Outliving the Military-Grade



Everybody and everything around us are hurtling through time together, so we often experience a relative stillness as we age, just as we stretch and yawn hurtling through space at 872,000 miles per hour. If you ever wondered why Great Uncle Gus fails to register the effect his dancing has on wedding guests, it is because he is contemporaneous to his own life, and full of bourbon.

Now and then, though, something happens to give pause. You catch a glimpse, say, of Kid Rock emerging to subvert democracy, and you think, Good lord, he was one of those younger guys who came along after the rockers I used to listen to as a kid. If he looks decrepit, maybe I should have a look in the mirror. (He didn’t take care of himself, so I’m probably fine.)

Before Christmas I told my sons I wished I still had my first army field jacket. When I served, uniforms and gear were being modernized from the Vietnam era, so my first field jacket was olive drab, a real OG coat; my second was in the camouflage pattern that civilians found less stylish. I still have my second one. The first was lost many years ago to a girlfriend who “wanted to wear it,” and when I had the pragmatic bad taste to say if we ever broke up I would like it back, she threw it at me and stomped into her parents’ house. Having learned a valuable lesson, I gifted her the coat, begging forgiveness for doubting our future. She and the coat are long gone.

For Christmas this year my sons wanted to help me find an identical coat and have my original patches sewn on it. The last time I looked, army-navy stores were full of them, in all sizes and conditions. Those who traded in real military surplus had a slogan: If it smells, it sells.

But something happened since the last time I looked: 25 years passed. What the hell?

The coats are gone from stores, and the few being sold on eBay are in bad shape and come in odd sizes, like many people my age. Not me, of course: I am as unwrinkled and fresh as the brand-new OG field jackets made in China to US military specs and sold online and in surplus stores. I tried one on and my sons bought it for me, and a tailor sewed on my patches. It looks good. Maybe a little too good.

On my first trip out in it, some old man in the Walgreens interrogated me in a friendly-suspicious manner about the coat. He did not seem to be looking for a stolen valor fight; he was just curious and a little envious. He served himself, in the same era I did, and we had a nice talk about those times. I left feeling sorry he was so old. I figure if I wear my new coat while I do some labor, and put it through a couple of washes, I probably will not get any more of those awkward questions.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.