Let me tell you about a jacket that took me forty years to throw away.
When I was ten, we moved from Yonkers, New York to Princeton, New Jersey. I hated it. I could make a good case for blaming all my subsequent problems in life on that move. I don’t make that case, though. And, in truth, being ripped away from the life I knew and loved and being hurled into a profound isolation might have formed me in ways that later helped me to survive. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
On both sides of that move - before we moved to Princeton and before we moved back to Yonkers two years later - my dad did a lot of commuting back and forth. He suffered more than my mom or I did. She and I hated the move. My dad seemed to like it out there, though. The further he could get from his Great Depression-era roots, the better. For me, Princeton was an escape into darkroom photography, solitary bike rides and the world of comic books. But I digress again.
When we were still in Yonkers, my dad’s company gave him a loaner car so that he could drive to Princeton every other day. It was a no-frills, pale green Ford Pinto. It was so pale that it was almost white. It had no chrome or ornamentation of any kind and was tiny for the time. I was fascinated, having grown up with only Oldsmobiles to that point and very little experience with other makes and models.
He pulled up one day in this vehicle and I came out to look at it. When he opened the tiny trunk, we saw a folded up green pile of cloth inside. He pulled it out, shook it and held up an actual U.S. Army M65 field jacket. This was around 1970 and Vietnam was still going on. I was fascinated with this object. Some previous user of this rental car had obviously left it there. My dad said, “You can have it.” I took it into my hands.
It was way too big for me, but I began to wear it immediately. It had two standard green shoulder patches with gold eagles on them. There was no name tag, but there was another patch in red, white and blue, with a kind of arrow and two fleur-de-lis insignia. It had the usual zipper, snaps, and velcro cuffs and collar. Velcro was pretty nifty at the time and still is, actually. Four huge pockets, waist drawstring and endless street credibility among kids who had just stopped playing army games less than a year or two before.
Whatever happened to me over the next few decades, that jacket was usually part of the picture. I grew into it. I grew up with it and I eventually outgrew it. First, though, we moved to Princeton. My dad and I drove out there the next day. I had the jacket on. We drove back that evening on the New Jersey Turnpike, which was more dystopian at the time. We were passing through the zone of chemical factories when the Pinto started to cough and sputter and my father realized we had run out of gas. This was uncharacteristic. He was a careful, diligent guy. I have to conclude that he was too distracted with the logistics of life that day, and he simply forgot to get gas. Or maybe he overestimated the Pinto’s fuel economy.
We coasted to the side of the road and sat there for a moment. This was long before cell phones existed. We looked at each other, then got out to try to find some gas. It was an inhospitable stretch. Cars were speeding by on the road to the left. On the right, over the metal guard rail, a steep hill fell away. It was mainly dirt, scrub and lots of garbage that people had tossed from their cars. We scrambled down, crouching and breaking the fall with our hands. At the bottom was a tall fence. We could see broken cars piled high over the top of it. A junkyard. Fierce-sounding dogs ran up the other side and snarled at us. We looked in both directions, then scrambled back up the hill.
When we got to the car, my dad stood there. I could see him trying to figure out the next course of action. It almost certainly was going to involve hitching a ride. He looked grim, but I was not worried. He had always taken care of things. Still, I did not know what would happen next. At that moment, a short, snub-nosed white van pulled off the road and coasted to a stop in front of our car. It was battered and filthy. My dad looked at it and told me to wait by our car next to the guard rail while he walked over.
I saw him talking through the window and wandered over. The van was filled to the brim with crap - tools, clothing, tires and mechanical equipment. In between the two front seats was a hutch that covered the engine. The filth was indescribable. In the driver’s seat was a tremendous guy. He was wedged between his door and the engine like an egg in an egg crate. He was kind-looking. My dad explained that we needed a ride to a gas station.
This guy reached down and fished out a plastic water jug filled with some amber fluid - a gallon of gas - and handed it to my dad. My father tried to pay for it, but the guy waved him off. I don’t remember what he said, but he gave us that gas and slowly pulled back into the traffic. My father stood there with the jug of gasoline in one hand, staring at the van and shaking his head. He turned to me and said “Can you believe it? That guy just gave us this gas.” My dad was a generous guy, but he had had a hard childhood, harder than mine would ever be, and this random act of kindness made a deep impression on him.
We walked back to the car and he carefully tilted that jug and poured it into the gas tank, making sure he got every drop. The car started and we made it to the next toll booth, then found a gas station. Salvation! We got home and each had our version of a war story to tell. He was done with that car within a week, but I had the army jacket, which became an indelible part of my uniform from that day forward.
I wore it everywhere - to school, to concerts, to the store, and down to the median of trees and bushes on the Bronx River Parkway where my best friend and I used to go to smoke weed. I traveled in that jacket, took it to school, got arrested in it, and shivered in the frozen winds of Northeast winters, despite having buttoned in the standard issue U.S. Army liner. One day in the 1980s, I ran into a guy on the street who stopped me. He had seen the fleur-de-lis patch and he said, “Hey! That was my unit in Europe!” I had to tell him that I had found the jacket and had no idea what the patch meant. I was a little disappointed that it was from Europe and not Southeast Asia but, by that point, the jacket had become part of my psyche, so it didn’t matter. I've since discovered that the patch was for COMZEUR, short for “U.S. Army Communications Zone Europe.”
That jacket seemed indestructible. And for years it was. It slowly got frayed around the edges. The velcro began to get used up and the fabric began to sag in strange ways. After I had moved out of the house and was living with my future wife, I’d go home to visit my parents and my mom would say, “Paul, why don’t you throw away that jacket? It looks terrible.” She and my future wife would commiserate and bond over how shitty the jacket looked. They would say, "Can you believe how bad that thing looks? It's like a rag. I can't get him to throw it out." I was adamant. That jacket was never going anywhere.
I got married. Ten years later, I got divorced. I still had the jacket, but I had also bought a new one, a surplus M65. I eventually found a version in black and wore that, as well. When I moved out, I took the old jacket with me, folded it up and stuck it in the back of the closet. My mom died in 2000, but I still had the jacket. My basic outfit had not changed in 30 years. In summer, I wore jeans and a tee shirt. If it was super hot, I’d wear work shorts with lots of pockets. In the cold, I wore sweatshirts, sweaters, and hats. I had work boots on all year round, along with sneakers. In the fall and spring - army jackets. I saw no reason to change my look or bend to current fashion. Lucky for me, I didn’t really track fashion. Style comes and goes. Utilitarianism is forever.
A few years ago, I was in a ruthless mood and trying to shed some of the detritus of a lifetime. I was going through a closet and found myself holding the original jacket. By now, it didn't really fit. It was ripped up and faded and parts of it dangled when you held it. I looked at it hard for a few moments, then tossed it on the pile. I don’t remember whether I gave it away or just tossed it in the garbage, but I got it out of my life. I have other Army jackets. That one was my gateway to the joys of the M65 design and the incredible utility and strength of military clothing. It had soldiered on for nearly five decades.
There is something liberating in throwing things out, especially sacred cows. There is something liberating in not caring what you wear. There is something liberating in honoring the past and then moving on. Even though I lived in that jacket for many years, there are few photos of it. Its lifespan did not overlap with selfies and ubiquitous photography. I have little to illustrate this piece with, but I do have the one shot above. Aside from that, I can give you an indoor moment from the 1970s, a photo of New York’s piers before they built the Hudson River Park, and an abandoned car from the 1990s in the ghost rest area of Coaldale, Nevada.
Memory is just vapor. Without it, we are not the same, but we can’t rest on it. It won’t even fill your tank.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”
I relate madly to this glorious sartorial memory piece. I bought a denim jacket in the '80s (with a big ol' patchwork quilt design) that was from the '60s & wore it down to an absolute nub for decades. Could not throw it away. While I was working up the courage to bid it farewell my husband sneaked it away & brought it to a tailor who cut away the patchwork & sewed it into a new black denim jacket. He presented it to me one Christmas. I still wear it today.
Thanks for this thought-provoking, life-affirming essay!
Nice period piece. Chapeaux-bas.