The lame duck in the chicken coop
I n my 23 years as a military spouse, we lived in base housing four times, for a total of 11 years. Although living among sterile government buildings enclosed by fences sometimes made me feel like an inmate in an asylum, the social culture in military housing more closely parallels the behavior of chickens in a coop.
Of course, no one ever threw feed corn at me. I never laid an egg, or molted my feathers. However, people who live on post are constrained by a social “pecking order” that can make military spouses feel like they live in a cage full of clucking hens, strutting roosters and peeping chicks.
Every time we moved into a base house or stairwell apartment, I became cognizant of the unspoken hierarchy in the neighborhood. As a new arrival, I took time to establish a new home with my family (“feather the nest”). But after my husband, Francis (“the rooster”), went to work (“flew the coop”) and the kids (“the chicks”) went off to school, loneliness inevitably set in.
I found myself wandering the base in search of a flock to huddle with. Sure, there were always hens everywhere — and a few stay-at-home roosters, I wouldn’t want to ruffle any feathers — but I soon realized that I was at the bottom of the pecking order. I knew I would have to walk on eggshells before I could roost with the established military spouses on base.
Careful not to count my chickens before they hatched, I got my ducks in a row and laid the foundation for my social acceptance into the flock. I watched the other spouses like a hawk, waiting for right opportunity to introduce myself. Sometimes the hens took me right under their wings, but quite often, my desperation made me seem crazy as a loon, and establishing friendships took time.
It wasn’t overly easy, but I never chickened out. Usually, by the end of my first year, I became an integral part of the gaggle, clucking away as we walked our chicks to school, hatching plans for shopping trips, and cackling about our wattles and chicken fat.
By the end of my second year, I was securely perched at a comfortable elevation in the social pecking order, as proud as a peacock. As new chickens entered the coop, it was clear to them that my friends and I ruled the roost.
Frankly, we got downright cocky.
But then, toward the end of every tour, my family would receive new orders telling us to take wing to our next duty station. Thoughts of moving would leave me a little wistful and reflective. I found myself pondering weighty ideas such as, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Who came first, the chicken or the egg?”
This melancholy state would compel me to seek the comfort and companionship of the other hens in my coop, but alas! I discovered that, as an outbound hen, I’d slipped to the bottom of the pecking order again! Did I do something fowl? Do I have egg on my face? Had I become an albatross around someone’s neck?
My pea-sized brain realized, “You silly goose, you’re the lame duck in this chicken coop.” I was no longer a contender in the social order because I was leaving. My friends began to look for my replacement in our bunco group and book club, and I heard them clucking about plans for a girls’ trip after our move. Clearly, the other hens didn’t want to invest valuable time further incubating our friendship.
As the lame duck, I had to understand that it wasn’t personal. There was nothing to crow about; the sky wasn’t falling. It was a bitter pill to swallow (although it tasted strangely like chicken), but I had to accept that it was just the way things worked.
I had to stop myself, cold turkey, from brooding over my social status. Instead, I offered each of my fine friends a peck on the cheek, bid them a final cock-a-doodle-doo, and flew away. As graceful as a swan, as wise as an owl, as happy as a lark, and as free as a bird.
Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: themeatandpotatoesoflife.com