I didn’t think twice about sub-titling my blog with this word-image of combat boots dangling over a wire. Everyone knows that “short timers,” on deployments or people about to leave the military altogether, toss their boots over a nearby wire.
Finishing the previous paragraph, I see my problem.
I didn’t think that I had become institutionalized. I’m obviously institutionalized.
For 31 years total, from a semester in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, through four years as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, to 26 years and two days in the active duty Air Force, I have had at least one uniform perfectly pressed and ready to wear every single day. Usually, I’ve had four different types of uniforms ready to go, anticipating the unexpected formal event, or a grungy need for my combat fatigues. There are four ready to go in my closet now.
I have other clothes. After all, I ride horses and have at least 10 pairs of breeches and 20 “good to get dirty” t-shirts that I wear almost daily at the barn. And flannel pajamas for after the barn and mornings. I knew I would be ready to toss those combat boots over the wire and figure out what other people wear in the middle of the day. But when you’re retired, the middle of the day can be a combination of dirty t-shirts and pajamas.
The thing is, I can’t bring myself to let go…of most things…but of my uniforms in particular. Tuesday will be two official months since I retired from the active duty military and from wearing my uniform. Maybe it’s time to clear out my closet.
Possibly the Air Force is trying to prevent the need to retrieve a bucket lift and pull down combat boots from the power lines around base, because it created a place called the Airmen’s Attic. People can donate their uniforms to this shop and enlisted airmen who make so little money they are often supplementing their families with food stamps and the WIC, Women and Infant Children, program can shop there to find quality uniforms at almost no cost. I have a straightforward solution for disposing of half my clothes rack.
On the flip side, many military retirees hold on to a ceremonial uniform or two. I loved seeing my colleague, who has been retired for nearly 30 years, show up at our formal military dinner in his Mess Dress uniform. It still fits him and reminds all of us that “Bill” is a distinguished pilot with a long history of honorable service.
I’m pretty sure that kind of retiree is not me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my service. But it was a good run and now it’s over.
My grandfather served as a lanky, long bombardier in a glass bubble on the bottom of a B-25 Mitchell bomber in the skies over Italy during World War II. My brother is still a full-bird colonel who will begin his retirement next summer. The color-tinted photo of my grandpa in his khakis lurks in the back of my mind when I brush my hands over the plastic dry cleaner bags protecting shades of blue I no longer need to protect.
Marie Kondo, in her book The Magical Art of Tidying Up, encourages people to examine belongings and, if the items don’t give them joy, get rid of those objects. Uncomplicated. Simple. Perhaps a little too black and white. I have a joyful connection to my uniforms and all they have stood for in my life. I’m even more joyful that I never have to wear them again.
For starters, they were uncomfortable. In every iteration. You won’t believe me when I tell you that the waist of the women’s pants is still designed to fall about a finger’s width below my rib cage. And I have a high waist. A blend of wool and polyester, the pants can only be dry cleaned. Eventually the Air Force designed poly-wool blend shirts that could be washed and come out of the dryer ready to wear, no ironing. Eliminating ironing was a major change in my time distribution. And when someone decided that perfectly pressed Battle Dress Uniforms didn’t make any sense, they designed the Airmen’s Battle Uniform that is also wash and wear. (I’m going to skip a long diatribe about materials, flammability, the increasing danger of improvised explosive devices on deployments, and a sneaking trend to perfectly press these uniforms too). One year “they” took the seductive slit out of the form-fitting, long Mess Dress skirt and made an A-line skirt that supported actual walking. In my Service Dress, the tight sleeves have never allowed me to salute properly. Nonfunctional. Dysfunctional.
What is my hesitation? When I think “uniform,” my mind instantly conjures binding, restricting, itching, feminized androgyny. Do I need the physical artifacts to maintain the sentiment? Do I need half of my closet devoted to this source of confliction? Will my adored grandfather remonstrate me in the afterlife when, to the best of my knowledge, he kept no uniforms from his brief, traumatic time in the military? Do I need dysfunction in my life?
Sometimes she makes eye contact with me and I fall into her coffee-brown intensity and out of my world.
In these mind-melding moments, I try to see the world through her eyes. Right now. Here. And now. She isn’t thinking about groceries or cleaning the house. She is waiting for the next moment. After the one she is already so vividly in.
Every ounce of her Blue Heeler body resides in polar extremes: pure, unadulterated energetic pursuit of life–and sleep. When awake, she waits, absorbed in the moment.
A sound and she’s at the front porch in high-pitched insistence. I admire her intensity in the here and now; I doubt she ever misses the opportunity to find more.
I think she has appointed herself Master of the Universe and feels the need to control everything around her. It’s a trait for her breed: for her it’s an art form. Tater, the three-legged cat, pegs to a new spot. She cleans his face and settles him. Gus, the three-year-old horse, walks up to the fence, she remonstrates that he should walk differently. I let her out the back and she pogos on the sliding glass door until I realize my mistake. She knows what she wants. She’s sure she knows what you want.
Have you ever heard that dogs and their owners begin to look like each other? Begin to act like each other? It’s about which came first. Or maybe that I would intentionally find a dog whose personality was destined to match my own. I make a daily effort to resign my own self-appointment as Master of the Universe. I am a junkie for memes on the topic: “When you can’t control what is happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what is happening. That is where your power is.” And: “As long as everything is exactly the way I want it, I’m totally flexible.” Of course, even as I was drafting this blog, one of my favorite philosophers on these topics, Anna Blake, published my exact intentions in her blog “Part Two: Now I’m Afraid” when she said, “And while we’re being honest, one more bit of sideways truth. However it happened that your trust was damaged, it wasn’t that you lost control of your horse. You never had control. As a recovering Type-A who thought she could steer her horse, and the rest of her life, to brilliant happiness, I feel qualified to say the sooner we get over thinking we can even control our hair, the better we’ll be.” What, I can’t control my hair? Breathe.
Matilda even approaches rest with intensity. From the earliest moments we have shared our lives together, she has always fallen asleep when she stares up at me. At first she bores into me like some sort of hypnosis, then the blinks begin. Pretty soon she’s tipping sideways and catching herself just before the fall, identical, really, to me trying to stay awake in my freshmen physics classroom.
She sleeps with all her might. Her sturdy body doesn’t allow her legs to drape easily, so even in rest, she appears stiff and ready to take on the world. She reminds me of someone.
In the between moments, when she sneaks onto the couch and stretches herself along my leg and tips an ear back to acknowledge my strokes down her slick fur, we reach a kind of stasis. She might allow me to watch the world just a moment, unaware that I’ve lost myself in petting her.
We pause in the stillness of our center as the universe moves around us.