Everything that’s worth anything is about love and memory.
Memories are malleable in all the best ways. To live a satisfying life, I only have to turn to my past and find myself draping rosy haze that disguises the worst of what I’ve been and morphing myself into a heroine. After all, that’s what we humans do.
Edmund Blair Bolles, himself a humanist, insists that “Remembering is an act of imagination,” and notes that we constantly interpret our past as opposed to producing an objective account of it. In light of our continually updated world views, I find myself trying to build some form of consistency that forms a bridge between who I was and who I think I am—someone I’ll find a way to make consistent with the person I will become.
Having just hung up my combat boots after 26 years and two days in the Air Force, I’m persistently readjusting what I’ve done across that career to match with the young woman I was, whose motivation to serve in the military fell somewhere between seeing how cool my brother was (and thinking I could be that cool myself) and the paralyzing realization that, if I left the all-expenses-paid Air Force Academy, I would need a plan.
Psychologist Daniel Schacter writes about how we “cannot hope to understand memory’s fragile power without examining what happens to memory as time passes, and considering how we translate the residues of experiences that persist across time into tales of who we are.” Today, I am that young woman who served, with pride, and still was planning to get out when my five-year commitment is up, even if I waited an extra 21 years.
After a full career of deployments where I skirted my way around the edge of danger, never intersecting the violence around me, I find myself reaching to a plane of greater experience to sort out this sense of identity. I’m still determining if this life I’ve lived and the life I am living has been, after all, worthwhile.
In 2013, Joseph Urgo handed me an Armed Forces Edition of My Ántonia. The Cather scholar and now Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, thought I might enjoy reading it while deployed to Kyrgyzstan over the next year. I still recall the windowless cave, my home for nearly 14 months, where I reread my favorite lines from the novel. Cather describes sun-soaked young Jim Burden as thinking that he was “entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” I find myself, often, in that glow, perfectly content in the sense that I’m merely a microbe in the cosmos, serving a purpose.
As Willa Cather’s WWI soldier from her novel One of Ours, Claude Wheeler, gazes at the stained glass of a cathedral window while playing tourist on his way to the frontlines of war, he notes how the “purple and crimson and peacock-green [. . .] had been shining hundreds of years” in light that traveled from a distant star. He’s contemplating his role in the Great War, and how he, as a person who always believed there would be “something splendid” in his life, is finding out that even a farm boy from Nebraska is part of everything.
As for myself, I can see that I am merely stardust—a speck in the light ray of stained-glass human experience. But I still believe that I’m a viable part of that universe and a particle of light that produces color. I am light. I am color. Maybe that is happiness.
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?