If I could say one thing about the military lifestyle that most would agree with is that it is rarely boring. There are moments of sheer frustration, irritation, and even anger, all mixed in with joy, satisfaction and even the occasional happy dance, all making for an Air Force life that is anything but boring. But, when my husband got orders to Sumter, South Carolina several years ago, we began to question if our lives were about to move way over to the “slow lane.” For the two years prior to our Sumter move, we had been living in Las Vegas. We had grown accustomed, but not necessarily appreciative of all the “bells and whistles.” Our kids would sing “Goin’ to the Chapel,” every time we passed by one of the famous wedding chapels on the Vegas strip, or they would speculate on who would be the next Elvis impersonator, while passing by the Bellagio Hotel’s dancing water display. But, we were quickly growing weary of raising a family in a town so overloaded with what we viewed as artificial entertainment, and looked forward to our move back to the east coast.
Sumter could easily be defined as one of America’s “little bitty ole towns.” It is about an hour from the larger city of Columbia, where Sumterites often go to pick up relatives from the airport, or take more extensive shopping trips. But, most military personnel do not view Sumter as a garden spot assignment; in fact, some are downright rude in their comments, saying they hope to never be assigned there, because of what they believe is a lack of social life. When I first heard these comments, I was sitting in a beauty salon chair, hoping to receive some of the high priced beauty they were charging me for, and trying to remain hopeful, as I received anxiety provoking comments about my future home.
We arrived in Sumter on a dark December night (why do all of our moves seem to be at night and right before Christmas?). As we passed by several mobile home sales lots, a bingo hall, and assorted rundown buildings, that housed the likes of a Chinese restaurant or a dance hall, I began to wonder if we had in fact fallen off the map just a little. But, when our car slowly approached the house my husband had rented before I had ever even seen it, I began to feel a strange warmth and feeling of homecoming when I saw the idyllic pond across the street, and the Christmas lights twinkling on neighboring homes.
My first warm impression did not last long however, when I became irritated at how long it took to get my groceries, as the cashier admired the pretty bracelet on the lady in front of me in line, or the bank teller who wouldn’t stop yakking about her neighbor’s sister’s cousin’s new baby, or especially when I saw those independent young people, who drove too fast, hung out at the local Sonic drive-thru, laughing, and carrying on after the local football games. But, slowly “a funny thing happened on the way to the forum,” when I got a job at one of the local Methodist churches. I started loving my new found home, from my new eighty-something-year-old dear friends and mentors, that taught me more about life, than I could ever hope to learn on my own in a lifetime, to my new “besties” who sat on each side of me at the lunch counter in the local drugstore, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and discussing the merits of marrying a good man.
I began talking to the cashiers about our latest outfits, and what cute shops in Sumter they liked best, took time to look up and see the friendly smile on the bank teller’s face when she gave me a welcoming “hey there.” I learned to not only appreciate the wisdom of the “older generation,” but was blessed by the gifts of their genuine love and concern, when they did things like hide snacks in my office file cabinet so I wouldn’t get hungry, buy me lunch at the local nursery/restaurant or treat me to a 5 star hotel bed and breakfast when I had to spend the night in one their homes. And those independent young people people who laughed, hung out at the drive-thru and drove to fast…they taught me lessons in humility, when I saw them also eagerly serving others through mission work, at school programs, or in a local service organization.
I remember one day in particular, when we were attending one of our first annual neighborhood picnics; someone stopped and asked me, if I was kin to anyone. When I said no, I remember feeling a little left out, because we were a military family and not native grown, but over the three years we lived there, we all began to feel like Sumterites. I can honestly say, when asked on my next visit, “Who you kin too, I will answer, the whole town of Sumter! God Bless them every one, and for towns that don’t just say, but actually do embrace their military families!
**If you are ever stationed in Sumter, SC, please visit Aldersgate United Methodist Church, you will find the people warm and welcoming!