By Anne Gagliano
We’re too overwhelmed to speak. In raptured silence, my husband Mike and I sit on the same bench we first sat on 29 years ago, drinking in the sights and sounds all around us. The memories, the powerful memories come pouring in, flooding our hearts with emotion and our eyes with silent tears. After nearly 30 years, it’s all still here. We can hardly believe it. We’d expected changes, possibly radical ones that left no evidence of a life once lived—but this we did not expect–to find it exactly the same. Three decades and 3,000 miles have distanced us from this place, but in this moment, it is as though we had never left. It was here in this very spot that it all began for us: marriage, parenting, firefighting—even teaching. And the reality of this takes us back; back through time to the young (very young) newly married couple we once were…
I’m 20 years old and six months pregnant and I’m driving across the country with my new husband, blissfully unaware of the odds that are stacked against us. So far we had done everything wrong–wrong according to the experts, that is. We married before age 25, and after just a few short months, got pregnant. Mike had joined the military (highest divorce rate) and in that capacity had chosen to become, of all things, a firefighter (second highest divorce rate.) And to top it off, instead of spending our first year of marriage together when essential bonding occurs, we’d just spent four months apart with Mike in boot camp and technical school. We were practically just getting re-acquainted while facing impending parenthood and a major, cross-country move. Statistically speaking, we didn’t stand a chance. All of these elements practically guaranteed that our marriage wouldn’t last even seven years, let alone 30. But we didn’t know this as we drove bravely into the unknown.
All our worldly possessions we towed behind our ’67 Mustang in a tiny rental trailer. We had no furniture, no money, and no more spare tires, having just used the last one. For some reason the weight of the trailer kept giving us flats. As an added bonus to the tension, our headlights quit working in Wyoming, so we could no longer drive after dark. This turned our three-day journey into a seven-day one, stretching our travel budget to the max. But to us none of this matters; for us, it is magic, a dream trip, heaven on earth. After having just spent so much time apart, we’re just happy to be together.
We are heading from North Idaho to Alexandria, Louisiana, which is a bit baffling to us as we had specifically requested the Air Force assign us anywhere west of the Rockies. But this, we soon learned, is typical military—they ask you what you want, then give you what they want. We are cautiously hopeful–hopeful that it will all work out for us but painfully aware of the fact that moving so far leaves us no safety net to catch us if we fall–no family; no friends; no money; and, as of now, no home.
As we drive deeper into the South, the scenery becomes strange to us. The lakes and rivers are brown. The trees are different, the bugs are loud and plentiful, and all along the highways (which are an unusual orange color) we see lots of dead critters—strange looking creatures we’d never seen before such as armadillos. And then we begin to notice the heat, an overwhelming moist heat that grabs hold and won’t let go. It is stifling, and we don’t have air-conditioning. The black leather interior of our little Mustang begins to take on an ominous, oppressive feel, and it’s only March. We’d just driven through snow in North Idaho! “This is like—Africa Hot! I don’t think I can stay here if it’s going to be this hot.”(Matthew Broderick, Biloxi Blues)
We pull into England Air Force Base on our last dime. It is nearly dark; thank goodness we’re here! Now we’ll be okay, surely the military will take good care of us; we are completely beholden to them. We expect a warm welcome with a guide and a key to our furnished house and life will be easy for us from here on out. Though in a strange land, we will be secure and comfortable in the contained world of the base where we can work, live—even shop. No need to venture out into the strangeness of Louisiana. Ah, the ignorance of youth! We spend the next few hours trying to locate someone, anyone with answers, and after much effort, we are finally shown to “billeting,” which is only temporary housing for married Airmen. We do not as yet qualify for base housing. We must find our own place to live, off base.
We are completely and utterly exhausted. The reality of our situation overwhelms us as we collapse into the tiny bed of the hotel-like billeting room. We feel the uneasiness of fear creeping into the corners of our minds, threatening our marital bliss. Then an unfamiliar sound fills the darkness. It is rain on the roof, a torrential pounding rain that at first we cannot identify. It somehow grows louder. Then a blinding flash fills our dark room followed instantly by a loud, crashing deafening BOOM! The room shakes. Sirens go off—is the base under attack? Was that a bomb? Just when we thought we couldn’t be any more frightened, this new threat nearly undoes us. I’m practically crying—I want to go home. This is terrible, I hate this place.
Then in the darkness I feel my young husband’s strong arms enfold me. He comforts me. He tells me it will be all right. Everything will be all right as long as we have each other. We begin to realize the sirens are warning of a tropical storm—something else new to us. The base is not under attack. As we are lulled to sleep by the sound of the rain, we hold each other tight. Our love will sustain us if we only hold on tight.
And we did hold on tight, we never let go. We remember all this as we sit on the bench we’d last seen so very long ago. When life is overwhelming, when facing seemingly insurmountable problems—don’t let go of each other; things always have a way of working out. And when you get a chance to reflect, your own history will surprise you. What at first seemed random, even horrible, winds up being part of the perfect plan for your life.
In my next column, discover what we discovered as we ventured off base into Louisiana—that it was an incredible blessing to be right where we were. And it directly led to us being who we are today.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.