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Does the uniform make the man?

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THIS is the story of a uniform - shoes shined to a vulgar glow, knife crease in the trousers, hat tipped at a rakish angle, and, of course, a row of ribbons on the chest. The story begins at the time Ollie North was parading his Marine uniform - so winningly, in fact, that complete strangers wanted to nominate him for president on the spot. As Ollie appeared before his congressional committee, an old friend - an old vet - reappeared in our life, shoulders squared, chin up, also reliving his glory days.

A coincidence, it must be emphasized. Our friend was not coming out of mothballs, so to speak, in response to the colonel's subliminal recruiting. But then, the whole point of this story is that men in uniform are never really a coincidence.

Our friend is recently retired, groping a little desperately for his identity as retired persons do when stripped of the ID badge of The Job. As if he feared he might be arrested for vagrancy, our friend hastily posted certifications of his profession, all neatly framed, on his study walls. For over 30 years he was a professor, and the verifying documents - dating back to his high school diploma - defiantly shouted: ``This is who I am, or at least was.''

Alas, these affidavits of a long and honorable career still left him visibly adrift - a man without a country.

Could he perhaps assume the persona of a gentleman farmer, as he had once fancied himself? He hitched up his overalls. He plowed. He planted. The crops grew, more or less. But no new identity grew with them.

What to do? Our old friend dipped recklessly into his IRA and bought a boat - a 20-foot cabin cruiser, as small as they get. Copper-bottom paint filled his garage. New documents descended from his attic - his war record. Photographs of his smiling younger self, slim in a Navy uniform, crowded the diplomas off the wall. His old hat, with tarnished eagle, took its place on a display shelf, just waiting to be saluted. The service ribbons of World War II came vividly to rest on a black velvet background.

It worked! As an old salt, our friend regained his savor. He even joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and after all these years he is eligible to wear another uniform - purchased at his own expense.


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