Sometime in mid-August, well after fair season and just before corn silage season, my brothers and I endured the hand-me-down season on the southern Illinois dairy farm of our youth.
It was just as you suspect. One morning some weeks before school began, my mother watched as we tried on our next older brother’s clothes to see how they fit and, more importantly, if there was “another year” in the item we were certain to inherit.
In our family, the basic school uniform was composed almost entirely of well-washed blue jeans from the J.C. Penney catalog, baggy white T-shirts from the J.C. Penney catalog, black socks from the J.C. Penney catalog and brown leather work shoes from Schrieber & Sons in town.
Because of their long use and my mother’s always short budget, “fit” was a relative term. If, say, the jeans handed down to me from David were anywhere between an inch too short and four inches too long, they fit.
If the T-shirt didn’t have a gaping hole in it — a bad bet with David — it also fit. Socks were socks so they always fit. Shoes, like jeans, were never too big and rarely too small no matter the year, the shoe, or the boy.
“How do those shoes feel?” my mother once asked as I tried on David’s work shoes. They’re really tight, I whined.
“Well,” Mom pronounced, “lucky your socks are so thin. They’ll work for another year.” And they did. In fact, I don’t ever remember anything not working for “another year.”
Brother Rich held the pole position on the annual clothes derby. As the oldest, he usually got two complete outfits of new clothes each August — from, yes, the J.C. Penney catalog — and rarely had to wear clothes too big, too little, too faded or too patched.
He did, however, do his younger brothers a great favor; he grew fast enough that his hand-me-downs were often just a year old and not badly worn when the next in line, David, received them.
David, however, grew slower and was far rougher on his jeans, shoes and shirts. That meant the next in line — sigh, me — often received clothes that were equal parts original cloth, patches and my mother’s inventive creativity to make them schoolroom presentable.
The hand-me-down season picked up color and style in the mid-1960s when Rich began to drive a tractor and milk cows on the farm. As a wiry but eager “hired hand,” my father paid him — and later David, then me and finally younger brother Perry — 50 cents an hour to do farm work.
As a result, the rapidly rich Rich invested some of his earnings in any-color-but-blue Levis, sports shirts and — oh my — Hush Puppies.
And, sure, they, too, were handed down and down and, finally, down.
Later, when David and I made the payroll — the pay remained 50 cents hour until I was a junior in college — out went the blue jeans, high-top clodhoppers and white T-shirts and in came anything that said “Lutheran rebellion,” black jeans, black shoes, black shirts. Apparently rebellion back then meant Lutheran schoolboys dressed like Lutheran pastors.
My mother, however, got the last laugh of our years-long hand-me-down game. Between my junior and senior years of high school, Mom, a talented seamstress, made me a double-breasted, blue wool sport coat to wear for my momentous senior class portrait. It was gorgeous, and it was the first real jacket of any kind I ever wore that wasn’t a hand-me-down.
Eighteen months later, however, I was attending Christmas Eve services with my parents when a sturdy-looking junior high boy strolled by wearing my custom-made sport coat. He, of course, looked terrific in what, just a few months ago, had been one of my rare me-only items of clothing.
That’s my coat. I griped to my mother as the smirking usurper passed.
“Was your coat,” Mom corrected me. “I handed it down.”