When Max lands in Korea, he still can’t believe that he’s in a war zone. He tried every trick in the book to dodge the draft, so how is he here? He goes through his first day completely shell-shocked, his soul still stuck in Toledo- and then he sees a kid with half of his stomach missing, and his soul snaps back into his body. He’s in Korea, and there’s no making the best of it, but he’s not on the front lines and he can help people instead of having to kill mindlessly like the kids at the front. Sure, it’s the generals calling the shots, but it’s the kids who are actually seeing the life go out of someone’s eyes.
Some days, Max fantasizes about stealing a Jeep and driving to HQ and murdering the lot of them. What good are those stars? They’re no better than stripes. They all live on the same damn flag, don’t they?
His uncles send him fabric samples and he sets to getting out of the army any way he can. He wears a blouse and a bonnet and huge, draping skirts that are more comfortable than the rough army pants could ever be, and it reminds him of childhood, when he’d dress up in his mother’s clothes. The first dress he ever makes by himself is his nurse’s outfit, and he stabs himself with the needle so many times that he’s pretty sure his nerves are mangled. But it looks amazing when he’s done, and he tells people he got it from the Sears catalogue so they don’t go looking for imperfections in his sewing.
When Henry gets his discharge, Max knows that his outfit has to be spectacular. He regrets using his Statue of Liberty getup for MacArthur, but he doesn’t want to make patriotism the big theme. They’re celebrating Henry defying the will of the States- the prodigal son, but if you reversed the roles. He’ll get to eat real fruit again, Max thinks offhandedly.
He scrounges and wheedles and generally makes a pest of himself, but he has all the fake fruit he needs to make this hat his best one yet. Lady Liberty still trumps the dress, but he’s mighty proud of the hat.
When Radar tells them about Henry’s plane, Max feels like he’s going to retch. He can’t bear to look at the hat, so he burns it.
But a new colonel (what was wrong with the old one?! he wants to yell) brings new opportunity, and Max decides to make something spectacular. He flings and pins and drapes and sews a mess of golden fabric into something that would make Cleopatra herself proud, and then he adds two silver cones for good measure. The headdress is a little easier to make, and for the jewelry, he throws on everything gaudy he owns. His fingers smart from getting pricked with the needle so much- he still hasn’t got the hang of sewing without stabbing himself- but it’s worth it.
The Colonel is not one to be crossed, apparently. Not even Cleopatra could stir him to let Max out. Instead, Potter confines Max to army clothes.
The second he steps into the fatigues, he wants to claw his skin off. It’s practically unbearable, and when he goes to the Swamp, desperate for a solution, Hawkeye and the new guy use a crockful of words like “psychosomatic.” Their advice works, though- the itching stops wherever Max wears civvies. Soon enough, he finds himself enveloped in his dresses once more, for which he is eternally grateful.
When Radar leaves, Max realizes that nobody is going to think he can fill the kid’s shoes if he’s still in dresses and trying his damndest to get out instead of trying his damndest to make it better for everyone. (Why is that my job? he wonders sometimes, late at night, when he can’t sleep for fear that a bomb is going to drop straight on them.) He leaves the flowing fabric behind, wearing a slip at first to help him adjust, and he eventually looks the picture of a perfect soldier.
The urge to drive down and kill every single stinkin’ general is still there, and it only intensifies when he meets Soon-Lee. She’s so tough, standing with her face turned up and daring the war to take her too. She’s reckless, and she shouldn’t have to be- nobody should- but she is, and Max loves her for it.
Once he makes up his damn mind about marrying her, he does the alterations on the wedding dress more lovingly than he’s ever done anything before. This time, he only pricks himself with the needle once, when Soon-Lee says something uproariously funny and he tries to finish the stitch without laughing. Then he sets to sewing his own outfit. He’d had half a mind to show up in an equally poofy dress- or at least an extraordinarily flamboyant suit- but he’s had his fair share of grandeur. He’s not giving up his extravagance, but he’ll lend it to Soon-Lee for the day. She’s too practical to keep it any longer than that.