Does the uniform make the man?

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THIS is the story of a uniform - shoes shined to a vulgar glow, knife crease in the trousers, hat tipped at a rakish angle, and, of course, a row of ribbons on the chest. The story begins at the time Ollie North was parading his Marine uniform - so winningly, in fact, that complete strangers wanted to nominate him for president on the spot. As Ollie appeared before his congressional committee, an old friend - an old vet - reappeared in our life, shoulders squared, chin up, also reliving his glory days.

A coincidence, it must be emphasized. Our friend was not coming out of mothballs, so to speak, in response to the colonel's subliminal recruiting. But then, the whole point of this story is that men in uniform are never really a coincidence.

Our friend is recently retired, groping a little desperately for his identity as retired persons do when stripped of the ID badge of The Job. As if he feared he might be arrested for vagrancy, our friend hastily posted certifications of his profession, all neatly framed, on his study walls. For over 30 years he was a professor, and the verifying documents - dating back to his high school diploma - defiantly shouted: ``This is who I am, or at least was.''

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Alas, these affidavits of a long and honorable career still left him visibly adrift - a man without a country.

Could he perhaps assume the persona of a gentleman farmer, as he had once fancied himself? He hitched up his overalls. He plowed. He planted. The crops grew, more or less. But no new identity grew with them.

What to do? Our old friend dipped recklessly into his IRA and bought a boat - a 20-foot cabin cruiser, as small as they get. Copper-bottom paint filled his garage. New documents descended from his attic - his war record. Photographs of his smiling younger self, slim in a Navy uniform, crowded the diplomas off the wall. His old hat, with tarnished eagle, took its place on a display shelf, just waiting to be saluted. The service ribbons of World War II came vividly to rest on a black velvet background.

It worked! As an old salt, our friend regained his savor. He even joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and after all these years he is eligible to wear another uniform - purchased at his own expense.

Of the chapters that make up his life, the chapter as Navy man is the briefest by far. But when our friend puts on his uniform, especially his hat, and steps aboard his craft, his identity crisis is solved for all to see. He adjusts his visor and voil`a! - once more he knows who he is.

Our friend is a gentle man - a man of reason, and proud of it, like another friend who devoted his life and all his passion, it seemed, to loving the theater and who once said that his three admirations were the philosopher, the poet, and the saint. Yet our second friend suddenly decided that, when his time came, he wanted to be remembered, not as writer, not as a thinker, but as a staff sergeant. And so he, too, chose to suit up again, as it were, finding himself most intensely, most purely, himself in his old uniform.

Even for Colonel North, who stayed in uniform, war was a short episode in 43 years of living. Why, in all the decades of a man's experience, must the wild hours of war constitute the quintessential drama, on the test of which manhood is judged and forever validated, or invalidated? Why does the warrior, in costume, in uniform, still awe the tribe and bring the reflex cry to the lips, ``Hero!'' - making any other definition of hero seem pale and contrived?

These are questions to be marveled over rather than answered. But who can say they are irrelevant? The ``good feeling'' voters get when our ``boys'' in uniform invade Grenada or bomb Libya is a lesson in history not lost on elective officials, including those who are supposed to devise alternatives to war.

What males are untouched by the fantasy of the warrior-hero - unrevised since the Stone Age, one might think? Not those who drive the Los Angeles freeway with a gun. Not those whose metaphor for doing business on Wall Street is ``making war.'' Not those who tune in pro football on Sunday and watch the men in another kind of uniform go at it, tooth and claw, in the trenches.

It's a dangerous game, pushing these primitive emotion buttons in a world where other buttons launch nuclear warheads. So this is civilization?

How confused they have to be! - all the wives and mothers of all the secret warriors who wear invisible combat uniforms under their three-piece suits and silently hum to themselves as they march, ``There's something about a soldier that is grand, grand, grand.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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