General John Shalikashvili, retired Army General and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died this week. I had occasion to meet the General once, then a Lieutenant General, at the Pentagon where I went to be interviewed by him for the job of Director of the North Atlantic Girl Scouts. At the time he was commander of all U. S. forces in Europe, and had the task of selecting the leader for the Girl Scout component that organized troops and programs for military dependents in that sector. I was one of two applicants who made the cut after being interviewed in the New York offices of the Girl Scouts of the U. S. A. The other applicant and I were then scheduled to meet the General at the Pentagon the next time he was in Washington, D. C., a few months later.
Although I’m sure we were just a blip on the radar of his heavily scheduled life, I know that I dithered between doing my job (I was director of the Girl Scout Council in Savannah, GA); dreaming about living and traveling in Europe for the next three years; and wondering how to pronounce Shalikashvili.
When the time came, dressed in my smartest suit, I flew to Atlanta then on to National and took the train to the Pentagon. I was far too early for the interview, so chose to wait in the lobby where I could watch the ants to anthill parade coming and going to the center of our military might. I even saw my competition arrive, attired in her Girl Scout uniform, looking very business-like if a bit rumpled, and carrying a briefcase. A briefcase? I hadn’t brought a briefcase. But at least my suit did not look rumpled. I was optimistic.
After an appropriate length of time, knowing her interview was scheduled before mine, I checked in and was taken through the labyrinth to an office where, instead of the General, my competitor sat.
“He’s running late,” she said.
We spent the next half-hour or so chatting. I learned that she was currently the executive director of a much larger council than mine, that she had previously worked for the North Atlantic Girl Scouts while stationed in Weisbaden with her Army officer husband, and that in her briefcase she carried briefing papers for the General. Briefing papers? That’s what my Marine officer ex-husband did, not me. In all my years with the Girl Scouts, I’d never even heard the words “briefing papers.” My dream shriveled.
I finally got my turn with him. The General’s uniform was the most perfect I’d ever seen – and after 18 years around Marine officers, I’d seen a lot of them. The cut, the creases were perfection. His ribbons were endless; his three stars, on shoulders only a little above my eye level, were the same number I remember seeing on George C. Scott in Patton. Their martinet-style stances were very similar, as well.
With his slight Polish accent he apologized for being late and then said he had to leave very soon to catch a flight west. Altogether we spent only ten, maybe fifteen minutes together. My memory of the conversation was that I blurted a few innocuous bits about myself; that he was very kind; and when I addressed him as “General”, he said, “Please, just call me John.” As if.
Sitting in the back of the plane on the flight home, I shed one, maybe two tears, knowing my dream of three years in Europe was dead. And I never even managed to show off how well I could pronounce Shalikashvili.
Rest in peace, General Shalikashvili, sir. Uh, John.