I had one winter coat.
I knew it was mine because my name was printed boldly in black marker on its inside tag.
Every kid had his name on his coat because most winter coats were exactly the same. Our moms weren’t worried about somebody swiping our coats as much as they were about someone taking one by accident.
Navy pea coats were the popular coat style of our day. You could tell the colors of a kid’s dog or cat by looking at the loose hair on his navy blue jacket. The plaid CPO was also a cool coat. But CPOs were always sold out by Thanksgiving at Robert Hall.
My new winter coat was usually my brother’s old winter coat. That was OK. As long as it didn’t smell like him, and there was nothing gooey in the pockets.
Funny. I wore my one and only winter coat every day for months except on the very coldest day of winter.
That very coldest day of the year may have been a snow day from school, or a Saturday or Sunday. Despite frigid temperatures and warnings of frostbite, the neighborhood gang gathered outdoors for sledding, or a game of sandlot football.
We couldn’t be stopped by the coldest day of the year. We were kids. We didn’t comprehend that it was cold enough outdoors to turn our fingers blue and numb until ball season. We had few fears.
I learned a simple lesson from my Grandpa Tockstein on how to dress warmly on the coldest days of the year.
Dress in layers, Red.
Layers upon layers, he said.
“And you won’t rip your coat monkeying around on the sled,” he warned.
Or later that day, when a dad would tie the sled up to the back of his car with a long rope and take us kids for a spin around the neighborhood.
Safe? Nope. Neither was riding our bikes without a helmet, climbing trees, riding in the flatbed of a truck, swimming in a creek after a storm, or eating a piece of salami still in the rind.
We were lucky, no doubt.
And even luckier that no one put fear into everything we did.
Dressing in layers meant we could clean out our drawers and empty the dirty clothes hamper and wear every piece of clothing in the house, including anything left underneath a bed or couch cushion.
Pick it up.
If your eyes didn’t water, it’s wearable, right?
You started with a T-shirt.
Then another T-shirt.
Topped off by my older brother’s larger T-shirt.
Then one of Dad’s lined flannel shirts that was too thick to be called a shirt but too thin to be called a coat.
Then some old sweatshirts.
Maybe a bathroom towel for a scarf. But only clean ones. We may not have been candidates for Scholar Quiz. But we knew a wet towel would freeze and become a weapon. From experience, likely.
It was physically impossible to walk while wearing two pairs of Sears Toughskins blue jeans. One pair of Toughskins was tough enough to keep our legs dry and warm, even on the coldest day of the year. Besides, get those durable Sears jeans wet and cold and they stiffened like fiberglass and tripled in weight.
We wore several layers of underwear or gym shorts underneath our jeans. I don’t know why. Probably because we knew that a wet, cold butt was the first thing that would send us home from the hill or sandlot. Or because it was the only day of the year we could get by with wearing more than one pair of underwear.
On the coldest, coatless day of the year, you had to wear at least four pairs of socks. Three pairs of clean socks on your feet and yesterday’s socks on your hands. A pair of dirty socks worked great as gloves. When it was below zero, and you were on a sled, no other kids cared if your hands smelled like feet.
By the time we were outdoors, our bedroom drawers and dirty clothes hampers were empty because we were wearing every piece of clothing we owned.
Except a winter coat, with name printed boldly in black marker on the inside tag.