Friday, March 28, 2014

OTR: Whatever Happened to Letter Jackets?

Sometimes I have to remind myself that 2014 is as far removed from the beginning of my high school days as those days were removed from the beginning of WWII. This is one of those times.

My younger daughter and I were doing the Spring Break college tour death march this week. At some point, I commented on the lack of letter jackets among the kids also doing the tours. I found it interesting that of the four letter jackets that I did see, three were worn by female marching band members and the fourth was the only true athletic letter jacket that I saw (worn by a young man). I commented that I didn't think I had seen anyone at her school wearing a letter jacket and I got one of those looks that a parent gets from a teenager when you are clearly beneath contempt for bringing up ancient history. ("The '80's called. They'd like you back. Please go.")

Looking across a number of college campuses this week made me reflect on what has changed. Back in the Stone Age, we carried book bags emblazoned with the school's name. It occurred to me that trying to describe one of these to my daughter was going to be impossible -- she has always known backpacks. Next to my gym uniform, the book bag was one of the first things purchased with the school name on it. It was all but required. I'm not sure what people without the official school book bag used. For that matter, I don't recall what I used in college to tote around my books to class. It seemed like I had to replace that book bag every year because the weight of the books I was carrying tore it up. I know I had an old brief case and a salesman's case, but I don't think I used those every day in college.

At one school, we looked in a museum display case and I saw my late 1970's TI-30 calculator. We were the first class to be able to generally afford calculators in class, and we were also the last class to be taught how to use a slide rule. I toted around the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics for two years, along with a mathematical tables book. I suppose every kid today has an app on his or her phone containing the same information, if they still use that sort of stuff.

I do remember ordering my letter jacket. It was the end of Freshman football and we could only then order our jackets. I seem to recall that it was a relatively expensive purchase for my parents -- perhaps around $100. We ordered it a bit larger than I would normally wear. Weeks went by until it arrived. It was glorious. Deep red wool with real leather sleeves (in white). The school name emblazoned across the back. And it was strangely reversible. You could turn it inside out and wear it with a slight bit on anonymity, although, curiously, my name was stitched on the pocket. It wasn't long before my graduation year was sewn on the jacket, then a minor letter and, finally, the varsity letter! (I still have the jacket, although it long ago stopped fitting me. The girls have never seen fit to wear it to school -- even on a Throwback Thursday.)

I have to wonder if letter jackets went the way of the dodo when our culture started awarding trophies to every kid who participated in a sport.

As I look back across over 30 years, I have to wonder if the adults of the late 1970's were thinking the same things that I am today. Were they feeling, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"? Hard to say, although in the late '70's, I wasn't listening to Glenn Miller with the same enthusiasm that my kids listen to Michael Jackson and the Beatles.