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.