Out of the Blue of the Western Sky

by Major Doug O’Brien – 

“Out of the blue of the Western sky…” I was probably 6 or 7-years old when I heard that phrase for the first time. It was the introduction to a 1950s television show about Sky King and his daughter Penny. The show had the drama of a western and the interest of a high tech show. In this show, Sky King owned and flew his own plane. Planes were still a novelty in the ’50s. People dressed up just to go to the airport, and put on a jacket and tie to ride the plane.

I lived in San Francisco then. It was an international city with great food, world-class sights and the pungent smells of ethnic neighborhoods tucked tightly beside the sophisticated shops of Maiden Lane and Union Square. I remember watching chauffeurs open the doors of their parked limousines when their white-gloved matrons returned from shopping.

In the days of suits and ties and white gloved matrons, Salvationists wore midnight blue stand-up collar tunics. Diane and I still have the ones we got married in hanging in a closet somewhere. Probably not many people remember that we didn’t always wear a white shirt and tie under those tunics. If there was free time between meetings, people would take their tunics off, or unbutton them, and all kinds of shirts would appear: cheap T-shirts, bold print shirts, or sometimes tacky shirts with logos.

I don’t really miss that hard plastic collar in those stand-up tunics. Now I’ve got midnight blue lapel tunics, but I wear fatigue uniforms most of the time. I’ve heard that the officers in some territories are moving to some kind of uniform blazer. The kids there are already wearing a kind of uniform sweatshirt.

For as long as I can remember, people have been talking about their uniforms—what they have to wear and when they have to wear it. Following a Sunday when cadets were visiting a local corps, the hot topic was whether or not the ladies should have taken off their hats during Sunday school.

I suppose change is inevitable. The white gloves in Union Square have come off. People don’t need to wear a jacket and tie to ride a plane. Maybe we’re ready to get rid of our blue tunics altogether—really get out of the blues in the Western sky.

But I think questions of when and where we wear uniform are less important than why we wear them. We have respect in the community because of the self-sacrificing work of officers and soldiers over the years. When my dad was a young officer, there were times when he didn’t have enough money to buy the Sunday paper. Officers paid the bills at the corps before they took their allowances because the mission had priority on their lives. The uniform was great—they didn’t need a closet full of clothes, and they didn’t ever worry about what to wear.

I think our Salvation Army uniforms are still a good thing. But I’m anxious when issues about uniforms are cosmetic and superficial. I heard a complaint once that the colors of the uniform were “unflattering”—black and white gave this woman a “washed-out” look. I’ve heard the comment that people—especially kids—don’t want to wear a uniform, as if uniform wearing were a cultural heritage of our Victorian past. I laughed at a recent youth council when I noticed that all the leaders in my row were wearing their uniform of choice: jeans and tennis shoes. My kids want to wear the same clothes the other kids wear, have their hair cut the way the other kids do, and they use the same distinctive phrases when they talk to each other. They’re wearing uniforms, all right.

Our Salvation Army culture used to be one that emphasized a dedicated, simple lifestyle where personal preferences were set aside for the cause of Christ. The uniform was one of the ways that gave witness to our mission and culture – we were not a people chasing after fashion; we were a people who chose to live simply. We agreed on a uniform that was distinctive—that would immediately call attention to ourselves—because we wanted to witness for Christ. The uniform I wear still works that way. People still initiate conversations with me because I’m in my uniform and I have a chance to talk about the difference Christ has made in my life.

Perhaps people who are always looking for an opportunity to take the uniform off—claiming it is unfashionable or irrelevant—don’t share my vision of Army culture. We are a people of discipline and simplicity—or at least we were once.

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