I was emerging from the base gym’s steam room, sweating and feeling a bit woozy, when I heard her.
“We don’t do base housing,” a young female officer putting on her blueberry fatigues told a friend in the women’s locker room. She mentioned that she received orders to her next duty at Naval Station Mayport, and that she and her husband were looking for a rental in St. Johns, Florida, where the houses are nicer.
“We’re searching early, so we don’t get stuck living on base,” she said. “We’re not base housing people.”
I was steamed. Pun intended.
Little did she know, I lived up the street from the base gym – although one would never suspect it based on how few appearances I’d made there – in a small cluster of old duplex houses on Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island.
Before that, we’d lived in the very Mayport base housing the young officer was trying to avoid. Before that, we’d lived in an apartment on Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany. Those years, plus a two-year stint in old Army base housing on Fort Ord in Monterey, California, in the ‘90s, meant that we’d spent almost half of our 23-year marriage living in base quarters.
Apparently, we’re those “base housing people.”
When I heard the young officer say she had orders to Naval Station Mayport, my instinct was to pipe up, “We were stationed there!” as many military folks do, and then I’d tell her all about the beach, the base gym, the good fried chicken at the mess hall, and the local shrimp place. But sensing the negative connotation she attached to “base housing people” I stayed silent.
However, I couldn’t help but pity her, because she didn’t know what she was missing.
In Monterey, we’d walk Ardennes Circle, the huge curved road winding through our base housing community, pushing our first baby in a stroller and chatting with neighbors along the way. On many an evening, a stop at a neighbor’s house to chat turned into an impromptu party, with babies sleeping in portable cribs and car seats while we laughed into the wee hours. We still have those friends today.
When we moved to JAC Molesworth in rural England, we wanted to “experience English culture.” We lived in an old village house with creaky floorboards and a WWI bomb shelter in the basement. It was a terrific immersion into rural English village life, but we spent many weekends at our friends’ base houses, seeking camaraderie.
Years later, we were deciding whether to live in a bland communist-era stairwell apartment on Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, or brave the risky but rewarding German rental market. In the end, we chose base housing, because we felt it would ease the transition for our three children.
Surely, if we’d lived off base we’d have spoken more German and learned more about the local culture, but we found that on-base communities have a culture all their own. Safe and secure within the fences of Patch Barracks, kids ran everywhere and spouses chatted on shared patios. We went off base and traveled often, seeking the enrichment of European culture. However, we were also enriched by the close-knit experience of on-base life, with its unparalleled camaraderie and Mayberry-esque small-town feel. Again, we made friends for life.
At Mayport, we knew we wanted to live in the base housing community. Not only was the housing in sight of the beautiful sandy Atlantic coastline, it was the kind of tight-knit military community we’d learned to value. By the end of our two years there, we’d had countless nights around fire pits and afternoons at the beach with neighbors, and our kids always had someone to hang out with on the street. As always, we made friends for life.
As I walked back to my base house from the gym, my cheeks still flush and damp from the steam room, I hoped that the young officer would, someday, experience base housing culture. Because, overcoming the challenges of military life takes the sweat of one’s brow, but finding life-long friendships on base is actually no sweat at all.