One More about Name and Rank . . .

. . . 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]



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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2 Responses to One More about Name and Rank . . .

  1. Karen N says:

    It’s wonderful sometimes how the simplest gestures (like someone remembering your name) can make such a difference, especially in an environment like the military where someone in the admiral’s position meets so many people. I know when one of the higher-ups from the corporate office where I work actually call me by name, it’s this pleasant moment when I can step out of my work role and all the pressures thereof and just be Karen. It brightens the whole day.

    The idea of persona is a fascinating one, and I’ve always really liked how you explore this in your writing about the Air Force. Looking forward to more posts!

  2. Glenda Beall says:

    Good writing, Cheryl. I enjoy your posts.
    Our name is the most important thing we own, and I learned from others that calling anyone by their name makes them feel good.
    My husband always called the waitress by her name, he called the bell hop by his name and as a result he got excellent service anywhere he went. I have found that a person’s name is the sweetest word he/she knows, and if we all used that little gesture with people, we’d be well-liked and well-respected, and we would make others feel good.

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