Stitches in Time

Place thread spool on retainer and pull thread through top tensioner than down through the center tensioner before placing the thread between the tensioning plates of the adjustable tensioner, Then feed thread through slacking arm while feeding it through the thread guide and then threading the needle front to back. The slacking arm must be in the raised position as should be the foot, as this will cause the needle to be raised and accessible for threading.  Manually rotate the machine through a stitch cycle and this should engage and raise the free end of the bobbin thread, making the machine ready to sew. Please see Chapter 6 for programming information on stitch patterns.  I read this paragraph three times, looking at the sewing machine in front of me and wishing the manual had pictures. I finally set the little book down and stared at the machine and thought to myself, “If I were a thread, where would I go?”

Thank God for army training, my instincts proved correct because after manipulating my tongue from one side of my mouth to the other, the machine appeared ready to sew. I ran some test fabric through it and was delighted to find that it sewed very nicely. Good old army. The number of skills I got from my four years of active duty are still giving me an edge over situations which could end up intimidation filled failures. The army taught me about sewing machines during parachute rigger school. I spent six weeks in Fort Lee, VA learning how to sew ripstop nylon and nylon webbing. I also learned such complex skills as grommet installation.

The army had two different sized sewing machines. One was a heavy duty version of the Singers that graced many homes back in the 50s and 60s. The other was a behemoth that looked more like a pile driver than a sewing machine. We called it the Chompin’ Mother, and at least one person in every class managed to put the ten penny nail sized needle through a finger by virtue of a moment of inattention. It was used to sew the thick nylon webbing used for strapping on cargo parachutes. However it was equally adept at sewing two pieces of 16th inch steel plate together, as our instructors would gleefully demonstrate. A guy in our class managed to sew his middle and ring fingers together with it, the thread now tied neatly in the middle of the penetrated bones.  But the majority of my military use of sewing machines was with that rip stop nylon, which is lousy stuff to try to sew. It is slippery and wants to bunch up as you sew, and … uh, never mind. I learned to sew in the army, that’s all.

Anyway, it was kind of deja vu, sitting in a pool of light in my darkened room as I was stitching on an army jungle fatigue jacket. I bought a complete jungle fatigue uniform for a costume party, having decided to go as a wounded soldier. It made great camouflage for the wheelchair I’m stuck in. Anyway, the jacket was without any decorations or patches and so I had to put the US Army tape on it, along with my Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Rigger Wings, and Jump Wings. I also had to put a 101st Airborne Screaming Eagle on the left shoulder and an 82nd Airborne Double A on the right. This is actually an authentic representation. Anyway, sewing the patches on made me think about other times patches were sewn to my uniforms. Sometimes at a PX, sometimes by needle and thread done by me, and sometimes sewn by an old Vietnamese woman, a mama-san, in a little streetside booth.

When I got to Vietnam and was moving through Camp Alpha, it was an old woman in a booth who sewed my name tape and my division patch on my brand new jungle fatigues. I remember thinking how cool I thought the new threads were, what with their slanted breast pockets and the thigh pockets large enough to carry a small car. I even thought the jungle boots were cool looking, a kind of combination of boot and hi top sneaker. It was so different from what I was used to, and it had a quality of reinforcing that I was really there, really in the tropics, far away from home. It’s not like there weren’t other indicators, like the tremendous heat and the way so many people were carrying around so many different guns.  When I got up to Phan Rang, the division base, I remember the group of us newbies standing around the armorer’s hootch. This guy was so pissed because I was given a shoulder holster and a .45 caliber automatic along with an M-16. They handed the pistols out to us because we would do air crew work, plying our trade of aerial delivery. Anyway, I had to listen to him complain and try to talk me into letting him try it out, as if he could just step outside and plink off a few rounds. He wasn’t a rigger though, and so we parted company quickly, with me heading off to the rigger compound on the far side of Tan Son Nhut airport, back south in Saigon.

Anyway, here I am now, looking at this uniform and feeling a rush of memories like the wash of a flash flood. So many images, so many thoughts. It somehow shortens the forty-six year span between now and then, yet also doesn’t. In many ways it’s still distant and mist enshrouded, and what I do see a jumble. Like Picasso painted my memories or something. But the thing that stands out the most is the sense of anticipation. There was always a heavy sense of anticipation and excitement when I had patches sewn on my uniforms. They always meant change, and here all this time later, that’s the sense that stands out the most as I reminisce those times.

Even today, as I apply these patches, there is a sense of anticipation and change. The costume party is my son’s wedding reception. And that too causes a whole set of memories to rush at me as I blink at the snapshots my mind displays to me, showing me my children as they grew and became adults. I see their first steps and hear their first words, I see them in their school recitals and playing sports. I see their evolution in a quick moving time lapse. It’s funny how some things can be such exquisite triggers of memory. Uniform patches. Who’da thought they could be so deep?