Trading tradition for a tuxedo

Gentlemen’s Quarterly, the unequalled guide to fashion, suavity, and panache unabashedly states that every man must own a tuxedo.  I have had the great fortune to be able to ignore that bit of fashion guidance for decades because of the most dashing collection of uniforms that fill my closet.  I am haberdashed to the fullest when it comes to uniforms for every occasion; I can emerge from my dressing room ready equipped for firefight or prepared for a black tie formal. Unfortunately, the spectrum of uniforms don’t transition to the civilian world, and the flexibility of a closet filled with every conceivable martial fashion choice exists only as long as you continue on active service.

I had not really thought much about it, other than to rummage through at my uniforms in search of the civilian clothes that hung amongst them as I get dressed each morning.  That is, until November rolled around.

November is a big month for servicemen and servicewomen because it is the month of Veterans Day.  The crisp height of autumn finds proud old soldiers marching side by side with their younger counterparts in parades that mark the service of those who have worn the cloth of the nation, and it is the time for all of us to promise to never forget the sacrifice that they have made to ensure our country remains the best on Earth.

For Marines, however, November holds an even greater meaning.  November is the month of the birth of our Corps, and each and every Marine who has ever served can tell you what our birthday is.  November 10th, 1775 is the date of the founding of the United States Marine Corps, and every year since Marines have celebrated that momentous and distinguished day.

It is a day replete with elegant ceremony, pomp, and circumstance.  Marines everywhere, regardless of clime, place, or situation will stop what they are doing and throw a birthday party.  They range from white tie formals that rival the cotillions of nineteenth century France to a couple of tired Marines sharing an MRE dessert in a muddy fighting hole between firefights.  Whatever the situation, Marines will gather together and perform a simple ceremony to mark the day that we all grow a year older.  In this case, the Marine Corps turns a youthfully venerable 236.

Formal events are quite elaborate.  They usually start with “preflighting”, which is when Marines and their guests gather before cocktail hour to get a head start on the evening.  Preflighting usually goes in someone’s hotel suite, and there you will find a few coolers filled with beer and counters laden with cocktail fixings.  After having a cold one or two, it is time to head for the cocktail hour that preceeds the event- time for another drink (for all of the teetotalers out there who are aghast at the thought of drinking before the cocktail hour starts, well, get over it.  Marines are known for doing many things well, and drinking is one of them!)  There is nothing quite as wonderful as sharing an evening with the ones that you love and the ones you will lay your life down for.  It is a truly transcendent experience.

Cocktail hour ends with a bugle call that invites everyone to their tables.  Moments later the ceremony begins, and every Marine’s heart quickens to the tap of a drum and the brassy keening of the band.  Two at a time an escort of Marines marches onto the scene armed with swords and and a steely gaze, smartly coming to a stop in two facing rows that frame the setting for the ceremony.  They are followed by the Guest of Honor and Commanding Officer of the unit hosting the celebration who march to their places at the head of the evening’s parade ground.  The nation’s colors, reverently carried by by a guard of Marines, are solemly presented with every pair of eyes in the house is riveted on Old Glory as the national anthem is played.

Following the posting of the colors (which is when the flag is placed in its ceremonial position) a cake is brought forth, escorted by Marines dressed in their distinctive (and unmatched!) dress uniforms.  The ceremonial Adjutant draws forth a scroll on which is scribed a directive from General John. A. Lejeune, a legendary commandant of our Corps whose service predates ours by a century or so.  Without aid of something as tawdry as a microphone, the Adjutant booms the venerated message out for all to hear:

     “On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by  a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

      The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

      In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

      This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.


Major General Commandant”

The honoring of tradition does not end there.  With a flourish borne of tradition and practice, the Adjutant proffers his or her sword to cut the cake.  Two slices are produced, and are presented by the Commanding Officer to the Guest of Honor for the evening, and then the second piece is respectfully conferred to the oldest Marine present.  In a tasty Marine Crops tradition the oldest Marine then passes the piece of cake to the youngest Marine (having left at least one bite, and with a new fork), who then takes a bite- symbolizing the passing of tradition from the old guard to the new.  The birthdates of the oldest are read out as they sample their piece of cake, with the oldest receiving the muted respect that such long service commands and the youngest receiving the howling laughter and applause that accompanies the honor of being younger than the children of many Marines present.  The sage meets the prelate, and they share a piece of most excellent cake.  Not at all a bad tradition!

With the returning of the plates and cutlery the sequence is reversed.  The cake is marched away to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, followed by the color guard after paying respects again to our nation’s flag.  The guest of honor and commanding officer follow the flag off of the ceremonial floor, closely accompanied by pairs of escorts.  With a rousing rendition of Anchor’s Aweigh (to honor our naval tradition) and the Marine’s Hymn (to honor all Marines and the birth of our Corps) the ceremony draws to a close.  All that remains are remarks from the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, the hosting commanding officer, and the guest of honor which are traditionally presented just before dinner is served.

The best remarks are those that are meaningful, thoughtful, endearing, and brief.  Having been to countless balls during my 27 years in uniform I have felt the thrill of excitement that a great and motivating speaker brings to the ceremony as well as the mind numbing drudgery inflicted by those who even with the best of intentions drone ceaselessly on.  And on.  And on.  (The longest in my experience approached the hour and a half mark before departing the podium and allowing us dive into our wilted salads.)

Once the remarks are completed and the guest of honor is presented with a token of appreciation for his or her words of motivation and wisdom the formal ceremony is complete.  Marines and guests cheerfully turn to those who share their table and break bread together in a respectful and joyful atmosphere more reminiscent of a wedding than a military event.  After dessert (which of course includes the birthday cake!) the bars reopen and the ceremonial parade ground becomes a dance floor, on which the metaphorical rug is cut to shreds in the hours that follow.  It is a birthday party, wedding, prom, and Sadie Hawkins dance all rolled into one, Marine Corps Style- and it is the best party you will likely every attend!  Just ask Justin Timberlake.

So that brings us back to my personal predicament.  November arrived after Halloween just as it always does, and with the approaching 236th birthday of the Marine Corps I was placed on the horns of a dilemma.  What ever would I wear?  It was a conundrum that I had not faced since high school!  Fashion choices…suits or tuxedo?  Haircut and uniform (which I could still do)?

The decision was further confounded by circumstance as I was honored to find myself invited to attend the 11th Marine Regiment’s Headquarters Battery Ball as the guest of honor.  Yikes!  I thought back to all of the balls that I had attended what they meant.  I had squired lovely ladies and escorted my bride in my Dress Blue and Evening Dress uniforms, and had broken chunks of ration cake with my fellow Marines in the field and on the decks of amphibious ships.  Those birthdays all shared one central theme in my life- that the day of celebration was a mile marker on the autobahn of my career.  This ball, however, fell as I left the highway and steered to the offramp, and somehow it didn’t seem right to wear my uniform.

So I followed the advice of Gentlemen’s Quarterly and purchased the evening clothes that I would wear that night, and indeed for every November 10th until they box me up and bury me somewhere at the end of my days.  So on this, my 27th consecutive celebration of the birth of the Marine Corps, I trade in the tradition of wearing the cloth of the nation for a new set of clothes.  As I depart the ranks serving Marines I join the citizenry of the nation I have defended for so long, and it seems somehow fitting to wear a Tuxedo to mark the occasion.

After all, you can’t wear your uniform forever and everybody likes a sharply dressed man!