Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Army I Knew: Where'd You Get That Hat

This one has a soundtrack; I have absofuckinglutely NO idea about the video that goes with it, so it's useless to ask me about it. Just keep on reading...

I got to the 82nd Airborne Division in the early 1980's. I had busted out of SFQC and had no real thought of returning to civilian life if I couldn't do it as an SF Reservist. I enlisted in the RA and was sent - natch - right back to Ft. Bragg with the rest of the SF Rejects. I was run through the repple depple and from there to one of the infantry battalions in Third Brigade.

The Division of the early Eighties was, like most of the rest of the Army, just coming out of a pretty bad time. The VOLAR Period - from the middle Seventies to the early Eighties - had been full of all the bad shit you read about the late Vietnam Army. Lots of dope-smoking and even guys wearing a heroin jacket - medics were notorious for that, by the way. Lots of racial badassery; billeted up on the third floor of one of the infantry company barracks the medics - who were largely white boys - were across the hallway from the cooks, who were black almost to the man.

While I never got involved in anything serious other than some bad language and a bit of pushing and shoving I heard the tales of full-on barracks riots between the brothers and the whiteboys. My roomie was a big boy and something I had no idea existed; a suburban California surfer redneck. He'd talk about "dudes" and "bros" and homies" and flash Hawaiian hang-loose gestures and had a 38-ounce Louisville Slugger behind his bunk with the words "Nigger Knocker" scrawled on it.

But the Army was slowly regaining control by 1982. The guys with the worst drug habits were getting chaptered out, and the NCOs were starting to run the troops again. The privates were still smoking a little weed when I got there, but it was on the downlow and you knew that you were in trouble if you got nailed for it. The days of the "Jumpin' Junkies" and "Almost Airborne" were almost over.

Mind you, you could still drink and drink like you meant it.

Happy Hour at the Red Beret Club ("The Red Rag") on Ardennes Street still meant nickel beers and would have given Fellini's Satyricon or any Russ Meyer flick a run for their money for pure depravity. One of my first senior medics was a stone alcoholic. He'd hit the Class VI store every Friday and drag his hootch out to MacArthur Lake, rent one of the rowboats from the MSAD people there, and climb in it with his booze and a poncho liner.

He'd throw a hook in the water so he could at least claim he'd gone out there to fish, drink 'til he passed out, wake up Saturday and do the same thing, then wake up Sunday and row back to shore, drive back to the billets and drink until he passed out in his car.

He usually did this with his PT sweats on so he could crawl out of the car Monday morning and fall into formation, sweating and puking, and then work the week as usual.

It seemed to make sense at the time. I guess you kind of had to be there.

The actual story of my adventures in Division is a long one, and one I'll get to over the next year, but I wanted to start with the one thing that I couldn't help but notice straight off when I got to the Deuce; the hat we wore.

Keep in mind that in 1982 the Army was still the O.D.Green Machine.

The rest of the Army still looked like our WW2 forebears only with black shoes. They still wore the old OG107 "pickle suit" that was right out of 1952 and the gawdawful goofy baseball cap hat we'd worn in Basic that replaced the old p-cap.

But the Deuce was different. For one thing, if we wanted to we could go out and buy the USMC-style ripstop poplin "cammies". I loved the old cammies for their buttery softness when broken in, and the rich green and earth tones of the camouflage colors. They looked and felt "cool" and for early twenties manhood cool is crucial.

That picture of me (on Sicily DZ coverage in the autumn of 1982, I think) up top shows the old cammies worn over the wonderfully warm OD wool issue sweater underneath. Ah, memories.

Unlike the BDU which replaced them, cammies were cool in summer, warm in winter, and when wet would dry just from the warmth of your body. We hated the BDU like a dose of the clap...but cammies were outstanding.

And the other thing was the hat.

We were, at the time, one of three units in the Army that got to wear a special hat.

The SF had their green beret - which I had already failed to earn so that was out.

The Ranger battalions (at the time only two) had a black one - which I had no interest in; we'd all heard about the grim life of a non-tabbed worm in a Ranger outfit, and I had had more than enough of grovelling around trying to be hardcore. For a while I wanted to live a life of cakes and ale and ogle the strippers down at the Red Rag after work.

But the Airborne had a red - well, okay, maroon - one and that was just jake with me.

It's funny, now that every swinging richard in the U.S. Army has a floppy Frenchie hat, but at the time the red rag was considered pretty sweet and some sort of symbol of the big international brotherhood of paratroops.

But if we'd looked around we'd have realized how cherry we were with the cherry berry; the truth was that a hell of a lot of people in Division had no fucking idea how to wear it.

We'd only got the thing in '73, it had gone away for a year between '79 and '80 and so when I got there Division and the other jump-qualified outfits had only had it back for a couple of years or three and were still figuring out how it worked.
Part of the problem was that the issue beret was a complete piece of shit. It was a baggy, fuzzy, floppy felt bag with a thick cloth liner. If you tried to wear it off the shelf it just sort of poofed out all over like, well, a baggy, fuzzy, floppy poofy red felt bag. You'd still see guys, even guys already in the line units, wearing it like that.
It looked totally retarded that way, but, there.

So the "unaltered" or "issue" beret gave you the "puffball" or "'shroom cap" look.

The thing you had to do - and you did right off if you made pals quickly or your senior medic was a good guy and took pity on you - was, first, cut out the fucking black cloth lining which was useless, anyway.

Then you took the thing into the shower, got it good and wet, and shaped it to your head.

The sight of a couple of naked cherry troopers standing in the latrine wearing nothing but a red bag on their heads tugging and reefing on their headgear sounds ridiculous and probably was, but you got used to it because you saw it every time somebody had to break in a new hat.

Then you took an old razor (or your roommate's razor if he was a real douchebag and smaller than you so unlikely to pound the piss out of you when he found his razor jammed with red fluff) and shaved all the red fluff off the wet beret. This gave the thing a nice sort of smooth nubbly-nappy look and brought out the shape you'd achieved in the shower.

Then you wore it around all day until it dried into the shape you'd pulled it into.

You tended to catch cold doing this if it was wintertime but the coolness of the finished product was considered well worth it.

But - here's the thing - even if you did all this, there were still people who did some odd things with it.

One real common sight was the "earmuff" or "side bag" style, which involved pulling the bag-side down so far that it practically touched your neck. According to AR 670-1 - the Army's uniform regulations - the black leather bottom band was supposed to go around your head dead level, but the side-bag style required the whole skitch to be cocked way over to one side.

I think one reason that people did this is that you tended to see some troopers in other countries with this sort of style. The French tended to wear theirs like this, I recall, as did guys in several other NATO nations. For a certain type of troop this made the sidebag style the logical way to wear a froggie hat, AR 670-1 be damned.

This also seemed to be something that a lot of the guys in Combat Support Company and the service support platoons (like Supply and Transport) in HQ Company favored for some reason.

Dunno why, just where I tended to see a lot of it.

The airborne gals as a gender had some unique issues with the hat.
Female troopers had problems simply because the thing wasn't designed for hair longer than a #2 cut. For the gals the thing tended to perch up on top of their hair and sometimes even had to be secured with a couple of hairpins. This always seemed like a very unsatisfactory arrangement, and led to a lot of our gals running the risk of their First Sergeant's wrath by getting a very short haircut.
(Private Benjamin aside, the U.S. Army was just getting used to the idea of regular everyday Mollies; the Women's Army Corps of my friend Syrbal had just lately gone away and salty old guys were having to get used to the idea of soldiers with non-reg things like boobs and long hair. But the big fear, for some reason, was of female soldiers looking butch. Army gals were forbidden to have "mutilated" hairstyles that included very short hair. You couldn't look like Rapunzel, mind you, but you couldn't sport a 'do that looked "masculine", either. This made it very difficult for the gals in the 82nd units that had female slots like 307th Med, Division HHC and 407th S&S to find a happy medium that would work with the red rag. Just goes to show that we all have our own special problems, dunnit?)
But my favorite amongst the "oddball" beret fashions was usually seen among the black troopers.

The "Jeff Cap" style involved taking the flat cardboard stiffener that you used to sew the unit flash and pin the crest onto and pulling it forward and down until the flash pointed straight at the ground.
From the side this made the thing look like one of those flat caps you only saw on golfers and in old movies, one of those cloth caps the newsboys in the Thirties films used to wear. At first I think it started as a kind of Black Power deal in the late Seventies, but it quickly became just another uniform fad, like taps on jump boots or wearing cardboard tubes to block the bottoms of your trousers when they were bloused into your boots.

I always thought it was kind of hard-core and silly at the same time. It probably made my old roomie want to reach for the "Nigger Knocker".

How the hell we ever got out the jump doors together...I really wonder.

But we did. Somehow or other most of us figured out how to go along , get along, and wear the thing according to the regs. Our NCOs began to square us away, we started to pull out of the VOLAR Slough of Despond, and slowly we worked out how to not just look like soldiers but actually soldier.

But it wasn't always easy and we had some issues to deal with first.


Ael said...

Ya, the beret is a harsh hat to wear out of the box. The worst I ever saw was our Governor General (Canada's head of state) was touring our gun position when we were on exercise. He really was a nice old guy and wanted to learn how that army thing worked.

Alas, he couldn't really rattle around the ranges in a business suit, so someone gave him a set of combats straight out of the box. Including a beret.

It was awful. It was the shroomiest hat you ever did see. As I escorted him around my gun position it was all I could do to not laugh out loud. As we approached each gun, each and every gunner would break into a shit eating grin when they first saw him.

I wonder if he ever figured out why we were all so delighted to see him. Probably not, because it would be hard for a civilian to understand the military fashion.

He sure improved our morale.

FDChief said...

Poor mook. Probably some senior guy in your headshed supply who was carrying a grudge against him. Civilian pols really need to restrain their need to look all hardcore; it never works. I always thought that the Dubya Flight Suit thing was about as sad an example of the type but this sounds schmoopier-looking if less revealing of a pathetic sort of wanna-be complex...

Makes for a great story, tho.

Lisa said...

You have made the story of the beret as you knew it fascinating! Such a seemingly small thing, and yet how fraught were the implications and the wearing.

Thanks for sharing.