For military spouses, it is an ominous sign when your service member loved one suddenly says something like, “I need to teach you how to start the weed whacker.” Or, “The car will need an oil change in about six months.” This usually means he has a hunch he is leaving soon. It reminds me of when I was a kid and I saw my mom take frozen fish sticks and french fries out of the oven. That meant we were having a baby sitter.
It has been awhile since Dustin raised one of these subtle red flags. In fact, the last time I can recall was when he briefed me on hurricane preparation procedures (“move the patio furniture to the garage, fill the bathtub with water, and whatever you do, make sure my golf clubs are secure”) just before Hurricane Ivan hit us in Pensacola, Fla. This was expected; when a natural disaster looms on the horizon, Navy pilots flee to protect their taxpayer-funded aircraft. Dustin was having barbecue in Tennessee by the time Ivan chased me and the boys up a crowded northbound interstate.
It has been so long since then, however, I almost forgot how my stomach goes cold and my throat gets tight when Dustin drops one of these foreshadowing bombs. Until last week.
We were both outside doing our usual snow removal routine: Dustin rakes the roof and handles the snowblower while I shovel the walkway and back porch. I was content to be lost in my own mind, thinking of the week ahead, when suddenly the purr of the snowblower stopped, and I heard Dustin yell, “Wanna come over here so I can teach you how to start this thing?”
Um, no. That was my first thought. Then: Why do I need to know that when I have you here to start it for me?
An important note about our snowblower: It isn’t ours. It has been graciously lent to us by our elderly neighbor under the condition that we clear his driveway, too. The first time I saw Dustin use the snowblower, I laughed so hard I got warm and I had to shed winter layers. Tears of laughter froze on my cheeks. I sat down in a pile of snow and slapped my hand against my knee. Dustin was pushing against what seemed like an immovable mass of metal until his feet slipped out from under him. He kicked snowbanks and cursed at the wind.
Meanwhile, our neighbor Tony across the street was guiding his snowblower with one hand and waving to us with the other. Tall and muscular, Tony is an exaggerated inverted triangle. As he made effortless loops up and down his driveway, he looked like a man pushing a child’s play stroller.
Dustin was still grunting at our snowblower and sweating through his wool hat.
When Tony had finished his driveway, he came over to ours and gave Dustin a lesson in Snowblowing 101. I was already inside getting warm. With Dustin home, there was no reason for me to know how to use the snowblower.
All that has changed now.
Dustin guided my hand to the metal lever that rumbled and vibrated. “Just push this forward when you want to move,” Dustin yelled over the noise of the engine. “That will take the machine out of neutral.”
I pushed the lever as he had instructed, and suddenly the snowblower lurched forward. It was an experience like walking an overly excited dog. I didn’t guide the snowblower so much as it dragged me. I imagine this is what walking an elephant would be like.
However, I quickly learned that the chute that spits out a stream of snow, the one that is controlled by a crank, is kid repellent. Our boys were running for their lives, diving this way and that, trying to avoid the steady blast of snow coming out of the snowblower. I reasoned that the chute also might be husband repellent. Then I remembered that I want Dustin in a good mood so that he will clear snow — and not ever leave me.
In about 20 minutes, I had cut a walkway from our front yard to our neighbor’s driveway. I stood back to admire my work and consider the ramifications: Now that I had demonstrated proficiency with the snowblower, what would be my excuse?
Dustin came around the corner with the roof rake. He motioned for me to come over. I knew that he wanted to show me “just one more thing,” to give me “another lesson.”
This didn’t look good.
I ran inside the house, put my fingers in my ears and pretended not to know what was happening, what all of this meant. Which is to say, I chose to believe my husband is not in the military. Turns out, Dustin will leave in October.
Later that day, I peeked out my window and saw Tony pushing his snowblower with one hand. He waved at a passer-by. I was suddenly calm knowing he would always be there. Dustin is, too. It’s not unusual for Tony to dash into my house at times when he thinks the repairman’s truck has stayed outside too long or when he saw black smoke coming out of the chimney. And besides teaching a spouse how to survive on her own, a military man like Dustin always makes sure there is a neighbor keeping watch when he cannot.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at