I suppose everyone has a fragment of personal history which has the power to stand out among that unfolding landscape of people, places, and events we call “life”, for want of a more precise rubric. It has slowly dawned on me over the ever-circling years, that Christmas, 1949 was one of those moments.
For one thing, it was to be the last Christmas which would see all of my family together in the parlor of the Vermont country farm home which so recently had become our “home place”, warmed by a woodstove fueled by chunks of hard maple, cut, split and stacked by our own hands, in front of a glowing fir tree cut from our own property. It was a “good” time; I can think of no hovering cloud of worry or pending twist of destiny to spoil that setting. Then again, I was a high school senior, full of my teenage self, and filled with an innocent contentment with the small world I occupied; challenged at most by occasional outbreaks of teenage acne.
Word had been put out that in addition to some books, my Christmas list contained a description of a much-admired wool jacket, then popular with young hunters my age. It came in both red-and-black and green-and black checkered patterns. My “down-country” Aunt Molly – my mother’s older sister – ended up with the assignment. Unfortunately, Aunt Molly did her shopping among a clutch of upper-end, big-name New York City stores, not at Lamson’s Hardware where anyone would have known what a “Vermont checkered hunting jacket” was.
The long-and-short of it was that I got to display my not-unknown acting skills that Christmas morning, as I lifted from the colorfully-bound box, a finely-made, multi-colored, “kind-of-a-plaid”, half-length jacket. One hundred percent wool. With a zipper no less.
Despite whatever other social deficits may have been mine, I was the product of many years of careful tutoring in “gentlemanly manners” – especially where my mother and her sisters were concerned. I never allowed my disappointment to reveal itself, and dutifully wore the Christmas jacket when called for. Even in front of my pals. At the same time, I dared not buy for myself the prize I had been expecting, so as not to reflect badly on Molly’s thoughtful (though uninspired) selection.
Within a matter of months of that milestone family gathering, my whole world would change: a few days after my seventeenth birthday, I would graduate from high school, war would break out in Korea, and I would be enlisting in the recently-created United States Air Force. Just before Christmas, 1950, I raised my right hand to the square, and prepared for the long train journey from Montpelier, Vermont to San Antonio, Texas. We were told to take with us only the clothing necessary for the trip, and since it was chilly the day of departure, I wore the plaid jacket.
The Air Force Training Command was totally unprepared to deal with the sudden influx of volunteers descending on Lackland Air Force Base at that time. Long-abandoned, tar-paper-covered wooden barracks became our home, and my flight - # 6631 - was turned over to the eager hands of a pair of recently-recalled, former Marine Corps drill instructors, who not only shared the same last name of Larsen, but a determination to make our lives as miserable as possible while no one else was looking ! These guys were the product of a World War II Paris Island culture which is the stuff of legend. From day one, they were in the business of erasing any civilian contamination left clinging to us. “This is a time of war “ we were constantly counseled, “forget about home, forget about Mommy, make up your mind you’re never going to see them again !”
To reinforce that idea, we emptied our wallets of photos of loved ones, and abstained from writing letters for several weeks. AND. . . we were asked to surrender the civilian cloths we had arrived with, for donation to the Salvation Army. “From now on you are required by articles of war to wear only your uniform, so you will have no need for civies”.
And so I said goodbye to my gray, gabardine trousers, blue double-breasted shirt, other accessories and the all-wool, Christmas jacket. At last I was done with it – December, 1950.
It was a warm, lazy blue-sky-kind-of-day in 1955 when I received a mystifying phone call. By then, I was a happy “civilian”, married to my high school sweetheart, and already father of the first of our four children, living back in central Vermont. The call came from the Railway Express agent at the nearby train station, advising me that my “baggage had arrived”.
“Some kind of mistake” I replied. “I am expecting no baggage.”
Well”, the agent went on, “if you are S/Sgt. A.C.Cooper, USAF, AF11206059, it belongs to you; come and get it. There’s no charge.”
Sure enough, that’s what was stenciled on the side of the nearly-empty military barracks bag I found waiting at the terminal. More mystified than ever, I unsnapped the unsecured buckle, and turned over the sack. Out tumbled the clothes I had last seen in an old tarpaper building in Texas more than five years earlier. And last out was the many-colored Christmas jacket, staring up at me accusingly from the platform of the same old depot I had departed from on that great journey which would take me across the world, and into a lifetime still unseen.
I can think of several scenarios that might explain that intrusion into a life I thought I was in charge of, but mostly I didn’t try too hard. Every time we faced a family move, I would run across the old travel sack, and consider getting rid of it. After all, I didn’t plan to wear any of those old duds. And finally, I did get rid of most of it. All except the Christmas jacket.
A few years ago, on Christmas Eve, I pulled the woolen garment out of the closet where it seemed to have found a home of its own, and modeled it for our grandkids, after telling them the story which went with it. Somehow, it became for me, unknowingly, but undeniably, a touchstone – a simple inanimate object of inexplicable value. Holding it lovingly in hands which have not survived the years nearly as well as the old coat, has become a part of every Christmas for the past dozen years.
As I write these lines, my Aunt Molly’s gift hangs just within easy reach, on a closet knob in my writing room. And I realize, looking at it, that this Holiday season will be the 60th since that gathering in the old family farmhouse so long ago, the one which would be the last of its kind; the year of The Christmas Jacket.