Wurtsmith A.F.B.,11 APR 1976; 1655 hrs
Major Roger Hemming asked Airman Patricia Werner to stay fifteen minutes after to mimeo AF 69 - jet fuel usage reports. He promised to make it up to her with an extended lunch or early release. Maybe she’d like to sleep in one day? The office space was walled by gunmetal grey filing cabinets.
“That’s not necessary, Sir,” she responded remembering not to beam when accepting orders, still delighted to be a cog in an organization charged with such a vital mission. He retreated to his office, closing the door behind him. Her coworkers left at 1700 hours. Major Hemming emerged from his office with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
“Looks like you’re bucking for a promotion,” he said with a kind smile. “Smoke?”
“I don’t smoke, thank you,” she fibbed.
“You’re a smart girl…a smart woman,” he corrected himself. “Sorry, old dog, new tricks. Can I call you Patty?”
She said that would be fine. He walked behind her. She assumed he would open a filing cabinet or leave something on a desk. She turned the mimeograph machine, its clickety-clack, the heady, chemical aroma.
“You smell terrific,” he whispered, over her neck, exhaling blue smoke and menthol breath. He was taller than her but not even close to her husband’s height. She turned to face him, expecting a kiss but he only made bedroom eyes at her.
“I’m married,” she answered.
“So am I. Free love right?” He made the peace sign with both hands, shaking them and smirking. “I’ve got some scotch in my office.”
“Sir, I’ll finish the mimeos tomorrow,” she said, shutting off the machine’s motor and removing the original from the roller.
He grabbed her wrist.
“Let me go!” she yelled, louder than her DI had at basic. After a monumental impact to her temple, she remembered nothing more of the incident.
Troy, Michigan, January 3, 1975; 8:18 p.m.
Patty knew something was wrong. Her grandmother’s one thousand square foot house didn’t smell like dirty diaper and her son and husband were gone. He just shit, her husband always claimed when she got home from her second job at the martinizer. She wanted to believe he'd taken their son to the park. Darkness and a ten degree wind chill dashed her hope. She should report her son missing but she couldn’t imagine the authorities doing anything about it. She sat cross-legged with a cup of Sanka on her great-grandmother’s blue and pink, braided Pennsylvania Dutch rug. A Virginia Slim burnt itself out in a rainbowed abalone shell. Her husband wasn’t coming back and she was never going to call the police but wished she could tell him which brand of diapers to buy and to regularly apply rash cream rather than waiting for signs of irritation.
Her husband called the next day, telling her to come back to California when she’d had enough of the snow, like that was their problem, the weather. Apparently, the emasculation had started when she suggested they live in her grandmother’s Michigan house. She didn’t ask for rent either - a blessing. Her zayde (he preferred the Yiddish) had been a rabbi but wouldn’t have considered it a mitzvah, having fallen off the roof, replacing shingles, three months prior. From a fifteen foot drop, he straddled a sawhorse. Within the time it took him to die from internal bleeding, he renounced his faith, apparently not well acquainted with the Book of Job and God’s peculiar sense of justice.
And then she enlisted in the Air Force. When her son was grown, Patty would tell him she had a plan but really it was Gary Puckett. Since puberty, he’d been singing to her on AM radio, that she was much too young. She took note when the strains of This Girl is a Woman Now interrupted All in the Family, and then the singer’s speaking voice baritoned a commercial spot for the U.S. Air Force. The lady in the commercial flipped her bouffant twice as the camera pulled out, revealing her blue Air Force uniform and a black man cleaning a dish next to her.
Hi, this is Gary Puckett. Most girls’ idea of a really great job would include some travel, new faces, a good life and most of all a job that’s important to someone besides herself; an impossible dream? Any woman in the Air Force can tell you how to find yourself in that ideal job.
Without talking to her husband, Patty signed up at the Flint, Michigan recruiters’ one-room office, with an American flag, in a mostly-vacant strip-mall. She wished she could do basic training over and over. She never bought the DI’s tough act. Yessir, nosir. Nosir, I said yessir. After her six weeks, she was at her pre-pregnancy size six. Her new uniform was not unflattering either. Blue shade 1549, she learned.
The Air Force stationed her at Wurtsmith A.F.B. The base housed the 94th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron shortly replaced by the 75th with their F-106 Delta Darts, referred to as “lawn darts” based on their above average engine failures, plunging them into uncontrollable nose-dives. Should the pilot not eject, she was told his remains would be “scraped from the nosecone.”
During the day, she worked in Major Hemming’s office. Everything matched: the metal desks, the metal filing cabinets, the sturdy mimeograph machine. He repeatedly informed the women under his command he was happy to have them “aboard,” and thought it was, “about time the Air Force moved into the twentieth century.” At night, she took college courses but never missed calling her son at bedtime.
“I’m going to school too, Sweetie,” she said into the phone. She pictured her son with her mother-in-law’s avocado green phone up to his tiny face.
“When do you see me, Mama?”
“Really soon, Sweetie.”
“It takes a long time,” he whined.
“I know. Can I talk to Daddy again?”
“Story first, Mama,” he insisted.
“After I talk to Daddy.” She heard the phone being handed around.
“What Patricia?” her husband demanded.
“I’ve put in for TDY to the West Coast.”
“Speak English.” She heard him take a deep inhale from his cigarette.
“Temporary duty, I'm trying to get transferred.”
“I mean, I don’t know. What do you want to do?” she asked. He hung up before she could tell him to return the phone to their son. When she called back the line was busy.
Wurtsmith A.F.B.,12 APR 1976; 1308 hrs
The smell of fresh paint reminded her of the scented bags inside her son's diaper pail. Only one eye opened. Something cold was fastened to her cheek below the eye that didn’t open. An older woman slept in an inclined bed across from her. The recently whitewashed walls did not hide the flaking below from prior coats.
“Hey, Slugger, what’s the other guy look like?” a male voice asked from her side.
“Mmmm,” she mumbled unable to talk. He smelled of Aqua Velva.
“Take it easy, they gave you Demerol. I’m going to keister some next time that sexy, chocolate nurse comes around.” It was Captain McKee, being groomed to replace Major Hemming after his pending promotion.
“The major asked me to check on you.” A pack of cigarettes crumpled from his uniform. “I just want to let you know this ain’t worth making a federal case over.”
A nurse walked into the room, grabbing Patty’s chart from the foot of her bed. Her uniform consisted of off-white pants and blouse. E-5 pins were attached to the collars. Her dark skin contrasted nicely.
“Please step outside the room if ya’ll want to smoke, Sir. May I exam the airman, please?”
“Listen the major’s gonna steer clear of you until we get you reassigned. Don’t rock the boat.” The nurse shooed him off. His uniform rustled as he departed.
“We’re going to get you washed up, Honey,” the nurse told Patty. She heard bandages peeled from her face. The smell of rust turned her stomach. A faucet was turned on. She fell back asleep while the nurse sponged her face.
Wurtsmith A.F.B.,14 APR 1976; 1814 hrs
Patty woke, confused regarding her whereabouts. The water-stained asbestos ceiling tiles reoriented her.
“How you feeling, Honey?” the nurse asked.
“Sore,” Patty said with rubber lips and tongue. In the mirror, she saw a blackened eye. Her jaw was also bruised purple.
“Why don’t you go ahead and put these on?” said the nurse, offering her a pair of scrubs.
“Where is my uniform?”
“Oh, your major got that laundered. It ought to be waiting for you back at your billet.”
In the bathroom, Patty removed the back-tied gown and let it fall to floor pulling on the scrubs. She double-knotted the tie and made a bow of the rest. She exited the bathroom and saw her nurse with a wheelchair.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I never asked your name,” said Patty, setting herself down.
“Sophia Johnson.” She wheeled her into an elevator then pushed the ground floor button.
“Miss Sophia, don’t I need to make a report or be interviewed?”
“Don’t trouble yourself with all that. You just concentrate on getting yourself better.”
Wurtsmith A.F.B., 16 APR 1976; 0400 hours
Patty was wide awake, hollowed-out hungry. Her potted fern, hung in a macramé sling, looked brown. She filled a mug with water from her bathroom sink and poured it into the pot. The water trickled through the soil. Sick of the yoghurt and Jell-O delivered to her room, she needed a ladle pushed through syrup-skin, a generous portion poured over a pancake stack. Having little interest in ironing her dress uniform and doing her hair, she donned fatigues, twisted her hair into a knot, pinned it with a wooden hair-comb and covered the bird-nest with an OD cap.
The mess hall was decorated with pastel Easter decorations, bunnies and eggs. While graveyard-shift ate dinner, she had pancakes and bacon. She barely made it to the bathroom to vomit it all up. She remembered that nausea.
The next day, she made an appointment to see Colonel Farina, Major Hemming’s superior officer. Chain-of-Command dictated she see Major Hemming first but that was just dumb. The colonel accepted her appointment. He wore his hair high and tight like a marine.
Colonel Farina listened to her account while shuffling onionskin pages that snapped beneath his fingers. His dark wood-paneled office was the nicest she’d ever seen. He nodded so attentively, she described her jaw pain and constant headache, barely refraining from sharing the discomfort in her uterus and bowels. She would find out for sure if she was pregnant before sharing that.
“I was in the very first class at the academy, Airman.”
“I didn’t know that, Sir.”
“The first thing they did was shave our heads. When it was my turn that sumbitch asked me if I wanted to keep my sideburns. You know what I said?”
“I said, ‘yes, Sir.’ He shaved ‘em right off, put them in an envelope and handed ‘em to me then told me not to call him ‘sir’ because he worked for a living.” He laughed. “Do you know why he did that, Airman?”
“He was trying to be funny, Sir?”
“Listen, Darling, I know you girls are new to this man’s Air Force so I’m not going to discipline you but we have, what we call, a chain of command. Do you understand, Airman?”
“Is there anything further you’d like to add?”
She tried to hold his stare. “No, sir.”
Wurtsmith A.F.B., 23 APR 1976; 0700 hours
For a week, she iced her sore spots. The soft food arrived regularly. Her pink flannel pajamas were crusty. She took them off and showered in scalding water. She ironed her blouse: collar, cuff, cuff, button-side front, pocket-side front, yoke, back, sleeve, sleeve. She left her room and marched across the courtyard, green grass overcoming the dead, yellow scruff. As she was about to enter the three-story building a Second Lieutenant Rain stopped her.
“Airman Werner?” he asked. “You’ve been transferred.”
“Sir, may I see my orders?” She ripped off the last carbon copy of a tri-folded set of papers. She followed him across the courtyard to another three-story building. Her transition was seamless, another thing she liked about the military: almost all parts interchangeable. Her new CO was Major Taylor. He mostly dottered around his office decorated with pictures of his twelve grandchildren.
But at night, wrapped around a splintered half-desk in a lecture hall, she couldn’t push the memory from her mind, re-reading the same sentence or having no idea what point her professor had been making. Then she berated herself. American soldiers had been dying for centuries and she was being a baby because she got punched, and some other stuff but what was that compared to P.O.W.’s living in Hanoi cages, having their testicles crushed by hammers?
Wurtsmith A.F.B., 30 APR 1976, 0801 hours
“I’d like to file a report, Sir,” she said to Major Taylor. With a new CO, she wasn’t bucking chain of command. His Mr. Magoo look snapped to owl-like attention.
“Close the door, Airman.”
She did so but stood behind the two chairs that fronted his desk.
“I appreciate your predicament. Unfortunately, the 94th will be coordinating Strategic Air Command in the Atlantic war games. Major Hemming will be a critical part of that operation.”
“Can I file my complaint now and he can respond after our mission?” she asked, her nails digging into the major’s guest-chair.
“You know if this doesn’t hold up, you can be reduced in rank. It’s just going to be your word against his.”
“I’m positive, Sir,” she answered.
“You’ll be charged with adultery?”
“I’m separated from my husband,” she fibbed.
“Major Hemming is a married man with three children.” He let it sink in. The Air Force would consider it her fault. “I’ll order your defense but he’ll do you no favors.”
“I want to file a report.”
EOT COMPLAINT/FINAL ACTION RECORD CASE/REF NO.
(THIS FORM IS AFFECTED BY THE PRIVACY ACT OF 1974) EO-005-10
1. LAST NAME – FIRST NAME – MIDDLE INITIAL 2. GRADE
Werner, Patricia M. Amn
3. NATURE OF GRIEVANCE AND RESOLUTION (Be specific. Use additional 8x10 1/2” sheets, if necessary.)
15 MAY 1976
Parties present: Amn Patricia Werner (“Complainant” herein); Complainant’s CO, Maj Phillip Taylor; NCO liaison, 2nd Lt Mary Kindall; witness, SSgt Sophia Johnson. Respondent, Maj Roger Hemming excused from appearance.
1. Maj Hemming to be placed on thirty day leave with pay – time tbd Brig Gen Andrews.
2. Complainant transferred to Luke A.F.B. Phoenix, Arizona; promotion to Airman First Class with associated pay grade, full moving expenses and family housing allowance including dependent(s) and spouse.
3. Medical approval: all surgical procedures associated with alleged incident including but not limited to elective obstetrics.
4. AUTHORIZING SIGNATURE(S)
Maj. Phillip M. Taylor
PHILLIP M. TAYLOR, Major, USAF
Gen Howard T. Andrews
HOWARD T. ANDREWS, Brig General, USAF