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The Summer of the Jackets

When I was a kid, my family always took a summer vacation. The day school ended, we'd head for the hills. Usually, this meant a trek out West as my Dad was a bit obsessed with Native American culture. Our Ohio home was peppered with dream catchers, Aztec pottery, and photographs of the Nez Perce "I Will Fight No More Forever" Chief Joseph. My parents (both completely Anglo Saxon) wore fringed, leather vests, beaded belts with turquoise buckles, and giant Kachina pendant necklaces. Despite the trappings, my Dad still looked like what he was - a red headed descendent of Ireland, but my Mother, with her long, dark braids and deep summer tan, could easily pass for Cherokee. Or Cher.

One summer, we skipped the Trail of Tears altogether and flew to the Emerald Isle where we toured counties from Cork to Roscommon; Wexford to Mayo by auto, by train, and (as one does) by covered wagon. Led, of course, by a horse.

The 6 by 16 foot "gypsy caravan" had narrow benches that converted into sleeping cots. Its dining table flipped over to form a double bed. The "kitchen" consisted of a tiny gas burner and a sink that drained into a bucket underneath. No fridge, no electricity, no bathroom. Our horse, Bob, was good for about 10 miles a day, but only if someone walked along side him. Otherwise, he'd refuse to move. The bulk of the walking fell to my Dad, coincidentally a Bob too, so the two Bobs led our house on wheels through the gorgeous countryside, one wearing a bridle, the other, a garish Members Only-ish rain jacket.

I say Members Only-ish because this eye sore of a jacket was a knock off from JC Penny. My Mother bought it. Actually, she bought five of them, identical save for their size. My Dad, my Mom, we kids, we were each outfitted in matching mandarin collared, elastic waisted, color blocked parachute jackets; the right side a searing, canary yellow, the left, lime green. This being the 80s, it was oversized and puffy, festooned with zippers, draw strings and pockets - the jacket would have been fairly noticeable when worn by one person, let alone five. Throw in the horse drawn caravan and we looked like a traveling circus.

The jackets were so pervasive, so ubiquitous, they became entities in of themselves. It was the Summer of the Jackets. Photographs from the trip suggest the jackets took this vacation; we were only there to hold them up.

"Look, the jackets at Trinity College. Here they are, kickin' it in Killarney. Bless them, they're kissing the Blarney stone."

The jackets did unify what otherwise looked like a fairly mismatched family. While my Dad and I favored each other, both red heads, my sister was a blond and, thanks to the abuse of Sun-In, she was blond blond. Little Dutch boy blond, with a Little Dutch Boy bowl haircut to boot. That summer, she was constantly being mistaken for a boy (to which she'd scream indignantly, "I AM A GIRL!!")

Add to this the Cherokee/Cher Mother and my African American foster brother - it's no surprise the locals mistook us for some sort of traveling musical act, a multicultural Jackson five.

When they learned we were, in fact, simply American, they'd clap my Dad on the shoulder, "God Bless ya! Two lovely lasses and two fine sons!" ("I AM A GIRL!!") Or they'd tousle my brother's hair, "Ah, well, now! You're a dark one, aren't ya?" (Political correctness, like AA, had not yet come to the Land of Saints and Scholars.)

Near the end of the summer, my Dad left to tour Belfast while my Mom took us kids to Dublin. In the throng of people surrounding Harrods, my brother and I were separated from her and, hopelessly lost, we found a Bobby. (Not our horse, a policeman.) Officer Kelly looked a bit puzzled when I said we'd lost "our" Mother but, of course, our jackets spoke volumes - we were undoubtedly related somehow. In less than thirty minutes, we reunited with my Mom at a nearby station. Back on the street, I realized my sister wasn't with us and, starting to panic that we'd lost her, I turned the corner. There, in a busy intersection, was my sister - far above the heads of the bustling crowd, clinging to a light post.

When my Mom realized we were lost, she knew we couldn't see through the crowd but we might be able to see above it and... The jacket! Surely we would spot the Jacket!

So, she forced my agile sister to scramble up the light post and there she stood, a surly little Dutch Boy, her tacky nylon jacket glimmering in the sun. She was our beacon (granted, a scowling, resentful one) but a lodestar nonetheless; shining bright, begrudgingly guiding us home.

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