Out of sync, out of season, and probably not for you

From ca. 2009:

For a while, I’d hated going into Costco, but I was getting past that.

It’s just, well… there’s all that harsh, white light. Tons of people, too many to watch, and confusing levels of background noise. And all those god-damned lights… did we talk about the lights? No way to tell who’s up there, looking down through those skeletal gantries lined with lights. Every time I went in there, my shoulder blades itched, but I was getting past it.

So far past it, in fact, that I could let my sweetheart wander off — unescorted! — into the misty cavern of the produce chiller while I looked over some socks. We’d split the team; we were each operating solo, but it was gonna be okay.

Pushing down the panic, I poked warily through cardboard bins of dress socks, pleased to note that nothing exploded.

Buying a pack of non-gym socks at Costco is like picking up a box of router bits at Harbor Freight. They’re gonna be cheap. They’re gonna be manufactured by the chain-smoking children of a Chinese vassal state. You’ll get a couple of good ones, a couple for once-in-a-while use, plus a crisp houndstooth pattern and one pair of purple Argyles for golfing in Nairobi. Yes — HF sells argyle router bits. Nobody can explain the wily ways of import economies.

So NSTIW, poking through mounded bales of knit footwear, looking for some kind of useful balance, when I got some unexpected coaching from a guy who really, really should have just walked on past. I awarded myself several points for not jumping or kill-striking when he stopped near my elbow and blared into my ear. Truth be told, I barely even flinched!

Go, me.

“Your socks need to match your pants!”

Now here was a helpful fellow — and not a shy one, either. “Never wear dress socks the same color as your shoes!” I glanced at him. He was wearing cargo shorts, Tevas over gym socks, and a Callaway polo shirt.

I smiled slightly, remembering the green polyester leisure suit first stuffed into my issue bag at Fort Jackson in 1983, later accessorized with chemically glossed, foot-nipping Corfams and thin, nylon dress socks. With our high-water military hems, you could really see those socks coming. I remembered rolling those socks into tiny, plastic canoes, and lining them up in my locker drawer. Dress right, dress!

“When I was in the army, all our dress socks were black.”

He stopped smiling, cocked his head, and squinted at me the way you might look at some horrifying vision on a South American insect pin board. “You were a soldier?”


I’m not sure why, but it’s never seemed that startling to me. I was a soldier. I was a circuit designer. I was a reporter, a farm hand, a landscaper…

But his face had turned an odd color, and his eyebrows were writhing like caterpillars on a hot plate. Then my newfound Costco golf bro delivered his benediction. “If I were one of you guys, I just — I don’t know.”

He shook his head understandingly. “I think I’d just kill myself.”

Now I want to tell you, friends and neighbors, that I zinged him with a casual wisecrack, built a bridge of understanding between our communities, or just laid him out flat with a straight left (my sword-arm shoulder, scarred up from rebuilding, is questionable for that work; I’m a default southpaw, now).

Truth is, of course, I did none of those things. I stood there, package of badly matched socks dangling from my strong-side paw, and tried to bring the world back into focus over the howling in my ears. I watched him strut off past ladies’ underthings, sandals slapping with the satisfaction of doing his bit to improve the world that I live in, too. For now.

Thanks, dude, I finally managed, with the papery voice that only speaks inside my head, that’s just the encouragement we need. 

While he may not have gotten the immediate satisfaction of watching me end it all over bales of budget haberdashery, it’s working out nicely for proponents of veteran suicides. The numbers quoted are all over the map. Some say it’s 18, others 22; but most agree that it may be higher — possibly much higher.

Plenty of my fellow Americans seem deeply invested in qualifying that number, pointing out that many veteran suicides are elderly men, not our more recent warriors. This apparently makes some kind of moral or practical difference — those guys are past their useful prime, anyway.

Others point out that white male suicides are on the rise, anyway; ironically, these are often the same well-meaning liberal commentators who regularly assure us that the military disproportionately recruits minorities in order to kill them off in foreign climes. They apparently work from a flow chart dictating that when you can’t be morally hollow, you must be statistically errant.

Despite my risk factor of existing in America as a male army veteran over 50, it can be humbling to contemplate how good I really have it. In largest part, that comes from the communities I connect with: motorcyclists, Jews, veterans, Muslims, mechanics, Christians, writers, atheists, dog owners, neighbors and friends. In another large part, it comes from the ground that germinated me. Yes, my country: ‘tis of thee, indeed.

Why mention this?

When Jessica Lynch was repatriated after getting badly banged up during the Battle of Nasiriyah, the Special Forces team that busted in to rescue her shouted, “American soldiers! Everybody down!”

Lore has it that PFC Lynch replied, “I’m an American soldier, too.”

Those pasty, bewhiskered guys you sometimes try not to see under the bridge in their faded BDUs, the housebound vet at the end of your street with a faded Corps flag hanging from his porch rail, and the 32 year-old staff sergeant who celebrated his third redeployment with a divorce: they were American soldiers, too. They are my sisters and brothers, the earth fostering my adult germination, the heart whose beating you may ignore, but I can’t.

When Colonel Hal Moore wrote his book about combat in the A Shau Valley, he titled it We Were Soldiers Once, and Young. Young and strong, fired by patriotism, these men and women were also soldiers… and sailors, and marines, and airmen. Coast Guardsmen, too. CIA agents. Americans who believed that the ideals of the United States of America loomed larger than them; that those ideals outweighed their personal concerns, their politics, their families, and even, if it came to that, their lives.

It should not come to that, once honorable service is completed.

Twenty-two a day. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Men and women, unknown to you, who signed a document swearing to do their uttermost for you, even unto death. Losers, crazies, addicts, spouse abusers; medics, riflemen, truck drivers, heroes: lost to our gracious civilian comforts, they strayed beyond the limits of our compassion long before they gave up trying. They were American soldiers, too.

This Memorial Day, who will stoop to honor their forgotten graves?

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  1. Kurt Gibson says

    “American soldier”
    It seems the gulf between those who served and (too) many of the civilian population grows larger every year. I’ve had similar encounters Jack, and like you, managed to suppress applying re educational trauma to their aloof and enlightened existence. Mostly.
    Thanks for writing about a topic that many seem incapable of recognizing, let alone understanding or assisting with conscious solutions.

    An American Soldier, perhaps my highest achievement

  2. Henry Gerber says

    Thanks Jack, always thoughtful and to the point.
    And well written!

  3. Thanks, Jack. I think I feel a rant coming on. Not *at* you; you, my friend, are not the problem. The problem is one you’ve partly pointed out, and your lady has pointed out the other half.

    The problem is that good people get bad ideas firmly fixed in their heads, and they’re hard to prise loose…

    Hmmm. It occurs to me that the clue-bat may do more harm than good. I need a Story.

    Perhaps King T’challa is a good place to start. He was right that we must all be ONE tribe, or we’re not going to survive.

    “And the second is _like unto_ it…”

  4. Jack:
    Hope you bought the socks in your post. Every teenage boy in the 40’s and 50’s would have died for those socks. Walking the streets of Puddle Town in my English brogue’s, spit shined to the nth, dirty white cords and a great/bright pair of argyle socks. Now that was way cool!! Might have been before your time. But we were out there doing it and a lot of us did the Korean thing – remember that – few do.

    Think the brother – maybe same guy – sat next to me at the theatre last night and I got a couple of hours about driving on the freeway from Eugene. Just how much can you say about that subject, well he maxed out!

    Know all the recent ‘wars’ are the topic de jour but there are a bunch of guys still around that did it all earlier – just like the socks. Stretch out a little.

    Regards Costco, its not all bad. There was a time when walking the sample stands was lunch and you had to get really clever to the clerk if you went for a second helping without a life threating glare.

    Good writing:. Monarch of the Metaphor. Try the socks, be good for your recovery.

    • Thanks for the visuals, Sonny. Short conversation I had with a couple of privates this century went something like this:

      “I don’t want to hear ‘old skool’ from you guys ONE MORE TIME until you’re at least drinkin’ age.”

      “But sarn’t, I–”

      “I’ve got SOCKS older’n you!”

      And my driver had to be that guy; just couldn’t help himself.

      “No, you don’t!”

      Et voila! I produced a pair of reinforced wool army socks out of my duffel, issued to me in the early 80s, with a tour in Korea under their worn elastic cuffs. Dang things were barely even green anymore.

      Yeah, socks. They get us where we need to go.

      • Oh, lordy. I am WAY harder on socks than that. And LPC’s. OTOH, I have a shirt that’s at least 30 years old. It’s a polo, it belonged to my grandfather before me, and being a light colour, I don’t wear it often. But socks? Lucky to get three years out of good wool socks.

        Kilt hose, on the other hand… as they say about Swedish Mausers, cleaned often, shot seldom…. life on two wheels just isn’t conducive to yarding out the pleats…

  5. Mr. William M Treadway says

    It’s been a very long long time since the entire Country had it’s ass on the line. Once the draft was eliminated there was just no reason to pick up the civic cudgel and earn your citizenship. It came free with your birth and the undeclared obligations of the citizenship were at best, tenuous.
    Unless you’re “lucky” enough to be brought up to understand the obligations of citizenship you don’t even feel bad about skating. Just a bit puzzled at the dummies who answer those obligations.

  6. Check out “We Few” by Nick Brokausen if you haven’t already. SOG Vietnam. Good read.

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