The pea coat is one my favorite designs in the entire history of men’s wear. Like many garments we wear today, this distinctly masculine, iconic garment has its roots in the military. Characterized by its dark blue color, broad collar and lapels, six-button double-breasted closure and vertical “slash” pockets, the pea coat was originally worn by European sailors before making its way to the U.S. Navy. Through the 1970s, the original Navy-issue pea coats were made with a densely woven, 30 ounce wool known as “Melton cloth” with a somewhat velvety nap. Nowadays, the pea coats you find at the surplus are made with a typically lighter weave that has a decidedly coarser hand.
I found my pea coat at a flea market in the fall of 1997. The woman who sold it to me had a rack of them, all original Navy issue, all vintage. To my good fortune, the one in the best condition also happened to fit me beautifully. It was $80.
Aside from its mint condition, its perfect fit and its irresistible price, my coat had something extra special: a vintage with a unique history. Sewn into the coat’s lining is a label from the Clothing Supply Office of the U.S. Navy. The label indicates the coat’s size (38) along with the officer’s name and service number. My coat once belonged to a Naval officer named Charles Way, service number 492-98-21.
Earlier this year, it finally occurred to me to do a little research. After a little poking around, I learned that the Navy stopped issuing service numbers some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, making this coat at least as old as I am. I eventually found a website called The Navy Log and searched for Charles Way. I found him. Born on January 19, 1940, Seaman Charles C. Way, Jr. was from Enola, PA, and served in the U.S. Navy from June of 1958 to June of 1960. Since the pea coat was probably brand new when it was issued to Mr. Way, it is at least 55 years old.
In the years I’ve had the coat, some buttons have come off (all original and saved) and some seams have come out. I’ve had them all repaired, sometimes more than once. The shell of the coat is in great shape overall, but the lining, however, is starting to show its age with some fraying in a few corners. A less sentimental owner would probably just have the coat re-lined. But here’s the thing: in addition to the irreplaceable sewn-in label from the Navy’s Clothing Supply Office, Mr. Way actually hand-wrote his name in the lining with some kind of marker: “Charley Way.” It might seem weird to some people, but the idea of getting rid of it strikes me as disrespectful. So I keep it, just how Charley Way left it.
Based on his years served, Mr. Way likely didn’t see any action. But I can’t help but wonder where this coat was worn. On a ship in exotic (but cold) locations? On what ship? The USS Intrepid, the famous aircraft carrier that is now a sea/air/space museum docked in the Hudson River at the end of my block in midtown Manhattan, alternated deployments along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. from 1958 to 1961. Maybe he served on it. As I said, I can only wonder. And do a little more poking around.
If Charley is still around, he’d be 73 now. After a further web search, I found a profile for Charles C. Way on LinkedIn. The public profile of this Charles C. Way indicated that he retired from Penn State University in 2007. If this is my Charley, he would have been 67 at the time of his retirement. Since many men of that generation, like my own father, built lives and careers close to their childhood home, it would make sense. So I sent him a message on LinkedIn, introducing myself and briefly explaining the story of the pea coat. If he ever responds and if he is, indeed, the Charles C. Way who originally owned the coat, it will make a great follow-up to this story. I’ll keep you posted.
Because of all this, because of how beautifully it was designed, because of how well it was made, because of how good it feels to wear it, because it still keeps me warm, because of its history, and because I just might make a connection with the U.S. Navy seaman who originally owned it from 1958 to 1960, this vintage $80 pea coat just might be the most valuable garment I own.