By Tim Hayes
Thirteen is a tough age.
You’re still figuring out where you stand on the chessboard of popularity. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s knocking on the door. The steamy, sticky ooze of peer pressure seeps into your consciousness, setting up housekeeping in your brain, until you evict it somewhere after high school graduation.
In my case, these afflictions manifested themselves in an unprovoked, unexpected, and unreasonable demand for a CPO coat. Named after the naval rank of Chief Petty Officer, CPO coats were patterned after a wool shirt often worn as a light jacket onboard ship. How it became the rage for teenage boys in the late 1970s is beyond me, but I found myself caught in the hype at the time.
It was seventh grade, and I simply had to have a CPO coat. And I was going to make everyone’s life at home a living taste of Hades until I got one.
So, just to shut my big mouth up, I suppose, we drove out to Sears and the object of my desire came to me. A white-with-brown-plaid woolen CPO coat. Yes, it sounds hideous today. But in 1973? Oh baby, it was the beginning and the end of cool. Of being part of the pack. Of standing out by not standing out.
I wore it every day to school during the winter months. Yet for as much as I loved the idea of wearing it, I never really liked that coat all that much. The wool itched my neck like crazy. It sort of pinched under my armpits. But I soldiered on, recalling the snit-fits I threw in order to get the damn thing, and wanting to avoid any verbal rebound at home if I said I never wanted to wear my CPO coat again.
They say the best lessons are learned outside the classroom. In this case, that certainly felt true. Little did I suspect more learning lay in store.
The other guys in my class who had CPO coats welcomed me into their ranks for the first couple of days, then equilibrium settled in again. The super-cool guys to themselves, the never-cool guys over there, and the bland, middling, average guys like me in the nondescript center once again.
But a 13-year-old can hope.
One frosty, snowy afternoon once school had let out for the day, I started walking down the sidewalk of a steep hill on my way back home, clad in my brown-and-white CPO coat. A gang of eighth graders also wearing CPO coats – the epitome of cool – started shouting to me, waving for me to hurry down the hill and join them.
Could this actually be happening? Those guys want ME to walk with them? Eighth graders? With CPO coats? A dream come true!
So naturally, I did as was instructed and started running down that hill – until, that is, I hit a big patch of ice on an untreated sidewalk, flew in the air, crashed on my ass, bookbag flung into the street, papers and pencils everywhere, and gang of CPO-clad creeps laughing hysterically at the bottom of the hill.
They knew that ice was there. They were counting on an eager fool like me to not see it. They set me up. It was brilliant, actually. Unless you happened to be the victim, of course.
Slowly I got on my feet again, rubbed my aching tailbone, collected all of my school stuff – now soggy and soaked from landing in street slush – and finished the trek home. Alone. No joining the ranks of CPO coat eighth graders for me that day.
Hanging my CPO coat over a kitchen chair, I fixed a bowl of cereal and sat looking at it while I munched my embarrassment away with Cap’n Crunch my sole companion. The decision did not take long.
I never wore that CPO coat again. I never could stand wool clothes anyway. Another lesson learned. Thirteen really is a tough age.
Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes