It’s an Alpha Industries M-65 field coat, military spec but in a civilian brown without the velcro attach points for name and unit patches. 50/50 nylon-cotton to repel water, concealed hood in the collar, buttons for a quilted lining for real warmth in a pinch – but the most striking thing is that if the copyright date on the tags is anything to go by, this jacket was manufactured in Knoxville, Tennessee sometime in 1997. Which means that it and I rolled out of the Volunteer State at roughly the same time.
It’s wild to think about this thing sitting on a shelf for two decades or more. It’s an artifact from a time when the WTO hadn’t turned China into the world’s discount manufacturer, and when Appalachia still had plenty of textile operations that hadn’t been outsourced to the cheapest Third World OEM. I doubt it was on sale for the $100 I got it for on eBay, but I’m not sure I would have had even $50 to snap it up with, and besides, I already had the Elk – that ill-advised leather coat bought as a callow first-year grad student that would be my cold-weather apparel of record through the end of the DC years. But it’s not inconceivable that I could have pulled this coat off the rack at Friedman’s Army-Navy in Hillsboro Village, and worn it for the ensuing two decades. It would have worked a treat in Edinburgh in 2005, or Paris and York in 2007. Perfectly suited for the rain in Kanazawa or in Puerto Natales. Just the right combination for a dozen wet and windy too-short California winters.
It’s a garment out of another era, a fifty year old design. Big pouch pockets, suitable for a cell phone the size of an all-in-one remote control and a Discman the size of a dessert plate. Surplus to the era of the peace dividend, when the American military was more likely to be coming to the aid of Muslims in the Balkans than be bogged down endlessly in Iraq and Afghanistan. When a vending machine meant a 12-ounce can of Coke for 65 cents, not a plastic 20 ounce bottle for $2.10 (and ten cents off if you use money and not a credit card or a smartphone).
I tend to go through jackets in bursts. I was mostly sorted in DC with what eventually came out to three leather jackets, but after coming West that was plainly not going to be necessary. At the end of 2004, I bought a sudden trucker jacket and a longer synthetic sort of field coat with a zip-out fleece lining, and the latter became the international travel jacket in 2005 and 2007. And I didn’t look at jackets again until 2009, when I was suddenly commuting by train again and needed to stand around waiting outside. So I went on a four year binge. Plain cotton zippered thing, canary-yellow CERT jacket from work, Vandy soft-shell fleece, an ill-fitting Gap peacoat, a better-fitting surplus peacoat, a weird sort of “engineers coat” bought with AmEx points through Lands End, a cotton blouson from Uniqlo (and a couple of cotton blazers with it which are more casual wear than “outerwear”), and ultimately, my wife’s gift of a Levi’s-Filson collaborative trucker jacket in waxed tin cloth – and by that point, I was driving to work again and it was less of a big deal.
Since 2013, I’ve bought the William Gibson Buzz Rickson bomber as a souvenir of Japan, and was gifted my Harris Tweed at long last, but there hasn’t really been any new routine outerwear for five or six years. I don’t know if I was just bored, or looking to regenerate, or what, or if this is another piece of the mop-up. I’d looked at an M-65 back around 2006 as a good all-purpose jacket, but it was superfluous to requirement with the International jacket in hand, and besides, it was about that time that I started to realize that most of the surplus showing up in the Army-Navy store was Chinese, not government contractor overruns. And I pushed it to the back of my mind and forgot about it until a month or so ago, when I was looking for something longer than the trucker jacket, lighter than the peacoat and heavier than the rain shell, nicer than “smeared with wax” but sturdier than “smells like a damp sheep in the rain”.
And so here it is. Proper mil-spec, but the same sort of British waxed-jacket brown as a Barbour. Waterproof without being covered in chemicals or requiring re-waxing. Blended fabric that doesn’t look polyester. Roomy enough for a sweater, and (so far) warm without getting hot. I was comfy outside in the drizzle and cold, and haven’t felt the need to pull it off at my desk. It’s probably not one jacket to rule them all, but it feels right, somehow – and feels like another loop closed.