Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Story for Tangueros and Other People

Tango Uniform:
A Christmas Story

The hardest thing for me to be deployed was not getting shot at. Having near-miss IED explosions that dazed me were bad too, but the hardest thing was to be away from my fiancé. I wanted to believe that she was being faithful, but there were so many stories of women cheating on their men. “Jennifer was different,” I would tell myself. “She has true class and culture. She wouldn’t do that.” But over and over we would hear about affairs that were being firmly denied, and the facts came in that were undeniable. We even had access at S-2 to use satellites to go look at our homes. We could see the pick up trucks parked out in front of our homes, and later the denials over the phone. Soldiers went home for two weeks of leave, and they had their stories too. Infidelity was our obsession.

“Tango Uniform” (meaning simply in radio language “T.U.”) had a meaning in the military for something that was knocked down and not able to get back up. Over the radio, we would hear that a vehicle had broken down and was irreparable. “Call out the wrecker, it’s Tango Uniform.” In reality “Tango Uniform” meant in the rough rider language of the military “tits up” (that is, flat on your back). But we started talking about our relationships being irreparable too because of infidelity. The first sergeant even said at chow, “My marriage is Tango Uniform. The rear detachment commander checked it out for me. My kids even know the guy, and he’s sleeping in my bed.” He didn’t want to go back because he was afraid he’d kill them both, leaving his children without parents – one dead and one in prison.

Before I left for Iraq, Jennifer and I had taken some dance classes and we loved it. First we loved salsa the most. But then we discovered Argentine tango. Jennifer has been sending me videos of “tangueros” dancing, and I even practiced by myself whenever I had a moment by myself. We danced open enough so we could see our foot work, but the videos showed dancers very close and doing amazing things with their feet. I loved to watch, but again, the atmosphere of distrust made it very hard for me not to feel jealous and wonder if some sultry tanguero was slipping off with her after a dance. I wondered if she were Tango Uniform with him in bed and that our engagement also might be Tango Uniform.

Sure, we had talked about fidelity. But she always reassured me about being true. She affirmed her maturity, her own self-worth and of course, our love. Well, a lot of women were saying this, and they were off doing the wild thing. But one thing she said really made me believe her. She said, “Jason, you know, if a lot of these women had a way of getting their need for touch met, then they might find it easier to be faithful. Tango allows people to get an important need met—the need to be touched. And if they had any sense of culture and self-discipline they would feel no need to go beyond that.” That sounded genuine. I also was able to dance a few times and feel what Jennifer was talking about. There was dancing at a large FOB not far from our sector in Bagdad, and they had salsa dancing there. I found myself feeling so much better after that dance, and even more committed to Jennifer.

After I came back from a mission with my platoon, the commander was standing there, and I thought there was bad news. We fear last minute tragedies in theater or back at home at the last minute before returning. We were supposed to come home on the 10th of January, and we didn’t have much time left in country. But the commander had good news. “You’re going back early, LT,” he told me. He tasked me to return with the forward party to help prepare for return of soldiers. The lieutenant who was supposed to have that job was MEDEVAC’d after an IED blew up his truck. No one died but everyone in it was already on their way to Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany.

My emotions were properly dampened as the commander told me. I would be home for Christmas. I held back a repressed “Yeah!” But I also felt like a traitor to my unit, getting to go back early. I felt humiliated telling the soldiers under me, and all the while I was so happy to be leaving that hell hole. I was totally conflicted in my feelings, but like it, love it or hate it, I was going back in time for Christmas.

I had paradoxical feelings especially about seeing Jennifer. What would I find? I knew that everything would be okay, but I had these great fears in my gut too. When I arrived I had to go through lots of briefings and medical screens like everyone else. But on Christmas Eve, thank God, I was free. I knew where Jennifer would be from our conversations, at a Christmas Eve tango party. So I put on my dress blue uniform – the only thing I had at my locker at work. I drove down to the university ball room, where it was being held. I put on a big overcoat so as not to cause a scene when people saw me in uniform at the dance.

It took a while for me to spot Jennifer. She was dancing with a handsome man, and I felt my face turning red. I stood in the back, and no one seemed to even notice me. I realized that I was spying. I felt so jealous because they were chest to chest, and he danced so well. She looked so satisfied in his arms. I had a feeling of great sadness at first: Like a little boy who was watching his best friend run off with someone else. Then I fought back the rage and jealousy. When that song ended, people were leaving the dance floor and she was coming my way. My stomach twisted and my hands were sweaty. An older gentleman stopped her with a nod of his head. Another song started and they danced. She had not recognized me. The man was old enough to be her father. Wow, he was good. He made the younger man look like a klutz. Jennifer and he looked as if the music controlled them, forcing them to dance so wonderfully. Jennifer looked like she was in heaven, and I realized that it was the music, the touch, the moment that was filling her soul. I felt this … this … huge well-spring of emotion, of love, of trust.

As if I did not even choose to, I felt my overcoat fall to the floor around my feet. People were leaving the dance floor, and someone said, “Jennifer! My God, he’s back!” She was pointing with one hand and the other was over her mouth, realizing how loud she had said it. The room went dead silent. Everyone started clapping, and Jennifer came running to me, with a crowd behind her. She melted into my arms. She was crying. Others stood by and gave me hugs like I was their long lost friend. “Thank God you’re back. Jennifer has told us so much about you; it’s as if we have known you forever,” an older dancer told, holding onto my hand like my mother would.

This is the tango community: A bunch of people who touch each other as if this were what human beings do best.

The music started again, and she led me out onto the floor. I felt so self-conscious at first. It was like a wedding dance and we were the only ones on the floor. I just tried to do what I had seen the older man doing, listening to the music and letting the music move my feet. I danced simply, but it felt like I was on a level that I had never had experienced. It was the embrace, Jennifer melting into my soul.

My engagement and my love for her were all saved from my worries of catastrophe and hurt at that moment. Tango Uniform? That is now what Jennifer still calls my dress blues.  I am reluctant to tell her what "Tango Uniform" really means.

Christmas 2009
Mark Word


  1. What a wonderful story! It's not only perfect for the season, but it expresses so well our times--and the power of tango.
    Thank you for posting it.
    Besos to you for a Merry Christmas!

  2. "...people who touch each other as if this were what human beings do best." Well, it is. We are also really good at complicating the heck out of something so simple and necessary for our health.

    Marvelous and moving story, Mark. And thank you from the depths of my soul for your service to our grand country.

  3. Johanna: Just for the record, I am in the Army as a Reservist (behavioral health officer), 7 years active duty a while back. But this story is fiction. My 16-year old son said, "It isn't you, but it is you." The story is about a young couple, Jason and Jennifer. Recently I ran a "fathers' group" for soldiers, and believe me the stories about infidelity and hurt were common.

  4. To someone, somewhere, this is not fiction :-)


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