By Anne Gagliano
It really is true: Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. The ironies, the unexpected twists of fate seem too unreal to actually be real. But they are. Those feelings of déjà vu—like I’ve been here before, but only in my wildest dreams. Surprise, incredulity, disbelief: These thoughts wash over me as I stand in a beautiful kitchen in a beautiful house where scrub pines and several mills once stood so very long ago ….
In 1985, my firefighter/husband Mike and I once lived not far from this place. We were newlyweds, just 20 years old, too poor to even afford an actual apartment that required a down payment. We instead lived in a little motel room that we rented by the month. I worked at the Bible Book Nook for minimum wage (just $3.00 an hour), and Mike had a job at the Potlatch Sawmill for $12.00 an hour—a whopping $18 with overtime, which he worked as much as was physically possible. So much so that he once collapsed from over work and dehydration and had to be taken to the little hospital in town where they gave him three IV bags—the most they’d ever seen needed to re-hydrate a fit young man.
A splurge for us in those long-ago days was to get an order of moo goo gai pan and rent a VCR for the night, plus 3 videos. We never dreamed we’d be able to own a VCR. We didn’t have the money to finish our college degrees (Mike was pursuing computers), so instead he had signed up for the Air Force a few months before we married with the hopes that he might finish his degree on the G.I. Bill. We waited out the time before he headed off to boot camp in this small town where we had met and married—Coeur d’Alene, in North Idaho. We had just two months together as newlyweds before we would be separated with his departure.
One day at the Bible Book Nook, I felt a funny, almost painful twinge. The “twinge” persisted, so I finally made a doctor’s appointment, for which I paid cash, as we had no insurance. I listed my reason for coming as a possible bladder infection. They tested me—no bladder infection. I became alarmed as they decided to test my blood for a kidney infection or other possible infections. None were found. Now what? The doctor said he had one more test to run. He returned with this news: “You’re pregnant.” I was so shocked I literally saw stars—yes, actual stars (this phrase is based on a real phenomenon). I went home and told Mike—he wasn’t as shocked as I was—I guess he somewhat expected this. We had no insurance, no real home, and he was leaving soon for boot camp. And now we had a baby on the way. We were so very poor that I returned the unopened contraceptives I had just purchased, as they were obviously no longer needed. The store clerks at Albertson’s all got a good laugh when I told them why. All humiliation aside, we needed that $17.
A few months later after Mike finished boot camp and tech school, we packed up all that we owned. It wasn’t much; the tiny little U-Haul trailer we rented easily housed it all. No furniture, just a few wedding gifts and even fewer baby gifts, a couple boxes of books (as we’d both always been avid readers), and a few suitcases, none of which contained any maternity clothes. He was assigned to the fire tech school as a crash firefighter, not computers as was the plan. And we were stationed in Louisiana, not anywhere west of the Rockies, as we had requested. We drove off in our little red ’67 Mustang with busted headlights to an uncertain future in a far away place with hardly more than the clothes on our backs and all the odds of our marital success stacked against us. We said goodbye to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, not knowing if we would ever return.
It’s now 2018, and we’ve come to Coeur d’Alene as invited guests to speak on marriage–our marriage, a firefighter’s marriage. Scheduled months in advance, we speak at two different venues. We are well received and treated as family, as royalty even, as this is how firefighters treat their own. The generous chaplains who host the event promise to buy our marriage book for all who are in attendance–the book we are finishing up as we stay at my cousin’s beautiful house that overlooks Lake Coeur d’Alene.
We drive around town in the snowy darkness of the night on our arrival. The motel we once lived in is gone. The Bible Book Nook is something else, and the Potlatch Sawmill has been leveled and replaced by a lavish golf course. The little hospital is now an impressive, expansive campus known as Kootenai Health; the buildings are large and modern and new. The Albertson’s is still there, looking just the same. The one little dorm on the campus of North Idaho College where we met and fell in love is gone too; several dorms loom tall in its place.
Now we are standing in a beautiful kitchen of a beautiful new 3,100-square-foot house with high-end finishes throughout. It is spacious and impressive, a dream house really. Across the street, the old iron mill still stands. Mike’s dad (also named Michael, or “Mickey”) once worked there decades ago. Of all the jobs he ever had, it was by far the most grueling; Mickey would come home with his pantlegs literally frozen solid. And not far from this mill is the neighborhood where, nearly 50 years ago, Mickey was denied housing because of the mafia association of the Gagliano name. Yet here we stand in this gorgeous home, the home that our son, third-generation Michael (that little unexpected pregnancy) is buying today. This very day, the same day we are in town for our speaking engagements that we booked months ago. Michael was just offered a prestigious position at the same hospital where his dad once needed three IV’s. He’s their new IT computer guy—having accomplished the very college goals his father never did. Michael and his little family are moving back to Coeur d’Alene—coming full circle from where we left; from our humble beginnings to his successful accomplishments. Unbelievable.
Firefighters, we have three lessons learned from this culminating parental experience that we wish to share with you. I’ll write of these in my next column.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.