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His T-shirts let you wear your feelings

Bob McKesson's life is usually pretty normal, but this summer it was full of surprises.

The first came when the local T-shirt entrepreneur received a phone call from the Tokyo Broadcasting System asking for an interview.

The second occurred recently when an Associated Press photo ran nationally of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton holding up one of McKesson's T-shirts during his "Rust Belt" whistle-stop tour.

But the T-shirt maker seems to thrive on controversy, so he was ready for the attention his message received.

When the phone rang several months ago, McKesson thought he was hearing things. On the other end of the line was the voice of Yea Katsumura, a producer for the Tokyo Broadcasting System. Katsumura was asking about McKesson's Pearl Harbor II T-shirt company and its first controversial T-shirt, which sports a brightly colored graphic of a Japanese Zero airplane dropping Japan-made televisions, videocassette recorders, cars and other items from its bomb-bay doors over a map of the United States with the slogan "Buy American Before It's Too Late."

"I was really surprised," McKesson said. "They said they wanted to interview me for the show that's like The Today Show in Japan." And McKesson was ready to explain all about it.

Katsumura saw the T-shirt in Ohio when she attended the General Motors meeting announcing the closing of several American factories around the country in the next five years.

"Many of the auto workers were wearing the T-shirt," Katsumura said. "We wanted to know more about it because Pearl Harbor meant something different to us after the war (World War II) and we wanted to find out what Pearl Harbor II meant."

After contacting McKesson, Katsumura and correspondent Osamu Kamizono flew to Florida for the interview.

The interview, which aired on Japan's morning show News Call in July, featured McKesson talking about his shirts. Kamizono also talked to some Harley-Davidson fans who wear them and with Kenneth Nadeau of Georgetown, Mass. Nadeau founded a group called Put America to Work and owns a store that sells McKesson's shirt with other "Made in America products."

McKesson, who also owns Billboard Sportswear, got the idea for the Pearl Harbor shirt from an ad that Texas financier T. Boone Pickens put in a newspaper with a headline reading, "America, You Lost the Economic War."

"When I saw this it got to me," McKesson said. "My thought was, are (the Japanese) trying to defeat us economically?"

So he got a graphic artist to do the drawing and started mail-ordering them. They have sold nationwide, primarily to union workers who feel the loss of jobs to Japanese manufacturing.

Katsumura said the Japanese do not wear T-shirts as often as Americans. The Tokyo Broadcasting System also was interested because the shirts aren't sold in stores. The shirts are sold only by mail order.

"We found Bob to be very nice and friendly," she said. "He explained he has nothing against us _ he's not a Japan-basher."

And McKesson wants to make that very clear.

"I just feel America has to wake up," he said. "I have nothing against the Japanese people; I just feel their businesses and government have unfair trade practices. They take the profits (from Japanese products) back to Japan where our products are almost non-existent.

"They put a 44.9 percent import duty on American cars, which means they mark them up 50 percent. They don't grant equal trade access," he said. McKesson, a native of Ohio, has many union friends who have been affected by trade practices.

But McKesson finds American sentiment toward Japan lucrative in his T-shirt business, particularly among workers hurt by Japanese trade. He has even capitalized on Pearl Harbor by using the date of the infamous attack in his 800 number: 621-1941.

The first Pearl Harbor II T-shirt's success spurred McKesson to do controversial shirt No.

2. "We've Been Bushwhacked by George!" is the message on the front, surrounded by shotgun shell casings and tallies of the budget deficit, the national debt and the trade deficit. On the back is a list of more than 33 items that have given the current administration headaches. Bill Clinton was holding the shirt in the AP photo.

"We've been marketing that shirt to the Democrats," McKesson said. "Boy, was it great to see Clinton holding it up in that picture."

The Tarrytown, N.Y., local of the United Auto Workers wore the T-shirt in the New York City Labor Day parade, he said.

The Pearl Harbor shirts are a sideline to his regular sportswear, but he enjoys the message shirts.

"I've just come out with a new one," McKesson said. "It says, "Made in the U.S.A.' and underneath it says, "The job you save may be your own.' "