Lights Out

Dressing in darkness can leave you exposed

By Norris Burkes
June 2024

Whenever I meet fellow veterans, we often engage in some good-natured ribbing. I set up the first joke by announcing that I’m an Air Force vet. This inevitably invokes the response, “Oh, you mean you’re a Chair Force vet.”

I understand the nickname because Air Force members occupied a lot of chairs doing technical work in places such as Cyber Command and Space Command.

I met those seat-techies in 1994, on my first active-duty assignment at Onizuka Air Force Station in Sunnyvale.

Declassified that same year, Onizuka was dubbed the “Blue Cube” because of its shape, color and lack of windows. Outside the cube sat three parabolic dish antennas that chair jockeys in blue jumpsuits used for “flying” military satellites.

A few miles away, I sat in a chair at our chapel offices on Moffett Field, a former Navy base transferred to NASA. My workday often included planning worship, counseling and meeting with staff.

In those days before 9/11, chaplains wore uniforms of sky-blue shirts and dark blue pants that resembled Dockers. We called the ensemble our “blues.” Add rank, name tag and a Protestant cross, and I became an instant chaplain.

I wore the same uniform for monthly weekend duty as a USAF reservist, so I quickly mastered the routine for daily wear. We had no one inspecting us for proper haircuts, uniforms or shoe shining. We were all friends and “trusted professionals.”

With a 7:30 a.m. daily start, I’d often suit up in my darkened bedroom on summer mornings while my family slept.

Early one morning I decided to bypass office work to make a few visits around the cube. I walked through classified work areas, introduced myself and offered encouraging words. I returned to the office before lunch having done some good chaplain-type work.

“Good,” that is until I was greeted by Janet, our chapel manager and non-commissioned officer in charge.

Janet was a law-and-order manager, good with regulations and policies. She had a sharp eye for details that helped her chaplains stay sharp.

I knew something was up when she asked, “What are you wearing today, Chaplain?”

Her question sent me inspecting my shirt for uneaten breakfast.

“Look farther down,” she said.

Forget the friendly “Chair Force.” I was beginning to feel like a recruit standing before a drill instructor.
Finally, unable to hold her snicker, she said, “Those can’t be your uniform pants.”

“Why?” I asked, still staring at my well-creased blue pants.

“They look more like Levi Dockers than official Air Force Blues.”

Suddenly I was the picture of patriotism—a red face on a white man wearing blue pants.

She was right. In my haste to dress in my darkened room, I’d donned my Levi’s ultimate chino straight fit instead of my Air Force poly/wool pants.

There’s no telling how many airmen on my morning rounds noticed the Dockers. But like the people in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” they said nothing.

The sergeant was the only one brave enough to call out her proud chaplain for his “nakedness.”

I tried minimizing my mistake with the adage, “No one’s perfect. We all put our pants on one leg at a time.”

“Still,” she said, “Perhaps chaplains ought to heed the Jesus protocol and ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (Matthew 5:48).

She added, “I think even Jesus might tell you that perfection begins with first choosing the right pants.”
I returned home to change pants. My defense never had a leg to stand on.

Norris Burkes can be reached at Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit

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