I was reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, first published in 1979 (and more recently published by Picador in 2008) about the test pilots and astronauts at the dawn of the space age. Wolfe wrote that his “book grew out of some ordinary curiosity” about what “makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle… and wait for someone to light the fuse.”
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The book is an engrossing read; frankly, reading Chuck Yeager flying the NF-104 is more exciting than watching any teenage-driven demographic movies that populate the cinema these days. The book is also about the wives and the unwritten rules and standards they lived by as they supported their husbands’ careers. This was out of the 40’s and 50’s, where wives generally stayed home, and where trailing husbands as a specie, were still unheard of except in the celestial wormholes of Jupiter.
I came to page 218 of the book and I had to pause to laugh out loud:
A commander designated to give the wives an orientation lecture says: “First, would you ladies please rearrange yourselves by rank, with the highest ranking wives sitting in the first row and so on the back to the rear: It takes about fifteen minutes for the women to sort themselves out and change their seats, since very few of them know one another. Once the process has been completed, the commander fixes a stern glare upon them and says: “Ladies, I want you to know that I have just witnessed the most ridiculous performance I have ever seen in my entire military career. Allow me to inform you that no matter who your husbands are, you have no rank whatsoever. You are all equals, and you should kindly remember to conduct yourselves as such in all dealings with one another.” That was not the end of the story, however. The wives stared back at their instructor with looks of utter bemusement and, as if with a single mind, said to themselves: “Who is this idiot and what planet has he been stationed on?” For the inexpressible provisions of the Military Wife’s Compact were well known to all. A military officer’s wife rose in rank with her husband and immediately took on all the honors and perquisites pertaining thereto, and only a fool or the sort of simple-minded jerk who was assigned to give orientation lectures to wives could fail to comprehend this.
Despite the absence of a similar Diplomatic Wife’s Compact, the Foreign Service is not altogether different from this. It’s not cultural, mind you. It’s just part of organizational life and the need for the neat ordering of the hierarchy. The next time you are tempted to give an orientation to incoming diplomatic spouses whether here or at post, remember this. And please, for the love of god and gin — don’t tell them “you have no rank, whatsoever.”
They will know the truth soon enough.