In January 1980, after Commissioning, I was assigned to the 544th Strategic Intelligence Wing of the Strategic Air Command. Picking up Lillian and Jennifer in Southern California, we drove to Omaha Nebraska. The trip is 1600 miles, and you drop 1 degree in temperature for every mile of the trip. It was 80 degrees when we left, when we arrived in Omaha it was minus 6. I think I‘ve got that math right. Miles before you arrive, the signs on the highway proudly signal SAC HQ. There is no indication that you are approaching an Air Force Base. In the ’80s, SAC was its own Air and Space Force. All the Strategic Bombers and Missiles were under SAC’s control. There was a two-star Navy admiral at SAC as well. He was a submariner and SAC’s link to the nuclear submarine fleet. I don’t think his job was all that important. He never seemed to be able to locate anyone anyway. SAC was also responsible for Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft, the SR-71, U-2, and RC-135s. We were entering a whole new world. The airmen, officers, spouses and their families lived and were consumed by the world of the Strategic Air Command. Over the next six years, the SAC world would certainly ask me to do my part.
In all, Lillian, Jennifer and newly-minted Jason and I would spend from 1980 until 1986 in Omaha. All this time, during the pinnacle of the Cold War and the SAC empire. Years later, In 1992, long after we’d left, after the end of the Cold War, SAC was deactivated, it took six major commands to undertake all the missions previously held by SAC.
I offer this perspective to highlight the world Lillian and I entered. I was a brand-new 2nd Lieutenant, and Lillian was now “an Officer’s Wife.” Not bad for the boy and girl from Pacoima. Pacoima was on the less affluent side of the San Fernando Valley. I’d say we grew up on the other side of the railroad tracks, but Pacoima was too poor to have railroad tracks.
Speaking of Officer Wives, there’s actually a book. You actually get taught which fork to use. No longer for self-defense, but if you still have room, dessert. Although not required, Lillian did have her own pair of white gloves. I believe they can be seen on display at the Smithsonian. She was now expected at afternoon teas, and we of course joined the “Club.” This was not optional. Discussion of your husband’s work was forbidden, but family, flower arranging and exchanging dinner recipes were encouraged. It was a society all its own and we were now reluctant card-carrying members. This was also a world neither of us had experienced. Against our instincts and hesitations, we were immediately accepted and everyone tried to make us feel welcome.
Among the spouses, there was no rank except the Commander’s Wife. This was because she had certain obligations and responsibilities. For the rest, it was just comradery and support. This was a group where community meant everything. If an airman’s family was in need, the word went out and anything and everything was done to lend a hand. Once, when I traveled to Hawaii and on to Okinawa and Korea with the Inspector General’s Team, the Officer’s wives regularly checked in on Lillian, helping with shopping, babysitting and anything else she needed. Seeing our driveway covered in three feet of snow, the Squadron Commander’s wife, suggested a fix. That afternoon, the Commander and Operations Officer arrived, shovels in hand. Like I said, the Commander’s Wife had certain obligations and responsibilities.
I’d spent more than a month on the road, A difficult month in Korea and Okinawa. But then I had a beautiful week in Hawaii before I got home. Back home, It was still February and really cold. In Omaha, It was well below zero. But I decided to show up with two fresh pineapples and wearing only my new Hawaiian shorts and shirt. Did I say it was cold? It was negative three! I was standing outside in shorts and a shirt. She locked the door. The mother of my children locked the door! I stood outside for what I thought was forever. Marriage is never 50/50.
If the formality of being an officer family was a bit overwhelming, the warmth and personal interest eased Lillian’s natural skepticism. Extremely introverted by nature, Lillian eventually warmed and grew attached to her new “family.” When the Commander’s wife learned that Lillian was expecting our second child, she immediately organized a surprise baby shower. All unknown to Lillian, a formal lunch invitation was the hook for the big event. With presents in hand, fifty or so women showered Lillian with love and well wishes. Coming home at my usual quitting time around seven that evening, Lillian was still crying. Never in her life had anyone outside her family been so kind. Lillian never forgot this gesture of kindness. She grew to be it.
In September of 1980 Jason was born at Ehrling-Bergquist Hospital on base. Immediately, I could sense, that he was going to be a very serious person. Time has proven me right. Lillian’s time during her pregnancy was difficult, not because of Jason but due to the heat and humidity of the Nebraska summers. We’d had bought our first house twelve miles south of the base. Among the things this house didn’t have were a shower or air conditioner. I guess we were so excited to actually buy a house that we forgot to check a few things. Returning home one hot and humid July evening I encountered a very pregnant Lillian and two-year-old Jennifer laying on the basement floor, NAKED. Wrapped only in wet towels, they had sought refuge from the heat. Luckily for me, Nebraska Furniture Mart was open until 9 PM. I could just make it if I left immediately. Lillian looked at me with that, “Well? You haven’t left yet look?” Off I went. I had our brand-new window a/c up and running by midnight. For the next few months, Lillian lived in front of that life-saving machine.
My father, a high school teacher by profession told me “mostly — girls learn by watching, but boys learn by doing.” At four, Jennifer loved her world of make believe. She talked to her toys, her stuffed animals and anyone who would listen. For every hundred words Jennifer spoke, Jason spoke three. His words always measured and never more than necessary. Jason spoke more with his eyes than his mouth. It was like watching his mother in stereo. For his first five years, he took to helping me fix whatever needed repair or mostly just taking things apart to see how they worked. Lillian remembers, when he was three or four, he took all the bolts out of his bed frame. Everything fell apart when the vacuum hit the leg. He must have fixed it because everything was back together when I got home. I don’t recall this incident but for some reason vacuuming was assigned to me as an additional duty.
As I tell many folks who ask me about marriage, it’s never 50/50.
Nebraska has some wonderful places to explore if you survive the cold winters and the humidity of the summers. Just for fun or maybe the challenge, we bought a 1973 VW campervan. It had almost everything, a small alcohol stove, icebox and even a porta potty. The top popped up so you could stand up inside and cook your wonderful husband a delicious meal or just hand him a well-deserved beer! A sheet of wood folded down when you wanted a rooftop bed. Lillian and Jennifer got the top bunk while Jason and I plotted dastardly deeds from the bottom. These camping trips were some of the happiest times of our lives. Being a VW, also meant it required fixing, a lot of fixing. Seems like we spent every other weekend camping. Every other weekend because I spent the other weekends replacing or adjusting almost everything. There really isn’t a big difference between a new VW and a used VW. Eventually all the parts are replaced creating a new vehicle every few years.
Try it now