At a recent change of command, the ship’s captain was thanking his wife for all she had done for him during that tour.
“Without you, I would not have been able to spend time with my mistress. Oh, yes, I have a mistress,” he told the crew. “She is 19 years old. She loves the ocean. She is incredibly demanding. She is hundreds of feet long. She weighs…. tons.”
The audience laughed. A military audience almost always laughs at this particular joke. Once upon a time I think an Air Force audience chuckled when my dad referred to his fighter jet just this way. Heavens, this joke is so old I think Leif Erikson’s crew probably laughed over it at his change of command, too — while Mrs. Erikson rolled her eyes.
When that kind of joke lingers so long, it is usually because it contains an uneasy grain of truth.
Which has me wondering: Is the military really your mistress? Is the ship or the plane or the helicopter or the tank or the sub or the unit itself really your mistress?
Mistress implies betrayal, doesn’t it? By definition a mistress is the extramarital lover of a man. So do you love her more than me? Would you rather be with her than me?
When we were younger, my husband and I used to have that You Love The Navy More Than Me argument all the time. The military did seem to take up all his time. He spent all of his nights and weekends with her. He thought about her constantly. She called him late at night. She exhausted him and I got whatever was left over.
I saw the same thing in other servicemembers. The sub guys who thought nothing of disappearing into silence for a solid six months of deployment. The Marine sergeants who explained how they had to go when one of their Marines called—no matter what the family was doing. My own dad leaving on alert 30 minutes before Trick or Treat on the Halloween he had made the tails for our tiger costumes.
Even while these guys were protesting that they didn’t want to go, there was that certain forbidden, Patton-esque, God-help-me-I-do-love-it-so quality in their leaving.
And yet, I don’t feel betrayed exactly. I sometimes feel like I’m in competition with the military for my husband’s physical presence, but I don’t feel betrayed by him. So is the military really a mistress? Or is she something else? How would you describe the relationship between the military and the servicemember?