Sunday, October 5, 2014

Oilskin Slickers

Back in the day, kids could have any raincoat they wanted, as long as it was made of oilskin and was yellow. Not only that but the texture of those yellow oilskin slickers was the same as the oilcloth covers we all had on our books.

I used to think I was so cool on those rainy mornings when setting off for school in my oilskin slicker. I imagined myself at the wheel of the Gorton’s fishing boat sailing into Mystic Harbor in the teeth of a nor’easter; deck thrashing back and forth all awash in briny water as waves crashed across the bow. No matter how much the wind blew or how cold it got, I was snug and warm in my raincoat as I rode my bike to school.

There were a couple of problems with this imagery. First of all, I was riding my bike, splashing through the puddles of rainwater that collected in the street. We had both curbed streets and some without curbs. They each presented unique problems. The streets with curbs had puddles that formed at the sidewalk cuts filled several inches deep with water. Riding a bike through this would drench the bottom 6 – 8 inches of my pants legs and make the rest of the day pretty uncomfortable. Who likes to walk a school hall with squishy shoes? I can tell you that it was no fun. The puddles in the streets that did not have curbs were much shallower but since their puddles were shared by the street and the grass next to the road, they were filled with muddy water. One did not get as wet from those puddles but one really got muddy. It was really hard to compete for the attention of the girls standing there all muddy and disheveled.

But having wet and muddy pants legs and feet was not the worst part of those slickers. Remember the image of the ship’s captain at the wheel braving the waters off of Massachusetts? Well, I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida not Boston. The same things that made those slickers work so well up north was a form of torture in sub tropical Florida. Those slickers did not breathe at all; not a drop of water, or air for that matter got past that bright yellow boundary. Add to that the body heat that I generated riding my bike or walking and by time I reached my destination it was like a sauna inside my rain gear. I would arrive all sweaty. That drop of water dripping off the end of my nose was not rain, it was perspiration. There is nothing less sexy than a pre-teenage boy standing in front of his locker stripping off his oil slicker, revealing a sweat soaked inner canvas and a school uniform that clung to the upper body better than Bounty to a wet tabletop.

Towards the end of my school years, clear plastic raincoats replaced the heavier oilskin slickers. They were lighter but they still did not breathe and caused the same problems without the coolness of the bright yellow tinged images of the ship’s captain. It was all so bad that if the rain came in the afternoon and wasn’t too heavy, many times we would opt to walk home without a raincoat and just put our clothes out to dry overnight.

The yellow oil slicker came back into my life later when I was racing sailboats on Lake Murray, SC in the late 80’s and 90’s. By this time, the heavy canvas inner layer was replaced by one made of fleece. This was much better, it was cooler and perspiration was wicked away by the fleece material. They also had big vents under the arms and across the back to reduce the sauna effect. Not to mention the enhancement of the “coolness” factor that now I was really on a sailboat, beating to the wind with spray in my face as the bow of the boat sliced through the wind whipped waves on a crisp, clear autumn day. However, as soon as the windward mark was passed and we turned downwind, the slicker came off and was dressed out on the floor of the cabin with the fleece side exposed to completely dry out for use after we passed the leeward mark and turned back into the wind for the final leg of the race. Another thing that was featured with the newer oil slickers was the bib overalls made of the same material. No more wet pants legs. Now that was cool.

One thing that always seemed out of place to me was oil slickers on cowboys. It does make sense that cowboys would have the same use as sailors for these yellow beauties, but somehow that just didn’t seem right. I guess if I lived in the high plains, on horseback as much as I was on the water it would seem more natural. Regardless, now that I am not in the weather as much as I was growing up and have my handy umbrella to protect me as I make my way to and from my car, the bright yellow oilskin slicker is becoming a fond memory of my youth. It almost makes me want to go online and order one, almost! Oh MY!

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