Uniform Traditions

By BOB WOODIWISS The ballyhoo is irresistible. For weeks, it builds in the stores, then, slowly, it takes over the streets. The decorations, the songs, the merriment become ubiquitous. Before you

Nov 16, 2000 at 2:06 pm


The ballyhoo is irresistible. For weeks, it builds in the stores, then, slowly, it takes over the streets. The decorations, the songs, the merriment become ubiquitous. Before you know it - before you're ready? - you're trading gifts with family, toasting with old friends, drunkenly fighting in the parking lot of the VFW hall. Then, suddenly, it's over. Finished. The calendar coldly informs us it's Nov. 12. Back to normal. Another Veterans Day has come and quickly gone.

And now, the remembrance of this sweet season for warrior patriots must sustain us until the next.

My first memories of Veterans Day stretch back to early childhood. My father, a proud Army draftee of 1942 and WWII vet, would take me downtown to see the displays of armaments and ordinance. The streetcorner dogfaces, decked in camouflage and combat boots, would be stationed next to their red, white and blue kettles appealing to passers-by for ammunition to send to the poor American kids - the future of the VFW - fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. Dad was a soft touch and always gave more clips than we could afford.

After lunch (in those days, special holiday "shit on a shingle" carts dotted the sidewalks), we'd go to one of the big department stores and Dad would march me through Martin-Marietta's Wonderful Weaponry Workshop - me, wide-eyed and slack-jawed at this fantastic world of $6,000 toilet seats and $800 hammers. At the end, the Workshop opened onto Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Office (I remember these roly-poly imposters as dead ringers, right down to the flask bulge and whiskey breath), where I, just like kids today, climbed on the old boy's lap and told him what I wanted Congress to appropriate to the Pentagon in the coming year.

These days, I tend to wait until the last minute to do my Veterans Day shopping. Somehow it feels more authentic, more like combat, to be out among the anxious, desperate, purchasing hordes. The mall itself is a khaki wonderland, with accents of olive drab, dress blue and dress white. Most of the stores have replaced their walk-through shoplifting detectors with Checkpoint Charlie exit stops, where bags of purchases are run through with bayonets. In the Food Court, a choir of Korean War vets sing "The Theme from M*A*S*H ("Suicide Is Painless")." All in all, it's a magical, enchanted, but not "fairy-", land.

But enough decoration gawking. Time to figure out what to get for the brave soldiers-past/patriots-present on my shopping list. For Dad, it's easy: a copy of Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. It's the third year in a row I've bought it for him, but that's OK; turns out he and his fellow Axis-kickers are also the greatest narcissists. For my Uncle Paul, who served in Vietnam, I decide to go with the traditional nickel bag of smack. And for Blake, my cut-up cousin who fought in Operation Desert Storm, I pick up a gag gift, a framed phony letter from the Pentagon admitting the existence of, and their culpability in, Gulf War Syndrome. Ha-ha.

On Friday - last Friday, Veterans Day Eve - the whole fam-damily headed down to the VFW for the ceremonial lighting of the peacenik (Mom, herself an ex-WAVE, had the honor of dousing him in kerosene). Afterwards, the whole membership trooped inside the hall for a feast of draft beer, BBQ potato chips and unfiltered cigarettes followed by a game of nickel-dime poker that lasted 'til 2 a.m.

The next morning, Saturday - Veterans Day day - the whole house was up before reveille. Creeping downstairs on our bellies, we soon spied signs that the Special Forces Commando Unit had paid us a visited, rappelling down the side of the house from the rooftop, smashing through the windows and leaving gifts for all good vets (that is, all vets, period). After opening our gifts and double-timing it three times around the backyard's perimeter, we settled in at the kitchen table for breakfast (powdered eggs) and Dad's annual reading of A Visit from Old Ike (or, as most of us know it, 'Twas the Night Before D-Day). Perfect.

The rest of the day? Pretty quiet. We watched the parades and, on ESPN Classics, the Army-Navy games of 1962, 1969 and 1974. The kids spent their holiday as you'd expect, playing a pitiless game of Tailhook Convention that, naturally, left a few of them (you know how soldierettes are) in tears. Adults and children alike were in their racks by 7:30 p.m. All-in. Sorry to see another Veterans Day pass so quickly. But, as some small consolation, December's almost here, so we do have Pearl Harbor Day on the 7th.