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?