Lieutenant Va Va Voom (1)

You would think that Fourth of July on an Air Force Base would be a big deal, but you would be wrong. Here was the thing during the Cold War, though I doubt if it’s true today. If the Fourth happened on a Thursday, we got Friday off too. If it was on a Tuesday we got Monday off. So it was mainly a four-day weekend for us. When we got to Germany we travelled. Brittany was our favorite place and it was just far enough to do on a four-day weekend.

So instead I am going to tell you about Lieutenant Va Va Voom. That’s what the men in the Personnel Office at Ramstein called Nathalie. She earned the title being small, sexy, and French. Besides, her last name, hyphenated, began with the two letters Va and Va. She was a lieutenant in the French military who came to visit our base to learn the personnel business.

I took to her right away. She had jumped out of a plane with nothing but a parachute. She was forceful and blunt, the kind of officer I wanted to be. She told me her father was a doctor. It was years later when I discovered he had been the Surgeon General for the French military.

Lynn asked me, “Has anyone invited her over?” I shook my head. She was a bit too startling for that. “Fine. Invite her over tomorrow night. I’ll make her an American meal.” He was the cook of the family.

We became friends that night. She talked a lot about Serge, her boyfriend, which she charmingly pronounced “Bye-friend.” He was apparently from a different class. This struck her as a problem.

“Does he speak English?” I asked.

“No, not at all,” she answered.

After that night she used to come to my office, and we would go upstairs to the one room set aside for smokers. She brought her own coffee since I only made decaf. “I like my coffee . . .” she hesitated, then smiled, “mean!”

One day she and her temporary boss, a French major at Ramstein, invited the officers to a French lunch. We talked for awhile about France’s past. I asked what I thought was an innocent question. “Does France still have colonies?”

Nathalie and the major looked at one another thoughtfully. Finally the major said, “We don’t call them that anymore.” From then on whenever I saw the major around base I saluted him. Normally we did not salute foreign officers since it was hard to figure out what rank they were. He always returned my salute with a smile that recognized me.

When Nathalie left after a month to return to her base in Strasbourg, we used to visit her. It was a mere two hours away. There we met Serge. It turned out he spoke beautiful English. Nathalie was surprised. “I didn’t know you spoke English,” she said.

He shrugged. “We never had occasion to use it before.” We liked him a lot.

[Captain, 1990]

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Meeting Dick Cheney

The Air Force believes in education. For its officers it offers three tiers. First Squadron Officer School for captains. Almost everyone goes to it. It was an eight-week course in Montgomery, Alabama. Next, for majors is Air Command and Staff College. Few get to go there.  I passed up an opportunity to go because I wanted to stay in Germany. Next for lieutenant colonels is Air War College. I was at the Pentagon when I made lieutenant colonel. There was no way I could go to Air War College, but I could join a once-a-week meeting to go over the material, take the tests, at least get it under my belt.

I already planned to retire so had no need to go to Air War College. But I don’t believe in letting things go because I plan something. And let’s face it: I’m a nerd. I like to study. And what we were studying was fascinating to me, even Air War College.

I was in a group of about 13 new lieutenant colonels. I remember only one argument of mine. I insisted on calling Macedonia FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia) instead of Macedonia. I kept Macedonia for Greece. One of the guys and I got into quite an argument about it. But otherwise things went smoothly. I read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara—awfully good book about the battle of Gettysburg. And I learned and learned and learned.

One week one of the guys came in all excited. He had met Dick Cheney, who was at that time the CEO at Halliburton. Cheney had agreed to address us the following week. Were we up for it? We all heartily said yes. After all, Cheney had been secretary of defense, one of our noted thinkers. Who wouldn’t want to meet him?

When I arrived the only seat left was at the top of the table. I sat next to Mr. Cheney. He began to talk. Later he answered questions. The one thing that I mainly remember about his discussion was this: he talked about how Carter had banned production of one of the bombers. He said something like, “It was the right thing to do. Nobody wanted it. The services didn’t want it. But Reagan pledged to bring it back. Politically that was what pushed him into office and Carter out.”

I had always thought that Carter didn’t get elected because of the hostages in Iran, but what did I know? What I remember about the rest of Cheney’s speech was how often when he spoke he went back to politics, the political solution to the mess. As if politics was all there was.

At the end of his talk he shook hands all around, wished us all luck. I look at my hand now, the one that Cheney shook. And I shudder to see it, as if his paw print is still on me.

[Lieutenant Colonel, 1998]

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Curt’s Courage

Curt and I worked in the same office, desks nose to nose. Curt was not his real name. I will also not tell you what grade I was or where we were. I cannot find Curt to ask his permission to tell this story.

One day the phone rang. Curt picked it up.  I heard him say, “Go to the neighbors’ house. Tell them I’ll be there right away.” He got up. “I have to leave,” is all he said. I nodded. He was a dedicated, hard worker. If he said he had to leave, he had to leave.

Curt was married and had two children. I assumed one of his children had called him, maybe had gotten locked out of the house. I expected Curt back that day, but he didn’t return. He came in the next day. He seemed frazzled, worried to the ends of his very short hair. Later that day, as I was going outside to have a cigarette, he asked if he could join me.

“I want you, someone, to know what’s going on. I may have to be gone on and off for awhile.” This is the story he told me.

His parents were visiting. The kids were out of school that day. His mother and wife decided to go shopping; the son decided to go along. The daughter said she would stay with her grandpa. After they left, the grandfather suggested they go upstairs and snuggle in bed together. The little girl was only eight, but her antenna went right up. She told him she would join him, then once he’d gone upstairs, she called her father. That was the conversation I had heard.

Curt sent his folks away as soon as he got home. Later though he started investigating. He was the only boy in the family, his father’s pride and joy. His father had taught him to hunt, to play basketball, to do manly things. Curt had a slew of sisters. He started asking them if their father had ever raped them.

It was across the board. Every last one had been introduced to sex by him. When they complained to their mother, she just said, “Then keep your bedroom door locked.” The father removed the locks. Curt asked his cousins. Ditto. His nieces. Ditto ditto.

He was shocked. He had always adored his father, but this was a side of him he had not known. “How could I be so stupid?” he asked me. “How could I not have seen it?”

“Who expects that? Especially since you had such a good relationship with him.”

No one in his family wanted the father brought to trial. Their mother was old; it would affect her too. And it was all water under the bridge. After they reached a certain age, he lost interest in them. But Curt thought about it, thought of all the little girls his father had raped, all the little girls out there that he might still rape. He went to the police. His father was arrested back in his home state.

Curt stood up in court and talked about what he had learned. The little girl did too. The father was convicted and hopefully has died in prison. With his whole family against him, Curt did the right thing. That takes guts.

But let’s talk about the little girl too. Her mother asked her how she knew what to do. The little girl replied, “Mom, you keep telling me what to do in those situations. I just followed your advice.” Talk to you daughters. Talk to your sons. Give them the example of bravery.

[Uncategorized]

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Crete 1990

The first time Lynn saw Crete, or any part of Greece, we had gone to meet our German landlords, Brigitte and Menachem. They had been there a week already, had claimed their space around the swimming pool, and spent the days catching tans in front of it. It was a hotel right outside of Malia, not far from Iraklion and the Palace of Knossos.

The Palace of Knossos

         We arrived and rented a car. I wanted Lynn to see so much of Crete that he fell in love with it, like I had so many years ago. We arrived on the Saturday before the Orthodox Easter, which begins at midnight. We asked Brigitte and Menachem if they wanted to walk with us into town to visit the church that night. They said no, so we walked that way around 10:00, in the dark. The church was crowded already. There was no room inside so most people hung around the outside area, crammed together.

Before midnight we were all given candles. I taught Lynn how to say Χριστός ανέστη (which means Christ is Risen, and I’ve probably badly misspelled it) as he lit someone else’s candle. At midnight the bells began to ring, and the priest lit the candles of the people nearest him. These people then turned around and lit someone else’s candle—which I’ve always thought one of the best ways to celebrate Easter. It took awhile for the candle light to work its way to us, but we both managed our  Χριστός ανέστη. Then we walked back to the hotel, carefully preserving our flames. Okay, I was—it’s good luck, you know. Lynn not quite as superstitious as I am, handled his cavalierly. Strangely I had more difficulty keeping mine alight.

At the hotel, they had a place for us to put our candles. The dining room was wide open. We went in for the wonderful soup they serve this time of year and only this time of year, mayeiritza with lamb organs in an egg-lemon sauce.

The next day, the hotel had pits dug to roast lamb on. We all signed up for Easter dinner (I had to do a little persuading), but we had a great time sitting out at a table on the beach. We ate and drank wine it seemed for hours.

The only other thing we persuaded Brigitte and Menachem to take part in with us was a visit to the Palace of Knossos, where the ancient Minoans once dwelt, and its museum. Menachem was interested. I think Brigitte would have happily stayed at her place near the swimming pool.

The hotel mainly catered to Germans, but it became obvious early on that even though we spoke German, we weren’t. Someone asked us what nationality we belonged to.

“American,” Lynn said.

They began to speak to us in English. They began to bring special treats to our table at night.

One day we persuaded Menachem and Brigitte to go to dinner in the town with us. There was a nice-looking little restaurant we wanted to try. We got there and began to order in German. Okay, maybe I showed off a little bit with Greek. The waiter looked at us.

“Sie sind keine Deutsche,” he said. “Was sind Sie?” You’re not German. What are you?

“American,” I said.

His face lit up. He went in, brought all four of us out some free ouzo. This is how you know they’re glad to see you in their restaurants, the free stuff they give you.

When we got the bill, they brought out free pastries, more glasses of ouzo. Brigitte was very silent throughout. As we left to wander back to the hotel, she began. “They are so good to you when you say you are American. They don’t treat us that well. But we’re the ones who keep them in jobs. I don’t understand. What makes you so special?”

I knew she was talking about Americans in general, that she wasn’t upset with us. Menachem gave me a look with a slight shake of his head. His father still wore the number tattoo that he had been given as a Polish Jew brought to Germany to build the Autobahn. He survived; his family did not.

What I wanted to say was, “They lost so many people here in World War II, fighting you. Crete was held down with an iron fist. These people have strong memories.”

But all I said was, “Gee, I don’t know.”

[Captain, 1990]

 

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ANNOUNCEMENT

I’m working on another book now, so have decided to limit my blog to one a month. It will be the first Friday of every month. If you want me to put you on a list to notify you, please let me know. Thanks for reading. Cheryl

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General K

At the beginning of the week I was due to retire, I sat at the end of a long table in the Pentagon.  General K sat at the head. He was in charge of a different area; I was just there as the personnel representative. This meeting concerned another meeting we’d had, weeks ago, with the Air Force Chief of Staff.

General K was a good-looking man, with black eyebrows and black hair, a solid body, just tall enough. Everyone else there belonged in his area. He wanted to know how well his folks were doing in carrying out the Chief of Staff’s instructions. There was a lot of disagreement about what the Chief had instructed. I sat and fantasized about my retirement on Friday. I was lost in my dreams when General K said, “Doesn’t anyone here know what the Chief instructed us to do.”

I did but it wasn’t my project, so I hesitated to speak up. But when the General repeated his question I knew I had to. “Uh, sir, as you know I sat over to the side behind the DP [Director of Personnel]. He had to leave for another meeting so he told me to take good notes and send him an email later summing up what had happened. I have it here.” (This was a new DP, one who actually liked me.)

General K stretched out his hand. I passed the email down to him. It was fresh, from right after the meeting. It distinctly said what the Chief of Staff wanted. General K read it and frowned, “Why don’t we have anything like this? Why didn’t anyone else take good notes? What else do you have there, Cheryl?”

I had a copy of the slides on which I had made my notes. “Well, just this, sir, but my notes are just scribbles, maybe not very helpful.”

He held his hand out again. Reluctantly I passed him the slides. Maybe he would lose interest before the line I didn’t want him to see. He began to read my notes, every now and then saying, “This is good stuff. Why don’t we have any of this, gentlemen?”

They fell over themselves explaining that they had good notes too, just hadn’t bothered to bring them. The general kept going through the slides, commenting on my notes. Oh please, oh please, let him lose interest now. Please please please.

He did not. He kept going, very deliberately reading out some of my notes—more to put his men to shame, I think, than anything else. Finally toward the back he reached it. I could tell because his black eyebrows shot right up into his black hair and stayed there. He read it intentionally, slowly, went back and read it again, then again. My guts clenched. Could he stop my retirement?

“So, Cheryl, what does this mean? ‘General K looks pissed.’” He looked coldly up at me.

I thought through several responses. Finally, I said, “I may have just been starting my grocery list. Sir.”

He stared at me coldly for a moment, then opened his mouth. What came out was a big “Ha!” followed by another and another. Soon he was laughing heartily, his men snickering with wild eyes at me, me giggling a little. This told me something: he actually had been pissed!

At the end of the meeting, one of his men came to me and asked if I would please come to the next. “I can’t,” I said. “I’m retiring on Friday.”

But this is what I liked about the Air Force. Even the bigwigs could laugh at themselves, most of them at least. And laughter was a good part of what it was all about. In those days we weren’t in the big wars we’ve experienced since 9/11. We were able to laugh, to have fun, not to take ourselves too seriously. I doubt if that’s true nowadays.

The following Friday I retired in a joint ceremony with Lynn at the WIMSA [Women in Military Service for America] Memorial outside Arlington Cemetery. The next day we were to have a big party. On Saturday morning I sat out on the deck, sipping coffee with Lynn. I felt something I had not felt for many years. I didn’t know what it was. Then I realized: it was the absence of stress.

[Lieutenant Colonel, 2000]

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Electronic Security Command: My Boss

My boss at Electronic Security Command was a clever man, the sort who assumed everyone else was a little bit stupid. He lived in an area in San Antonio called Windcrest. At the time there were four Air Force bases in San Antonio and a large Army base. Windcrest was considered the place for officers to live (I never lived there, nor did I want to). It was not far from us. At Christmas time, my husband Lynn and I would drive through the neighborhood looking at all the lights. It was a long slow drive. Windcrest really put on light shows. They even had a competition among themselves. I don’t know if my boss ever took part.

He was always at work early, though Windcrest was about half an hour away. I could not be for the first year because I didn’t have my Top Secret/SCI clearance so I had to be escorted into my office—which I shared with about twelve other people. He was the only one who had an office to himself, a little nook off ours. It didn’t matter. He was usually standing around the office, watching what was going on.

One day he came out to escort me in. He was chuckling to himself. I asked him what was so funny. He used to drive in at five in the morning. Windcrest had very strict speed limits, like 23 miles an hour. He was always in a rush, but it was usually safe to speed through Windcrest at that hour. That day however, a policeman had pulled him over.

By the time the cop got to his window, he had his story ready. “I’m so glad you stopped me, officer. There’s an emergency out at the base. I have to get in quickly.”

The cop immediately said, “Yes, sir! In fact I’ll give you an escort so no one else stops you on the highway.”

So not only did he not get a ticket, he was escorted driving eighty miles an hour to the base, where he thanked the officer profoundly and told him he would send a message to his boss (which I doubt he ever did). I got a kick out of the story but thought, you tricky son-of-a-gun.

My last job at ESC was reviewing offices under the Director of Personnel to get rid of positions. Our office was very overmanned, and I was nervous about going in to talk to my own boss about losing people. He took it very well, though, even smiled.

“You see, Cheryl,” he said. “I’ve been around a long time and I’ve learned that we go through build-up periods, then cutback periods. So during the build-ups, I build up. I create as many new requirements as I can and hire people to do them. So during the cutbacks, I have people to get rid of. I’m not surprised you want to get rid of some of our folks. You’re supposed to.”

“Uh, sir, one of the jobs I want to get rid of is mine.”

He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “I thought you would. I created your position to be dropped. So do it.”

[Captain, 1988]

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Happy Late Valentine

Last Friday was Valentine’s Day. We were snowed in, could not get out. We’d been snowed in for five days. So we decided to delay it. Today is our Valentine’s Day, the 21st. So I want to tell you about how Lynn and I first met.

I had heard of him two years before I met him. Our one civilian section chief in my first assignment was a pursed-lipped, balding man who ran the Records and ID card programs among other things. Mr. G. had ruled his little kingdom for more than twenty years. He despised lieutenants. He delighted in putting me down in the middle of staff meetings, with my boss Captain Rush, the other officers, and most of the senior NCOs there as audience.

“Actually, Lieutenant,” he would say with a tiny cough, “I believe the regulation requires you to . . . [fill in one of the many things I was doing wrong].”

He yelled at me one day because some visiting Pakistani officers I was responsible for hadn’t come to his section for ID card applications. He brandished a message in front of me from the Air Force-level ID card policy office. “This says IDs for foreign officers must be provided within the first week.” He was almost foaming at the mouth.

“Let me see that.” I glanced over the message. The official who sent it was a civilian with a first name of Lynn. “She’s talking about those foreign officers who are entitled to an ID card.”

Mr. G. sneered. “That ‘Lynn’ is not a she, but a he and he’s the Air Force expert on IDs. And we always give foreign officers ID cards.”

I handed him the message back. “Without coming through me? According to the Foreign Officer reg, the only ones who get ID cards are those whose orders specifically authorize it.”

I found the page in the regulation and flourished it. Ha! My reg against your message!

He grabbed it from me and read the part I pointed out to him. His face turned pale. I said, “I hope you haven’t been giving ID cards to all the foreign officers visiting General Dynamics. None of the orders I’ve seen have authorized it.” I got just the right mix of concern, professionalism, and malice into my tone.

Captain Rush blanched. “We’ve been issuing IDs without authorization?”

“Unh. Unh.” Mr. G. couldn’t seem able to come out with anything more. That was the last time he messed with me. Fortunately, we had the two new lieutenants for him to torment.

Two years later I sat in a new assignment, at the Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. The desk across from mine was still empty. Its inhabitant had been gone on a combination of leave and temporary duty the whole two weeks I’d been there. He was due back today, and I was curious to meet him. I bent over my desk, trying to read the dull regulations I was supposed to be boning up on. My head jerked up each time someone entered through the space in the partitions that served as the office doorway. But it was always someone I already knew, wandering sluggishly in to start work.

Seven thirty passed. Everyone else was in and busily at work, but the empty desk remained empty. Seven thirty-five. Seven forty. It was seven forty-five before he strode in, a tall, middle-aged man in a blue suit, with the snow white hair of someone who’d gone gray prematurely. He threw his briefcase on his desk and announced to everyone in earshot, “That’s it! Divorce is final. And I’m never getting married again.” There was a pattering of hand claps.

Then he spotted me—the newbie watching bemused. A streak of red glowed in his tan cheeks. “You must be our new officer. I’m Lynn.”

“Cheryl Duncan.” We shook hands.

“Good to have you here. Sorry about the dramatic entrance, but . . . well . . .”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I gather congratulations are in order.”

So this was the great man, the civilian with the transgendered name. At Carswell I’d seen his name on tons of messages, including an announcement that he was the Air Force’s Civilian Personnel Manager of the Year. He seemed like a celebrity to me. I’d been thrilled to discover I’d be working in the same office, his fame reflecting on me like glamour off a movie star.

There are people whose mere presence affects the workings of the cosmos around them, and Lynn was one of these. He was the hub of the office. With his arrival everything seemed

livelier, with more laughter, more activity, more production. The civilian women openly adored him, buzzing around him like anxious handmaids. The men joked with him and sought his advice. Our boss barely took a step without consulting him. I found having Lynn around made the difference between a dull workday and one infused with possibility.

I’d never cared for the closeness of apartment living, preferring a quiet privacy. I was eligible for a VA loan—100%, no down payment. AFMPC, like most higher headquarters, was a four-year assignment so I’d have time to build up a little equity before moving on. It was common knowledge in 1982 that buying a house was the most solid investment one could make, that housing prices always went up. So I’d come to San Antonio before my assignment on a house-hunting trip. I’d closed on and moved into a small ranch-style house as soon as I arrived. My boss and I often stood out in the stairwell with packs of cigarettes and coughs to discuss office issues. Lynn, though officially a non-smoker, occasionally joined us. Never an extremist in his positions or behavior, he wasn’t above bumming cigarettes.

When Lynn and I started to discuss my house, my boss excused himself and went back to work. I lit another cigarette, offered Lynn one, and the two of us stood there smoking companionably.

Lynn looked thoughtful. He stubbed out his cigarette—he never smoked them more than halfway, unlike me, who almost burned my fingers getting every puff down to the filter. “Do you have any plants?”

I had a washer and dryer and sleeper sofa and bed and kitchen table and pots and pans. What else did a person need? “Plants? No. At least, not yet.” I threw that last in to be polite, as he obviously thought plants were important.

“I have lots. I’ll give you some cuttings if you want.”

“Well, sure.” It wasn’t the sort of offer one could turn down, though my previous experiences with plants led to their premature deaths due to a perverse reluctance to water them.

“Great. Why don’t you come over Saturday morning? I’ll give you directions.”

It was the only invitation I’d received in my first month at Randolph. Every evening after work, I went home and watched my dog Tippy run around the backyard. Every weekend, I slept, I shopped, I read, I cleaned, and sank deeper into my loneliness. For some of my other friends, Lynn’s invitation wouldn’t have sounded very exciting, but for me, it felt like the best thing that had happened here.

Saturday was the best kind of Texas day—clear and dry with just a hint of crispness, a refreshing San Antonio fall day. Lynn moved from plant to plant, energetic in his enthusiasm.

“You want some of this?” he asked me and mentioned some name I’d never heard of and forgot immediately. He didn’t wait for an answer but began to dig with a small trowel, careful to bring up the plant with its roots intact. “You’ll like this. It’ll grow great on your patio—you’ve got a patio, right? Okay, screened-in. Even better.” He gave me instructions for caring for it as he positioned it in a pot for me, his dirt-stained hands packing down the soil mix I’d watched him make up earlier.

I’d thought the office was Lynn’s demesne, where he reigned impressive and dignified in button-down shirts and ties. But here in his backyard, impossibly lush with thriving plants, he was in his true kingdom. He knelt in the dirt in blue jeans and a casual t-shirt (“Fiesta ’79” it said, with a toppling tower of sombreros decorating the back). The almost invisible gray stubble on his square face revealed a man who hated to shave. His love was here, in the bushes and flower beds, in the comfort of the cozy home he shared with his mother and teenage daughter. The latter, a petite, sixteen-year-old blonde, made a brief, sleepy appearance around noon, then disappeared with friends. A small matted poodle trotted behind Lynn for awhile, then flung himself panting under a bush.

“What do you think? Is that enough?” Lynn asked finally as I surveyed a daunting collection of potted plants. Like human tykes demanding food and toys and play time, the plants scared me, but I said nothing, so grateful for Lynn’s kindness, for this gift of a Saturday morning. I assured him this was plenty, but he was off again suddenly.

“Pachysandra. I forgot to give you pachysandra. You must have some of this.” He started talking about its properties as he carefully separated a piece for me, but I took in none of it, entranced by the lovely name which I repeated over and over to myself.

After four more plants, Lynn finally seemed to wind down. I had a jungle now to fill my house, my yard, my screened porch. More living things to surround me and Tippy, to make my life fuller, even though looking down at them all, these green things arrayed before me, had the opposite effect. Returning home felt like returning to loneliness. But I’d been here two hours already. I figured my allotment of Lynn’s time was used up.

“Hey, thanks. I really appreciate it. I guess I’d better load these up and get going.”

He looked disappointed. “Do you have to? Why don’t you stay for lunch? Some other friends of mine are coming by this afternoon. I think you’d enjoy them.”

I stayed for lunch and met Lynn’s shy, tiny mother. I spent the afternoon hanging out, laughing with Lynn’s friends, Annie and George, and playing with their three small children. Lynn’s daughter Cathy came home. We drank Pearl beer on the patio, then frozen margaritas. Lynn made fajitas on the grill while we all pitched in to help.

It was dark when I got home with a hatchback full of plants (all of which were doomed to death under my careless stewardship). Tippy greeted me indignantly, sniffed the evidence of poodle on my jeans, eyed the plants suspiciously. My mother called later to chat. I told her about spending the day at Lynn’s.

“Oh, Cheryl, he sounds wonderful. You ought to set your sights on him.” Where did she get these old-fashioned expressions?

“Mom, he’s too old. He’s around your age.”

“Oh.” I could hear the disappointment in her voice, but it didn’t bother me not to have found a boyfriend that day. Lynn became special to me not because I saw him as a potential mate or partner or even date, but because he’d said, “I want you to meet some other friends of mine.” He had welcomed me into his community of friends, and that’s what I needed then.

[1st Lt, 1982]

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Electronic Security Command: Bob

Call him Bob, because that was his name. He was a technical sergeant, a radio operator whose turn had come to be sent stateside. He was an overage in my office, a hardworking guy and smart. A good addition to our office. By then I’d come up with plenty of things to do, so we were all busy.

A Hispanic, Bob loved being in San Antonio. He had family there. Bob always delivered tamales at Christmas. I valued him for that alone.

One of the things people in my office had to do was visit the National Security Agency (NSA). That was before the Patriot Act, so they did little collection of information about day-to-day people. After I finally got my clearance, Bob and I received orders and headed off to Maryland, to the land of the spies.

That first night, after we checked into a hotel, the two of us went out searching for food. We stopped at a crab shack, determined to figure out how to eat the critters. We ordered. The waitress came and spread a large sheet of brown paper on our table. We each got a hammer and tongs and a small fork. I could see Bob’s face blanch, and I figured mine was doing the same thing. The waitress came back and unloaded a basket of cooked crabs onto the brown paper. We both looked silently at them and at our implements. She looked at us.

“You folks need some instruction on how to eat these?”

“Yes, please,” I said.

“Well, here we go,” she said and showed us how to pull off the feelers, suck the good stuff out, then crack the shell and open it, use our little forks to pull the good stuff out. She warned us against eating certain parts and left it to us. We were awkward at first, but after awhile got the hang of it.

All the while a party of folks near us were laughing and making jokes at our expense. Bob wriggled in his chair a while, then turned to me and said softly, “Can you hear them, ma’am? They’re making fun of us.”

I smiled and said loudly, “Don’t worry about it, Bob. If they came to San Antonio, they’d probably eat the corn shuck on the tamale.”

He laughed at that image. The other table got bored with us and moved on to other conversations. And we got better and better at eating the crabs.

The next day we went to NSA, a huge building. We were shown through it, had briefings about the work they did, watched people in headsets. Not many people knew of it in those days. I had one moment of glory. Our guide, a middle-aged woman, was explaining how the whole building was designed to be unable for hackers to get in.

I asked, “Does that mean you don’t have to have specialized equipment?” Which we did and every office that worked with classified had to have.

“That’s exactly what it means. You’re the only person who’s ever got that.” Which I think simply meant I was the only one to comment on it. But Bob across the way beamed at me.

I had friends in Baltimore. I invited Bob to go along with us that night. “We’ll see some of Baltimore. I’ve never been, but I understand there’s a neat place down by the harbor. Also, Bob, I’ve invited Cion and her husband to go out to dinner. I’m going to pay, so don’t say anything.”

We had a pleasant evening, went out on a boat with their dog, saw Ft. McHenry, wandered around the harbor. I took them to a wonderful place with simple food, but crammed with artwork—a lot of it kitsch, but not all.

The next day we packed the car and readied ourselves to head home. I had a cup of coffee in my hand as Bob packed the car trunk. When he finished, he looked at me hesitantly, then said, “Ma’am, would you put your coffee down for a minute.”

I set it on the closed trunk lid. He came to me and gave me a big hug. “Thank you for everything,” he said.

“Oh, I didn’t do anything.”

“You included me.”

We drove to the airport then. His hug was one of the sweetest I’ve ever known.

[Captain, 1987]

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Electronic Security Command: Cryptolinguists

 “Cryptolinguists are the pilots of the enlisted force,” I groused one night, picking my way around Brussels sprouts. The vinegar that dressed them seemed the perfect accompaniment to my mood. “They’re spoiled and pampered. They think they’re the smartest people in the Air Force and expect to be treated like little royalty.”

They were smart, handpicked for their intelligence and provided with expensive, intensive language training through the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. But their job was mind-numbingly tedious, sitting in a bunker or in a specially outfitted plane with earphones on, listening for hours, transcribing anything potentially meaningful. Then every few years they were shipped back to the States to perform mindless work, guaranteed to bore them silly. I could see their frustration in the Personnel directorate at Electronic Security Command (ESC), bright young NCOs running around the building doing jobs out of their primary skill sets, frequently administrative, often mere gofers pouring coffee for the colonels. Most of them eventually figured out they could use this opportunity to work on completing bachelor’s or master’s degrees, even occasionally Ph.Ds. The Air Force had the best educated enlisted force in the world, and ESC the best educated in the Air Force. All of which seemed to feed their sense of entitlement.

The linguists were given extra allowances, special bonuses, anything to keep them happy and in the Air Force. They were too valuable a resource to lose. Most of my job centered around finding ways not to lose them, ways to soothe them with special attention, stroke their giant egos. Despite this, I was recipient of constant complaints from linguists out in the field. And nowadays I was too hungry and cranky to put up with it.

“Sure they’re bright,” I went on. “But so are some of the rest of us. They insist on being treated so damned special. I am sick and tired of linguists!”

Lynn set his glass down. “Did you know I used to be one?” Oops.

In his twenties, I knew he’d spent a four-year enlistment in the Air Force, reaching the grade of sergeant before he got out. “I thought you were in Personnel then?”

“I was. But not at first.”

In Basic Training tests, Lynn had scored high enough to be accepted into the cryptolinguist career field. In the fifties, all new linguists started out with a four-week course in Russian at Lackland Air Force Base. Only the top of the class would be sent on to study Russian as their specialty, while the rest would be farmed out to other languages. Lynn eagerly wanted to be selected for Russian, picturing himself stationed in Germany after training, the Fatherland calling to him through his genes. So he worked his butt off to be top of that four-week class. He made it, then got one of those shocks of disillusionment the military is so good at delivering. He’d done too well. He was pulled out of Russian to study a more difficult language: Chinese.

In those days DLI didn’t exist. Instead the services contracted with various universities to provide language training. Chinese was taught at Yale. He spent a year studying in New Haven, listening to professors who talked while they ate potato chips or apples, sipped coffee (“because that’s what we’d be listening to, you know—people mumbling and background noise”). But Lynn felt he wasn’t catching on to it.

“The characters, yes. I loved studying the Chinese characters.” His face brightened when he told me about them, his voice stroking the words in such a way I could see them forming in front of me, graceful black ink strokes. “My professors begged me to stay in the program, but there was no guarantee I could get placed in one of the few positions that called for reading characters. So I self-eliminated.”

I nodded understanding. As in Officer Training School, self-initiated elimination was acceptable, a poor linguist being worse than no linguist at all. In fact in the short time I’d been at ESC, I’d learned that language school elimination, whether self-initiated or not, ran almost 50%—an issue I’d eagerly taken on to have something worthwhile to do. (I would tilt at that windmill my whole two years there with nothing to show for it but bruises.)

“Besides I found out where I was likely to be assigned,” he admitted. There was a group of New Haven town girls who clustered around the language school to pick up the boys who came in with each new class—something about a man in a uniform, I suppose. They got to know all sorts of classified stuff that they gossiped about freely, including what they heard from previous boyfriends complaining about their situations. “I found out the Chinese linguists were almost all stationed on tiny isolated islands way out in the Pacific.”

His dream of wandering the streets of West Berlin might have shifted into a not unpleasant notion of Hong Kong or Macao. But a rock in the Pacific—no way! So he’d dropped out of the program. He was still an ESC resource so he’d spent the rest of his enlistment working in the orderly room on Security Hill.

I eyed him tentatively after hearing his story. “Well, okay. But you’re not a prima donna. So I forgive you for your past sins. Now, say something to me in Chinese.”

I’d hoped for something like “I adore every inch of your gorgeous body,” but the twangy sounds that came out meant “Let’s eat” or something equally prosaic. Still I had to smile.

“What’s so funny?”

“I just realized I married a Yale man. Won’t my mom be pleased!”

[Captain, 1986]

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