A WEARABLE AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Cleaning out your closet is like a portal back in time


I  was cleaning out my clothes closet the other day, frankly, so that when I die, someone else won’t have to do it, and I counted 127 T-shirts, some going back to the 1950s. As I looked through them, I thought to myself, “Geez,” this is the story of my life; it’s all here: ships I was on, colleges I attended, places I’ve been, sights I’ve seen, causes I supported, concerts I attended, automobiles I coveted, friends who deserted me, women who dumped me – my whole existence reduced to three-color screen printing, recorded on cotton, guaranteed not to shrink.

Here’s the big and small moments of my life as recorded by T-shirt, a “bildungsroman” novel (dealing with a person’s formative years) on cloth; a moveable montage of events in several sizes; a wearable history of a life ill-spent.

Remember that old TV series, “The Naked City?” 

Almost every literati knows it was a take-off on the works of Damon Runyan, the newspaperman and short-story writer who wrote about the world of Broadway in New York City during Prohibition. Each episode ended with the narrator speaking the iconic line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Well, there are 127 stories in my clothes closet, and here’s just a few.  My life in T-shirts. By anyone’s calculus, not much to show for three score and ten.

For example, here’s my Jerry Lee Lewis concert T-shirt, but it makes me mad. I had anted up my last few discretionary dollars to attend his concert at the Jackson, Mississippi, coliseum, and he didn’t show up.

No bus, No pumping piano. No great balls of fire. No Jerry Lee. 

An empty stage.

This was right after his career melt down in England when word got out that he had married his 13-year-old first cousin (consanguinity), and he was persona non grata in the rock and roll world.

He was just making the transition to country music and apparently having some issues. Anyway, the opening band played a few extra songs, and then the promoter came out, sheepishly announcing that “Jerry Lee has been indefinitely delayed.”

I thought to myself, “Yeah, is that what they are calling it these days?”  There was some vague promise about a “rain check” and a refund, but it never happened. Jerry Lee Lewis owes me $10 in 1966 money. I expect it in the mail any day now.  Moral: never buy a T-shirt BEFORE a concert.

I still like his songs, however, especially “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” Some songs just get it “right,” you know?

I don’t have a T-shirt for the Woodstock Music Festival.

I was in Vietnam.

Funny. That’s the two biggest lies of my generation: “I was at Woodstock,” and “I was in Vietnam.”

Without asking, guys will tell you that they were “in country” and “down range” while they stare off into space, all steely eyed and determined looking. You can almost hear the Star-Spangled Banner playing somewhere.

If I’m feeling nasty, I like to ask them when they were there, where they were, and what unit they were in, and watch them squirm.

Then I just let it go. My pet theory is that at least half of these so-called Vietnam veterans that you see marching in the parades all cammied up never got out of the states.

But I guess everybody writes their own history, so what’s it to me? Anybody who asks can look at my DD-214. It’s on file in the Lamar County Courthouse.

I was at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Well, that’s both true and false. I heard the music, sitting on a bollard, topside on my ship, as it came wafting through the air from the concert site about a half-mile away.

It was a great line up: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jose Feliciano, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, etc. I didn’t actually attend the concert, but I heard most of it. 

With my high and tight haircut, I would not have fit in with the long-haired hippies who made up the crowd. I bought my shirt at a drug store a few days later.

I had almost forgotten my motorcycle phase. Back in 1971, I bought a Triumph 750 Bonneville twin to ride back and forth to the ship.

I used to ride it across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in heavy traffic.  There’s a great view of Alcatraz, but I was always scared to look. I was afraid of getting bumped into the guard rail and over the side. It’s a 245-foot drop to the water below. People love to commit suicide off this bridge; in fact, only a bridge over the Yangtze River in China has had more suicides. Since 1937, on the California bridge, there’s been more than 1,700 confirmed suicides and 300 unconfirmed.

It is speculated that the death rate is much higher, but many bodies are never found because of the strong current, which is also the reason so few men escaped from Alcatraz Prison.

Of those who have jumped, 34 have survived, and every two to three days, the California Highway Patrol has to talk someone down. There are signs on the bridge saying, “The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic.” That always seemed self-evident to me.

I still have the motorcycle, although it has so much compression it’s hard to kick start without getting flipped over the handlebars. I recently made a concession to old age and put a “chair” or side car on it. It’s not as “cool,” but it’s harder to “keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down’ when you are old.

I also have several “Shellback” t-shirts for crossing the Equator and being initiated in the old- fashioned way, not sprinkled with champagne like they do on cruise ships these days.

This was back when “Pollywogs” had to crawl the length of the ship on their hands and knees while being “encouraged” by Shellbacks with paddles cut from fire hose; crawl through inflated life rafts full of disgusting garbage that the cooks had saved for weeks; and then approach the royal throne of King Neptune, kiss the greasy belly of the royal baby, the fattest Shellback on the ship, and then confess your many shortcomings as a landlubber.

It was all “voluntary,” but I never saw anyone back out. You were crazy if you did. You wouldn’t exactly wake up with a dead horse’s head in your bunk, but it could be bad.

I don’t have a shirt, but I’m also a “Golden Shellback” (crossed the Equator at the International Date Line), and an “Emerald Shellback” (crossed the Equator at the Prime Meridian).  I’ve got certificates for transiting the Suez, Corinth,  and Panama Canals and for sailing around the world twice (Order of Magellan), but I don’t have the “big” one, the Order of the Sparrow,” for sailing in all 7 of the largest bodies of water – the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Artic oceans; Mediterranean and  Caribbean seas; and  the Gulf of Mexico – although I did it.

There’s no record of that anywhere. No one keeps up with where you’ve been but you.

In Paris, I picked up a shirt with a picture of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” (Le Penseur) on it.

The famous statue is located in the Musee Rodin, on the left bank of the Seine, a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Some art critics think it was originally intended to depict Dante Alighieri at the gates of Hell, pondering his poem, “The Divine Comedy.” I’m not sure about that, but I did have an XO (Executive Officer, second to the Captain) on a ship early in my career who had a sign above his stateroom door which stated: “Knock, Enter, Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here,” which, of course, is a paraphrase of Dante’s inscription over the gates of Hell. The last I heard of this fine gentleman, he had ticked off the wrong person and been transferred to Adak, Alaska, which is not exactly the garden spot of the North.

My shirt from Egypt reminds me of my mother-in-law. I was a poor lieutenant on a ship in Alexandria, Egypt, at Christmas time, and I bought a big box of assorted Egyptian candy and mailed it back home to my toddler son for a present. My family was back in Mississippi with my wife’s mother.

When my mother-in-law saw the foreign candy, she decided that it might be poison, even though it was individually wrapped, and threw it all away. So much for my present.

I found a few shirts bought on R&R in Olongapo/Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, during the Vietnam War, printed with the obligatory macho logos that appealed to young men and women in stressful situations, such as “I must be going to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell,” or “Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out.”   Many on R&R had bought into that false narrative of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” first attached to the eccentric English poet, Lord Byron, back in the 19th century. 

I would sit on the veranda of the American Legion Post on Magsaysay Street, eating my pancit and pork adobo, and watch them, barely shaving and names written in water, swaggering along, full of false bravado, a few days before going back to the war zone and uncertain futures.

While some might say that the slogans they preferred are garish, extreme, and even obscene, those familiar with the military milieu know that they contribute to a sense of camaraderie, unit solidarity, and the idea that “we share the same foxhole.”

The psychology behind “mottos” is very similar. Expressions like “Remember the Alamo,” “Remember the Maine,” “Remember Pearl Harbor,” and “Remember Bataan” have been used to foster morale and esprit de corps forever. 

Former Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis, called the “Warrior Monk” because he never married, and a former Marine Corps General, has a personal motto of “Be polite, be respectful, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” 

On the other hand, another “general” in the Old Testament, Nehemiah, rallied his forces rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem with the motto, “Remember the Lord!”

One day, the Commanding Officer of the First Recruit Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, called me in and told me that he wanted a battalion motto on his desk by noon.

He said we needed more “team spirit” and a sense of identity. I said, “I can give you one right now: ‘Fortune Favors the Brave,’” which is the translation of a Latin proverb. He liked it, and it was plastered over all the battalion’s barracks by sundown.

In a similar vein, since I graduated from Pearl River Community College’s Automotive Technology program in 2004, I’ve bought t-shirts for the students there every year.

I’m always on the look-out for a slogan to put on each year’s shirt which would appeal to that student demographic: young, mechanically inclined, independent minded men and a few women.  Some recent ones include “Chrome Won’t Get You Home,” “Safety Fast,” “In Torque We Trust,” “Loud Pipes Save Lives,” and “Kick the Tires and Light the Fires.” Last year, I put the slogan in French: “Mecanicien de Vehicules Certifie,” or “Certified Vehicle Mechanic.” Just because I could.

My shirt from the Raffles Hotel in Singapore is a testament to the changing times. Now a five-star resort for the rich and famous, owned by the Sovereign Fund of Qatar, it was once a favorite hangout for sailors, writers, and expatriates from all over the world.

Captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in World War II, their troops supposedly encountered guests dancing one final waltz.

Up until the late 1960s, you could still see bullet holes from the invasion in the woodwork. Legend says that the last tiger was killed in the courtyard around 1900, the same place the staff buried the hotel silver when the Japanese took over.

Among other things, the hotel is famous for its “Long Bar,” where the “Singapore Sling” cocktail was invented, and which was a favorite spot of such celebrities as the English novelist, Somerset Maugham, reputedly the highest-paid author of the 1930s.

When I lived in Nice, France, Maugham was still alive, and he had retired to a villa overlooking the sea on Cap Ferrat, a few miles away.

I always wanted to call on him, but I was afraid he would think I was just another paparazzi, and not someone who had read most of his books.   

Want to see the Coca Cola logo in Hebrew? I got it. A portrait of the rock apes on Gibraltar. Got it.

The yacht that Dennis Connor sailed when he lost the America’s Cup off Newport? Ditto. 

A pseudo-philosophical message?  Here you go: “Si c’est possible, c’est fait; si c’est impossible, ca se fera.”  (“If it’s possible, it’s done; If it’s impossible, it will be done.”)  I suppose we are known by the things we leave behind, at least until our survivors hold an estate sale and strange people show up and cart everything off.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t take more pictures; I always said, “I’m taking photographs in my mind.” I also wish I had paid more attention. I just bought the t-shirt. What’s in your closet?

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: villefranche60@yahoo.com. Read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com.