For the better part of six summers (1993 through 1998), I spent a great deal of time dressed in wool. First in the Band of the Ceremonial Guard, then for five years in the Fort Henry Guard, I experienced the unique joy that comes with covering practically every inch of my body with heavy, itchy, unforgiving wool during the hottest months of the year.
During my frequent interactions with the public, the number one question they asked (especially on days like today when the temperature soars above 30 degrees) was “Are you hot in that?”
Remember back in school when the teacher said there were no stupid questions? Well, that one is the exception to the rule.
The Ceremonial Guard had advantages and disadvantages compared to Fort Henry when it came to wool. On the good side, you only had to wear the full uniform in the morning for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. On the bad side, the dress uniform is really thick. With wool pants, wool jacket (complete with lining), big black boots, and a bearskin hat, exposed skin is hard to come by. Throw on the bass drummer’s apron and you were bound to have a difficult hour.
Staying on your feet during heat waves was both a mental and physical challenge. There were tricks you could use to prepare for it – some were just common sense (always eat a good breakfast, drink lots of water), others were a little odd (don’t drink milk because it will curdle in your stomach). While I was standing at attention, I’d wiggle my toes and flex my leg muscles to keep the blood moving.
The mental part was sometimes more difficult to control. When you have nothing to do but stand still for 30 minutes, you have lots of time to think about the heat, feel the sweat slowly trickle down your back, and wish for just the slightest breeze. Eventually the bearskin hat would begin to dig into my forehead (we called it bear bite), and you would become fixated on the pain.
Lots of people asked if I ever fainted. I didn’t, although some of my friends did. I came close a couple of times – it began with a sick feeling in my stomach, a sense of weakness, and then little black dots began appearing in front of my eyes until nearly everything was black. I would have gone down for sure if we hadn’t been given the order to march off and the blood began flowing to my brain again. Taking a knee was not an option – it just wasn’t done.
People always laughed when a member of the Guard fell, but it’s not really that funny. You’re out before you hit the ground, so you can’t break your fall. If you’re wearing a snare drum or a tuba, it can be pretty painful.
If you’re cursing the heat tomorrow, just remember that it could be worse – much worse.