I GREW UP in strange times, in the ’60s and ’70s. On the face of it, I was a long-haired, longer-skirted flower child, a poetry-writing hippie concerned with religion and world peace. Underneath that, in my heart, I was a rah-rah jock, a fan of all athletic pursuits, a person who’d pause to watch a game of any sort: pickup basketball, American Legion baseball, even little kids’ soccer. I was also a reader, a devourer of young-adult literature, a devotee of teen novels in which the ultimate goal in life wasn’t, as it would be in more recent, more politically correct literature, to find oneself. In the books I loved, girls wanted to find him, the all-important, all-encompassing boy they’d stay with for the rest of their days. They longed for that boy to be all-American, a hero — the high-school football hero. And in all those books, the crossover moment, the instant in which the heroine realized that her lifelong dream had come to fruition, came when that tall, handsome hero laid his letter jacket tenderly across her (slim, cardigan-draped) shoulders, to keep her warm. It was a teenage rite of passage I ardently wished for even as I dated counterculture types who sneered at all the letter jacket stood for while they protested the Vietnam War.
The letter jacket would not be denied.
Even in these times, these post-women’s-liberation days when we have Michelle in the White House and Hillary in charge of foreign policy and Sonia joining Ruth on the Supreme Court, there’s something about this retro emblem of the Happy Days era, this holdover (hangover?) from when the jock was king. I saw it last Christmas, when my daughter Marcy was home from college and her high-school girlfriends were stopping by the house. “Can I?” they’d ask Jake longingly when they spotted The Jacket on the sofa, where he tends to drop it. (Such a long, long way to the closet.) Granted shrugged permission, they’d lift it up gingerly, ease into it, and … luxuriate. Wrap it tight around themselves. Trace the embroidery with their fingertips, jam their fists into the pockets, possessing it, inhabiting it, if only momentarily. Taking on its might, its power, the status it conferred. Imagining themselves having it laid tenderly across their shoulders on a cold, cold night …
I was shocked by the way girls still bought into the letter-jacket legend. Shocked, and a little … thrilled. Because of course I never imagined any son of mine becoming a member of the few, the proud, the football-letter-jacket wearers. I’ve lived my life — actually, gotten most of my motivation from — not being mainstream, not fitting in, feeling separate and apart and misunderstood and, yeah, a little persecuted by the cool kids.
Now my son had become one of the cool kids.
I’m still figuring out how I feel about that.
YOU PAY WHEN you’re different, in a million ways, large and small. I remember checking in at the registration table at my 20-year high-school reunion and having the ex-cheerleader manning the attendance list — a skinny, hard-boiled blonde who’d always scared the hell out of me — glance up and say, “I like your dress.”