The first time I came face to face with him was at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. I was the mission support squadron commander and the senior personnel officer on base. He came from the Pentagon to have a look at our personnel programs and give a speech on the new assignments system to an auditorium full of airmen.
I was there to greet the plane along with our one-star wing commander, the senior enlisted advisor, and the colonel I worked for directly. A gray, drizzly morning but the plane came in on time, a little T-38 with room for seven passengers, eight max if you didn’t mind sitting on the jump seat (and one never did, of course). Or maybe it was a C-21 or a . . . oh, hell, after fifteen years in the Air Force I still couldn’t tell one plane from another.
The general came down the steps spryly, a compact man of such average looks that in civilian clothes he could have been mistaken for a department store clerk. The three stars on each shoulder managed to shine their way through the German gloom. We sprang to attention, all of us ramrod straight, arms at a perfect 45 degree angle, fingers resting lightly but firmly on our brows. He took his time about returning the salute, so my right arm ached by the time I dropped it to my side. His staff fluttered around him, performing introductions. He shook hands with me last. I smiled at him. I felt special. After all, it was my squadron he was primarily here to visit. We had so much in common, the general and I.
But to my enthusiastic, “Welcome, General! I hope we can make you comfortable here at Spang,” he responded with nothing but a quick look up and down at me and a gruff, “hmmph.” He turned back to the senior officers. That was the most notice I received from him all day. The colonel and I led him on a tour of our facilities, introduced him to the personnel NCOs and junior officers, had lunch with him at the Officers Club. When I tried, appropriately humble, to take part in the discussions, he would give me a cold look and turn back to the colonel.
His last activity was to brief the base airmen. The auditorium was full. I stood behind the lectern on the stage to introduce him. I saw him frowning, looking impatient in the back, ready to stride down the aisle, make his speech and get to his next base as soon as possible. Whatever introductory remarks I had thought up fled (and never returned). I simply called the room to attention. He strode down the aisle glaring at me. So maybe he had a reason to dislike me, but that doesn’t explain his obvious disdain from the beginning.
A year later I was working four chain-of-command levels below him at the Pentagon. I would pass him in the hall and cheerfully greet him, as appropriate. If someone was with him, he would answer, “hmmph.” If he was alone, he wouldn’t even do that.
At the directorate Christmas party that first year, my husband and I stood talking to our friend, Tina. We were in civilian clothes, our holiday best, Tina and I both glittery with sequins, standing among the twinkling lights of an over-decorated ballroom. Cocktails in hand, the three of us were chatting when the general approached. Sequined dress or not, my body automatically stiffened, my spine straightened, my hand itched to salute, even with a drink in it.
The general seemed in a convivial mood. He greeted Tina warmly and began asking her about her holiday plans. My husband and I stood awkwardly, with friendly, interested smiles pasted on our faces. Tina, always the lady, took the first opportunity to introduce us. He looked us up and down, said nothing, did not extend his hand to shake. He grunted and turned his back on us, resuming his conversation with Tina. We awkwardly backed away and mingled, mingled, mingled through the rest of a very dull party.
I always heard from other officers about how friendly and warm the general was. “Really?” I would say. “Well, he’s not to me. He doesn’t like me.” My friends would assure me that I was wrong. He must have been distracted. Or maybe I was oversensitive.
My close encounter of the third kind with the general was at the optical shop in the Pentagon concourse (yes, one floor was basically a mall). I had a new prescription and had asked my friend Roxanne to come with me to help pick out new frames, since I saw too poorly to trust my own judgment. As we puttered through the racks, pulling out frames with potential, I heard a voice boom behind me.
“Well, hello, Roxanne. You needing new glasses?”
“Afternoon, General,” Roxanne said brightly—that overly bright tone we use to speak to a monster who’s being friendly at the moment but could devour us at any minute. “I’m here with Cheryl.”
This was my chance. No one could resist the pleasantness that Roxanne exuded, that imbued the atmosphere around her. So I smiled at him and said, “Actually, sir, I’m the one needing new glasses, and Roxanne’s helping me.”
The change was immediate. His friendly smile disappeared. “Hmmph,” he said and turned his back on both of us. As soon as he walked out of the shop, out of earshot, Roxanne gripped my arm. “Oh my God, Cheryl, you were right! He really doesn’t like you. I thought you must be exaggerating.”
Then she began to laugh, her big booming laugh so cheerful and infectious, I had to laugh too. We stood in the middle of the shop, two lieutenant colonels laughing hysterically, while the shopkeepers and military customers stared. It was a comfort to know I wasn’t crazy, oversensitive or paranoid. The general flat didn’t like me. More importantly, I realized I didn’t like him either. It was too damn funny to hurt any more.
[Lieutenant Colonel, 1997]