Sunday, October 7, 2012

My leather jacket.

  Jonnie Comet
  6 February 1994

  I don’t know about every guy who grew up in the ‘Sixties, but I watched a lot of Hogan’s Heroes on TV. And my favourite character was always Col Hogan.  Now I am sure this is not just because he was the guy in charge and I have this sort of power thing.  When we used to play Army on the block, there were always certain kids who had certain affinities for certain characters.  My brother was always Newkirk because he could do the Cockney accent.  I was always Col Hogan because I loved that leather jacket.
  No character in any WW2 movie I ever saw wore that rakish flier’s gear with more elan than Col Hogan.  He had the hat pushed back, jacket bunched up around his hands in his pockets, insolent smirk on his face– a perfect symbol of anti-authority in action.  But this disdain for authority was always well directed; for Hogan was always faithful to his country, his men and his mission.  That mission being, in the absence of opportunities to kill his enemies, to at least make life as miserable as possible for them at every chance he could.  Little did the antiwar activists of the day realise that here was a pro-military television character of their fathers’ generation who was actually a man after their own heart.
  So to me it was not surprising that the leather jackets so popular in the ‘Fifties (worn by ex-pilots and then by their sons), made a comeback during my high-school years in the ‘Seventies.  We had Happy Days and American Graffitti and The Lords Of Flatbush, all of which were nostalgic looks at the days when things like military-issue leather fliers’ jackets were still cool, before they went out of vogue in the decade of anti-military, anti-establishmentarianism.  And really, those Liberals were right; for there is nothing more ‘establishment’ than a leather jacket worn by some brave pilot in that greatest-ever war-to-end-all-wars.  Those guys were real heroes, real-life knights in shining armor, doing battle with the infidels of Fascism five miles above the earth at closing speeds of eight hundred miles an hour, without Radar, without fancy electronics, by their own eagles’ eyesight and nerves of steel alone.  It’s an image that readily lends itself to the fabrication of legends and myths about swashbuckling antics and derring-do the likes of which Dumas only ever dreamt.  Juxtapose that glory with the hideous likelihood of being flung out into a freezing-cold nothingness with half your body blown apart and the rest of it on fire and precious few seconds to recite your Rosary and the Our Father before you black out and plummet the rest of the way to impact upon a foreign soil held by an enemy unwilling to give your remains a Christian burial merely out of spite.  Who would dare claim there is nothing positive and inspirational about celebrating the resolute bravery of those who willingly defied such bone-chilling fears to do right by their country, conscience and God?
  I had the fortune (some might say mis-fortune!) of being in London during the summer of 1984, when Europe swarmed with sixty-year-old Yankee vets searching for remnants of their adventures on that longest day, 6 June, forty years earlier.  At Quartermasters, the army-navy shop in Islington, the proprietor had posted a sign above the counter:

  ‘Anyone asking anything about D-Day WILL BE SHOT!’

  Now this particular establishment carries a reputation in the motion-picture industry for stocking or being able to quickly acquire anything needed for WW2 films and as such had long ago run out of original-issue Army Air Force A-2 flight jackets.  Being an enterprising chap the proprietor had gone out and contracted an English manufacturer to make authentic reproductions, of which mine is one.  It is in the correct goatskin with a period nylon lining and all-brass fasteners, and is particularly distinguished from the faux copies readily available in the US and elsewhere by its conspicuous absence of side ‘hand-warmer’ pockets.  The original jackets did not have them; knowing this beforehand, I found exactly what I had been looking for hanging on his rack at Islington.  I mean, let’s face it, why does a pilot in the cockpit of an airplane need to put his hands in the pockets of his jacket?  He’s flying the airplane, for crying out loud!  Doubtless some guys had them cut in; the stories are legend about Yanks sneaking off on leave to Savile Row and having their GI-issue wardrobe tailored to fit for individuality.  Ike himself went there and had his wool dress jacket cropped at the waist; and this went on to be an unofficially-acceptable modification of the uniform (rather in the way that Lt Kennedy and others adopted Admiral Sperry’s yachting shoes in the Navy); in cases the Army even went so far as to identify which tailors in London were authorised to do the work.  The ‘Ike jacket’ became known as the ‘cool’ guy’s jacket, the jacket for the guy who drove a Buick convertible at home, smoked Luckies, and changed girls every Saturday dance.  But, perhaps I digress.
  So, the jacket that I have now and wear all the time is just like my dad’s.  Unlike many guys of my generation I was denied the opportunity of ever even seeing my dad’s own jacket.  On his way home to Fort Dix for his formal separation, after thirty missions and several commendations and half a year doing instructor duty back Stateside, his A-2 was swiped on the train.  To me that’s sacrilege.  It’s like stealing a Super Bowl ring or an Olympic medal.  What would the thief do with it?  Wear it?  And what can he say if someone were to ask him about it?  He can’t claim any pride of having earned it, can he?
  And so this begs the question: why do I wear mine?  Do I have any claim to that level of honour?  No; of course not.  The jacket is only a reproduction; and I’ve never been at the right place at the right time to have been called off to any wars and thus get to earn any important jackets.  But that’s exactly why I wear it.  It commemorates a principle that’s important to me, something I care to think about every day.  Heroes just don’t grow on clothes racks.  And those heroes whom our generation has so admired should never be forgotten.  They went through hell so we wouldn’t have to.  Just ask any one of them.
  And I know one day that 70-ish guy from the VFW, who’s given up on modesty after seeing everything for which he fought get trampled on by clueless earringed brats with no respect for the flag, may come up to me and say, ‘Yo, kid.  Whaddiyou think, you earned that jacket?’  But I have a response for him.
  ‘No, sir. My father earned it for me.’

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1 comment:

  1. Jonnie;

    Took me awhile to get here but I am GLAD I did.

    Well said sir, well said.

    Lloyd McDaniel