Rachel is an Air Force spouse and Texas native whose husband flies as an F-16 pilot in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
It was October 2015 and Hurricane Joaquin was headed right for us. I stared out the back patio at the darkening skies as my husband, an F-16 pilot, packed his bags.
To say I am the mistress in my own marriage is to admit that there are times my wishes and well-being have come second to that of the Fighting Falcon, and it bruises my pride to say it. I’d like to think I’m the #1 lady in his life, but there have been times that just wasn’t the case. Some people have the gall to say, “Well, that’s what you signed up for.” To hell with them.
All the same, he will always take the call. Apparently, I missed the part of my wedding vows that included “to honor, love and protect each other (*once the safety of the F-16 is ensured) from this day and for the rest of your life.”
We were stationed in South Carolina at Shaw AFB, in the path of a storm which the state would come to call a “1-in-1,000 year event.” News of the destruction from Hurricane Joaquin traveled north from the Bahamas as the Southeast prepared for the worst. Sandbags were laid out, generators were gassed up for the inevitable power loss, and grocery stores were cleared out of bread, water, and beer. Pro tip—beer keeps, bread goes bad.
Before the storm of the century, I had imagined a romantic evening of boarding up the house by candlelight together, but the Air Force had a different idea. Turns out fighter jets don’t float too good.
Two days before the hurricane was projected to hit, Shaw called in its pilots and maintainers to move the jets inland to a base a few states away. This was what’s known as a HUREVAC. That’s short for HURricane EVACuation. Get it? The Department of Acronyms was working overtime that day. Civilians of South Carolina planned and prayed as Hurricane Joaquin drew closer, while families of the F-16 said goodbye to their airmen. We watched them fly away to safety, staying behind to literally weather the storm alone.
I’m from Texas. If you told me a tornado was coming, I’d throw some blankets in the bathtub and get ready to hunker down with our cat, Bonanza. However, a hurricane was a different beast altogether. We did not have drills for that in Dallas ISD. The buzz around Columbia, SC grew to a clamor as people asked each other in a mild panic what they were going to do. Some folks left town. Me? I spent the day converting my beer cooler into a kitty life raft and beer cooler.
Hurricane Joaquin never traveled directly over the States, but it created a storm that wreaked havoc on South Carolina for days. Nineteen deaths were attributed to the flooding in the state. First responders found one of those bodies at a corner near our neighborhood.
The aftermath of the storm.
(Photo courtesy of Rachel Napolitano)
I watched the brown water creep up, over the retaining wall, consuming our backyard and getting closer to the house. I couldn’t help but wonder at what point it would be too late to pipe Bonanza aboard the S.S. Miller Lite, abandon the house to its fate, and head for higher ground. Didn’t matter. Turns out all the roads in the neighborhood were flooded anyway.
Meanwhile, the jets landed safely in… Louisiana? Immediately after landing the pilots checked in in accordance with Tech Orders: on Facetime, beer in hand. Is it the first or fifth? Only the Flight Doc can say, and he looks pretty buzzed.
Eventually, the raining stopped. Everyone came back safely, though in the midst of the storm many families suffered damage to their property. One couple lost their home and everything in it. Thankfully the water never came into our house, but irreparable damage had been done to the city and my ego.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love watches on as your husband leaves you behind in a hurricane to take off with that minxy fighter jet to Louisiana. Welcome to the life of the pilot spouse.