They never told me about this when I applied for OCS.....

THE BENDER "BLUES"

By Jack A. Eckert

 

This story begins in 1961 when I got my shiny new Ensign bars. I left OCS with a set each of dress blues, khakis, and whites, several sets of work khakis, and a horse blanket (known in some circles as a Bridge Coat.) I was about 30 years old, had a wife and two children, and went into hock for the uniforms. $1200.00 in those days was a lot of money, particularly when the old Ford station wagon was about to give up the ghost.

My first assignment as an officer was on the ESCANABA. I bought a sword, speculating that someday I would need the darn thing and there would be none around to borrow. As it turned out, the sword was lent out about twenty times for every time I had to wear it.

Officers and Chiefs in those days could come and go in civvies, saving a lot on wear and tear on uniforms—Months could go by without having to break out a dress uniform, but engineering duties required that I buy more work khakis.

My next assignment was with the Navy for three years in a job that required wearing a dress uniform every day. One set of khakis and blues could not make it—I bought two more of each dress uniform; I had enough white and khaki dress shirts to open up a St. Vincent DePaul's Thrift Shop.

Then it was back to sea on a diesel ship for a couple of years and the dress uniforms went into my closet at home. Whatever the season I kept a set aboard but seldom needed them. My work khakis were so badly soaked with diesel fuel, my wife wouldn't let me bring them home (nor me either unless I bathed first.) Thus I was at the mercy of the ship's laundry.

By this time it was mid-1968 and I was transferred to Commander Western Area in San Francisco. Again, this was a dress uniform job but, because of the times—the age of Hippies and Peaceniks—I wore civvies back and forth to the office. Wearing a uniform in downtown San Francisco was like waving a red flag at a bull.

Because of the high costs in the Bay Area, our family was living on a shoestring. The only money left over was from per diem from my frequent travelling on orders. Then the worst happened. Rear Admiral Chester Bender, COMWESTAREA, decided that we needed to have a Mess Night for all of the officers in the 12th District.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, it is a formal banquet with a band and a dialogue not quite as rigid as a High Catholic Mass. All of the officers wear the Mess Dress Uniform, the military equivalent of a tuxedo. I did not own one, couldn't rent or borrow one, nor did I know where to steal one. I had to buy one for $135, plus another $25 or $30 for the accessories. The Navy Base uniform shop did not extend credit. I was about to become a two and a half striper, but not until after this event—the uniform got the regulation two stripes. We changed our diet at home to spring the necessary money. The Division I worked in had dissolved and, because of a lease I was having trouble breaking, this put me in a holding pattern waiting to go to Headquarters. If I could have gotten out of there a week earlier, I would have missed the expensive Mess Night. It came and went and was a good show, but I felt like a freshly-bred penguin.

In those days when stationed in Headquarters you wore civvies to work—usually a sports coat, starched shirt, and a tie. For a while we were supposed to wear our uniforms at least once a week on any day we chose. For the most part I chose not to. I would wear it if I had to go over to Curtis Bay, or something like that.

Two years later Admiral Bender became the Commandant, to the surprise of most people at Headquarters. To everyone's astonishment except mine, he scheduled another Mess Night. Again, I was under transfer orders but not yet detached. Fortunately I had the Mess Dress uniform but it had to be re-striped because of the promotion to LCDR. I also discovered that my cushy, "sit on your butt end" job in Washington made me a couple of inches bigger all around. Either the uniform shrank from its single prior cleaning or I got bigger. The dead give away was closing the jacket with only a double-button hole (figure eight) device to hook on to the two buttons. I had a two-inch gap showing my white ruffled front shirt too prominently. Those penguin suits had no give. Fortunately my good wife was able to do some minor alterations, allowing me to wear the uniform without undue embarrassment. And that was the last time the damn thing was ever worn.

For two formal parties I really didn't feel like going to and couldn't get out of by any devious means, it cost about $100 more-or-less each time the uniform was put on.

My next job required the wearing of a dress uniform some of the time, but I could usually get away with wearing short sleeve khakis or whites.

I had bought about all the uniforms now that I would ever need, estimated at $2700, when shoes, shirts, a couple of ties, a rain coat, etc. were tossed in, and believed I would be able to finish my career without having to subject my growing family to another period of beans and barley.

Like many projections, this one was faulty. There were dark forces at work trying to change our uniform. The most powerful was named Bender. As far as I was concerned, changing our dress uniforms was something that might transpire long after I grew a long gray beard (similar to what I wear today.)

But it happened. I had a travelling job and had to show off the uniform. Did I get a wheelbarrow full of money to buy another uniform or did I just have one made at a uniform shop at my own expense? I won't even answer that.

A few months later I transferred to Group San Francisco and wore a dress uniform every day, sticking to khakis, blues, and short sleeve whites. The Bender Blues stayed in the closet.

Just before I retired the old uniforms were put out to pasture and the Bender Blues became our standard service-wide uniform.

 

Epilogue: I have left instructions that I want to be buried in my old dress blues if they can be altered to fit. I would like my Bender Blues cremated.

 

Return To Coast Guard Stories