In these perilous times, it is somehow comforting to meet Uncle Sam.
In his high hat, his long gray hair and goatee, his star-spangled blue satin jacket and vest, and his red and white striped pants, he is a symbol of America, standing tall. And if he isn't, his wife tells him, "Straighten up."
His is the image of the famous face on the World War I Army recruiting poster with a forefinger aimed straight ahead and the legend: "I Want You." In real life, he is John W. Rusk, 84 on his next birthday, he will tell you, and an officially copyright "Uncle Sam" (Claim No. K96878).
Since 1947, he regularly has appeared in uniform in parades and pageants throughout the Washington area, from Labor Day in Takoma Park to St. Patrick's Day in Alexandria to Veterans' Day at Arlington National Cemetery. He has been in three presidential inaugurations, stood tall with Bob Hope at the last one.
It is not easy being Uncle Sam. It takes him 25 minutes to suit up, although he said, "I have done it in 15, and I can get out of it in about five."
He has help, Lauretta G. Rusk, his wife of 62 years. "I'm trying to tell you, your wig's on crooked," she told him one day recently when Rusk donned his uniform at their brick rambler in Waldorf. "It's like dressing a baby."
Indeed, she's done more than dress him. Over the years, she has made 15 Uncle Sam suits for her husband, so he could troupe off in style. "Yes sir, she's the Betsy Ross of my uniforms," he said.
What's it been like being married to Uncle Sam? "Rough," she said.
He is 6 feet 4 1/2 inches tall -- down from 6 feet 6 inches -- and she is 4 feet 10 inches, down from 5-2. "They used to call us Mutt and Jeff," she said. They had five children -- one died in a fire -- and have 22 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. "I can't do without him and I don't know what to do with him, so I just struggle along, I guess," she said.
"I have to follow around behind him and keep his goatee stuck. They've been after me so many times to get dressed up as Martha Washington, but I'm not one for parading around. It's his little red wagon, the way I look at it."
They've known each other since they were children in Northeast Washington. They were going together when he first portrayed Uncle Sam in 1927 for a patriotic skit sponsored by the Order of DeMolay, a Masonic boys group.
He remained a Mason -- he's a 33rd degree -- and became a mason. During World War II, he laid the concrete foundations for barracks at Fort Belvoir. He also owned his own tile, marble, mosaic and terrazzo business, and later worked for the District government as a building construction inspector, a position from which he retired in 1974.
His career as Uncle Sam began in earnest in 1947 with an invitation to join the uniformed unit at the Shriners' Almas Temple. He rejected the role of Lincoln. "I'm liable to get shot down South," he remembers saying. "I said, 'I'll be Uncle Sam.' "
Only during the 1960s did he encounter anti-Uncle Sam sentiment. "Those hippies," he recalled, "a bunch of them were hollering to me, 'Hey, Uncle Sam, you need a haircut,' with their hair hanging all the way to their shoulders."
In addition to posing and parading, he likes to hand out red, white and blue suit-pocket handkerchiefs inscribed "Compliments of 'Uncle Sam.' " He makes them at the dining room table, late at night when he can't sleep.
The dining room walls are covered with patriotic plates and plaques and pictures marking personal achievements. In the living room, along with a Bible and a ceramic matador on the coffee table, is a small wooden Uncle Sam statue holding an American flag. Then, there is the basement.
When he speaks of it, he glows. His wife winces. It is his subterranean "President Room," a rec room cum museum. There's a "Lincoln corner" behind the bar.
There are pictures of more recent presidents on another wall. There are drawers full of memorabilia, clippings and an edition of the Washington Times for May 7, 1918, with the headline, "Americans Carry on Night Gas Attack. Retaliation for 15,000 Shells Foe Sent Over." There is a red, white and blue telephone, and on the fireplace mantel, Snoopy in an Uncle Sam hat, and 13 trophies that Rusk received at various parades.
There is still room, of course, for the famous World War I recruiting poster, whose creator, Montgomery Flagg, Rusk said he once met during a Shriners' convention in New York. "The older you get, the more you're going to look like my painting," he said Flagg told him. "You're the best. Keep it going."
He considers it his patriotic duty to do just that, and he does it all for free. Being Uncle Sam is "the greatest honor ever a man could get," Rusk said, "and I'll do it as long as I live. I have one uniform that will go with me in the coffin when I die. I'm going to wear it, yes sir."