It was late 1971 and I was a Navy seaman aboard the USS America, arriving at Norfolk, Va., after a long deployment. Christmas leave? It was not to be. Having not yet earned the rank of petty officer I was low in the pecking order, so I put in my request for two weeks' leave for mid January. I would miss Christmas with my family, but I knew the request was likely to be granted.
When I finally got home to my folks, there was a gift in a corner of the living room where the Christmas tree had stood a few weeks earlier. I opened it. There, under the white wrapping, was a pair of maraschino cherry red, corduroy bell-bottomed Levi's paired with a long-sleeved paisley shirt that had an overlapping leaf pattern of purples and reds. Completing the ensemble was a long-sleeved cable-knit, white V-necked tennis sweater that had red and blue striping on the collar and cuffs.
I looked at my mother with ill-concealed shock (I knew my father was not a party to this gift). "You want me to wear this," I said, as much a statement as a question. My casual style was more blue jeans, and this was way out of my sartorial comfort zone. "Try them," she said. "They will look good on you."
Now, no son wants to disappoint his mother, and I was no exception. Later that evening I took the new clothes to my room, cut off the tags and put them on. I knew my mother wanted to see me in them and I was willing to at least wear them around the house to make her happy.
Downstairs I modeled for her. "You look handsome, honey," she said. And I thought, looking at her, she would say that because a) she bought them; b) she's my mother, which pretty much obligated her to compliment me; and c) well, she bought them.
A couple of evenings later my friend Ted called to see if I wanted to go out to some clubs. Like any two single young men, we planned to have a few drinks and flirt with single young ladies. My mother asked whether I planned to wear my new outfit. I hadn't, but figured that I was only home for a few more days and would not likely see any of the people I met again so, to make my mother happy, I wore my new clothes. When Ted got to the house to pick me up, his eyes widened. He politely refrained from saying anything, though I know he was wondering how much the Navy had changed me in the last year. Where had this peacock look come from and why was I wearing it? I also said nothing.
The bar we went to was not particularly crowded, but there was a moderate mix of guys and girls. When we walked in I noticed a number of heads turning to look at me. I'm self-conscious to begin with, and enough eyes followed us across the room to the bar that my face flushed and was, I'm sure, as cherry red as the pants I had on.
We sat at the bar and sipped our drinks while surveying the room for prospects with whom we might engage in conversation, and curiously enough, many young ladies' eyes met mine, and they smiled when we exchanged glances. As the evening passed we began to move through the bar, stopping every now and again to talk to some of the girls we found attractive in order to determine whether we might like to get to know them better. At each conversation the girls gave my outfit the once-over and remarked how nice it looked and how nice I looked in it. Now, I wasn't unattractive, but not a GQ model either, and these compliments were enough over the next couple of hours to make me wonder: Had my mother been right?
When we left I asked Ted what had just happened. He laughed and said, "Are you kidding? I wish I looked as good as you do. Where did you get those clothes?" After I told him he laughed even harder and told me that he noticed some of the guys were looking at me too. "Don't tell me that!" I said. Which made him laugh again. "No, man, they were jealous!"
Lying in bed that night I began to reconsider my opinion of my mother's taste in clothes. Maybe I did look good in this odd outfit.
I went back to my ship a few days later with the new clothes in my luggage and wore them on liberty over the next few months, discovering that even my shipmates thought it was a good look for me. After a few weeks and a number of flirtatious encounters I started to believe everyone and wore this outfit with confidence.
I have always looked neat in whatever I had on, yet nothing before or since had the impact of that three-piece outfit. I wore the clothes until they either went out of style or wore out. Both, I think, happened at about the same time. But I will never forget the joy in my mother's eyes when she saw me in them for the first time, and that, somehow, has always meant more to me than all the come-hither smiles and batting eyelashes that outfit brought my way.
Warren Wilson lives in Safety Harbor.