Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Life in Military Housing, Part I

When we were in the military and had to live on base, we resided in housing built half a century ago.

Have you ever watched any of the one hundred and eighteen different types of remodeling shows on that home and garden cable channel? Of all those one hundred and eighteen shows, eighty-six have the root word “design” in the title, the remaining thirty-two “decorate.” Whether it’s design or decorate, I loved to watch them all, and dream of the day when I could have a home of my own to do all the things the people on those programs seemed to have so much fun doing.

The camera would follow a house-hunting husband and wife into a cute 1940’s cottage, a cozy 1930’s bungalow, or even a charming 1920’s craftsman house boasting one of them new-fangled Kelvinators, and the enchanted wife would sigh blissfully and say, “I love the rest of the house, especially the hardwood floors . . .”

“I like the detached garage,” the husband chimes in. “It’s the perfect place for me to work on my boat.” Where they currently live, he has no place to work on his boat, which he keeps parked in his friend’s backyard. His friend’s wife would like to see the boat removed and replaced with a koi pond and pergola, but that’s for another program on the same channel.

“But the kitchen really needs updating,” the wife says.

As much as we delight in quaint d├ęcor and believe in preserving the past, we women do appreciate having updated kitchens.

By program’s end, they’ve gutted and removed everything that doesn’t date back to next week, and the house that was built during the Coolidge Administration now has a kitchen bearing an uncanny resemblance to the bridge on the Starship Enterprise—the NCC-1701-D model, for those of you Trekkies who tend to be particular about these things.

And somehow, they always manage to do it all for just under two thousand dollars.

You can’t do any of that in military housing. After you move out, and before the next family moves in, the military might put in a new toilet seat . . . for over two thousand dollars.

The house we occupied on base still retained much of its New Deal era charm, though over time, the square footage had been reduced significantly with each new coat of paint applied to the interior walls whenever the house changed hands—usually every two to three years, and always in an off-blah white. Residents were forbidden to be creative and use colored paint or wallpaper. Consistency and uniformity in all areas of our lives, even on our walls—these were the things that kept our happy little Air Force flying.

We were allowed to make minor little improvements—like installing a vanity around a sink that otherwise had nothing beneath it but ugly pipes—but only with the commander’s approval (someone in authority would have to come in and inspect it after it was installed), and only using materials from what was known in the Air Force as the “self-help store.” This was like a hardware store on the base, where everything was free, but you had to be a resident of military housing to patronize it. In keeping with the aforementioned uniformity in all things, you couldn’t choose between Early American or French Provincial or whatever era you were going for. There was only one style available, best described as “Eleanor Roosevelt Colonial.”

Military housing residents could not buy remodeling materials from a hardware or home improvement store off base, because (1) the government would not reimburse you for your purchase, and (2) whatever item you bought there—like replacement tiles for the kitchen or bathroom—would very likely not be a design authorized by the government, and you would be ordered to remove it and reimburse the government for any damage incurred, as well as the cost for replacing it properly.

But who would want to pick out tiles like those used in military housing? All floors still had the original, albeit formerly white tiles flecked with streaks of gray for that cheap faux marble look—though after so many decades, it was hard to distinguish the flecks and streaks from the rest of the tile. This same cold, dull tile was laid all through the house—living room, kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom. We bought lots of area rugs.

Furthermore, what self-respecting off-base establishment of the twenty-first century would stock that hideous design? They probably discontinued selling it after World War II. Yet somewhere, some defense contractor continues manufacturing them exclusively for the military.

Ideally these floors were supposed to be waxed and buffed at least once a week. Ideally. Theoretically. And only if you got down on your hands and knees with a pile of old rags and buffed the floors manually.

It’s one thing having to do that with fifty other people during boot camp—which I did, and it was called a “G.I. Party”—but quite another when you have two active children and a lot of other, more important things to do with your life. Then it’s no party at all.

“For God’s sake, Karen,” you say, “this is the twenty-first century already. Haven’t you ever heard of ‘buffers’?”

Buffers? Oh, those things! Huge electric monsters that spin along the floor and, unless you weigh at least two hundred pounds and bench press twelve thousand, will spin you along with them till your spinal cord is severed. Yes, I’ve heard of them. But hearing of ain’t seeing, and it definitely ain’t having—at least not on a military installation.

Next entry: The Quest for a Floor Buffer

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