I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
- Psalm 27:13-14
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
- Mark 9:35
To explain the verses, Psalm 27:14 is the verse my wife quoted most often, but when you add Psalm 27:13 and Mark 9:35, you get the essence of the woman I married.
We last looked at two friends who joined the Air Force in the height of the Vietnam War. To dispose of the friend, while my future wife got high enough on the readiness tests to be anything – with the recruiter pushing for air traffic control and my wife choosing to be a medic – her friend did not do as well, and she became a clerk typist. This position did not require tech school, so while my wife went to tech school, her friend went to her first duty station. She immediately found a boyfriend, got married, and was out of the service before my wife finished tech school. Thus, ends the two friends who would take on the Air Force as a duo.
Her Enlistment in the Air Force
Her Air Force career was marked by a variety of blunders. My wife may have become a good air traffic controller, but she thought it was too stressful of a job. Little did she know that the stress of being a surgical tech at a hospital that received daily flights of wounded soldiers from Vietnam might be even more stressful. We might say that blunder was hers, but maybe not.
She went to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. There was no time to enjoy the amenities of San Antonio. She would learn those later in life. They then whisked her away to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas for her tech school. She learned every type of job she might be asked to do as a medic, but she excelled in surgical duties.
She was then sent to Columbus Air Force Base in Columbus, Mississippi. This was an Air Force blunder. They had no female barracks facilities on the base. The people receiving her immediately ran up a red flag, but until the error could be resolved, she stayed in the BOQ (Bachelor’s Officer Quarters), meaning everyone in the building now had a problem. One enlisted female and countless young second lieutenants, all male. She was not interested in hardly any of them, but if they tried anything, it would be fraternization, against the rules. She dated a couple of guys once each, but they had to “meet by chance” off the Air Base property.
The SNAFU (Situation normal – all fouled up, to keep it clean) was corrected within a few weeks, but then there was a second problem. The Air Force transferred her to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. Why was this an error? It was late 1969, and Hurricane Camille had just wiped out much of Keesler Air Force Base. There were no barracks, male or female, at all. They had all been blown away.
For the first few months at Keesler, she slept on a military cot, in the hallway of the surgical ward. Thus, as soon as the plane from Vietnam arrived in the middle of the night, she was already there. She would clean the surgical theater, then prepare the Mayo stand for the doctor, and then pass the surgeon the instrument he needed, and then she cleaned up afterwards. Then she would prep for the next case until the regularly scheduled cases started arriving at dawn.
There were a few differences in military surgery and in civilian surgery. My wife was taught how to tie blood vessels one-handed in the military, where in civilian life, that was not something that a surgical tech did. My wife could give some shots in the military, not so in the civilian world. But another thing is that in three years, my wife saw every type of surgery imaginable and many times in the worst of conditions.
But my wife had a very bad habit. She loved to talk, and she wanted to learn. One set of nurses told her to be quiet because she might distract the doctor at the wrong time. Another set of nurses felt she made the doctor slow down so that he could explain why he did what he did, including the use of one type of clamp or suture or scalpel. Then another group of nurses felt she might make the doctor angry, and some of them liked to throw things, things that had sharp blades on them.
The truth of the matter was that the surgeons, full of ego, had their ego stroked, having a young lady ask questions as if they were a great oracle. But my wife was also a bit sly. Within a month or so, the doctor never said a word, unless he was asked another question by my wife. How did he go from one instrument to another? While each surgery has a usual progression from one instrument to the next, each surgeon had his style and preferences. My wife learned all of them. Even when something unscheduled occurred, my wife slapped the needed instrument into his hand before he asked. I knew of a half dozen occasions in civilian life where the surgeon stopped for half a second and said, “That wasn’t what I was going to ask for, but I like your idea better.” Who knows how many times that happened in the military. But sometimes, the arrogant ego would get in the way and he would cuss, throw the instrument and ask for what he was thinking. (Rarely a female surgeon)
She reported to the head of nursing, her commander, a lieutenant colonel. My wife accepted her guidance as a second mother to her. She was wonderful, but soon after getting into the groove of working there, two things happened. She moved into a freshly renovated women’s barracks and the colonel retired. She called my wife into her office, singling her out especially. She said that my wife should put in for a transfer to Bitburg, West Germany. They needed a medic there, and my wife would not like her new commander. My wife turned down the offer. She was a half day’s drive from home in Texas, and family was very important to her. For most of her life, family was the most important thing. She had gotten tired of constantly cooking and cleaning at home, but she felt guilty that she was not still doing it. Her retiring commander’s last words were, “Do not come back to me to say I did not warn you.”
Her new commander was just as cruel as the out-going commander had said she was. The movie M*A*S*H had just come out and everyone labeled the new head of nursing “Hot Lips.” Everything was by the book, her book, and she never let you know what the rules were unless you violated them. “Hot Lips” had four types of people working for her: favorites (all nurses), nurses she did not like, and medics that she abused, and then there was my wife, the fourth group all by herself.
Odd, years later, she worked with a surgeon who had a few idiosyncrasies. He wore pearl handled pistols into surgery along with cowboy boots, and his hair was red, frizzy like Bozo the clown. When he was asked to accompany a gala viewing of M*A*S*H in Boston, my wife found out he was one of the composites portions of Hawkeye Pierce, as written by the surgeon’s friend, Richard Hooker. Neither Hawkeye or Trapper were one person, but characteristics of a composite of various people, and my wife’s friend was one of them.
Years later as my wife began to talk about her cruel commander, I wondered if my wife’s Asian bloodline reminded the new lieutenant colonel of a Vietnamese, and she thought all of “those people” should be killed. She tried to kill my wife by overworking her and berating her for everything.
My wife had first call twice or three times as often as everyone else. Of course, the LTC’s favorites never had call. The other nurses had to simply ask for the night off due to a hot date, but the medics could never skip call, and my wife got most of the call for those who simply wanted the night off. When the nice nurses saw how my wife was overworked, they volunteered to fill in, but not often enough. They each had a social life themselves. I know how to work a duty roster, so the LTC was fudging the numbers. My wife was on permanent second call, without an apology nor explanation. Since the airplanes from Vietnam arrived almost every night, there was always second call. She had to take a vacation day to get a good night’s sleep. Other people could simply leave on Friday night and go to Fort Walton Beach, Florida or New Orleans, Louisiana for the weekend without taking leave. My wife had to take vacation to get a Saturday or Sunday off. Then as the wounded came in quicker, she was always in surgery when the mess hall was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You could be court martialed for leaving your post in a surgical theater.
But before all this abuse got too bad, she took a few days of leave to fly to California, to go somewhere just by herself and see something she had never seen before. On her return flight home, she was stuck due to a delay at Los Angeles airport. She was in uniform, wandering the concourse when a child was running around. She stood in front of the child and corralled him. She suggested that he go with her to find his mother, then she looked up to see Jane Fonda. I don’t know if this was before or after her trip to Hanoi, but Ms. Fonda was not pleased to see an Air Force medic returning her child. She said “Thank You” but my wife could feel tension in her voice. It might just be that the child was being unruly.
But as for her new commander, if she was not doing enough work, her commander asked her to keep an eye on a male medic. He did not know his way around the surgical theater. As she trained him, she found out he hardly knew how to spell medic, much less be one. She immediately doubted he had been to the medic school in Wichita Falls, but something told her to keep that from her commander.
In the few days that she was able to rest in the barracks, one girl visited her a few times in her room. My wife was kind to everyone. That meant nothing beyond kindness to her, but then the girl, a lesbian, attacked her in the shower, trying to rape her. My wife screamed and other ladies came in to drag the attacker away. My wife was instructed to not be kind to them. It gave them the wrong idea.
And my wife also got her driver’s license while in the Air Force. She borrowed a friend’s car to drive to the testing area in Biloxi. She wore a miniskirt. She did everything perfectly until she was asked to parallel park. She started to cry, which made the police officer nervous. He wiped away her tears and said he’d check her off as doing a great job at parking. Before the officer went in to get her driver’s license, he asked how she had gotten there. My wife lied. She said that her friend dropped her off and then walked back to the Air Base. He gave her a dirty look, but she had her driver’s license, and she never learned how to parallel park … ever.
By the end of the LTC’s abuse, about six months before she was to end her enlistment, she collapsed on the surgical floor. She weighed 64 pounds, and she was barely alive. They called it a “chemical imbalance.” Some muttered that it was a mental breakdown, but the breakdown was physical. She hung onto life, but by the time the hospital released her, she was unable to walk, and she was highly medicated. But before she left the hospital, the unqualified medic, the one she had trained, came by to visit; and he was in an officer’s uniform. He had been working undercover. He put a case against the head of nursing to send her to prison. He was sad that my wife had not survived long enough. She would have been the star witness, but now, being heavily medicated, she could not testify at all.
Her father yelled at the recruiter that she had left home a vibrant young woman and now she was practically a vegetable.
What happened to the LTC? The court martial board allowed her to escape prosecution if she immediately retired. She lived in a big house on the beach along the Mississippi Gulf Coast until she died of old age, and her obituary listed all her philanthropic endeavors. But it did not list how she lied and doctored my wife’s military medical records. My wife should have been medically discharged. The LTC tried to administratively discharge her, but it was changed to honorable, since my wife was too highly medicated and would not understand what was going on. We requested benefits due to PTSD – denied. We appealed, but suddenly there was a previously non-existing record that said she had the condition prior to entering the military. All signed by the LTC who was not even her commander upon my wife getting into the military. My wife begged me to not appeal again, it was bringing all the pain back just filling out the paperwork.
She got off the medication soon enough and she was then walking again.
She got well enough to travel and my wife spent time on a San Diego beach, about the time that the Jesus Movement happened in that area, but she was oblivious to it. She was still numb from her ordeal in the military
She finally went home to Port Arthur, Texas and started work at a local hospital that paid her to be on call (just a few dollars) and paid her overtime if she went in to work on an emergency surgery. She could deal with that. Besides, the airplanes did not fly in every night. This was when she passed the first ever certification exam for surgical technicians and she received a lifetime certification, with no expiration.
During this time, she and her mother would sing songs and play Liverpool Rummy and Wahoo. One night, a lady from the Nederland, Texas Chamber of Commerce (CoC) knocked on their door. She introduced herself as a Rienstra from Friesland in the Netherlands, just like my future wife’s father, but she sounded like a lifelong Texan. They were having a big CoC meeting and since the town of Nederland was founded by the Dutch, could the two ladies, my future wife and her mother, come to sing some Dutch music? Someone had heard that they sang songs at home. My wife’s mother had a prior engagement. None of the sisters wanted to go to a stuffed shirt dinner party and perform. So, my wife grabbed her guitar and did a solo act.
A few days later, Mrs. Rienstra was accompanied by officials from the CoC. My wife and her mother were asked to take an all-expense paid trip to San Antonio, Texas. The Texas Folklife Festival was in its second year ever, and they wanted Dutch music to be sung a few times from one stage or another. With hearing that there was a free trip to San Antonio involved, the three youngest girls, still in high school or maybe the youngest in middle school, wanted to join. Moeder (Mother) Molly and her Dutch Daughters was born. They would continue for another twenty-two years and be inducted into the Texas Institute of Culture. They even swept the sidewalk for the television cameras which signified the opening of the festival. It was a photo from the sidewalk sweeping that was framed and placed with their citation, but whether it is still in the museum is anyone’s guess. They are in the electronic files.
It was a year later, when my landlady asked why I never dated, that I learned of a friend of her husband who worked with him at the hospital in surgery. But I had to wait a couple of weeks to visit her, she was with her family singing group in San Antonio. I suddenly thought I might give dating one more try.
And what is next?
If she had taken her beloved commander’s advice and gone to Bitburg, West Germany, I might have never met her. If she had not been abused so badly, she might have stayed in the service. In later years, I realized how great a sacrifice it had been for her to return to military life as an officer’s wife, but she made sure that I never took advantage of the enlisted men. Yet, she and my LTC’s wife never got along. The LTC’s wife was not a cruel lady, even rather nice and she led the barracks chapel choir where my troops were, but she reminded my wife of someone … I never learned if it was a facial feature, the tone of voice, but probably the LTC’s wife would request something and due to her status and the rank of her husband, she expected it to be done. Yep, that was probably it. And since I was under her husband’s command, I really did not have a choice. Did I? Really?! After all, there were only us two tenors in the choir, and of them, I was comic relief in the LTC’s wife’s song and dance troupe, The Sophisticated Ladies and Friends. My wife was inducted into a Hall of Fame in Texas, but she was not invited to join the Ladies, probably because the two ladies did not get along, the only person I ever knew that my wife could not get along with, and even then my wife was polite and civil.
But our first meeting to play tennis with the landlord and her husband was a disaster. Our first date was bizarre. And the second date featured seeing fourteen of the sixteen tornadoes along the Texas Gulf Coast horizon that night. How we lasted is only due to God’s Grace.
And to all this, I give praise and honor to God. Only He knew that the two of us would one day marry each other.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.
This is spellbinding.
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Once I come on the scene, it is not that spellbinding.
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Stability at last. I’m sure your wife preferred that, to all the hard turmoil of her earlier years.
I think it’s wonderful that you know so much about your wife’s history. Too many married folks don’t pay that much attention to their spouse’s life story.
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she liked the stability. That was for sure, but she had a touch of wanderlust. To live in PA for as long as we did, I had to constantly take her out of PA to see West Virginia hills or Ohio farmland, looked the same, but we were not in PA for a few hours.
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I agree with Linda Lee, reference spellbinding! Don’t stop now, Mark! Blessings!
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