May 1, 2020

Our Story (Part 3)

A Taste of a Different Lifestyle...

It was a few days before Thanksgiving 2002 and I made it to Atlanta! If you read my last post, you will know that it was my first time traveling alone. I was going to an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people but one great thing about military life is, there are ALWAYS people to help you. The comradery between soldiers was something I know nothing about, but the comradery between spouses is a whole new ballgame. Back then, there was no facebook or other means of social media. The only way I had to communicate with spouses of Eugene's classmates was through a military version of "instant messenger". Over the course of a few months, I connected with a few of the wives. They were so kind and so amazing in so many ways. One of the ladies that lived in the area offered to let me stay with them while I was visiting. Because Eugene and I were not married, I was not allowed to enter Ft. Benning without a military card. So she picked me up at the airport, gave me a place to stay, and took me to the base the next day .

It seemed like FOREVER until Eugene was "off duty" for a few days but seeing him in his military uniform walking into the gathering area with all of his classmates was a sight for sore eyes!! I was overwhelmed with feelings of both missing him and feeling so proud of him for choosing this career path. Like I've said before, I really didn't know anyone in the military. It's a humbling sight to see men and women in uniform. Protectors of our freedom, going about their days. When the soldiers were FINALLY released after a few ceremonies, it was a dream come true. Months of letter writing (yes...snail mail was popular back then too!), short phone calls and missing him terribly finally came with a reprieve. We had 4 whole days together!! We had a mandatory Thanksgiving luncheon that was being served by high ranking officers as a tradition of the school. It was the traditional turkey, stuffing and all of the fixings. We ate in the "mess hall" at their long tables. There were no fancy decorations, we ate from paper plates but there was something so special about it. We were sitting at tables that once held so many great soldiers. So much history in that very room. We got to socialize with other soldiers and finally meet the other wives who I had only been in contact with over a computer screen. We laughed and talked and shared stories of our lives. After the lunch, we were finally free to be on our own! There wasn't much open in town that night so we had Thanksgiving dinner at Ruby Tuesday's. To be honest, it didn't really matter WHAT we ate, we were just so incredibly happy to be together! We still talk about that dinner to this day as it being one of our most memorable Thanksgivings ever.

Over the next few days, we toured Atlanta, and shopped at the Underground Mall. We visited Callaway Gardens with all of it's holiday magic. It's an authentic, outdoor landscape that turns into a magical Christmas wonderland. We drank hot chocolate under the southern stars and admired the lights and sounds of holiday music. I never wanted that weekend to end. But since all good things eventually do come to an end, we prepared ourselves to be apart again until Christmas. At least Christmas was only a few weeks away and not another 3 months!! And so began the countdown again ....

Luckily, the weeks went by quickly. I was finishing up my second to last semester of school and Eugene was released a few days before Christmas. We enjoyed time with friends and family, and the sights of Christmas in Pittsburgh. It has been our tradition every year since then to go downtown, visit the Creche, the Omni Hotel, & PPG Wintergarden. Little did I know that he had something up his sleeve...

The next week was New Year's and we were meeting a friend of his from the Army that had brought some of his things home from Georgia and we were meeting him south of the city. Eugene took me out to a really nice restaurant and we shared an amazing dinner and conversation. We were so busy with family and friends during his short time at home that we hardly had any time to ourselves. On the drive back, he wanted to stop at the Creche at the US Steel building one more time. It was beautiful at night, peaceful and all lit up. It's the only replica in the world of the Vatican's St. Peter's Square display in Rome and Pittsburghers are so proud to have a sight like this to observe in our city.

We got out of the car and he said Eugene said, " I brought you here for a reason". Still clueless, I said, "Yeah..the Creche is really nice"! He said "No...I brought you here for another reason". And that's when he did it. He got down on one knee and asked me to marry him! I was so surprised!! I was overwhelmed with excitement!! There were a few bystanders who obviously knew what was coming before I did and were clapping and yelling. Saying my heart was happy was an understatement! I was secretly hoping and wishing we would make this promise for a forever together, but with so much uncertainty in the next few months, I was sure it wasn't the right time for him to make a commitment with so many other things weighing on his mind.

The next few months brought a lot of joy along with questions about what the future would hold. I was finishing up my last semester at Pitt with a degree in Exercise Science. My plan was to go on for a MS in Exercise Physiology but God had other plans. Eugene graduated from his officer candidate school in Georgia and then moved on to South Carolina for yet another few months of in depth schooling, and we continued to make the long distance relationship work. It wasn't easy by any means but he had a lot more freedom once he moved and I was able to visit every few weeks. I found cheap flights from Pittsburgh to Charlotte , NC and made my way to Ft Jackson, South Carolina. It's crazy to think that I was still too young to rent a car but airport shuttles worked just as well! We had a great time with the short time we had in South Carolina visiting Charleston, Columbia and even Myrtle Beach! When his schooling was finally over, it was a BIG deal to find out where the permanent duty station would be. At first, we though we were going to Ft. Campbell Kentucky. I started researching nearby universities to continue my education. He started looking for places for us to live. Together, we made some plans here and there for our wedding that was going to be held in Pittsburgh. Then a wrench got thrown into the plan.

We found out that were were going to Ft. Drum, NY instead of Kentucky. Ft. Drum was the ONE PLACE he did not want to go. The winters were harsh to say the least and they had a high rate of deployments. Eugene had spent several reserve weeks there years ago. But that was the last word. We were scheduled to arrive in Ft. Drum, NY at the beginning of June. We packed what little things we had. Our parents gave us some furniture and we would figure out the rest when we got there. I looked for a job in a town that didn't have much to offer in that department. Especially for the girl that had a degree meant to go on for more. The closest university was in Syracuse and it wasn't feasible to drive an hour each way in treacherous winter weather for classes. So I searched and searched. I sent resumes, called potential employers trying to "sell" myself and my "skills". I finally found a job and I was so eager for the upcoming opportunity. Little did I know how much this job would shape the life that was coming my way, and for that, I am forever grateful. It's funny how things don't quite make sense initially but later, looking back, it ended up being right were I was supposed to be.

I remember sitting in the big yellow Penske truck outside of my parents house, packing the rest of our things because we were leaving in the morning for a new adventure. Somehow we would find the good in the place where we weren't really excited to go. As I was rearranging boxes in the truck on that warm June day, Eugene came out and said "I have something important to tell you...."

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR MORE!!!!