On September 22nd 2013, on a farm in rural Maryland, I covered a pristine silk-chiffon gown with slops of mud from the previous day’s rain, and sunk my way down the aisle towards a man in Dress Blues, fresh from his second deployment, waiting expectantly, with a smile, to call me his wife.
I spent the next morning painfully exfoliating a disastrous orange spray tan from my skin. Patched with angry red blood blisters, my body an eerie tapestry of newlywed glow and regret, I crammed myself into my car for the 11-hour drive back to our new home in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
One week later, we adopted a dog.
One month later, our appointment was set with Household Goods to pack up all our new bath towel sets and blenders (plus a suitcase filled with half-regurgitated dog toys) for our first PCS. To California. During the holidays.
Because if you’re going to become an Army wife, why not become one in every conceivable way, as quickly as possible, while wondering if Tricare covers the amount of Xanax you’re going to need to make it to 2014.
Two months later, it was the day before Thanksgiving. The only possessions left in our Fort Campbell apartment (where we lived for only six months) were the suitcase filled with half-regurgitated dog toys, and two bags of trash—one of which contained remnants from the anniversary tier of our wedding cake. We had remembered the cake in the freezer after the movers left and, deciding it would not last through the drive to California, we proceeded to eat it, still partially frozen, with our hands and faces, like we were trying to uphold our title as three-year champions of a county fair pie-eating contest.
This is clearly our first PCS, because we didn’t have the forethought to hang onto a fork.
The blessing in disguise about PCSing during the holidays is that the cross-country road trip allowed us to spend Thanksgivukkah with our families in transit. My husband is Baptist, and I am Jewish. Between deployments, staff duties, and long-distance days, we’ve spent very few holiday seasons together. So in our first year of marriage we’re still learning how to blend our holiday traditions. We’re doing so with mutual sympathy, but still with an inappropriate dose of childish competition about whose holiday traditions are the holiday-iest and therefore deserve the most reverence. (For instance, I taught him how to light the Hanukkah candles several years ago, but he still insists on chanting “hava nagila hava nagila hava nagila” instead of the blessing, because he’s angry that I got a Nintendo 64 for one of my eight days in middle school, and he didn’t get one for Christmas.)
So the day before Thanksgiving, we got into our cars again and started our journey to one last turkey day and spiteful “hava nagila” chanting with our parents, and then to our new life across the country.
Now, I say that we “got into our cars,” as in plural cars, because after enough Excel spreadsheets to scare a team of seasoned accountants, we came to the grudging conclusion that, financially, driving separately across the country would be less burdensome than shipping one of our cars. I had been semi-prepared for this, thanks to the obsessive amount of articles, blog posts, pamphlets, and 40-page PDFs I read about the difficulties of a PCS, and how to get through them. Things like the decision to ship or not ship a car, and tips for moving with a pet, were covered well in these materials. However, not a single one of those articles, blog posts, pamphlets, or PDFs accurately prepared me for the biggest difficulty I’ve encountered so far during our PCS: Christmas music.
(I know. Those resources really need to be updated.)
I had a great audio book plan for the road trip, which anchored around Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for 20 hours from my iPhone. And then when I got in my car to head to California while Frodo headed to Rivendell, I realized that the new iPhone my husband got me for Hanukkah two days previously was not compatible with the USB port in my Hyundai Elantra. Because why should anything about a PCS be that easy?
Luckily, one of my favorite fallback methods for road trip boredom is to flip sporadically through whatever local radio stations my car can pick up. You can learn a lot about wherever you are in the country by what they play most on the radio. Two hours west of Chicago, for instance, the station coming in the clearest sounded like a mix between mariachi and polka. Though I’m not totally sure what that says about Illinois.
One small problem with this fallback method: By the time we were headed to California, it was that magical post-Thanksgiving time of year when roughly 75% of radio stations across the country can unashamedly play nonstop Christmas music, because…‘tis the season, and you better damn well be jolly. Even if you’re Jewish.
So instead of concerning myself with hobbits, I spent the first leg of our PCS road trip memorizing every single word to “Winter Wonderland” and making it a personal goal to hear Wham’s “Last Christmas” seven times in three hours. Which I accomplished, but only because I gave myself triple points for the Hilary Duff version.
The drive to California was supposed to take four days. But if I know anything about walking in a winter wonderland (WHICH I DO NOW), I know that, “In the lane, snow is glistening.” Which in real life translates to, “In the two-lane interstate you’ll be driving on for 1200 miles, snow is glistening. And also trying to kill you.” We spent three days trying to make it to a pet-friendly Days Inn in Winnemucca, Nevada, and after all our effort I can’t even verify that Winnemucca, Nevada is a real place, because we never made it. Instead, we spent two days in -15 degree Cheyenne, Wyoming waiting for Utah to defrost, and then a completely unplanned day in Salt Lake City, because apparently my Hyundai Elantra hates ice and wind almost as much as it hates my new iPhone.
My husband tells me that Salt Lake City is beautiful; I wouldn’t know, because somewhere in Ohio my wiper fluid froze solid, and by the time I got to Utah my windshield was so covered in road salt and grime that I could have been in Miami and wouldn’t have known the difference.
While I sat in our Salt Lake City La Quinta room with the dog, trying to convince myself from another panic attack and the dog from pooping at the foot of the lobby’s elaborate Christmas tree, my husband found and filled my car with magical cold-weather wiper fluid. The next morning, Utah was glistening with melted snow and we were still only one day behind on our trip; we decided to drive the 12.5 hours left to our destination in one go.
One hour into this last driving leg of our trip, the wiper fluid hose in my car froze, rendering the magical wiper fluid useless. Or at least this is what my husband told me happened when he found me pulled over on the shoulder, unable to see out of my windshield again, and sobbing gently between verses of “Have a holly, jolly Christmas.”
My husband cleaned my windshield for me, because it was -2 degrees and he’s a good man, and gave me some auto wipes for the rest of the journey.
Luckily, the roads soon got dryer. Then the speed limit went up to 80. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” came on the radio, and I sang it at the top of my lungs.
I drove for nine-and-a-half hours without incident. Around Reno, the temperature hit a whopping 21 degrees, and my wiper fluid sprung miraculously to life again. Then, already past the California line and three hours away from our destination, part of a rear tire from a semi-truck flew violently from its wheel, and broke its fall to the road at 75 miles per hour with my front bumper.
It turns out that the only thing my Hyundai Elantra hates more than ice, wind, and my new iPhone, is California.
Eventually, we did make it to our destination. We wandered into the lobby of our California hotel (where we will be staying through Christmas and New Years) tired, hungry, and, in my case, committable. We were greeted warmly, presented with a magazine about the local wine, and, when we turned around, saw this:
Our first married holiday season with combined traditions may not be off to a perfect start. Our PCS is still far from over and, between the canceled and impromptu hotel reservations and my auto insurance deductible, it turns out that shipping my car across the country would have, financially and emotionally, been the better option. I know. Somebody should really update all those PCS resource guides. But we are alive. We are uninjured. And, in the California lane, there’s absolutely no snow glistening.
I’ll take it.
Aileen Brenner Houston is an Army wife who works as a freelance writer and editor, and runs the Etsy shop Red White ‘N’ Bows. She blogs about her husband’s tours in Afghanistan, her Army-life coping mechanisms, her love of cheese, and her journey from a gun-fearing childhood to military wifedom at Army Pants and Flip Flops. Like her blog on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, waste time with her on Pinterest, and be a voyeur on Instagram.