Stumbling Toward Enlightenment

by Polly Davis

Blindly I bumbled off to college, any plans for the future eluding me. In the recesses of my mind, I would graduate, marry the ideal man, rear exceptional children, a boy and a girl of course, and be an extraordinary wife and mother. Naturally, this family would be an asset to the state of Georgia.

At the University during orientation, I was one of the one thousand freshmen girls who were herded into a whitewashed auditorium reeking of body heat and tension; not one building on campus was air conditioned in 1963. On the ninth floor of my nine-story dormitory, we already knew humidity and perspiration firsthand.

My eyes flickered over the monoculture crowd. A colony of nuns offered more diversity than this flock of young girls, all feathered in A-line skirts, Peter Pan collared blouses, and Weejuns. The dean of students, jacket tucked under his elbow, shirt glued to his back, took the steps up to the stage sideways, eyeing the plethora of pretty girls with eyes on him. The late summer heat had gotten to him, too, I supposed. He edged to the microphone and announced the plan in staccato: “If you want to be a nurse, go to rooms 151 and 152; if you want to teach, stay here; if you plan to do anything else, go to room 103.” The latter was a large closet of a room, I’d noticed, when I passed by it earlier and wondered about the sign taped to the door: All Other Majors. I remained seated, curiously observing those exiting, watching for girls I knew from Macon, my hometown. Only one left. There in the “education section,” we remained true to our mothers’ advice: “Get a teaching degree, just in case” [or] “to fall back on,” meaning if your husband died or left you and the kids.

My roommate from South Georgia fixed me up with Tom. I was sure we were a perfect match: both Baptists, both blond and blue eyed, both raw oyster crazy, and our people were from South Georgia. In my naiveté he met all the criteria. We ended up traipsing the world together, often at odds, gradually realizing the path we followed could easily spell disaster for a marriage.

Vietnam loomed, but students at the University of Georgia were too absorbed in sorority and frat houses, keg parties, and rush to be concerned with a war in that tiny little country. We lived in a vacuum, a microcosm of polite society, libraries, and naïve kids. Recruiters would surely not invade a southern college campus like the University of Georgia.

Graduation was approaching, and the family friend running the draft board in Vienna, Georgia, Tom’s hometown, called to alert him that his number was coming up. A call to his dad, whom he thought might pull some strings, was to no avail: “Son, I’d hate to see you go to war, but be a good patriot. In this case, I want you to be real careful and write home a lot.” The immediacy was buffered only by the privilege of beginning law school the summer following graduation. After that short stint, he joined the Army. As it turned out, Tom found that following in his grandfather’s and dad’s footsteps would not be his legacy.

When we married after basic training and Officer Candidate School, I stood clueless at the altar. The only soldiers I’d known were in the comics. The profession was one I didn’t hold in high regard, and marrying one seemed surreal.

Our first tour at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, focused on preparation for the war. Fighting the fear that filled our throats when TV newscasters flashed body bags and rising numbers, we were forced to pretend life was normal. Finding a place to live until we moved onto Post foreshadowed the rest of our life in the army. Tom had heard of some apartments that were really cheap. He always went for “cheap,” and his decision was made. Convincing me was easy: his income as a second lieutenant was meager. I had no job, no income, and applying for a job teaching was pointless: public school had already begun.

Regardless, Tom insisted we check at the school board office. There they sent me to meet the burly principal of a rural high school. Stubbing his cigar out in the can outside his office, he led me in and pumped my hand heartily as though we’d already signed a pact. Unconcerned that I’d majored in English, he revealed that he did have a teaching position available in the social sciences, adding, “You know, you can teach just about anything you want in a sociology class.” After a short discussion, he cocked his head, leaned into my eyes and finished with, “Let’s make a deal: I need a teacher, and you need a job.”

Cape Fear High School, brand new, spread like a college campus on several acres out in the far reaches of the county. The first of its kind in Cumberland County, it was a melting pot in almost even percentages of Caucasian, Black, and Native American students. I had never attended a school with mixed races, and this confluence of students, so ignorant of, yet so intrigued with the others’ cultures, filled the campus with a positive energy such as I’d never known. Between teaching a subject slightly foreign to me and working with students so hungry for knowledge, I received an education I’d never have expected. The setting proved perfect for an interactive sociology class, which even strayed into methods of birth control. My favorite co-teacher and I shared a planning period each day. When I humorlessly mentioned the strong odor emitted by a student who chose the desk on the front row, she told me, gently, “I’m pretty sure he’s never lived in a house with a bathtub or a shower.”

For the first month or so of this tour, Tom and I shared an automobile. We left for Fort Bragg in absolute darkness with a hint of the moon frowning down on us. I deposited him at a one-story wooden structure left over from WWII days, turned around, and continued the twenty miles east to work, watching daylight eke its way over the line of pines. In the afternoon, the trip was reversed.

Once Tom was jump qualified, parachuting became, for him, an immediate passion, ebbing gradually as his jumps multiplied. He joined the 82nd Sports Parachute Club, and we routinely spent weekends at the drop-zone. I was the “good wife” who grudgingly prepared the picnic lunch and sat around with other wives waiting for our men to jump, cheering them on, and waiting, waiting, waiting until the jumps were over. Then we would continue on to the Club for beers and war stories with the guys.

This grew old. Since I believed, in those days, that husbands and wives should do everything together, I decided to join him. After investigating, I found that, yes, spouses and civilians, anybody for that matter, could take sky diving lessons on Post. I joined the Club.

For four weeks, I drove onto Post in the evenings for jump classes, wondering to myself exactly what I was trying to prove. We met the instructor in the riggers’ shed; his dark ponytail held back by a rubber band was the only thing distinguishing him from the male students. A civilian master sports parachutist, over six feet, with a strong profile and straight teeth, he smiled often and treated us equally, although he was slightly taken aback to find a woman in his class. I breathed a sign of relief that he treated me no differently than the men. We learned to pack our own parachutes, the ones we would be jumping with, and to understand the elements and nuances of jumping out of a plane. We also learned how to make a safe parachute-landing fall, rolling in a sawdust pile for the better part of each evening. Back home I had to shake the sawdust out of my hair, my boots, and my clothes, down to my underwear.

The day arrived when I was qualified to make my first static line jump. The forty pounds of olive drab gear cinched tightly to my back hobbled my movement. It was difficult to breathe and the protective helmet impaired my vision. Did I still want to do this? The instructor continued to encourage me as we boarded the small Cessna 170 together. When the pilot cut the motor, I was frozen between nausea and fear of blacking out. The motor purred quietly, but wind whipped in the open door. I was instructed, “Reach out and grab the strut with both hands, stabilize yourself, then let go.”

So I reached out the door. Mind numb, fist in my chest, I was able to clutch the strut, but the thundering gusts outside the plane quickly blew me into a split second of chaos, a terrible spinning and sputtering, and then I heard it: a smooth popping sound, a snap, a rough jerk, and my chute floated open above me. I was alive, and all was calm. No sound, no sense of movement, aquamarine heavens, and billowing groves of green below me, I floated, savoring the absolute ecstasy of the moment.

Suddenly voices below were shouting, “Use your toggle lines.” Too late. I was slowly drifting into a grove of pine trees. Remembering the instructions to streamline my body if this happened, I slipped down between branches and was caught just a few feet off the ground. Rapidly jogging toward me, a young soldier was muttering loudly, “A woman just oughta stay home; she just oughta stay home where she belongs.”

The next jump fared better. Out the door spinning, but keeping my wits about me, I pulled the toggle lines to guide my open chute toward the waiting crowd. Dumb luck or determination propelled me to a landing fifteen feet from the center. Cheers all around. My decision was not difficult to make: “Yep, I’m quitting while I’m ahead.” Tom admitted, “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since you started this.” Years passed, and we knew many a paratrooper who lost his life. To this day, I believe it’s suicidal for people to jump out of planes for sport, especially those with families depending on them.

Shortly after I began teaching, the commander’s wife, or “Commandant” as I later heard other wives whisper behind her back, called to inform me of a baby shower for another wife, and I should bring cookies and a gift. When I explained that I was working, she harumphed and told me, “That’s highly unusual, and I hope you’ll find a way to be there regardless.” I hung up and complained to Tom: “A lady I don’t know just called to invite, rather order, me to a shower for someone I don’t know and told me what to bring for refreshments and a gift. She had some nerve.” Tom was baffled also. But when I told him who had called, he looked concerned. We both had a lot to learn. It didn’t take long to realize why wives banded together as a support system: it replaced the family and friends that we all had left behind. A southern commander’s wife, I thought, would have handled this more tactfully.

Vietnam loomed like a forest fire edging past the break. Tom went to war, and I went to graduate school. No longer the crazy coed, I saw Athens as the place for young men who piled degrees upon degrees to stay in college. I’d catch myself avoiding windows, the lookout for those gray cars that pulled up in front of homes, shadowy figures forcing their feet to move to doorways with that awful message. We were lucky.

Tom suggested that I take a scuba class while in Athens so we could dive together on our next tour. The week he returned from Vietnam I graduated with my masters and flunked the scuba class the same day. Humiliating. Defending a thesis and learning those abominable decompression tables simultaneously had been hopeless. Later, when we moved to Fort Devens, twenty minutes from Concord, Massachusetts, Tom and I tackled another scuba class together. We passed without a hitch and completed our checkout dive in Walden Pond. That, for an English major, was pure serendipity.

Still, we were in the military, and time was nagging us to make the decision to stay in or to get out. The trick was on me: my husband was living his dream. He was now employed in the daring, sporting club of the Special Forces: snow skiing, scuba diving, parachuting, and mountain climbing. For him, the decision demanded little thought. For me, shaking up the system became my forte. As Tom’s “dependant” wife, I challenged the term from the Bavarian Alps to the North Carolina sandhills in my quest for one wife’s independence.

Polly Davis is a Georgia native, with a bachelor’s and a master’s from the University of Georgia, and a doctorate from North Carolina State University. She retired from Fayetteville Technical Community College where she chaired the English Department and worked as the Director of Research and Planning. While her husband Tom was in the military they traveled widely with their children, Tee and Pollyanna. They now live on the Tuckasegee River in Sylva, North Carolina, and wonder why it took them so long to get there.

About Stumbling Toward Enlightenment—Tom and I are working on our memoirs, and this excerpt is written from my point of view. Our varying versions surprise us, as our memories appear to be shaded by totally different impressions of the events that shaped our lives together. We marvel that our marriage has lasted for forty-four years.