Saturday, March 06, 2021

Conformity complex

| January 20, 2021 1:00 AM

Another classic G. George Ostrom column from October, 1989...

When I was in high school there were fads. There always have been and there always will be. Difference from the early 1940s and now is that our fads didn’t cost a lot of money. The one I remember best was the boys decorating their overshoes with white tape. For a couple of years there, if your overshoes didn’t have fancy designs, you were a real nothin’. Kids now don’t wear overshoes because that would be admitting they don’t have a car. Reminds me of the guys I heard about down in Dallas who drive around in 110-degree heat with all the car windows shut because they don’t want people thinking they haven’t got an air conditioner.

A local daily paper recently ran a story on how all the kids, especially those in junior high, want to wear the “in” thing. Psychologists say that’s because kids that age “gain their self-esteem externally.” It also said many students can’t afford to buy the right name-brand jeans, or sweaters, or shoes, and the more fortunate kids tease them. Social trauma and related problems require counseling for many students who don’t quite get “in”. All those kinds of superficial values get wiped right out be a depression like we had in 1929. Depression kids were just thankful for anything to wear that wasn’t worn out. Maybe that’s why someplace around my junior year in high school I said to hell with anybody telling me what to wear or how to cut my hair.

This maverick philosophy almost immediately caused problems because I joined the Army. I asked the barber at the induction center to give me a nice crew cut and leave the sideburns. He said, “You bet, General.” Then in less than 10 seconds he shaved my head to the bone. Told the quartermaster I wanted to be issued one of those hats like General McArthur had. He was basically a swell guy because he replied, “I’d love to do that for you private, because the only goal of the U.S. Army is to make you a happy soldier; but golly gee, we seem to be completely out of those McArthur hats today.” That’s the way it went for a year until I finally wound up in a Signal Corps service company, occupying Frankfurt, Germany.

There I was told that they weren’t nearly as “chicken” or “GI” as a line outfit. My first plan was to grow a handle bar mustache but that fell through after nobody noticed when I’d been growing the thing for three months. Turned out my facial growth was about as discernible as frog hair. Next I wrote home and had my dad ship over my cowboy boots. Then, we discovered a lady living in a bombed out house on Kaiser Strasse, who did magic with the needle and thread. She made division patches with rhinestones, tailored Eisenhower jackets, and built in military shirt creases that never came out. For two packs of cigarettes, I got the complete overhaul. But…somehow I still did look quite a lot like the other half million dogfaces over there.

Looking through my barracks bag one day I found my original issue outfit called a blouse that has a Sam Brown belt. Took that to the lady and she made me something that looked like an Eisenhower jacket but fit like skin. Put on new patches. Sewed all the pockets shut. Whuuuuueee! What a uniform. Had her peg the pants, too. Nobody looked like me…and vice versa.

Two weeks later I came up for sergeant stripes and wore that new outfit to appear before a board of officers. They asked me questions about military law and regulations. Then I had to go out on the drill field and put a platoon of soldiers through close-order drill, using all commands and getting the platoon back exactly like it started. I remember the great feeling of cockiness because I looked so much sharper than those poor sad sacks I was giving commands.

When the drill test was over, I assumed ramrod posture, clicked my boots together, did a perfect “about face,” clicked my heels louder and saluted the board of officers. Those brass-wearing worthies looked at each other, nodded their heads, and then the Colonel in charge came over. He returned me salute about a foot in front of my face and in a low voice, stated, “At ease, Sergeant. Yes, we have decided to grant your promotion. You have a good record and know your way around a drill field. BUT! I do have a final question.” (He was yelling now) “WHAT THE HELL ARMY ARE YOU IN?”

All of this came back to me this past Monday when I wore a light violet tinted shirt with a paisley tie featuring the dominant colors of mandarin red, yellow, orange, green and a bit of purple. The 18 people I met on “the rounds” had a smart aleck remark to make and two thought it “was beautiful.”

There is a clear and comforting message here, for those in junior high, or on any other street of life: “If you want to look just like everyone else…GO JOIN THE ARMY.”