Wearing A Uniform

Most of my working life, I’ve worn some kind of uniform, everything from the gray and green of the National Park Service to the plain black of the local ambulance. I went to Walmart today in completely civilian attire for the first time in I don’t know how many months and the cashier asked, “Did you finally get a day off?” Probably not a good sign, but then again I avoid town on my days off as a general rule. Maybe I’m turning into a hermit and refuse to admit it.

Until you’ve worn a uniform, you might not appreciate the sense of freedom which comes from “civilian” clothes. It’s not in the choice. (Unfortunately most of my off-duty wardrobe has taken on the characteristics of a uniform itself and consists of the same black, navy blue, gray, green and tan.) It’s in the sense that I’m just another person going about normal business.

Don’t get me wrong! I’ve been proud of every uniform I’ve worn…well with one exception which I won’t get into here. When you wear a uniform, whether off-duty or on, you represent that agency or service, and everything you say or do will be judged accordingly and applied to the organization as a whole. So, if Joe Blow decides you are the target for whatever disgruntled complaint he has on his mind, when in uniform, you have no choice but to take it or tactfully diffuse him, which usually means swallowing your feelings and taking it without complaint or back-talk.

While situations like that have popped up across my career, a time it became exceptionally obvious was during the 2016 presidential election. I worked for a federal agency in rural Montana at the time. Besides staffing the front desk I worked in the field, in the public eye. Discourse with a variety of citizenry was part of the job. That year I grew to dislike talking with the public, and it became a duty in every sense. Park rangers and other federal employees became targets of derision at best and hate at worse. One visitor became so aggressive that the office called for law enforcement. After that, all employees got the massively fun job of attending training on conflict resolution. I, for one, was glad I didn’t live in that town where everyone knew who I was and what I did for a living. Sometimes, anonymity is a blessing.

A senior park ranger I worked with years ago told me that how you dress, especially in uniform, is a sign to visitors of your skills. “If you wear your uniform like a slob, chances are your skills are sloppy,” he said. He wasn’t wrong, but sometimes that can bite you in the butt. Random people will ask me directions at gas stations when I wear civilian attire. One time, a person asked me a specific question about local history while I sat alone on a park bench. After answering the question, I asked this person why she inquired to me on the subject. She simply said, “Because you looked like you’d know.”

Maybe some people are meant to wear uniforms. I’ve heard it said that if a person wears a uniform, they’re too dumb to make their own decisions. While I know that’s true in some cases, it’s not in others. For me, it’s a case of discipline. I’ve worn a uniform so often that it’s worn off on me, and no matter what I wear, there will always be traces of it in my character. I’m always glad to be helpful, no matter the situation, but I’m also happy when I can take the target off and tell Joe Blow where to go fly a kite.


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