Everyone called Staff Sergeant Mason Tilly, and I was no exception. The name suited her. She was young and freckled with a Midwestern, girl-next-door look. Her hair and face both glowed with reddish-gold sheens. Her aura shone with health and corn and naivety. And she stood at my desk one day with a determined look in her eyes. Her hands held one another in a futile attempt to keep from shaking.
I had entered my new position with a combination of cockiness (I’m so good, I get to be exec!) and whimpering terror. This was a big job for any new captain. As the colonel’s executive officer, I sat directly outside his door and managed the flow of people and paperwork in and out. Since our directorate was the largest at the Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center, we managed a lot of both. I was junior to all the branch and division chiefs who clamored for the colonel’s attention, but I bore a degree of his authority. Fortunately, I had plenty of experience playacting. I became Captain Exec, keeper of the keys, super hero, trembling coward, all of the above.
The colonel’s secretary and I worked in a tiny antechamber, our two desks butted together to make room for a couple of additional chairs for guests. The secretary was a nasty, spiteful gossip, which I could have handled if she had also been competent. My job was complicated by having to check all her work and frequently having to run damage control because of her errors. She’d held her job through numerous colonels’ comings and goings, by dint of protective civil service rules.
(Riddle: Which of the following doesn’t belong in this list? A. Gonorrhea. B. Herpes. C. An Air Force civilian. Answer: Gonorrhea—you can get rid of it. Don’t get the wrong idea. Most civil servants are hardworking and highly competent; I married one in fact. But getting rid of a bad one . . . tough, very tough, especially when you know you’ll be rotated out in a year or so.)
I also supervised the administration of the directorate office. I had two NCOs working for me who set deadlines and tracked and proofread documents requiring the colonel’s attention. When I started the job, the senior NCO in charge of the administrative section of the office had gone on temporary duty for a few months. A master sergeant was filling in for him. Trying to learn my way around the office, I went frequently to this sergeant with my questions.
But now Tilly, the junior admin NCO, stood in front of my desk with a set look to her lips. She took a couple of deep breaths. Behind her, I could see the secretary leaning in closer to listen, her nose twitching at the hint of some gossip to serve up to her friends.
“Ma’am, I have a problem I need to discuss with you.” Tilly licked her lips and pressed ahead, her voice shaking. “I’m a permanent member of the admin staff, but whenever you have a question you walk right past me and go to the master sergeant. I’m just a staff sergeant but I know more about this office than he does. And I think,” her voice began to squeak, “that you should be coming to me with your questions first.”
Brand new on the job and here was a staff problem already. Why did everyone have to be so sensitive? I just wanted to get the work done. My immediate reaction was to deny, defend, to make up some rationale, or just to send her back to her desk with no real response. But I was too conscious of the justice of her complaint. I realized I’d discounted her not just because of her lower rank, but because she was so young and looked so darned corn-fed wholesome.
Never admit you’re wrong to a subordinate. They’ll lose all respect. That was officer conventional wisdom. But I’d been raised better. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Tilly. Next time I have a question I’ll come directly to you.”
She exhaled, a long relieved breath. “Thank you, ma’am.”
The colonel’s secretary went back to her typing, disappointment flooding her face. I sat at my desk doing nothing for a few minutes, just marveling over the young sergeant and wondering if I would ever have that kind of courage.
When I was a minister, I wrapped myself up in my relationship with God, so much that I sometimes forgot to look at the people around me. The patients and families I dealt with as a hospital chaplain were almost invisible to me. Perhaps I protected myself that way, but it’s a poor excuse. In the Air Force I started noticing the people around me: so many good, kind, and brave people, as well as some real stinkers—but all of them amazingly real. I fell in love every day with someone who showed me how to be better than I was. Tilly was one of them.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Tilly. You know who you are.