Right around this time every summer it would happen. Dark clouds appear on the horizon of an otherwise idyllic summer Saturday as Mom would call us saying “Lets to shopping for back to school!” The fantasy that summer would go on forever was broken in a finite way. Once we do our back to school shopping; the countdown to the first day of school began its never ending “tick-tock” of doom. This year is no different for students; “Tax Free Weekend” is next weekend here.
Despite the inevitable, I enjoyed back to school shopping. It meant new pencils, crayons, notebooks and paper. It was always so nice to have all that new stuff. While in grade school, we always got a new bolt of oil cloth. Just in case you don’t know what oil cloth is; it is close-woven cotton duck or linen cloth with a coating of boiled linseed oil to make it waterproof. We wrapped it around our school books in order to protect them all year long, lest we damage the covers and our parents have to pay for the damage. The linseed oil gave off a distinct pleasant fragrance that definitely reminds me of the first week of school every time I smell it.
Next came shopping for school clothes. Because all my K-12 schooling was in Parochial school, it was much simpler than for other families. We had uniforms, you see. For all of those 12 years, every day at school was spent wearing a white shirt and blue trousers. For the first 8 years, we had a patch on the mandatory pocket on the left side that indicated that we were attending St. Matthews’s elementary school. For the last four years at Bishop Kenny High School, the patch was replaced by a tie. The girls at our school wore white blouses and plaid skirts. So it was just a matter of picking out the right size and we were done.
Well, not exactly! The colors of our uniform were designated but the exact style was not. About the time I started high school, Gant shirts became quite the rage. The front of Gant shirt buttoned along a double-truck hem, a feature that became absolutely requisite for any brand targeted at adolescents and young men. It also included a distinctive loop at the top of the double pleat that ran down the center back of the shirt. All the cool guys wore them. Those loops were sometimes the mischievous target of girls who would hug a boy only to be able to reach the loop to break it. In those innocent days a broken loop was a badge of honor for a pre-teen boy because it meant that we had been hugged closely. Our Moms were not as enthusiastic because they spent a lot of money for those shirts. Much to our consternation, someone figured out how to repair those loops and we lost our distinction as “men of the world!”
Pants were not much better. Someone figured out that if boys would flock to Gant for loopy shirts, that they may just go after pants with loops on them. Out of the Princeton and Yale communities, a style of pants came out with a buckle on the rear a couple of inches below the beltline. These buckles were on cloth attached to the back of the pants much more sturdily than the Gant loops on our shirts. I am sure that this was a source of great frustration to the loop snatching girls. First, they could not snatch them off with only one hand, and if they tried two, the boys would get an even better feel of them as they struggled with the belt loop. Second, the position of the loop was in a much more dangerous place than the Gant loop. Too close to a boy’s rear end; best not to mess with that. But they would not leave the idea alone. Soon it was de rigueur to wear these pants with the buckle buckled up only if you were going steady. Otherwise, an unbuckled buckle meant that the boy was footloose and available.
For the boys in high school, there was one item of clothing in the uniform that could be used to make a statement; the required necktie! The only requirement for the tie was that it be navy blue or black. Most guys wore pretty standard ties about 2 inches wide, but the super thin ties of the 50s were coming in style so the cool guys wore them. We also started with regular ties but by time we were seniors, we had to a man, graduated to clip-on ties. That way we could unclip them on the way out the school door and place them inside our books like a book mark and hit the streets in freedom with the top button open to reveal the unique roll of the Gant collar.
So as “Tax-Free” weekend arrives, I remember the bittersweet beginning of the end of summer and the excitement of another school year arriving. Wondering if my loop would remain unsnatched and my buckle unbuckled. It’s all in the game. Oh MY!