The Army Wife
THERE is no career, except that of a minister’s wife, in which a woman can be more of a help, or a detriment, to her husband than that of an army wife. She lives practically at his place of business and sees his associates daily, and, if she is a shirk or a gossip, she is known as such throughout the service. Her reputation begins at her first post and sticks to her as closely as her skin until she dies. I have known several able officers to be ruined by malicious, gossipy wives.
The three little monkeys — See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil — should be accompanied by a fourth: Feel No Evil, the key to all the others. It is impossible to live kindly with your neighbors unless you feel kindly toward them. I have told my daughters that there are only two sorts of women in the army, of one of whom it is said, ‘Mrs. A. is coming to the post. I know her,’ and of the other, ‘Mrs. B. is coming to the post. I know her.'
Army women are drawn from two sources: girls born and reared in the army, who are supposed to know their stuff, and girls recruited from civil life. Owing to the present emergency, these last now far outnumber those brought up in the army tradition, yet that tradition is still so strong that they are shaping up into army wives as quickly and proudly as their husbands shape up into uniform. All over the United States today women who have never washed a dish or been a hundred miles from home are making homes for their husbands wherever they can unpack a suitcase, and pretending it is fun. During the past year I have met at least a thousand such and have yet to hear a complaint from one of them.
Many years ago I myself was a recruit from civil life. I came from a family of seven, so devoted to one another that my mother used to accuse us of behaving at parties like birds on a telegraph wire. I must have been a very outgoing young person, for her advice to me when I married was ‘Remember, you are going among strangers. Be friends with everyone, but confide in no one.’ I took this seriously. One morning, when I had been several months at my first post, the doorbell rang. I was wearing a dress from my trousseau which no longer met around the middle, so I threw on a shawl and went to the door. My caller was the oldest lady on the post, who came in, sat down, and said, ‘My dear, the ladies of Fort Sheridan have asked me to call on you, as they are very much concerned about you. We have decided you are going to have a baby, and, since you have not confided in anyone, we wonder if you know it.’
Army life is very like the Gulf Stream, which, made of the same watery element as the ocean through which it runs, has no boundaries; yet its temperature and its tempo keep it distinct and separate. It is not only a different color from the rest of the ocean; it supports entirely different fish. Army officers are highly educated professional men who are content to get along with little of this world’s goods so that they may live the life they love; and the women who join up must be of the same sort to be successful and happy, for the lines that prescribe our lives are as definite as the boundaries of the Gulf Stream. An officer must be well dressed; that is part of his job. I know officers’ wives who not only make their own clothes but make their husbands’ uniform shirts and breeches as well as any tailor; and that is not because the men have married tailoresses, but because they have chosen women who are good at anything they put their hands to.
It is an interesting thing to notice that in this common life of ours, in which we move about from post to post (I have been married thirty-one years and had nineteen major moves), we still preserve our local differences within our families, carrying our background with us as a turtle packs its shell. In any army post, if you go into a row of houses exactly alike on the outside, you will find the Boston people using the broad a and eating fishballs on Sunday morning, while the family from Mississippi next door eat hot bread twice a day in the atmosphere of the Deep South. We are all fish in the great common life of the Gulf Stream, but the dolphins are always dolphins and the amber jacks are amber jacks no matter how Uncle Sam moves us about. This is because each family unit is a home in a much more concentrated sense than the same family would be in a neighborhood where one had grown up and had all the relatives to fall back on. Wherever we go, whatever background we have goes with us. We must be homemakers in our own right without benefit of our families, and usually with only the sketchiest of local talent as help in the kitchen.
When my daughter was about to be married, I found on her desk a huge blank book labeled ‘Mother’s Thoughts on Marriage.’ Heavens! What had I said, and what pearls had she culled unknown to me? I opened it. Across the first page was a single entry in her tiny writing: ‘To see if he is fresh, look in the fish’s eye, but feel under the chicken’s arm.’ The rest of the book was blank. I wrote under it, ‘Recipe for a successful marriage: The army travels on its stomach,’ and tucked it in a trunk where she would find it when she reached her first station after her honeymoon.
When I joined the army, the thing that impressed me most about the older women was their gayety. According to my ideas, they led terribly serious lives, many of them doing their own work and pinching and scraping to help with the life insurance, the savings account, and to meet the Commissary bill, which must always be settled by the tenth of the month. And the way they figured when they decided to give a party! Coming from a family in very comfortable circumstances, I felt that their lives were pretty hard. There didn’t appear to be a great deal in their past, either, to make them so debonair. One woman had lived through a cholera epidemic in the Philippine Islands. Another told me, as if she were telling a story about a perfect stranger, how she once sat on the stern of a tugboat in the Yalu River watching the corpses float past and wondering whether she could identify her husband’s. Gradually I came to realize what they were doing. These wives of the Old Army were inoculating me little by little with the store of courage which is the legacy of every army woman and which we hand on from one generation to the next.
I joined the army in 1910 — the piping times of peace. But the older women knew. Before my first child was born I had seen my husband’s bedding roll at the front door, ready to leave if the regiment went to Mexico. Since then I have seen him off to two wars. He has led troops in battle, been gravely wounded, and been decorated for extraordinary heroism. Now I belong to the older generation of army women who preach, ‘Be happy today; who knows what tomorrow may hold?’
There is one branch of the service whose wives face this lesson every day: the Air Corps. I should like to take you to an Air Corps party. It is half-past four in the afternoon, and the room sounds like a barnyard. A sudden hush falls: the planes are coming in. One . . . two . . . three . . . four. . . . The women count them as one counts the beat of a beloved pulse . . . not missing . . . not missing. . . . O. K., everybody! Once more he is coming home safe. I take my hat off to the Air Corps women who do not break under the strain.
This is the army undercurrent — the thing that colors all our lives. We are reminded of it throughout our waking hours by the uniforms, the drills, and most of all by the bugle calls: Reveille, when the junior officers’ wives get up to cook the junior officers’ breakfast; Mess Call, at twelve o’clock, when our husbands come home to lunch; Retreat, when the flag is hauled down and folded for the night, while the children at play on the parade ground stand at attention in imitation of their fathers; and last of all, at eleven o’clock, Taps, the soldier’s good night. We have heard it at West Point when the lights in Cadet Barracks blink out; our sweetheart’s light is there somewhere . . . one day we may be watching our son’s light go out in that same window. We hear it filtering through the band music at the hop . . . time to run home and pick up the baby! And Taps is the call that is played over every soldier’s grave, the last good-night.
The bugle calls regulate our lives. We set our watches by them, but they do not sound for us. There will be no Taps at the army wife’s funeral.
In my part of the country, domineering women are called captains. To be a successful army wife, the only captains must be the men. And what men they are — a band of hereditary patriots.
A friend of mine who was engaged to an army officer was urged not to marry him, as her informant assured her that, in her rôle of army wife, she would merely be the tail of the kite. She asked her fiancé if this was true. He answered with another question: ‘How high can a kite soar without its tail?’
BEATRICE AYER PATTON