The army surplus myth
For many years, since my teens and continuing until today, I have liked to browse army surplus stores. It’s fun. In high school I used to wait for chances to get to downtown Toronto for that purpose because Guelphhad no such businesses. (It still doesn’t, either.) For many years I bought combat boots there. Today I still favor heavy boots as my daily footwear: an affectation that enhances my cultivated image. Long ago I settled on black, steel toed work boots/biker boots, because I like to think that I could kick the shit out of someone if I had to (I haven’t had to - yet); plus, my toes are safe from being run over by out-of-control cars, heavy, hoofed animals, and other acts of fate. And, I don’t have to sidestep rain puddles like so many pansies on the streets, but can bravely stomp straight through them with machismo. Finally, I can wear them in all seasons - deep winter snow with thick woolen socks, or on the hot and steamy summer time pavement.
The army surplus store was my first foray into bootwear. But I looked for other clothing there as well. I especially liked heavy jackets or tunics/blouses/fatigues with large side pockets - you know, the stereotypical U.S. Army olive green that you used to see on MASH and in so many other war films. I still favor coats or jackets with large pockets because I need them for carrying novels, or newspapers, or my CD player. With the exception of suits for formal occasions, the majority of my clothes shopping is/has been aimed at extra-large clothing - things that drape loosely on my frame rather than exactly fitting me. First, because they are more comfortable. Second, because they conceal my true physique thus contribution to my privacy as well as to my affected character. Third, a corollary of number two, because the appearance of extra-large sizes helps me hide. (People look at me, but they don’t see me, which is just fine.)
But I have a problem with army surplus stores in Japan. I search here for my preferred large-pocket, over-sized jackets, but I cannot find anything that fits. That’s not how it should be. Army surplus in Canada overflows with all manner of available gear. But the clothes in Japanese stores - mostly European surplus, from countries like France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, and Scandinavia - are consistently too small for my frame. It’s not that I am fat. Not a bit of it, because even the blouses, battle dresses and fatigues marked “LL,” meaning extra large, are a tight, uncomfortable fit. So this has led me to suspect that these goods are not true army surplus from European military, but instead, are deliberately manufactured clothes for the Japanese market and the Japanese physique, with faux-military insignia and markings added for style. (I have written before about the difficulty of buying jeans here, because the largest adult male waist size for sale is usually 32-inches - too small for me and more like a Canadian junior high school boy’s waist than an adult man’s.)
If I could find casual clothes there that I liked and that fit me I might still be disposed to buying at or browsing through an army surplus store. But the thing is that I am less enamored than I was as a younger man not just because of the problems of finding the right size. It is more and more apparent that better fitting clothes, better looking clothes, and better functioning clothes can better be found at conventional commercial shops. Not only that, it’s not just the military garb (including the boots) but also the military equipment itself that doesn’t really cut it. Civilian equipment - vehicles, aircraft, camping gear, and even firearms from commercial sources are better than military ones or, at least, the goods offered in army surplus stores which are advertised as “military surplus.” Oh, sure, military equipment is made to kill and destroy and looks tough. Second World War B-17 or B-29 bombers looked like fantastic aircraft so long as you did not see what contemporary civilian aircraft looked like. It’s a shock when you realize that when a quarter of a million airmen were dying in European skies in those marvelously functional, stripped down and armored up war beasts, civilians back in the States flew larger and more comfortably appointed machines that made the military hardware look like pieces of junk. Jeeps seemed tough. But did you ever actually ride one? You have to be Hercules to survive the experience. Today Humvees, F-22s and Aegis destroyers boast the highest technologies in existence, but from an esthetic perspective, measured by mainstream commercial production values they are little more than expensive junk. Owning them and boasting of their toughness is all for naught when they don’t fit with civilian functions. And even if they did fill civilian functions commercially available products that are better still can always be found. And the most telling observation is this - that commercially available goods are better for the military than the materials supplied by their own governments. Witness American troops in Iraq spending their own money on firearms and ammunition, or an extra armor for their personnel carriers, etc.
So, long ago I stopped buying my boots at the army surplus and instead go to the ABC Mart shoe store in Japanto peruse the Dr. Martens, the Chippewas, the Red Wings and the Harley-Davidsons, among others. I used to wear a Korean boot called the Gorilla, which was a cheap knock-off of Chippewa boots. But recently I have been unable to find them, so I wear Chippewa now instead.