“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.”
“He does not!”
“He does too. He looks like a pink nightmare.”
-Mr. and Mrs. Parker in “A Christmas Story”
At the tender ages of eleven through thirteen, the most important aspect in fashion etiquette was the desire to remain anonymous. No matter what you wore, no matter what your hairstyle, no matter how you arrived at school, you could not be conspicuous. There was a conscious effort to blend in with everyone else, which affected many of your daily decisions. It wasn’t as if you had to be “cool”, but you definitely didn’t want to be un-cool. If you came to school wearing a new, bright yellow polo shirt, it was sure to be noticed and you would inevitably be made fun of. “Hey, banana boy!” “Turn off that shirt, I can’t see with the glare!” “Did your grandma buy you that shirt?” It seemed as if all of us were just waiting around for the opportunity to make fun of our “friends”; subtle not being in the repertoire. In a few short years it would be different, but for now, remaining off the radar was the way to fly. That leads me to Mom. She apparently didn’t get the memo.
Mom, in an effort to send Timmy and me to school fashionably dressed, and also to refine her skills on the Singer sewing machine, decided to make us both a pair of dress pants and matching vests. “Ronnie and Timmy come out here and see what I’ve made you for school” we heard Mom proudly exclaim from the living room. As we came out of our room and feasted our eyes on what Mom had made, we both looked at each other with wide eyes, not saying a word, but both of us swallowing really hard. With Dad in the room, we couldn’t say what was running through our minds (“You’ve got to be kidding me. I get made fun of enough as it is, but with these “loud” clothes on I might as well crawl in a hole and die.”).
The pants Mom held up for me were bell bottoms, designed with zig zag stripes running vertically throughout the pants; consisting of browns, blues and oranges. The vest was a perfect match, made of the same material. I was flabbergasted and could only think of what my friends would do to me once they saw me wearing this outfit. “That’s really nice Mom. Do I have to wear it?” was a question without an answer. The look on Dad’s face was all I needed to “hear”. I did feel a little bit better when I saw the outfit Mom had made Timmy.
Timmy’s pants were also bell bottoms, but his design was much more patriotic than mine. The stripes on his pants were red, white, and blue, resembling the flag hanging on the pole out in front of the junior high. I fully expected the ROTC kids to salute him when he walked into the school. His vest was also a perfect match. In addition to their appearance, the pants did not fit snugly like my jeans, the crotch extending halfway to my knees. I was frightened at the prospect, but knew I would have to wear this outfit to school. My shirt was powder blue, matching the blue stripe in the pants, whereas Timmy’s shirt was navy. We were a sight!
The day had arrived and Mom, proud as she could be, made sure we looked our best as we headed off to school. “You boys look wonderful!” was ringing in our ears as we left the house. Walking to school that morning I could have sworn I saw cars driving off the road and into the ditch as they passed me walking down Fairview Avenue. As I made my way to Gerald’s house I kept my head down and my eyes focused, not wanting to see or be seen by anyone. Gerald’s Mom was kind as she said, “You look nice today, Ronnie,” sounding eerily similar to Mom’s final words. The look on Gerald’s face told the real story, as he seemed to be fighting the urge to comment about my new pants and vest. All he could muster was, “Why are you wearing a vest? Is there something going on at school today?”
Once inside the junior high, I quickly made my way to my locker, not making eye contact with anyone, and if I could have crawled inside and shut the door I would have. The first thing I decided to do was lose the vest and it remained in my locker until the last bell rang. I had a hard time concentrating on school, feeling the eyes burning a hole in my back and hearing the faint whispers, “look at those pants” that continued throughout the day; seven classes, seven different groups to entertain. My friends were gracious and withheld any teasing since they could see that I was already miserable. For some reason they were merciful, at least on this occasion.
School was finally over for the day and I nearly ran the two miles home, hoping I didn’t come in contact with anyone I knew. When Mom came home from work she asked me how much everyone liked my new outfit. My answer was short and sweet, “I don’t think anyone noticed.” I never wore the new pants and vest to school again; they may still be hanging in my closet or at the very least sitting on the rack at a thrift store, to be purchased some day by someone in need.
Mom wasn’t the only one in the family who, even though she loved us much, had set us up for ridicule at the hands of our peers. Dad actually beat her to the punch. Not long after arriving in Missouri, Dad approached Timmy and me with a new gift he had purchased. “Boys, I bought you these winter hats. The temperatures get pretty cold here in comparison to California, so I decided you could wear these. They will keep your head and ears toasty. You know that most of the heat you lose from your body exits through your fingers, toes, and head.” Dad was always teaching us new things and I appreciated the physical science lesson, but when he handed us our new hats, my jaw dropped. If I described them as Russian winter hats, I think you would get the picture. The outside was made of leather and the inside was lined with fur. A front flap was snapped to the forehead portion of the hat and there were two flaps designed to cover the ears. When they weren’t covering the ears, they could be snapped on top of the hat.
Thinking that was the end of it and that these new hats could be thrown in a drawer never to see the light of day, Timmy and I thanked Dad and started to walk away. “Well, try them on.” Dad proceeded to show us how the hats worked; the various snaps and multiple ways they could be worn. He seemed to be satisfied and walked out of our room. Timmy and I looked at each other and I boldly said, “I’m not wearing that hat.” Timmy wasn’t sure and asked, “What if Daddy finds out?” Again, being cocksure I replied, “How is he ever going to know?”
On the way to school that next morning, the temperature in single digits, my new Russian winter hat was tucked snugly inside my coat pocket. All of a sudden I felt a car approaching behind me and heard these words, “Ronnie, put your hat on!” I was at a loss for words, shocked but at the same time wondering, “Why isn’t he at work and how did he know I wouldn’t be wearing my new hat?” Dad had underestimated the heat holding ability of my new Russian hat, southern Missouri not quite the frigid tundra of Siberia. As I entered the school with sweat dripping down my sideburns one of my friends casually remarked, “Nice hat Ronnie!” with my retort being the only one I could think of on short notice, “It’s warm.” I kept it on, for the time being. Eventually the hat “accidentally” became lost or destroyed or stolen; I’m not sure which. I suppose I was a typical boy my age; more concerned with how I looked than keeping warm. I’ve noticed the phenomenon exists to this day; amazed at the teens I’ve seen walking in mid-winter, arms folded across their chests, bowed at the waist against the frigid air, a coat nowhere in sight. It seems that some human traits will forever stand the test of time.
*This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, to be released in the fall of 2014.