Here’s a random memory that popped into my head as I was taking out the trash:
I used to work with a woman I’ll call Lilly, for the purposes of respecting her privacy. We worked together while I was stationed at RAF Chicksands in central England and, coincidentally, we both went to language school in San Antonio at about the same time. I didn’t know her well, so my impression of her may have been wrong, but she seemed like a rather quiet person with a disposition on the sunny side. I never saw her angry, until one night at Chicksands.
Our jobs at Chix seemed really super-cool at the time, mostly because we weren’t allowed to tell anyone about it. I’m still not allowed to tell you about the details, but there is one aspect of the job that’s important to this story: We banged out a lot of text on teletype machines, which are a kind of electric typewriter. They printed all this text on that old computer paper with the holes along the sides that came out the back of the machine in one long ribbon of paper that never seemed to end.
The text was considered classified material, so after it was no longer needed, the paper had to be destroyed. The military preferred to destroy classified paper by shredding it, and at a station like Chix there was a lot of material to destroy, so they built some impressively huge shredders to do the job. Unfortunately, Chix didn’t have one of these monster shredders. They had a furnace at the back of the building in a dirty, stinking room called the burn room. Nobody wasted a moment’s imagination naming that room because it didn’t deserve it.
At the end of every shift, we collected all the paper in bags, labeled the bags so we knew where they came from, and piled the bags in the burn room. A couple times a week, two or three airmen were given the responsibility of firing up the furnace and burning as much paper as they could, a dirty job made even dirtier because they had to break open every bag and sort the paper from the garbage. It was strictly verboten to put garbage in the burn bags, but people did it anyway, and nothing but paper could go in the furnace, so all that garbage had to be picked out by hand.
I’m pretty sure it was a swing shift or mid shift when I found out how much Lilly hated being on the burn detail. I was sitting at the far end of the aisle I worked in — and let me back up to describe the aisle for you: We worked on what was called the operations floor, an open room filled by rows of tall gray steel cabinets. There was a gap between each cabinet big enough for one of the teletype machines to sit on a shelf. We sat in the aisles between the rows of cabinets, facing the teletypes. Our seats were in an aisle wide enough for us to sit back-to-back with room behind us for one person to walk.
The cabinets were chock-full of electronic equipment that hummed and buzzed and clicked. All that electronic equipment generated a lot of heat, so the room was kept very cold by refrigeration units blowing cold air up through vents in the floor. We wore headphones while we worked, and between the noise coming the headphones, the chatter of the teletype machines, and the rush of air blowing through the ventilation system, it was pretty easy to sneak up on us.
Enter Lilly. Did I mention she was a tall woman? At least as tall as I am, maybe even an inch taller. Dressed in green fatigues, covered in soot, dripping sweat, and face as red with rage as her hair, she seemed to appear in the blink of an eye. One moment we were all concentrating on our work, and the next minute this red-haired fury was in our midst. She held a torn-open burn bag in one hand and bellowed, so we could all hear her: “I AM SICK OF PICKING YOUR GARBAGE OUT OF THE BURN BAGS!” Then she swung the burn bag over her head, smashing it against the floor like the hammer of Thor, where it burst open, scattering paper, orange peels, apple cores, and paper cups dribbling coffee everywhere.
We were caught dead to rights. Written across both sides of the bag was our address and the date it had been sealed up. I don’t recall if that fixed the problem or not, but I will never forget the way Lilly glared at us with disgust before stalking away.
And I never saw her angry again. Maybe she got it all out that one night.