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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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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Electronic Security Command – Clearance

My friend Linda always liked to say, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression.” So I left the house at six and made the unfamiliar drive across town in the dark, anxious not to be late my first day on the new job. Oh-six-forty and I was already cooling my heels in an antechamber off the guardroom, waiting to be escorted inside the headquarters.

I wore a badge that said “Visitor,” pegging me an outsider, someone not privy to the mysteries cultivated here. Electronic Security Command (ESC) thrived on secrecy like vampires on blood. It was the Air Force’s major command component to the National Security Agency. I wasn’t authorized to know most of what went on here. Hell, I wasn’t even authorized to enter the building by myself.

I already had a security clearance, of course. Like all Air Force members I’d undergone a National Agency Check and received a Secret clearance, which enabled me to review documents classified “Confidential” and “Secret.” For a Personnel officer that was usually sufficient. But to work at ESC, everyone had to have a Top Secret clearance, and what’s more, one for Special Compartmentalized Information (SCI). I never understood the SCI thing. After all, any access to classified information required not just that you have the appropriate clearance but that you have the “need to know.” The SCI restriction on ESC and NSA classified material suggested that the team I was joining was very exclusive, not one for the hoi polloi.

The Special Background Investigation required for these clearances had begun while I was still at the Manpower and Personnel Center. They always took a long time, and mine was complicated by the years I’d lived in Greece after college. The investigators were always suspicious of anyone with ties to another country—even an ally.

Last week I’d gotten a call from my friend Anne. An agent had interviewed her about me. She sounded excited to be part of this secretive world, a cog playing her role in the huge national security machine.

“He wanted to know all about what you’d been doing in Greece.” Anne, a classical archaeologist, had visited me there for extended periods. It was a time when we were both mainly interested in bumming around and meeting guys. “I told him about you tutoring English, but he was just interested in the dirt. Like, did you have any Greek boyfriends? He wanted to know if you were the type to reveal sensitive information in what he called ‘the throes of passion.’”

It made me wonder what kind of movies those guys watched. “It’s all so dull. Why would anyone talk about classified stuff in bed?”

“That’s what I said—I can barely say my name. Then he wanted to know if there was anything an old boyfriend could blackmail you over. I said I didn’t think so, but if anyone tried it, you’d just say ‘Publish and be damned!’ He wrote it down. I don’t think he knew the quote.”

I wondered about that, poised to enter this web of secrecy. Was I the “publish and be damned” type? Perhaps. I did not like to be manipulated. One of the surest ways to make me angry was to threaten to “tell.” I seldom had much to risk, so maybe that was why. It wasn’t courage; I was pretty sure of that.

When I eventually got my clearance, I eagerly wandered the halls of ESC, went to talk to people, instead of calling them. I read the files that had been off-limits to me. They were a disappointment. Everything in them I had read in the local newspapers. I complained about it to my boss.

“Yes,” he told me dryly. “But the Air Force hadn’t confirmed any of the newspaper information.” Nevertheless, it seemed a huge waste of time and money to me.

[Captain, 1988]

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When we first arrived at Ramstein, we’d made friends with another couple, Mark and Josie. Both captains like me, Mark worked in the base personnel office, while Josie was up at the headquarters. They were unfortunately due to be reassigned soon back to the States. When they told us they were taking a one-week house-hunting trip, I asked if they needed a ride to the airport. Lynn loved driving at top speeds on the Autobahn and had already picked up and delivered a few folks to the Frankfurt airport. So I felt okay volunteering him.

At first they had demurred politely, but when both Lynn and I pressed the issue, they looked at one another, then back to us. “Well, if you’re sure you don’t mind?”

It was no problem, we assured them.

Josie laughed. “Well, we’d heard you were an excellent officer, if they could just keep you in the office.”

Silence crashed like a giant stone in the midst of us. Finally, I managed a smile. “Actually, I hadn’t intended to go with you. It’ll just be Lynn.” Gradually, the tension melted away, and we became comfortable with one another again. I’m probably the only one who remembers that little exchange.

I didn’t blame Josie. Too many times I’d come out with a remark I considered a clever bit of teasing, only to have it fall flat, to realize in the silence, Oh my God, that wasn’t funny; that sounded mean. I knew what she intended, what she was feeling. I also knew where the remark came from originally.

I saw again the enigmatic expression of my last boss, a lieutenant colonel at Electronic Security Command. While there, I’d had temporary duties and leaves—but no more than anyone else. And yes, I’d been gone for three months to attend Squadron Officer School, but that was a requirement. But most consistent of my absences had been the mandatory months exercising to Jane Fonda videos as part of the Weight Management Program.

I might have known he’d have commented on it. Someone had to have called him about me, to get a reading, a recommendation. “She’s a good worker—if you can keep her in the office.” I could hear his dry voice, its inflection of sarcasm.

At my farewell party, during the roasts, and presentation of gag gifts, he had thrown out a barbed comment about my Weight Management Program participation—just in case someone in the office didn’t know. It too had fallen like a huge boulder over a cliff, the silence broken only by his wife’s warning “Johhhnnn.” I could find nothing to say about his remark—the details of which I’ve forgotten—so just concentrated on maintaining the good-humored smile on my face.

I hadn’t cried until we drove away. “He could have gone a century of talking without once mentioning the weight thing.”

Lynn soothed me. “Don’t worry. We’re leaving all that behind, sweetie.”

But we hadn’t. Josie’s remark made it clear that there was no such thing as a new beginning in the small town mentality of the Air Force. My weight had followed me here, the shame of it. I would never be able to stop worrying about it. But I’d really already known that. It was a particular problem in Germany.

The first day Lynn went to the commissary at Ramstein, he came back with Danish butter, with great beer, with lip-smacking German breads, all luscious items we’d gotten away from in San Antonio. The local restaurants too—we could walk to them. Feast and feast and feast, until we were bloated.  A captain I worked with told me she kept her weight down with a bowl full of peppers for lunch and a TV dinner at night. I stared at her. Was she crazy? What with schnitzel and schnecken and all those German esses covering the foods like sauce. Every weigh-in I approached with trepidation. I passed every one, but usually only by a pound or two.

Here’s my point: Good things in life include food. Don’t sacrifice everything to stay skinny. Enjoy. Be moderate, but enjoy.

Don’t even get me started about French food.

[Captain, 1988]

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The Amazing Dog in DC

 “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .” that an assignment to the Pentagon casts one into the bureaucratic pit of hell. All good officers fight to avoid the Pentagon, but many end up there. The Air Force dragged me back from Germany screaming, my nails digging deep ruts in the rich Palatinate soil, my eyes looking back to the beloved country we were leaving.

            When we first went to Germany in 1988, we took our 12-year-old dog Tippy with us. At the San Antonio airport, we had dutifully given her a happy pill, then sent her away with the luggage. In Frankfurt, she had come out with a far-freaking-out look on her shaggy face, like she was saying, “Man, I can see my paw. It’s so cooool.”

When we returned to the States eight years later, we forgot that Germany’s attitude toward dogs is quite different. We gave Maisie, our beagle-mix pup, her pill before we checked in. So of course the person at the desk said, “You don’t have to go back to the gate for two hours. Just set her kennel over there and keep her with you till then.” So we walked with her up to a café where she snoozed at our feet. She was so spaced out by the time we left, we had to carry her.

As soon as we got into the luggage area at Dulles airport, we heard her. She was mad. She barked her head off at everyone and everything. She was still barking when we picked her up, went through customs with her, rolled her with our luggage through a pair of glass doors and out into her new land. A man in uniform, a lieutenant colonel, held up a sign, “DIETRICH.” Maisie yelled at him too.

He peered cautiously into her kennel. “What kind of monster do you have in there?” He was my new boss, a thin, energetic man with a boyish face.

“This is Maisie, the Amazing Dog,” I said.

“Hello, Maisie,” he said quietly. She shouted at him—in German.

When we got out of the airport I let Maisie out of her kennel, walked her around to stretch her long legs and do her business. My new boss led us to his car, and my heart sank. I’d have to put her back in her kennel. I dreaded not only doing it to her, but also the music our diva would perform for us. But the lieutenant colonel said, “Let her sit in the back seat with you. We haul our dogs in here all the time.” It was a friendly car, the type that looked like it hauled dogs.

We were going to be staying with dog-hostile friends for a while, so our first stop was the kennel near the airport. Several people had recommended it. I was relieved to find a pleasant, shaded building surrounded by woods; Maisie would feel at home here. While my husband went back to check out the accommodations, I filled out the paperwork.

Kenneling a dog had changed substantially in eight years. “It’s sixteen dollars a night,” the young man at the desk told me. “Would you like her to have a soft mat to lie on? That’s an extra dollar fifty a night.”

We were abandoning Maisie for two weeks, after moving her so abruptly away from her homeland. How could we leave her to languish on the hard kennel floor? “Sure,” I said.

“Great. Now do you want to set her up for nature walks in the woods?”

“Oh, yes! She’s used to a daily walk in the woods.”

Doggie playtime? Exercise class? A pedicure? A bath? I okayed it all, recklessly adding activity to activity to her schedule, fueled entirely by guilt. If they’d offered it, I would have signed her up to make me a paw print ashtray. Eventually, her nightly rate at the kennel equaled the amount it would cost us to stay in a decent highway motel. The only thing I turned down was the Frosty Paws™, described as “ice cream for dogs but not made of dairy. We give it to them before bedtime.” I refused it, but only because we had her on a diet.

My new boss muttered plaintively, “But how will she feel when all her Doggie Playtime buddies are getting a bedtime treat and she’s not?”

I thought,  I’m going to like working for this man. I’m going to like it here. And I did.

When we went to get Maisie, she had a report card; her only markdown was that she didn’t chase insects. There was also a picture of her and her handler outside the nature walk area. She seemed happy and healthy. She lived to be seventeen, a happy American dog who barked with the slightest of German accents. She died quickly and quietly with the two of us beside her, stroking her and crying.

As for my Pentagon boss, he’s a three-star general now, the highest ranking personnel officer in the Air Force, a brilliant, friendly, honest man with a great sense of humor. And a fondness for dogs. He’s retiring next month. Sir, may you be as successful in your next career as you were in your last. Thank you for all you did.

[Major, 1996]


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