Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Longest Night

In splitting up the events from Saturday's Halloween party into two parts, I hope I haven't oversold the second half. In hindsight, it was a simple misunderstanding without any serious consequences. It just created an uncomfortable few hours that kind of stuck with me for an extra day or so. I had been invited to the party on short notice by the woman from the night of my speed dating adventure. I hadn't planned on needing an outfit for Halloween this year, so without enough time to come up with a new idea, I had to grab an old costume out of mothballs. As I came to find out later on that night at this particular party, it might have been better in the long run if I had left it there.

A little backstory--since high school, I've been fascinated about military history, particularly World War II. I was particularly drawn to the book 'Band of Brothers', which followed a single company of paratroopers from their training through the end of the war. They jumped into France on D-day, were surrounded in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, liberated a concentration camp in Germany, and helped capture Hitler's Eagle Nest in Austria. What struck me the most was that these were 17-19 year old kids from all walks of life who had volunteered to be part of this experimental unit. When I was that age, I thought getting through high school and working part-time delivering pizzas for Domino's was a big burden. These kids stepped out of airplanes into darkness over Normandy with anti-aircraft shells bursting all around them and thousands of German troops waiting below. I was and remain in awe by what courage that must have taken, and wondered what I would have done in that situation if I had lived in those times.

Back in the 90's, I decided one year that I was going to recreate one of their uniforms as authentically as possible for Halloween. Historical re-enactments are apparently a big business, so finding the bits and pieces of the clothing and equipment was pretty easy (and a little expensive...). But in the end, I had the original uniform, leather jump boots, specific patches, and other little touches to try to make it as authentic as possible. The uniform even had a cloth patch of the U.S. flag with only 48 stars sewn on, because Hawaii and Alaska didn't become states until after the war. I had received a lot of compliments at the time when I first wore the costume--of course the guys thought it was cool and wanted to know if the hand grenades were real. And I got more than a little attention from some of the single women--the uniform definitely gave me a leg up over the guys who had come to the party dressed as Mr. Spock.

I hadn't worn the costume in years, but since I had to come up with something quickly, and this didn't sound like a party where you could get away with wearing something half-assed, I dug the unform out of storage. My date had also been unable to come up with a good idea up to that point, so we decided that she would go as my French Underground contact (inspired by a scene in the Hollywood movie, 'The Longest Day', which is all about the events of D-day.) The main attraction for her was that the costume simply required her to wear all black. She went out and bought a french beret, and the finishing touch was a red scarf tied around her neck, which was one of the secret signals that the resistance used to identify each other.

It was raining heavily on the night of the party, and parking is a nightmare around South Street, so I dropped her off at the front door and had to circle around the block for 10 minutes until I could find a spot. As I mentioned in the previous post, I didn't know the hosts or any of the other guests at the party, but I've never had a problem meeting people and finding something in common to talk about with complete strangers for a few hours. I opened up the door, shook off the rain, and stepped into the entrance.

The first people that I encountered were dressed as 60's counter-culture hippies, which I see now was an obvious omen. They both had psychedelic bell-bottom pants, mohair vests, and 4-inch peace symbols dangling from their ears. As soon as I walked in through the doorway, the rest of the people in the room turned their heads to see who the latest arrival was.

In the movie version of that moment, a record needle would scratch along the entire length of some Joan Baez protest album as the conversation stopped on a dime. I smiled at everyone generally, and started to scan the room for my date. I was puzzled by the couple of glares that some people started giving me, followed by others purposefully avoiding eye contact. I checked to make sure that my fly wasn't open, or that I hadn't tracked mud into the room, and then made my way towards the back of the house where I eventually met up with my 'contact'. It became very clear that something was going on, from the looks of disdain that I continued to notice. There were long, uncomfortable silences as I offered to pour a drink for someone standing next to the bar, or while I was waiting in line outside of the bathroom. Slowly it began to dawn on me the reason for their reaction. A couple of the younger, drunker guys at the party began to point at my costume and go "Hey--Desert Storm," or "Look out, he's on the hunt for Bin Laden!" Everyone was assuming (understandably, in hindsight) that my uniform was supposed to represent a modern soldier, and the reaction that I was experiencing from the majority of the guests (none of whom knew me) was because they assumed that I was advocating some blatant, in-your-face support of our policy in Iraq. There is hardly any resemblance between the army uniforms of 1944 and 2005, but I can see now that it's a distinction without a difference for someone who isn't familiar with the historical context.

The whole situation grew more uncomfortable over time. If this had been a bunch of my friends, or even casual acquaintances, I would have gotten everyone's attention and cleared up the misunderstanding at once. But since no one was actually confronting me or giving me a verbal opportunity to respond to the group as a whole, I would've only made a bigger ass out of myself if I had interrupted the party to make an announcement to a room full of strangers explaining the meaning behind my costume. So I decided to hang out in the kitchen where the food and drinks were located while I thought about the best way to clear things up.

I did begin to establish a small beachhead with two of the members of the crowd. Paul, and his partner David, were neighbors of the hosts and were dressed as the Phantom of the Opera and some other theatrical character that I wasn't familiar with. The matching black capes seemed to be the unifying theme between the two outfits. Paul made an effort to compliment me in a friendly tone on the detail that went into my costume, and I explained to him the meaning behind it. It turns out that his father had been a glider pilot in World War II. I had read several books about their part in the war, and knew that they had an extremely high casualty rate. He seemed pleasantly surprised when I showed a genuine interest in hearing more, and you could tell that he enjoyed recalling and sharing the stories that his father had told him about his experience in the war.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, one of the guests started playing music on her guitar at the front of the house. I was grateful for the shift of attention in the party towards someone other than me for a change. I made my way into the living room and hung back towards the edge of the crowd. At one point during a short break between songs, I saw the woman dressed in the hippie outfit walk up to Paul and start talking to him. Her back was to me, and I couldn't hear what she was saying, but at one point she looked back over her shoulder and shot a derisive look in my direction. Since Paul was facing me, I could see him lean in and say, "Oh no, he's a World War II paratrooper, and that's his French resistance partner." She turned more fully around as she looked back in my direction, and I could see her eyes deliberately scan up and down my costume. The effect on her was immediate. Her face softened, her shoulders relaxed, and I could see her say, "Oh, I get it now." She shifted her gaze over to my date and smiled as she took in her outfit. "That's pretty clever."

Unfortunately, there wasn't time for Paul to become my peace envoy and help bring about an armistice with the remainder of the guests. As soon as the impromptu performance ended in the living room, the party started to wind down. We quickly thanked the hosts and I walked back to get the car. I had never been the focus of such a negative reaction from so many people, and I was a more than a little put off by it. I explained all this to my date, and decided to just drop her off at her home. That strange feeling stayed with me throughout the next day.

I don't go around intentionally trying to offend people, and when that does happen, I try to make up for it right away. So it was such a strange feeling to suddenly find myself the focus of practically an entire house full of people looking at me with antipathy-a kind of walking party pariah whose very appearance was a constant faux-pas. Of course that's an exaggeration, but at the time it definitely felt a little weird. One of things that I had discovered from performing improv is that it is a huge thrill for me to stand before a room full of strangers and hear laughter because of something that I've said. And one of the things that makes creating this blog worth it for me is that it gives me the opportunity to (hopefully) make somebody smile or crack up over something I've written. The reaction that I inadvertently created from the people at the party was the complete opposite of the thing that I make an effort to bring about.

Over the course of yesterday and today, I had a chance to think about all of this and work through the weird feeling that had hung around. I realized that, in the scheme of things, it was a pretty minor event, and one that is kind of funny once I removed myself from the situation a little bit. I didn't post this topic to make any kind of statement about individual politics or open a broader debate about Iraq, and I'm not trying to blame the people at the party for overreacting or excuse myself from being a little culturally tone-deaf in light of what's going on today in the world. It was a simple misunderstanding on both parts, and I hesitated about even writing about it at all. But I decided that this blog should include some of the things that affect me in even the smaller, more subtle ways. I thought that some people might be able to relate to finding themselves in a situation where they've created a negative reaction in another person (or a house full of people) through no intent of their own.