When my husband served in the Navy, way back when dinosaurs roamed Connecticut, technology was rather primitive. We lived on the Navy base in Groton, Connecticut. Connecticut is where I first encountered truly cold winters and enjoyed the intimacy of a base devoted just to submarines. Other Navy friends had gone on to Norfolk or even the ever unattainable San Diego (where everyone wanted to be assigned), but I enjoyed Groton as everyone you knew was somehow connected to submarines.
As a very junior officer’s wife I had discovered I had “duties” just like my husband. There was one civilian husband living in housing, with his officer wife, and he also was expected to help out to further the career of his wife. While most of the spouses worked and were raising children, we were also expected to throw parties for promotions of fellow officers, throw parties for when fellow officers left, help out with charity work, and most of all, keep an eye on the enlisted wives. The enlisted wives seemed to do just fine to me. They were older, had children, and the chief’s wives were the ones I turned to with any problems or questions I had. It seemed silly to me that somehow I had some wisdom to impart just because my husband was an officer.
I tended to shirk my “keep an eye out” duties and instead liked helping out baking cookies or casseroles for the endless parties, which included a huge number of baby showers. Still, one day I was informed it was my turn to do a little “talk”. The topic, loose lips sink ships, or in this case, submarines.
The “Silent Service” was then in the middle of the Cold War. This was brought home by the fact that every Saturday a loud signal would go off near where I lived on base. This was the weekly test. One sound, a wavering “ooohhh gahhh ooohhh gahhh” meant that an attack was a few hours away and we should all pack up our children and head to the designated safety area, which was far far away from a Navy base filled with submarines. The other sound, “Hoot hoot hooooot” mean that any moment a nuclear bomb was going to fall right on our heads, and we needed to “shelter in place”.
When I asked, I was informed my “in place” shelter was a closet on the first floor. I looked at this closet, which could barely hold myself and my child, and only if I stood up holding her, and decided it wasn’t worth the effort to die there. I might as well be comfortable when the bomb dropped. Forget shelter in place, I used my closet as a closet and a rather naive neighbor was shocked I did not leave it for the most part empty so I would be “prepared”. I tried not to laugh when she told me “You’ll barely have time to clean out all that junk before the bomb hits!”
This was so silly, that a few of the wives during the weekly alarm test took to going outside and setting up beach towels and lounge chairs. We would wear our swimsuits and slather on sun screen. It was our way of saying “Sheltering in place when you don’t even have a basement is silly. We want to go out in style!” Who knew the Navy did not have a sense of humor? We were told to stop it, it was bad for the morale of the enlisted wives that might see us!
The need for secrecy, when your husband and his submarine would be deployed, was considered very important. I was told again and again, never to mention, when on the phone, to anyone when my husband was deployed. This was rather difficult, as I knew it would be rather difficult to hide from my family when my husband was not home, especially when he was often gone for 3 months or more. I gave up saying “oh he’s in the shower” to my mother in law after the first week. I felt if the Russians were depending on my slipping up with a phone call for information, then we really didn’t have much to worry about from them.
Still, I was informed it was my time to help fight the the Cold War, and I had to give a “little talk” about family grams. Now, when my husband was gone to sea, I was allowed to send him a “family gram” every few weeks. This was a one way only message to him of about 30 words. The submarine would pop up and pick up information, orders and if they had time, family messages. The important thing I needed to impart to the enlisted wives was that the family grams could contain no bad information. It depressed the men. It was understood clearly that nothing, NOTHING, would bring a submarine back early from a deployment.
I was only asked to give one lecture. This was probably because my own family gram history was checkered. I liked to put in little jokes and also our best friends were a family with the last name “Eid”. The husband was a fellow officer, and I would often put in a bit about “Eids birthday dinner nice” or “Eid greetings!”. I did not know “Eid” was also the name of an Islamic holiday, at first. I just knew I got calls from the Navy censor. I felt he should know the names of all the officers, the family was Scandinavian, but it was an endless battle between us. This is perhaps just a hint why I wasn’t cut out for the full time Navy wife life.
My lecture was going to be difficult. It is really tough when your spouse is away at sea. Especially if he can not communicate back with you in anyway. The Navy grams were one way only. You heard nothing from your spouse for at least 3 months if your husband served on a “boomer”. The submarine went out and spent the entire trip under the water hiding from the Russians. The Russians spent the entire time listening in to my phone calls trying to figure out if the boat was out or not. I was informed that I had to convince the wives not even to mention so much as a broken washing machine or the sniffles. Morale was very important, but who knew tough Navy men were so sensitive? A broken washing machine, and yes that was one of the examples I was told to use, seemed to be not the stuff of mission failure.
So how did my lecture go? I knew the younger enlisted wives had it the toughest. Junior officers weren’t paid a lot, but I did know that officers wives could afford to go out together for pizza every now and again. We had money worries, but we also weren’t going to Navy relief for clothing for our children or extra food to make it through the month. I decided that using a joke would be the best way to not bore the far more experienced and wise older enlisted wives, and maybe catch the attention of the younger ones.
I started with “morale is important”, and the ever important “realize that every boat in the Navy is going to be able to read your family gram, keep it clean or it will end up on every bulletin board on every ship. This is not a private message.” (I was once told many ships and boats had designated spots for posting the most, shall we say descriptive, family grams).
Then I decided to go for the joke.
Once there was a wife that sent her husband a family gram. Now you know how the censors are, they try to filter out things that might upset our husbands. But the censors don’t always know what might upset a particular husband. Well, this wife sent her husband a family gram that said “The cat died”. This poor man, the censor did not know he had raised this cat from a kitten, and he loved this cat almost as much as he loved his wife. The husband became very depressed and could barely do his work. When he returned from sea he was upset with his wife and said “How could you just write the cat died!” His wife was confused “Well what should I have done?” she asked.
Her husband explained “First you needed to break it to me gently. Your first family gram should have said ‘the cat is on the roof’, then the next could be ‘the cat fell off the roof but is at the vet.’ Next, ‘the cat isn’t doing very well’ and finally ‘the cat died’.”
The husband said it was too much to take all at once, and she couldn’t expect the censor to know how much the cat meant to him. He understood she wanted to share the news, as she was also upset about the cat, but that a slower approach would have been better.
So the husband went back to sea and he received a family gram from his wife that said “Your grandmother is on the roof.”
I don’t know why I wasn’t asked to give the privacy lecture again, but I did get a lot of laughs. Thankfully, my joking did not cause us to lose the Cold War, but at times I think the Navy thought it would.
- Abandoned Wives. (lizzyloveslipstick.wordpress.com)
- Joyful reunions as Navy sub returns to Conn. (newsday.com)
- Welcome to the United States Military, Wife. (paolaisabel92.wordpress.com)