AAAA Family Forum / Judy Konitzer: In this memoir piece, Amanda Williams recalls the daily ritual of her father, LTC (Ret.) Michael Williams, putting on his uniform. She reflects on the lessons the uniform has taught her: attention to detail, resiliency, how to present one’s self, and most importantly, respect for tradition. —Judy Konitzer
The author and her family
In The Book of Chivalry, 14th century French knight Geoffroi De Charny describes the elaborate ceremonies involved in making a knight. He spends pages detailing the rituals of bathing, prayer, and moral cleansing, but his description of how the knight candidates were dressed is rendered in exquisite detail. De Charney describes the importance of new, white shifts, made from material which was woven expressly for the purpose of the ceremony; red tunics symbolizing a willingness to shed blood in defense of virtue and faith, black stockings to remind the knights of their mortality, and the inescapability of death . I imagine the solemnity of the scene, the knights carefully adding one sacred item at a time to their ensemble, until they were fully dressed, physically and spiritually transformed. Though the traditions of knighthood are now figments of a romanticized past, I feel the significance of this ritual dressing thrumming inside of me as I read De Charney’s account; as the daughter of a US Army Officer, my earliest memories of my father are of his morning rituals, his daily preparation to go off and fly helicopters as an Army Aviator. For 24 years, I witnessed him put on his Battle Dress Uniform, and with each snap, flap, tuck, and fold, he was transfigured before my eyes.
It was always the same, as I ate my breakfast (merrily most of the time, but more somberly when I knew that he was leaving for a deployment); he always entered the still lamp-lit living room in his standard-issue brown t-shirt, of which we have amassed an impressive collection of over the years. These t-shirts were simple, cotton, the color of light mud, the earthen base on which the foliage of the camouflage would bloom. Brown shirt, already tucked into fatigue pants, with their numberless pockets and gadget-holders, loops, and snaps. I remember wondering if the pants themselves were parachutes, disguised as pants. Where is the string? I wondered, as I munched my Nutella-toast, the local German news-cast clearing its throat brusquely in the background. I secretly hoped that one of the canvas loops would be used to hold his sword.
The belt seemed the glue of the ensemble, simple, made from the kind of material used to secure tarp covers to the tops of hum-vees. It was firmly cinched around my father’s solid waist, like a Roman pillar (less decorative than those of the Greeks, and stronger). No ornamented capital atop this column of man, my father’s hair was always closely cropped; his adherence to this particular dress-code rule, which he practices to this day though several years retired, is a quintessential statement about my father. In this way and many others, he was a GI Joe, standard issue, box unopened, mint condition. At least, that’s how he seemed to me, at the age when I imagined him as the prince in all of my story books. Whoever it was that was killing the dragon, there I super-imposed him. Dragons are bad guys, right? And one thing I knew for certain about my father was that part of his job was getting the bad guys. As an adult, now knowing full well just how bad some of the bad guys are, I am stunned by my childhood obliviousness. The men my father faced were not black-armored anti-knights or horned monsters, they were men. Sometimes I still wish I could see them in my head as evil princes, sorcerers, demons; at least those evils have a history of being vanquished.
The next step was the socks. While not quite the black stockings of medieval knights, my father was very particular about his thick, brown uniform socks. He would slide them on, pulling them all the way up so that they wouldn’t fall down inside of his boots, and then he would adjust the toe-seams until they spanned the tops of his toes like a bridge. What came next was always so fascinating—he took out a thick roll of moss-green duct tape from the drawer of the side table, and proceeded to tape his pants. I often volunteered my assistance, I was never allowed to help with this particular part.
“Dad, why do you have to do that?” I’d ask.
“Because, if I don’t do it then my pants will be all bunched up in my shoes.”
“Can I help you put the tape on?” I offered enthusiastically, the thought of putting tape on clothes seeming wonderfully taboo.
“No, I can do it all by myself. Besides, if it’s not done right it will bug me all day.”
Satisfied with this logic, I continued to watch. He measured out a length of tape, and cut it swiftly with his teeth. Then the folding of the pants-legs; this would be re-done and re-done until it looked right, till the flaps were even, the pants tight and neat around his ankles. He would tape them into place so perfectly that his boots would slide on without a hitch, every time.
Sometimes, when I am laboring over a task which allows me to indulge in my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I think of the pants and the tape. As I arrange blueberries on a tart (an arguably more frivolous activity), I think that I can only justify such precision with the knowledge that if I don’t get it right, it will bug me all day. I have never once regretted taking the time to do something perfectly. When I was at Oxford, I was preparing to present on a paper I’d just written for my Shakespeare tutorial with a frighteningly brilliant professor, whom I dearly wanted to impress. I remember sitting up all night and re-typing my notes, wanting desperately to seem competent, but self-conscious about my enthusiasm. I was the only American student in a tutorial full of finalists preparing to graduate, all of whom seemed to regard my over-eager, American-eqsue interpretations of Shakespeare to be “frightfully dull, darling.” I did not want them to loathe me, and yet I was well on my way. I’d been singled out by the Professor for my essay on the imagery and language of pregnancy and childbirth in Measure for Measure, and had been asked to prepare a presentation of my research for the class. This was a moment where my father’s methodical perfectionism showed in me, as clearly as a mark on my skin, and after deleting a chaster version of my presentation, I compiled a comprehensive handout of my research process, relevant sources, facsimiled excerpts, and some wonderfully grotesque 16th century midwifery illustrations. As I stood in front of the class, gleaming with the sweat of American industry, I embodied my father’s mantra of do it right, every time. Whether he was moving my arm through the motions of a volleyball serve, or guiding my hands as I fought the trembling of heavy gun, the target before me a nervous blur, he chanted same motion, every time, do it right.
I imagine that knights thrived on a similar discipline, a commitment to the vows of knighthood that they professed during the knighting ceremony. With each article of clothing, my father seemed to acknowledge the commitments he made to his own profession: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Honor. Thought not one of the core Army values, I realize now that watching my father put on his boots was an early lesson in resilience. After pants-taping was successfully executed, and I was through my toast and gobbling a yoghurt (over-hasty consumption of food being another trait that I’ve inherited from my father), it was time for him to polish his boots. The thick cake of black polish in its gleaming tin reminded me of an old-fashioned tin of hard candies (naturally, everything related to some kind of edible), but when he opened the can and the acrid smell wafted among the furniture, I was reminded that this was not a substance fit for eating, and returned to my yoghurt. He would work one boot at a time, tall, black leather boots that had more grommets and hooks than a corset, and when laced reached a good three inches above his ankles. They were round-toed, thick soled, and clumped regally in a parade march. For some, the sound of soldiers marching is a foreboding thing, like an advancing darkness, or the sound of one mind controlling hundreds of others. But for me, it was always the sound of salvation approaching, of strength, of an eternal and purposeful heartbeat.
He scrubbed the boots with a small wood-handled brush, the bristles forever tarred by the polish, but still he managed to buff out the scuffs and scrapes and make those boots shine. Not quite like new, but shiny in a way that betrayed a resilient character, the way someone shines internally having risen above terrible circumstance. Even though they did not quite look like the tall equestrian boots of a prince, I knew they were boots in which things were accomplished, people saved, tasks completed. He slipped them on over the perfectly-taped pants, and laced them up with a practiced hand, right about the time I finished my yogurt and started slurping milk through a straw.
I hardly think I can credit my father with my adult shoe-obsession, but I do think watching him polish those boots every morning taught me something about resilience. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that troubling things are getting under my skin more easily. Things I used to care less about now creep into my ears, eyes, and brain with a voracity that I can’t quite protect myself against, and in the past few years I’ve experienced an all-time low in my mental self-defense. Resilience is a law by which my father lives, and just as he polished out the scratches in those leather boots every morning, so too is he the master of buffing himself free of all scars, scrapes, and barbs, no matter where they come from. He has seemed to me at times completely impenetrable, all debris (physical and emotional) sloughing off of him, nothing passing through. There, his mind maintains a quiet pact with itself, not to be tarnished by anything, or anyone. My mind, conversely, is a giant weeping sponge that often takes in more than it can reasonably bear, and seems especially porous when it comes to the positive things in life, letting those leak out and letting the bad things ruminate in its center, breeding bacterial anxiety. In my more openly emotional moments, I have been crushed by my father’s complete lack of empathy, and deeply resented his “get over it” approach. The resilience which I so admire in him is sometimes a bastion which keeps out bad and good alike. Like the knights who were expected to face gruesome deaths with stone-faced composure, not even my tears of frustration (often gruesome) can move him to pity.
As I try to make sense of his reactions to my moments of weakness, I wonder if he was trying to teach me personal courage, another Army value, in the only way he knew how. He wanted to prepare me for the scarring things, abrasive people, acidic thoughts, I would encounter in life, but he wanted to make sure I knew that it my responsibility to buff myself smooth. He knows what I am still learning: that each time you are taken down to your knees, you have the power to rise up, without a scratch, and begin again. If I could someday end up as smooth and polished as those boots, I know I would have reason to be proud. As I am now, I’m still scuffed, but the polish and brush are in my hands.
After the boots, and around the time that my mother was collecting my sleepy sister and me from the couch and ushering us up to get dressed, my father would put on his always-crisply-ironed BDU coat. This top, with almost as many buttons, pockets, and utility flaps at the matching pants, I now imagine as a kind of family crest. It bore our name, his name, Williams, over the right breast pocket; over the other, U.S. Army, signifying all at once an organization, a code of ethics, and a synonym for bravery. On his left arm, the badge of his tribe, his unit, the 1st Infantry Division, 4th brigade, 1st Battalion, 1st Aviation regiment, and on each lapel his rank was stitched. The whole jacket was like a coat of arms, which announced him to other soldiers as “Michael Williams, First Son of the House of Williams, Major in the Armed Forces of the United States, Defender of the Innocent,” etc. I’m sure I did not think of it this way as a child, recalcitrant, stumping up the stairs to select a shirt-and-matching-leggings outfit (my apparel reflecting my status as sassy, hyper-imaginative little girl as much as my father’s reflected his as soldier). Back then, I’m sure I viewed this jacket as I did my own, a thing used to keep warm, a mandatory article imposed by mothers. Each time my father was assigned to a new unit or got promoted, my mother harvested all of the patches from his uniforms and kept them. Sometimes I would find a baggy stuffed in a closet, and I would sift through them, taking each one in my hands and running my fingers over the thickly embroidered Apache helicopters, spears, swords, and chevrons. There was something about them that I loved; I think I imagined them as emblems of powerful traits that my father possessed. One had a black horse head in profile on a mustard-yellow background; this was, of course, representative of his horsemanship skills, his willingness to charge into battle like a 12th century Saxon warlord. Another patch bore a black cannon, encircled with a length of chain, against a tri-colored scape of yellow, red, and blue, “SPEARHEAD” stitched tightly across the front. I imagined him, like the cannon, capable of hurling a singular, devastating projectile (a missile, a punch, you name it); as if he could summon up some unknown force and focus its effect into a single, unfortunate point. As a child, my father never did anything cannon-like to me, in the way I’ve described it, but the moments where his temper was provoked showed me a glimpse of that blunt, incendiary power, and I let my imagination fill in the rest. I pitied the bad guys. I pitied anyone who struck flint against the fuse.
The allure of the patches was never lost to me; I went through a phase in high school where I covered my entire backpack with them (surely some kind of military sacrilege, but no one stopped me). I safety-pinned about ten of them to the surface of my bag, until it looked like an olive drab jigsaw puzzle, a collage of war implements. I’m not entirely sure why I did this, but I think it had something to do with my father’s approaching retirement. I wanted so badly to cling to the life that had shaped me, a life of structure, strange and beautiful places, the flashing of ID Cards, the constant and calming presence of uniformed soldiers in crisp rows, always at attention. I also think that in my self-conscious, teenaged mind, I hoped that the badges would imbue me with some of their powers, give me banners to rally behind, tribes to belong to.
When I was 20, I got a badge of my own; a small tattoo on the inside of my right wrist, sketched from an old woodcut of a quill and roll of parchment. I had been seeking a symbol of my devotion to words, and I stumbled upon this image on the inside cover of an old, dusty poetry anthology in my college’s library. I’ve forgotten the publisher’s name, but their simple crest of the crossed parchment and quill became my patch, a symbol of my very own super power. As I had it etched into the delicate skin of my wrist, gritting my teeth against the urge to flinch, I thought that in some small way I was earning the right to wear it. My father would probably cringe to hear me compare a tattoo (in his eyes, a lamentable marring of one’s self, as well as a colossal waste of money) to one of his battalion patches, but the similarity is too great to ignore. I have stitched my own badge to myself, and I wear it as a mark that I am of a kind: “Amanda Williams, Scribe of the House of Williams, first daughter of Alhambra, Crafter of Tales, Conjurer of Images,” etc.
The final element of my father’s uniform was a simple brimmed cap, upon which was pinned a golden leaf. Golden for Major, which would later turn, as all leaves do when a season is changing, to silver, when he became Lieutenant Colonel. At the time of the scene I’ve described, the sleepy elementary-aged children, the cold, dark mornings on Kardinal-Faulhaber-Strasse, the leaf was gold, and in my memory bears an unmistakable resemblance to the golden laurels of Roman emperors. The hat always went on as he was right about to leave, pausing at the door to say goodbye to my mother, who still faced the often monumental task of getting my sister and me ready for school after he’d gone off to his briefings and drills. He often yelled goodbye up the stairs to us, and we, leaping at the opportunity for distraction, came to the railing and joined my mom in heralding him off with our chorus of “Bye, Dad!” I recall very few mornings that he did not wish us goodbye, and the times I do remember this routine being interrupted were the times he was TDY, deployed, or had been called away before we woke up.
When I reflect on the ritual of my father dressing in his uniform, I have such a bizarre concoction of emotions; I want to cry, for that uniform represented a life of constant discovery, adventure, and a time before circumstance and our ages sent my little sister and I off into our own flight patterns. It represents a time before my father was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, which has forced him from the cockpit of the helicopters he loved so much, and trained so hard to have the privilege to fly. That uniform still rouses a deep rattling in my heart when I see it walking through malls, grocery stores, and gas stations. As I grew up in foreign countries, two images came to represent home to me; those two symbols were the American flag, and that 90’s era, standard-issue, strap and pocket-laden, patch-encrusted uniform.
If the Book of Chivalry is right about one thing, it is that particular clothing items have the ability to signify authority, and command respect. As de Charny described each detail, each sash, each stocking, and the spiritual and moral significance of each, I can’t help but think that my father’s BDUs possessed the same emblematic power. Knights were created before the eyes of astonished onlookers through their ritual dressing; my father was, and is, conjured in my heart through his commitment to the virtues his uniform represented. His meticulousness taught me carefulness, and the value of not doing anything half-heartedly. That uniform, now retired, like my father, hangs in the back of our basement closet like a heraldic banner. As the daughter of an Army Aviator, it is my duty to earn my own badges, polish myself, tape and lace myself into a shape that reflects who I am, and what I stand for. Something which announces me as “Amanda Williams, Daughter of Michael Williams, Winner of Trials and Defier of Obstacles, Spinner of Words, Child of Ritual, Defender of Herself.”
Written by Amanda Williams
Amanda Williams is a Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Candidate at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. She will serve as a Hollins Teaching Fellow for the 2015-2016 Academic Year.