Wings of Gold
New Orleans was the one city in the South where I really looked forward to spending time. I had seen Mardi Gras scenes in movies and television, and friends had told me about the fabulous restaurants and jazz clubs and all the history connected to the city. I hoped to spend at least three days there but Rob said no, that he wanted to get to his new base right away and check things out. So we only spent a day and one night in the French Quarter, which I found absolutely magical. We drank our “hurricanes,” listened to jazz and ate amazing food and rich pastries. I’m sure I put on five pounds during that short time, but I loved every minute of it. Too soon we were on our way to Kingsville and the apartment complex we would call home for the next few months.
When we drove into Kingsville my heart sunk as I saw the small town where I would be doing my shopping and other housewifely duties. My first thought was that it looked like a movie set from the 1930s; one main street with old fashioned buildings and store fronts. Rob was stressed and worried and all I could think of was me and how I was going to pass the time in this backwater town. As I unpacked our things I looked out the bedroom window and saw miles and miles of flat nothingness. The King ranch and their long-horn Santa Gertrudis cattle took up a lot of prairie. But at least I had my fellow Navy wives to pass the time with, and to placate us bored housewives, the guys promised us trips to Padre Island, Corpus Christi and Nuevo Laredo when they had some time off. But they had more important things on their minds, like landing on an aircraft carrier out in the gulf, survival training and the possibility of getting kicked out of the program, which would be the ultimate humiliation. Earning the coveted Navy Wings of Gold was their singular goal and this was the last leg on that journey. Us womenfolk would just have to suck it up and be there for support when called upon.
Nuevo Laredo was dirty, noisy, crowded, smelly, exciting and fun. I loved how we had to bargain for everything we bought, and buy we did – all kinds of thick Mexican sweaters and household decorations that “everybody” in the Navy ended up buying. If you didn’t have a miniature suit of armor standing in your living room you weren’t with the program. A couple of years later we looked at it all and asked, why did we buy those horrible things? But at the time we wanted to be like everybody else and bargaining was addictive.
Corpus Christi, on the other hand, was just plain gorgeous. The homes along the gulf were breathtaking but only a few short years later would all be washed away by a hurricane. The homeowners always rebuild after every storm. I can almost understand why because the views are stunning. Padre Island turned out to be one long beach and we all baked in the sun, impervious to the hazards of too much of a good thing, and never thought we would ever wrinkle when we got old. Who got old anyway? We were going to be young forever. Being old was for our parents who had always been ancient. So we tanned to a dark brown and let the sun bleach our hair and knew we would never pay the price later.
Wives stuck together when the guys went out on cross countries and out in the Gulf. We comforted them when they needed it, but by then we were used to their false bravado and went along with it. None of us fully appreciated what they were going through and the hard work they were putting in. The guys wanted it to seem easy and maybe to some it was. As for Rob, by this time he was as self-assured as any of them. As I said before, he never failed at anything he did and I had total confidence that he would succeed.
Meanwhile, the whole experience did not, for the most part, bring wives and husbands closer together. The pilots, faced every day with a potentially dangerous occupation where student pilots had been known to crash and burn, bonded more closely with each other than with us. But we were young girls and this Navy life was all we knew so we found companionship with each other and that was fine. For me, I knew this was just a temporary existence. As soon as Rob earned his coveted Wings of Gold, he had promised we would be heading to California where I would begin my acting career. How I would do that, I still hadn’t a clue. Nevertheless, Hollywood beckoned with the promise of better things to come. It was the center of my universe where my dreams would come true and I would earn my own wings.
One day, one of my friends rolled up her jeans and showed me the huge bruises on her legs. Tears welled up in her eyes as she described how her husband beat her and she didn’t know what to do, who to talk to, or if she should leave him or not. I was shocked and tried to comfort her but had no idea of how to advise her. No one talked of going to women’s shelters in those days. Men beat their wives and no one did anything about it. And divorcing a service man meant you would receive little or no alimony to help you get back home and start a new life. I was at a complete loss and felt that I, of all people, was in no position to tell her what to do. I hoped she would leave him, but I never did find out what happened to her after we left Texas.
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