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Packing tape. An unassuming name for an unassuming product. Many people can go through their whole lives without giving it a second thought. While it is no more than a minor modern convenience to most people, packing tape means a thousand things to a military family – but most importantly, it represents the core of what makes military families unique.

Even to the untrained eye, packing tape represents a range of options. First, there is the concept of stickiness. One must always select the stickiness best suited for the project. The industrial-strength version is very adhesive, and while it may take paint, hair, and poorly glued pieces with it when dislodged from its target, it will never fall short of its intended durability. The flimsier products (which can be found at post offices and office supply stores in a town near you), however, are ideally suited to things you do not want to be torn or bound for life, and can be peeled off with the ease of skinning an orange.

In addition to stickiness, packing tape can also be defined by its color and shape. The civilian version is clear and is usually found in overpriced little rolls, equipped with a saw-toothed razor for the easy slicing of small segments. Professional movers take it one step further by providing the type military families know as the true packing tape – the mother of all tapes. Unlike its dainty cousin, this heavy duty tape comes in boxes containing several massive rolls. No handy little razor exists to make life easier – this tape caters to a tougher crowd, a group consisting of both those who relocate every few years and those who have the burden of moving them. This is not a group that requires little razors. No – it’s box cutters for them, usually carried in back pockets for the duration of the move. This breed of tape even comes in a generic brown, blending in with the piles of boxes it locks.

But to a military family, packing tape is so much more than what can be seen by the naked eye. First and foremost, packing tape is a tool. When the moving trucks roll in to tuck lives into little boxes, packing tape is their partner in crime. Even before the artifacts of civilization are devoured by the insatiable appetite of the boxes, packing tape begins to creep in like carrion birds. It settles on quickly emptying shelves and in the corners of rooms. It stares at the family as last goodbyes are uttered and instructions are given on how to wrap mom’s favorite vase, its round shape a perfect plastic-and-cardboard eye. Once it hatches from its plastic wrap and is spread by the movers, it as impossible to escape as the reality of moving itself.

At this point, when every move reveals another roll sitting where beloved stuffed animals and ugly lamps should be, packing tape becomes more than just a thing to tape up boxes. It becomes a symbol. It represents the closing of the fate begun by the boxes and the trucks – the final door being shut on the life a military family has come to love. Once the tape is sealed, there is no going back. There is no hoping someone will call and say “Just kidding – we don’t need you at this base”. There is no grabbing for the things you will miss. There is no buying time before the boxes are packed away. Once the tape is sealed, life as the family knows it is over. Gone to a place they can never get it back.

However, though packing tape represents the closing of a beloved chapter, it also means the opening of a new one. As much as it may not seem like it when the boxes are being sealed, there will come a time when they are opened again. Oftentimes it feels that everything is lost when a family moves, but then the trucks return and the boxes are deposited, reminding the family that all they have to do is peel back the tape, and a life can be made wherever the military has dropped them this time. Routine-fueled fingers brush the packing tape; “we meet again” they seem to say. Then, unceremoniously, the tape is seized and torn from the box – taking, in true heavy-duty form, a large chunk of box with it. And just like that a snippet of home is revealed in the alien environment. Packing tape, though it was once seen as the nail on a coffin, has become the common thread between alternate dimensions, allowing the disoriented family to simply pull a tab and have a bit of themselves back again.

After the hot and cold relationship kept during the move, packing tape becomes a much more docile object in the military family’s life. In fact, in peace time, military families and packing tape may even be called best friends. If something needs holding up or sticking together, the packing tape is reached for, its negative connotations utterly forgotten. Though it was once used to seal up life before the family was ready, it can now be used to safely pack away baby clothes or winter clothing. Rolls of it stop being hateful things and become favors for moving friends, funny bracelets, and utility kit must-haves.

Sometimes a lucky stash of packing tape in its pure roll form is discovered, forgotten by movers in a hurry to get home, and the finder can do anything from bonding sticks and rocks into fantastic spears to transforming an ordinary cardboard box to the Fort Knox of gifts. And the best part? Unlike the selection found in post offices, this kind is absolutely free!

Once separated from its roll, packing tape has infinite uses. Those who lack creativity or are simply being practical will often use it as one uses regular tape. It has been spotted in many inconspicuous areas of military homes – holding together the handle pieces of that broken pair of scissors waiting to be replaced or bundling cords behind TVs and computers.

For the lazy, busy, or unobservant, tape at rest tends to stay at rest. If, during a move, a piece has stuck to the leg of a table or side of a bookshelf, it often remains there for the duration of the family’s stay. Where this leftover tape is found, lurking moving labels are never far away.

But the creative and the young know there are far better ways to use packing tape. Cheaper than duct tape, it is very useful when large areas need patching together, or when things are being joined out of boredom. Stick two pieces together and you get a bookmark much easier to explain than a strip of toilet paper. Wrap it around a stick tacky-side-out and get an impromptu lint roller. Put a poster onto a concrete wall without a problem. Cure a model horse of a broken leg. Even waterproof the cracks in a fort.

While, to those unused to the culture of military families, the many uses of packing tape may seem insignificant, that is simply not so. The stages of packing tape – from enemy to second chance to casual friend – represent something fundamental in the military culture. These families make enormous sacrifices; they watch their lives packed away and dropped somewhere else at a casual order, they say goodbye to loved ones, they suffer so the rest of the population doesn’t have to, and the packing tape reminds them of that.

But despite all that pain, all that hardship, when the family members arrive at their next destination, they don’t look at the tape and hate it for cutting their old life short. They don’t curse their luck or wallow in their sorrow. Instead they bounce back, forgiving if not forgetting, and look at the tape as a way to open up the new opportunities in their new home.

Perhaps most importantly, not only do they look at the tape in the light of new beginnings, they are able to embrace it later, for all it entails. Never can a child, trundled to new schools and new friends regularly, often missing their parent in camo, forget where that roll of tape came from. Never can he forget the deep sadness of seeing his toys locked away, or the relief of seeing them again when they have become not only toys, but also the hope of normalcy. Yet he can learn to live with using the tape all the time, as members of military families learn to live with their other scars. By using the tape that has brought so many mixed emotions, military family members are accepting who they are. They are recognizing the joys and pains that they have seen, and instead of tucking them away in rolls, hoping never to see them again, they’re saying “You know what? I can do something useful with this.” And that ability to take instability and scars and turn them into something useful and beautiful is at the core of the military culture. They are the silent warriors – built of strong hearts and held together by strips of brown packing tape.





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KatsK This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 28, 2013 at 9:47 pm
This is really good. I've never honestly thought much about packing tape, or the military, for that matter. Your writing is honest and complex. This is really well-written.
 
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