ride the shuttle? That one day she will be so buried in babies, that she will actually let him come home from a SIX-MONTH Afghanistan deployment via taxi, because who takes 3 babies to the airport at 5am after so many years of this routine?
I can’t help but chuckle at that idea. No, obviously, I couldn’t tell her that. That would not help her at all.
It wasn’t a sad evening. I had that young, filled-with-hope, love, and joy feeling, but at the same time there was a hint of reality beginning to dawn on my heart.
I was realizing and accepting that when I got married, the adventures would not always be my own. There will be disappointments, and waiting, and tears. There will be a massive amount of uncertainty, but it will be worth it. It’s just what we do for those that we love.
And I couldn’t wait to begin the journey.
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