PHARR — “Fire! Fire! Fire! This is not a drill. This is NOT a drill!” came the voice across the loud speaker. About 2:00 o’clock in the morning, Barbara Horne, a government worker, clamored out of her rack aboard ship and started up the ladders through the holes, up three decks.
“We had to report to our stations,” Barbara said. “That was pretty scary. Something had shorted out and was throwing flames into a bulkhead.”
For 15 of her 34 years in government work, Barbara tested the software that ran the Navy’s combat systems and sometimes her job found her in unusual circumstances, like the fire.
“I troubleshot the program after we delivered it to the various ships,” she said. “At that time they had the Upward Mobility Program, during the time they were saying how unequal men and women were. I was the second woman in the United States to ride a Navy ship before women were riding ships. Now they’re out there every day.”
Barbara was born and raised in Norfolk, only leaving when she retired in 2001. It was a Navy town then, but the feeling toward the Navy wasn’t as warm then as today.
“I remember they used to put signs in their yards — ‘Sailors and dogs, keep off the grass!’” she said. “Now the whole place would collapse if the Navy moved out of there.”
The baby of the family with three older brothers, she remembers being a tomboy and playing Kick-the-Can, only not with her brothers. Salutatorian of her class of 126, the National Beta Club had been Barbara’s club of choice during high school.
Working as a telephone operator at age 15, she learned on the old plug board and dial phone equipment. Loving the work, she headed for Baltimore, Maryland, after graduation to continue in the same field, but it just wasn’t home, so she returned to Norfolk. After various other jobs, she finally started her long career with the government.
“My first job, as a GS2, was being a timekeeper, validating the punched cards,” said Barbara, of her humble beginnings.
She worked her way up, obtained a secret clearance and worked with the Navy Tactical Data System.
“We were command and control for the combat system. We had the radars, the guns, the missiles,” she said. “We had it all.”
That was when the computers were as big as refrigerators, had springs seven inches wide and eight inches tall so they would have some give when bolted to the bulkheads of the massive Naval ships.
The adventures of that job will last her a lifetime.
“I think the longest I was out was nine days, but I spent a lot of time in port on board ship also,” Barbara said. “Once I worked out in Hawaii for 12 weeks. Another time I flew to Hong Kong and had to take a Chinese junk out to board the ship because it was a nuclear powered ship, and they weren’t allowed to pull into port. We stayed there a few days and then went to Lantau Island where I was able to see the big Buddha that’s there. We had lunch with some Chinese monks at the Po Lin Monastery. It was spectacular. Later we boarded the ship and rode it to Singapore.”
Then there was the time on the USS Long Beach when they were going out through the Straight of San Juan de Fuca.
“The captain came over the loudspeaker, ‘If you’re not busy and you’re able to go to the port side of the ship, go there now. There’s a pod of Killer Whales.’ We went out there and they were b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l! Going along the side of the ship in the wake, they were so pretty they looked artificial. It was really cool. The only parts I remember are the good, fun parts.”
Finishing up her last years with the government she worked on the Battleforce Tactical Trainer simulation program. She even joined the Navy Reserves for a few years until her civilian job with the Navy became too demanding.
“It was a great career. I was so blessed,” Barbara said.
Three days after retiring in January of 2001, Barbara climbed into her truck and RV and headed out, never to live in Norfolk again.
As a matter of fact, it was a friend who also worked for the government who headed her south.
“I ran into him at Sam’s, and he said, ‘I hear you’re getting ready to retire. You’ve got to go to the Rio Grande Valley.’ It was one of the first places I came. Halfway down here I discovered it was the square dance capital of the world, and as I was an avid square dancer, I thought, ‘Yes! This is meant to be!’” she said, laughing.
Finding her way to Tip O Texas, she settled in. Getting involved was Barbara’s way of living.
“I volunteered for CASA for one year, which was a very sad job,” she said. After her last case went to court she moved on to other volunteer endeavors, not ready for her heart to be broken again.
Once a “baby cuddler” at a McAllen hospital, she now works in their gift shop. Charged with the karaoke during one summer, she is currently involved in getting the park’s Kitchen Band started for the season, lining up the pots and pans and other kitchen instruments.
“We have sheet music, and we all just bang away at the same time,” she said, grinning widely. “We go to nursing homes, and they love us.”
Of course it could also be the 20 some blow-up costumes that help keep the audience in stitches.
Now, Barbara has gone back to work.
“I was in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, sitting at a little café outside all by myself. This lady walks up to me,” Barbara said.
“Would you mind if I sit at your table?” she said.
I said, ‘No, not at all.’ She sat down and we talked for a couple of hours. Then she said, ‘You know. I’ve never done this before but I’d like to recruit you for FEMA.’
“I’d love for you to recruit me for FEMA.” Barbara said.
Seven months last year were spent with FEMA, working on Hurricane Dolly and Hurricane Ike.
“They say the weather channel is our employment channel,” she said, tongue in cheek.
Somehow through all her adventures, her son and daughter are always able to find her to touch base with Mom. And there is Chiquita, her little Chihuahua, who hits the road with her wherever she goes, having the run of the hotel room.
With her bag always packed and ears alert for a FEMA call, Barbara lives her life at the park, playing golf and tennis … and waiting.
“I have had a fabulous life,” said Barbara. “I tell my daughter that if I go tomorrow, I’ve been there in this world. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve been so blessed.”
Closing the interview and summing it all up, Barbara put it rather succinctly:
“And I think that’s my whole life,” she said. “I think that’s the whole enchilada!”
If you have an idea for a story please contact Roda Grubb at firstname.lastname@example.org.