I drove out to Eielson AFB a few days ago.
Why is that important? It’s not, not really. But it is a bit noteworthy when you consider that I spent 21 of my 25 years in the Air Force at Eielson. I reported for duty initially August 14, 1986 and retired from the Alaska Air National Guard on September 1, 2007. It becomes a little more noteworthy for two more reasons. 1. I have not been back since I retired. 2. I drove the 25 miles south of Fairbanks to buy a uniform.
OK, first things first. I never meant to not go back. I just didn’t have a reason. I don’t mean any disrespect to the base or my old unit, it’s just that I didn’t retire so I could keep going there, right? Plus anybody that I kept in touch with I talked to in Fairbanks. The main reason is probably that all of the services I need are at Fort Wainwright, right here in town. I just didn’t really have a reason.
Then I needed to buy a uniform. My oldest son, Parker, is getting married this summer. There . . . I finally can say (or type) that without reaching for my nitroglycerin or having a panic attack. It wasn’t my call . . . this is all on him. He’s all in love and stuff and he is determined to marry this girl. He’d better marry her, because girls like this one don’t come around often. She’s definitely a keeper.
I have a couple of nice suits I could wear to the wedding, but I started kicking the idea around that wearing a uniform would be appropriate. The bride’s father is a warrant officer in the Army and he is planning to wear his uniform. I mentioned it to my family and Charlie said, “Uniform? You mean that blue jacket in the back of your closet?”
It occurred to me that neither of my younger sons ever saw me in my uniform. They have no real idea of my connection to the military . . . to something that was a driving and shaping force for most of my life. Charlie has seen me in a uniform technically, but he was very little and remembers none of it. I want them to remember. I decided then that I would wear a uniform.
So that was why I was pulling up to the main gate at Eielson AFB early one morning a few days ago. Eli was in the back seat looking around at the blue trucks and men and women in utility uniforms. He waved happily at a young lady getting out of a Security Forces vehicle. She smiled and waved back.
A large electronic sign flashed information to drivers as they entered a roundabout before going to the main gate. This cracks me up. It is against various state and Federal laws to text and/or use a cell phone that isn’t hands free. This is, presumably, to make sure you pay attention to the road. So, as you enter a roundabout in a congested traffic area, this sign is taking your attention away from the cars in front of you. Just sayin’.
The young airman at the gate looked at my identification card and returned it with a smile. “Thank you,” he said. “Have a good morning Master Sergeant.” It was strange to be called that again. I smiled back and wished him a safe morning. In the back, Eli was sitting up in his seat. His eyes were wide with curiosity.
“What did he call you, Daddy?” I am translating from Eli talk to common English.
“He called me Master Sergeant.”
“Because when Daddy was in the Air Force he was a Master Sergeant.”
“What is a Master Sergeant?” Again, translated.
“Well, buddy, it’s kind of like a job or title.” The look on Eli’s face showed the irritation he feels when I am not smart enough to explain something to him. I’ve seen this look before.
I tried again. “It’s what Daddy did and what people called him when he was in the Air Force.” It occurred to me that I use the third person too much.
He smile a big Eli smile. “You were a soldier?” he asked with excitement and a little awe. He frowned momentarily as he pondered the foreign idea that his father could ever have been amazing enough to be one of the people he was seeing as we drove into center of the base.
“Yes, I was,” I replied. I decided that he wasn’t quite ready to digest the idea of different branches of the service and the various terms of identifying members of those branches. I just went with it. “Daddy was a soldier, kind of.”
On our right was the flightline. “Eli, look at those airplanes,” I pointed out. “Daddy used to work on those airplanes. ”
“Daddy, that is cool,” he cooed. “I like airplanes. They are my favorite. Can we work on them now?”
“Not today, buddy,” I was glowing. It’s not everyday that one of my boys thinks something I was associated with was acceptable, let alone actually cool. “We have to go to the store.”
I had to stop glowing and concentrate. In the six years since was last on base things had changed. That wasn’t surprising in itself. Things are bound to change over time. But I don’t mean “change” like buildings were painted different colors and older looking. I mean that there were buildings where there used to be roads. I took a turn and ended up in the parking lot of a gas station. That was new . . . well at least to me.
I turned the corner again and found the entrance to the base exchange. I assumed the military clothing store was somewhere in the vicinity since the building it used to be in was roughly where the gas pumps are now . . . kind of.
A sign on the front of the BX (Air Force talk for base exchange) confirmed that the military clothing store was indeed, inside. I need to explain that this trend of centralizing was unheard of when I was still in the service. You could count on not being able to find the military clothing store on an unfamiliar base without intricate instructions from a local. They were normally stuck in the back of an obscure building as far away from the shop that did alterations and tailoring as they could possibly be. I was almost giddy as I saw the military clothing section in the back of the BX.
Eli and I were the only people in the section at this early hour. The lady smiled at us. I told her that I needed to buy a Mess Dress. Mess Dress in an unnecessarily confusing term for tuxedo. I never owned one when I was on active duty. I always opted for the Air Force’s semi-formal uniform of the blue service dress with a white shirt and black bow tie. By “always”, I mean the five or, at most, six times I needed to wear it in my career.
The lady showed me where the different items were. The largest jacket they had was a 42 regular. Uhhhh, no. That was almost cute. “All this” does not fit in a 42 jacket. Even when I was not “all this” it didn’t fit in a 42. It was quickly evident that I was going to be special ordering some items.
The lady sent me to the tailor shop out in the mall section to get measured. Great. “This should be a blast,” I thought. I have never been skinny. I have accepted that. I have my mother’s hips. I have accepted that also. I just try not to express my square shape in mathematical terms.
The lady at the tailor shop produced a sheet that had the outline of thin young unisex figure on it with places to put various measurements. I stood in the middle of the shop as she assailed me with her tape measure. She went right for the waist.
She wrapped the tape around me, adjusted and tugged then gave me a number. Seriously? I told her we needed inches not centimeters. Her glance from down around my waist told me she was not amused and not speaking metric. I sucked in. It didn’t get any better. Fine . . . we would go with centimeters.
The rest of the measurements were about the same on the fun meter. I looked down at the sheet as Eli and I returned to the military clothing section. The lady there looked at the sheet. She blinked. She shuffled the papers on her counter until she found her glasses. She looked at the sheet again.
The jacket would have to be ordered, perhaps even specially fabricated. The pants came in a finite size. I had the biggest they made. The fit . . . more or less. It would take a couple of weeks on the Ghandi Diet Plan to make them less scary. No problem, I have time.
She selected all the other items that I would need and placed them in a bag. I went to a display on one wall and selected a set of Master Sergeant stripes, three different occupational badges and the seven medals that I earned. I looked down at the items in my hands that represented a 25-year career. Not bad, I thought.
“Hi Dad!” Eli’s face inserted itself in my field of view. While I was getting my uniform, Eli was doing some shopping of his own. He was wearing a dark blue cummerbund around his legs and a bow tie of the same shade on his head. The neck strap of the bow tie was under his chin. I thought he looked great. The lady at the counter was less taken with his attire.
“Come on, buddy,” I urged him away. “Lets put this stuff back.”
As I replaced and rewrapped the items, Eli found a basket full of teddy bears. The bears were in various sizes and were dressed in different Air Force uniforms. Eli reacted exactly as a four-year-old should react to a basket of teddy bears. He sorted through them as I put last item back. When I turned to find him he was holding a large bear wearing a utility uniform. I told him to put back the bear so we could leave.
“I can’t,” he said.
“Because I love him.”
I saw how this was going to turn out and paid for the bear. Certain things just can’t be resisted.
We walked out into the mall area and I asked Eli what the bear’s name was.
“Soldier Bear,” Eli responded quickly. He smiled and hugged Soldier Bear.
“That’s a good name,” I smiled back.
“Daddy?” Eli asked. “How about Master Sergeant Soldier Bear?”
I smiled and looked down at my little man. “Even better.”
As we walked across the parking lot an officer and a enlisted person exchanged salutes. Eli stopped and smiled. He looked up at me, straightened and rendered his version of a salute. “Yes sir, Master Sergeant, sir.” He stood at his interpretation of attention as I looked down at him. His salute was way too British with his palm facing me. The back of his hand was covering his forehead and normally you don’t salute with cinnamon roll on your lips. I fell a little more in love with him.
Yeah, it was perfect.
Thanks for reading. We will talk to you again soon on This Side of the Diaper.