New military wives learned very quickly that they didn’t just marry their husband, but his service as well. The Coast Guard is not just an employer. It is a social mechanism that governs behavior. It is a family imbedded with norms, steeped in history, honored, and respected. New Coast Guard wives undergo a different experience than, a new bride of a University of Michigan engineer who goes to work for Haliburton, or a University of Pittsburgh pharmacist who takes a job with CVS.
Neither of them may ever have to adjust to their husband’s employer to the same extent as Coast Guard wives need to adjust to the Coast Guard.
Wives did not generally realize that they could be a significant factor in their husband’s career. If not in the early years, it certainly was true as you became more senior. It was not unusual to have your superior comment on your wife in your official performance report, particularly as to your potential for promotion or command assignments.
Florence Ridgley Johnson, the wife of a well known Navy Admiral, had been down this road before. In 1956 she wrote Welcome Aboard: A service Manual for The Naval Officer’s Wife. Her book was issued to all graduating cadets and was a dog-eared staple in every officer’s home.
Carol and I met our first social obligation when we made our official call on the Absecon’s executive officer, Commander (CDR) Ernie Challender and his wife. While I had been aboard for a year, CDR Challender told me he and his wife would wait until after our wedding and would be “at home” and wished us to call for dinner.
We both read over the Welcome Aboard chapter: Calls, Made and Returned, particularly for the etiquette of calling cards. We both had engraved cards and knew to look for their calling card tray, probably on a side table near the front door. We confirmed that I would leave two of my cards and Carol one. A gentleman calls on everyone in the house; a lady only calls on the lady of the house.
The social call, actually a pleasant custom practiced in sophisticated society of the 19th and early 20th century, still observable in old movies, had pretty much gone the way of top hats and knickers–except in military society. It was actually a convenient means for military families to meet others and become acquainted with their new surroundings, while still retaining a semblance of a “rank and order.”
In a way, I miss calls. There was something civilized and mannerly about them. I dislike how far society has moved away, at times, regrettably, dragging me with it, toward informality. I don’t like casual dress for every occasion. I’m closer every day to removing ball caps from total strangers who sport them at the dinner table while eating in even the better restaurants.
After one trip around the block to avoid being early, I parked in front ofthe Commander’s house. I was wearing my best (only) blue suit, white straight wing tip collar shirt and regimental tie. Carol looked as pretty as ever in a checkered straight skirt and white blouse. With her sparkling eyes and smile, she was going to be an instant hit with the XO and his wife. We moved onto the porch, smiled at each other, took a short breath, and I rang the bell.
The commander answered the door.
“Well, good evening Marcotts. You must be Carol.” He was wearing a blue sport coat, gray trousers, and a plain red tie. Built a little too stocky to cut a neat military figure, the sport jacket fit his grandfatherly image better. He raised one eyebrow, curled his lip into a tight smile and said, “Come in, come in. Welcome.”
“Good Evening, sir.”
“Good evening, Commander, “Carol said, “So nice to meet you.”
The Commander, his head a little too big and square with loose jowls that bobbled as he talked with his eyes, smiled and completed introductions to his wife who had just entered from the dining room. Mrs. Challender wore an attractive casual dress, her slightly graying hair pulled back in a bun. She flashed a welcoming smile and motioned us to the living room, suggesting cocktails. We all had one. (The book said one was OK.)
The Challender’s homey style and genuine warmth helped us respond comfortably to all the normal get acquainted questions. We enjoyed a pleasant conversation that continued when we moved to the table for dinner. When we were finished, Carol helped clear the table and Mrs. Challender brought out dessert. Reaching for the coffee pot on the side board, she hovered over Carol’s cup, and said, “Of course as a good Coast Guard wife, I’m sure you like coffee.”
“Of course, please.”
Carol did not drink coffee. Her family did not drink coffee. They never had it in their house. She hated it. It was too late now for me to bail her out. She left her cup until it passed a touch-to-the-lips test while we continued table talk. Then, in a single move, Carol picked up the cup, tipped her head back and drained it to the bottom in several audible gulps like it were medicine. The always responsive perfect hostess, Mrs. Challender rose and smiling poured her a refill. “I guess you do like coffee.” Carol finished about half of her second cup, in smaller doses this time, obviously feeling it was OK to leave some as a signal that she had had enough.
The Commander escorted us to the door as we thanked both of them for the lovely evening. I surreptitiously placed our calling cards on the small silver tray on the entrance hall table. I had notice several cards on it when we first came in. As we walked toward the car, I turned to Carol with a slight laugh, “What’s with the coffee bit?”
“God! That was awful!”
“Hon, you didn’t have to do that. You could have just said ‘no thank you;.”
“Didn’t you hear her? She relates coffee drinking with being a good Coast Guard wife. I didn’t want to mess up you career on my first outing. AAUUGH!”
It was all Florence Ridgley Johnson’s fault.