It was Day One of meeting my new boss in my first real grown up job, my first time away from home and family. I was proud of myself, until it went so incredibly wrong.
I was a new Private First Class in the US Army. I had survived my basic and advanced training and graduated at the top of my class. So here I was, on my first duty assignment. I was out in a field office set at the edge of a firing range, waiting for my boss to show up. I’d found an unused desk to sit at and was looking down, reading a magazine, when a pair of fatigue pants appeared at the top of my vision. A voice barked at me to get a cup of coffee. Without having the good sense to look up, I barked back, “Get your own damn cup of coffee.” The voice cleared its formidable throat and I looked up to see the First Sergeant, my boss.
Let me explain that I don’t normally go into a new job with a chip on my shoulder, but I was a woman in the Army in the 1970s. I was the first one to be assigned to field duty in a job where women had never before been assigned. I was working in a remote place where women were never found. The guys resented me. A lot. It was bad enough just being a woman in an all male place, but the brass was pushing hard to have this experiment succeed. The first thing they had done was to force the guys to take down all their Playboy centerfolds so I wouldn’t be offended by the sight of naked women on the walls. They had to create a bathroom for me. It was pretty primitive and still had a urinal in it, but it was mine. And they were told they had to mind their language so they wouldn’t insult a woman’s gentle sensibilities. How to be resented before you even showed up on the job! I was hated and hazed constantly in the beginning. The first thing I learned to do was to institute a “no coffee” rule. The guys assumed the only thing I would be good for was to make and serve coffee. So every time I was told to go get coffee, my automatic answer was, “Get your own damn cup of coffee.”
The First Sergeant had been away at school the first three weeks I had been there, and I’d kind of forgotten that he existed. I’d been trying to fit in and make things work. The guys and I had just started to reach a bit of a truce, but they were still trying the coffee thing on me. When I got yet another demand, I responded the way I had always responded, until I looked up, up, up that tall body, saw the insignia and the angry, scowling face. I was on my feet in a nanosecond, standing at attention, praying the earth would open and swallow me up.
He just looked at me for the longest time, saying nothing, then dismissed me. For the next two weeks I was assigned to every crappy duty there was. Anything boring, it was mine. Anything dirty, mine again. I never complained, but I was also never humbled. I held my head high and did my duty. Eventually I was put on a squad and sent out on missions. I settled into a routine.
About six months later, I was called into the First Sergeant’s office. I didn’t know what to expect but it turned out that he had promoted me and was sending me on a special assignment. I was to help a bunch of physicists research laser guidance systems. Laser targeting had never been done before, and I was going to work for a think tank. I got to fly in helicopters to remote mountain tops to get clean air samples, use liquid nitrogen and blow things up with all kinds of laser beams. It turned out to be the best fun of any job ever, and it was all mine. When I asked him why he chose me, he said it was because I told him to get his own damn cup of coffee. He liked my spunk and that I didn’t back down if the situation called for standing firm. He liked those traits in a soldier. It showed good leadership capabilities.
Sometimes making mistakes is the best way to go.
Written in response to WordPress’ Daily Prompt, Favorite Mistake.