The trucks were fired-up on the ready line. Everyone had to shout at one another to be heard above the roar of the engines. They were all hyped for the long ride as they made last minutes checks on the vehicles, cargo, and tows. All were secured.
With proper border-crossing papers in hand, twenty-three men and Rheta –the only woman—were set to go on a temporary duty assignment in Denmark. They were convoying twelve deuce-and-a-half ton trucks, a wrecker, a fuel truck and 4 million dollars in Air Force communications equipment from a base in West Germany to a remote flight-line in Denmark, where they would remain for thirty days. Their mission was to set up temporary ground instrument landing systems for NATO forces flying familiarization flights over European domain in support of flying missions for on-going Allied Forces training.
In the 1980s’ Air Force, Rheta Williams could easily find herself “the only.” As a Black female maintenance technician, she often found herself fulfilling that double-minority role — only woman, only black. Since she was married with three small children at home, she could always be identifying with one role or another — mother, wife, sergeant, woman, American, Black. Seemed the only identity she didn’t spend much time fulfilling was that of being just Rheta. She didn’t even know she missed it…being Rheta. She was Mama, with her three babies; two little boys and a sweet baby girl. She was Sergeant Williams, professional non-commissioned officer – responsible for this airman and that task, answering to a military chain-of-command, giving orders and obeying them. She was a black woman representing every single conception or misconception that anyone else may have had of what that was supposed to be. She was a wife; fitting yet again, into someone else’s preconceived ideas. Always endeavoring to live up to the expectations of her man — under-girding him, admiring him, tearing him down, building him up; sensual, sexual, seductive, weak, strong, naïve, wise…partner. “Can anyone be all that?” she sometimes asked herself when she tired of it. It was on this trip to Denmark that she found Rheta again. She stumbled upon herself.
The ride from Germany to Denmark was dreadfully slow. Rheta and her crew of guys were, legally, supposed to roll at 50 kilometers per hour. The heavy trucks, loaded to capacity forced them to keep the law. Rheta road shotgun and never did have to take over the wheel since Tom said that he “couldn’t relax with a woman driving.” With sixteen years in the Force, Rheta learned to take a stand on the ridiculous issues, only when it was in her express favor to do so. Tom was the victim of his own chauvinistic stupidity; and Rheta, clearly seeing the advantage, sat back and enjoyed the scenery of a beautiful European countryside. With the help of time (and earplugs) the loud engines soon became only a slight hum beneath the scene of a breathtaking day.
The caravan stopped twice for overnight rest. Once in Hanover, Germany and again in a small seaside city called Aabenraa in Denmark. As they pulled into the towns and through the narrow streets on the way, people would stop and stare at the olive-drab procession. To many of them, at that time, it was an amazement to see the American military driving through their quaint little streets and villages. They were a spectacle. People waved and showed them the “thumbs up” sign of approval. Little boys put their hands in the air and pulled down on imaginary whistles, bidding the airmen to sound the vehicle’s air horns, which they did, to the children’s delight. Rheta was feeling like the American.
When they bedded down for the night at the hotels, the guys would check at her room too many times to ensure she was okay. They were attentive to her in the fashion of big brothers. Nothing more than genuine, albeit somewhat tiring, chivalry. That evening Mike and David knocked at her room door, and they went down to dinner together.
With the trucks out of sight, the uniforms in the closet, and the usually rough to roguish men relaxed, sober and on their best behavior, she felt like Rheta, the woman. Not the sergeant, nor the American and not mom…just a woman surrounded by twenty-three handsome, attentive men.
“Wow,” she thought. “This feels good.”
The team leader was Kevin Glass. Rheta and Kevin had been spending a lot of time together lately in preparation for this deployment. It had been up to Rheta to make the bulk of the preliminary work happen because when the assignment came down, Tech Sergeant Glass was back stateside on a month’s vacation. Rheta had been anxious to meet him. After all, she would be working with him closely for the next 30 to 45 days. She was handed the assignment at almost the moment she signed into the squadron. She had been given just enough time to get quickly acclimated to the group’s mission when she was informed by the NCOIC that she would act as team leader until Glass returned from the states. The morning he returned, he walked up to her in the base’s vehicle compound. “You Sgt. Williams?” he held out his hand.
“Yeah. Sergeant Glass?”
She brought him up to speed on the things that had already been accomplished. From that moment on, their heads were together. He was a dark haired guy, tall, good-looking and very charming. He had an easy-going sense of humor. They “clicked” immediately and she was relieved at his personality. However, there was one foreboding thing about their meeting. There was an instant attraction between them. Unspoken though it may have been and mutually unacknowledged, it was unmistakable. It was so strong it made Rheta’s head swirl, and she quickly sought for a moment alone to get a grip on herself. She went into a bathroom, looked into the mirror and thought, “My God, girl. Get yourself together.” She just knew that something risky was brewing. If attraction were a visible force, the two of them would have been covered in it. She shook herself, but to no avail. It was the devil himself talking to her. “You want him.”
Rheta went home to her husband and children that evening. She was grateful to be home with them. And that night, she was grateful to be in her husband’s arms. But when she arose early the next morning she knew she had to pray. Sergeant Glass was the first thing on her mind. She begged God. “Keep me from doing what I want to do.” She didn’t know that was an illegitimate prayer. She had to keep herself.
The days of planning and preparation continued. Every day it was Sergeants Glass and Williams together. Not one improper thing transpired between them, except in her thoughts and, as she accurately suspected, in his too. Neither of them did anything, outwardly to encourage the other, except to both be their charming selves. They stuck strictly to business.
Now, a whole day into their trip, they sat at dinner in the hotel at Aabenraa with the rest of the crew. They all relished this break from the road. Laughing was on the menu, and this group of guys really knew how to unwind. Dinner lasted well beyond the meal, and they capped off the evening in the lounge with cigars and wine. Kevin announced they would strike out a little later than usual…7 a.m. instead of six. That was the cue. As usual, the guys started assigning someone to “Go with her,” referring to who would escort Rheta to her room. Rheta protested to no avail. They would always watch out for her when away from the base. They didn’t go any further than she would allow. That was mainly due to the way she handled her business and conducted herself around the men with whom she worked. She’d learned early in her career to walk circumspectly, lean all the way to the right in terms of manners and conversation; and no matter how funny you thought a dirty joke told in your presence might be… scowl and register a total lack of toleration for “that kind of talk.” When working with a bunch of guys the rule to understand was “Give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” She knew that instinctively and tried as much as possible to pass that bit of wisdom on to younger female airmen.
Kevin announced “I’ll go with Rheta. You guys hit the sack.”
The small amount of wine Rheta had consumed after dinner tonight was still too much. Considering her state of mind, it was no good idea that she be alone with Kevin. He had also felt the heat right away, back on that first day in the base vehicle compound. He had been talking to himself with all the proper speech; although the appropriate speech to him was more on the order of military impropriety than warnings of adultery. Kevin was long separated from his wife. He and Rheta had actually spent time talking about his wife and his home life. She was so easy to talk to. She was so vivacious and smart. He’d never been with a black woman, and his attraction to her was part curiosity. He considered her smooth brown, cocoa skin sweet-smelling forbidden fruit. He didn’t think of the attraction he felt for her with the same “anathema” that she did. So he kept on with his certain brand of inconspicuous, charm-filled flirtation. He knew that she felt it too, though she continued to conduct herself professionally, and he dug that about her as well. His mind raced with thoughts of being with her as he glanced up at her during dinner. She threw her head back and laughed with the men. She was so natural. She would put up a raised eyebrow and pursed lips at something risqué the guys had said just as quickly as she’d been laughing seconds before and he found that so damned sexy. She was capable and aggressive without being threatening. She’d done a great job getting things prepared before he returned from the States and then she’d turned the reins over to him so seamlessly. He admired that. What would it be like to hold her?
“Mike and those guys are so crazy,” Rheta laughed and shook her head as they rode up alone together in the plush elevator. He just smiled. He was looking at her curly bush of brown hair. It was wild and big and shocking. It made her look so different from the way she wore it during the work day: pulled back taut and shiny in a little bun at her neck to keep her within uniform regulation. The door opened on the fourth floor, and they walked slowly through the corridor to her room.
“They’re a good group,” Kevin replied to her former statement. “You got your key?” They had come to her room door.
“Right here,” she said and went to open her door when the key slipped through her fingers to the floor. They both stooped down at once reaching for it and found themselves crouched down together, their faces almost touching. Seems like they would have quickly stood up, but instead they slowly leaned even closer. He stared right into her eyes until she deflected and looked away. He put is face closer til her hair brushed his cheek. Her heart was pounding. She was certain he could hear it. She held her breath for a moment. He touched her arm.
“Rheta,” he whispered. “I want to come in here with you.”
She closed her eyes, almost hoping that when she opened them this would not be happening. When after a few seconds she did open her eyes and turned to him, he was still there looking gorgeous and ready to consume her. Then, bravely she answered him softly saying, “Yes. And I want you to come in here with me… But… let’s don’t… Okay?”
They both knew that if he had answered anything other than “okay” they would soon have been engulfed in each others’ flesh, and that, deep into the night. They knew it. But Kevin answered, “Okay.” And still crouched there, he leaned closer in and pressed his lips to hers until she opened her mouth to let his tongue inside. It was a passionate, mutual and wonderfully compatible kiss. Then he helped her stand, took the key and opened the door for her. She went in and turned again to face him. They smiled just a little at first and then both their little smiles turned into full faced grins.
“O-seven-hundred, Sarge,” he put the key in her hand and walked away.
“700 hours,” she answered and closed the door.
Rheta let the warm, soft waters of the shower wash over her for what seemed like an hour. It blanketed and caressed her skin. It felt good. She spent some minutes letting what did not happen play out all the way in her mind. During that brief eternity that they were stooped down together there, every muscle in her body and every single sinew of her being was screaming, “Let GO!” She was more satisfied with herself that she’d been strong. She hadn’t let go.
She lay in her bed and summoned up the images that brought her responsible attributes to the forefront; the images that put her flesh in check; her babies, her husband, her job. She finally fell asleep. But just before she dosed into that twilight state, she thought to herself, “Rheta’s still got it.”
– 30 –