Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Labeled With Love

When the boys first began to catch and get off the bus, I went out with them.  Marci did as well, of course, as often as she could.  They are midway through the fourth grade and we still do.  I walk them out and I greet them when they get off - every day.  I hope to still be doing it when they are seventeen.

Nick gave me hug before the bus came today, he was anxious about a math project he is presenting today so he lingered a bit longer than usual in my old, worn coat.

"This coat smells like you, Dad... and our family home."  It's not the first time he's said "family home," and I hope it's not the last.

But this is about something else.  This is about that old, worn coat.  Truth is, this is about two coats.  One is pushing thirty years old and the other is ten or twelve.

They are both LL Bean 'Field Coats.'  The one on the right is relatively new, for me, purchased since we've been married, thirteen years now today.  It's got a wool lining - plaid, red and green - and a cozy green corduroy collar.  It's a nice looking coat, isn't it?

The one on the left, yeah, its heritage is less clear in my memory.  I may be wrong, but I am pretty sure it was given to me in 1987 or so.  I remember wearing it in New York City where I lived from 1986 through 1991... I think.  Here is what it looked like new:

It's faded over the years as beautiful things will do.  It spent a lot of time behind the seat of an old, sometimes unreliable, S-10 pickup truck I once had as an emergency blanket or jacket, back in the nineties.  It's torn here and there, both cuffs have been resewn.  There are stains and it smells of woodfire and tobacco smoke, bacon, dust and time.  It's a nice looking coat, isn't it?

Initially sold and marketed as hunting jacket in 1947, the coat has evolved into a more multipurpose role over the course of some seventy years.  Just for fun take a look at the original:

Isn't that delicious?  "Color Brush Brown."

This all started because of a button, this button:

I called LLBean to get some new buttons for my Field coat.  The nice lady on the phone was unable to figure out how to get me buttons.  I thanked her kindly, and got to thinking a little more about it and decided to email their customer service folks.  Nancy got my buttons for me, sent them out the same day I emailed her.  That is model customer service.  No questions, a kind smile, an understanding nod and, three days later, I've got a new button on my jacket.

So, that all got me thinking about things and I glanced over and saw the two jackets hanging side by side, which they normally don't.  The new one hangs in the hall closet with all the other respectable coats.  The old one hangs by the door just off the kitchen and usually smells of last night's dinner or this mornings eggs and of our 'family home'. It waits by the door, to take the trash out or get the mail or shovel the drive or rake the leaves or get the wood.

"Get the wood..."  I would say every piece of firewood the boys ever put into a fire, on a camping trip or here in the house, I split wearing that old coat.  I get a wheelbarrow full of bigger logs from the shed in back, wheel them around to the garage, and split them into more manageable sized pieces and then stack them on the porch.  That old, worn coat, got to meet each one.  Along with me it it considered each log, judging the best way to spit it, laughing at the hits off the mark, rejoicing in the perfect splits.  That old coat sleeve protected my arm as I stacked the wood up it to bring into the house, to warm a family and unleash imaginations.  In fact, I hooked that sleeve on a door handle once bringing in some wood.  I stitched it up later that same night.  In front of the fire.

That old, worn coat has armored me against every snowstorm and every sledride and every attacking snowman and in every snowball fight the boys and I have faced together.  It's been crusted with snow and soaked through wet, but the warm wool soul of it kept me safe.

And what of the new one?  It's seen soccer games and preschool Christmas shows and Holy Days and doctors visits and plays and parties.  It's known quick trips in a cold truck for antibiotics, milk or pizza and long, dark, snowy trips up the highways or down the hill into town.  It'll see so much more, the scenes of adolescence and manhood yet to come.  It may feel me bend to the weight of memories as I grow older.  It may get borrowed, thrown on quickly, and come back smelling of smoke - the right kind, wood... I'll know.  That's a damn lucky coat there, all that to come, all that to witness, all that hope ready to be embraced.

I know they're just a couple of coats.  But, in a way, they are also every coat I've ever had that's served me well.

Also, they are the coats that Nick and Zack will remember me in...

My Dad wore an old white canvas coat to do yard work in.  It was from a local department store at the time, McCalpins - I remember the label - and had seen better days when I'd finally grown into it.  In hung in the basement and I'd wear it to shovel, or take a walk, or work on a car, or smoke a cigarette.  It had a a knitted collar, pilled and worn from the stubble of his weekend beard.  It, too, smelled of smoke and winter and wood and the lonely wind that blows through the Midwest.  It was once off-white but had grown darker with stains and time.

I'd give anything to wear that coat again.

I don't really remember how I got it.  I sort of do - someone left it in my dorm room I think, or I found it on the ground walking across campus, or maybe I stole it from an early roommate.  It was a pale blue chamois shirt with flap pockets and, I think it is still in the back of my closet...

I knew it.

This is the shirt she was wearing as she made breakfast that morning and we... wait, I can't tell that story.  This is the shirt she wore home and then called me to come back and get so...  nope.  Frankly, I can't tell any of the storied this handsome shirt has conjured in my memory.  Someday, probably, but not yet.

You know, there is something this shirt taught me that I can share with you.  It's a secret, so don't go telling all the young guys.  Do you notice how that collar is sort of flipped up on the right?  It always did that, sort of bothered me at first - not for long.  I was standing at a bar, I know which one, in Athens Ohio when a very pretty girl came up to me out of the blue and straightened it out and smiled and looked all twinkly and happy as she commented on how soft and cozy it was.  It happened more than once, at parties, in rehearsals, in dorm rooms and kitchens.  I realized I could fold the collar of any shirt up, or leave one button on a button-down undone, and a girl would come to fix it.  And you know what?  They were always nice, sweet girls - girls I was glad to meet, the right kind of girls.

In gratitude, I've been kept that shirt for over thirty years.  Maybe I'll let Nick have it - it's too tight on me anymore - when he grows into it.  He likes cozy things.  He likes soft things.  He likes reliable things.  He likes the stories things tell... and, I'd like him to meet a nice sweet girl.

I've lingered too long an this today.  I know why.  The memories are comforting in an old, worn coat.  The future looks brighter in sturdy, decent coat.  And, forgotten stories are fun from a wise, sky blue chamois shirt.

I guess I should say that I've not been compensated for any of this.  The fine folks at LLBean were kind enough to check their archives and provide me with the images of Field Coats past you see above.

Truth is though, I've been duly compensated.  A tent that lasted weeks in the storms of the Arizona wilderness; rain gear that's kept the family dry camping or at a baseball game.  A schoolyear's worth of reliable shoes for the boys in third grade, basketball and all.  A twill cap in the eighties, a pair of black gloves I'll wear today.  Boots, scarves, more boots, a compass, a flashlight...

All Bean gear.

All memories made.

I believe we are here to serve each other.  I believe we are here to be served as well.  The people at LLBean understand that.

Thanks for going through my closets and pictures and smokey memories with me.  I'm glad you came by.

The first picture I took of the two coats came out a little fuzzy so I didn't use it.

I saw the image just now and couldn't help but think that in it they looked like comfortable old friends leaning into each other to share a secret... or, dare I say it, like father and son.


  1. Bill, your writing is like icewater for a thirsty soul trapped in a desert of mediocrity. For example, this sentence: "There are stains and it smells of woodfire and tobacco smoke, bacon, dust and time." - I can literally taste what you are describing, as I read it. I absolutely love your work. You've made my day.

  2. That field coat sounds like a trusted old friend, the kind whose reliability is never questioned.

  3. Well done, son. Wish I still had the MdAlpins coat for you.

  4. Nice. This post displays your writing and the traits of it that I enjoy most.
    Btw, I have an LL Bean field coat as well. I had one before this one as well. I am happy with the product too.