Julia and I traded slots. She got mine last week, so I get hers this week. If you’re looking for Julia, come back next Monday.
I never know what I will pull out of the memory bag on Remembrance Day. Some memories are more pleasant than others. This year I got lucky. What came out was a San Antonio icon: Sugarman’s uniforms.
Most people, if they thought about it at all, would assume that the Army provided new nurses with uniforms.
Not true. The Army did issued us a duffle bag full of goodies: stiff white cotton work uniforms for Stateside hospital duty; green fatigues for Vietnam; 3 sets of woolen fatigues—keep in mind we were doing basic training in Texas, in August—just in case our orders were for Korea or Alaska instead of Vietnam, and two set of lightweight, green gabardine summer uniforms.
But we had to buy our Class A’s and dress uniforms, and that involved a rite of passage, spending the afternoon at Sugarman’s. It was more than a store, it was an institution. Common sense says it couldn’t have been in a basement, but memory tells me it felt like a basement. The place was piled with boxes. Shoe boxes. Glove boxes. Hat boxes. Racks of Army green, pure white, and black uniform jackets and skirts.
Army green for Class A’s, our ubiquitous officer’s uniform, the one that said, “I am Army.” Dazzling white dress uniforms for those nurses being assigned to a tropical country, and black dress uniforms for those of us who weren’t. White shirts with a little collar accent. White gloves for summer; black leather gloves for winter. Two hats—one green and one either white or black, depending on which dress uniform you were getting—both with a bit of gold braid and a heavy, gold-plated Army crest on it.
The shoes and the purses! Next to the white Army nurses’s hospital duty cap, which never sat well on anyone’s head, the uniform items we groaned over the most were the purses. The Class A purse was black leather, with a shoulder strap, a fold-over flap and a little gold clasp. It looked like something our grandmothers would carry. At least the dress purse, a clutch bag, was smaller and could be discretely hidden by putting our hand behind our back. The shoes? “Pumps, leather, black, 1” heel, exclusive of ornamentation,” Army-talk for plain.
The people at Sugarman’s were amazing. Every six weeks they clothed an entire basic class. You could see them eyeballing our measurements as we walked in the door. Pick a jacket and skirt off the racks, into the dressing rooms, then out came the tape measures. Zip. Sleeves to be this long. Zip. Skirts to be this long. Chalk whipped over the sleeve caps or down the sides to mark the alterations, then fill out a form, tuck it with your clothes, and “It will be ready for you next Tuesday.”
And then the line up for the accessories. “Hat size?” Two hats go into the bag. “Glove size?” Two pair of gloves into the bag. “Try on shoes over there.” A pair of shoes into the bag. If you didn’t know your hat or glove size, the tape measure came out again, this time around your head. “Is this the way you plan to wear your hear, dear? If you’re going to get a hair-cut tell me now.”
Finally, with our bags stuffed to bulging, we wrote checks. Three hundred and some odd dollars. Our price for being officers.
But, oh, when next Tuesday rolled around! Plastic bags full of brand new uniforms were delivered to our quarters. We put them on, we primped, we laughed, we groaned, and we stood a little taller, realizing that we were now real-live, honest-to-goodness U.S. Army officers.
Dress uniform, Graduation day, 1969, Fort Sam Houston, Texas