Mary, Star of the Sea: Camping on Key West

210We got back last night from our 4 day/3 night trip to Key West.  Three nights in a tent is a PR (personal record) for me, I’m sure.  I like the **idea** of camping, but the reality is less appealing.  Even Bill remarked that my fuse gets pretty short while camping, which is his polite way of saying that I have no fuse at all.  As I told one of my daughters, while on this trip, “It’s all about being at peace with dirt.  The amount of fun you have is directly related to how dirty you are willing to be.”  I then looked at my husband and told him, with a forced smile, that I was doing a pretty good job of being at peace with the dirt.  He just shook his head.  It’s all relative.  I did better than when we camped in Missouri in 2007.

The first adventure in camping with 7 children is getting all that stuff in the van.  Tents, sleeping pads, a cot for me, food, things for cooking food, clean clothes, towels, pillows, sunscreen, bug spray.  On Friday night, as we packed most of the stuff, we quickly realized that some things just weren’t going to make the cut: beach toys, the bottled water, folding chairs.  We have a platform that attaches to the hitch on the van which is large enough to hold our giant cooler and the smaller tents.  We saved that part of the loading for Saturday morning.

The next adventure is trying to get out the door in a timely fashion.  I am a pro at this, so we left right on time at 9 am, which is an hour after I hoped to leave, and two hours after I planned to leave.  I hate coming home to a dirty/untidy house, and even if I didn’t mind a sink of dirty dishes, getting 9 people up, dressed, fed and out the door quickly is a challenge.  I don’t know how families with children at a physical school do it.

The GPS told us it would take about 7 hours to make the journey.  Naturally, pit stops added some time, as did traffic and what was, apparently, a lover’s spat on a single lane/no passing section of Route 1 in the Keys which stopped us dead for about 15 minutes.  Yes, really, a couple who was too old for such shenanigans felt the whole world should come to a halt for them.  We got to our campsite around 6 pm.  The last 100 miles of the journey is on that Route 1: often single lane and where there are 2 lanes, it is usually through built up areas with lots of slow-moving traffic and stoplights.  It makes for a tiring 3+ hours.


Staying out of trouble.


Father – daughter bonding.

Working hard.

Working hard.


Our tent city, the first night. Beautiful.

I had planned for a gourmet meal of hotdogs that first night, and Billy was put in charge of charcoal tending while the rest of us set up tents and made camp.  Since we were combining camping with sightseeing, I had planned cereal or boil-in-a-bag omelets for breakfast, restaurants for lunch, and dutch oven meals for dinner.  Unfortunately, this campsite did not permit open fires.  They provided grills, but dutch oven cooking is difficult on a grill (for future reference, I think using aluminum foil to build up a charcoal bed under the dutch oven would help).  We made dessert that first night in the dutch oven (while we ate hot dogs), and it was tasty but undercooked.  The second night, I used our propane grill to cook the meal.  I had pre-cooked the food, so it really just needed to be heated up.  Our third night, we were out doing things and just got some pizzas to go.  We’ll have that meal tonight, heated on my stove top.  If you are looking for a good camping cookbook, I highly recommend The Scout’s Outdoor Cookbook, which covers all meals, snacks, and desserts, and utilizes different cooking methods.

Peter loves hot dogs.

Peter loves hot dogs.



Predictably, there was dirt, there were bugs, and it was hot and sticky.  Also, predictably for this time of year in Florida, there were thunderstorms.  As we pitched tents, Fritz looked over at the two other groups of tents and wondered about the tarps: extra thick plastic strapped on with bungee cords.  The next day, Bill walked over and noticed the tent stakes that looked like railroad spikes.  That first night, we learned why.

Heavy duty tarps on our neighbors' tents.

Heavy duty tarps on our neighbors’ tents.

But first, let me introduce the campground.  We stayed on a part of the Key West Naval Air Station called the NASKW Campground.  You have to be military, DoD, some DoT, or some NATO  to use the facility.  I do not think there are any other campgrounds on Key West, but there are plenty of campgrounds on the other islands.  If you go tent camping in the Florida Keys during the rainy season (May – November), I highly suggest you read about my experiences.  If you are military and want to go camping at the NASKW Campground, I recommend it.  Most of the campers are in RVs, and most are retirees, and everybody was very friendly.  There are a commissary and PX close by, but they are closed on Sundays and Mondays.  Not too far off base are two Publix grocery stores, and the gas station right off base sells propane.  There are two different camp sites, but we only saw the one where we camped.  Our spot was close to the bath house which was tiled and had hot water – probably the nicest camp bathroom I’ve used.  There was a laundry on the other side, and the first dryer was broken in the “on” position, which was most fortunate for us.  All the tent camping sites where we were are on the water.  This side of the island faces the Gulf of Mexico, and the sun set on the horizon to our left.


He lived in the rocks next to our campsite.


This one lived a few campsites down.


An anhinga. They swim underwater pretty fast.

That first night we sat and watched a storm approach on the horizon to our right – the north.  The wind started about 11 pm, and the first thing it did was take out our screened tent.  Bill gathered it and threw it into the van.  The next gust caught the vestibule of our big tent and pulled the stakes loose.  Unfortunately, Bill had faced our tent almost exactly to the north.  As the storm hit, the wind and rain went right through the opening and filled the whole thing like a sail.  I held onto the interior opening while Bill stood in the rain and held the vestibule down.  Once he pulled the rain fly down far enough, the wind went over the roof.  He stood outside for about 30 minutes getting pelted by a cold, stinging rain while lightning flashed around him.  Inside, Mary slept peacefully to the right of the doorway and George sat wide-eyed on the cot to the left.  In between, the floor was wet.  Our two other tents fared well with only minor leaking.  From beginning to end, I think it was an hour for the storm to pass.  We did manage to get some sleep, but we were damp.


This shrimp boat stayed in the same spot the whole time we were there.


Stormy skies.

The next day, Bill rotated the tent so that it faced west.  It’s a good thing.  Again that night we watched a storm approach from the north.  Again, it hit about 11 pm.  Again, the first thing that went went was the screened tent which we had already put on the ground weighted with one of the trunks of supplies.  The wind pulled it right out from under the trunk.  Bill had to wrestle it in the van as the wind tried to pull it from him.  In the meantime, the big tent was under attack, and the wind had whipped the vestibule out of its stakes.  I had put our mallet in the vestibule so we could find it easily, but the violence of the storm had thrown it under the tent and we did not find it until we packed up.  I had grabbed hold of the tent and was struggling to keep it down.  I even heard a snap and feared that a pole had broken.  Bill, having gotten the screen into the van, assured me it was only bent a bit.  Fritz came out of his tent to help.  The wind was hitting the side of the tent this time, but this storm was much stronger.  Bill held the front vestibule corner and Fritz manned the rear of the tent, both from the outside.  I was in the interior supporting the corner by the vestibule.

And then the rain hit.  I had my back to the tent wall and could feel the pole bending around me.  The tent and fly did not protect me from the sting of the drops and eventually did not protect me from the wetness of the rain either.  I did not get as wet as my men, but half of me did get soaked.  The storm was so loud that we had to shout to hear each other, even though we stood only a few feet away, and when the gusts came, we could not hear each other at all.  A few minutes in, I started praying Hail Marys and realized that Fritz was, too.  My 16 yo, when scared, prays Hail Marys out loud, over and over.  After a few minutes of that, I switched to the Memorare and the Hail, Holy Queen, and then finally I started repeating “Mary, Star of the Sea, pray for us” in a fairly desperate manner.

That morning, we had attended Mass at the Basilica of Saint Mary, Star of the Sea.  We had prayed, as I’m sure they do every day, for protection from hurricanes.  This was no hurricane, but it certainly was frightening.  Deep in my heart, I couldn’t believe that God would bring us all the way down to Key West only to have us hurt or killed in a bad storm, and as I stood over Mary and George blissfully unaware of the violence going on around them, I took comfort in the idea that the Blessed Mother was also standing over us with her protective eyes.

Bill, though, was thinking, “God warned me yesterday to get my family off this island!”

For 20 long minutes the rain and wind roared.  Bill and Fritz continued to hold on for a few more minutes in case of gusts, but the worst had passed.  The inside of the tent was dry.  Katie had had to hold her two-man tent down while kicking her sleeping sister in an attempt to get some assistance.  Billy and Peter had had to hold their tent poles up from the inside.  I think Peter got a little wet.  The next morning, one of the RV campers walked his dogs by us to see how we were just as he had checked on us the morning before.  I told him I thought the storm was worse than the night before.  He confirmed it and told me the wind was 40 knots (46 mph – gale force).

Everybody who had been awake through that storm was slightly traumatized.  Several kids suggested sleeping in the car Monday night or just packing it all up and going home.  We stayed.  Monday night, there was a thunderstorm off to the west, but the slightest of breezes came from the east pushing it away.  It was a hot night without that wind, and we were anxiously restless because we know that a storm can come up suddenly.  Bill said he woke several times every hour.  I slept lightly until 3 am, when a stronger breeze was billowing the tent walls.  I sat outside for several minutes watching the clouds, reassuring myself that the wind was still out of the east and that there was no immediate threat of a storm.  We did have a thunderstorm later on Tuesday morning – around 7 am – from the east.  There was lightening landing quite near to us, and one crack woke George.  But the wind was tame and the rain was light.

We survived!!!

All smiles: just after my morning shower and getting ready to leave.

All smiles: just after my morning shower and getting ready to leave.

We packed it all up and headed for home.  Would I go camping again in Key West?  Yes, but I’d prefer to try it during the dry season, and I’d prefer to get some heavy duty stakes and tarps.  I also think I would just focus on sightseeing and forget all the food.  I’d head to Publix or the commissary for pre-made meals (roasted chicken or deli sandwiches) and just be happy I wasn’t spending hundreds of dollars on hotel rooms. For a pure camping experience without the sightseeing, there are other places which would probably be more fun, less congested, and free from violent thunderstorms.

I’ll do another post about the sightseeing portion of our trip.


A lovely view to sit and watch.

At the beach

As we walked into the lobby to check-in to the hotel, Bill looked down at himself and realized he was wearing his gaudiest (and my favorite) Hawaiian shirt.

“I look like a tourist,” he said.

“We’re checking into a hotel,” I pointed out.

I had no idea when I reserved the **last two** poolside rooms for two nights what a great idea that was.  The pool is all the way in the back, and the Gulf of Mexico is just past it.  Except for yesterday when we drove around the islands of Sanibel and Captiva because it was raining (and thundering and lightening), we have spent all of our time either at the pool or the beach, often between the two, and certainly making many potty trips at inconvenient intervals, because little children never all have to go at the same time.

Twenty-five steps from my room, the sidewalk ends and sand begins.  I am an early riser, and it has still been dark when I’ve ventured onto the beach before the dawn.  Yesterday, I watched enormously tall thunderheads send long streaks of lightening into the water, not too far from where I stood.  Today, there are some clouds, but there was just enough of a break to see the sunrise.  Both days, the breeze has been perfect: just slightly cooling and gentle, but with enough force to make you notice.

Because this place costs an arm and a leg each night, our budget tells us it’s time to go home.  And the IHM Conference in Tampa, which I don’t want to miss, is tomorrow and Friday.  Alas.  I’m pretty sure I could live at the beach.


Shelling. That’s my fashionista who saw a video online about scarf wearing.


Heated pool feels good, even in Florida in July.


Hammock under coconut trees. Does it get any more “Florida-vacation stereotypical” that that?


Bill getting sunburned.


Today’s daybreak.

A Promotion


My husband

This is the story about a man who worked hard, made many sacrifices, and achieved a goal.

Some – many – would say it is also the story of a wife and their children who supported him.  But that story – my story and my children’s stories – is not about the man.  My story is about me, and one of the many things about me is that I am married to a man who worked hard, made many sacrifices, and achieved a goal.

This story is about him.


Getting pinned

On July 3rd, I attached a new shoulder board to the left side of Bill’s uniform while a two-star general pinned the one on the right.  This was a repeat of the ceremony performed over a month ago and posted on FB, and many people saw it there.  That one, done in Jordan, had a Jordanian general helping put on his rank.  While that was unique and interesting, it wasn’t the ceremony that Bill wanted.  He wanted, and deserved, to have his family by his side.


Promoted in Jordan

Plus, I’m better looking than most Jordanian generals.  Makes for better pictures.

Bill and I have been together since before he was in ROTC, and I attended his commissioning.  Every single promotion except for the one from Major to Lieutenant Colonel has been done in the field, away from home.  It really doesn’t take much to get promoted to Captain, and in 2003, it was pretty easy to make Major.  Bill calls his promotion from 2LT to 1LT his “Sharpie Promotion.”  A Second Lieutenant’s rank is known as a “butter bar” because it is a gold rectangle.  A First Lieutenant’s rank is the same rectangle but it is silver on dress uniforms and black on the field uniform.  Bill used a permanent marker to change his rank when he received that promotion.  I think he was given his Captain rank while at annual training.  He was deployed to Kosovo when the paperwork came through for Major.

Way back in 1998, Bill was just a traditional Guardsman.  That meant one weekend every month and two weeks every summer (usually), he would put on his camouflage soft cap and play the soldier.  But that “one weekend a month” slogan is really just an advertising ploy.  Even as a platoon leader, there were meetings and on-his-own-time training that he really needed to do.  And then in 1998, he became a troop commander, and that job required daily attention.  By the time he left command in 2001, our country’s cozy notion that bad guys live far away and leave us mostly alone had crashed into the ground along with 3000 innocent civilians.  We didn’t yet know when, but we did know for sure, that serving in the National Guard would become more demanding.

Additionally, by 2002, Bill’s civilian job had plateaued.  He really needed an MBA to go forward, but that required time he just didn’t have.  Looking back at how much time we thought we didn’t have, we have to laugh.  The kids were little: no sports, no Scouts, asleep by 7:30 pm.  But at the time, we didn’t think we could handle him having one more thing to do.  It was time to decide which career to pursue.  Bill started applying for full-time jobs with the Pennsylvania National Guard.  Other people – good officers – got them instead.  It just wasn’t meant to be.  By January of 2003, his unit knew that they would all be activated to full-time: first to train for 4 months at Fort Stewart and Fort Polk, and then to deploy to Kosovo for 8 months, replacing the active duty units who were there.

This was a difficult deployment for both of us.  In my story it’s all about having a baby without him there to support me and help with the other children.  In his story, it’s about having to say goodbye to little boys whose highlight of every day is the evening when Daddy plays lion with them.  It’s about the guilt of making your wife a single mother for a year and making her do so many things without help- buy a new, used mini-van; mow the lawn and clean the gutters while pregnant; deal with neighbors and friends and family who just didn’t understand how hard this was on us.  It’s about sitting outside your room in the dead of the night listening on the phone to your wife’s labor pains, and the terror that clasps your heart as all goes silent and you wait for one long minute to hear that all is well with both your wife and new baby.  It’s about returning home to a hero’s welcome, even though it wasn’t a “real” (combat) deployment, and afterward facing the cold reality that life went on without you and everyone, even your wife and kids, even you, are different people now and you can’t ever go back to how it was.

Although Bill returned to his civilian job, he continued to seek full-time employment with the National Guard.  In Kosovo, he had met someone who worked for the National Guard at the federal level, not with a state, and that man helped Bill get his first job down in Arlington.  This one was a temporary, prove-yourself, kind of job, so we stayed up in New Jersey and he lived in a hotel for six months.  The job was brutal, especially with the hours.  He would not finish before 7 or 8 pm on Friday nights, when he would then get in the car and drive 4 hours to come home.  He would head back Sunday after dinner and start another week before 6 am on Monday.  He proved himself and secured a permanent job.  We moved to Virginia in 2005.

It was around this time that Bill had to plan out his career.  I’m not sure who made him do it or who reviewed it, but “they” (whoever that is) wanted to know where he saw himself in 10 years and how he intended to get there.  Bill mapped it out: what types of jobs, which schools.  He knew what he had to do to reach his goal of Colonel.  And he’s done it.  Every single time the Guard has asked him to do a job, defer a school, change plans, PCS early, stay longer, or whatever, Bill has done it.  Except for the year of school at Fort Leavenworth (which was deferred a year), he has never had an easy job, never had a job with family-friendly hours.  He has spent so much time in foreign countries that he’s almost an expatriate, home being where his family lives, not necessarily where he sleeps.  Somehow he managed to earn a master’s degree, squeezing in classes here and there, mostly on-line, at night and on weekends.  And now he’s halfway through the two year distance learning version of War College which so far has managed to schedule every single major assignment to coincide with any break he has had between trips abroad.

But even with these demands, he has not been willing to give up on spending time with his family – especially with the boys.  He is an Assistant Scout Master with the older boys’ troop, and helps as much as possible with Peter’s den.  He goes camping whenever those trips fall on a weekend he is home.  He is the coach for Fritz’s and Billy’s fencing club, which (thankfully) only meets 20 times during the school year.  And he suffers through interruption after interruption of his school work as everybody, even I, want to tell him all sorts of things when he is home or demand him to play a game or repair a broken whatever.  He does not get much sleep, nor does he spend much time watching football, hockey, or even World Cup soccer.  There are many things that he would like to do, but many personal recreations are on hold, indefinitely.

Down the line, the kids hand Dad his beret.

Down the line, the kids hand Dad his beret.

Years ago, Bill overheard a comment that he only got his promotion to LTC because he had done a particular job.  Of course, it was true.  But that job was a hard one, as was the previous one, and the one before that.  Similarly, he has only gotten this promotion to Colonel because he has done certain jobs, hard jobs, the kind necessary for promotion.  That’s generally how it works.  It is unlikely that I could convey how proud I am of my husband.  I give him a hard time, pressing him for more attention for me and our family, playing the helpless wife when the home needs maintenance, dumping the parenting of teen boys in his lap, forgetting that he has school work to do, complaining about how hard MY life is.  But that alarm clock doesn’t go off at 4:30 am to get me out of bed.  I’m not the one politely tasting lamb brain at a restaurant in a foreign country or having strange men hold my hand and kiss me (and they wouldn’t anyway, because I’m a woman).  I’m not the one camping in hot tents and going without a shower for 2 days.  I’m not the one getting jabbed with a steel rod by inexperienced fencers with no idea how to manage a blade.  I’m not the one foregoing the comforts of home for weeks at a time.

My husband will be the first to admit that his successes have much to do with luck and Divine Providence.  But it would be ridiculous to claim that his own hard work and dedication weren’t also a significant factor.  I was upset that the orders came through while he was overseas, and I used the phrase “fake promotion” more than once in planning our celebration on the 3rd, but in the end, I am happy that I was able to see his accomplishments publicly recognized.  It is a big deal.

Congratulations, dear husband.


Yummy cake.

New Month’s Resolution for July

First off, I realize the 6th of the month is hardly the beginning of the month.

Secondly, I realize that last month’s resolution to write every day…and I have 6 posts for the month as a result…is hardly a sign of success.

Whatever.  I’m not one to beat myself up over past failures.  The whole point of the series is to try to improve myself.  Failure is only defined by giving up.

This month’s resolution is to slow down.  Single-task.  Put more white space in the margins of my life.

Bill has about 18 use it or lose it vacation days.  He’s trying to get them in before his traveling to Jordan resumes in August.  We’ll be doing some Reitemeyer Family Team Building by checking out some kitschy local amusements like the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs and by going camping in Key West (if tent camping in July in Florida doesn’t build a team spirit through common suffering, nothing will!).  We have very few “must-do’s” this month, and I have no intention of setting the alarm, rushing around, or declining the opportunity to take a nap.

I could not really begin this resolution before today.  Last week, we enjoyed family who came into town for Bill’s promotion and party.  Exciting times.  I intend to do a post about that, but I am waiting for the photos from the official photographer.  Naturally, though, hosting even understanding family is a lot of work, and the pace of those days is not how I want to spend the rest of my summer.  When Bill goes back to work, we will start easing into a new school year.