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That's the Guy for Me

Is that a ribbon on your chest, or are you just glad to see me?

11:00 PM, Dec 28, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
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LENO USED TO HAVE A STORY he loved to tell about his early days at the Improv in New York. An older comic had started hanging around the club; he'd been out of the business for a while, and wanted to get back in. And he had material like, "You ever notice it's always the guys in uniform who get the girls?"

One night Jay and some of the other young comics sat him down and suggested that maybe he should think about updating his act. So the guy went onstage the next night and said, "You ever notice it's always the Green Berets who get the girls?"

Now, whether it was the '70s when the story happened, or the '80s when I heard it, the laugh was the same: The poor sap had missed the point and changed a phrase instead of dropping the outdated premise.

Recently (like you, I'm sure) I've seen spots on television of soldiers sending Christmas messages home to families and loved ones. And suddenly, seeing those earnest, young faces, it seemed to me that maybe I'm the one who missed the point. Because--and be honest--if you laughed at the opening story, then we're both part of a long, sad change.

Somewhere after World War II, somewhere after Korea, somewhere in the '60s, it became unfashionable, if not absurd, that American women should be attracted first and foremost to men in uniform. I seem to remember an old lyric from a song, "I want a man in a uniform, a man in a uniform . . . That's the guy for me!" I don't know who first recorded that, but I'm guessing it wasn't Britney Spears. Of course, it might have been The Village People, but that's another story entirely.

What changed? Maybe I'm mistaken, but I imagine an America in the '40s that was positively in love with its soldiers: Giving them rides and meals, letting them use phones, introducing their sisters, shaking their hands and wishing them luck (not with their sisters, of course; well, maybe)--and praying for them.

Perhaps the icy winters and conflicting strategies of the Korean War were the first scratchings of cynicism, but I don't think the average American altered his affection for our soldiers. I'd like to see a survey from the '50s like the ones today: "What professions do you respect the most?" I'm pretty sure the military would have been high on the list. (Then again, so would furriers and tobacconists.)

I REMEMBER a good movie made in the '50s about America at the start of the Korean War. Dana Andrews, Farley Granger, Ray Collins, Jim Backus. Black and white. I think it was a sequel of sorts to the wonderful "The Best Years Of Their Lives."

There's a scene in the local bar where a soldier in uniform (a very young Martin Milner) is about to be shipped overseas. He asks for a beer like his older friends, and everyone laughs warmly when the bartender says, "You know I can't do that, kid, I could lose my license." Suddenly the music on the radio is interrupted by a bulletin. The announcer says that Chinese troops have attacked across the 38th parallel, and American casualties are high. The music resumes, and the bar is silent. Then, without saying a word, the bartender turns around, reaches for a glass, pours a beer, and gently sets it in front of Milner. Nice.

DURING VIETNAM, things changed so much I remember a poster with three pretty young women sitting on a couch. And the caption read, "Girls say yes to boys who say no." In other words--well, you don't really need any other words, do you?

As we all know, Vietnam vets were often glared at, yelled at, and spat upon as they carried their duffel bags through American airports. It must take an extraordinary level of hate to do something like that. I don't know where those people are today, but I'll bet you a dollar I know who they're supporting for president.

Which brings us to the end of 2003. I've never served in a war and I've never risked anything greater than a joke not working onstage (although there used to be club in Boston named Nick's that's still the only place I've ever seen an "F-Troop" fistfight). And I am moved beyond words by the skill and devotion and clarity and purpose of our troops and their leaders, men and women, and I've never felt differently, not then, not now, and I believe in what they're doing. And I pray. And I know I'm not alone.

Still, it would be nice, someday, to see a comedian walk onstage and once again say, "You ever notice it's always the guys in uniform who get the girls?"

Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.

Correction appended 12/31/03: The article originally stated that Chinese troops crossed the 32nd parallel. It was the 38th parallel.