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Dad’s Red Vest:

I think I must have been 12 or 13 at the time, and it was getting on toward the end of summer. I am assuming this last since the display was the sort of thing which Sears would have brought out for the pre-autumn, back-to-school promotions. But let me start at the beginning:

First off; we were in Pomona.

My grandparents and great-uncle John had settled in Pomona during the farmers’ depression of the early 1920s, and by the late ’50s their properties had passed to Dad. Uncle John’s old shack had done so directly. Dad had needed to buy out both of my aunts’ shares in my grandparents’ place.

In any case, by the time I was eight years old, Dad had set himself up as a landlord. The only fly in the ointment was that none of his tenants would stay above a year, always moving out at the beginning of summer. Consequently, just about every summer weekend from the time I was eight until I was eighteen, was spent cleaning up and/or repainting vacant rental property.

In Pomona.

I didn’t really mind the work so much, but I found Pomona very dull.

Ma had briefly lived in Pomona with Dad’s parents during the Depression while Dad was up on Mt. Baldy building roads with the Conservation Corps. So the two of them had a lot of recollection and personal history invested in the area.

One of these bits of (slightly more recent) history was Vince’s Spaghetti House on Holt Ave in Montclair (Still in business, btw). Being both very good, reasonably close, and reasonably cheap, we often would go the few miles out of our way and tuck into an excellent spaghetti dinner as soon as it started getting too dark to work, (the houses’ electricity had always been cut off) before starting the long drive home.

Well, at some point in the ’50s, Sears built a store on the south side of Holt, on the route between the houses in Pomona and the restaurant in Montclair. It is possible that Dad had taken some vacation time to clean up whichever house was vacant that weekend, because although it was summer and getting toward dusk, Sears was still open, which it usually wasn’t after six on Saturdays. We stopped by to check things out after dinner, before hitting the road home.

Sears had put out a display of red corduroy vests. These caught Dad’s eye. Ma talked him out of buying one, and after steering him toward the hardware section, suggested to me that this would be a good thing for me to give him for Whatsmas. The price was within the range of the resources of a Middle Schooler with sufficient hoarding tendencies to offset the lack of an allowance, so I doubled back and bagged one.

The bag, actually, was the problem.

It was visible after all.

At any rate, Ma and I got hold of the idea that for Dad to see me carrying a bag around (since he knew I had next to no money — rendering any purchase “significant”) would be tantamount to blowing any chances of the gift being a surprise.

At this distance of time, I think we were probably over-estimating both my father’s powers of observation and his interest in any of my doings. But in any event, in order to obscure the issue, it was decided that I would smuggle the vest home by wearing it myself, under my jacket.

However little interest Dad may have had in my purchasing power, he did manage to notice that I wore a buttoned-up jacked all the way home on a mild August evening. While he may have questioned my sanity, he did not appear to harbor any suspicions of illicit Whatsmas shopping. Such was the tenor of our lives that this incident passed for one of high drama and cloak-and-dagger (well, vest-and-jacket) intrigue.

Dad was indeed duly — and I rather think genuinely — surprised on Whatsmas morning. And, in fact he got considerable use out of that vest since he was still wearing it in chilly weather more than 20 years later.