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]

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 Happy Late Valentine

  1. Glenda Beall says:

    I love this post. You tell this story of meeting your future husband so well, I almost forgot that you end up with him. I was drawn in by the buildup of the story. Good writing and good story.

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