Are you out of uniform, mister?

At Rotary yesterday, at the beginning of the Q-and-A session with our speaker, I got a look from blog regular KBFenner (on this blog, we’ve definitely got anything that happens at the Columbia Rotary covered) that seemed to say “Are you going to ask a question, or what?”

But I don’t ask questions in those settings. One reason is habit. As a longtime newspaperman, I always felt like I could ask this or any other source any question I might have at some other time. I felt like Q-and-A periods should be left to the laypeople who didn’t have such opportunities.

Maybe I should change that habit now that I no longer have such opportunities — or no longer have them without trying, anyway. But I still feel like if I really WANT to ask a newsmaker a question, I can get it answered without taking up precious Rotary time.

There’s another reason I don’t ask questions: I tend to ask quirky questions that in such a setting might not be taken the right way. In an hour-long conversation, you can give a quirky question context (although I certainly embarrassed Cindi a few times, I’m sure), but when you raise your hand in a big group and stand to ask it, there’s no way to make it come out right.

For instance… Monday, our speaker was Brig. Gen. Bradley W. May, commanding officer of Fort Jackson. He was, as all such officers have been in my experience, a really impressive guy. Good command presence, cool, calm and collected even in the adverse circumstances of being subjected to civilians’ questions. The kind of guy whom you meet and think, “Why can’t this guy be our congressman?” Or something like that. (And the answer is, because guys like this don’t run.) Not everyone who is or has been an officer in the U.S. military is like this (ex-Marine Rob Miller, for instance, lacks that presence, as does reservist Joe Wilson), but people who rise to this level generally (no pun intended) are.

Anyway, people were asking all sorts of questions, none of which was anything I would have asked. They were either things I felt I already knew the answer to, or things that I wasn’t wondering about. What I WAS wondering about was this: How come soldiers come to Rotary in their BDUs?

Now you see, there’s no way that would have been taken right. It would have been seen as disrespectful. And I would never want to communicate disrespect, because I deeply respect and admire Gen. May and the soldiers who accompanied him, and am as grateful as all get-out for their service.

But I DO wonder about the fatigues. I mean, fewer and fewer Rotarians are wearing suits, but for the most part, it’s a business dress kind of thing. Now I know Gen. May meant no disrespect to us whatsoever; I’ve grown accustomed to soldiers dressing this way — as though they’re going into combat, or about to police the area for cigarette butts, rather than sitting behind a desk all day or going to business meetings. It’s official; it’s accepted. This is the way they dress.

What I wonder about is WHY they dress that way when they’re not in the field. They didn’t used to. I grew up in the military, so I grew up with dress codes. I know that within my lifetime, a soldier couldn’t leave the post without being in his Class As. It was all about spit and polish. Can’t let those civilian pukes see you looking sloppy, and so forth.

And while I was never in the military myself (the general on Monday referred to the fact that only 3 out of 10 Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are qualified to serve in the military; I was one of the 7), it touched me. Here’s an anecdote from my youth that I related in a column back in 2001:

One balmy night in Hawaii 30 years ago, I drove up to the sub base gate of Pearl Harbor Navy base.

I was in high school and still an inexperienced driver, and I forgot something: I didn’t click off my headlights so the guard could see the sticker that would assure him this ’58 Oldsmobile was cleared to enter. Not realizing this, I failed to understand the guard’s gesture that I douse the lights, at which point he proceeded to get my attention as only a Marine sergeant could do.

Fully understanding his command to halt, I did so and started rolling down the window. He leaned in to demand some ID, but then stopped, and gave me a stare that made me feel like a boot who had called his rifle a “gun.” In a voice like Doomsday, he demanded to know, “Are you out of uniform, sailor?”

In an instant, all of the following ran through my mind:

  • I was wearing a Navy-issue denim work shirt, the kind sailors wore to swab decks (not what they wore on liberty). It was in my closet, and I had put it on without thinking.
  • I had recently gotten my hair cut — not to Marine standards, but short enough to look to Marine eyes like a particularly sloppy sailor.
  • Over the shirt, I was wearing a maroon jacket that was, to say the least, decidedly non-regulation.
  • I had no right to wear that shirt. The sergeant had instantaneously enlightened me on this point. Though I had grown up in the Navy, I was still a member of that lowest of all categories of humanity — a civilian.
  • Could they throw you in the brig for just looking like a sailor out of uniform? The sergeant sure looked like he had that authority — and the inclination.
  • Despite appearances, there was nothing routine about entering a U.S. Navy installation. This facility was guarded by the U.S. Marine Corps, and I had to be prepared at all times to give an account of myself.

“But … but … I’m a dependent, Sarge,” I finally managed to explain as I dug my ID out of my wallet. After examining the card carefully, the gyrene waved me in, still eyeing me like the worm that I was.

A dependent. Some excuse. I drove away wishing I had been a sailor out of uniform. He would have put me on report, but I would have been less embarrassed…

Sometime between 1971 and the present — maybe about the same time that Army officers started addressing sergeants as “sar’unt” (which, as near as I can tell, they picked up from Dale Dye), all that went away. You could still see Marines dressed like that sentry — impossibly crisp shortsleeved khaki shirt with the collar open to reveal a T-shirt, dress blues pants, etc. — on recruiting duty. But soldiers, right up to commanding generals, dressed like they were on the front.

I’m not sure when it changed. The 80s, or earlier.

The funny thing is, they still HAVE the Class As. In fact, a soldier who spoke to Rotary two years ago wore his. I don’t know why the regulations would require him to wear his while speaking to Rotary, but not other soldiers under similar circumstances (I’m assuming there’s a regulation involved, of course). Not only that, but they have those blue dress uniforms that look like they’re in the Union Army circa 1863, which are pretty sharp.

But enough about the Army. Let’s talk about something I theoretically understand — appropriate civilian attire. Recently, I’ve had it impressed upon me that I am among the few, the proud, who still wear a coat and tie every day. I do this even though I’m unemployed. In fact, I do it particularly because I’m unemployed. People with secure (they think) jobs can afford to look like slobs; I have to look like I’m constantly being interviewed. That’s the way I think of it, anyway.

Friday, I had lunch with Jim Foster (of the state Department of Ed, formerly of The State) at Longhorn Steakhouse (that’s what I was doing while some of y’all were freaking out over the multiple e-mails). As we sat down, he said, “Why are you dressed like that?” I brushed off the question, because there was nothing remarkable about the way I was dressed: starched shirt, bow tie, jacket. But he persisted: No really, why are you dressed like that?

Well, I said… I always dress like this. Doesn’t everybody? Well, obviously HE didn’t. Neither did anyone at the surrounding tables. Finally, when someone walked in wearing a suit, I almost pointed him out.

Then yesterday, I dropped in on Bob McAlister over at the offices of his consulting business. You know, the former chief of staff to the late Gov. Carroll Campbell. A guy with pictures of himself with George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Jack Kemp and other GOP luminaries all over the office. He was wearing a rumpled blue sport shirt (untucked, I believe) that looked like he’d gotten if from L.L. Bean about 15 years ago. He had taken off his shoes — no, excuse me, his bedroom slippers, which had also seen better days.

He said he didn’t wear a tie except under the most exceptional circumstances. It was easier, and he saved a lot on dry cleaning. He said when he was about to go to a business meeting in D.C. recently, he was told to ditch the coat and tie so he wouldn’t stand out. With some trepidation he did, only to be relieved that he had. We discussed it for awhile, and agreed that in other parts of the country, the phenomenon is more advanced than here. We’re slower to change. I mentioned to him how offended I’d get when Knight Ridder executives would come visit the paper in the years after the corporate move to California — here would be these guys who make a million dollars a year meeting with us, and we’d all be in coats and ties (the men, anyway; the women wearing some distaff equivalent), and they’d be wearing unbuttoned shirts with no ties. Yeah, right, like you guys are all Bill Gates or something just because your office is close to Silicon Valley. I hated it.

At the advertising agency where I’m hanging out (and where I’m typing this), no one but me wears a tie most days. Not exactly Mad Men.

At the Capital City Club, the rules were relaxed over the summer to allow gentlemen to have lunch in the main dining room without jackets. Ties haven’t been required for some time. These must be the end days. Next thing you know, we’ll have dogs and cats living together

So today, I succumbed to the pressure. For the first time this season I donned my black camel-hair jacket, with white dress shirt and hounds-tooth slacks — but didn’t put on a tie. I felt like I was going skinny-dipping in public or something, but hey, if this is the style.

Then, as soon as I got downtown, I stepped onto an elevator, three other guys got on with me — and they were all dressed in suits and ties. They would have put Don Draper to shame. And I looked at my reflection in the mirrored door, and I looked like I’d just gotten out of bed or something. I wanted to ask myself, “Mister, are you out of uniform?…”

That’s it. Soon as I get home, I’m putting on a tie. I might sleep in it.

9 thoughts on “Are you out of uniform, mister?

  1. Brad Warthen

    Yeah, I know that was a ridiculously long post for such an insubstantial topic. That’s because I started it yesterday in ONE direction, then came back and finished it after going in ANOTHER direction. So sorry about that. Blogging just doesn’t impose the same kind of discipline about brevity that newspaper writing does…

    Hey, nobody’s making you read it…

  2. doug_ross

    The term “empty suit” has yet to be replaced by “empty khakis-with-golf-shirt”. I think that phrase came about because there are some people who think the exterior appearance makes a difference. There’s a whole lot of “suits” on Wall Street who

    I also think two phrases you used are telling in terms of how your view of the world was formed:

    “even in the adverse circumstances of being subjected to civilians’ questions. ”


    “Can’t let those civilian pukes see you looking sloppy,”

    Even if you were trying to be “funny” in your “gummint” style, those lines come from somewhere. Just an observation that your “war is the answer” view of the world is probably related more to your background than you’d care to admit.

  3. doug_ross

    Oops. didn’t finish the Wall Street comment:

    There are a whole lot of “suits” on Wall Street who don’t bring much honor to the fashion.

  4. Brad Warthen

    Of COURSE there is. I mean, I wouldn’t describe my philosophy as “War is the answer,” but there are times when I might have rephrased Lennon’s dictum as “Give War a Chance.” Dec. 8, 1941, for instance. Sept. 12, 2001, for another.

    And sure, that has something to do with my background. A lot of what you see has to do with my having grown up in the military. That’s what my long essay about John McCain was about last year (“Faith of our Fathers“), as was my column about “that old-time conservatism.”

    Not all military brats come out that way. Some react strongly against that upbringing. But some of us really get into studying the culture that we came up in. Care to weigh in here, Burl? Burl and I graduated from a high school that, while it wasn’t technically on a military base, might as well have been — it was surrounded by Pearl Harbor Navy base, Hickam Air Force Base and Fort Shafter Army base.

    All of that said, in this case I think my language about civilians was meant to be self-deprecating, as a way of assuring Gen. May and others that I mean no disrespect to our men and women in uniform; far from it. I’m well aware of being a civilian.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    Mary Wertsch’s “Military Brats” book might be a necessary read, Brad.
    One of her points is that those who “grew up inside the fortress” either embrace the life in adulthood, or reject it, but all are affected.
    One symptom is as simple as settling down. Some brats remain rootless their whole life. Others stick like glue to one community.
    Face it, Brad, you have a uniform. It’s mufti, but it’s yours.
    I, on the other hand, am a real slob. I’m often barefoot at work.

  6. Burl Burlingame

    Another curiosity of journalism etiquette: Now that you’re not an “official” representative of the press, do you feel free to applaud when speakers say something interesting? Or are you still trying to appear neutral?

  7. kbfenner

    Actually, or perhaps I should write Ekshully, I WAS wondering why he was dressed in his jammies, instead of a sharp uniform. I like a guy in uniform, or a suit. I would dress a lot sharper for Rotary, except that I have a class at USC right afterwards and don’t have time to change, and already feel so out of place–I try to dress down a bit from my usual standards.

    I was sitting with old Mr. Lourie yesterday. Made me feel really sad, same as reading in today’s paper about the closing of yet another small, locally owned business.

    I looked at you because I figured you’d ask an intelligent question. You actually seem to understand this military stuff.

  8. Brad Warthen

    Oh, I applaud, but I’m judicious about it. I applaud when it’s obviously the polite thing to do, but not when it might be seen as approbation.

    And I even refuse to do the polite thing when it goes too far.

    When Mark Sanford rose to speak at my Rotary last week, I clapped politely, just as a greeting. But when the people around me STOOD to show even MORE respect (for the office, I hoped, not the man), I decided we’d gone far enough, and kept my seat. This in no way embarrassed me, because all those years as a scribe make rudeness second nature.

    All of this, of course, is a total judgment call, and I’ve been making such judgments for as long as I’ve been an editorialist, at least. I’ll always stand for someone in our country’s uniform, for instance.

    Now, if you take the term “applaud” to another level — I have found that one of the toughest things to do, as an editorialist or a blogger or whatever — is praise anyone, for anything.

    Often in my career, I’ve been called “courageous” for sharp criticism, but people don’t know how easy that is. What really takes guts is standing up and praising somebody — Lindsey Graham, or John McCain, or Barack Obama, or Joe Lieberman to name a few I’ve praised. That’s when you subject yourself to derision, and of a sort that’s particularly hard to take if you’re a newsman.

    But I do it anyway.

  9. kbfenner

    I did not stand, either. I applauded, golfly, out of politeness, but to stand was right out!

    I won’t stand for just anyone in uniform–Oliver North, for example, but most anyone.

    One of your newest commentators said to me today that she appreciated your niceness and that that was why she read your blog.


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