2017-03-21 / Home & Family

All the ways to count time in the military

A wife’s perspective on life in the military
Sarah Smiley

Long before there were smartphone apps and online countdown clocks, military wives the world over have been coming up with clever ways to mark time. It’s a (married-to-it) occupational hazard, if you will, a prism through which military spouses view the calendar. Ask most military spouses when they sold their house or got their dog, and they will stare at the ceiling and count not years or decades, but deployments.

My own childhood was marked with this. Things didn’t necessarily happen “when you were in third grade, Sarah,” but “when Dad was deployed on such-and-such ship, so, that was such-and-such year, and that means you were in third grade.” And then, nearly 20 years ago, despite my own protests to the home-again, gone-again lifestyle, I married into the military, too, and started marking time by absences. (My wedding, by the way, was in between some of my dad’s “last deployments,” also known as “1999.”)

Counting is a popular activity for military families. We count deployments, days until the next deployment, missed birthdays (or, more pleasantly, “first birthday since Dad came home from that last deployment”), and, of course, days left until a deployment is over.

Dustin’s first deployments were before the age of the internet, so my friends and I had to be clever with the ways we counted. The old standard, going back to when I was a military child, was a paper chain made out of construction paper. I made these to count down the days until Christmas, too.

The problem with a paper chain is that if it’s started too soon, it can become long and cumbersome, bending and dragging like a parade dragon, and actually making time seem longer, not shorter. There is no joy in a paper chain that winds around whole rooms, goes up the stairs and circles the nightstand a few times.

I always had this great idea to make a paper chain for my husband’s deployment and then let our kids take turns removing a chain each day and writing a note to their dad on the back. Then, at my husband’s return, he’d have a virtual journal of our days in the form of ripped links of construction paper.

It was a great idea in theory, but in reality, I spent most of my deployment days in survival mode. That meant cereal for dinner, unclean floors and sometimes falling asleep on the couch with a baby resting his head on my shoulder. Instructing toddlers to write on a paper chain each night, helping them spell the words and use smaller letters to fit it all in, seemed about as fun as a tooth extraction. Also, a standard deployment on an aircraft carrier is 180 days — too many chains.

There once was a time when it was popular to replicate the paper chain with smaller increments of measurement. This was when the jar of M&Ms came into fashion. Rather than coexisting with a 20-foot paper snake, families could dump M&Ms (one for each day of deployment) into a jar and then eat one a day. Except, who eats just one M&M?

When I did this when Ford was a toddler and Owen was a baby, I had to replenish the M&Ms in the morning after I had downed fistfuls the night before while they were in bed. And then, just when we could see the bottom of the jar again, the deployment was extended, and I had to add more. Try explaining what seems to be multiplying M&Ms to a 2- year-old child.

So, after the M&Ms misstep, we spouses got back to counting things that actually matter — like how many times we have to take out the trash before a deployment ends. Or, in 2011, when my husband was deployed for a year (way too many paper chains), I counted by having weekly dinners with strangers. For each week that Dustin was gone, my three sons and I invited one stranger to fill his empty seat at the dinner table. We called it “Dinner with the Smileys,” and by far, it was my best countdown-idea yet. Instead of trying to hurry up time, we filled it. Also, counting down 52 weeks and dinners is much more manageable than 365 days.

But it’s important to keep counting, no matter what the current en vogue method may be. Because when a parent is gone so frequently, and especially when they are “home for two weeks, gone for one, home for four days, gone for two,” and so forth, it can be hard to keep track. One time my older brother saw a closed bathroom door and asked, “Is Dad in there?”

Mom said, “Dad’s been gone on the ship for a few days.”

She could have just as easily had said he’d been gone “for three paper chains” or “one trash day.” But if we were using M&Ms, she would have been in trouble, because no one wants to find out they’ve missed their one M&M after dinner.

Next week: The countdown to retirement.

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