Coat of Many Colors

I had this garment, see: a coat of many colors.

A Levis jacket, Chinese-made with American fade, it had almost every unit patch I’ve ever worn sewn onto the back.

Peacetime insignia were in full color:  Second Infantry Division, my first assignment in Korea; III Corps where I worked personnel security for the corps artillery, initiating nosy searches on battalion commanders; 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) from my last peacetime, active duty stint with Charlie Battery, 1st of the 13th Field Artillery (Multiple Launch Rocket System).

Rounding out the colored patches over my butt was 9th Infantry Division’s red, white and blue cookie, the patch I wore to drill with the Washington Army National Guard two decades ago, when I was an undergrad at WSU and our Guard hadn’t yet received its own squawking thunderbird insignia.

Across the top were stitched my combat patches in the “subdued desert” colors I wore them in:  sand and brown.  Decorating my left shoulder blade was USACAPOC (U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command) with its terrible swift sword, Zeussian bolts and airborne tab; 25th Infantry Division’s “flaming pineapple” to the upper right; outboard on my right shoulder was 2nd Infantry Division’s “Indian head” patch repeated.  At the top center rode my Combat Action Badge, nearly obscured by rolling waves of graying hair.

It’s all meaningless to most Americans, a riotous babble of colors and symbols readily forgotten if ever even momentarily grasped.  To army vets, it admits of a choppy résumé, with six major unit patches to show for nine years’ service.  A young soldier, in line for travel pay at the VA American Lake mental health center, glanced at my back and remarked to his mother, “Looks like this guy’s been everywhere.”

I turned around and smiled and said, “Yeah.

“I have no integrity whatsoever.”

Two of those insignia are no longer worn by any soldiers, anywhere.  Each time I shrugged on that jacket, frayed and washed out, I became a walking anachronism.

I wore it everywhere, summer and winter.  In weather too cold for a jeans jacket, I pulled a tin cloth coat or a woolen mackinaw over it. Summers, I wore it open or slung it over my shoulder like Linus’s security blanket, sometimes with an accompanying cigar. Sometimes with a dog at my side, or Pretty Wife to hold my hand. Safeguards. Defenses. Measures must be taken.

Once in awhile, I do buy a decent cigar.  They taste better than my thumb. Don’t tell my doctor.

Don’t tell him about the drinking, either. Two years ago, I told the VA I don’t drink anymore. It makes their questionnaires easier to fill out, and keeps me out of the Seattle VA hospital basement where they hide the drunk tank out of sight.

I don’t want to go there. More easily talked into things than before, I have to watch my step to keep from being taken care of in ways that limit life.

A service ethic does not brotherhood make.  Those embroidered flashes of angry pride separated me from always-civilians as surely as a chauffeur’s cap draws distinction from his patron, while my long and ragged hair, bristled chin and unpolished, slip-on shoes admitted my lapses of soldierly discipline.  Young men with stout backs and reliably lubricated knees – men who still could carry the ball forward, hit the line and punch through – looked away when I met their sympathetic gazes.

Drained of utility and dispossessed of fraternity, I felt more kinship with wizened warriors displaying the Order of Lenin on their long, wool greatcoats; with ghost dancers huddled into blankets on their reservations, chanting of old battles won only in memory; than with my fellow Americans.

Were there any?

After a while, I wore my jeans jacket less.  Sometimes, when the sun was out, I’d go out into the world armored only jeans and a t-shirt, trying hard to remember to move my wallet over.  Every few days, I’d lose track of my jacket and have to wait for it to reappear, maybe on a jack stand under the carport or behind the truck seat or down at the coffee shop, hopefully without my wallet in it.

This was not a jacket-specific problem.

Loud booms tore enough brain tissues to affect my processing performance and RAM access.  They tell me mild TBI hasn’t made me an idiot, but the difference is palpable.

Would you notice if you suddenly couldn’t carry a tune, or if trigonometry became a foreign language? What if you remembered what it felt like to code software transparently, but now had to do it inch by agonizing, syntactic increment? What if you couldn’t make a measured drawing anymore? That’s how the world feels to a writer who has to check definitions on the web, or defer — ever — to the shambling horror of Microsoft’s grammar checker.

This is why you don’t beat on your laptop with a hammer.  If I were a professional boxer, I’d have a posse to mind my stuff.  Instead, I have the Veterans Administration.

They issued me a Palm Pilot sardine-packed with automated alarms and phone numbers, writing snippets and addresses and even wallet-sized photos.  I learned how to scrawl computer-approved characters into it, retrieve data and jump like a hungry dog at its Pavlovian chime.  Periodically, I would mislay it for a few days or simply fail to recharge it and its calendar, like my own, would reset to 2005.

“Honey, where’s my jacket?”

It was raining, and she was waiting by the door.  “I don’t know, Jack.  Why don’t you wear your wool coat?  If we don’t get moving, they’ll be closed when we get there.”  I don’t get moving as readily as I used to, and almost never without gentle chivvying from my sweetie.  I respect her need to do that.  I acknowledge my own need to hear it.  I quit poking around, grabbed a different jacket and shuffled to the car.

I waited five weeks for my jeans jacket to reappear before resigning myself to the fact that I’d never wear it again.  Still, I quietly kept my eyes open.  That jacket was a unique piece.  If it showed up on an old vet at the tent city where we made our monthly food donation, more power to him and I’d quietly nod in his direction.  If it showed up on a college student protesting imaginary war crimes, I wasn’t sure what I’d do.  “Shit or go blind” were not on the list of possibilities; I was pretty sure of that.

On my mental operations board, I battle-updated my denim jacket’s status from AWOL to MIA.  Besides, we were well into the season of wool and Gore-Tex, and it was about time to quit throwing that thumb-suckin’ rag over my shoulder, anyway; time to fatten up to American spec; time to get my stuff together, to quit shuffling along and glancing behind me and making cops look twice to see where I might loiter.

And it wouldn’t just show up somewhere. Having fickle-fingered me to her satisfaction, Fate wouldn’t intervene here.

Because they know the bitch, my friends didn’t leave it to Fate. They pushed her aside and squared me away.

Sean, retired Marine and poet extraordinaire, scored most of the replacement patches.  Tom, techno-Ranger and my old running buddy from college and the National Guard, procured the rest.

Pretty Wife, a woman long on tenacity, spends it liberally on her cranky spouse.  She located what may have been the last brand-new XL Levis jacket in the Puget Sound area at South Center’s Sears Roebuck, where cosseted deep amongst the pregger blouses and grime-finished, ass crack jeans of current fashion they were closing out “trucker’s utility coats.”  Then she broke out her sewing machine and the patches chipped in by friends, and made it mine.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the colors are brighter on this coat than the original, because you, un-brain damaged, remain logical enough to know that patches are just patches, uniformly the same.  But then, you probably don’t think a thin cotton jacket keeps the cold world out, either.

Shows what you know.  This one is bulletproof; it’s beautiful, and it’s the warmest garment I’ve ever owned. So smile when you see it.

I always do.

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  1. Damn straight. That’s what buddies do. Including the lovely one you married… she may not *grok* it, but she *gets* it… and in the end, that’s what counts; that’s what keeps you safe and sane and out the door on time.

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