A fall afternoon in Kentucky calls for nothing more than an old T-shirt and a pair of jeans — especially for a young boy spending a day with his dad in the garage spray-painting what would soon be a masterpiece. Normally, being in the garage with dad meant wearing something other than nice clothes, but since we were just putting on the final touches, and since I was being very careful, I thought it would be okay if I wore my good jeans.
Our work of art was shiny and red and “not to be touched until it dried”: A 1932 Ford Custom Roadster sitting on the coffee table, calling my name. It was small and plastic, but it almost looked real if I put my nose right up to the grille and stared into the windshield. We had worked on it for what seemed like months, although looking back it was more like weeks. After all the waiting so long for its completion, I hated to let it sit there and dry.
So I picked it up and brought it to the dinner table with me. I don’t remember what we were eating that night (knowing my family, it had to be something fried) but I do remember reaching for my fork lying there on my napkin and seeing a smudge of red paint on my finger and thumb. I quickly wiped the paint on the top of my jeans — and that is where it all began. With one quick stroke of a paint-covered finger and thumb, I had re-christened those jeans as my “play pants.”
As a young boy verging on the age of nine or so, I almost never took those jeans off. Putting them on meant adventure, fun, and most likely trouble. I wore them whether I was building a fort, catching frogs, or hammering on something I probably shouldn’t have been hammering on. Mostly, I remember putting on those jeans when my dad took me somewhere, anywhere — usually some sort of outdoor activity where I could get good and dirty.
Sometimes it was hunting. Sometimes it was fishing. Sometimes it was mowing the yard. Sometimes it was painting. Sometimes it was working underneath a car in his shop. But it was always my dad, me, and those jeans. (My mother made sure I never again wore my nice pants when my dad and I went somewhere together. She was good at that sort of stuff.)
I wore those jeans as we walked through the woods to find a lake’s “sweet spot” where all the good fish resided, and when we squatted in front of a pecan tree at 4 a.m. waiting for a “bushy tail” (that’s what my dad called squirrels), and when I dove into a pile of freshly raked leaves.
One glorious November morning, several hours before the sun was even thinking about waking up, my dad strode into my room, shook my leg, and said, “It’s time to go.” We were heading out on a retreat with my uncle to run his dogs — which meant we were going quail hunting.
I pulled on my old jeans and fumbled with my dad’s old hunting vest. I was still too young — in my mother’s eyes — to carry a shotgun, but wearing the vest meant I’d get to carry the day’s take all by myself. The vest was big and swallowed me, but I felt so regal when I put it on. It matched my favorite adventure jeans perfectly.
I was half-asleep on the journey out to the field, and my head bounced back an forth off my dad’s shoulder while the truck rallied over hills, rocks and branches of trees laying on the poorly beaten path. A soft frost of frozen dew covered the ground. It was unusually green for November and not as cold as normal, either. The freshly harvested corn field smelled clean and wet.
We always brought two dogs with us when we hunted quail: two sisters, Roxie and Dixie. The older one, Roxie, pranced out of her box and sat next to my dad, huffing a white cloud of warm breath. I always played with the dogs a little more than my uncle would like. I’d slap my chest, call their names and they’d jump up on me — planting muddy paw prints on my shirt and usually knocking me down, so those jeans of mine would bear another stain of mud and grass.
We walked around the ridge of the field for a few hours taking a few trophies. I always got to run to the downed fowl with the dogs, taking them from the dogs’ mouths and putting them in my vest. A few hours into the hunt, my dad looked over at me asked if I wanted to hold his gun. I was jittery with excitement and thought he must have been kidding. He wasn’t — although mom wouldn’t have approved.
No more than two minutes later, Roxie stood still with her tail out straight, nose pointed directly in the position of a roost 10 feet away. I held up the gun with both arms for my dad to take it back, but he just smiled, shook his head, and pointed. He was going to let me shoot!
He softly trekked up to the roost and scuffed the ground, and three birds darted up into the sky. I took the gun up to my shoulder and squeezed the trigger. I saw the load of pellets spray out several feet from the birds. I had missed. I didn’t care. I don’t remember much after that, except that my shoulder hurt and that I felt overwhelmed with pride. I knew I was graduating from boyhood to become a man.
Each and every mark on those jeans told a story like that. I cannot remember the day I lost those jeans to the never-ending march of growth and age, but I do remember the love I had for them — and for every tear and rip, every paint or oil splatter, every dirt-, grass-, and bloodstain.