Remembrance in Wool
© Copyright 2008 by Haila Eggleton-MacKay
A chance visit to a small museum presents an opportunity. This in turn set in motion this story about the opportunity to make a small acknowledgement, to the memory of a simple man.
Something compels us, or so it seems.
Could there be some kind of dormant, genetic code deep within us, which curiously seems to awaken once in every generation? The “chosen one” is then, urged to water, like a human lemming to the sea. Why then, of all things, would he choose to get on a ship and go to sea?
He was a country boy, from up in the mountains. The most water he ever encountered was a trout stream or occasional lake. He wasn’t a sailor. Salt water and ships were the things of other people. But, the old wool uniform testifies, yet my own life testifies. Each in our own way, we have been beckoned, and answered, that ethereal call to the ocean’s realm.
A war was the catalyst; back so many years ago which awakened his call. It took him to the water aboard a ship bound to cruise the ocean. My life, at least for the last six or seven years, is lived completely aboard a sailboat, which is strange for someone who only occasionally even went to the seashore. Compelled by travel, as if hearing the “sirens song” too strong to deny, I have taken to the water and boats. However inexplicably, we two land dwellers, each in our own way and separately, both went down to the sea in ships. Our reasons for being on the water are as different as we are from each other. Regardless, full speed ahead, to our water worlds we went, separated by some 9 degrees of latitude and 60 years of time.
New York 1941
A quiet, unassuming young man answered his country’s
call, enlisting into The United States Coast Guard. He was then
provided with the standard issue garb. “William Eggleton,”
his name then written into every item of clothing he was given. Oh
what a handsome figure you cut, “sailor man” in a dress
The classic, original bell-bottom pants, with the front buttoned flap, no zipper here to be found, and lacing in the back. A top to match, called a “jumper” it has a flap on the back, outlined in white, with a star in each corner of the bottom. A hat, or more like a cap, beret type, emblazoned with The United States Coast Guard. Topping it all off; the serious, blue-black wool, quilted, “pea coat.” He wore his uniform in the service of his country.
I’ve never particularly worn my patriotism anywhere. Although as required by maritime law I do fly a U.S. flag when I am sailing outside of this country and I’ve been known to hoist “Old Glory” up the halyard on the fourth of July, but that’s really more in colorful celebration than anything else. Even though he is my father, we’re not exactly cut from the same cloth, as they say. But then again, we do have another thing in common. When needed, I too, choose to wear the same type of pea coat that he wore, it’s smart. A superior item, recognized as such and still worn today. It’s a damn good coat.
South Carolina 2005
In the midst of my watery wanderlust, time, tide and the water under my boat’s keel, lead me to a small museum in Charleston. The American Military Uniform Museum.
Inside, you meet a diminutive man filled with enormous passion for this museum and all that it holds. You then proceed to walk a time line, from the Revolutionary War to present day military conflicts viewing the many changes in armed forces uniforms. While touring I noticed that the World War II, United States Coast Guard display was a sparsely represented section. It was here, standing in front of the military memorabilia that a vague, partially formed idea first entered my mind. I enquired of the museum director, were they interested in any additional, authentic articles for the display? I knew where there was a certain uniform and perhaps more.
However, first thing’s first. I have to remind myself, before this thought of mine can go any further. This certain uniform is not mine to give, at least not yet. There are other people involved, emotions to be considered and permission to be given before I can continue. I find myself thinking too much, concocting premature thoughts and mental scenarios even before I have my answer. Was I interfering in a memory that wasn’t mine?
Could I reconcile, taking my fathers uniform so far
from his home, away from his family? Almost certainly, no one in the
family would ever make the trip to Charleston to view it. Would
anyone even care?
With just a little uncertainty, I called home to ask. A no, for an answer and that would be the end of that. A yes, and then I would go from there.
Mom was receptive to my idea and seemed not at all concerned about losing possession of the uniform, which had probably come to be all but forgotten about over the years. Her positive reply now meant a change in heading for me. I would have to leave my boat for a “land cruise” back home, to find the old wool uniform and actually start to put form to my idea.
Back home, to the modest house where William Eggleton had lived and loved. Where, after being discharged from his military duties his life had taken its due course Home, where I had grown up, and where I had “discovered” the uniform so many years before. Up in the hot, dry attic where familial trifles of the past are kept, consigned away into idleness. Purgatory for the out used, out grown and outdated. Household hodge-podge in “limbo” waiting for someday, going to who-knows-where. Up, under the eaves, in a cubbyhole, past the lamps, and the wooden crate full of old vinyl record albums. As if standing watch, I have to move my old “Great Gar-Lou,” a green plastic, space robot, close to three feet tall. Finally, there is the heavyweight cardboard barrel that held old clothes, and the uniform of my quest. Opening the lid, the faint odor of the old and the wool and of many years meets my nose. A haphazardly folded jumble of clothes; the familiar, blue/black color meets my eyes. They’ve been here for some sixty years. Cocooned and waiting, now to emerge into a new life, a new state of usefulness and being. The trousers, jumper, and hat are there, along with a pair of khaki colored, worn out, holey, “long johns.” But the pea coat is gone. I vaguely remember wearing it as a teenager, some years ago. But what did I do with it? Why didn’t I return it to the barrel? What could have happened to it these many years? Who could be wearing the pea coat with William Eggleton, written inside the collar?
Together Mom and I look over the old clothes. The last time I had seen them, they looked to me, as big, adult clothes. Now they seem smaller, he was a lean young man back then, maybe a size 32. I hold up the jumper, “small to medium” is my guess. Then, something catches my eye; instead of the usual government-issue tag where “William Eggleton” is written into his clothes, here is something different. Something bold and decidedly un-military like. On the back of his jumper, here is his name, colorfully, joyfully written in script. Embroidered into the fabric with a bright orange thread and further embellished with the outline of a ships anchor. Not simply identification, its personalization, plus!
I think about the uniform, soon to be on its way to its new home. Will people really stop and look at the old, wool clothes, will anyone take notice of the name and the unique orange script? Mom doesn’t say what she’s thinking. I don’t ask but I am wondering. What thought does the uniform awaken for her? Could she be remembering her wedding day? Her happy day and her handsome groom in his dress blue uniform. I’ve seen a wedding photo taken as they leave the church. Was there “shore leave,” with just time enough for marriage. Then back to the ship and the duty to which he was obligated? Or, maybe she’s thinking of the winter day when she took the picture of him in his “dress blues” standing on the front steps with the snow all around. I watch her slowly run her hands over the uniform. In her fingers are thoughts of the past; her young woman’s private memories of her young man. With Dad now gone, she alone is the keeper of “their” memories.
When we have finished with the clothes, she directs me to the box of old family photos. There are some nice pictures of Dad in uniform. Just to add personalization to this donation that I have orchestrated. We pick out a few nice old black and whites of the man who wore that uniform. The old wool, dress blue uniform from the barrel, of course. Then there is a picture taken shipboard; it is a jaunty poise, with him wearing what looks like a metal, combat style, helmet, tilted, to a rakish slant. His thumbs are tucked into his belt loops and there is a smile on his face. It tells me he found his enjoyment on the water. Looking at other “group” photographs, I know he and his shipmates found their fun when they could.
I have the uniform. The photos and even his military service “discharge papers” have been copied to take with me back to Charleston. My self-imposed task has ended. My “shore leave” is over, my own little ship calls to me. I feel the need to return to her and the water that I love. A land locked home is not for me, at least not yet. I’m still the human lemming, I need the water. As I pack there is one small item I will keep for myself. It’s a little military issue New Testament Bible. The inside cover admonishes the owner to write nothing more than their name into it so that it cannot afford the enemy with valuable information. It’s signed Franklin D. Roosevelt. The last time this little Bible took to the water, its ship cruised the coastline in a time of war to protect this country. Now, once again, this small, pocket size Bible will have a home on the water. I will keep it with me, safely stowed away as I travel. Today it sails aboard a vessel that once again plies the coastal waters. May it protect us from all peril on the sea.
Charleston SC. 2007
The wind and current carry changes, just as surely as they carry the water. Changes that can and do, direct my sailing. And I once again approach Charleston harbor. My course is set. First, dockage for my boat, then a short walk to the museum for myself. The time has finally come for me to see the old wool uniform in its new home.
Why have I done this? I don’t know. No more than I know exactly why I love living on the water. I just needed to, I felt compelled. What I do know is that I am pleased with the outcome. I know that, just as sure as I’m standing here. In front of the display, that now contains a few more items that are authentic United States Coast Guard, WWII era. I have brought my camera to take pictures, so that the family can have a glimpse into what I have done. On the other side of the glass is my Dads uniform.
No, he wasn’t what we would call a hero. He never “saved” anyone or did some heroic feat for which he received a medal. He was however, a man who wore his uniform proudly, you can tell from his pictures. Other than that, he was just an ordinary man. Like thousands of others, probably just hoping that it would all soon be over. That he could return to his home and put the uniform away. Until then, he fulfilled his obligation as best he could. I guess that I feel that the uniform, which he wore, deserves better. Better, than to molder away in a cardboard box, used, forgotten, and now useless. He and it deserve just a little something more.
On display in a museum in Charleston, South Carolina is just a little glimpse of William Eggleton. A simple man who choose, to go to sea, and who had his name stylishly embroidered on to the back of the jumper he wore. Am I now wearing my patriotism for all to see? Probably not. This is just a remembrance in wool, to those who would see, as they pass by the display.
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