There were two extra place settings during our Thanksgiving weekend. They were for a couple we met when my husband and her husband were serving at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, some 50 years ago — a golden anniversary of sorts. The idea that we met half-a-century ago and have maintained our connection is astonishing and lovely because we were quite fond of them then and are happy to still be friends now. When they left the service, about a year before we did, they returned to their home state of North Carolina, and we, of course, returned to New York. Over the years, we have kept up sporadically through Christmas cards stuffed with letters about our lives.
Our family wound up at Sheppard because we made the right decision for the wrong reasons — as so often happens in life.
Just after my husband began his internship at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, he came home one evening somewhat puzzled. “Look,” he showed me paperwork, “if I agree to enter this lottery called the Berry Plan, I will be allowed to finish my residency in the specialty I choose, but then I will have to go into the military for two years. The benefit is that I will not be drafted out of my training before I finish, but I will delay starting my practice two years while I am serving Uncle Sam. What should I do?”
“Do it, do it!” I urged. “They will send us to Germany or Japan and we will get to see the world.” I yearned to travel and we had not had the chance or the means. The year was 1963, and aside from a few military advisers in Vietnam, there was no war involving the United States. There was a draft but we were at peace.
“OK,” my husband said, still seeming dubious. “But only about 5 percent of those who apply are selected.” He went off the next morning with the completed paperwork and the two of us promptly forgot about the whole matter. That is, until the next spring when he came home and announced, still unsure what he had gotten us into, that he had been selected. I was happy at the prospect of travel in our future.
With the benefit of hindsight, you know that by 1965, we were in a hot war and I will tell you that many physicians were drafted out of their specialty training and sent to Vietnam as general medical officers. Some of them never returned.
We, meanwhile, now had one child and a second on the way when we were sent to Texas. It was not Germany or Japan, it wasn’t even California or New Jersey, as we had requested when asked by the Air Force, but it was — just by dumb luck — stateside, which meant we could be together. In fact, we had a house to live in, our first, with a washer and dryer, and each child had his own room. Wichita Falls is not a particularly beautiful place, as far as scenery goes. There were no real trees, little grass, no bodies of water and only an occasional bit of mesquite shrub blowing across the brown dirt. But it was heaven for us, and we were thankful to be there for the duration of the two years. We learned to eat chicken fried steak and barbecued beef on a bun, and before too long our third child was on the way.
It was on the base that we met our friends, who were serving under similar circumstances. He was a pediatrician who worked alongside my husband at the hospital, and with his wife they also eventually had three children, went home and started their professional lives together. But we stayed in touch, as I have explained, and they have rejoined my family with lots of conversation and laughter.
Old friends are treasures because they are irreplaceable. We are older now, quite a bit older, and we might not have recognized each other immediately on the street. But the basic persons that we were are intact.