The Jacket by Brian J. Miller

Clothes back in the days of the cave man were most likely first used in keeping the body warm in that forbidding primitive environment. Coats, jackets and sweaters do the same for us today. Recently I acquired a jacket that provided warmth of another kind, one that warmed my heart.

This jacket wasn’t one of the latest fashions bought fresh off the rack at a trendy retail store or one that spotted being showcased by some celebrity walking down Hollywood Boulevard. You would not pick it out of a crowd because of its flashy design or brilliant color. In fact some might say it is drab, as in ‘olive drab.’ Its by all accounts over sixty years old, well worn, a bit tattered, frayed and with stains that I’m sure, carry a story with each. The jacket’s label reads: Type E-10: Specification No 3157; Cldin – Dennis; Property Air Forces, US Army. It’s a vintage Army Air Force flight jacket.

This flight jacket was worn by 1st Lieutenant Francis “Sandy” Brewster during all of his 37 combat missions over the hostile skies of France and Germany during World War II. As a young pilot of the 416th Bomber Group he flew a two-engine A-26 medium bomber with a steely resolve that earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions on a mission over Kempton, Germany. This honor is bestowed on individuals who “distinguishes himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight and must have resulted in an accomplishment so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from his comrades or from other persons in similar circumstances.” That being said and to give you an idea as to the company Sandy keeps with regard to this decoration, the first DFC medal was awarded to Charles Lindbergh on June 11, 1927.

Living in the same Ulster County communality together for over 17 years, it took a chance meeting at a local store just barely over one year ago to introduce ourselves to each other. A mutual friendship ensued that seems now to have been nurtured by a lifetime of knowing each other. My interest in World War II may have helped initiate the friendship, but it was Sandy’s affable personality and spirit for life that made it endure. Spend a few minutes with Sandy, and it is apparent that his human spirit is well intact. It’s that human spirit that wants to, or strives to make things better for ourselves and those around us. He has a curiosity for life that goes way beyond accepting what is obvious and a sense of playfulness that invigorates people around him.

It is easy to be in the company of Sandy but only if you are not facing him across the table playing Scrabble or another board game. This, I have learned is a daunting task, fraught with having to deal with trying to out think him. Sandy also has a keen eye for seeing things that others miss. This, I am beginning to understand, is probably not much different than his adversaries must have felt in facing him in that deadly cat and mouse game high over the skies of Europe during the war. These instincts and savvy enabled him to not only survive the war but to excel in completing his missions.

As an octogenarian it is now time that Sandy moves closer to his family, so that they can better provide care and look after him. Instead of a five-minute ride to his house on the road just behind mine, it will entail that I take a five hour journey by car to his new home. His move causes mixed feelings for me. I am happy that he will get the loving care he so rightfully deserves, but sad that my friend will no longer be in the neighborhood. Sandy’s response to me was that it is time for me to get a web camera like his anyway, so we can better stay in touch. That’s classic Sandy, a positive attitude and always thinking ahead.

On a recent visit, Sandy said he had something for me. Walking into the living room he was carrying his flight jacket. He handed it to me saying he could think of no one better to give it to. I was so humbled and honored that I was at a loss for words. Overwhelmed with emotions I could only utter a simple thank you while giving him a great big hug. After all, what do you say at the moment to someone who gives you not only a part of their history but also something that is so personal and irreplaceable?

Vintage cars that are not driven are called trailer queens. This vintage jacket, while it won’t be worn daily, is not destined to be closet king either. Mindful of its age and condition I plan to wear it from time to time and on special occasions. It is my hope that in doing so, it sparks other people’s interest, stimulating conversation and giving me an opportunity to tell Sandy’s story.

By entrusting me with this jacket I would tell Sandy that I understand my responsibility for its stewardship. By respectfully wearing the jacket it will help preserve and promote the legacy of not only Sandy but of all the veterans who sacrificed and served with him. Time is the only thing we don’t get back in our life, so I want to thank Sandy for giving freely of his time to me. I am truly grateful that our life paths crossed and by sharing his life’s experiences with me, he has enriched and blessed mine. It is with this strong sense of gratitude that I realized it was my good fortune that I met Sandy and I can proudly say he is my friend. The jacket is now one of my most treasured possessions and slipping it on will always draw me closer to my friend’s heart. This is my tribute to him.