22 July, 2006

A Day at the USO

Yesterday I was supposed to spend about four hours at the USO. I spent almost eight--and the only reason I left was because the parking validation only lasts eight hours!

When I walked in the door to the USO at the airport yesterday morning, a sailor in civilian clothes was off to one side with iron in hand, his uniform laid out on the ironing board in front of him while a volunteer held his wrinkled scarf taut for easier ironing. A young bride headed to her husband's new post was trying to blend into the furniture with her laptop. Somebody was shooting an electronic target in the arcade room, and Marines of all ages were laid out on the couches... most of them snoring.

It was my first day as a volunteer, and I had a fantastic time. My fellow volunteers were half the fun: from the South Seas Islander who played her ukelele and sang for the new bride and her Sailor, to the the Vietnam vet and former officer who teased the young Marines and Sailors who walked through the door until I laughed so hard my sides hurt! And the stories she could tell--from close calls in Vietnam to the "fun" of escorting visiting military men from countries where women weren't military officers... if you catch my drift.

And then there were the people we helped. There was everyone from the blushing Marine who talked about whether or not he should marry his girlfriend before he went to Iraq in a few months (when she would be heading to boot camp herself), to the first-time mother with the brand-new baby there to meet her husband on leave, to the group of USNA Midshipmen trying to be nonchalant about having just returned from their first cruise, and the middle-aged Naval officers who walked in as if they owned the place.

The former officer and I had a grand time teasing the young ones as they arrived. A member of the Coast Guard would walk in and she'd say, "I'm sorry, we don't serve Coast Guard here" as he laughed right along with us. Or she'd look at the smiling picture on a Marine's ID and say, "I'm sorry, but this is a fake." When the Marine protested, she said, "Oh it's definitely a fake. Marines don't smile in their pictures."

"No, Ma'am. But that was taken two days before I left Iraq. I couldn't stop smiling."

And then there was the young Marine who had a baggie containing bills and change, paper clips, keys, momentos, and a little piece of paper, among other small items. As he searched for the correct amount of dimes and nickels in the baggie to exchange for quarters for the arcade games, I told him what he needed was a wallet:

Young Marine [very seriously]: Oh no, Ma'am. I already have a wallet. This is junk I normally carry in my pockets.

FbL: Ahh... [pause] You know, this is why women carry purses.

YM: Yes, Ma'am.

[Long pause while YM continues to search...]

FbL: I know what you need... A man purse!

YM [earnestly]: Oh no, Ma'am.

FbL [gently]: You do know what a man purse is, don't you?

YM [uncomfortably]: Yes, Ma'am. But... no, Ma'am!

FbL [leaning over the counter and smiling warmly]: But don't you know, it's all the rage--all the men in New York are using them these days. Very stylish and convenient! It's exactly what you need!

At that point the poor thing stopped searching through his coins and looked up, obviously deeply perturbed: "But, Ma'am!! No self-respecting military man would be caught dead with a man purse!!!" He almost spat the last two words.

I couldn't keep a straight face any longer. I cracked up with laughter. He cocked his head and looked at me suspiciously for a moment, then held up a finger and waved it as if to say, "ah ha!" as he looked at me out of the corner of his eyes and laughed and flushed a bit.

I can see that former officer and I are going to be a deadly combination for those poor kids... too much fun!

But there were serious moments, too. We had one person come though who had just been discharged, had almost no money, and whose flight was mis-scheduled. He looked near tears the entire time he was in the USO station, but he kept it together somehow. Fortunately, we were able to find him a place to stay for the night.

Most interactions were happier, though. In general, it was great to be able to help people in small ways that made things easier for them. From replacing a missing pin or stays for a uniform to swiping a three-hole-punch from the director's office so an officer could work while he waited or holding the infant of an exhausted mother so that she could rest, it was very satisfying work. Instead of being all about rules and regulations, the guiding principle was, "How can we help every active-duty person (or dependent) who walks through that door?" I love being solution-oriented!

If you are looking for a way to put your "Support the Troops" talk into action, I highly recommend your local USO.