They’re not garter belts. They’re shirt stays. They’re used to keep your shirt tucked in, and are sold in every uniform shop in the world. The only problem is, to everyone else, they look an awful lot like garter belts.
The worst possible moment for a shirt stay to come loose is during your first appearance as a new Commanding Officer, standing in front of the entire command. This I know.
It was the moment I had worked my entire career for – at long last, after years of toil, I had reached the pinnacle of my career, and all that remained was the ceremonial Command Inspection. As I approached the formation, I thought of all the long hours, the countless shipmates who shaped me and helped me get to this point. I wondered what my legacy would be.
“Command is standing by for your inspection, sir.” I raised my arm to salute, the pride swelling within me, and…
I felt it. The unmistakable release of tension when a shirt stay comes loose.
“NOT NOW!” The strap had come loose from my shirt and shot like a rubber band down my leg, gathering in a heap at the top of my foot, just out of sight. In another moment, it would be trailing behind me like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe.
This was like the Homecoming Queen tripping on her gown. Like the groom fainting during his wedding vows. Like the movie star walking the red carpet with his fly undone. My legacy was going to be written on day one! They wouldn’t call me “Old Ironsides”, or “Old Spit and Polish”, or even “The Old Man.” They’d call me “Old Garter Belt.”
In an instant, my auto-protection mechanisms kicked in. Buried deep within our subconscience is a little-known reflex that says, “If a shirt stay comes loose, lift up your toes.” (Apparently, back when we were Neanderthals, this kept us from being eaten by saber-toothed tigers.) Up went my toes, and to my relief, the wad of strap held. I discovered that if I kept my leg straight and my toes pointing up, it would stay there. To accomplish this, I had to walk on my heel, somewhat resembling Chester in Gunsmoke. But given the alternative, I could live with that.
I concentrated on that foot like I had never concentrated on anything before. It took all my senses to keep the elastic balanced just right – I fought through left-faces, right-faces, leg cramps. But I was determined to keep that strap out of sight. What the Sailors saw as steely resolve in the limping Skipper’s eyes was resolve all right – the resolve not to become “Old Garter Belt”…at least not on my first day.
In the end, I made it and nobody noticed except maybe the Master Chief, who never said anything about it. But as I reflect on that, his shirt always seemed to stay tucked in.