A Natural Clash of Cultures

On Memorial Day, I decided to muse on the disconnect between civilian life and military.

My wife, a small town girl from Marshfield, Massachusetts who knew no one in the military, who married me — a Southern boy, steeped in the culture of military service to the country who was bred from birth to go into the military.

I was at Annapolis, who had spent six years in military school and served two years in the military as an enlisted man. At 19, I had seen combat in Korea, served on a WWII Destroyer Escort, and taken a LST as Helmsman to Europe. I had seen the world, and earned a chest full of ribbons — but as a Plebe In Annapolis, less than a snake.

As a Plebe, I was not permitted to even talk to a girl, and doing so was a SERIOUS offense, punishable by 25 Demerits, and five hours of early-morning marching, or five trips of the Obstacle Course.

Nevertheless, we dated all of Plebe Year, cloistered in the living room of a local house, but unable to go to a movie or a meal — and at Christmas, and Spring Break, invited to her home in Massachusetts.

No one in the small town joined the military — unlike many, many men like myself from the South — and so there was a culture shock in the home both of geography and civilian/military, not to mention generational.

Her parents were magnanimous, hospitable, generous people. They knew nothing of the military — and I knew little else. Our common language was about their shy, beautiful daughter, a Junior in an all-girl’s college who had seldom dated even among the local boys, because she had been taken out of the failing local school to go to a prep school for girls.

That was necessary, because no girls from her high school class went to college, except her.

Annapolis was as foreign a landscape to both my date, and to her parents — as was a young, aggressive, disciplined young man courting her.

When we married upon my graduation, the thought of their only daughter wedded to an Ensign, leaving the East Coast for San Diego and shipboard duty — during which I would be absent many nights from home while in port, and six months at a time while deployed into the Pacific was beyond their comprehension.

This was not the life of local “sailors” who find the local waters for lobster and returned each night to family — the only “sailors” they knew.

During the next 20 years they accepted me, but never understood the culture in which I swam. They never understood how their daughter survived raising three children, while her husband no only deployed into the deep as a submariner — with whom in those days before Internet, there was zero communication for MONTHS.

This was a life when her husband left for “the Boat” in the morning, and she expected him home while he was not deployed, only to have the Squadron Commander call and say, “Mrs. Hemphill, your husbands submarine has been sent on a highly sensitive mission. I can’t tell you where his Boat is, or when it will return. Tell NO ONE! I will call you again on the day of his arrival.”

Even in port, I was required to remain on-board the submarine once every three nights — a qualified Officer and a third of the crew were on board and capable of taking the Boat to sea in case of an attack.

How a small town girl, and her family survived this foreign culture is amazing. Let me just say that Jean and have been married 56 years and an unkind word has not passed between us. I suspect that came from a trip she made to her home town with a young child when I first deployed.

She must have complained, when her laconic Father put down his newspaper and said:

“You knew what he was when you married him.”

No, she didn’t!

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