There are days Judy Ferree, 28, a Navy wife for 10 years, will never forget.
Like the day last May when her son Scott, 5, was poisoned by "some little brat who was feeding a concoction that he made at home to all the kids in the class." On the way home from the poison control center, she says, she ran out of gas. She walked a mile to the nearest gas station only to find her credit card missing.
That night, she learned by telephone that her grandmother in Minnesota had suffered a serious heart attack. By 10 p.m., she and her two children were packed up and ready to go. Then the car would not start.
Through all this, her husband Andy, Norfolk-based aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Sea.
"It never fails," says Ferree. "Everything works smoothy until the ship pulls out, and then all hell breaks loose."
Ferree's story, while an extreme example, makes a common point about Navy life. There are almost 100,000 Navy dependents here, wives and children who lose a loved one every time a ship pulls away from a steel and concrete pier. When they go, the men enter the Navy's world, leaving their personal worlds -- the checkbooks, car payments and children -- to their wives.
They hope their wives will understand. And they do, after a while, each in her own way.
Down the street from Ferree lives Sue Keeler, the wife of a petty officer 1st class aboard the oiler Canisteo. While the ship was away for two months, the Keelers' second child was born.
"I had to get this woman I hardly know, who lives down the street, to take me to the hospital," she says as 3-year-old Chris runs around the house and the baby wails in its crib. "We have all these pictures of Chris being born of his first day at home. For this baby, we don't have anything like that."
To make things worse, because of an accounting mixup, Keeler has not received a cent since her husband went to sea. On the day of a recent interview, she had just spent her last $5 on groceries. Two days earlier, the telephone company had pulled out her phone.
"You give (the Navy) your life and then you have to go without food," she says. "I haven't had a new outfit in three years. We don't go to dinner or movies and the kids go without toys and new clothes. I can't go out now, either. I can't afford a baby sitter. All I can do is sit here at home."
She says her husband, a 12 1/2-year veteran, brings home about $270 every two weeks, "which ain't s---."
To try to combat the stress caused by these problems, including pay checks stretched thin by inflation, the Navy in 1978 held a family awareness conference in Norfolk. Two years and two conferences later, $200,000 has been invested in a Navy Family services Center, a counseling and crisis intervention facility.
Capt. David Hunsicker, a chaplain and executive director of the center, says the Navy has come to realize in the last few years that "there is a direct linkage between family happiness and retention . . . If that young wife says she wants out of the Navy, the sailor isn't going to stay."
Although bachelorhood used to be a Navy tradition, Hunsicker today estimates that about 70 percent of sailors are married. "Because of economic downturn," he says, "young men are enlisting who wouldn't have thought of doing so in the past."
And they are marrying younger, Hunsicker says -- at 19 or 20 instead of 22 or 23 -- "because they see coming into the Navy as an opportunity to get married. They think the Navy will provide them with the wherewithal to live and subsist . . . But they are quickly finding that it's hard enough for one to live on a young sailor's pay, let alone two."
Like the Keelers, Chief Petty Officer Dennis Shoffner, a Navy journalist, knows that raw recruits aren't the only ones feeling the economic pinch.
Shoffner, a 12-year veteran, has four children and a wife to take care of on his $888 monthly check. He gets $100 a month for food from the Navy and collects $85 a month in food stamps.
Though he rents a four-bedroom apartment in Navy housing for $228 a month and works nights as an insurance salesman, the balding, rotund Shoffner says he can't make ends meet.
"I've got to leave. I love the Navy, but I can't exist financially," he says. "I haven't had a vacation or gone out to dinner with my wife in the seven years we've been married. I'd like to be able to go to an amusement park or a movie.
"I've moonlighted as a janitor in a fast-food joint. I've sold shirts and shoes. I've even had a print shop with a couple of other guys . . . But the toll was too great. I was seeing my family about a half hour a day. I was going constantly and always under strain.
"Last year," he continues, "my wife's 11-year-old son worked on a berry farm and saved up his money and took me to Bush Gardens for Father's Day. You can't can imagine how I felt."
With the constant ebb and flow of people in and out of Norfolk -- at least 1,200 Navy families move to or from the area each month, Hunsicker estimates -- there are always financial and adjustment problems to deal with, stress on children when their father's at sea, stress on wives left behind to be "mother, father, housekeeper, handyman, banker," as Ferree says.
"That's the thing about the Navy," says Sue Keeler. "I don't like somebody coming along and saying, 'Next week we're going to leave for a couple of months and you're going.' Never mind that your wife's going to deliver soon, never mind about anything We tell you to go, so you just have to shut up and go."
Once the husbands are overseas, the pressures on the separated couples mount. "There's no direct contact," says Hunsicker. "There's a 28-day turn-around on the mail to the Indian Ocean. By the time the letter gets where it's going, everybody's all frustrated and ready to give up."
Inevitably, some do give up. "I married a very insecure woman," says Dusty Rhodes, a 24-year-old native of Fayetteville, N.C., stationed aboard the destroyer USS Claude V. Ricketts. "On our last cruise, she really needed me, I guess, and I just wasn't there. "I could feel her needing me and being upset, but I couldn't do anything about it. Then her letters seemed to grow distant. She found someone to take my place. Now we're in the process of getting a divorce."
Ferree says she "gets over the physical problems of not being together," but finds "you need to have closeness. You have it with your children, but they can't understand. I'll call up my girlfriend and tell her my problems, but you know that as soon as you hang up she's not worrying about your problems. She has problems of her own."
Sometimes it gets to be too much. "I'll go into the playroom and find the Nerf football and the Nerf baseball and I'll throw them around and make a real mess," she says.
Though Ferree and Keeler say they never would consider being unfaithful to their husbands, other wives find that male friends help make the time go faster -- and create more problems.
One 19-year-old's husband has been away for five months somewhere at sea -- the Indian Ocean, she thinks. Two years ago, when he first left home, they had been married only a month.
"I was good during the first cruise," she says. "For the whole six months he was gone, I didn't go out. But I was so lonely. I cried every night."
Since then, he has been gone about eight months each year. "During the second cruise," she says levelly, "I met this guy at the 7-eleven and went home with him. There have been others since then, but I tell myself it's okay even though I feel guilty. I just need someone to be with, someone to hold me every once in a while and take care of me."
A native of a small town in the Southeast, she says she felt overwhelmed and intimidated by life in the big city. At home, there were always friends to hang out with, parties to go to, thing to do.
"I've found that the only way to stay sane is to kind of put (her husband) in the back of my mind," she continues. "I mean, if I thought about him all the time I'd go crazy. It makes such a big hurt in my heart not having him here. . There is so much emptiness when I think of him that I almost don't want to be married anymore."
Her friend, also a Navy wife with the same small-town background, says she, too, has been unfaithful.
"The last time (her husband) was away, I got pretty heavily involved with another sailor," she says. "When he came back I told him all about it and he said he understood, that all was forgiven. But I know it wasn't. I know he's sitting there on the ship and thinking about how bad I'm being. And I am, but what does he expect? Look what he's doing to us by being in the Navy."
With younger marriages, says Chaplain Hunsicker, the Navy is seeing more of this kind of problem. Counselors are seeing marriages "in which the partners haven't been weaned enough, marriages which are, in many cases, ill-advised, but nonetheless there.
"With the mobility in American society today," he adds, "people are not from anywhere . . . People today are from where they are stationed -- they feel lonely and alone."
Like many other wives, including Ferree, the two women mentioned above say they have mixed feelings about their husbands coming home.
"He's supposed to be home at Christmas," says Ferree of her husband Andy. "It's supposed to be a happy time, but I can see it happen. He'll want to be lord and master . . . I don't think our marriage would work if he was here all the time."
Nevertheless, the disruption of family life caused by the sailors' repeated departures and homecomings is a major problem, especially for the children involved.
Sue Keeler says her 3-year-old son doesn't mind her as well and is confused by his father's absences. Ferree says it doesn't bother her 3-year-old because he's grown up with the fact that his dad's gone all the time. "But Scott (5) -- it hurts him that dad can't participate in school, holidays and birthdays. He gets jealous of other kids," she says.
Recently, Ferree says, her husband sent a tape recording home to the family. "All day long Scott was fine, but when he heard his daddy's voice he got this terrible stomach ache. He knew his daddy was gone, but hearing his voice set him off."
Depending on the children's ages and levels of understanding, says Capt. James Karlen of the Navy Family Services Center, "kids perceive something is changing at a certain point before dad is deployed. They react to it. They think daddy doesn't love them anymore, that he's going away. And when he comes home, he's a stranger to them. If he says something they don't like, they say, 'why don't you go away again daddy; we liked it better when you were gone.'"
Evelyn Dadmun, a psychologist employed by the Norfolk school system for 32 years, says the absence of Navy fathers can have a detrimental effect on the children, particularly if the mother shows signs of stress and unhappiness around the home.
"When that happens," Dadmun says, "The child could withdraw; he could feel that he's lost his world, that he doesn't know how he's going to cope without the consistencies and consequences of discipline that are imposed by the father. Sometimes it comes out in sarcasm and backtalk and efforts to sneak by with things they might know better not to try if dad was home."
All of which leaves a Navy wife like Ferree resentful that the service takes her husband away from home so much.
"But then again," she continues, "Andy's been in the Navy for a long time now. I want him to get out, but he's 31 now and has three dependents. Wherever he goes, he'll have to start at the bottom again.
"We've got bills to pay and the kids have to eat. Maybe we can suffer through eight more years. That $800 a month pension he'll get after 20 years will look real good, and so will the free medical care.
"I guess that's the story of the Navy. It's a roof over your head, food in your mouth and a pain in your a--."