Seeing man in charge in a new light

Posted Aug. 02, 2009, at 9:15 p.m.

While I was growing up, my Navy dad held a number of significant positions. He was the commander of a squadron, then of an aircraft carrier and later a carrier group.

I knew he was the boss for many, but he was just Dad to me. His position never stopped me from going up to him at official events, tugging on his shirt sleeve and asking, “Dad, can I please have 50 cents for the vending machine? Pretty please?”

Other people called him sir; I called him Dad or, when I was in trouble, “Daaaaaad.”

When I saw Dad in his uniform, I wondered what his co-workers would think about him mowing our grass on a Saturday afternoon in the same clothes he had worn since I was a baby (I think he must have had several sets): faded tan corduroy pants and a red VF-142 Diamondbacks T-shirt.

I wished all the people in Dad’s command could have seen him when he sat on my bike and broke it, or the time he tried to swing on my play set and plummeted with the rubber seat to the ground. Then there was his habit of taking a box emptied of soda cans and putting it on his head to be like a robot. My guess is that the peo-ple who worked with Dad would not know whether to laugh or look away if they saw these things.

There is something about a person who is in charge. Our perception of them is skewed by our position below them. And apparently it is the same way outside the military. At the gym, I take several classes from an instructor named Scott. One day, Scott’s wife was in class, and she commented on how different he seemed in that setting. I had assumed he always wore bike shorts, cycling shoes and racing shirts, even when he was at home with the kids on Sunday. In fact, was he ever in any other setting? Didn’t he live at the gym just as my teachers always lived at school?

I recently had the opportunity to view my own husband through this paradigm shift. Dustin is commander of the Reserve center in Bangor. That makes him the boss to people who work at the Navy Operational Support Center as well as the reservists who come there for drill weekend.

Last month, at the Navy’s recreation facility at Great Pond, Dustin’s command had a family preparedness event, where reservists and their families can get the information they need to be ready for deployment. I first watched with indifference as Dustin filled his role as commanding officer. He’s just Dustin to me.

Then, just like Scott’s wife at the gym, I looked at Dustin from a different perspective. It was as if someone had taken my husband and Photoshopped him into an exotic setting. I recognized his face and his clothes, but his demeanor was totally different. Was this the same person who tried to ride a 20-year-old Radio Flyer down a frozen hill this winter and was catapulted through the air until he pierced through a snowbank like a splinter?

It was a bit unsettling to see my husband of 10 years in a different way. Which is to say, it was unsettling to see him as someone who doesn’t need my help.

Then came Wednesday. My neighbor Tony and I were standing in the backyard watching our kids play when Dustin, who had been at work all day, appeared in the back doorway. His smile was ear to ear. He had all the giddy eagerness of a young child who is about to tell his parents good news. As he came out from behind the partial veil of the screen door, I noticed that he had already changed into civilian clothes and was wearing shorts with ankle socks — and Crocs.

“Now I can be cool like you guys,” Dustin said. He stuck his left foot out for us to see. “I bought myself some Crocs today.”

Tony was speechless. I was confused. The Crocs on Dustin’s feet were Mary Janes, or the female version of the popular sandal, with one strap across the top and a shortened, rounded toe.

“Is that a joke?” I asked.

Tony still hadn’t found words.

Once we had squared it all away — that men’s Crocs only have one strap in the back and that Dustin had actually bought himself a pair of women’s shoes — I realized that Dustin is still Dustin no matter what uniform he wears.

And I wondered, if his co-workers had been there, would they have turned away or laughed?

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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