In many ways it didn’t seem like Christmas this year. We didn’t want to deal with people much, so didn’t get a tree. Didn’t get out the old ornaments. Didn’t utter the curse that helps untangle the string of lights. Didn’t fuss for some days over a jigsaw puzzle that, by tradition, we got at the Guerneville Five and Dime, a marvelous little store. We played some Christmas music on the stereo, lit some candles and that was about it.
And so it became a time to remember Christmases past and pick out a favorite or two. One quickly came to mind. The Christmas of 1950 was a big one for my father and his two boys.
By all accounts, my father was a “prince of a man” in the little town where I grew up. That’s what people said about him, and it was true. To this day, my brother and I agree whole heartedly. But there was one thing guaranteed to rankle him, and that was Levis. He didn’t want us to wear Levis, didn’t want them in the house, didn’t want to think about Levis at all.
This was because he was manager of the local J. C. Penney store, and Penneys didn’t sell Levis. Penneys sold Foremost jeans, which my father said were superior to Levis and not only that they cost $2.98 whereas Levis cost $5. Dad said it wouldn’t be right for sons of the manager of the J. C. Penney store to wear Levis to school. It would give the wrong impression, he said.
And so, though all the guys in high school wore Levis, my brother and I wore Foremost jeans. Yes, they were very well made, but they fit funny. They were a bit baggy. Worst of all, they poofed out in back. On the other hand, Levis were trim, hip hugging, tapered toward the ankles and most necessary of all, they had a little red tag attached to the right back pocket that announced you were properly attired for school.
In the ever-loving ways of high school guys, our Foremost jeans brought ridicule to my brother and me. What’s more, the girls, who didn’t wear Levis in those days but skirts and fetching sweaters, giggled at us. We were embarrassed to go to school.
Now you have to know that my father not only worked for J. C. Penney, he believed in him. He admired Penney, a farm boy from Missouri, who, in 1902, bought the Golden Rule store where he worked in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and by 1912 had 34 such stores in western towns. Dad took the family on what was surely a pilgrimage to the Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer when my brother and I were little kids. Dad thoroughly appreciated Penney’s stated desire to treat customers and employees as he would like to be treated. With full dedication, Dad ran his store that way and kept a copy of Penney’s book Main Street Merchant on his bedside table and read from it each night.
Mr. Penney came to visit us once, an older wiry man with shock of white hair, a warm smile and sure handshake, as I recall. My mother served her rich, dark gravy pot roast and mashed potatoes for dinner. While Dad waited upon his every word, the great man had two helpings. He talked mainly of a new Hereford bull he had added to his impressive herd of cattle, but anything J. C. Penney had to say was worth taking to heart as far as Dad was concerned. So, you can see why my brother and I were sure there was no way to get out of wearing Foremost jeans to school. No way to stop the ridicule and giggling.
I suspect our mother knew what was going on with her boys and their jeans. Mothers always know what’s going on. I suspect she let Dad know what was happening. In her fashion, she likely made some strong arguments on our behalf. Whatever is so about that, on the Christmas of 1950, there were brand new Levis under the Christmas tree for my brother and me.
I‘m not sure I fully appreciated this at the time, but, thinking about it now, I appreciate it immensely. Though his love for Bill and me surely caused a struggle in Dad’s soul, he settled it in our favor. He momentarily set aside some deep commitments so his boys wouldn’t be embarrassed at school. It makes for a Christmas to remember.