During morning rush hour, cars creep forward in a queasy gas-break rhythm toward Gate 1. The most recent ISIS threats have prompted heightened security, so the guard is taking his time.
After school drop offs, I join the security line in order to get back to our house on base. With nothing else to do but wait, I flop down the visor and grab a flosser from my purse. Every few seconds, I peek under the mirror and inch the minivan toward the back bumper of the blue Prius ahead of me.
In the space of two minutes, I manage to floss my teeth, pluck a few stray eyebrow hairs with the tweezers I keep in the center console, and dust the pollen off the dashboard with my sleeve.
With the gate finally in sight, I feel for my military ID card. I use the pad of my thumb to grip the edge of the laminated card, tugging it from its slot. Every once in a while, it's not there, and I feel that nervous burn in the pit of my stomach. Did I lose my military ID? But after a few panicked seconds, I find it in the wrong slot or rattling around in the bottom of my purse with gum wrappers and stray coins.
This time, my ID is just where it's supposed to be, and I slide it out between my thumb and forefinger in one fell swoop.
As the blue Prius ahead of me stops at the guard station, I see him.
Oh no ... not that guard, I mumble to myself with dread. Will he finally crack a smile?
I've known many gate guards in my 21 years as a Navy spouse. Our family has lived on base for our last three tours of duty in Germany, Florida, and now Rhode Island. We also lived on base in California, but that was during the 90s when the gate guard, if there was one at all, would simply wave vehicles through, casually eyeballing for military decals on windshields.
Nowadays, in the Post 9-11 era, military folks have "personal" relationships with their gate guards, who check our military ID cards multiple times each day. We begin to recognize the guards and their distinct personalities.
There's the chipper young military guards willing to exchange "thank-yous" and "have-a-nice-days" while fulfilling their duties. The Department of Defense police guards are a more eclectic mix. Some reflect local social mores -- southern hospitality, west coast mellowness, midwest sincerity, northern reserve. In Florida, I enjoyed banter with guards who had slow-cooked southern drawls, and here in New England, I perk up when I see the one who chats with an amusing Nor'eastern accent, complete with dropped "r"s that turn up on the end of other random words.
Of course, no matter which guard is at the gate, there is always that serious moment when they swipe my ID through their hand-held card reader, apparently revealing everything in my past, including that day I got grounded for digging worms up in the neighbor's back yard. No matter what I've done in my life, I always feel like I'm in trouble. But what a relief it is when the guard looks up from his little machine of secrets, hands me my ID, and says with a smile, "Have a nice day, ma'am." Whew!
But some guards are different.
After checking the Prius driver's ID, the stoic guard orders him to proceed with a flick of his finger, as if jettisoning a bug from his shirtsleeve. I sheepishly approach the guardhouse, handing over my ID. Should I kill him with kindness? Drip with sarcasm? Or hit him head-on with, "Hey mister, this ain't no Buckingham Palace - lighten up!"
But as usual, I utter no words other than a weak "thank you" after being summarily dismissed.
Driving away, I realize, as much as I'd feel more comfortable if he would let his guard down and smile, he might be more comfortable keeping his guard up.
And as long as the guards are keeping us safe, I guess I'm comfortable with that.
Lisa Smith Molinari writes the award-winning blog and weekly print column, “The Meat & Potatoes of Life.” Her essays on parenting, marriage and military life have been published in The Washington Post as well as multiple newspapers, magazines, websites and anthologies. Her weekly column is carried regularly in approximately 20 military base newspapers. Lisa is a 21 year Navy spouse with three kids. Her family is currently stationed in Newport, RI. Follow Lisa @MolinariWrites and on her website.