Student Life, Voices

The Salt and Pepper Coat

It was drab in color and scratchy to the touch, not a coat that would have been on any child’s Christmas list. But it was warm, cozy and so durable it served eight of us between the World War II and Vietnam eras.

I was sixth in line, and someone had dubbed it the salt and pepper coat long before it reached me. It was grayish-white flecked with brown and black, the way a roof shingle might look from a distance, and the belt was covered in the same fabric. The buttons were round and leathery, and it had a generous collar of brown fur, like an upscale teddy bear.

None of us loved or hated it, but then six-year-olds who wore Catholic school uniforms weren’t programmed to care about fashion. And in those days, even suburban kids didn’t expect all their stuff to be new. To us, inheriting this coat was as much a part of first grade as vaccinations, missing teeth and First Communion.

My father and uncle earned decent salaries, but with five children and one sensible wife apiece, thrift was a way of life. Our families lived a block apart and shared everything from skillets to sleds to magazines. Any garment with “plenty of wear left,” as the moms put it, was a treasure. An imported unisex coat with a multi-decade lifespan was practically the Holy Grail.

English tweed meant little to us kids, but to adults it signified top of the line, up there with Chinese silk and Irish linen. Apparently one of Uncle Jack’s relatives had gotten the coat for his son Jack in early 1944. It may have been sent across the Atlantic to Newark even as Dad’s Army unit was taking the opposite route in preparation for the D-Day invasion.

When young Jack outgrew the coat it went to his brother David, between the end of the war and the start of my parents’ courtship. My cousin Pat probably acquired it amid my mom and dad’s wedding, Truman’s election and the birth of her brother Donald.

The century was at dead center when the coat went on hiatus. It stayed idle until Don entered school. In the interim, our family got underway. By the time Don fit the coat, Disneyland had opened and three more prospective users were on deck. My brother Danny got it next and was small enough to wear it through three Sputnik launches.

Then it was my turn. There was nothing momentous about receiving such a familiar garment, but I recall how good it felt to bury my chin in the thick fur on chilly mornings. I was wearing it the day I first grieved over a news story, an account of the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.

My legs lengthened fast as the new decade approached, and soon the coat was my brother Frank’s. He was short for his age and wore it well into the New Frontier. Then, around Kennedy’s assassination, the salt-and-pepper coat met its match in my third brother.

We were all active and careless with clothing but Chris, hyperkinetic and obsessed with taking things apart, set records for destruction. (He dismantled the playpen that had held four of us, along with its replacement.) But in fairness, even the toughest tweed isn’t immortal. Chris vs. the coat ended in a draw and it retired with honors--and several new war wounds.

Each of us had been photographed in the coat: broad-shouldered Jack with his wide grin; serious, sandy-haired Dave; curly-headed Pat, lovely as a porcelain doll; lanky, mischievous Don; wiry, towheaded Danny; myself, blond and freckle-faced; solemn, sturdy Frank with his buzz cut; and Chris, all cowlicks, long limbs and restless energy.

As grade-schoolers, we carried kid-sized briefcases called book-bags. Side by side, those eight photos would have looked like a portrait of Winston Churchill’s illegitimate family.

Today that outfit could easily earn you a wedgie and even then, it wasn’t the norm. Nobody ever saw a Jersey schoolyard full of British tweed. But in an era of making do and raising big families on one salary, there wasn’t one single “must-have” style. A duffle coat fastened with wooden toggles might show up on eight siblings while a pea jacket with buttons like half-dollars ran through an entire neighborhood.

Millenial kids may enjoy their all-new wardrobes, but I suspect it’s the parents who truly revel in them, proud to foot the bills as they recall the hand-me-downs of childhood. Those memories had the reverse effect on me. In my twenties, I happily appropriated my brothers’ castoff sweaters and jeans, traded clothes with roommates and scoured thrift shops for vintage items.

What gave me a surge of parental pride was the time I saw my teenage stepdaughter raiding our closets. Why not? After all, those jackets and shirts were classic and comfortable. And, like the salt and pepper coat, they still had plenty of wear left in them.

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Profile photo of Loretta Bolger Wish

Classic film commentary, with a focus on casting, through my Hollywood Castaway blog. I also write memoir pieces, humor and pop-culture essays and contribute to the Huffington Post.