Sunday, November 28, 2010

Green Wool Christmas

Sporting the school coat about three weeks after I got it


There were three things I prized above all else in school, all of which symbolized my belonging (when I knew, instinctively, that I was in so many ways a misfit): my class ring (which I paid for, by selling Art Carved class rings at school for my occasional employer, the local jewelry store), my letterman's sweater (for Academic Team), and my green wool varsity coat.

The green coat was the epitome of "it"...anybody could buy one, sure, but you had to be in a recognized school organization that issued letters for it to be "worth" anything, in terms of the high school pecking order. I joined the marching band in eighth grade, and my parents refused to buy me a school coat until the following year because they were expensive, my father loathed the band as a nerd organization (Daddy was a hardshelled jock), and they were worried I'd quit.

During the first half of my freshman year, I felt like a total loser, wearing whatever jacket or coat came to hand in the cooler part of the band competition season because I somehow didn't rate a 'real' coat, i.e., the school's official emerald green varsity coat. I began my campaign early: we drove past Coaches' Corner, the local sporting goods shop operated by the high school coaches and purveyor of official school apparel, every time we went to the high school. I'd point at the window display and tell my mother: "You have to order my coat early or it won't get here in time! That's all I want for Christmas this year. I don't want anything else. PUHLEEEZE! I look like a dork every time the band goes somewhere because I don't have one. I feel like a FREAK! MOM, I HAVE TO HAVE A SCHOOL COAT!!!"

It's a wonder she didn't strangle me before Halloween.

I still remember how much the coat cost; I knew I was getting it because I had to be measured for it before it was ordered from the manufacturer with that year's December lot (it was a popular gift for most high school students and too expensive to be given any other time of year)
: $85. That was a lot of money in 1983, and that was before the custom options like having a patch of my name made, plus the band patch, plus a small temporary letter until I received to my official band letter as a sophomore...it ended up being more than a hundred dollars.

The greatest shock of all was that when I opened the giant suit box that contained it on Christmas morning, the patches were not attached. I panicked. How was I supposed to wear it if the emblems weren't on it?

My father, with whom my relationship at best was strained, left the room and returned with a large spool of heavy-duty green thread and a darning needle. "You can't have it cleaned with the letters on it; they'll have to be taken off and put back on every time. I'm going to show you how to do it." I knew my father could sew; he is, after all, a physician and trained to perform surgery. What I did not know, until that moment, was that he'd learned to attach his own varsity letters growing up because my grandmother didn't sew. I sat beside him on the living room couch for over an hour, learning the neat, firm-but-removable whipstitch that was best for applying the patches without damaging the tightly-woven wool of the jacket. (Dad often recounts his bitter disappointment the year he wanted the Red Ryder Air Rifle for Christmas. His family was poor, so he got a cheaper Daisey BB gun. When A Christmas Story came out, the mystery surrounding his relenting over the expensive green coat was suddenly resolved.)

The strangest part is that while my father seemed to ignore or decry my involvement with the band, it was always he, even though he'd taught me how to do it myself, who removed and reapplied the patches to my coat each time it went to the dry cleaner. The task increased steadily in length as I continued through high school, adding to that walking advertisement of my achievements.

While I was at college the summer before my senior year, someone imparted to me one of the cardinal rules of college life: you can't wear your high school letterman's jacket after you graduate. It marks you out as a hick. My freshman year at SFU, my mother bought me a new winter coat, an L.L. Bean ski jacket like everyone else had. I felt nondescript. I blended into the background. I faded away.

When I was fourteen, though, that coat was all I ever wanted- and I proved my parents wrong. I wore it everywhere. I only had four other coats the whole time I was in high school: a lavender Members Only jacket (hey, it was the Eighties!), a blue denim jacket, a black Calvin Klein denim jacket, and the dress coat I was supposed to wear to church...if Mom didn't catch me before I got out the door on Sunday, though, I just took my varsity jacket.

Giving up my school coat was the real end of high school. I can't even look at it anymore. The day will come when I have to take it out of my parents' basement, and that will be the end of something else- something I dread. Something I want to postpone indefinitely, and something that will catch up to me no matter how far or fast I run from it.

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