Cheryl Dietrich: Using Her Words

by Elizabeth Lutyens, Editor in Chief

A Great Smokies Prose Master Class session, showing Cheryl Dietrich, head on table, reacting to a comment.

A Great Smokies Prose Master Class session, showing Cheryl Dietrich, head on table,
reacting to a comment.

All writers love words, some more than most, and Cheryl Dietrich was a consummate word-lover. She put her words on paper as a long-time participant in The Great Smokies Writing Program and in the workshops led by Peggy Millin of ClarityWorks. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The Gettysburg Review, Western North Carolina Woman, Southeast Missourian, Women’s Spaces Women’s Places, Shenandoah, Christmas Presence, Clothes Lines, and Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War.

A piece by Cheryl, “My Erstwhile Dear,” appeared in this publication in 2010, with her comment about it at the end: “This chapter in my memoir came with a special set of challenges. How to write about a person I once loved passionately but now was indifferent to? How to convey the power of a relationship I’d almost forgotten? How to conjure up love, lust, joy, pain that I no longer felt? When I first exhumed this relationship, dead for over twenty-five years, I wondered if the process of writing about it would awaken old feelings. Actually, the opposite was true. In a chapter of my book (my life) that was so overwhelmingly about feelings, I was unable to feel anything. The writer’s mantra, ‘show, don’t tell,’ rescued me. I concentrated on recreating scenes from the experience. I wrote down the memories of what we said and what we did. In this way, I attempted to call up my younger self and what she was feeling while allowing the narrator to tell the story.” And what a story it is.

Cheryl loved, too, the spoken word, and the spelled word. She was active in the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, volunteering as an ESL tutor for students from countries across the globe, teaching ESL classes, raising funds, and moderating the Council’s annual spelling bee. Cheryl’s professional life began, in fact, with teaching English as a Second Language in Greece. Later, as a Presbyterian minister and chaplain, she used words for inspiration and counsel. Her final career move, to the U.S. Air Force as a personnel officer, called upon her talents of writing and speaking, as well as her understanding of when to put both aside and just listen. This stage of her life culminated with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and an assignment at the Pentagon.

Cheryl died on January 20 of this year from complications of ALS. Shortly before receiving this devastating diagnosis, she heard from her agent that Yucca Press had accepted her memoir, In Formation, One Woman’s Climb Through the Ranks of the U.S. Air Force, for publication. (The subtitle has been revised from that which appears in the archived chapter mentioned above.) She had at least a little time—a couple of months—to savor this hard-won and much-deserved success. And then, to the relief of everyone who’d had the privilege of reading her work and knowing her dream of sharing it widely, plans for publication continued. The book is in production, with a finalized cover and manuscript, and a release date set for January, 2016.

This is a memoir of multiple delights. In chapter four, for example, Cheryl describes her first meeting with her husband, Lynn Dietrich (“So this was the great man, the civilian with the transgendered name…I’d been thrilled to discover I’d be working in the same office, his fame reflecting on me like glamour off a movie star.”) In the same chapter, a change of scene from military office to the wider world of the base allows the narrator to generate some unintentional fame (or at least awed respect) of her own. All because of one word, which you will find embedded in the story that follows…

Retreat, when the base flag was lowered for the day, came at five o’clock. Protocol was strict. Military members who were outside stopped whatever they were doing when the first notes of “The Star Spangled Banner” sounded from the base loudspeaker. If you were driving, you were supposed to pull over and stop the car. If you were walking or talking, you stopped and turned in the direction of the flag, even if you couldn’t see it. You snapped to attention, saluted and held the salute till that lingering note of the “braaaaaave” had vanished. Then you could continue on your way.

If you were inside, however, no matter how clearly the notes sounded through an open window, you could ignore them. You could continue your phone conversation, your review of reports, your reprimand or recognition of a subordinate, your end-of-work beer with a coworker. Or you could be waiting just inside the door, ready to spring out as soon as retreat was over.

Friday afternoon—finally. We had a Commander’s Call at the Officers Open Mess. Officers were required to attend, to hear our two-star general make announcements, lay out new policies, talk about the state of the headquarters, pin decorations on individuals, and do whatever else he felt like. Duty hours were over by the time he released us. While some officers planned to stay at the club for happy hour, most were ready to go home for the weekend. I was one of them. The club foyer was packed. I had to squeeze my way through the crowd to reach the door. Then I heard those unmistakable notes in the distance and realized why so many people were hanging around. It was gray and chilly outside. I was junior to everyone I saw, so I would be justified if I followed their example and lingered in the hallway.

But as I looked at the blue uniforms gathered around the doorway and the gleam of gold and silver rank on their shoulders, a word sprang into my head. It had nothing to do with patriotism or respect. Unseemly. This is unseemly. My sense of propriety was offended…

“Excuse me. Excuse me.” I pushed my way through the captains and majors and colonels blocking the door. Outside I put on my hat, stationed myself on the walkway—the only person there—and sprang to attention. I brought my hand up to a salute and held it, while the music continued to play. The wind blustered, and drizzle coated my glasses. From the corner of my eye I could tell people were gaping out at me through the warm club’s glass doors. Suddenly it didn’t feel quite so grand to act in a seemly manner. I began to feel foolish, green, but I was stuck with what I was doing. There was no way out till the music ended, and it seemed exceptionally slow tonight. Were they playing two verses?

Actually, I couldn’t have been standing there long when I heard the door open and a man’s firm footsteps come out. He positioned himself next to me. In my peripheral vision I could see a blue sleeve move up into a salute, but that was the most I could tell about my partner in retreat. So now there were two of us saps on the walkway.

When the music ended, I dropped my salute and turned to leave. Then I saw who was standing next to me. I was so startled I almost forgot to salute him. Almost but not quite. My hand knew its business and shot up on its own. “G-good evening, General.”

The opposite of the word that drove Cheryl to action is not so often used, but it does exist: seemly. “Appropriate, fitting, proper, decent, right.” Cheryl would have been the last person to claim those attributes for herself, but those of us who knew her would find them, well—seemly. That, in a word, is what Cheryl was.

Cheryl free-writing in a Great Smokies class

Cheryl free-writing in a Great Smokies class