It’s been a surprisingly warm winter. Just the other Sunday we had our lunch at the picnic table. A picnic lunch in January? Unbelievable.

But, yes, a picnic lunch it was.  That’s how warm it has been.

As a result, I haven’t been able to wear the pants very much this year, just twice so far, actually.  They are so thick and heavy that I can only save them for the coldest days.  It’s getting colder again, so I have hopes to pull them out again. But I wear them when I can because they are warm, comfortable and my dad’s.

That’s weird, isn’t it?  For a 36-year-old woman to wear a pair of her dead father’s old pants?

I suppose it is.

Yes, I suppose it is.

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My dad (“Ralph,” he’d tell people. “My name is Ralph. You know, like everyone’s dog on television? Yeah, Ralph.”) joined the Navy when he was 17 years old.  A November baby, he was always one of the youngest in his class and he graduated from high school five months shy of his eighteenth birthday.  I’m not sure how being younger affected his school days, but it worked in his favor in the Navy.  As a result of his below-18 enlistment, he only had to serve three years instead of the usual four.  He was happy about that in later years.  He thought that was a good deal.  I don’t think he loved being in the Navy.

Why the Navy, anyway? He was from the western slope of Colorado. He loved fishing, camping, and walks in the woods.  He liked horses and wide open spaces.  My whole life I don’t think I saw him in a boat bigger than a canoe.  He liked to be alone.  Why in the world would he be drawn to the Navy, right after the close of the Korean War?  Why would such a man commit to cloistering himself on a ship, in close quarters, with hundreds of other men?

I don’t know why.  Like most things having to do with his Navy time, like most things having to do with his life, my dad didn’t have much to say about it.  It just was.  It was a thing he did and by the time I came along he was doing something else and he didn’t really see the need to tell me much about it.  Why didn’t I stop bothering him and go weed the tomatoes?

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A while ago my sister went to my grandmother’s house and brought back a stack of letters my dad had written during his time in the Navy. She spent hours transcribing his illegible lefty handwriting.  They are sweet, straightforward letters, practical to a fault.  Blankets are cheap here, can I buy you some?  I have to go see the dentist; they say I’ll need that tooth pulled.  Do you have some money to spare? I hate to borrow it but I’m in a bind.  I’m bored; didn’t make it to the show.  Tell the folks I’ll try to write soon.

He ended up as a mechanic on an aircraft carrier.  That’s not a surprise.  He was handy.  He could fix anything.  “I scored the next to highest score in mech,” he wrote from boot camp. “I hope I can get in a school for mech.” He did.  By 1955 he was in charge of a plane.  He didn’t want to be; too much responsibility.

He went to Japan.  The boy from Colorado was in Japan and all he had to say about it was that the way they took their shoes off sure did help keep their houses clean.  He went to Hong Kong, too. It was crowded. What else, Ralph? What else about Japan?  What else about Hong Kong? Isn’t any of it interesting to you, Ralph?

For god’s sake, man. Why the Navy?

We’ll never know.

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I have more than this single pair of zip-front pants, of course.  I have his full navy uniform: the button-up pants, two wool sailor shirts, the seabag.  No coat, though, I think my sister has that. She absconded with it in high school, when a vintage Navy peacoat was just the thing to go with your combat boots.  I was terribly jealous that she got to it first.  The rest of the uniform was mostly forgotten about, until one day when we all dug it out and I put it on as a joke.  It all fit me perfectly, this uniform intended for a 17-year-old boy.  It still does, mostly.  The button pants and shirts are tucked away in the seabag in the attic.  The regular pants hang in my closet.

They are, even after 50 plus years, the warmest pants I’ve ever seen.  The wool is dense and a bit stiff.  In the days before fleece and Gore-Tex, wool was all they had to withstand storms at sea.  This stuff can withstand.  Once, for kicks, I put them on and went for a walk when it was -20 degrees.  I was warm.  I was plenty warm.

His name and number are stenciled on the inside in white.  He scrawled his initials on the tag in the back, too.  At one point he repaired part of the fly by stapling it.  The staples are still there.  They make me laugh, thinking about teenage Ralph stapling his pants back together.

I love those pants.

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I only ever got one semi-full story from my dad about the Navy. He told me once, apropos of nothing that I can remember, about how much he loved being on the aircraft carrier.  In particular, he liked going to the back of the ship.  He would hang out at the stern and watch the wake from the engines stretching off into the distance.  Back there, he was surrounded by nothing.

Once in a while a plane would take off.  He would watch it race down the length of the ship and launch, dropping suddenly down below view as it left the ship, and then climbing up, up, up into the sky.  “That was really neat,” he told teenaged me about teenaged him.  “I really liked watching that.”

I love that image of young Colorado-raised Ralph, sitting on a random crate in his stapled pants, smoking cigarettes and watching planes take off from a ship.  I love that image because even packed in tight with hundreds of other men off the shore of Japan, he found a way to be alone.  I love that image because it sounds like something I would have done.

Some people have family heirlooms, ancestral estates, and elaborate family histories.  They have gravy boats with pedigrees and stories about Great-Aunt Victoria’s scandalous affair with the count.

I have a pair of stapled-together Navy pants.

I’m okay with that.

As I said, they are very warm.

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