. . . and then I’ll let it go. I promise. For a while at least.
The first few weeks I was with NATO in Zagreb, my staff and I shared the commander’s front office with his aide and executive officer. We worked on a Croatian Army compound, in an abandoned building which NATO was renovating. Every week we would hear, “Your office should be ready soon.” But weeks came and went, and we were still stuck in a cluster of dented metal desks in a corner of the commander’s reception area.
One day the hammering, the buzzing of saws, the yells of the Croatian construction workers, the sawdust in the air, the glaring fluorescent lights, all conspired to put me in a nasty mood. It vibrated through me like the sound of the drill I could hear through the wall. Other people must have been affected too, because the whole office was generally kranky. Literally so. Our general, a US Army two-star, normally an affable, patient man, had been snapping at everyone all morning. I’d received my share of his displeasure.
“So what are you doing about those Army augmentees stuck in landmine training in Germany. And where’s the cops the Danes promised us? What are you guys doing all day anyway? Get with the program!” Then he’d grumped back into his office.
I slumped over my desk. I wanted nothing more than to walk out that minute, to go AWOL. Let them court-martial me. I was drowning in the persona of Major Dietrich, the good, obedient officer. I wanted to go home to Germany. I wanted to find Cheryl again.
Midmorning the doorway opened with its usual clang and draft of cold air. The general’s aide yelled, “Room! Ten hut!” We jumped to our feet, our metal chairs scraping behind us.
The visitor wore the khaki uniform of the US Navy, sharply pressed. He was a rear admiral, a man around fifty, handsome in a fresh-faced way, like Robert Redford in his heyday. “At ease, everyone,” he said. “The general in?”
“Yes, sir,” the exec said. “He’s on the phone. I’ll let him know you’re here, Admiral.”
“Don’t bother him. Wait till he gets off. I’ll just sit here and take it easy awhile.” He took a seat next to the aide’s desk and started chatting about the cold Croatian weather.
I peered at him from my corner. I’d met the admiral two months ago when I accompanied one of our colonels for a meeting at Headquarters SHAPE. We’d arrived an hour early and waited in the building’s bustling entrance hall for someone to escort us through security. Rather than sending a secretary or an NCO, the admiral came himself.
After introductions, he had turned to me. “I need to talk to your boss. Why don’t you go to the cafeteria and get some coffee. I’ll send someone to get you before the meeting starts.”
It was a dismissal, but a polite and pleasant one. “Yes, sir.” I turned toward the cafeteria.
“Wait. Take this.” He had thrust some Belgian francs at me. “No need to exchange money just to buy a cup of coffee.
That’s all there was to it. Other than sitting silently in the large meeting he was chairing, I’d had no other contact with him. Now, as I watched him, I thought the least I could do was spot him a cup of coffee in return. The office coffee pot sat on a table nestled between rusty filing cabinets. I got up and poured coffee into one of the ceramic mugs that we kept for visitors and carried it over to the admiral.
“How about some coffee, sir?” I said.
He looked up at me and smiled. “Great! Thanks, Cheryl.”
He knew my name! A busy admiral found me important enough to remember. The flame of recognition warmed me and lifted me out of my funk. I had no idea what kind of officer he was otherwise, but that was all I needed to know. I would have followed him anywhere. [Major, 1996]