Monday, November 22, 2010

The Early Days

After we found each other at the Homecoming Ceremony, we eventually realized we couldn't just stand there indefinitely, & would have to leave the Air Field at some point! It was still very early when we left - probably no later than 06:15 - but we wandered back to the car & M took me on a little guided tour around part of the base, albeit still in the dark!

As daylight began to break, we headed back to the hotel & snoozed a while. Then it was time for a late breakfast - M had made a special request for omelette & waffles, so off to a local diner we went, & he seemed to be in heaven! Afterwards we hit the mall since he had no civilian clothes to wear - they were all either at his parents’ home in NC, or in a storage unit & apparently not easily accessible. I was impressed though with the ease by which he managed to choose enough clothes to get by for a few weeks. One of the reasons I hate shopping is because I hate trying on clothes & it always takes me forever (& a lot of trying-on) to find clothes that seem suitable for me. So the fact that we pretty much had a wardrobe's worth of clothing in under an hour was quite impressive to me.
I was then instructed to find a quiet corner of the mall's parking lot so M could change. That too was quite impressive (and amusing). Soon he looked civilian, & we went off for our first lunch at one of his favorite Mexican restaurants. Seeing his excitement at eating some “real” food for the first time, both at breakfast & lunch, was a lot of fun. He'd told me that he felt they were well-fed while in Iraq, but I can only imagine that the ability to once again freely choose whatever you want to eat, as well as where you want to eat it, must be wonderful, if not somewhat overwhelming. M seemed to be doing a great job of hiding the overwhelmed bit though! 
Later we had a lovely "first evening" too - mostly courtesy of our champagne & chocolate. I’d brought champagne as part of his “Welcome Home” gift, & he’d brought some nice chocolate from Germany.  We’d grabbed a fruit tray earlier that day (as well as some more chocolate), so we settled in for some tasty treats that night. Before I traveled down there I'd been looking for some travel-safe "wine glass-looking" things - you know, the plastic type ones that you often see in the summer that folk choose for around the pool etc. I couldn't find any though, so I decided to just pick up a couple of cheap wine glasses that I wouldn't object to finding shattered in my suitcase when I arrived in Columbus. Amazingly they'd survived the trip, all wrapped up in some bedsheets that I'd brought along too - I'd packed some things like this that I thought might be immediately useful for him until he could get into his storage unit at some point. So anyhow, it was actually quite nice having real glasses to drink from!

The next couple of days brought a few more shopping trips so M could continue to gather odds & ends that he needed, as well as some preliminary investigation of his storage unit. As soon as I saw the unit, I realized why he would've had a hard time finding anything in there quickly - it was packed full, barely room for anything else other than maybe some flat objects at the front. I'd half expected a couple of long-lost relatives to emerge from the back at one point.....

We also checked out some apartments - he had a 10 day pass to the barracks upon return, but he was reluctant to even stay there for that short time since it was an open bay arrangement, sharing with who-knows-how-many other soldiers. Thankfully on my last day there, we found a place that he really liked. And I must admit I really like it too, I'm extremely glad he chose that location - the complex is relatively new, and it's close to the base so commuting is easy for him. All in all it's nice, modern & very well maintained.

In the meantime, however, we managed to enjoy some more nice lunches & dinners together, as well as having some fun during the day. M showed me around some more of the base at Fort Benning, & we visited the National Infantry Museum which is fabulous - I recommend it highly if you ever get the chance to visit. It's a great museum in its own right, & is pretty big too, with some great exhibitions.

They are more than "just" a museum though - they have an IMAX theater, & we popped in there to see "Lewis & Clark's Great Journey West" - stunning scenery as well as an interesting, historical recap of their exploration to the Pacific Ocean & back east.  In one part of the museum there's even a shooting range that you can try your skills at - it's a rifle simulator, so no live ammunition, but was quite a treat for me. I'd never even held a gun before, so it was all new & exciting. I was actually pleased at how relatively well I managed to do too! Although I was also mightily relieved that M did way better than me! Yes, I definitely prefer it when our US soldiers perform better than me with a rifle.

You should also make a point to enjoy the museum's nice restaurant, The Fife & Drum, at some point if you visit. The grounds outside are lovely too, and you may even be lucky enough to get to catch a graduation ceremony taking place while you're there. 
All in all, our first long weekend together whizzed by quickly, & soon it was time for me to head back to MA on the Sunday evening. We checked out of the hotel & picked up a rental car for M (since his was in NC with his parents). I drove back to Atlanta for my flight & he headed off to stay with a friend & his wife for a few nights until his new apartment was ready. 

I have to say though, that while I really enjoyed the fun things we'd done during our first few days, I enjoyed the little things just as much - things like just watching our first sunset together with a glass of wine, or chatting at the poolside & in the jacuzzi. 

I suspected that was a good start.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Special Delivery

The morning was finally here. After leaping out of bed & not really knowing where to start, I decided to go back to first principles. After all, I do this every day (get out of bed, I mean), so once I focused, it wasn't too much of a stretch to just jump in the shower. 

About an hour later I was caffeinated & dressed, & looking as semi-decent as one can manage to look at 4:30 in the morning. I felt kind of hungover, even though the strongest drink I'd had the previous evening was decaffeinated coffee! Clearly terror & a lack of sleep do funny things to your brain.

Around 05:00 I gathered the bits & pieces that I'd need for the morning & wandered outside to see if I could recognize the rental car again. It was already hot & muggy, & before I'd even managed to switch on the a/c, I was wondering why I'd just bothered even trying to make my hair look like it belonged on my head. I decided denial was the best approach & refused to check out the newly frizzed look in the mirror. If all else failed, there was always the Sox cap on the passenger seat….

After locating the base address on my GPS, I was soon on my way. The traffic was surprisingly heavy for so early in the morning, but I guess it was around the time that life on a military base started happening for the day, so I probably shouldn't have been too surprised. Thankfully I managed to get on base without any problems though, & in retrospect the early homecoming was a blessing - I’ve since seen the queues of visitor traffic trying to get access a bit later in the day, & it’s not pretty.  So driving through at 05:30 was a dream in comparison. A quick stop at the visitor center & I was all set with base access for the day. 

I followed the printed directions that I'd brought along with me, & at 05:45 I was at Fort Benning’s Lawson Air Field, ready for M’s homecoming ceremony. This marked not only his return from a 12 month deployment in Iraq, but also the first time we’d ever met in person. Yikes. Was I insane? I felt sure that I'd be institutionalized on the spot if anyone caught wind of my story. This is the stuff that only the crazies are made of.

In between listening to the voices in my head, I had occasional moments of clarity. Everything was going to be great. I still had 5 minutes before the scheduled start, & there was no way it was going to be on time. I'd wander around the hall, relax a bit, & enjoy people-watching while all the families waited excitedly. Just as I parked & emerged from the car, I heard my phone peep. It was a text message from M. "Here we come".  Sh*t!! I wasn't even in the building. Luckily I was only a few meters from the door & I scurried in. Thankfully the only soldiers around were the ones playing "security", trying to stop the screaming families from barging through the main doors at the back.

I found a spot along the front line & could still hear my heart beating, even over the combined noise of the Army band & the excited people. One thing that M & I had discussed previously was finding each other on the day. Potentially it could’ve been mayhem at the air field - with hundreds of excited families running around trying to find their loved ones. So speaking on the phone could have been problematic. We decided that if it was noisy, we could use text messages to locate each other. And M decided that if ultimately it meant we had to wait to be the last 2 people standing, then so-be-it!

All this was going through my mind again as the band changed its tune & someone official yelled something. I can't remember a word of what he shouted, but I knew it meant they were on their way out. Soon I was wishing I'd brought ear plugs, but thankfully I was quickly distracted by the sight of a few hundred soldiers marching around a corner. As soon as they turned, I saw him immediately. He was right there in the front row, & when they stopped for their Commander’s speech, he was literally just a few people to my right.  Perfect.

The only word I remember hearing the Commander saying was: "Dismissed!". He reached this verdict very quickly (a wise move - I think there would’ve been a stampede of families to deal with otherwise) & the secured area was opened up to the families. It was bedlam for a little while, with folk running everywhere, so I had to keep my eye on M to make sure I didn't lose him. I called his name but he couldn't hear me (naturally), &  I just managed to get to him as he was obviously deciding to go walkabout to look for me. I think we were both just so pleased (or relieved) to finally see each other in person. And I know I was quite overwhelmed by the whole thing - no matter how much we’d talked, and how close we’d become by phone, meeting in the flesh for the first time is a whole, new ball game.

Nevertheless it was a very special moment, one that I will never forget. M hugged me & kissed me & we just stood there smiling for a while. He shared with me that he’d had a travel companion with him on the flight home - “Cheeky” is a small finger puppet monkey that I sent him in a care package at one point while he was deployed.  And he’d spent the entire flight in his pocket! M has a fun sense of humor, & is very cheeky sometimes, so when we wrote I often commented that he was a “Cheeky Monkey” in response to some of his comments. That kind of became his nickname quite quickly. It was cute that he'd even kept the little fella, let alone thought to carry him on the plane with him! This silliness was interrupted when we both suddenly became aware that we weren't alone as we chatted. Apparently someone from the Family Readiness Group was taking photos of us (we still haven't managed to locate them though!). 

Once we'd shaken them off, M also presented me with some fabulous European chocolate that he’d picked up for me (or “us”, as I later discovered ;-) in Germany. He’d bought wine too, but ended up having to return it before flying out, courtesy of Army regulations. They'd been told in advance that they were not allowed to drink alcohol en-route, but no mention of not being able to buy any to take home. Seemingly they were supposed to interpret that bit. But my absolute favorite gift from him was a beautiful stone, shaped into a heart. I carry it with me all the time, & will treasure it forever, along with the memory of our first meeting in person.

Welcome home 1-10 Field Artillery, 3rd Infantry Division! 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Homecoming Queen

On Wednesday September 22nd I flew from Boston to Atlanta, ready for M’s homecoming ceremony the next day. Call me old fashioned, but I’d not exactly envisaged our first real date to be in the wee hours of the morning, especially after a lack of sleep. But the US Army had other plans with a ceremony scheduled for 05:50, so I had to go with the flow & hope that M didn’t book himself onto the next flight back to Iraq when he first caught sight of me.

As I was en route to Boston's Logan Airport for my flight, M called me shortly after landing in Germany. I was just relieved to know that he was not only safely tucked away on "friendly" European soil, but also that he was indeed in transit, & that his return to the US was going according to plan (or at least the latest change of plan!). Everything was going to go fine now, right?

Sure! Well, at least until I landed in Atlanta that evening & found a voicemail message from my Columbus hotel. They were very sorry, but there was a server problem when I booked online 4 days previously, & they were overbooked for the duration of my stay.  I seemed to be homeless in Georgia, but although I wasn’t yet in worry-mode, I was in wondering-mode - there are a gazillion hotels in the Columbus region, but the decent and semi-decent ones were filling up very quickly back when I booked (there are always various weekend ceremonies at the Army base, & these apparently keep the hotel business nicely afloat, which is all good for the local economy, but not when I can’t get a room!).  And M had already warned me off a few regions, since they tend to host the type of motel that is kind enough to, shall we say, “rent its rooms by the hour”… I did wonder if I’d now end up with one of those by default.  Luckily when I called, I discovered that they had been good enough to relocate me to a nearby Holiday Inn, so I was all set. No hourly rates for me!

I collected my rental car from the airport & made the 90 minute drive to Columbus. I remember enjoying the relative solitude of “rush hour in Atlanta” – it was quite different from trying to emerge from Boston airport at that time. Quite painless in comparison, although I was somewhat fascinated by the huge stretches of highway that had large pieces of what can only be described as "discarded truck" in the breakdown lane. 

I eventually found the Holiday Inn around 9pm (after a detour to find a liquor store & some food) (and in that order too) & was looking forward to falling onto a soft bed ready for my very early start next morning. Then the nice lady at reception informed me that I was only booked in there for one night. She must’ve heard my heart fall into my boots because she hurriedly told me not to worry, she was sure they could accommodate me for my whole stay. The 2 minute wait felt like an hour, but they did indeed have a room for me for all 4 nights. OK, so if I hit the hay now, I can sleep for about 6 hours before getting up & trying to make myself look respectable for the homecoming. Because everyone can look great when they emerge from bed at about 03:30. Yes, that was my story & I was sticking to it.

So after a quick decaf & a wrestle with the ironing board, off to bed I went.

I slept like a baby until my phone began peeping at me. I was in disbelief that it was already time for 03:30 alarm call – I felt like I’d just fallen asleep. After eventually locating my phone, I discovered it was in fact only 12:09, & that a text message had awoken me: “Wheels down in USA”. M had arrived on home soil! How exciting for him. I sent a “Welcome home” reply & he immediately phoned me when he realized I was awake. “I'm in your neck of the woods - I’ve just landed in Bangor, Maine”, he told me, & then asked “Where exactly is Bangor?”.  “Oh, it’s almost in Canada”, I told him. We both laughed, but we did think it was kind of funny that he had just landed “close” to where I’d left off earlier that day. And how cute to be having our first conversation in the same time zone!

I slept poorly after this though, mostly due to a slick combination of excitement & abject terror. But when my 03:30 alarm call eventually came around for real, I can tell you that I awoke with a shot of adrenaline that no amount of caffeine could even vaguely hope to compete with!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How We Met

OK, I've finally started a blog! It's something I've been thinking about for some time anyway, but additionally I've had a few encouraging comments from newly-found blog friends who think it would be nice to share one particular story - how I met my boyfriend. Just bear with me while I find my feet on this site though - I'm somewhat technologically challenged & I envisage that it'll take me some time to get it looking how I want it to look (especially as I've no idea what I'm doing!). But in the interests of not procrastinating forever more, I decided to just get started. So here goes!

The Early Days:
In November 2009 I joined a small web-based, military support group. The aim of its members was to boost the morale of deployed servicemembers by sending them letters & care packages. I was assigned a penpal randomly when I joined - I had no idea who I’d end up with, but played the numbers game & assumed it would be a “youngster” since the 20s age group seems to comprise a large proportion of our Armed Forces these days. So I thought I’d be playing big sister to someone who was maybe away from home for the first time.
I was immediately given M’s contact details. All I knew was his name & address, & that he was a soldier in Iraq. I was asked to try to write weekly & send care packages occasionally, & not to expect to hear back much, but to continue writing anyway.
I remember starting my first letter on a Monday evening, November 9th to be exact, just a couple of days after receiving his details - I was working my volunteer shift at USO & it was quiet in the office so I decided to make some headway while I had the opportunity. I don’t usually have any problem writing letters, but it was really odd writing to someone so random - especially since I literally knew nothing more than his name & location! But I managed to ramble on for a while & pretty soon something resembling a first letter was ready for mailing.
Turkey Day:
A little later that month, on Thanksgiving evening in fact, I received my first (& unexpected) correspondence from M. I’d included my email address in his letter, & I remember being very excited seeing his name appear in my email inbox that night! I was having a quiet Thanksgiving evening, sitting in a hotel room in Portsmouth, NH where I was spending the holiday, & it really made my night reading his note - I hadn’t been expecting to hear from him, & even now I remember being struck by how sweet it was for him to reply & thank me for writing to him, as well as to wish me a “Happy Turkey Day”. 
Dear Diary:
Over the coming months I continued writing weekly. I discovered that M was 34 years old & that although he had moved around a lot growing up, he considered himself a Midwesterner, having spent much of his younger years growing up predominantly in IL. In addition to writing, I began sending care packages each month too. Initially I didn’t know what to put in those either, but pretty soon I realized that 99% of the fun was in simply receiving & opening something while deployed. So it became easier each time. And I’d often have a theme to work with - December’s was filled with Christmas gifts, February’s contained Valentine’s goodies, a St Patrick’s Day theme in March....and so on. As the months went on, I joked with M that writing to him was like writing a diary, since all my messages ended up being a little day by day account of my weekly doings.
Facebook & Photographs:
In January I received a random Friend Request from M when he first joined Facebook. Around this time I also decided on a whim to attach a handful of photographs to an email one weekend. I’m a hobby photographer, & am always out with my camera these days, whatever the weather. That particular weekend I’d caught some lovely blue skies and snow scenes, & decided to send them on, hoping he might enjoy sharing in my hobby.
As it turned out, they were in fact a huge hit. I remember in my early months I often wondered what he thought of my rambling emails. And I remember being heartened in one email when he commented how he particularly liked my emails that included commentaries of my weekly events, as well as my photos. And he even asked for more photos! It was nice to hear that - the positive affirmation was very meaningful for me, & additionally it gave me something to work with for future emails.
Although M had joined Facebook a few months earlier, he never used it initially. Then suddenly in May, as he managed to carve out a little more personal time for himself, I began to see him signing in occasionally. One day his chat box suddenly appeared on my computer screen, & soon we were “chatting” realtime, rather than by email. This became a regular habit whenever he was able to sign in, & one which we both enjoyed - especially over World Cup Soccer time when we’d be watching some of the games at the same time before his shift started.
It’s Good To Talk:
After a couple of months chatting by instant messaging, M suddenly asked me one day in mid July if he could have my phone number - he claimed he wanted to put some of the phone cards that I’d recently sent him to good use. I jokingly asked if he was going to phone me from the desert - he replied “yes”, & actually called me about an hour later!
Unbelievably we spoke for about 3 hours that first time, & only stopped chatting when my phone battery died. He called again two days later though, & our long conversation continued for a few more hours. It was very easy conversation. I loved that very much. After this second call, he began calling me daily. 
A Man Of His Word:
After about of week of calls, I started wondering. I was reaching the 10 Day Watershed - this is how I describe the time after first getting to know guys in the dating arena. Typically the overwhelming majority of men have “evaporated” sometime between 1-2 weeks. Or they’d behave inappropriately & be dismissed by me! I was now wondering whether at some point soon, M would disappear. This wasn’t due to negative thinking, but more because that was just the way it had always been with the majority of flaky people that I’d met over the years.
M was clearly proving himself to be very different, however, & I liked that. I liked that a lot. I was tired of “more of the same” when it came to men. I wanted someone different.  Over the coming weeks, he just continued to demonstrate himself as someone who was consistent, interested in me, & reliable. I couldn’t have been more refreshed by my good fortune. 
I think in the time between his first call, & his homecoming at the end of September, there were literally only a handful of days when we never spoke - and on one occasion he suddenly told me “I have to go, I’ll speak to you soon.” I discovered the following day that his base had been under rocket attack - so that was a first for me, to have someone disappear mid-conversation due to rocket fire. I hope never to experience that again though!
Our daily conversations were something that I came to treasure very quickly. I was quite fortunate because M worked the night shift, so his down-time coincided with my evenings. We both seemed to greatly enjoy our phone dates, and we never seemed to tire of things to talk about. Priceless.
Homecoming Queen:
Our conversations quickly progressed from those between two friends, to those of two people dating. I remember most things very clearly from our writing & phone calls, but for some reason, I don’t really recall how exactly we moved from “friendly” to “dating” by phone! But it definitely happened. I do remember sometime in August though, when he told me about the Army Formal - a military ball for his unit, to be held in mid November.  I was very excited when he invited me to accompany him! 
Additionally I do remember when he asked whether I’d like to be involved in his homecoming. Naturally I said yes, but later worried that it might be odd being there - I’d be meeting him for the first time with his family there too, & I thought that might be a lot of pressure on him trying to effectively deal with them & me at the same time. So I decided I’d wait & instead visit him shortly after his homecoming, once the family fun had died down.
As it happened though, his family were unable to make it to the homecoming. When I discovered this I went into red alert. There was no way I was going to let him come home to nobody after a year in Iraq!  And so began my arrangements for a late September trip to Columbus, GA!
Hurry Up And Wait:
I’ve often heard this phrase as applied to the Military, but this was the first time I’d ever experienced it first hand myself. I was given one homecoming date to work with - this didn’t change over a period of a few weeks, so 10 days beforehand I booked a flight, hotel, & rental car. Then 3 days later it changed! The new homecoming date was to be the day that I was due to fly back home, as per my original flight arrangements! So I went through the cancelations & started the whole thing over again.
Thankfully things didn’t change this time!