The Rules

At Officer Training School (OTS) the top drawer of our chests had a latch so we could put a combination lock on it. Here we placed whatever we didn’t want available to anyone who might wander into our unlocked barracks, like money and credit cards. It also hid anything we didn’t want our commanders or the upperclassmen inspecting, our dirty laundry, literally and figuratively.

In my security drawer, I kept letters from family and friends; a notebook full of very bad attempts at poetry, which I no longer had time to write; an autographed picture of male stripper Jeremiah, whom I’d gone to see the night before I left the real world; a carton of cigarettes; matches; chocolate bars; a couple of books I had planned to read in my spare time (ha!); and any cosmetics I hadn’t been able to strip the price tag from. If our commander caught us with a price tag on anything, we received as many demerits as there were cents in the price.

Everything in the room not locked up in that one drawer was under exact regulation, so we messed with them as little as possible. To sleep an extra ten minutes in the morning, we lay under our robes on top of the covers, always cold but too exhausted not to sleep. Our tautly made up mattresses had its white sheets and dark olive blanket tucked in at a 45 degree angle—our commander used a protractor to measure it. A quarter didn’t have to bounce off the tight blanket, but it had to look like it could.

Our shoes lined up neatly under the bed in the position of attention: heels of each pair together, toes pointing out at the eleven o’clock and one o’clock positions. We were authorized exactly three pairs: black oxfords, athletic trainers, and shower thongs. The inside sole had to be marked with the first letter of our last name and the last four numbers of our social security number in indelible ink.

One of my flightmates, a Mr. Jameson, received demerits for marking all his shoes with a “C” instead of the “J” of his last name. He told us he didn’t understand how he’d gotten it wrong, that he’d asked three other people in the flight how they did theirs, and they’d all used the “C”.

“Who did you ask?” I said.

“OT Crowe and Cauldwell and Cozine—oh!”

Uniforms hanging in our closet had to be kept equidistant from one another and spread evenly across the width of the closet. Every time something was taken off a hanger, that hanger had to be removed, vanish as if by magic. Everything else was then adjusted to even out the space again. The extra hangers were of course in the security drawer.

The contents of our other drawers were limited to what the rule book authorized. There were two separate lists, one for men, which allowed for things such as jock straps and one for women which included bras and tampons. The only civilian clothes we were allowed were underwear, pajamas, nightgowns, and robes. All our other clothes had been locked up in the storage room as soon as we received uniforms. They would stay there until the day we departed as either washouts or second lieutenants.

The rules binder also included instructions on what items belonged in what drawers and how they were to be folded, complete with diagrams. Creativity and individualism were not valued as much as following rules and meeting standards. As long as the security drawer was kept locked, we were all able to pretend that there were no messy drawers at OTS.

I’ve never forgotten those rules. Even now that I’m retired, I still hate the paper price tags too many stores solder onto their products. They’re a real bitch to peel off. No wonder my nails are constantly torn and cracked, stripping off dollars and cents and indecipherable codes from the shiny surfaces of things: books, notebooks, lotion, deodorant, dish detergent.

“What on earth are you doing?” my husband asks me one day.

It seems obvious. I don’t even look up from the used guidebook to Wales, from whose cover I’m digging off a recalcitrant three twenty-five price tag. It comes off in miniscule balls of paper so tiny they’re what Barbie dolls would use in a paper wad fight. I’m swearing at them as I work. “Goddamn stupid paste. What does it look like I’m doing? I’m removing the price.”

“Yes, but why?” It’s a rhetorical question. He goes back to reading his newspaper.

My friend Margaret teases me. “You’re being very compulsive about this.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment,” I say.

“I mean it in the nicest possible way.” She turns to my husband. “When Cheryl and I went to Peggy’s writing retreat at Seabrook Island, I walked into her room the first day, and it was spotless, everything put away neatly. And in her closet, everything was hung up and the hangers were spread evenly across the length.”

Scraping off price tags, evenly spaced hangers, these are the inconsequential residue of my Air Force training over thirty years ago. So many things I learned and tucked into my psyche, the things that formed the officer I was, the person I am. It was comforting to me, knowing the rules, knowing what I had to do to get by. This past week I heard someone comment that people who love words usually love rules too. Bingo! That explains twenty years of military service!

[Officer Trainee, 1980]

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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One Response to The Rules

  1. Roxanne Lehr says:

    I, too, despise those horrid price tags glued onto my purchases — I just never knew why!

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