Ron Karpinski ©2006
The sprawling Fort Benning military reservation covers a good portion of west central Georgia, in the southeast United States. In the spring of 1979, more than 21,000 soldiers served at Fort Benning on permanent assignment while untold others passed through on temporary duty to attend infantry training courses lasting several weeks to several months.
Such a large number of soldiers required support, including personnel, my specialty. The personnel command – the Directorate of Personnel and Community Activities (DPCA) – was headed by one Colonel Richard W. Brown, a combat-proven leader who had honed his skills as a young lieutenant in the "brown boot" Army of the 1950's; in short, a man of the old school.
Colonel Brown ran roughshod over approximately 450 civilian employees and enlisted soldiers. In addition, he supervised eleven field grade officers (major and lieutenant colonel) and thirty-three junior officers (warrant officer through captain).
For half a dozen years, the Army had been continuously reducing in size, as the Vietnam conflict ended, and surplus soldiers of all grades exited to the reserve forces or civilian life. During the flux, many long-standing social niceties had been set aside in order to deal with more pressing issues. Colonel Brown, fearing that this new generation of officers lacked proper grounding in military protocol, decided to breathe some life into an old tradition.
* * * * *
The envelope, formally addressed in Gothic print, arrived through the office mail. Every officer in the DPCA received one. Inside, an invitation, engraved on thick card stock, "invited" every officer under Colonel Brown's authority to a Sunday "open house" at his home; and, as every junior officer knows, an "invitation" from a colonel is simply an order couched in polite terms.
Scrolling down the page, all the details presented themselves. Arrive at the colonel’s huge two story "white elephant" government quarters on 1st Division Road anytime between ten a.m. and two p.m. on Sunday for a congenial gathering of colleagues, refreshments provided. At the bottom, in bold type, appeared the phrase, "Dress: casual informal."
* * * * *
Shortly after receiving his invitation, my friend, Lieutenant John Stanley Phillips, called me on the phone. "Hey, Ron," he said, "do you happen to have an officer’s guide handy?"
The Officer's Guide, published each year, is exactly what the title implies. It includes basic information every officer needs to function within the military establishment, such as how to wear the uniform properly, career guidance, protocol among the ranks, and etiquette. After almost two years as a warrant officer, I had not yet bothered to buy one.
"No," I answered, "why do you need an officer’s guide?"
"Well," John said, "I figure it might tell us what 'casual informal' means."
* * * * *
In those days, the social crowd with which John and I hung out consisted of mostly young single men dedicated to a daily running routine and other strenuous physical activities. During weekend forays into the civilian world, our normal attire made nobody's best-dressed list.
Georgia has a hot, humid climate much of each year, and air-conditioning was a luxury in those days; thus, we dressed accordingly. For us, "formal" usually meant a shirt with a collar. "Informal" could have been as skimpy as cut-off blue jeans and a tank top.
Colonel Brown and his wife probably had something else in mind.
* * * * *
"John," I said, "I would think that the term 'casual informal' speaks for itself. Blue jeans would probably be too casual, but nice slacks and a light sweater ought to be more than acceptable."
"I don’t know," said John, "seems to me they covered this in one of my ROTC (reserve officer training corps) classes back in college. I’m gonna call around to some of the other guys and see if any of them are familiar with this particular dress code."
Several days passed. John and I both called every other junior officer we knew, but none of them owned an officer’s guide, either, and none of them had any idea what "casual informal" meant. To make things worse, the post bookstore had sold out of officer guides and had them on back order.
By late Friday, the long workweek a fading memory, the usual gang gathered for drinks in the Piano Bar at the Officer’s Club, followed several hours later by dinner in the main lounge, a free buffet of shrimp-a-peel, attended mostly by ravenous bachelors on tight budgets.
Saturday began with a late morning tennis match. The afternoon passed on the road, shopping and running errands. A party beckoned that evening; and, to be quite honest, the prospect of female companionship crowded Colonel Brown’s dress code from my consciousness.
Crawling out of bed late Sunday morning, I reviewed my wardrobe, wondering what to wear to Colonel Brown’s "open house." Finally, I decided on a pair of charcoal gray Hagar slacks, contrasting light gray V-necked sweater, and an open-collared blue sport shirt. Snazzy!
Scott, a captain who lived in the same apartment complex and who had no more experience than myself in such matters, appeared similarly dressed, and we car-pooled together the ten miles to Fort Benning and Colonel Brown’s house.
At exactly eleven a.m., the two of us stood on the front steps of Colonel Brown’s house. A bright sun burned through the morning chill. In the direct sunlight, my face felt warm, but a crisp breeze cut through my sweater, and I wondered if perhaps I should have worn a coat.
I reached forward and pressed the door bell. Precisely one second later, a car horn honked behind us.
Scott and I turned in unison. There, in the street behind us, John Phillips screeched to a halt in his vintage Porsche and leaped out wearing a three-piece tan corduroy suit. John hollered at us, "I tried calling you guys all weekend. Don’t go in there yet!"
John had done the unthinkable and asked a field grade officer for advice. (A kindly major, for whom John had previously worked, patiently explained that the "casual informal" dress code called for a minimum of sport coat and tie, dressy for sure, just not black tie evening formal.)
Scott and I gaped at John, tall and broad-shouldered in dashing suit and tie. He waved his arms in the air, yelling at us to go home and change into appropriate clothes. Uh oh!
Our brains, operating at warp speed, imagined us safely around the corner and out of sight; but our feet, blocks of concrete, remained firmly planted on the reality of that front porch.
Not more than ten seconds had elapsed. Cranial core central issued frantic commands through the nervous system to the legs. In slow motion, we leaned into first steps of escape. Then, behind us, the front door suddenly swung wide open.
There stood the kind and lovely Mrs. Shirley Brown, middle aged and smiling, resplendent in flowing hostess gown. "Welcome, gentlemen," she greeted, "won’t you please come in?"
Behind her stood a sea of conservative sport coats and dark ties, swaying in rhythm to genteel conversation. Mrs. Brown guided us, stumbling, into the foyer, pausing at a sideboard supporting a silver chalice half full of professionally engraved calling cards.
Ah, yes, calling cards, another item I had not quite gotten around to purchasing during the past two years. Scott and I cleared our throats. Mrs. Brown patted our arms, "That’s okay, boys, just mingle and enjoy yourselves."
Right, just mingle – under the condescending stares of thirty other junior officers who had all deciphered the code beforehand and now gloated. Their futures looked bright, while we two stumblebums might as well turn in our uniforms and go look for jobs selling life insurance.
* * * * *
Then we saw him, salvation itself, standing next to the buffet table. Bob Newcomb, good old Bob, had come to our rescue. Oh, thank you, Bob. Thank you!
Second Lieutenant Robert A. Newcomb, raised near Boston, had actually graduated from a military school, Norwich University in Vermont. Surely, Bob must have known about the dress code; but maybe, after four years of strict military regimen in college, he had had enough.
Bob had no designs on a career in the Army. Indeed, he had already decided to leave the service when his initial three year active duty obligation ended. Thus freed in a sense, he was his own man, relaxed and easy going, content with his direction in life, not a care in the world.
Likeable, velvet-voiced Bob stood about five foot ten and weighed around one eighty, a tad soft around the middle, with wavy black hair and near alabaster skin that refused to tan, no matter how many hours he spent under the burning Georgia sun.
At the moment, Bob hovered alone at one end of the buffet table, piling his plate with hors d'oeuvres, smiling at the good fortune of having all that food to himself. Wearing green tartan golf slacks and a bright yellow polo shirt, he verily glowed in the dim far corner. He remained an isolated figure because none of the other guests dared go near him.
We dared. Scott and I made a beeline for Bob and sidled up right beside him. We filled our plates, too, and spent the next three hours glued to Bob’s side. Where Bob went, we went.
The way we figured it, anyone glancing over in our direction would take one look at Bob and automatically conclude that the two gentlemen next to him were dressed for success. It worked.