By Norris Burkes April 21 2024

Whenever I meet fellow veterans, we’ll often engage in some good-natured ribbing. I set up the first joke by announcing that I’m an Air Force vet, which inevitably invokes the response, “Oh, you mean you’re a ‘Chair Force’ vet.” 

I understand that nickname because Air Force members occupy a lot of chairs doing heavily technical work in places like the Space Force and Cyber Command.

I first met those seat-techies in 1994 while on my first active-duty assignment at Onizuka Air Force Station in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Declassified that same year, Onizuka was dubbed the “Blue Cube” because of its shape, color and lack of windows. Outside the cube, sat three parabolic dish antennas that the chair jockeys in blue jumpsuits used for “flying” military satellites.

A few miles away, I sat in a chair in our chapel offices on Moffett Field, a Navy base acquired by the Air Force that same year. My workday often included planning worship, counseling and meeting with our staff.

In these days before 9/11, chaplains, like most military officers, wore  a simple uniform of sky-blue shirt anddark-blue Poly/Wool pants that resemble blue Dockers. We called the ensemble our “Blues.” Add the rank, name tag and a Protestant cross, and I became an instant chaplain.

It was the same uniform I’d worn for monthly weekend duty as a USAF Reservist, so I quickly mastered the routine for daily wear.  We had no one inspecting us for proper haircuts, uniforms or shoe shining. We were all friends and “trusted professionals.”

With a 7:30 a.m. daily start, I’d often suit up in my darkened bedroom on summer mornings, leaving the exhausted mother of our four children asleep.

Early one morning I decided to bypass office work to make a few visits around the cube. I walked through classified work areas introducing myself and giving an encouraging word. I returned to the office before lunch with a feeling that I had done some good chaplain-type work.

“Good,” that is until I was greeted by Janet, our chapel manager and Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC).

Janet was a law-and-order manager, good with regulations and policies. She had a sharp eye for detail that helped her chaplains stay sharp too.

I knew something was up when she asked, “What are you wearing today, Chaplain?”

Her question sent me inspecting my shirt for uneaten breakfast.

“Look farther down,” she said.

Forget the friendly “Chair Force.” I was beginning to feel like a recruit standing before his drill instructor.

Finally, unable to hold her snicker, she said, “Those can’t be your uniform pants.”

“Why?” I asked, still staring at my well-creased blue pants.

“They look more like Levi Dockers® than official Air Force Blues.”

Suddenly I was the picture of patriotism – a red face on a white man wearing blue pants.

She was right. In my haste to dress in my darkened room, I’d donned my Levi’s Ultimate Chino Straight Fitinstead of my Air Force Poly/Wool pants.

There’s no telling how many airmen on my morning rounds noticed Dockers on their new chaplain. But just like the people in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” they’d said nothing.

But the sergeant, like the little boy of the story, was the only one brave enough to call out her proud chaplain for his “nakedness.”

I tried minimizing my mistake with the adage, “No one’s perfect. We all put our pants on one leg at a time.”

“Still,” she said, “Perhaps chaplains ought to heed the Jesus protocol and ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (Matthew 5:48).

But, but…” I stammered as she reloaded.

“And I think even Jesus might tell you that perfection begins with first choosing the right pants.”

And with that, I returned home to change pants. Obviously, my argument no longer had a leg to stand on.


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