“Like Caesar’s wife the CO’s wife had to be above reproach” wrote Patricia Stallard in Glittering Misery: Dependents of the Indian Fighting Army.
A year ago, I lived next door to a CO’s wife. Her husband was deployed in Afghanistan. In a horrific incident, of which I don’t know the detail, some were injured and one was killed. When she heard the news, she didn’t know what to do. Where was her place in this scenario? She didn’t know the wives of the men that were injured, or the families of the man that was killed. Her husband was in theatre (Afghanistan) and in many respects she didn’t know who to ask. She felt like she was floundering around looking for answers but none came so she did nothing. She sent flowers and she stayed away.
There is an apocryphal tale of a pre-deployment briefing where the commanding officer gathered the wives and said, ‘can all of you line up in order of rank.’ Dutifully, the wives shuffled themselves into a line according to their partner’s ranks. Allegedly, the tale goes, ‘well, you can all sit down because none of you have a rank because you aren’t in the military.’ I don’t wear Hagar’s rank on my sleeve. It seems even weird calling him by his rank. I only ever say what it is when I am asked directly.
(To be honest, I have never experienced anything other than support from the military whenever I have needed it. I think this is because I am not afraid to ask for help when I need it, or look for answers. If you are looking for answers and you want to keep it away from the community, I would recommend that join the online community Rear Party there are lots of wizen and sage souls loitering there, with a raft of information that can be handled very discreetly.)
Now, obviously Hagar is a fat, lazy crab, (this means he is in the RAF, which folk in the Navy, and the Army, don’t really consider it the military – civvies in uniform) who only wafts himself over warzones, and doesn’t get his hands dirty, for fear of ruining his manicure, and from my observations, I would say the culture is a bit different from the more traditional, older military establishments. I am going to stick my neck out a bit and also say that we, as a community, aren’t so ranked focused; but I am sure that lots of people will disagree. Maybe, I should say that I am not rank focused, not that I am purposely hanging out with the corporals to make a point, but more just getting on and doing my own thing, which means I have a mix of civvy and non-civvy friends. Although, now I think about it I don’t actually have any non-officer wife friends, apart from one, but it’s not by design, it’s just the way the dice fell. Make of that what you will.
When Hagar and I got together, and I was a newbie, there was definitely a greater sense of community on the patch. There was road rep on each street. A volunteer wife, who welcomed you to the neighbourhood. I was welcomed with open arms into a bosom of people that hosted candle parties and coffee mornings. It was a weird place for me, mainly because I was a wanderer, who had spent a decade wandering, and I hadn’t been raised conventionally, so I always felt, at the beginning, more like a foreign observer than a participant. Time passed and twelve years on, I am in up to my neck in being a wife, and am no longer an observer but, I am, absolutely, a participant. I would say that I operate an open door, eyes-shut policy, and that I often wander around aimlessly, when Hagar is away, visiting friendly friends, and perhaps on occasion having the odd sherry too many. (I don’t really drink sherry, although I did go through a mild sherry drinking phase circa the mid 90’s in honour of the legendary film, Withnail and I)
I think the role of the wife has changed in the last decade. Many women work so they don’t seek the support, or boredom of dependency, as they did in the past. The roles are not as transient, as there is an emergence of some superbases so wives can fulfill their lives. (This is paragraph is clearly full of sweeping generalisations, and there are some for whom this is not the case. But it’s my blog.) Some families buy houses, settle locally and the husband commutes in and out of their lives. There is a shift, but at the same time, there is also void. Is it even important? Is it important to even think of about the role of the wife in the modern military? Part of me thinks it is, but I know in these cash strapped times, when there are so many other more critical priorities that are not getting funded that it won’t even be considered.
Hagar has just taken over a flight, on a squadron, and so I am, to some extent, the boss’ wife. How should I deliver this role, if at all? Should I get to know the partners of the lads who serve with Hagar, or should I keep my head down and get on with my life oblivious to the team which we all support. I am pretty sure that I won’t be able to deliver it ‘above reproach’ but that was never on my wish list. The Yoof, as I like to refer to the young ‘uns, to me feel like they are generations away and they look at me like I am some old, crazy bird and I look at them and think ‘can I even be arsed to make the effort?’ This is the dilemma. I don’t want to not be available, but at the same time, I don’t want to try too hard if they want me to ‘sod off Baldrick’. What to do indeedy.