Vail Daily columnist Allen Smith: You can call me … Admiral
October 16, 2012
Immediately after graduating from high school, I made a bold move: I enlisted in the Navy. Even though the Vietnam War was revving up, it seemed like the right thing to do.
I was a prime target for the draft. I had no aspirations for higher education, and more importantly, I was sorely in need of discipline and organization.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to figure out that military life wasn’t for me — about three weeks. I didn’t particularly care for living in the same room with 40 other guys, I was never allowed to sleep in, and I wasn’t very good at taking orders. But it did have one thing that made a lot of sense to me: uniforms and rank.
Since the beginning of time, the military has used uniforms and rank to identify people with special skills and seniority. Uniforms help identify individuals who have earned distinction and respect by their experience, training and if nothing else, the raw tenacity to put up with the military way of life.
Of course, rank isn’t always an accurate indicator of ability. As a seaman, I was constantly harassed by new ensigns. The only difference between me and them was they had college degrees and I didn’t. Nonetheless, you could always tell where you stood just by looking at the uniform they were wearing.
After starting a new job last year and meeting dozens of people, I quickly became mired in so many new acquaintances and names that I quickly forgot who they were and what they did. Were they the CEO or a mailroom clerk? Did they instantly deserve respect whether or not they earned it, or did they spend 20 years crawling their way up the corporate ladder just like me?
It occurred to me how helpful it would be if the civilian world adopted the practice of wearing uniforms and awarding ranks. It could start from the first day you were born.
Newborns would be awarded one stripe the minute they popped out of their mother’s womb, sort of like the rank of a seaman recruit in boot camp. The only thing you have to do to earn a seaman’s stripe is continue to breathe, day in and day out.
For every phase of school you completed, you would earn another stripe: seaman apprentice for getting through grade school; seaman for high school graduates; ensign for finishing four years of college; commander and captain for master’s degrees; and admiral if you earned a Ph.D.
If you chose the other route and went to trade schools, you could work your way up the chain of command from petty officer first class to master chief petty officer and proudly display your rank on your sleeve.
To help everyone understand your background and expertise, you’d probably wear an insignia on your shoulder. Stay-at-home moms would sport a picture of a station wagon crammed with screaming kids. People in the world of finance would show off a broken dollar sign. Teachers would wear a bullwhip, and hookers might display a used condom.
The richest and most significant people in the country — like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Christy Walton — would naturally wear gold shoulder boards and epaulettes with bullion fringe.
People with management jobs would wear gold-braided citation shoulder cords and have the freedom to choose whatever headgear they wished from berets to campaign hats (known to many as “Smoky Bear” hats), Yeager Corp., Glengarry, coonskin, bearskin, Russian military, bicorne hats or a pope’s mitre. For special occasions, it’s likely everyone – from the lowliest enlisted man to the highest Admiral – would cast away their work uniforms for their dress attire that included white leggings, red sashes worn diagonally across the chest and possibly a fez or turban. Oh, and a sword.
Another helpful distinctions used by the military are ribbons and medals of achievement. When I was in the Navy, they gave all of us a National Defense Service Medal, basically for doing nothing.
Over time, if you achieved your goals and demonstrated unparalleled leadership, you could accumulate quite a chest of fruit salad. These went along with the hash marks you wore on your sleeve to indicate how many years you’d been in military service.
Civilian uniforms could have the same thing. In addition to the common awards like the Good Conduct Medal (which you received at your annual review), high school teachers could earn the Distinguished Service Cross and combat action ribbons. Second grade teachers would automatically be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the highest award given to a civilian for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against the youth of the United States” — even though most of them would probably be awarded posthumously.
Anyone caught in a low-paying job they hated but kept because they desperately needed the money would be eligible for a POW ribbon. Mothers would be awarded ribbons for having children — baby blue for boys and pink for girls, with silver oak clusters if they had twins, and gold oak clusters if they had triplets or more.
Anyone surviving a divorce would automatically be awarded a Purple Heart. People in the entertainment industry (like Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton) might earn five or six Purple Hearts before they retired.
Of course, like any new policy, there would likely be complaints. For instance, enlisted civilians and low-ranking officers would have to salute senior officers in passing everywhere they went — at the supermarket, Walmart, the dentist’s office and swap meets. Officers would be prohibited from fraternizing with enlisted personnel.
Today, if an employee turns out to be a bad apple, you just fire him and a month later he’s got another job that’s probably better than the one he left.
With the new civilian uniform guidelines, employers would be required to ceremoniously strip the scofflaw of his rank and break his sword over their knee in front of the entire office staff, then drum him out of the building – literally. That way, when interviewing for a new job, the applicant would have to explain the frayed stitching and dark area where his stripes used to be , as well as why he only had half a sword.
It could work the other way, too. If an employee struggled single-handedly to successfully bring in the McAfee account, unit supervisors would have the authority to award him a field promotion, effectively outranking the no-good creep he’s had to work for all last year.
I know it’s unlikely that civilian companies are likely to adopt the military tradition of uniforms, but it seemed to make a lot of sense to me when I was sent home for three days without pay for telling an off-color joke to our new Mormon chief financial officer. I didn’t know who she was. I thought she’d enjoy it.
Allen Smith, of Vail, is the author of “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” and “Ski Instructors Confidential.” You can reach him at http://www.snowwriter.com.