Eternal Shoeshine Of The Spotless Kind

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the question arises for each of us: To dress properly, or not? To maintain one’s appearance, and deportment, and flair, or not? To continue to do what one does, what ones believe to be correct, even if no one else is looking?

We all know the correct answer. Standards are to be maintained precisely when it is difficult. No one disputes that moral standards must be maintained even if they are difficult, even if no one is watching. That is almost the point of having them at all. But standards of civility, or self-presentation, of dress, of grooming, though of less importance, are not to be despised or lightly dropped. These standards are the outward signs of our self-respect. They are the tangible manifestations of our personal identity. Such standards are a reflection of a certain ideal each one of us has for the world, an ideal which we can only aspire to, but never entirely reach.  

Militaries know this. Soldiers are placed under the most extreme possible stress. They suffer fatigue, hunger, confusion, danger, and they risk death or devastating injury in battle. Everything must be done in peacetime to strengthen the soldier for the time of testing, for the terror of battle, the hardships of the march and the field, the suffering of defeat, or the rigor of captivity. The wisdom of many centuries is that the soldier must believe himself to be a soldier, carry himself as a soldier, and present himself to the world as a soldier. And he must look like a soldier. That is no small thing. It is foundational to cohesion, to pride, to survival, to victory. In practice this means meticulous, even obsessive attention to the details. Countless men over the centuries, making weapons gleam, making boots shine, making trousers and tunics free of any wrinkle or stain, have grumbled and wondered what it all had to do with their real job. The older and wiser ones knew the answer.  

The massive armed conflicts of the Twentieth Century gave rise to many heroic and inspiring life-stories. One such story is that of Regimental Sergeant Major John Clifford Lord, of the British Army. His story may be read in a short biography “To Revel in God’s Sunshine.” John Lord was an exemplary leader and trainer of men. And he was legendary for always being immaculately turned out, and demanding nothing less from the men under his command. During the Second World War he held the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major. He parachuted into Holland with the 1st Airborne Division, the “Red Devils,” fought at Arnhem, was wounded, and was captured by the Germans. The portion of his career relevant to our current discussion occurred at that time.

What John Lord found in the German Stalag was a group of men who were demoralized, who were cold and hungry, and who felt themselves to be beaten. He took charge, and began to restore their pride. He imposed order on the British POWs. He insisted that their uniforms and appearance be as soldierly as possible under the circumstances. He held himself to the highest standard and led by example:

I made sure that my personal turnout was as good as I could possibly make it. Without missing, once every evening before the lights went out I cleaned my boots. We managed to get a small supply of polish. I placed my trousers between boards and slept on them to gain a crease. I ‘whitened’ my webb belt with German soap which we had for washing but rarely used because it was useless. There is little doubt that the men gradually tried to make the best of themselves, and their appearance improved over the months.

One captured British officer was in a room with twenty other POWs, and recalled:

We were all dirty and unshaven and in a various stages of dress and undress. The door opened and in came RSM John Lord, also a POW. He was dressed in immaculate battledress, trousers creased, and he had an arm supported in a snow white sling. Without a word he turned his head slowly to look at each individual in turn and then said in his brisk voice “Gentlemen, I think you should all shave!” He then turned about, stamped his foot and marched out of the room. The effect was electric. The motley group of officers, Infantry, Gunners, Engineers, stirred themselves and started to clean themselves up. It was an unforgettable experience.

Another tells this story:

He saw the condition we were in and knew that our morale was very low, so he set about to change all that. Initially our attitude was that as POWs we were finished with soldiering. Many men were walking the camp in an unshaven, dirty and dispirited state. When RSM Lord saw this he began to issue orders and everyone was formed into companies, with senior NCOs in charge. He managed to get a bugle so that orders could be sounded. He made us all shave even at the expense of sharing a razor blade between five or ten men! We were able to ‘blanco’ our gaiters with lime used for the ablutions.

RSM Lord even managed to establish a moral ascendency over the German guards:

Each morning he took the roll call parade, and if he saw any German soldier being idle he would scream at him – even though the man didn’t understand English! If a German soldier below his own rank spoke to him, he would make him stand to attention, and he had many of the German guards shaking in their jackboots.

Survivors of the Stalag later said that Lord’s discipline and organization saved many of their lives. Of course, we must not over-dramatize ourselves. What we have to face, being lightly and temporarily confined to our homes, is nothing at all compared to parachuting into occupied Holland, fighting the Germans, being wounded, getting captured, and spending a hungry winter behind barbed wire in unheated shacks. But we can still draw inspiration from RSM Lord. He kept his shoes shined, his pants creased, his face shaven, and his presentation impeccable, under appalling conditions. It was a matter of pride for himself, and an example to others. Should we insist on any less from ourselves?  — MICHAEL J. LOTUS

32 Comments on "Eternal Shoeshine Of The Spotless Kind"

  1. This made me think of Baudelaire’s 1865 essay on the dandy, which is likely not what you expect. His vision of dandyism was of Stoic reserver, self-imposed discipline, and elegance as a spiritual exercise.

    I thought in particular of this passage, all-caps added:

    A strange form of spirituality indeed! For those who are its high priests and its victims at one and the same time, all the complicated material conditions they subject themselves to, FROM THE MOST FLAWLESS DRESS AT ANY TIME OF DAY OR NIGHT to the most risky sporting feats, are no more than a series of gymnastic exercises suitable to strengthen the will and school the soul. Indeed I was not far wrong when I compared dandyism to a kind of religion. The most rigorous monastic rule, the inexorable commands of the Old Man of the Mountain, who enjoined suicide on his intoxicated disciples, were not more despotic or more slavishly obeyed than this doctrine of elegance and originality, which, like the others, imposes upon its ambitious and humble sectaries, men as often as not full of spirit, passion, courage, controlled energy, the terrible precept: Perinde ac cadaver!

    http://www.dandyism.net/baudelaires-the-dandy/

    I’ve read this essay for 28 years and have yet to tire of it.

  2. Charlottesville | April 21, 2020 at 11:28 am |

    Thank you, Mr. Lotus, for a well written and inspirational post. As you acknowledge, thank God we are not living under anything like the conditions John Lord endured, but there is much to be learned from his example. I have a friend who has been a sober alcoholic for decades and he says that one of the best lessons he learned in rehab was to make his bed every day. He still does.

    Treating oneself and others with respect can take various forms, but discipline vs. slovenliness, in mind as well as body, is a part of it. I am working at home today, shaved and dressed in a coat and tie as I would be for the office, but that is just me; I actually like to dress this way so it is no hardship. Most of my coworkers do not dress up much for work, and it would be silly for them to start now, but whatever one’s routine, it is a good thing to have one. I am as lazy as anyone else, and it was tempting to stay in bed this morning but, to the extent I am able, a bit of discipline does me good. And without a few resolute dressers up, we would not have the benefit of the delightful Selfie Quarantine pictures on this site.

  3. Michael J. Lotus | April 21, 2020 at 11:39 am |

    “Standards with a purpose = good. Standards for standards’ sake = bad.”

    Standards we choose for ourselves, for our own purposes = best of all.

  4. Michael J. Lotus | April 21, 2020 at 11:45 am |

    “To the extent I am able, a bit of discipline does me good.”

    True for all of us.

  5. Michael J. Lotus | April 21, 2020 at 11:52 am |

    “The most rigorous monastic rule, the inexorable commands of the Old Man of the Mountain …”

    Or the commands of the Regimental Sergeant Major that nothing less than the best will be accepted from each man, until each man has internalized that command and made it his own.

    I imagine that in the fathomless eternity of Heaven, where we may hope that a loving and forgiving God has found a place for both of them, RSM Lord and Charles Baudelaire will have had an interesting conversation, and compared notes on the finer points of deportment, poise, polished shoes, creased trousers, and personal discipline.

  6. Thank you. Excellent.

  7. Carmelo Pugliatti | April 21, 2020 at 1:34 pm |

    Well,in quarantine i stay at home as ever. I shave myself every day (as ever) and in home i dress with wool sweater, cotton shirt,corduroy trousers,old,cozy but clean desert boots (as ever).
    Is not discipline,is be civil.

  8. Outstanding post.

  9. john carlos | April 21, 2020 at 1:42 pm |

    Charlottesville- I’m all in when it comes to my routine especially when it comes to making up my bed. I do it every day without fail, including the weekend. Like you, I’m a lawyer and am in the office today (pretty much alone) trying to get some work done. However, I’m not in coat and tie. Today’s dress for me consists of L/S madras from O’Connell’s, R/L khakis, no socks with Quoddy boat shoes. Summer comes early to San Antonio. High temps are in the high 80’s to low 90’s these days.

  10. Charlottesville | April 21, 2020 at 2:11 pm |

    John Carlos – Good to hear from you. I always enjoy your comments. Your outfit sounds perfect for the warm Texas spring. In the upper 60s to 70 here with very blustery winds (estimated 35 to 40 mph gusts which is not unusual here at the foot of the Blue Ridge). Not sure of the indoor temperature at the moment, but my tweed sport coat and khakis are quite comfortable. I plan to go in to the office tomorrow, and I also will be pretty much alone.

    Carmelo – I hope you are safe and well in Italy. I had planned to wear a blazer tomorrow, but if the temps fall into the 30s (Fahrenheit) overnight as predicted, I may go with a Shetland crew-neck and cords like you.

  11. An excellent example of leadership, with illustrative anecdotes. Thank you.

  12. john carlos | April 21, 2020 at 3:04 pm |

    Charlottesville- Heck, I’m thinking about breaking out my Reds with a white OCBD on Friday. Forecast high temp is 95. And good to hear from you as well.

  13. Thank you Michael for a very interesting essay and for reminding us that we must not over-dramatize current conditions. RSM Lord had the right idea. We, in comparison, have only been lightly confined for a few weeks relatively speaking, so it seems almost incomprehensible when I see and hear people of various ages and stripes complaining about one thing or another in the news. How entitled and soft we have become in the decades since The Great Depression and WWII, when so many people around the world had to make do with far less for much longer and often under far worse circumstances. And that’s not even taking into consideration the sheer number of injuries and deaths endured by so many military personnel and civilians around the world. Oh, I get it. We’re disappointed if prom and graduation have been cancelled. We’re scared. We’re frustrated. In some instances, we disguise great anxiety with politically charged bluster. We may have lost our jobs, or been furloughed. We may have already lost loved ones to Covid-19. There is a lot we don’t know and cannot predict with any certainty. But, if we are not already sick and fighting the virus in bed, we can choose to exercise our respect for self and those around us. We can control how well we are personally turned out each day even in the privacy of home and family. Brushing our hair, teeth, shaving (if we don’t cultivate a beard and ‘stache), and tucking in our damn shirts might, just might work wonders for how we feel about ourselves, the world around us, and the stark choices now confronting us daily. Of course, it is clear that I am preaching to the choir here, but thank you for reading nonetheless.

  14. MacMcConnell | April 21, 2020 at 4:42 pm |

    Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke
    Well done.
    KC is “shutdown”, but lawyers and accountants got a pass. It’s tax season, so I’m exempt. Been going to the office everyday, I actually see very few clients since the “shutdown”. The only “hardships” I’ve encountered are lack of a haircut, no golf and my favorite restaurants are closed. The worst is not picking up my niece’s young children from school every wed. afternoon. We cocktail at Baskin Robins, shop and I generally corrupt them.
    I’ve decided to protest the situation by not wearing the same shirt till I’ve gone through all of them. I’m half way done.
    Today at the office I’m wearing tan 501s, Polo denim button down, Polo calvary belt and Naccona rough out western boots. It’s Kansas City for God’s sake. 😉

  15. john carlos | April 21, 2020 at 5:04 pm |

    MacMcConnell- Sounds familiar especially needing a haircut. Are you an Accountant? I’m curious b/c my youngest daughter is pursuing her Master’s in Accounting and has accepted an internship with Price Waterhouse. Your attire sounds perfect for Kansas City and here in San Antonio.

  16. PocketSquare | April 21, 2020 at 10:08 pm |

    Comb your hair ,brush your teeth, tie your shoes, tuck in your shirt, button your jacket, wave at your neighbors. You do it because you can and want to; NOT, because anyone tells you that you have too. Walking the dog around the block is a great excuse to throw on a sports jacket. We are examples of because not WHY?

  17. Today in Scottsdale AZ. A day off, employed in an essential profession. Scheduled at four days on and three off. The attire chosen. A long sleeve Alexander Julian long sleeve pinpoint button down shirt. ( sleeves rolled). Wearing also, slightly pleated, waking shorts and black bit loafers. It was a good day

  18. MacMcConnell | April 21, 2020 at 11:08 pm |

    john carlos
    I tend to wear what’s appropriate for who I’m seeing on any day. Today I met with a guy that cuts down trees. I seldom wear a suit unless I’m meeting at a bank or appearing in court, mostly tie and sport coat
    I have a small accounting business doing accounting, payroll and taxes. I not a CPA, never wanted to be. I had two older CPA frat brothers who were miserable, they were always on the road doing audits. They missed their wives, missed anniversaries and birthdays.
    I don’t mean to sound negative. You should be proud of your daughter, she should be proud of herself. I wish her well.

  19. Thank you, Mr. Lotus. Possibly the most inspirational piece read on this blog thus far. An article in the WSJ last week bemused that once life reopens in America, workers will have to find the moral strength to get back into their jeans in order to return to the office. Again, into their JEANS. In today’s America, even jeans are considered too far from the altar of comfort. We men hopefully will not know the trials of the brave subject of this story above, but we can do our part to add some degree of propriety to our society as it endures this current unpleasantness. And, Mr. Over Easy, who is this Mr. Mueller you reference? The name rings a bell, I think. He must have been something in his day.

  20. A chaplain of mine, an old Marine, said to me as I received a diploma: “Remember, son: God is watching. Closely. Always. And he’s the only audience that matters.”

    Worthy of repetition. Thus is some damned fine writing:

    “Standards are to be maintained precisely when it is difficult. No one disputes that moral standards must be maintained even if they are difficult, even if no one is watching. That is almost the point of having them at all. But standards of civility, or self-presentation, of dress, of grooming, though of less importance, are not to be despised or lightly dropped. These standards are the outward signs of our self-respect. They are the tangible manifestations of our personal identity. Such standards are a reflection of a certain ideal each one of us has for the world, an ideal which we can only aspire to, but never entirely reach.”

    Clothing/grooming as sacrament (“ A visible sign of invisible grace“). Hell yes.

  21. Gary Glazer | April 22, 2020 at 9:42 am |

    All of these comments are wonderful-we maintain basic standards of dress and hygiene because they matter to us-not because someone tells us what have.to do so. Common sense and reason govern-in good times and bad times. I could not help myself-just purchased a new pocket square online as I believe that better times will return eventually. Everyone be safe.

  22. john carlos | April 22, 2020 at 9:53 am |

    MacMcConnell- I agree with you when it comes to dress for work. I’m a lawyer for a small firm. The only time I wear a coat and tie is to meet with a client or be in court. What frat were you in? I was an SAE.

  23. whiskeydent | April 22, 2020 at 10:03 am |

    It’s eerie, particularly in the second photo, how similar RSM Lord looks like Alec Guiness in “Bridge on the River Kwai.” That movie is about how devotion to duty and discipline can be taken too far and lead one astray from the real war at hand. I’m not saying it applies to now, but let’s not get silly about this. Remember, William Holden’s character died heroically trying to destroy the beautiful bridge that Guiness and his soldiers had built.

  24. As far as the almighty altar of comfort goes, it has always amazed me how men can find a suit, or odd jacket and pants, dress shoes, and a necktie with a pressed shirt “uncomfortable.” If one’s various articles of clothing are correctly sized to one’s body and proportions, they are not uncomfortable. Could the oft heard complaint be more psychological in nature than physical?

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  25. Novio de la Muerte | April 22, 2020 at 12:20 pm |

    The Bridge on the River Kwai is a good movie, certainly. But it is also one big lie written by blacklisted Communist sympathizers. The actual British commander, and his enslaved troops, did all they could to delay and harass the Japanese. The deluded collaborator portrayed by Alec Guinness is a propaganda gimmick, with no basis in reality. The point of the movie was to show the idiocy of the military and the stupidity and mental weakness its officers, and it had to turn the truth on its head to convey this message. If you prefer actual history to the usual subversive leftist slander, look up Philip Toosey, the brave man who was defamed by Hollywood in the movie. You can start with The Colonel of Tamarkan by Julie Summers. Drawing substantive conclusions from the corrupted entertainment products purveyed by Hollywood should be avoided.

  26. Heinz-Ulrich

    Hear, hear.

    A pair of well fitting, i.e., not skinny, business suit (or odd) slacks are far more comfortable on an airplane, for instance, than binding jeans or even khakis, in my opinion. And they certainly look more professional under a blazer in the office or even with a dress shirt on top and no blazer. That is if worsted and not scratchy type of wool. Just don’t wear the jacket in your airplane seat or it will have horizontal creases the rest of the day. Fold it nicely inside out and lay on top of your roller bag up top, or else ask the attendant to hang for you if avail.
    [Although, having written that, there is perhaps a mental relaxation that comes with trading the biz slacks for khakis for the trip home.]

    Enjoy your blog also.

  27. MacMcConnell | April 22, 2020 at 2:40 pm |

    john carlos
    I was a Tau Kappa Everybody, think Animal House except we dress better.

  28. john carlos | April 22, 2020 at 2:54 pm |

    MacMcConnell- ah yes a movie from my youth and a very funny one at that. “Can we dance with your dates?”

  29. MacMcConnell | April 22, 2020 at 11:06 pm |

    Over Easy
    Senator McCarthy never investigated Hollywood, he hunted commies in government. He found them even though he was a barely functional alcoholic and exaggerated a lot. He was also Robert Kennedy’s daughters Godfather. Commie hunting was very popular for both parties.

    The House of Representatives not the Senate, investigated through the bipartisan House on Unamerican Activities Committee US Communist Party membership in Hollywood. Both Democrats and Republicans chaired the committee. It’s common knowledge that the CCCP controlled the CPUSA. So yes in the 1950’s and 60s it was a big deal.

    Now do Blacklisting in Hollywood today or in Academia or Facebook. Yes it’s against our founding values.

  30. Brilliant post; thanks.
    Standards such as those of the good RSM are useful. Full-stop; without the mincing barrack-room-lawyer distinction between ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ ones. As if a private was qualified to distinguish…

  31. MacMcConnell | April 24, 2020 at 11:53 am |

    I know too many retired military men that will tell you that the standards and discipline did transfer to civilian life. Most will tell you if changed their life for the better.

    I think the article tells us with discipline we will survive our present predicament. Generations that came before had it worse. It advises us to maintain our standards and to not go native.

    I need a haircut bad, almost this bad.
    http://ace.mu.nu/archives/covid%2020200424%2005.jpg

  32. Henry Contestwinner | April 24, 2020 at 6:46 pm |

    Why would people still defend McCarthy and HUAC? Perhaps because Communism is an existential threat to our way of life. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was funding operatives in the US to infiltrate and subvert our institutions; both Soviet and American documents that have become available since the Cold War substantiate this. There are also those who say that the Communist hunters have been demonized by leftists and their sympathizers; defenders of McCarthy/HUAC might be trying to set the record straight. Since the left has made a mountain of propaganda surrounding McCarthy/HUAC, perhaps their defenders seek to counter that propaganda.

    This is not to defend the excesses. McCarthy exaggerated and made false charges, and that was wrong. No level of good intentions can justify wrongdoing.

    Over Easy (great handle!) says he will “never understand people who defend the blacklist and McCarthy.” I guess I’ll never understand why people would defend those who wanted to destroy America (NB: I am not accusing Over Easy of this).

    P.S.: Over Easy opines that Communism “is known primarily for requiring artists to toe an ideological line or face purges.” Interesting take. To my mind, Communism is known primarily for murdering tens of millions of its countries own citizens; enslaving millions more; and oppressing all citizens, except for a tiny minority of elites.

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