The day that Elmo came to visit the Pentagon was the same day that the women from the Office of Human Capital Initiatives put on a fashion show, which also ended up being the day I had an anxiety attack and wore my government-issued gas mask for the first time. Sometimes the stars align, if for no reason at all. Elmo's visit was an occasional event. A diplomat from a happier place. The fashion show will probably return. The Department of Defense is the kind of institution that wears its flaws on its gray sleeve. And I don't know if I will ever wear a gas mask again. That's the kind of thing you never know.
The military's relationship with Sesame Street had been established some time ago. Mine had been, as well, in the safety of snack time after school while hanging out with the motley crew who roamed that utopian street, preaching grammar and cookies in moderation. That amalgam of fur and heart got me through such youthful inflictions as a mild speech impediment and my doting parents' infractions on the solitude of my adolescence. It turned out that while these characters were indulging the minor crises of my childhood, gently tending to my innocence, they were also gently tending to the loss of it for others. The Muppets had programs to help children deal with the hardships of military life. Missing a parent who is deployed, missing a parent who does not come home from deployment. Sesame Street's repertoire included sketches in the Pentagon's basement auditorium, which moored the nature of the building's work in the pit of its stomach. These were not meant for me, but I often showed up without uniform or child or invitation, sitting in the dark in the back.
"You're going to work at the Department of Defense?" my dad had said skeptically when I phoned to announce my new job.
"The Pentagon, Dad. I'm going to work at the Pentagon," I had corrected. They were the same thing, but I had previously worked on political campaigns, which usually ended in unemployment. That one had ended with a job in the most serious of buildings was not going to go unnoticed.
"Department of Defense or Pentagon—same giant bureaucracy to me. Do you have any experience to be working there?" he had said.
I did not, but did not respond.
The Department of Defense was a giant bureaucracy. Housed in a five-sided building with such gravity of purpose and density of cement that it tamped down time like stale air in a Tupperware container. You popped the lid open and things of long ago sat, mostly preserved with some minor but expected growths. There was a paperlady who rode a basketed bike through the hallways delivering mail and newspapers. Microsoft 95 roamed the halls like King Lear—senile, naked, and proud. A woman in my office who didn't know how to use a computer and used a typewriter instead existed as the percussive soul of our office reception. I learned in our first conversation that she was a fast typer: 89 words per minute. I didn't know my typing speed, which made 89 Words Per Minute (89WPM) suspect of my womanhood and place in life.
The building was a thriving ecosystem of acronyms and opaque procedures where Correspondence Management Officers (CMOs) maintained bushels of manuals, the primary food source for the slowing of time. CMOs were stealth hunters who preyed on any overpopulation of activity or ambition, wielding rulers to ensure proper discipline of margins and indentations, content secondary to formatting decorum. Employees there were imbued with a literary and social civility that was diminished and heightened simultaneously, where things that were normally expressed with words were reduced to homonym acronyms notable for their discord, CAS meaning casualty or Civil Aviation Security; its use, I suppose, depending on how severe your job was.
I had daily walks with my mentor, roaming the hallowed hallways like morning walkers at a mall, seeking climate-controlled endorphins in business casual shoes.
"My name is Barbara Chapman and I will be your mentor," she had said on my first day before "hello." "You must be Meg." Mentorship was not a casual affair at the Department. I had been skeptical, but her teaching moments still come to me often.
On the day that Elmo came to visit, Barbara and I were strolling down the hallways that cut the building from center to exterior, when we passed a sign announcing a "Fashion Show at Noon" in the main corridor.
"Did you know there's a fashion show today?" I asked.
"I guess some of the Human Capital staff arranged it. They're modeling their own clothes."
"Their own clothes?"
"Good for them, I guess. I just wish someone had told me. I would have brought my uniform," she said laughing. "It's my most valued piece of clothing. It got me out of Ahnapee, Wisconsin. I take it out of the closet and kiss it sometimes for that."
"Fashion show at noon. Elmo at three," I said as I looked down at the grown-up clothes I had assembled for the day.
As I walked back to my office, I saw a wisp of Elmo's fur turning a corner. Beckoned by the apparition from my childhood, I followed it, only to run into Jan Ostrich cordoning off the fashion show area. She was directing the placement of some industrial red doormats taken from the building entrances so they lined up, rubber-end to rubber-end.
"It needs to feel like a red carpet," Jan was saying.
Jan and I were the antagonists in each other's professional lives. We were cut from different fabrics of the same civilian cloth and she liked to remind me that my human capital was minimal to her.
"If your guy doesn't get re-elected you get fired in four years," she had said to me on my first day. "You'll come to find out it's pretty hard to fire the rest of us. Super excited to hear what new ideas you have to change things up around here."
The conference room was a flurry of activity when I arrived back at my office. The PowerPoint (PPT) clicker had been misplaced and 89WPM had a howl-at-the-moon wild-eyed look. Managing the PowerPoint clicker, the summoning instrument for PPT, was her banner responsibility. PPT was the Pentagon's possessing spirit; always there, always lurking, always dressed in the uniform royal blue theme, the DoD logo framing each of his slides like dull cufflinks.
"It's okay, we'll help you find it," I said.
"Retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Whitaker, ma'am, currently Director of Special Projects, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs," Rick said as he entered, shaking hands with Patricia, whom he had met several times. He sat down at the head of the table as 89WPM explained the crisis of the clicker.
"That's all right! Improvise, Overcome, React!" Rick said. "Beep. Sorry to stop you ladies from chitchatting. I want to show you a video while we wait that is going to kickstart Operation INNOVATION!" Rick brought a particular musicality to his meetings, his military experience being a conductor in the Air Force band.
"We didn't see combat, but I'll tell you what—there's nothing more patriotic than hearing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' belted out by an Air Force Officer," he'd say, when asked what the Air Force band did. He'd follow this with something about how conducting was like managing a firefight in Afghanistan, an analogy that always trailed off at the end.
Rick's hands were jerking around in a theatrical sign language only he knew. Pressing play with the drama of a performing pianist, he showed us an Autotune the News video in which reporters appeared to sing the news to an undecipherable techno melody. 89WPM was stalking the perimeter for the clicker. The rest of us had entered a meditative safe space.
"Now that is INNOVATION! Wa-ching! I was watching these and I thought BaBow! We have got to do something like that," Rick said, miming a lightbulb turning on above his head.
"What would you envision us making an autotune video for?" I said.
"Well, that's what I want you smart little ladies to figure out. I just know when you get together to solve problems, Wa-ching! Wa-ching! Wa-ching!" He made erratic hand motions at Patricia and me that meant: if you ladies get together there will be a lot of lightbulb moments.
"I found the clicker," 89WPM said, climbing from beneath the table.
"Badaboom! I believe we made it to slide eighteen yesterday, no? I like this slide, but I think it could use something to make it pop."
"Checkerboard transition?" PPT suggested, an automated response based on a deep algorithmic understanding of Rick's tastes. "Let's see what that looks like," Rick replied.
A soldier in fatigues carrying a machine gun, an Afghan woman crouched beside him, sailed across the screen. The words "war on terrorism" appeared in lowercase as prescribed by the Army Military Style Guide, indicating that it no longer referred to a specific era, but a way of life.
"Meg, can you write my speaking notes for this later? Stats, bulleted. PipPipPip. Just facts and figures," Rick said to me. Then, with a conductor's hand, "Let's go onto the next slide."
"You got it, sir," PPT said.
"Hmmm," Rick said, rubbing a phantom beard with his hand. "I think that transition is missing something, don't you?"
"It looks fine," I said.
"I think I know what it needs. "Let's let this one simmer onstage," PPT said. The words "Operation ENDURING FREEDOM" materialized with the sound effect of static radio.
"Bam! I love it. What do you call it?" Rick said, smiling at the glowing screen.
"Dissolve In," PPT said, animated with pride from the graphic transition updates that had been recently released by Microsoft.
"Wow. You've got the magic touch," Rick said.
I went back to my desk and opened my computer to read a story about Jason Rigger, wunderkind of the political campaign that had brought me here. Jason was interviewed by Smooth Political Operator, the author astonished by his looks and wit.
"I pinch myself every morning I get to walk into the White House to work," he said.
After the election we had come as fawns and doves to DC together. We were young and admiring. And naïve, in the way that is both so beautiful and shameful it would bring you to your knees.
"I feel so honored to be doing this work," Jason was quoted as saying, and I tried to say it to myself as I began writing the PipPipPip notes for Rick. The federal government did not have space for the intensity of youth. I closed my computer and tried to let it Dissolve Out.
There was an art exhibit on the walls in one of the central corridors that Barbara took me to often.
"A teaching moment," she had said the first time. Different artists had been hired to render the images of those who had died while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. The casualties. Some were pencil, curves of ashen lips that felt like ghosts. Some were painted, sparkling glimmers of hope in their eyes or the knowledge the future in their furrowed brows. All had names like Mike or Jim or Mark and places they were born like Oklahoma or Utah or Texas. Most were given to the families of the fallen when they died, but the pictures of the service members who didn't have locatable relatives or families to give them to were sent to hang in that hallway.
"I like to think that having them here, we can be their families," Barbara had said, signing the cross over her forehead, heart and shoulders when we walked away.
When I started working there I was automatically subscribed to the casualty press release listserv. The subject line, invariably: "DoD Announces Casualty." After experiencing the unknowable depths of acronyms and military jargon, these were so frank and stark you would gasp reading them. They would list only the deceased name, age, and hometown, leaving the ensuing despair in someone else's life to your imagination. Eventually you stopped opening them because it was too much in too little.
After orientation on my first day, I had been whisked away to gas mask training to be issued my own mask in case of unimaginable events that felt imaginable there.
"I'll tell you, I've been to this five times now but I still don't think I know how to put this damn thing on," John, the man next to me, had said, laughing. We admired the masks as though they were props on an apocalyptic film set, forgetting that those props were modeled after what was in our hands: orangutan skull, large black rubber snout, wide plastic eyes with girthy straps to buckle around your head.
"We recommend preparing an emergency bag with a change of clothes and snacks for twenty-four hours," said our trainer, Nancy, holding up a large Ziploc bag with Fruit Roll-Ups and some clothes.
John laughed at the notes I was taking.
"I've never prepared a bag," he said. "I was here on 9/11 and we didn't need a goddamn bag of socks and snacks."
John's office was on the side of the building that had been hit by the plane, but he had fatefully been on the other side at a meeting at 9:37 that morning.
"I felt the ground shake," he said. He lost some of his officemates and best friends.
Worn look in his eyes, I could tell this story was also worn, dragged through the coals and taking him with it. He told with reverence of the military that came to life in that moment, how everyone was running away except the people in uniform who were running in the direction of the chaos to help get people out.
"Best goddamn men and women on the planet. I would be out in theater in the fight right now if I could," he said, slapping his leg. It made a hollow sound. "Lost it in 2004, so now I'm stuck here."
Theater in war, I had learned, was a term used to define a geographic area in which operations are held, the word originating from theasthai in Greek, meaning to behold, which, I suppose, may one of the only ways to look at war.
The only theater I had been involved in at the Department of Defense was when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saw part of a nine-hour play about Afghanistan in England and had offhandedly and charitably mentioned to the playwright that they should bring it to the US. Four-star Generals are afforded little room for nuance, and so the play turned up several months later, packaged for me to manage.
"I think this will be a perfect little project for you," Rick had said.
"A nine-hour play about Afghanistan? I can't wait to find out how much is being spent on this," Jan Ostrich had said.
"A nine-hour play? Do you have any experience to be working on that?" my father had asked.
The first three hours of the play were about the British occupation of Afghanistan from 1839 to 1842, the second three about the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989, and the final three about the American occupation from 2001 to still happening.
There was a moment in the play, after six coma-inducing hours of Brits traipsing around with fake guns and accents, when the lights went out and audio from 9/11 was played. Things we've all heard crashed through the room: shrieks and screaming and sirens seizing your eardrums. I would sit in the dark and cry during this part, every day for a week. Looking back, I'm not sure if the sadness was from the remembrance of that day or the tragedy of that play.
All three acts were really a metaphysical nightmare that left you with the undeniable truth that both nine-hour plays and invading Afghanistan were fundamentally bad ideas. The play, at least, only ran for seven days.
I pondered Rick's notes and watched an Autotune the News video at my desk, thinking it might bring inspiration. Instead, I found myself at the red carpet promptly at noon, pulled by forces of morbid curiosity and boredom. Music trickled through a stereo system and a small group of aimless post-lunch wanderers congregated around the round carpet. An announcer stood at a podium with index cards thanking us for coming, even though, from a glance around, none of us knew why we were there.
"To get things started, let's bring out Jan Ostrich, Human Capital Specialist who today is headed for a fun lunch with her girlfriends," the announcer said as Jan sashayed along the red rugs and flipped her hair. "Look at her with that yellow jacket. She'll be making quite an impression with her girlfriends, all of them businesswomen with important jobs."
I met the eyes of someone in tan fatigues on the other side of the runway. His uniformed sadness met my civilian shame. We both turned away.
Time stretched down the long hallways, catching us all in its bureaucratic net, our feet planted to the earth like figurines in a snow globe, memos scattered at our feet like snow waiting, and maybe hoping, to be shaken. I looked out past the doormats and Jan Ostrich, across the austere frames separating the living from the unlived lives of Mike and Jim and Mark from Oklahoma and Utah and Texas. I ran my mind along the whitewashed walls to my office where the PipPipPip notes awaited me. I could feel the thick time of it all congeal in front of me, framing a course to this place, wrapping all of the vignettes of my life in a suffocating sequence.
Young impressionable Meg watching Top Gun, Charlie saying to Maverick, "I have top secret clearance. The Pentagon sees to it that I know more than you;" teen Meg visiting DC on a high school trip wondering what it would be like to work there, be one of these important people in suits or uniforms; hopeful young adult Meg packing a suitcase of clothes into a car to go work on a political campaign and returning one November defeated and then another victorious; adult Meg getting a badge and thinking you did good Meg, you did good. I looked up at Mike and Jim and Mark on the wall as Huey Lewis' "Power of Love" came breaking through the speakers and the MC announced someone wearing a little black dress.
"LBD, I think they call it," he said chuckling.
The hollowness inside of me crackled and I entered my own vacuous space, quickly trying to take breaths that turned to small gasps, a brisk step turning to a jog back to my office, all manners of movement not meant for that place. "Are you okay Ma'am?" people said as I passed. I found my desk, fell into my chair, and to choke down air, looking for a bag to breathe into. Shaking, I saw my overnight bag with socks and pants and Fruit Roll-Ups next to my gas mask under my desk. I pulled them out. I hadn't looked at them in some time but I had packed them just as Nancy had told us to that day in training. Opening the Ziploc, I pulled out a Fruit Roll-Up. This too shall pass, I thought, eating it while I unzipped the gas mask. The mask sat there and I reveled at it, some alter ego of darkness. I lifted it from its case, raising it to my face. Maybe I could breathe if I was wearing it. Maybe people couldn't see me if I was wearing it. What would it feel like to wear this? I thought as I slipped it on my face. I could hear the wind I was sucking in and out.
Oh, the sound! Protected! I sat like that for some time. It may have been a lot of time. It may have not been a lot of time. It didn't matter. I just remember whsssshh! whsssshh! with every breath I took and gave back.
"Meg, what in the hell are you doing?" I looked up to find Jan Ostrich staring at me in a black snout, mosquito eyes and Fruit Roll-Ups wrappers scattered. A maudlin act. I unstrapped the top buckle and slid the mask from my face.
"Give me a Fruit Roll-Up, you twit," she laughed. "You know it's against regulation to open those outside of an attack," she added as I stared back at her, mask slack, snout on chin. "I won't say anything. I wanted to say thank you for coming to the fashion show. It was a silly thing but the girls and I wanted to feel better about ourselves for a day. Goddamn, this place is dysfunctional," she said looking around. She ripped some strawberry meat from a Fruit Roll-Up. "Anyway. You're ridiculous. Take that off, seriously. I'll report you if you do it again."
The auditorium that afternoon was filled with men and women in uniform with their children waiting for Elmo. I took a seat in the back. Elmo's cousin Sally, with a bright pink tuft of hair and equally thrilling squeal of a voice, was with him, along with an orange uncle named Jimmy. They bobbed at the front of the stage acting out the scene. Elmo and Sally had a friend whose father had gone to war and wasn't coming home, we found out. They were very worried for their classmate and wanted to know why her dad wasn't coming back. Uncle Jimmy, putting his furry orange mitts on their shoulders, told them that sometimes people couldn't stay in this world and that it was sad to say goodbye to them but that it was okay to be sad. Elmo raised his furry bright red arms to hug Sally, and they cried.
I returned to my office after to toil, collate some papers, reformat some memos. John Jaxon, age twenty-two, and Robert Allman, age nineteen, were confirmed casualties that afternoon. An automatic email informed us of the deaths. I signed the cross over my forehead, heart, and shoulders. And that day I put my hand to my eyes and I wept for them.
Notes from the Author
I worked at the Pentagon during the first term of the Obama Administration and wrote this after that time. I did witness a fashion show, met Elmo, and cried during a Sesame Street skit in the auditorium. Fortunately, I never wore my gas mask.