Driving the Flight

Despite the old saw about the road to hell, I was raised to believe good intentions were what mattered most. “You meant well” defended the most egregious conduct, as well as: “He thought he was doing you a favor” and “I was only trying to help.” Good intentions didn’t count for squat at Officer Training School (OTS), only results. We were responsible for the quality of our judgment.

My brothers, having discovered sarcasm at an early age, used to call me “Miss Coordination.” On the OTS parade ground, she was alive and well, the remedial student who found it difficult just swinging her arms naturally when she marched. As a future officer, I was expected to keep in step, make sharp turns look effortless, salute, and do an about-face without tottering, all the while holding my rounded shoulders back and my chin perfectly parallel to the ground. Even worse, I had to do all that while leading my troops through a military drill.

At OTS we marched in formation everywhere and took turns as flight leader, the one responsible for calling the commands correctly, for “driving” the thirteen flight members like a sleek machine from place to place. Don’t think sports car; think Winnebago with a boat trailer, a car, and two motorcycles attached. Like any anxious driver I tended to make sudden stops and wide turns, drift all over the roadway, nearly collide with other flights. I hated it more than I hated running. Running was my personal failure, but screwing up as flight leader affected the whole flight.

One day I was in charge of the formation, responsible for getting everyone to fall in, then marching the flight down to the parade ground. We were all present except Officer Trainee Claren. Claren was so laidback he kept no account of time and was constantly late. I’d already sent someone to find him, who’d reported that he was in the library and would be with us soon. As 1 waited nervously outside the classroom building, the other flights steadily formed up and marched away. I didn’t know what to do. Wait for him and make everyone late? Or abandon the no-show—who’d been warned several times before—and go on?

Like any nervous driver, I was slow and needed to give myself extra time. As flight leader of the moment, I had the final word, so despite heated objections from the other members, I chose to leave him. We marched down to the parade ground, slowly but without incident, one member short but on time.

A few minutes later, Claren showed up. Fortunately, he’d been able to attach himself to another flight to get there. “How could you leave me!” he said.

“You were late. The flight couldn’t wait any longer,” I replied.

I felt wretched however. I’d gotten the flight there. I fulfilled my responsibility, but at the cost of abandoning one of our own. I’d jettisoned him like unnecessary ballast. It all worked out okay, so there was never any fallout from my decision—except that Claren wouldn’t speak to me for a few days.

This is a good time of year for shriving the soul, so today I confess that I decided to leave Claren because I was thinking of myself, not the flight. I sacrificed part of my team so I wouldn’t fail. I’ve done worse things, but this one continues to nibble at the edges of my conscience. So to the person I’m calling Claren, I ask forgiveness. Despite the results, intentions also count.

By the way, Officer Trainee Claren was never late for formation again.

[Officer Trainee, 1980]


About admin

Cheryl Dietrich (nee Duncan) is the author of the (as yet unpublished) memoir "In Formation: What the Air Force Taught Me about Holding On and Manning Up." She comes from the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. A Greek major at the College of Wooster (Ohio), she spent a few years living in Greece before attending Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. As a hospital chaplain she re-examined her faith and decided to leave the ministry. She entered the Air Force as a four-year stopgap but forgot to get out. Twenty years later she retired as a lieutenant colonel. With her husband and one spoiled dog, she moved to Asheville NC and began to write stories, essays, and memoir.
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4 Responses to Driving the Flight

  1. Cathy Wood says:

    Awesome Oma. I really never thought of all that you have done to be the high ranking officer we are all so proud of. I wish i would have had a chance to participate in your earlier career events like this. I applaud you for all if the tough decisions you made to be the amazing successful women you aretoday and that we all look up to!!! By the way…i probably would have taken the flight on and left him too. Life wouldn’t wait for him and you taught a lesson that could easily have been much harder to learn later in his life!! I applaud you!

  2. Sheila Tronsdal says:

    I simply can’t wait until your book is published! So much of your writing makes me feel like I’m right there…and even reading about myself. I’m so glad you have the talent to write about these experiences that are so common to so many of us!

  3. Carla Dettmer says:

    I agree with Cathy that you taught him a good life lesson, and one that he needed to learn, especially in the military. As Geoff taught me from his Navy training: “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is to be forgotten.”…Let the nibbling at your conscience, cease my friend. It was all for the best.
    Happy New Year to you too!

    PS Loving to learn more about your Air Force career…

  4. Glenda Beall says:

    I am enjoying your posts, Cheryl. I think you were right to leave Claren. It seems he needed that lesson and I don’t think you should let it bother you. Pat yourself on the back for teaching the young man that the world didn’t wait on his desires.

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