February 09, 2021

Article at respectnews.ca

"I've got shirts older than you"

There’s a line us old folks will use when some young upstart tries to give us the benefit of their experience.

“Kid,” we’ll say, “I’ve got shirts older than you.”

And some of us really do. The oldest shirts in my closet are military-issue, circa 1983. When new, they were a not-really-teal, not-really-turquoise shade of green that the Canadian Armed Forces labelled “lagoon blue.”

This is my second set of lagoon-blue work shirts. I got my first ones in Ottawa the year before, when I was in the band for the daily Changing The Guard ceremony on Parliament Hill. It was my first exposure to military discipline and military logic. I learned a lot about unquestioning obedience.

“It’s boiling hot outside and 100 per cent humidity. Go put on a heavy wool uniform and a two-foot-tall black fur hat and go parading in the sunshine.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Training resumes this afternoon. Report in combat dress, we’ll take you out to the range where you will walk into a small hut full of tear gas.”

“Absolutely.”

“And these green work shirts? They’re blue.”

“Sure they are.”

We hated the “lagoon blue” (they really are green) work shirts during our basic training. The fabric was heavy for summer, and the shirts had to be stiff and pressed, with the long sleeves rolled up in a precise manner. The day came when we could finally start wearing a light green (which astonishingly the Army called “green”) short-sleeved shirt, and we couldn’t have been happier.

That was a summer job. A year later I began my military career in earnest, and our daily dress during the winter months included the lagoon blue (they’re not blue) shirts. They still had to be pressed, but they didn’t have to be stiff and starchy. In time, I found them to be quite comfortable. They’re much like a civilian-pattern work shirt I might have worn at any of the industrial jobs I had before joining up.

The Forces stopped issuing them in the late 80s or early 90s after the Army, Navy, and Air Force got their own specific uniforms again. And as soon as they were no longer in military use, I was free to wear mine whenever I wanted.

(Military personnel are not supposed to wear uniform items or use issued gear for non-military purposes, but everyone has some scrounged or salvaged kit. We used to call it Queen Elizabeth Leisurewear.)

I still wear my blue (they’re green!) shirts from time to time, and I’ve even had some repairs done on them. They’re in remarkably good shape.

When you get almost 40 years of wear out of a couple of free shirts, you could say they don’t owe you anything. And it may seem silly to have loyalty to an inanimate old garment.

But when something has lasted this long and served me this well, I feel I owe it at least a little effort to maintain it and keep using it.

After all, those old shirts have had my back, literally, through an entire military career, courtship and 35 years of marriage, raising two beautiful daughters, chores and yardwork in five homes, and many weekends and camping trips.

I’m not really sentimental, but I have my share of souvenirs. These ones just happen to be still in active use.

Trophies and certificates and other testaments to our achievements are nice, I guess. But just as real history is to be found in the lives of ordinary people, the story of our lives is really told by the things we do—and the things we use—every day. The 1986 softball tournament or the Employee of the Month honour from God-knows-when are meaningless compared to the 38 years of daily living I can think back on whenever I put on one of my old shirts.

We get dressed every day, we wash and dry our clothes every week. When we say “Kid, I’ve got shirts older than you,” we’re not dismissing a young person’s intelligence, learning or enthusiasm; and we’re not mocking their lack of years. We’re giving ourselves due respect for our real experience—not so much the years as the countless days and weeks.