Every year when the Navy ball (or as I call it, to my wife's amusement, "SWO prom") rolls around, I think most military husbands fall into one of two categories: either we look forward to putting on our best formal wear and ditching the kids for a night spent with other adults ... or we mourn the loss of more private time to the military, mutter openly about "mandatory fun," and ask ourselves how $2 worth of under-seasoned chicken breast with dry potatoes and overcooked green beans could possibly cost $30 a plate.
Some years I've been guy #1, some years I've been guy #2. The key is, as always, to be flexible and enjoy whatever military life throws at us. Since there have been a few times that my wife was unsuccessful at pulling duty so we could miss the whole affair, I do have some advice for military husbands on ball night.
Find out who writes the seating chart and what they drink. Then send them a case of it. Having the right table mates can make or break an evening. If they can ensure prime position away from the front of the room and close to the bar, so much the better.
You MUST dress appropriately for the occasion. Your interview/funeral/Easter brunch suit CAN and WILL look sloppy and under dressed if your wife is in dinner dress, mess dress, or whatever "tuxedo equivalent" uniform she has to wear.
I hate to break it to you -- this means a tuxedo. But don't go calling the place that outfitted your groomsmen. The fact is, if you're in a room full of men wearing the iconic dress uniforms of military service, you cannot be at your best wearing rented pants. I advise every man whose wife is going to be in the military for a while to BUY a tuxedo. The cost is less than you think, plus the bill for rentals adds up over the years. In the long run you're actually saving money.
Most of all -- trust me on this one, as a tuxedo owner who has been forced to wear rented tuxedos to many friends and family weddings -- a tailored tux is going to look and fit worlds better than a clip-on tie and ill-fitting adjustable-waist trousers. You want to feel James Bond levels of confidence, not look and feel like you should be holding a tray of appetizers.
Have a taxi service number handy, or better yet just get the hotel room. This is solid advice for any night out. Don't take chances.
Don't show up hungry. Our spouses are taught that "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." The corollary for social events is "no formal event schedule survives cocktail hour." Your wife swears that this time cocktail hour is really 1730 to 1830, so arriving at 1815 won't mean slinking to your seats during colors under the withering gaze of the commodore's wife ...
But just in case, you push things along and there you are jumping out of your taxi at 1740, hungry but with visions of some routine chats about work, weather and the kids while sipping a beer and nibbling on miniature quiche.
Instead, you immediately encounter a pack of ensigns who have been "pre-gaming" since lunch and therefore think someone who would marry your wife is the most interesting person they've ever met. Thirty seconds later you're holding a gin and tonic in each hand, explaining how you met your wife and searching in vain for the appetizers. That's when you realize that half a Marine Expeditionary Unit has dug in outside the kitchen doors and are descending like locusts on every tray that comes through the doors.
An hour later, you're going to be standing at your table, more than a little wobbly, still starving, and wishing you'd stopped at a drive-through.
NOTE: The aforementioned stories are of course hypothetical. Mostly.
Resist the urge to cry when you realize that your wife's uniform is the most expensive dress at the ball, and also the ugliest. We have the choice to look good; our wives aren't always as lucky. Most of my experience with female uniforms is with the Navy, which has so many uniform variants and rolls out new ones so often, you'd think the Pentagon is staffed entirely by frustrated fashion designers.
Having never seen the mess dress or formal uniforms of the Marine Corps, Army or Air Force in person, but wanting to be well-informed for this post, I did literally minutes of research online.
Afterwards, I don't know whether to be relieved or dismayed that the other military services also have so little regard for the bodies of women in uniform. After spending so much money and time, you'd think they might notice that 15 percent of their workforce has breasts and make some attempt to design uniforms that fit.
Don't pass up the chance to go, just because your wife is deployed. One year when my wife's ship was deployed, I attended the ball with the wives of some other officers from her ship. Of course, it wasn't as much fun as it might have been with my wife, but it was still a fun evening -- why pass up the chance to break up the endless months of deployment? It can be so easy to put life on hold and turn into a hermit, but resist the urge.
If nothing else, you can tell your friends about the time you had five dates for prom -- no need to tell them it was just SWO prom...