It was Maculhaney who told me the story of the mythical brigadier-general, during an interminable break in the exercise scenario, as we sat in a monitoring station in a trailer parked on top of a flat-topped red hill in Mississippi. It was the highest bit of land for miles around, and thick with mobile radar-lashups, tents and Army and Marine detachments to the right and left of us. Every vehicle going by kicked up a cloud of pink dust. Maculhaney’s jungle boots were dull and smudged with it, and since it was a pleasant day --- not a degree hotter than bearable, humidity sweating a puddle of water from a can of Pepsi that Orvis left in the shade just inside the doorway--- and a tantalizing breath of salt-sea air on the intermittent breeze from the south, both Orvis and Maculhaney had shed their BDU shirts.
Orvis sat in the doorway, with Leroy halfway down the stairs on a smoke break. Orvis flapped her cap at the smoke, shooing it away from the doorway as a couple of minivans crunched slowly along the top of the hill, obeying the 5 MPH speed limit in the exercise area. “There goes the Congressman,” Orvis observed lazily, “Did you know we-uns had a real live Congressman among-us?” “No shit!” Leroy squinted through her smoke after the vans, “Democrat or Republican?” “Indicted or un-indicted?” Maculhaney murmured, dryly. “Democrat.” I said, “Un-indicted. Visiting the Marines.” “The man has no taste…he should be visiting us,” Orvis pronounced. “Speaking of which, why aren’t you with the press pool, interviewing the Congressman?” “I do have taste,” I said, “And I interviewed him yesterday. He had a general with him, giving him a tour of the circus.” “Don’t say,” Leroy yawned. “I guess that’s why they haven’t indexed this mission yet.” “Prominent stop on the dog and pony show,” Maculhaney agreed. “Speaking of dogs,” answered Leroy, “Them Guard Doggies aren’t barbequing today. Is anyone hungry? I had me a mind to go off-base to the Dairy-Queen.” She winked at me, “Maintenance run, of course. You hungry, Sunny?” Orvis stubbed out her cigarette by way of assent, pulled on her BDU blouse and took her cap out of her belt. Leroy reached over and took the radio receiver off it’s hook, and said into it “India One, this is India Eight… going mobile.” “India One, acknowledge,” Answered the controller, away down at the Air Guard camp by the airport. “You want anything, Mackie?” Leroy paused, on the way out and Maculhaney shook her head. I hadn’t expected her to.
Maculhaney eschewed junk food on principal, insisting there was too much salt in it, and military chow made her nauseous. Leroy lectured her constantly about picking at her food, and I knew for a fact that the whole time Mackie deployed to Desert Storm she subsisted on raisins and granola bars. I had never seen her eat much else, unless it was that time in Daharan, when she monopolized a raw-veg-and-dip platter for the entire evening. Now she extracted a granola bar from her bag, and nibbled on it daintily as Orvis and Leroy pulled away in their own unit van, and their own cloud of pink dust. “
Did you notice who the general was?” She asked, after a long while, “Local commander?” “Pentagon Public Affairs Office. Not a friend of yours, surely?” “No,” Mackie grinned, “I did meet his predecessor, several times removed, when I was a baby troop in Japan. Very short man. When I stood at attention in front of him I could look straight down at his shoulders. Lovely view of the stars.” He must have been short indeed, I thought, for Mackie was barely five-five in sensible shoes. “You keep smiling as if you know a funny story about him,” I said, and waited. Mackie swallowed a crumb of granola bar and answered, “Not about him… but it is a funny story. About a general. A very special sort of general… a mythical one.” “A mythical general?” I wasn’t sure I had heard right. “And you are going to tell me, of course.” “Nah… I thought I’d let you go nuts first, wondering.”
I waited. Maculhaney’s stories were always scandalously amusing, and she had collected a lot of them during a career which stretched back nearly to the bad time, sad time, Vietnam time. “I heard about him from a PA guy I worked with once,” Said Maculhaney, finally, and I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. “Big guy named Nicholson. He did it with two of his crazy buddies, when he was assigned to a major HQ, never mind where. The Head Shed was a huge place. Nicholson said it took him weeks to find his way from his cubicle to the latrine and back again. Anyway, one day he and his two buddies got bored and they wrote a memo. I don’t know what about, Nicholson didn’t say, but they signed it with a colonels’ name and posted it on one of the bulletin boards. And the joke was, they made up the colonel: they called him Colonel Elmer O. Diefendurfer.
“You can’t be serious,” I said at that point, and Maculhaney replied, “Look this stuff is too funny for me to make up. I’m just telling you what Nicholson told me. Anyway, no one took down their memo for a long, long time, and no one kicked up a fuss, so they went one farther. They made him a member of the Officer’s Open Mess, with a club card and all. The nice thing about a club card…well, it used to be a nice thing, you can’t do it any more… you used to be able to charge your liquor purchases at the package store, and that’s what Nicholson and his buds would do. They’d charge it on Colonel Diefendurfer’s card on a Friday night, and then run around to the Club on Sunday morning and pay it off in cash.” “They did this for a couple of months, and then they decided that Colonel Diefendurfer ought to have a proper job, so they created him ‘Chief, MPSO’. Stood for ‘Mundane Plans and Silly Operations’. One of Nicholson’s friends was an admin tech, so they got the office of “MPSO” included on those interoffice routing slips. You ever see one of those? Slip of paper, they attach it to files and stuff they want to pass around for everyone to see. Well, anyways, stuff used to come back to HQ admin with the “MPSO” checked off. They even got him an office. Good thing no one ever really checked his room number. It was a real room all right, but it wasn’t an office. It was a broom closet. After another couple of months, they got really ambitious and put in the paperwork for a security clearance.”
“Good lord, how did they pull that off?” I asked, awed and disbelieving and amazed at the lengths that truly bored and intelligent people will go in amusing themselves. “They filled out all the forms, and slipped them into stacks of other stuff to be signed… usually by a Colonel or GS-13. They figured if their asses were ever caught, the blame would be spread around… and up. They tell me that clearances have about a ten-year backlog, these days.” “Anyway, the security clearance floated off into the system… they may hear back, about now, I think. They next figured they would take the Colonel on a TDY, so they write him orders for a trip Nicholson was making for something or other. He said the MAC crew damn near went spastic trying to reconcile the duty passenger list. They were paging Colonel Diefendurfer all over the terminal and on the aircraft, and Nicholson said he about ruptured himself trying not to laugh out loud. They did take care, though, not to file a travel voucher afterwards for the Colonel. That,” said Maculhaney virtuously, “Would have been fraudulent.” “Well, they went on for another six months or so, and the Colonel got to be pretty well known around the HQ. In fact, Nicholson swore that one of the Generals--- it was a big HQ, simply crawled with generals--- swore up and down he recollected this Diefendurfer from flight school, twenty-five years before! It came up to Christmas time, and Nicholson and his friends outdid themselves. They got a copy of the HQ protocol roster…”
“Protocol roster?” I asked, knowing that it couldn’t be what it sounded like, but unable to guess what it might be. “A list of local big-wigs and important people in the local community. Town council members, elected officials. Heads of companies, the chief of the gendarmes. Leading lights and other suck-ups to the military industrial. When the commander wants to host five hundred of the civilian crème de la crème to Chablis and cocktail weenies, Public Affairs comes up the list of five hundred. With their spouses’ names. Addresses, phone numbers, the whole enchilada. Do you want to hear about how Colonel Diefendurfer became a general or not?” “Pray continue,” I said, “But what did your creative friend do with the protocol roster?” “Sent a Christmas card to just about everyone on it. That is when they had to invent Mrs. Colonel Diefendurfer, the former Mei-Ling Lipschultz of West Palm Beach and San Antonio, and their family of talented and intelligent children. It was when they began getting Christmas cards in return… to the Colonel’s office address, that Nicholson decided it was time for the Colonel’s apotheosis. That is, to be promoted to General. After all he had been a sterling success as the head of MPSO. Nicholson also said,” and Maculhaney giggled, “That he put out a story about how the Colonel had been in charge of security at our Embassy in Teheran in the late seventies, where he had been an example to all…”
“Anyone see the irony?” I asked, and Maculhaney answered with another giggle, “Only if it had fallen on them from a very great height. So they wrote up a lovely bio of the Colonel in the proper format--- they weren’t admin and PA for nothing, you know. And they sent in an announcement of the Colonel’s promotion to the Air Force Times, with a copy of the bio, and waited to see if the editors would bite. Which they did, hook, line and sinker. Nicholson cut out the page it was on, for their file. Honestly, some people are just too trusting to be in the news business. But that was their last fling with the mythical general.” “Were people starting to be suspicious?” I asked, and Maculhaney answered, “No, they were starting to believe! General Diefendurfer was starting to get tasked with real stuff, and Nicholson and his buddies were starting to have trouble covering. They figured that any time now, someone would begin to wonder. I think the final straw came when Nicholson heard someone at Staff Meeting suggest that General Diefendurfer would be perfect to head up the next years’ Base Open House Planning Committee, and everyone agreed that he would be perfect. When he heard that, he knew the General had to go.”
“Good lord, they didn’t kill him off, did they?” Maculhaney looked at me with distain, “Certainly not. That would have really put the fat in the fire. They got rid of him the usual way. With a set of orders. They whited-out someone elses’ name, and made the social real blurry, Xeroxed it down a couple dozen generations and posted it on the bulletin board with a heart-felt letter signed by the General thanking everyone. I believe it said he was moving on to the Pentagon, to the Joint Staff. And that was the end of the mythical General. Although I do believe he made occasional appearances whenever Nicholson felt like livening things up. Last I heard of it, Nicholson was a Chief, out at PACAF HQ in Hawaii. Probably retired by now. He did always say that he would publish the whole Difendurfer file when he was gone far, far beyond the reach of the sense-of-humor-impaired.”
Maculhaney wolfed the last of her granola bar, and wadded up the wrapper. She looked at me and added seriously, “You have to keep a sense of humor in this field, otherwise you start to take it all too serious. You either drop dead of a heart attack or wind up in a rubber room at Malcom Gow. I don’t really know of other people really thought the General was real, or if they just played along with the gag.” “I’ve heard of weirder, real-life stuff,” I said. “I did a story once, on the Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley wedding.” “However did you keep your skin from crawling off, and curling up in the corner sobbing?” Maculhaney asked, with professional interest. “But yeah, that’s something that’s too weird to be real. Now, I went for six months in Greenland telling people I was really a space alien doing anthropological research on earthling customs and behavior. There were some people who sorta bought off on it. On the other hand, they might have thought I’d been there too long, and they’d best humor me before I got really irrational.”
Outside the comm. van, tires crunched on the red bauxite gravel, and doors slammed open and shut. It rocked as Leroy climbed the ladder, a paper bag from Dairy Queen in one hand, and a large paper cup with a plastic lid and a straw sticking out of it in the other, “Didja miss us?” she asked, and I answered, “Mackie has been telling me about a mythical general… and also that she is a space alien doing research on Earthling customs and behavior,” Leroy didn’t even blink, “Had my suspicions for years,” she drawled, “Ain’t the strangest thing I ever heard tell of. I knew two guys in Japan who ran a deli and catering service out of their room in the Navy barracks, and they had a recipe for chili con carne that would bring tears to your eyes. I could be telling you about that….” And she did. But that is another story