Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In which two people who should have known better ask what my dad's rank was

Here's the deal about rank in the military: it is soooo much more than a job title. It endows status on the spouse (the general's wife is usually the president of the Officers' Wives Club), it confers privilege (size and location) in housing, it determines pay, it guides weight limits for moving.*

Job titles matter in the civilian world as well, but it's not the same. You don't live with, go to church or synagogue with, shop with and socialize with your co-workers in the civilian world the way you do in the military. They are not your next-door neighbors or your kids' babysitters. Title matters at work and work events, but outside of work, not really.

Some people are hyper-aware of rank, as my friend Michael remembers. He is black and his dad was a colonel. The (black) mother of another kid wouldn't let her son play with Michael because her husband was enlisted and she didn't think it was appropriate for an enlisted man's kid to play with an officer's kid.

Side story: Michael's dad retired when he was 14 and they moved to Memphis, where his dad became a chaplain at the VA. Michael says that's when he experienced racism for the first time in his life. When his dad was in the army, Michael was (if anything), the chaplain's kid or the colonel's kid, but in Memphis, he was the black kid. Except to the black kids, of course, who thought he acted white.

My dad was a bit anti-rank, at least when it came to his kids. We were instructed to call our friends' dads "Mister," not "Major So and so" or "Sergeant So and so."

"I call them that," my dad said. "But you do not. They are 'Mister' to you."

We kids knew who was who, but it didn't matter. We didn't care.

Civilians might ask me what rank my dad was when he was retired, which I always wonder about. Why do they care? Do they know how ranking works? If they do, then they know that they are asking a somewhat rude question. If they don't, then why are they asking at all?

I wouldn't ask someone whose mom or dad had been a college teacher what title they held. To me, all professors are equal, but apparently, there is an entire hierarchy. Big deal. Assistant professor, associate professor, plain professor: they all teach at the college level, right? That's all I need to know. Except the subject. That's important because who doesn't want to know more about the archaeologist dad and the summers spent on the dig in Egypt? Or the food scientist mom developing better ice cream?

But military people - a child or spouse of a serviceman - know what rank is what and what rank means. And they know you don't ask, or at least you don't ask unless it's relevant. It is not relevant in a social setting. Which is why I was so shocked when I attended the wedding breakfast for a friend whose father had also been in the military.

An older lady said to me, after explaining how her husband had retired from the army and how her son was the aide de camp to a NATO general in Turkey, "I hear you and Zoe were friends in high school."

"Yes," I answered.

"What rank was your father?" she asked.

I was stunned. She knew the protocol. She knew what she was asking was the civilian equivalent of, "How much money did your dad make? Even if he made decent money, did he earn it doing something icky like being a drug dealer?** Or was his job high status like surgeon? Did you live in an appropriate neighborhood? Did he belong to the right clubs?"

It was an attempt to place me socially, which is why I hate all "What do you do?" questions anyhow. First, if someone is unemployed, it really stinks to have to answer that, and second, too many people use it as a shortcut to the same thing: how useful can you be to me? I ask people I've just met what movies they've seen or what books they've read lately. I was on the jobless answering end for far too long. Plus I am just a superior human being who knows how to be polite to others.

But I was so shocked that she would ask that I blurted out my answer. She turned away from me without another word. My dad could not help her son be promoted to general.

Wow. I vowed that I would never be caught off guard like that again. Zoe later confirmed to me that the woman was kind of a bitch.

Years later, when I met Primo, Sly and Doris showed no interest in me or my family. Didn't ask me anything about college or my growing up or where my family was now.

Mi gente. I am not a boring person. OK, maybe I'm a bit boring, but I have not lived a boring life. I have lived under two dictators and been around for the aftermath of another. I speak Spanish fluently and can get by in French. I have been all over southern Europe. I was a Peace Corps volunteer and most people want at least to know about the food in my host country. I have lived in three foreign countries and Miami. There are things to talk to me about.

But nope. Not interested.

The one thing Sly asked Primo about me - and he didn't even have the guts to do this to my face because he knew! he knew! he had been in the navy and he knew! - was what rank my dad had held at retirement.

That was the one fact he considered important enough about me to know? What rank my father, who had been dead for about eight years by the time Sly met me, had held at retirement? Why on earth did it even matter? He was never going to meet my dad. My dad had been retired for years before he died and had three other interesting post-retirement jobs, including working on a shrimping boat for a season, just because he had always wanted to do that, teaching aircraft mechanics to members of the Saudi Arabian air force, and teaching junior high math and science on the US Navy base on Sicily. So much more to my dad than his rank and so many interesting things to know about him. But Sly just wanted to place my dad and to judge me by my dad's rank. Jerk.

* Primo laughs because I travel so lightly through life and refuse to buy books ("We can afford them, you know"), but when I was a kid, we couldn't accumulate books because they were heavy.

** Not that I am trying to compare anyone in the military to drug dealers - I am just trying to show that income is not the only way we label a person.


  1. After we moved to this relatively small city in central Texas, I worked at an ophthalmologist's office that had a lot of older patients. The women would invariably ask me "Who were you?" and I didn't have a clue what they meant until a co-worker told me they wanted to know what my maiden name was so they could place me within their frame of reference. Everyone knew or was related in some way to almost everyone else. Since I was from California, they didn't quite know what to make of me.

  2. Have you gotten a kindle or nook yet? White Chocolate

  3. Ima June, it was the same way in parts of Memphis. Were you from the right family? I was blissfully ignorant of that sort of bigotry, but once I figured it out, it ticked me off.

    WC, nope.


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