This guy was about my age, maybe a little younger, a black man. He was stunningly squared away. I can imagine him stripped to the frame, deburred, hand-fitted and polished out to the 1000-grit level. Then somebody dipped him into hot tanks, and he emerged in flawless blue with gold inlays.
He was probably one Hell of a fighting officer to boot, and I'm positive Lt. Col. Somebody USMC was not thrilled by orders to spend the 1989 Inaugural days serving as military aide to my boss. He would rather have been down at Quantico, drilling a battalion, but if The Corps decided he was more useful as a feudal appendage to a politician, he would damned well execute those orders to the best of his ability.
His job was to lend an aura of importance, glamor, and authority to the governor through the rounds of social hoopla celebrating the formal ascent of George H.W. Bush that January.
So was mine, though in a different sense. A governor must have an "aide" who looks important. (And here I must cast modesty aside and report that, properly motivated, I clean up pretty well for a po boy from the corn fields. Not that I could even approach the officer's presence as, say, a Les Baer custom. I wasn't a Hi-Point, but -- again in comparison -- no better than a humdrum Series 70 with a trigger job.).
Nevertheless, the colonel kept calling me "Sir," thus sending me back to my own military days where I topped out at E5, petty officer second class, equivalent to staff sergeant in the land forces. Nobody called ever me "sir" unless he was trying to sell me a set of sharp civvies on Broadway in San Diego, nothing down, two years to pay.
This sirring was disconcerting. I thought about but decided against whispering to the colonel that "Jim" would do fine. If he would even think of such a thing, his native courtesy would have required him to invite me to address him with similar intimacy, and that was unthinkable. This man could at any instant be called to command 1,000 other men in bloody circumstances. My duty was to look authoritative and to offer the governor political suggestions, preferably not half-assed. And to make sure he knew at all times the location of the nearest toilet.
This little memoir came to mind as I was checking some facts about the federal hierarchy. For every federal civilian rank, there is an "assimilated rank" equal to some military pay grade. The comparison is for matters of protocol only. By law and custom no civilian bureaucrat, not even a lofty GS15, (assimilated rank equal to full-bird colonel or Navy four-stripe captain) is authorized to order even a shavetail ensign around.
It applies primarily in social situations and where civilians and military people work together. A GS1 (sweep the floors or type accurately) lives like a private; a GS 15 eats from real china with the gold-braid set.
I've never worked as a civilian for the feds. The colonel probably didn't know or consider that. Most of what he saw was my boss whispering into my ear. (Where is is?) and me whispering back. (Down that hall, second door on the left.) The colonel could plausibly have concluded we were conferring about high matters of state and, as a matter of covering his ass, simply assumed that I held an assimilated rank exceeding his well-earned actual status.
That would have meant nothing in terms of anything in the real world, but it's quite possible he embraced the Matt Helm philosophy of dealing with questionable strangers in nice suits. "It costs nothing to call them 'sir,' and it's just a easy to shoot them if that turns out to be necessary."
Hierarchies exist, and I suppose a certain pecking order is necessary even across bureaucratic and professional lines, but I find the system morally bothersome.
The colonel and I never met again, and I sometimes wonder if we could have been pals if we had been introduced in dungarees, sitting in some one's back yard, an egalitarian bowl of ice and bottle of Jack gracing the picnic table.