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Front Porch

Feeling at home on the base

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003

ALFONS AND MARSHA Hofrichter find home in a taupe, concrete block building constructed in the 1950s. One of 674 family housing units on the South Tampa military base, it's not much to look at on the outside. But inside the front door, the Hofrichters make a life.

The modest three-bedroom apartment -- boxy, plain, equipped with few luxuries other than a small laundry room -- is where they are raising their two daughters, Courtney, 9, and Carmen, 18 months.

Their world is all about family, connections, separation and the knowledge that loss is always a possibility.

MARSHA has done her best to coax the comforts of a real home from the temporary. A bright red, white and blue wallpaper border edges the living room walls. Matching curtains mute the harsh Florida light. The model airplanes that Alfons has built since he was a kid -- graceful B-17s, B-27s, military jets -- perch atop a TV entertainment center.

A crockpot is usually simmering on the kitchen counter. In the late afternoons the smell of pasta sauce or a roast fills the warm little space. They eat dinner as a family every night: Alfons and Marsha at a bamboo table for two, the girls at a small, cherry-red doll table by the sofa.

WHAT A VISITOR notices first is the pile of olive green military issue duffels heaped against the living room wall. Packed. Ready to go. Filled with enough personal stuff to last 45 to 60 days.

Alfons, 28, is an Air Force aircraft mechanic and crew chief. As of last week, he had received orders that he could be deployed any day, any time.

"I don't just work on an airplane," Alfons explains. "If it goes, I go with it. Time is an important issue. I keep my bags ready. If I get a call I have to grab my stuff and throw it in the car."

Marsha walks by her husband's packed bags every time she goes into the kitchen. The sight worries her.

"The world is really crazy right now," she says. "We don't know what will happen next. We're not sure where he's going and whether it's safe."

TWICE BEFORE when Alfons has been deployed, she has hidden something sentimental for him to find later among the T-shirts, socks and fatigues.

"Snapshots of her and the girls," Alfons explains. "She puts them in little frames. It's really rough when you have a family and you're far, far away from them. You're working 12 hours a day, sometimes six days a week. This keeps me close to them."

The couple has lived in Tampa four years and used to live off base in a sprawling apartment complex on Westshore Boulevard. They could only afford a two-bedroom apartment and everyone got in each other's way.

They decided to move into base housing a year and a half ago.

It was the right choice, they say.

MAINTENANCE is free, but families must maintain the yards and exterior appearance of the seven-unit apartment buildings, which are inspected every Tuesday. Courtney goes to the public school on the base, and unlike many neighborhoods in the outside world, children roam freely here without worrying their parents.

Alfons works the night shift, returning home at 6 a.m. Marsha returns from her job at an accounting firm at 6 p.m.

They share the grocery shopping, bill paying and care of the children -- responsibilities Marsha will soon shoulder by herself. On the wall by the front door is a map of the world. Marsha sticks thumbtacks in all the places that are important "so the girls will know."

Meanwhile they wait.

"The best part is knowing my children are safe when I'm gone," Alfons says. "My daughter walks to school every day. What more could I ask?"

- Write to Elizabeth Bettendorf in care of the St. Petersburg Times at 1000 N Ashley Drive, Suite 700, Tampa, FL 33602; or by e-mail,

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