It’s hard for Charles Hammer to fathom that he’s been retired from the Navy for more years than he served.
His last of 29 years in the service came in 1987. Since then, his home port has been Coupeville, where the sea is still near yet the love of his life is even closer.
Charles and Ruth Hammer have been married for 56 years. For 29 of them, Charles served as an air traffic controller often a world away and largely out of contact.
When their first son was born in Brainerd, Minn., in 1962, Charles was informed by telegram while aboard the USS Midway in Hong Kong Harbor.
He knew it was a boy because the paper the telegram was printed on was blue. A pink sheet meant you had a daughter.
“I was actually hollering, ‘I’ve got a son! I’ve gone a son!” Charles recalled.
Hammer missed the birth of his second soon, too, five years later.
That news came by a phone call from Milton, Fla., when Charles was assigned to a ground control approach unit on an air field near Kodiak, Alaska.
Technology has advanced light years since Hammer’s time in the military, allowing couples more means of regular communication to lessen the blow of separation that is part of Navy life.
But for couples such as Charles and Ruth Hammer, high school sweethearts from tiny Hackensack, Minn., communication was much more crude back then and contact much less frequent.
To cope better in those days, the Hammers did their best to adjust to independent lives by concentrating on their tasks and daily routines and tried to focus on the positive, counting the days until their reunions.
“She was a trooper and she always hung in there,” Charles Hammer said. “And even if things were going tough for her, she didn’t burden me with that. She would always be cheerful. We’d try to talk about upbeat things, both of us.”
In total, Hammer served at 10 different shore duty stations, endured two lengthy aircraft carrier deployments and spent two six-month detachments on the ice in Antarctica. Adding it up, the retired chief warrant officer figures he was away from home for five of his 29 years in service.
“I worked,” Ruth said, “and I had the boys. You keep your normal routines going. And it (time) just goes by.”
Ruth would eventually catch up to Charles at his duty stations, but there were still plenty of extended separations, particularly during his final years in the service after they bought a home in Coupeville and he spent summers in Antarctica.
During that time, they would communicate mostly by phone with the assistance of radio operators through the Military Auxiliary Radio System. Operators would wait for the cue to switch over the line so the other could talk.
“I’d say something to her and I’d have to say ‘over,’” Charles said.
“Even when we ended the conversation, we always joked about saying the last words: ‘I love you, over.’”
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Skip Pohtilla from Oak Harbor remembers those awkward, monitored telephone conversations well.
He was a Naval Flight Officer in the Navy, retiring in 1994, right around the time the Internet was starting to make a huge impact on society.
Pohtilla and his wife K.C., who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next month, also wrote letters to each other regularly.
K.C. took steps to shorten the gap of separation even more, organizing Navy wives’ trips to meet their husbands in ports all over the world. They even brought letters with them from other spouses to speed up delivery.
“Some of the folks kind of wondered about that,” Skip said. “I said, ‘I would much rather have my wife here with me and have the deployment seem that much shorter’ and be able to enjoy these new experiences with her. I was always happy having K.C. make it to the port.”
The hand-written letters also were welcome, Skip said. Some from his wife that were written on the same day were numbered so they would be read in the right sequence.
Skip Pohtilla, who was part of Electronic Attack Squadron 145, still has some of the letters and values them.
“I’m going through a whole stack of letters my mom and dad wrote to each other during World War II,” he said. “With electronic mail always being discarded, you lose out on the historical record of what took place.”
No matter what time period, separations can be difficult on families, particularly children, Pohtilla said.
The Navy offers counseling for the families of active duty sailors to cope with separation through the Fleet and Family Support Program at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Both the Pohtillas and Hammers witnessed such difficulties take a toll on other marriages.
“K.C. and I were lucky,” Pohtilla said. “We got through all of those trials of being separated and the homecomings and things of that nature. It’s mainly due to the type of person K.C. is. It’s not me. I think you find that true of a lot of successful marriages. The two of them are able to work through all of the trials of deployments and separations.”
Charles Hammer said that he and his wife have found that the couples who survived the trials of career military life generally stayed together.
There’s even a readjustment period after returning home that couples must work through.
“She made all the command decisions when I was gone. She ran the house. And she still runs the house after I got back,” Charles Hammer said with a laugh.
The Hammers say their time apart might’ve even strengthened their marriage. They believe in the saying that “separation makes the heart grow fonder.”
“The reunions when you get back together, it made that time seem worth it,” Charles Hammer said. “It really made it double special when you got together.”
“And it kind of melts away,” Ruth added.
After more than a half century of marriage, their love remains strong. They met in grade school and she’s still his sweetheart.
When the subject of Valentine’s Day was brought up, Ruth said she wasn’t aware of any plans, but Charles interrupted.
“I’ve got plans,” he said. “I haven’t shared that with her yet.”