It was April Fool’s Day five years ago. I was in the bathroom brushing my hair when Dustin came home from work, dressed in his green flight suit, and told me to sit down. In fact, he brought a kitchen chair into the bathroom for me to use.
“Trust me, you’ll need to sit for this one,” he said.
We were living in Pensacola, Fla. Six weeks earlier, Dustin had called me in the middle of the day and said, “The detailer gave me 13 options for my next assignment (spoiler: Bangor, Maine, was not one of the options ... yet) He wants us to pick our top six.”
Detailers are the people responsible for choosing a service member’s new ZIP code. Yes, I said “choosing.” And, yes, even though the detailer gave Dustin “options.” The word “options” is smoke and mirrors for what really happens: The detailer puts on a blindfold and throws darts at a map.
Also, the detailer probably didn’t include me in the conversation. As in, he didn’t say, “Go home and talk about this with your wife and pick your top six.” (Remember, if the military wanted them to have wives, they’d issue one.) “Us” and “our” were Dustin’s special touches to soften the blow.
In any case, I took the task of choosing our top six seriously. Dustin gave me a folded paper map of the United States, and I promptly marked an enormous X over three-fourths of the country.
“I want to go to Virginia,” I said.
Dustin frowned. “It’s not one of the options,” he said.
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Washington state — those were some of the options.
For the next several weeks, Dustin and I worked on a rough draft of our “top six.” This was like choosing a baby name. We each had a finite amount of vetoes as we scratched off and rearranged cities on the list. All the while, of course, I knew the detailer’s dart and map would ultimately pick our next place to live.
In late March, I was washing our van in the driveway. It was so hot the soap suds sizzled on the concrete. Sweat poured down my cheeks and the back of my neck.
Dustin pulled into the driveway and got out of his car like nothing was wrong. When he passed by me, he said casually, “Oh, the detailer added Bangor, Maine, as a 14th option.”
I laughed. “Ha! So that’s not going in our top six.”
Dustin stopped midstep. “Actually, I added it as number seven.”
“On a list of six?” I turned around and started cleaning the car again. “Well, we can remove that before you turn in the final draft.”
Dustin bit his lip. “I kind of turned in the list today.”
What followed was several hours of me crying and Dustin following me through the house pleading, “They’ll never send me to Bangor, Sarah. I put it seventh on a list of six!” He slept on the couch that night, and over and over again, through our closed bedroom door, he said, “Think about it; it’s not even in our top six. It’s number seven. There’s no way.”
Eventually, I started to believe him. Sending us to our — excuse me, his — seventh option would be ridiculous. Why tell a family to choose their top six and then send them to the surprise seventh?
Then, on April Fool’s Day, Dustin came into the bathroom with a kitchen chair and told me to sit down. “We’re moving to Bangor, Maine,” he said. He had no explanation for how it could have happened, except that he was likely the only person who even listed Bangor, Maine, and the detailer had to send someone.
So what can we learn from this?
1. Detailers don’t care.
2. Husbands cannot be trusted with a “rough draft.”
3. Detailers don’t care.
4. “Options” means different things to different people.
5. Detailers don’t care.
6. The military still hasn’t issued wives for a reason.
7. Detailers don’t care.
8. April Fool’s Day is an awful time to tell your wife “bad” news.
9. Detailers don’t care.
10. Never underestimate the military’s ability to surprise and confuse.
But, as it turned out, this April Fool’s joke was on the detailer and military. Maine has been our best duty station yet.
We fell in love with the state almost as quickly as the Department of Defense pulled every active-duty station out of the area.
And therefore, I consider our move to Maine as one of the greatest gifts Uncle Sam ever gave me.
So, put that in your dart and throw it, detailer!
Sarah Smiley is a Navy spouse and the author of “Shore Leave,” a nationally syndicated column.