CHRIS ALLEN: Warm Memories

I recently said good-bye to an old friend. A warm, wrap-around friend who was always able to comfort me to the core in the harshest times.

I gave away my North Dakota parka.

I have gone whole years here in Omaha, Neb., without having to wear it. The coat was really too heavy for Nebraska’s relatively milder winters. This was truly one fantastic parka.

When I moved to Grand Forks in the winter (!) of 1987, newly married, to start my first teaching job, North Dakota still had blue laws. All retail stores except for gas stations were closed, even grocery stores. You could not buy clothes, a snowblower, toys, shoes or anything you would find in a mall because the mall was closed. Downtown was closed. No beer, no whiskey, no wine. If you hadn’t planned ahead, the football games were dry as a dust bowl wheat field.

The state lost millions of dollars from Canadian shoppers coming 70 miles south of the border to shop, even though the Canadian dollar was weaker than the U.S. dollar. They came in droves every Saturday and fled back home before the stores turned to pumpkins at midnight.

Then the second year we were there, the state repealed the blue laws. And on the first Sunday that everything was open, we decided to go shopping at a clothing store our friends owned. Because we could. And we knew what to buy. My Iowa parka just did not stand up to the below-zero temperatures and blistering winds that swirled across the plains damn near every winter day. The salesman at Silverman’s knew just the thing, and he pulled forth The Parka. It cost $150, more money than I had ever spent on an article of clothing.

I do not know how many geese gave their feathers (and probably their lives) for this coat, but it was built for the near-arctic conditions of the tundra we seemed to live on. We regularly experienced temperatures of 20 below zero, and that parka did not fail.

It extended well below the butt, vital for sitting on vinyl seats in January. The zipper was sturdy, with a quirk: you could unzip it from the bottom so when you sat in the car, it would spread to make room for your legs, but above the waist it was warm. It had an elastic inner skirt just around the waist you could snap closed to keep the draft from sweeping up and chilling the upper torso.

In addition to the unique zipper — I have never seen another like it — the coat had a flap that buttoned over the zipper, two shallow pockets and two deeper pockets on the outside, and two more on the inside. Cell phones had not been invented yet, so there was no pocket for that.

The hood on this coat was resplendent. It was heavily insulated with its own layers of down, and it was ringed with rabbit fur — RIP with the geese. But it looked and felt like dog fur.

My small son was in a home day care at the time. The owner had a border collie named Zebadiah, the ideal dog for a day care. Border collies need lots of stimulation and what better than a house full of toddlers? This dog would play with them, run with them, let them pull his ears, then lie down for a nap, with the kids crowding around to lay their heads on his side and rump until they were put in cribs for their own naps. One summer day as the kiddos were playing outside, my son started to wander away toward a nearby playground. Zeb took off after him, circling and circling him, barking out a warning, trying to herd him back to the pen. It was instinct.

I was carrying my son out to the car one morning, and he petted the hood on my parka. “That feels like Zeb,” he said with a bit of wonder in his voice. And it did.

That $150 parka is 35 years old, still vigorously defending the human soul against cold. But I no longer need it, so the Salvation Army has it now, at least briefly, until someone without a coat, or a home, or a car, needs it. Zeb died decades ago. Sadly, so did our day-care provider. My son is grown and living on the West Coast. I have newer coats and I live in a warmer climate. But that parka — that parka will go on to warm another human heart, and I am glad to make that possible.

One thought on “CHRIS ALLEN: Warm Memories”

  • Kevin Bonham February 27, 2023 at 7:11 am

    Very cool — umm, warm and fuzzy — story. I, too, remember well the first winter coat I bought at Silverman’s my first winter in Grand Forks in 1984.


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