I often sat in as the support group commander’s executive officer when the major in that position was on leave. One such occasion was a late fall day, unseasonably warm enough to have the windows open. I leaned out, taking long, refreshing whiffs of the autumn air and listening to the jet engines rumble steadily from the flightline, comforting as distant thunder. I sensed someone beside me, then heard the colonel. “Ah, yes, the sound of freedom.”
I pulled my head in. “Yes, sir. What a beautiful day. I love the fall.”
He ran his fingers through his rusty hair and sighed. “Umm, listen, Cheryl. Lieutenant Colonel Hargitay is coming over in a few minutes. Do you have the report?”
Hargitay, that asshole! My good mood plummeted to the floor. “Here it is, sir.” I pulled a thick folder out of the desk and handed it to him. He walked back into his office flipping through the pages. I turned my back on the beckoning afternoon and sat down to tackle the pile of correspondence I was screening. I tried to concentrate, but my mind kept going over the nastier details in the report the colonel was re-reading.
I’d heard—and believed—the rumors about Hargitay for at least a year, and the investigation the new colonel had quietly ordered confirmed the worst of them. The report revealed Hargitay to be a bully, a commander who ran his squadron like the worst kind of fraternity house, rife with sexual harassment and hazing. He’d created an atmosphere so poisonous it was a wonder one of those eighteen-year-olds hadn’t gone on a shooting rampage yet. It was hard to find something he’d done that was illegal, but there was enough to fire him, to ruin his career. And that’s what the colonel—a very kind man, but strict—planned to do. Hargitay was history. Yes!
When he strutted in, he didn’t bother to greet me. As a mere captain, I’d always been beneath his notice. He headed directly for the colonel’s door. I rushed to get there ahead of him. An arrogant little gamecock of a man, he wore a permanent sneer on his face. Now he directed it at me. As always, I felt like an idiot around him.
I tapped on the door. “Sir, Lieutenant Colonel Hargitay’s here.”
“Thanks, Cheryl. Come on in, Jim.” As I closed the door—slowly—I saw the colonel motion to a seat in front of his desk. This wouldn’t be a friendly chat in the easy chairs. I wondered if Hargitay knew he was being fired.
Much as I wanted to stand with my ear pressed to the door, staff meeting took place in half an hour, and the squadron commanders would be congregating here soon. The secretary had gone for a late lunch, so it was up to me to get things ready. I checked the coffee and creamer supply. I grabbed the few old magazines that had strayed and slapped them back on the end table next to the sofa: copies of the Air Force Times, Airman, and one lone People magazine. I straightened the cushions on the sofa, punching them back into place. And with each punch, I thought, Good! Good! Good! High time that son-of-a-bitch got caught.
Muffled voices spoke from behind the colonel’s door. The doorknob rattled. I whipped back to the desk and grabbed a pen. When the door swung open, I was staring fascinated at the top paper, my pen hovering above it.
“Okay, Jim,” I heard the colonel say, his voice clear and firm, though with a tired drag to it. “Do you want to send your first sergeant over for staff meeting?”
“No, sir.” Hargitay’s voice was so low I could barely hear him. “I’ll stay for it.”
I’ll bet you will, you son-of-a-bitch. That way you don’t have to wonder what’s being said about you. The colonel returned to his office. Hargitay sat down on the sofa I’d just been pounding. He perched on its edge as if he were sitting at attention, his feet together, knees bent ninety degrees, elbows pressed against his waist. His hands rested on his blue serge uniform trousers. He stared into space; a hard glaze shielded his eyes.
Ha! Thought it couldn’t happen to you, didn’t you, you, you . . . But against that dead look, it was hard to maintain my rage. It evaporated with no warning, along with all my exultation. Singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” felt pointless. What a cheat! I deserve to crow. He’s the bad guy, I reminded myself. But now nothing looked as simple as my righteousness wanted it to be.
I didn’t usually drink coffee in the afternoon, but that day I grabbed my personalized 377th Combat Support Wing mug, ostentatiously stretched and yawned. I rolled my chair back, got up, and ambled over to the coffee pot, next to where Hargitay sat stiffly. As I filled my cup, I glanced casually over my shoulder at him.
“While I’m at it, sir, how about you? Can I pour you some coffee?”
He started, as if I’d been invisible up to now. For a moment, he didn’t speak, then he nodded. “Yes, please. Black.” His fingers trembled when he reached out to take the mug of lukewarm coffee. For the first time he looked at me. “Thank you,” he said, almost a whisper. “Thank you . . . Cheryl.” His voice quavered. Tears formed in his eyes. I pretended not to notice.
“You’re welcome, sir.” I returned to my desk and my paperwork. The squadron commanders started arriving, and soon the outer office rang with greetings, jokes, laughter. No one spoke to Hargitay, as if through some magic the word had gotten out. He sat alone, silent, gripping the mug of coffee with both hands. He was gone within a week.