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Finding today's fit in a Navy pea coat

Tom Hawkins' new pea coat was ordered online.

Tom Hawkins' new pea coat was ordered online. His original was government issued in 1968. Credit: Sylvia Carter

It's 2012, and I have just acquired my second pea coat. The first one was issued to me in October 1968 at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, Calif., a Navy boot camp long since closed, along with other Navy duty stations where I served -- Long Beach, Subic Bay, Midway Island, all closed.

The coat was a glovelike fit for my 6-foot, less-than-130-pound frame. Its dense wool bundled me through many a chilly night on liberty, in uniform or civilian clothes, through trips to New Orleans, Hong Kong, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, and on through the winters in graduate school after I got out of the Navy.

That first coat was issued to me on my way to a minesweeper that patrolled off the mouth of the Cua Viet River in Vietnam. I was a radio man, a sailor in a fleet of more than 800 ships, compared to fewer than 300 today. Eventually, after I married, my life and my body became more expansive, and I gave the pea coat to the local coat drive as its small size gave the effect that I was smuggling a watermelon in there.

Lately, I took a notion to get another such coat, dressy but sporty, and more than just a style, but an echo of my younger life. Unlike many others in pea coats, I have earned the right, so why not buy one in my current size, which is large.

I found the website for an outfit that supplies the Navy, and I felt I remembered its logo and label from my coat in the old days. A little comparison shopping, and I found the coat from the same manufacturer through Sears at a savings, so I ordered it online. It was right after the holidays, and I had become accustomed to online orders being filled within days, so after 10 days, I became impatient. Finally, I phoned customer service.

The manufacturer of the coat, Alpha Industries, started making military clothing in Knoxville in 1959, and, in my mind, someone was still in Tennessee running the sewing machines. Inevitably, the customer service person, after checking online herself, told me that the coat was in customs at an exit port in China and should reach me in a few days.

This put me in mind of a coffee mug I had been given at work for participating in a bond drive; it said, "Put Stock in America, Buy U.S. Savings Bonds," and then in faint letters on the cup's bottom, "Made in China."

I looked online at the UPS tracking site, and the coat had reached a nearby city, scheduled to be delivered to me the next day. Had it shipped all the way from Singapore so quickly, or was this coming from an inventory stateside?

Citing to each other the adage, "the watched pot never boils," my wife and I went off on errands the following day, and when we got back we spotted the box on the front porch as we drove up.

The print on the box claimed the manufacturer was in Knoxville; the retailer on the packing list inside was in Wilmington, N.C., and the tag inside the coat said "Made in China."

Putting on the coat brought back familiar sensations. Same weight material, tailoring, buttons with anchors on them, wide collar that closes up if you get in a fierce wind, outside hand-warming pockets, inside pockets for gloves and maps, and that warm embrace around the shoulders that makes you feel invincible in the cold. Ah.

Those decades ago, when my ship got back to home port in Long Beach, I had to hike about a mile to get to a "locker club" where I kept civilian clothes that weren't allowed to enlisted crew members on the ship. Luckily, the pea coat was part of the uniform, along with shoes, that could be worn off base with civilian clothes. Life was pretty hard in the "underclass." For years, I dreamed with dread about getting called back into the service, sometimes progressing as far as reporting aboard a minesweeper which was suspiciously less sharp than the one I had been on.

This new pea coat is part of my internal peace talks, a coat made in China, the Asian power that underlaid the geopolitics of the Vietnam War.

My years in the Navy were a world apart from my middle class roots -- the privacy, the comforts, the pursuit of a career. Some of that Navy world remains with me, and I am warmer in my new coat.

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