First Chairborne

The evening before Thanksgiving, I was flying back to Holland from Naples. I’d been there at NATO’s AFSOUTH headquarters working on a panel to develop Personnel policies for the military units that would be sent into the former Yugoslavia. As we approached the runway, a flight attendant walked down the aisle, calling “Major Dietrich? Is there a Major Dietrich?”

It’s not a great sensation, hearing your name paged on an airplane. My mind went through all sorts of potential nasty accidents. When I unfolded the paper the attendant handed me, it said simply, “Call your office as soon as you arrive at the airport,”—not a message designed to relieve anxiety. It was almost eight when I dialed from a pay phone at the airport. An unfamiliar voice answered, the accent obviously English but so heavy I could barely understand it. After a few, “What?” “Say that again,” and “Huh?” interjections on my part, I finally worked out that leave had been cancelled because the Dayton Peace Accords had finally been signed. I was to drive back to Heerlen for instructions. The next morning we would fly down to Zagreb.

“We? I’m sorry, but who are you?” I asked.

Through his accented mumble, I made out, “I’m Chris, mum, your new assistant.”

Chris was a chief petty officer in the Royal Navy, due to retire after this tour. We got along great, despite his accent which was virtually incomprehensible to me. A typical exchange went like this:

Chris: “mumblemumblemumble . . . mumblemumblemumble”

Me: “Uh, yeah, okay, fine.”

Chris: “You didn’t understand a thing I said, did you?” (Words he spoke perfectly.)

We shared a love for English-style crosswords (what we call “cryptic” on this side of the pond). He came by his passion naturally; mine is a perverse anomaly. We worked them together whenever we could spare a little time in the office. The general, a US Army two-star, walked in one day and caught us. A crossword fiend himself, he expressed an interest in learning but soon made an excuse to leave, shaking his head on the way out.

Chris established our office’s standard, enviable phone greeting: “Ceeeeeeeee-One! First Chairborne!” added partially to tease Frank, a US Army NCO who took his red beret and membership in the 81st Airborne unit very seriously. Frank soon became proud of the “chairborne” designation also. Only the commander’s executive officer complained, saying it was not professional. So we stopped for a while, until the general expressed concerns that our morale was low. At that we happily picked it up again.

The work continued to be exhausting, even though now I had a full staff. Besides the continual struggle to bring augmentees in, we had daily manning reports to submit, accounting for all the NATO troops in the former Yugoslavian nations. We had evaluations and decorations and all the other Personnel processes to enforce and monitor for the members of fourteen different nations and four different services that made up our headquarters. We had civilian hiring and management. We had manpower functions, deleting, adding, changing slot requirements. Gradually, however, the hours started to lessen, the pace to slow down. We could almost count on an eleven-hour workday, six days a week, which seemed glorious luxury after the last three months.

We’d been working in a murk of papers and folders and wandering diskettes that made chaos look like a model of efficiency. The day finally came when I had a few minutes to stop and look around the mess of our office space. Papers were strewn all over the desks. We had file cabinets, but at this point all we used them for were to stack other papers.

“We need to get this place organized,” I announced. “Chris, will you take the lead? We’ll all help, of course.” He mumbled something I took to be acquiescence, but he insisted on staying late by himself that night to work on it.

“You’ll see, mum. In the morning, I’ll have everything fixed, files named and tabbed, even the diskettes.”

He was as true as his word. In the morning, I walked into a neat, organized workspace. “Let me show you the files I’ve set up,” Chris said (at least I think that’s what he said). He had ordered everything logically and filed them inside the folders he’d made. He’d developed a reasonable system for our file cabinets. He had gathered similar information to store on diskettes. And he had named everything. Our folders were now titled Billy Bob, Peggy Sue, Bobby Jean, and similar names. The diskettes too—our major reports were kept on Mary Lou.

Our files kept those names. The other offices got a kick out of it and went along. Mary Lou, for example: we had to turn her into another office for transmission every evening. Later we’d get a call. “Come get Mary Lou. She’s flirting with the EOD report and Logistics is getting jealous.”

One day the commander’s aide walked in. “The general wants to know if you have information on skill sets. He said he thought Billy Bob might have it.”

And yes, Billy Bob did.

[Major, 1996]

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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One Response to First Chairborne

  1. Karen N says:

    I howled laughter reading this entry and the previous one about Jimmy the Greek. You capture just the right details to bring the people you write about to life on the page and have the perfect rhythm/timing for penning humorous anecdotes.

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