Why Wearing ‘Orange Socks’ Matters
Living within strict boundaries can be stifling. Survival comes down to preserving a thread of reality. Sometimes that thread is orange. This is the story that inspired the title of my book, “Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales.” — jsl
I can’t even guess how many inspections I stood through during my almost four years in the Navy, though I can tell you I often fell short of the mark. Sometimes massively short.
At times the shortcoming was barely noticeable. A hint of a smudge on my brass buckle. A ghost of a mark on my starched white hat. The slight downward-creep of a hair on my neatly trimmed sideburns.
No matter. It was less than perfection. The consequences? Guarding an abandoned barracks. Cleaning a urine-sprayed latrine. Picking up cigarette butts, etc.
For three-and-a-half years, I could not master the ritual, though by the end I almost came close.
Bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, petty-gain by petty-gain, I crafted a strategy, like a desperately uncoordinated dolt who does not wish to become a pinball wizard, but only hopes one day to play all five balls without tilting the machine.
And, then, that most depressingly precious of moments occurred when I realized I had been playing the wrong game. Heading out for inspection one day, I saw a fellow sailor retrieving the shiniest boots, the whitest cap and the brightest buckle I’d ever seen.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“My inspection gear,” he replied. “Your what?” I responded.
“My inspection gear. You don’t think that I go to inspections wearing the same gear that I wear to work, do you?”
Well, of course not. Except that I did. For years I had been trying to spruce up hats and shoes and buckles that had accompanied me as I crawled through airplanes, swept floors and painted the walls of WWII-era barracks.
Had I missed the memo that said, “Don’t use work stuff for inspections. Create a separate wardrobe for those special occasions?”
I lost no time doing so. I created my stash of inspection gear.
The shoes were brilliant. Smooth. Glassy. An unsuspecting bug landing on them would have slipped clumsily to the floor. The brass belt buckle? I could have brought down a plane with the relentless reflection from the morning sun, so perfect was its sheen.
But I was most proud of the hat.
Naval hats for enlisted men of that period were white and round with segments in the middle like the sections of an orange, creating a dome cradling the head framed by a stiff, circular upright ridge.
In an emergency the hat could be used as a lifesaver of sorts. I remember being told in boot camp during a simulated abandon-ship drill to extend the hat fully to create what looked like a mini-igloo. Then I was told (while sloshing around in the pool at Great Lakes) to blow air into the bottom of the submersed hat so I could use it as a temporary flotation device. Surprisingly, it worked.
My inspection hat, however, would face no such fate. This hat was purchased to stand tall and be snow-white. It was over-starched so as to hold its shape in an altogether unnatural manner — as if Frank Lloyd Wright had exorcised the soul of the Guggenheim and coaxed it, lovingly, into a cap.
But what to do with the hair and sideburns? In the past, I had measured them carefully and trimmed to the very borderline of the legal limit. A vain move? Sure. The sideburns looked good, but was that the goal? Nay, I said. Nay.
At first I trimmed an eighth-inch above the DMZ. Barely noticeable and safe. But, as my compulsion to succeed grew, I snipped to a near-jarring quarter-inch above. It was not enough. Finally, a bold half-inch above the line of demarcation. That was it. A blind Admiral on a bad day could see that I had not only met the dreaded inspection guidelines, but had exceeded them — beyond all reasonable means.
I was giddy.
But there is a fine line between giddiness and goofiness, a line I decided to trample.
It happened this way:
There was to be a major inspection in the VQ-1 hangar at the Naval Air Station in Atsugi, Japan. Sailors were split into two long lines on either side of the massive structure.
I knew that I would pass impressively; I had taken into account every possible variable. Each guideline, each rule, each expectation would be met or exceeded. Like every other top-of-the-line sailor, I would pass, a nameless swabbie replicate, indistinguishable from any other. Invisible.
Then I had a thought so diabolical that Professor James Moriarty himself could not have devised it in his best Sherlock days. I would go to the inspection in my self-imposed perfection, but with one exception: I would wear bright orange socks.
My overly long bell-bottoms would cover my outrageously risky scheme. (In all my years of inspections experience, I had never seen anyone check a sailor’s socks.)
Inspection day came. Sailors stepped smartly into place, and the officers stood ready. I was located about a third down the first line. Step-by-step, one-by-one, the officers eyeballed each statue. Up-and-down, left-to-right, then on to the next one. And the next one. And so on, until they came to me. They nodded approvingly, then passed on. I had looked just like the first sailor they had inspected, and the second one. The very same. Identical. No different. Except . . .
When the entourage was safely past my spot, I grabbed the sides of my bell-bottoms and pulled them up for a fraction of a second. Just long enough for the sailors on the other side of the cavernous hangar to see my orange socks. As gasps and giggles echoed throughout the hangar, I quickly let go of the side seams of my bell-bottoms — allowing them to drop dramatically, like an unscheduled closing curtain during a raid at an illegal strip joint.
The inspection crew stopped, trying to determine what had happened, but they couldn’t.
That moment was probably the high point of my entire naval career, a pathetically sad thought to be sure.
And yet, when I think of it, I smile . . . jsl
Jim Lamb is a retired journalist living in Florida. He recently wrote his first book, “Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales.” It’s the story of how he survived Vietnam and kept his sense of humor. For more information, visit www.jslstories.com.