Each year, and for as long as she can remember, Mary Tryba has celebrated her birthday in style.
“We sat on the front porch and had cake and ice cream and watched the fireworks,” said Tryba, a Navy veteran and resident of the Veterans Homes of California-Chula Vista. She turns 77 today.
Cake, ice cream, and pyrotechnics became the norm as she grew up in Chicago, not far from a stockyard and all of its olfactory challenges.
They remained the norm when she served as a nurse in the dental unit of the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where she once told the President of the United States to open his mouth and say “Aahhh!” The tradition continued when she visited Washington, D.C. on some of her birthdays and enjoyed the fireworks shows over the National Mall. Ah, the benefits of sharing a birthday with the good, ol’ United States of America, which celebrates its 244th today.
The daughter of a World War II Army Air Corps pilot, Tryba joined the Navy in March 1966, as the Vietnam War raged. She had already trained to become a licensed vocational nurse, but wanted to move into dentistry.
As she sat in a recruiting office and detailed her training, two women in uniform tried to talk her into joining the Marines.
“I told them I liked the Navy,” Tryba said. When they asked why, she replied, “Because I like blue.”
Thus, she became a Navy nurse, but still had to talk her way into the dental side. Her superiors wanted her to remain in nursing, and with the dental test approaching, told her, “If you don’t pass, don’t blame us.”
“I told them I already knew the body,” Tryba said. “I just had to learn about 32 teeth.”
She passed, and went to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where her patients included the aforementioned president, Lyndon B. Johnson.
“We did a panoramic X-ray,” she said, “which did the whole dynamic of his head while he was sitting in the chair. I put a piece of cotton in his mouth and told him to keep his mouth open an inch. I’m, like, sweating. … I also had a congressman – I didn’t know him from Adam – in my chair.”
Tryba spent all of her three years in the Navy on the mainland, never once boarding a ship. You might say she left a lasting impression during her time in the military.
“The Vietnam War was still going on,” she said. “They needed someone with a dynamo leg to put into plaster (to create a form for prosthetic legs). They chose me. I sat there with plaster on my leg. They brought me lunch. I was like the Queen for a Day.”
After leaving the Navy in April 1969, she eventually moved to Southern California where she worked for many years in a mental facility that housed veterans. She spent two years living at the Veterans Homes of California-Yountville before moving to the Chula Vista home nearly five years ago.
Her Yankee Doodle birthday will vary a bit from the previous years: Any fireworks she sees tonight will be illegal. Authorities last month announced the cancellation of the Port of San Diego’s annual Big Bay Boom fireworks due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.
The cake and ice cream are still good to go, though.
Happy 77th birthday, Mary Tryba. It’s so nice of you to share your annual party with the rest of the good ol’ USA!