My Old New Glasses

November 5, 2005

I’ve never been able to throw them away, the wire-rim glasses I bought in San Angelo, Texas, in 1969. I could never look at them without a pang, a rush of fondness, a smile for an old friend. So they have followed me for 36 years, through a succession of dresser drawers

When I joined the Air Force in 1968, my masters made it clear that they had regulations about appearance. Not only did they give us new clothes, right down to our underwear, they also gave those of us who required corrective lenses a new pair of eyeglasses, in regulation gray plastic frames that looked as though they’d been handed down by a very old uncle.

After Basic Training, at language school in Monterey, we were told we could wear civilian garb after 5 p.m. and on weekends, but it could not include bell-bottom pants, which, apparently, led to drugs. And the chain-of-command obsessed about our hair in the way fundamentalists obsess about sex. As if it was the key to the whole thing. The one real sin.

So our visible acts of rebellion were limited. But we looked for loopholes. One of my compatriots found that suspenders were legal, and immediately began sporting a set with his dress blues that made him look more like a banker than an enlisted man. I found two loopholes, both in San Angelo, Texas, where I was sent for Intelligence Training.

The first was handed to me by my DNA. My hair parted itself down the middle of my head. When I was growing up, a center part reminded everyone of Alfalfa from the Our Gang comedies. It said, “dweeb.” So for the first 21 years, I parted my hair on the side, in the fashion of the day. But Rock & Roll changed all that. Shoulder-length hair almost demanded a center-part. John Lennon parted his hair down the middle. So one Saturday afternoon in San Angelo, I did the same. There was nothing in the regulations about a center part. Plenty about the length of one’s hair, both maximum and minimum, what it could not touch and where it could not fall, but no clause about where a part might be. I was halfway there.

The second loophole was glasses. One could return to one’s civilian frames, or to new frames, if you had the money on $100 a month. I went to an optometrist in San Angelo and told him I wanted wire-rims. I was not completely at ease. I’d been fitted for my official Air Force glasses in Texas the year before, and the optometrist had shouted at me and called me a hippie wise-ass. But the civilian optometrist, perhaps the nicest man in San Angelo, smiled warmly and led me to a pair of silver wire-rims. It was love at first sight. Within a week, I had gone from being just another Airman to an unpromotable hippie who looked like he wanted to look like John Lennon — which I was and which I did.

A number of officers and NCO’s asked me where my official frames were, but I replied, respectfully, that we were allowed to wear our civilian frames. That usually ended it, but when necessary, I played my trump card. “Hap Arnold wore wire-rims,” I said.

Hap Arnold was the founder of the Air Force, and there was, I’d been told, a painting of him wearing wire-rims. Now, I have not been able to find a picture of Hap Arnold wearing glasses of any description, but just invoking his name was enough to stop an Air Force authority figure. And the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, really did wear wire-rims, although probably not to look like John Lennon.

I wore the silver wire-rims for many years, into civilian life, until a woman I wanted to impress told me I would look better in black wire-rim aviators, which I immediately bought, setting my silver pair aside.

But a few weeks ago, when I needed to change to a new eyeglass prescription and didn’t want to be without glasses for a week, the thought came to me that I might put my new lenses in a pair of frames I already owned. A pair sitting in my dresser drawer. My silver wire-rims.

My optometrist said, “Don’t break these, because they don’t make parts like these anymore.”

Minutes after I picked them up and put them on, a woman in a shop said I looked like Harry Potter. The next day, a co-worker said I looked like John Lennon. Ah, home at last.

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