“Does anyone know how to tie a tie?” the Petty Officer asked.
The room was silent as a few hands rose up in various speeds of confidence. I kept my hand down out of fear he’d call me up to demonstrate in front of the rest of recruits.
Knots are a part of a sailor's life. Only seldom are they not rope-related.
It didn’t come as a surprise that one of the skills I’d have to know when I joined the Navy was how to do a proper Four in Hand knot. Every enlisted recruit was given a black tie to be worn with the winter service uniform.
It was easy to see why it was nicknamed the “Johnny Cash” uniform. The dark blue long-sleeved buttoned shirt, slacks and tie fit right in with a Man in Black-type style that you wouldn’t figure to be government-issued duds.
The few ties I wore before boot camp were tied only once and kept that way permanently. It worked for me to just loosen and tighten them as needed. This was perfectly fine for a high school teen, but not for a newly enlisted sailor.
Dinner had ended not long before we were gathered in the barracks to watch our Recruit Division Commander (RDC) take off his tie for a lesson on dressing ourselves. Slowly he demonstrated the maneuvers necessary for the Four in Hand. Seemed simple enough to me. We watched him measure it from memory to settle just above polished metal buckle on his waist. It was easy for him. He was a 1st class Petty Officer with years of experience below his belt. This was new for the rest of us. Most of the division were barely older than myself, and few looked like they’d never had a reason to wear a tie.
He finished his guidance and left it to us to figure out. We stood in front of our racks next to our bunkmates and did our best to make proper ties. Slowly I got the hang of the knot, but each was different. It was either too long, too short, or too small around the neck. Any one of these would have sufficed before my Navy days.
A few minutes of practice was all we got before the RDC screamed at us to prepare for a winter service uniform dress inspection. I can still hear the collective sigh as he told us we’d have only a minute to be completely dressed. My mind raced trying to remember each step of the knot and where I had failed before in trying to get it to fall in the precise length.
We put the uniforms neatly back into the coffin chests located under our beds. They wouldn’t remain there long. Each recruit stood at attention only in a white cotton shirt and blue multi-use shorts.
The RDC gave the order to begin and started his countdown from sixty.
The simplest things in life become some of the hardest under pressure. Especially dressing yourself from head to toe. We scrambled as he walked down the line of bunks counting faster and faster. I could hear the recruit next to me muttering “shit” over and over to himself before the Petty Officer abruptly appeared.
“There’s no fucking cursing in boot camp!” he yelled. “Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.”
The last anchor embossed button was in place and the tie was on my shoulders. My hands were on their own as I crossed, pulled, and looped it around knowing this was the only try I’d get to do it right.
I fixed the knot as best as possible without a mirror. With the last few seconds I looked down and saw the tip an inch too long.
“Attention on deck!”
My back stood as straight as possible hoping it would line the tie in the perfect position.
It was interesting to see how my fellow recruits fared. Most of them made admirable efforts that passed inspection without much fuss. Some of them didn’t even try to tie the knot, perhaps out of fear of strangling themselves in a hurried attempt. They were each given a thorough ass-chewing and made to do eight-count push-ups until he was satisfied.
The RDC approached slowly from my periphery. He took his time with me. Silently judging inch by inch. His eyes eventually met my thousand-yard stare.
“You need a shave,” he said and moved along.
Finally I could relax for a moment. It was a small victory, not without flaws, but still a battle won. I still blame his nitpicking partly for doing an inspection so late in the day. My five o'clock shadow was inevitable.
That was the last and only time I was expected to put on a tie under such pressure. Though over the years I’ve had enough practice that I could - if it was necessary for some unthinkable reason.
A little over a year later the “Johnny Cash” uniform was replaced with a new khaki short sleeve top (sans tie) that could be worn year-round.
It wasn’t until I joined civilian life that I took that black tie out of my sea bag. My name and last four digits of my service number are still stamped in faded white in the back. This was the cornerstone of the tie collection that I have today, which has grown quite a bit.
Now every day I get ready for work, I recall that tested moment and standard issue black tie that has a special place near my heart.