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The Arctic Adventure

By Joy Smoots

At the altar nearly forty-three years ago, a new life much different from the life I had known was about to begin.  As we walked back down the church aisle, my husband in his “dress whites” smiled and asked, “Are you ready for the adventure?”  Little did I know what lay ahead for me as the wife of a career officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

I was born and raised on a grain farm and attended college in the “heartland” of the mid-west.  It was a pretty sheltered life.  Vietnam was a world away. It was at college that I met my husband.  He had a draft number of twenty five but was deferred until graduation.  Directly after our college graduation ceremony, Jim and I went to the college president’s office, and Jim was commissioned as a brand new second lieutenant in the USMC.  We were married the next weekend in my little hometown church surrounded by friends that I grew up with and went to college with.  It was the last time I saw many of them.

Nineteen years later with two sons and nine moves behind me, I once again found myself on the front door steps in Portsmouth, Rhode Island–waiting for my husband to come home with another set of “move” orders in hand.  We’d only been at Portsmouth one year and many unpacked boxes still were in the attic.  The boys were used to moving and saying “good bye” so they were looking forward to coming home from school to see where we were heading next.

As I waited on the steps, I was thinking about where I’d like to move to and how to I would begin the job search for another teaching position.  I had so far enjoyed everywhere we were stationed and the thought of still a new place we might have not been intrigued me.  Almost all our duty stations had been near the beach,  so I was confident that I wouldn’t have to give up living near the ocean and almost assured that there would be “old friends” stationed there,  too.

As the car pulled into the driveway, I prayed that the wait was over and orders were “in hand.”  As Jim got out of the car, he had a hesitant grin on his face as he put his arm around me.  With a cautioned tone in his voice, he announced, “We’re  going to Norway!”

“Three years?” I asked.   “Oh, wow!”  I was thrilled as three years in one place is about as good as it gets. “What state is that in?”  I thought I knew all the names of our bases, but this one was unfamiliar.

And then I heard him say, “Norway, the COUNTRY– NATO ‘s Northern Regional Command!”

I think everything in my body literally froze. I’m going to the Arctic?!!  I sat down on the porch steps trying to process what I’d just heard.  As I looked at him, he was giving me that “reassuring” smile that he always gives me when I give him “that look.”

Many questions swirled around in my mind: We’re going to be out of the country for three years?  Will the boys adjust?  What about leaving my ninety-year-old mother?  How will we handle the cold and dark?  I can’t speak Norwegian, so how will I communicate?  What kind of clothes do people wear in the arctic?  Will there be proper schools for the boys?  Even though the  fears kept on mounting, I tried to look happy.  I could see Jim was clearly pleased with the new orders, but I was slipping quickly into shock. It was then that I heard my next-door neighbor, Sally, who had walked over to see if we had “news” saying, “What a wonderful place to be stationed!”  She and her family were quite the travelers, and she was my best motivator and encourager over the next couple of months.

“Oh, boy!” shouted the boys.  “We can learn to ski and sled down BIG mountains!”

“And the Olympics will be in Norway while we’re there, too,” chimed in Dad.

As the beach clothes were put into storage and boxes began arriving from LL Bean filled with winter clothes, I became more excited about “the adventure.” I had to be positive, not for the boys or my husband, but for ME.

The moving date finally arrived.  I watched our furniture as it was loaded into huge water-proof containers and sealed.  A good home was found for our dog.  Our SUV, already fitted with snow tires, boarded the ship to Norway.  With all passports and official papers in order, it was time to say good-bye to our home and set out on a three-year adventure.

As we made our way through LaGuardia Airport, I held the boys close; it was no place for children to wonder off on their own.  As the plane took off, I hid my face between the seat and the window. With tears streaming down, I watched New York disappear from sight.  I was a basket of mixed emotions. Part of me was excited about the new adventure; the other part was afraid–afraid of taking the children to a place so different and far from home.  Would they adjust, make friends, miss home?  Reality really sunk it when I realized that we were actually on the adventure and there was no turning back.

As it turned out, it was the best three years for all of us.  The Norwegians and the International Military Community were so friendly.  We had a beautiful home near the base of the Homenkolen Ski Jump. The children went to the International School in Oslo and were a part of the International Boy Scouts and soccer team.  Since there were not that many soccer teams in Norway, the boys traveled out of Norway to surrounding countries to play their games.  Of course, Mom trailed along to all the games as a chaperone! We learned to cross-county and down-hill ski under the beautiful, breath-taking Northern Lights, spent a week learning “survival training” above the Arctic Circle, burned candles in every room during the long dark winter months, stopped for moose to journey across the roads, and attended the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer where the boys and Jim skied the “monster” mountain while I sipped hot chocolate by the fire in the resort.

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Joy Smoots and sons in the Norwegian country side.

We traveled throughout continental Europe as well as Sweden, Russia, England and Scotland. I was the bag lady in charge of getting currency for every country we traveled through (before the Euro) along with a handful of language booklets. I embarrassed myself more than once with the languages. Needless to say, I certainly had some bloopers but found the people in each country to be very helpful and appreciative of me trying to speak their language. We spent a day looking for the Loch Ness Monster, attended the Russian Ballet, and toured the world’s largest art museum. One of our biggest surprises was eating pizza in Italy which is far different than our American pizza!  Waking up to the sounds of cow bells ringing in the distance in Germany was a morning I’ll never forget and Austria tugged at my heart.  I’m sure a part of my heritage must be Austrian.

I continued my career teaching Biology at the University of Maryland’s satellite site and the International School in Oslo.  It was an incredible three-year experience interacting with both the students and parents from all countries stationed at the NATO in Oslo.

The three years literally flew by, and it was time to pack up again and head back to our new assignment back home.  Just as we had prepared our boys for Norway, we found ourselves once again preparing them to go back home.  But it was I, once again, who was back to the old hesitation and worries of the boys’ transition.  Living in Norway was like going back in time.  Children were much more independent. No one was afraid of the dark since six months out of the year Norway is in darkness. Crime rates were very low and there were certainly no violent crimes. Outdoor activities were a way of life with no interruptions of favorite TV programs since TV was pretty much news and cultural programs.  And material wants were minimal.

As the plane took off from Norway, tears once again streamed down my face.  This time it was because I didn’t want to leave the beautiful country of Norway. I found that I enjoyed the everyday adventures and challenges of the language and culture.  Darkness held no fear and each day brought a new challenge. It was indeed an enchanted place.

As the plane landed in New York, I again wiped away the tears.  This time it was tears of joy mixed with sadness. I thought to myself: Will our next duty station be as exciting and adventurous as the one we just left behind?

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Joy Smoots graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a B.S. and M.S. in Zoology in Education and completed the Sixth Year Advanced Degree from Old Dominion University in Educational Leadership and Administration. As a military wife of a career United States Marine, her teaching positions are quite numerous due to 14 moves in 32 years. Joy has taught high school Biology in the public, private and International schools as well as teaching for the University of Maryland, Campbell University, and Coastal Community College before permanently finding a home at Cape Fear Community College.

Joy is a member of the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society and Phi Sigma Research Society. In 2005, she was one of fifty Master’s level graduates in the past 50 years to receive the Outstanding Graduate Alumnus Award for distinguished professional service and contributions in the field of education. In 2008, Joy received the Marilyn Goodman Award from Cape Fear Community College and last year celebrated 20 years a CFCC. Joy Smoots is currently the Department Chair of Science.

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