While not quite achieving Melrose Place-like high drama, living in a barracks and keeping attuned to your friends love-lives is about on par with one of the duller soap operas. Of course, where the walls are tissue-paper thin, and there are only two communal telephones, one is made rather more aware than otherwise of who is doing what, with what, when and with whom. Privacy was more of a polite and mutually maintained fiction: one looked away and paid no mind to the noisy jouncing of bedsprings, the hasty departure in the wee hours, or the lover’s spat conducted in screams over the hall telephone, three or four feet from ones’ own doorway. Even when the women’s dorm at Misawa AB in the mid 1970s was officially just that, it wasn’t, strictly speaking. A fire alarm in the middle of the night would have produced scenes worthy of a Restoration farce, with bedclothes and embarrassment all the way around.
There were advantages to being a technically woman-only residence: scampering back and forth to the showers in just a towel, and being able to go to someone else’s’ room clad in underwear and stockings on the night of the Air Force Ball to see if you could borrow a different dress had a certain casual appeal. And because every division and unit on the base had a woman assigned to it, and all the enlisted and junior NCO women lived in the same building, instant base-wide transmission of all amusing gossip reached a level of efficiency not seen until the internet.
Of course, since there were guys around the place of an evening--- other girls boyfriends collecting them for a date, or leaving a message on the little dry-erase board hung on her room door, or just hanging out in the dayroom together, the shower-scampering was best performed in a large towel, or at least a dressing gown. And there would be guys around--- the presence of an all-female barracks building drew them like flies, a slightly amusing annoyance but every once in while something to call the Security Police about. We knew damn well what they were looking for, and also that they wouldn’t find it there, unless Hannah the Barracks Ho’ --- who had a taste for strenuous recreational sex ---was bored or otherwise unoccupied. Everyone else was either saving it for an eventual marriage with an unspecified guy at some future date, faithful to a specific but geographically distant significant other, or practicing serial monogamy with carefully selected boyfriends. Only Hannah played the field, enthusiastically.
She was an aggressively plain Georgia cracker, with a grating voice and hick accent, whose rebellion against an abusive and racist father took the form of selecting exclusively black guys as bed partners. One sweltering summer evening, when half a dozen of us were sitting on the floor in the upper corridor, sipping iced drinks which shed puddles of condensation, hoping for a breath of cross-breeze from the open doors at either end of the building, Hannah came up the center stairs, followed by a guy. She went into her room with him, and shut the door, and Tree and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
“What was wrong with that picture?” Jenny asked, satirically. The guy was white.
“Must be just good friends. “ I said, and we all looked at each other and laughed indulgently. Although Hannah and I had absolutely nothing in common, save for being heterosexual, junior enlisted females, we got along all right. Privately I thought the promiscuity was dreary and hazardous. She had a good heart, though, if not of gold, and my very first week in the barracks she warned me most sternly against having sex with anyone who had just come back from Korea or the PI.
“Not unless you get a good look at their medical records, first.” She said, and I thanked her, startled but gracious, although it was advice for which I had no use since I was saving myself for my tech school boyfriend, the Once and Future Cad.
Those guys looking for cheap and casual sex usually sensed our disinterest and headed downtown to the fleshpots along AP alley, or wherever the hell they were, but I heard for months about the Enterprise sailors who were on shore leave for the first time in months at Misawa. In the middle of the night, a small number of them got in touch with their inner Neanderthal and decided that they wanted WO-MAN! They showed up in the dorm and began breaking down doors. It was only fortunate that the first door they broke down belonged to Hannah, who was not spending the night alone. Her irate steady of the moment loomed up in the broken doorway, like the Hulk and distracted the sailors long enough for Hannah and another girl to get to the phone and call for the forces of law, order and emergency carpentry.
This event became enshrined in barracks folklore, and contributed to a decision by the Air Base Group to move the women serving with the Security Police, CE, the Security Service, and the hospital into other dorms specifically for those units, and move in a handful of men into ours. There was also a rumor, never confirmed, that a girl had been raped in her own room, in the middle of the day. We were never able to figure out when, or who the victim had been, but agreed the story was credible. In that light, we did not mind giving up the top rear bathroom for the guys and having to cover ourselves a little more decently.
I am almost sure the first five men moved into the dorm were carefully hand picked, or at least braced by an ear-singeing lecture on minding their manners, backed up with threats of castration at dawn with a dull teaspoon if there were a whisper of complaint about their conduct or behavior. Don, Kenny, Joey, Neil and Pat moved in and everyone adapted--- there had been always been guys living in the dorm before, but this was now official. Don and Neil were serving short tours, with wives in back in the States. Kenny and Pat were single, and Joey, barely eighteen and rather cute, thought he would cut a swath in the former all-women’s dorm. He was disillusioned, mostly because all the unattached girls patted him on the head, cooed “Oh, isn’t he cute!” and went on dating Navy fliers. Kenny dressed as Santa for our Christmas party, to great effect—and the three of them became rather like our little brothers, dating girls who lived elsewhere. Don became rather like our big brother, steady and competent at fixing things and Neil… well, Neil provided an education.
He worked in the Public Affairs office with Shel and Shirl, and it seemed that his marriage was increasingly on the rocks and for more than the initial given reason.
“He’s pierced an ear, and started wearing an earring.” Shel announced one evening. We were crammed into Dee’s room, drinking strawberry daiquiris. (Dee had brought a blender and perfected a recipe after much experimentation.) “But just one earring. What do you suppose he does with the other one?”
Marsh and I met each other’s eyes. We had a pretty good idea, but Shel was from a very small town, and led a pretty sheltered life there, unlike us comparative cosmopolitans.
“He gave the other one to his boyfriend, “ Marsh said at last, and Shel’s eyes widened.
“He’s queer that way?”
“Umm... yeah.” I said.
“Oh, wow,” Shel sat back. “Heck, I thought that was illegal in the Air Force.”
“It is,” Dee said, and she would know, as she was a legal tech in the JAG office. “But if no one complains, and makes an issue of it….”
“Everyone in the barracks knows… But no complaint. He’s an OK guy, does his job, so why should they?”
“Considering some of the other stuff that goes on, “ Dee reminded us, “This is pretty mild.”
“Mmmm,” Shel frowned, thoughtfully, “I wonder how they… they... he does it, you know.”
Marsh and I looked at each other again.
“Ask your Mum, “ I said. “You know, there is one nice thing about this.”
“What?” They all looked at me.
“We know now, without a shadow of a doubt, that there are two guys on this base, that none of us will ever, EVER have to beat off with a baseball bat!”Note: Some of this stuff is based on hearsay, but the rest of it really happened. Names and identities are changed for the protection from embarrassment of people who may have gone on to lead otherwise conventionally dull lives. This is merely a record of a particular time, place and people, not necessarily a chance for venting on understanibly radioactively hot matters.