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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
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Mom was right
But those pants were so cool, and I wanted them

Clothes don't make the person, but they sure as hell make the teenager.

It's 1973. I'm a half-cocked teen peering through the plate-glass window of a local head shop. I draw some big game into the crosshairs.

There, posing in a field of bongs, beads and belt buckles, a mannequin sports a pair of American flag pants. The same ones Peter Fonda wore in the Easy Rider era.

My weekly pilgrimage to the store has transformed my yearning for the pants into raw need. The idea of them lives inside me. I have to own these pants, I think, because they already own me.

Since I don't learn how to save money until I'm, like, 30, the twisty road to owning the flag pants leads to my mother.

"No way," she says, as we drive by the store one afternoon. "Not on your life."

"Why not?" I plead.

"Those pants are a novelty, and the novelty will wear off before the pants wear out."

I'm not sure what she means, but that's irrelevant. Her tone tells me there's no room for negotiation. This doesn't stop my weekly trips to the shop that summer. No cash for the pants, I stare at them while emptying my pockets to buy the new Rolling Stone.

Like all the previous years, I start my junior year in high school with a stiff new pair of Levi's. And as the serious work of Advanced Chemistry, English Lit and Political Science commences, I return my focus to the main priority of the new school year: making out with Mary McLeod.

But wait. What's all the fuss down at the end of the hallway? Cheers and high fives. Suddenly, parting the adoring crowds like Jesus through Jerusalem, Harold Eff appears. He's wearing the flag pants. They fit perfectly. The red, white and blue bars travel down the length of his long legs, the flares snapping to a smart finish at the square toe of his Frye boots.

Bastard! If I can't have them, I think as the noisy caravan comes closer, why can Harold? Now my classmates' voices.

"Right on, Harold!"

"Too cool!"

"Flag pants!"

"Easy Rider!"

"Where'd you get 'em?"

Harold basks in the white-hot spotlight of cool. That's my place. Those are my pants. Harold is a damn imposter. His eyes meet mine on the pass through. They say, "You know, these pants are so cool." It's lunchtime. I throw my uneaten brown bag into the metal trash can.

"Harold Eff got a pair of flag pants," I advise mom after school. "Oh did he?" she replies. "I bet they look cool," she says coolly.

A week passes. Almost enough time to forget about flag pants. But no. Here comes Harold in the concourse before first bell.


"Wow! There's the pants!"

"Right on, Eff!"

The second time down the runway the cheers are there, but the bulbs don't flash as hot as last week. I give him a nod as he and his entourage swish by. Damn pants.

Another week passes. Nobody's talking about the pants anymore. The flag pants have become like a popular movie from freshman year. A common marker for us all, but nothing to rehash any further.

I feel sorry for Harold the third time he trots into school with the flag pants on. In less than a month Harold's gone from student body beautiful to joke. The cheers are now jeers.

"Flag pants boy! Again!"

"I pledge allegiance to Harold! Of the United States of America!"

I walk home that afternoon with an extra spring in my step. It's my distinct pleasure to enter the house, find my mother, and utter three little words.

"You were right."

I relive this episode each year as Mother's Day approaches. Of all the things my mother was right about when I was growing up, this one stands out.

Maybe it's because it's connected to something that I wanted so badly, so badly I can still feel the desire if I want to, and then in an instant the desire was replaced with relief.

The many other things she was right about, things far more important than advising me against pants, still matter. But this is a symbol for the others because she was so right, and because it came so easy for her. She executed the decision with the casual flair of a Pete Maravich under-the-leg, no-look pass.

I'm betting that she understood the stakes involved, but she never knew the depth of satisfaction I took from her good call. She saved me. She saved me, if only this once, from the boiling, burning cauldron of high school humiliation.

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