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Taking the Odium Out of Sodium

ISSUE:  Autumn 1996

Suspend, for a moment, your misgivings about salt, the better to contemplate salty. This worthy adjective, which may yet find work in civil life, has long been current in the military. Descended, perhaps, from the nautical sobriquet, old salt, it carries far heavier freight. Yet none of the standard authorities has much to say about salty, which prompts the hope that J.E. Lighter will reserve room for the term in his Historical Dictionary of American Slang—should he make it to the end of the alphabet. Meanwhile, let me volunteer an interpretation.

As used in the Marine Corps more than 40 years ago when I was doing my bit by the Cold War, salty was usually, though by no means always, a term of praise. To say of an NCO, for example, that he was salty was to speak very well of him indeed. What you meant was that the sergeant in question had experience, ability, technical knowledge, maturity of outlook, and above all a certain panache. He knew how to walk right, he knew the various tones of voice to adopt, each according to circumstances, when addressing the troops, he knew how to cope with junior officers, and he knew how to reduce his herringbone “utilities” (Marine-speak for “fatigues”) from a dull dark green when issued to just the right shade of ghostliness. Though ever dependable in the clutch, he was also, in the Down East phrase, “as independent as a pig on ice.”

For my part, I had to endure the indignities of apprenticeship. Like every other tenderfoot second lieutenant I approached the task with no relevant experience apart from what little had come my way in formal training programs. At the bottom of the heap and fit for little else, second lieutenants must reconcile themselves to being despised by all ranks including their own. “Rank hath its privileges,” the military slogan proclaims, though no one I encountered ever seemed content with his share of RHIP. Abject longing propels the perpetual quest for promotion, without which the entire military enterprise would suffer a terminal loss of steam. But as new boys second lieutenants prize a prior goal. At 22 we were destitute of salt and had first to expedite our anticipated salinification. While still too junior to be fully enrolled in the collective struggle for rank, we converted subordinate status into a forward post for the observation of saltiness among all ranks high and low. Only a few of us would later be judged salty, but even those who because of a disobliging personal chemistry would remain forever sodium free, managed to learn something of “Old Corps” custom.

To understand salty, consider what once was and may still be the conventional view of style. During the 1970’s it became the fashion to disparage John F. Kennedy in retrospect, to object that our first TV president had brought to the White House more style than substance. All parties to this postmortem assumed that style and substance are antithetical, that both are extrinsic to character, that no politician who would be taken for a statesman can trade the one for the other without loss of standing, that of the two potentialities, substance merits the more earnest devotion.

Salty, by contrast, stood alone; in my day it had neither pair nor substitute. Though it conveyed the impression of being intrinsic, it could, in fact, be cultivated. The able NCO who exhibited the qualities of saltiness was thought to be all the abler for being salty. No sell-out was imputed to him, no shirking of the chase after knowledge or the diligence necessary to the mastery of skill. But woe to the junior NCO (or officer) who affected a saltiness that rang less than true. “Ah,” his platoonmates would say, “getting a bit salty, are we?” In this pejorative sense salty meant presumptuous. The contemporary near-equivalents, by comparison, cool, hip, neat, and sexy bear positive connotations only, and therefore lack weight.

Certain imperatives peculiar to military life foster saltiness among the predisposed. Paradoxically, the unremitting insistence on uniformity magnifies the distinction of whatever passes for being distinctive. Uniformity, which emphasizes background, renders deviation in the foreground conspicuous. Every so often, for example, word would come down from on high: effective immediately cadence willbe called one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four when moving troops in formation, and there will be no more homemade variations (to put it more gently here than it ever was there). Yet some NCOs, the more saline especially, would ignore the order, determined as they were to compose cadence chants all their own, as if they were rival auctioneers at a county fair.

To elaborate paradox further, military uniformity depends and in fact thrives on the deliberate, premeditated discrepancies that rank defines. The insignia of rank, which are always on display, dispose of ambiguity by making official position within a military unit explicit, from the highest degree down to the very lowest. Which is to say that so much of life in uniform is irrevocably decided in advance, that to embrace saltiness in response seemed both innocent and inevitable.

Saltiness springs as well from a playfulness that pervades combat units when they have no campaign to absorb their energies. During the Cold War years, as in some earlier periods when we maintained standing armed forces, chronic underemployment among all ranks was the norm. Whereas support and housekeeping types such as payroll clerks, mess hall cooks, motor pool mechanics, and medical corpsmen have real work to get through, month in and month out, whether in peacetime, wartime, or at any other time, a rifle regiment with no one to shoot at has nothing to do. So in the name of preparedness HQ ordains one dress rehearsal after another. These repetitive field exercises provide training of a sort, but as simulations of combat war games can never progress beyond the realm of make-believe. Thus the military of necessity stimulates the human appetite for play. Peacetime soldiers, and the underemployed generally, seek relief in extracurricular tasks that can be treated as ends in themselves without concern for practical gain. Such tasks vary according to occupation, but share the common purpose of serving as self-assigned modes of play. In the Marine Corps of 40 years ago the not-so-latent, subliminal delight in play found expression in what we called saltiness.

For a public, unself-conscious exhibition of this proclivity, wangle tickets to a regimental review. Both among groups and individuals, the spirit of play animates work. Play cannot be disentangled from work altogether, any more than work can be purged of play altogether. As reciprocals, each requires the other; each complements the other. Take on either of these twins and the other comes free, Calvin or no John Calvin. In civil life we have nothing quite like the regimental review. Perhaps the military has something to teach us about the employability of the underemployed.

“Report,” bellows the colonel, as the battalions mass before him. “Pass in review,” orders the colonel, after receiving the reports demanded.”Sound Adjutant’s call,” someone proposes, and the bugler lets loose. “Dah DAH de dumpty dump,” blares the band. “Forward march.” Tramp, tramp, tramp go the troops. “Column left,” tramp, tramp, “column left,” tramp, tramp, “column left”—tramp, tramp, tramp. “Eyes right.” Tramp, tramp, tramp. “Ready, front.” Tramp, tramp TRAMP. “COMpaneeee, halt. Order arms. Left face. At ease.” And it’s over, though not quite in the time it took you to read the foregoing. If your regiment is up to authorized strength, you will have helped to blow several thousand man/woman hours on an exercise that accomplishes nothing at all, nothing, at any rate, tangible or quantifiable.

Of course the generals insist that frequent reviews fortify the esprit de corps or saltiness (of the officially sanctioned kind) essential to military success. Conceivably in the long run they do, at least among the brass who man the reviewing stand with legendary valor. But make-work spurs spontaneous feelings in the ranks of insobriety and irreverence, as much as any sense of solidarity. Indeed, parades and reviews are among the few events in military life that actually begin on time, so keen is the inherited enthusiasm for this seemingly mindless mode of play.


Saltiness and the prospects for play scarcely figured in my thoughts when I reported for active duty years ago. But regimentation, uniformity, and dress rehearsal without end, all of which obscured so much else, threw this particular feature of military life into bold relief. It was inescapable and disconcerting as well. I had grown up in a society that rewards the semicompetent so long as they make an ostentatious show of busyness and earnest engagement. Saltiness took getting used to and I’ve been on watch ever since for manifestations of the playful. Most of us, it seems, view work and play as polar opposites that admit of no underlying connection. Serious and frivolous, necessary and optional, respectable and illicit: these are some of the pairs that promptly come to mind when reflecting on the salience of work in our attitudes toward life as a whole. It is inconceivable that any American could have written in Flaubert’s place: “les hommes trouveront toujours que la chose la plus serieuse de leur existence, c’est jouir.”

To enjoy? The prevailing notion of work, laid on us by Puritans both ancient and modern, grants us little in the way of jouir, but we can at least recognize saltiness as a state of being, even if the term itself remains foreign to our civilian vocabulary. We all know it when we see it, whether clever or maladroit. I recall witnessing a coup de sale outside the operating room while waiting my turn for a minor repair job. All hands looked impressively trim and cohesive in their pale green uniforms, or “scrubs,” to use the O.K. term. The surgeon came over to chat for a bit, and then grumbled that someone had already made an incision right where he had expected to go in. I apologized and promised to plan ahead another time.

Next came the anesthesiologist, clad in scrubs from head to toe, mid-30’s and moderately attractive, despite the ravages of a medical career. She too thought an introduction was in order, and I was about to feel grateful for her solicitude when her gaze nearly knocked me off the gurney. No eye shadow was ever more emphatic than hers, accentuated as it was by her face mask and all the uniforms in the immediate background. Locomotive headlights, indeed. Years earlier I might have been less startled to see a rifleman fall in for morning muster with a Panama hat on his head. A surgeon later told me that low fashion has enriched the O.R., that nowadays there is nothing unusual about the woman who reports for surgical duty sporting a string of pearls. Female vanity? Perhaps, though more likely, it might be argued, a clinical case of attempted saltiness. If comparable cosmetics and jewelry were made for men, male surgeons would take to them soon enough, or so those I questioned told me. Whether in the meantime my anesthesiologist achieved saltiness, I was too unnerved to judge.

Saltiness risks exclusion from the workplace, even, or perhaps especially, if the levity complained of can be charged to a deviant machine. Think of the derision lavished on the Macintosh when it first appeared in 1984. The earliest Mac, versions 128 and 512, for all its undeniable limitations, was, in the estimate of one electronic guru, “the first personal computer to be worth criticizing.” Radically different in conception from all other machines, the Macintosh excites curiosity while accommodating and indeed abetting the human propensity to play.

Yet tyros recoiled from the elegant ease-of-use and playful provocations the Mac alone offered, and at that time the only potential customers for personal computers, whether individual or corporate, were, most of them, tyros. To demonstrate their reverence for high tech, and to qualify as solemn enough to be worthy of initiation, they elected to grapple instead with MS DOS and WordStar on the misbegotten PC. In consequence the Macintosh, though inherently superior, almost perished in the mid-1980’s, the competition having succeeded in branding it a toy. At the same time Apple Computer executives sank deeper into corporate stupor. With no one to persecute in return but the customer, they devised marketing practices of such rare stupidity as would thwart the sale of cut-rate pardons to turkeys on Christmas eve.

Yet nothing hurt, or could have hurt, the Macintosh more than the stigma it came to bear and has yet to live down. Toys, in the American scheme, belong to the realm of play which is held to be entirely separate from the sober realm of work. Though we acknowledge the presence of good in evil and evil in good—this lecture hall verity has kept the literati in business for generations—we let daily toil turn us into Manichaeans. The polarity we have long imagined for ourselves found an early exponent in Thoreau when he wrote Walden nearly 150 years ago: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”

The truism that just about anything new might prove more a nuisance than a boon we can leave aside. It is Thoreau’s choice of words that invites comment. To belittle inventions he likens them to toys (and to “pretty” toys at that), instead of dismissing them as the annoyances or complications in disguise that some of them do indeed become. Toy, evidently, is the most damaging word he can think of, the one word this writer of ample literary means produces to make his case that most inventions are superfluous and therefore less than serious. It testifies to the depth of Puritan influence that a Yankee eccentric of Thoreau’s intelligence and acuity could scorn the “quiet desperation” his neighbors called work, and yet remain serenely incurious about the meaning of play and the nature of toys.

In his reflections on work and play Eric Hoffer notes “. . . the remarkable fact that many inventions had their birth as toys. In the Occident the first machines were mechanical toys, and such crucial instruments as the telescope and microscope were first conceived as playthings. Almost all civilizations display a singular ingenuity in toy making. The Aztecs did not have the wheel, but some of their animal toys had rollers for feet. . . . The urgent search for the vitally necessary is likely to stop once we have found something that is more or less adequate, but the search for the superfluous has no end. Hence the fact that man’s most unflagging and spectacular efforts were made not in search of necessities but of superfluities.”

Such strivings will seem commendably disinterested until the inevitable questions get asked: which is which? How can you tell a necessity from a superfluity, and vice versa? How long will the labels you affix to either remain valid? And how, to begin with, can you foretell the outcome of the exploration you have in mind? Hoffer thinks it “. . .worth remembering that the discovery of America was a by-product of the search for ginger, cloves, pepper, and cinnamon.” Worth remembering it may well be, yet 15th-century Christian Europe was more dismayed by the fall of Constantinople to Islam than uplifted by news of a New World it had lived and could live without. So which was which among cloves, continents, and the Eastern Orthodox Church? Perhaps only the nonplused Indians could have sorted that one out. Necessities and superfluities exchange identities in response to shifting circumstances no one can foresee. It follows that tags like toy and invention must be understood as provisional. Contrariwise, the motive power of play appears to hold constant regardless. This spontaneous urge requires satisfaction, and in seeking it sustains protracted effort, without much thought for the ostensible goal.

Take The Bomb, to cite a monument we might wish were exceptional, but was in fact the product of human inclinations commonly observed throughout the workaday world. Freeman Dyson, the physicist, asserts in his autobiography, Disturbing the Universe, that the scientists who staffed the Manhattan Project “. . .did not just build the bomb. They enjoyed building it. They had the best time of their lives while building it. Los Alamos had been for them a great lark.” The reproachful tone of this passage expresses Dyson’s disapproval—but of what? Not of the decision to build the bomb, nor of the decision to use it, though in retrospect atomic weapons might have been reckoned superfluous by mid-1945. What troubles Dyson is the unabashed pleasure the bomb builders took in their work, as if forging instruments for the incineration of cities ought to come at the cost of unrelieved drudgery. A “great lark” indeed. Deliver us from scientific ecstasy. It might seem obligatory to share Dyson’s unease, yet evidence from every quarter attests that most undertakings of any real difficulty depend for energy on the overmastering need to play. Without that spark, nothing much happens, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once explained: “. . .when you see something that is technically sweet you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” And that is the way it continues to be wherever the talented assemble for serious work—only to find themselves before long larking it up.

The heedless pursuit of technical sweets presupposes an angel with celestial pockets too deep to sound. At Los Alamos, where funds were unlimited, serendipity paid off; in the private industrial sector the same impulse had been curbed decades earlier for the sake of economy. The indulgence of curiosity, though at times fruitful in some practical way, cost more than most manufacturers were willing to spend. To guard against those avoidable extra costs, they adopted a procedure called “statistical quality control”—forbidding phrase and all. Like other insights that cut to the root, the idea behind SQC is really quite simple: play in the guise of perfectionism has to be suppressed.

Over the years absolute precision had become a sacred ideal among American engineers. In this life, of course, it could never be realized, but that was good news. For it meant that the drive to approximate perfection, which was great fun, could continue indefinitely as a kind of ritual inoculation against boredom. Alas for the engineers, this diversion proved costly, all the more so when to no purpose beyond the thrill of it they began to make their products more precise than end-use required. At length the implacable agents of efficiency caught on. Needless precision, they argued, was uneconomic and a threat to the greater good of the bottom line. Accordingly, management constrained the engineers to settle for a lower degree of precision. That is, they were to “control” quality by the statistical sampling of output, so as to ensure the manufacture of products that were no more precise than necessary. Only by enforcing this compromise, so the new dispensation stipulated, could mass production become profitable.

So much it might seem, then, for superfluity in manufacturing. But as Hoffer could have protested, many if not most of those mass produced goods are in themselves superfluous—which confirms his original conjecture.


Let industrialists rejoice in the remedy that redeemed them; and let the rest of us rub along without the friction of reform. For as wasteful and extravagant as play can be, the pious refusal to play promotes an unseemly zeal for individual self-aggrandizement. Thoreau’s puritanical disdain for toys cut him off from the realm of play. Deficient in salt, he exclaims in a letter to his friend, Harrison Blake: “What a wedge, what a beetle, what a catapult, is an earnest man! What can resist him?”

The Need to Win, that’s what, as Chuang Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage might have replied. Here is his warning as expounded by Thomas Merton, the mystic, monk, and poet:

When an archer is shooting for nothing He has all his skill.

If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets—
He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting—
And the need to win
Drains him of power.

A touch of salt might save this earnest, sodium-free archer from the extreme of public humiliation. Properly salted he would view the prize with the nonchalance that marks the acquired skepticism and detachment of the salty. And how, Thoreau’s shade—and the rest of us—might wonder, is such beatitude to be attained? Chuang Tzu has this suggestion:

Easy is right. Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.
The right way to go easy
Is to forget the right way
And forget that the going is easy.


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