How Perry Como Single-Handedly Saved Men the Privilege to Wear Sweaters
Nov. 7 -- I am spent. Body and soul. I will admit to anyone on or off of HubPages that I am far from being the BEST writer. I would be lying if I said such. That brings me to this narrative. If you aren't very, very careful, you might be confused toward the middle of this piece and come away with some really strong-but-wrong signals. Don't do that. I am not a political, theologist, or hallway monitor at any middle school. I just wanted to publish something that is really near and dear to me. Your work is to read this and then ask yourself, is this True Fiction or just Pure Fantasy? Your call. (Kenneth.)
Society and the Sweater Club, LLC., dated heavily for about nine months and when boredom hit them, the relationship borne in the 1950s went sadly south. Lots of tears were shed on that fateful Saturday evening in Hoboken, N.J., where more than a few celebrities had their start in film, theater and singing. Maybe a few animal trainers who were paid to remain nameless for the early Ed Sullivan broadcasts. And you thought that life was lived only in black and white.
Times for the men who loved sweaters when meeting in fashionable restaurants started up conversations about how neat a man looks when he wears a sweater was always on the Top of The Sweater Wearing List. Of course in those early days prior to the sweater discovering that it had a life of its own, was kept in a cold, dark closet in someone's extra bedroom who no one used. Sad stuff, man. Sad. Each story I would read in the early 1960s about stories in major magazines that published fashion tips and new designs about sweaters being worn in France out in the public made me feel queezy. I became uneasy about what was really happening right there on my parents' wooden front porch in one of our rented houses and I was scared. But had no one to confide in about my concerns about Sweaters Being Worn by Men in America.
My mom and dad were made for one another in the Conservative Dept., for both went off on me for just asking (what they thought was) about Men's Sweaters. I tried my best to get my mom's attention, since she was the weaker of my two parents, and would listen to my queries about sweaters, but I found her attitude, much to my chagrin, very stuffy and aloof. One time I lost my self-control and blurted out, "it's just S-W-E-A-T-E-R-S, mom! Sheesh!" And it was that last word, "sheesh" that caused me to not have any supper that night--just a glass of water and right to bed.
But this didn't stop me from dreaming about sweaters and how I might look good wearing a fashionable, neat sweater that went with my sports pants. But dreams are, I found out, really costly when I overslept the next morning and had to go to school without a warm breakfast. I knew mom's game. She was teaching me a lesson about Changes in Life, but mostly she was opposed of my wearing sweaters for as she once said: "only strange men and musicians wear sweaters--and not really Americans." Dad agreed without discussion.
When you are seven and have a modest like for wearing sweaters, it's a tough road to walk, mister. I know. The absolute ONLY information or pictures that I was allowed to read or look at were a few of those women's magazines that my sister had left in our home and moved out to make a life for her and her husband in a brand-new home. This has always bothered me (among a lot of other things): although my parents allowed me to thumb through those women's magazines and find out all that I could about men's sweaters, many is the time that my dad would catch me laying on the cold linoleum rug that covered our living room--looking at men's sweater ads and read what men's sweater stories, my dad did not have to say one word. He merely frowned with his eyebrows meeting into the center of his face making him look like a very angry Groucho Marx and I stopped dreaming about men's sweaters as long as he was in the house.
And if you think that this situation about my like for men's sweaters was a downer, the Sunday mornings when my parents and I did attend church . . .I ran into a much more frightening scene: No one, young or old, wore a sweater. Not women, girls, men or boys. Even the pastor did not wear a sweater. At age seven, I had a lot of horrible thoughts concerning this Social Issue: People Not Wearing Sweaters. This was at that time, a Non-Sweater Society. Even the late Frank Zappa would be on my side with this one. But he wasn't born back then and by the time I grew up to know about Zappa, he was sick, about dead, and didn't care. Of course, I am assuming.
I knew and felt that as I was growing up in rural northwest Alabama, Hamilton, to be exact, the County Seat of Marion County, that I would, before I marry a wonderful girl on some magical place over the far horizon, I would get to wear a sweater of my choosing. The color, design, and would hang it on a seperate steel hanger by itself as to not taint the few rural clothes that I did own. My closet was the saddest thing you ever saw. And I am not assuming.
One Saturday afternoon, both my parents decided to go visit one of my mom's sisters--she had two and both of them lived a mile apart on up our asphalt highway with no stripes, highway 29 north. Yes, sir. Now starting to be a real Traffic Hub of that area of the county for the cotton and corn farmers would take their harvest to town to get it processed and these farmers made highway 29 a busy place. My folks amazed me on that Saturday. They said that I could stay at home and read or listen to the radio since my sister and her husband took the brand-new Philco black and white TV with them when they moved out. I guess that was okay since they did own the TV set. But I had the entire house to myself. All alone. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I rummaged through my mom's junk drawer of her dresser in my parents' big bedroom where she did her sewing. The junk drawer had loads of scraps that I could sew together (by watching her sew) and sew myself a make-shift sweater and go through some amateur acting and learn how it would feel to be wearing an almost sweater--when you are in a poor atmosphere, you learn how to do things through your own ingenuity. Wa, la. One French-made sweater made just for me. I held it up to my torso and although my sewing left something to be desired, I imagined that the sweater looked perfect.
Then, after I looked at more ads in those women's magazines that featured men in sweaters, I decided to be one of those guys. We had a ragged, almost-worn-out couch and I would sit on one of the arms facing inside of the seating area and pretend that I was in one of those men's sweater ads--sometimes I'd push up the sleeves of my homemade sweater and pose a few minutes in that position and then stand near the fireplace and be checking the time with my pocket watch that I kept in my right pants pocket. This day went smoothly and before I knew it, I was standing in the kitchen and doing my best to be one of those early Popular Singers that I had glanced in one of the REDBOOKs that my sister had left to my mom.
The singer was none other than Perry Como and he had it all--looks, charm, a nice singing voice and was connected in the major entertainment cities in the nation: New York City, Long Island, Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit, primarily the very same towns that Nat King Cole toured many times prior to and even after he hit it big. So now, even at seven, the connection between Como and that always-fashionable sweater and his singing on LPs and on some magazine ads that helped him to look his best.
By the late 1960s, TV, Perry Como, RCA Victor and his line of fancy sweaters were the talk of the town. Como was on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Bell Telephone Hour as well as the cameo's he made on The Twilight Zone where he was always the mysterious stranger in town. Como could act. I learned that one night when my parents and I visited my sister and her husband and that Philco black and white TV that I loved. I mean loved with a powerful urge to someday perform on the Sullivan Show, maybe sing, I didn't know. But after I left home that night after seeing The Twilight Zone and Perry Como, just how versatile that he was, I had made up my mind. I was going to do my best to keep my love for sweaters and show business treasured, hidden secrets because if my parents had gotten wind of this area of my life, mom would be the more understanding than my dad for he could not stand to see a man wearing a sweater--much less see me looking at a woman's magazine with a men's sweater ad with a sharp-looking male model posing as if he were Bobby Jones, the Golfing Legend.
Since I did mention Jones, I will tell you the truth that Bobby Jones would be the only male celebrity who might be a threat to Perry Como, but Como was smart. He didn't go in for playing in those highly-publicized golf tournaments. Como was more of a gentle soul with a boxcar load of talent. Ask anyone. They will tell you that what I am saying about Como is true.
The day came when I was to start Junior High at Hamilton (Al.), High School and I was not the least bit happy about it. I really didn't like that two-room school house, New Home. All I wanted to do was grow up helping my folks with the sharecropping and what work my mom had for me to do in the house and now I know that this is wild, but I really did NOT want to attend any day of junior and senior high. I thought that whatever I needed to learn, my parents would teach me. And I was at peace with that way of thinking.
Then I had another scary thought: On another day I happened to be flipping through one of the women's magazines, Good Housekeeping, and I saw Perry Como, dressed in a blue sweater, on an ad that promoted Children in America: Stay in School! When I read the small print, I felt my own dream of not going to school falling away like a sand castle with the tide coming in strong. I was sad alright. What was I going to do about performing and show business? I was in a dilemma, alright.
So I thought, why not experiment a little. Convince my sister that I was in bad need of a snappy-looking sweater to wear on the first day of Junior High. I had to keep this a secret for I knew how my dad felt about sweaters. So my sister worked it all out for me. As fate would have it, my dad went to see a neighbor way up north of where we lived to do some odd job work for him. And my mom was now employed at Detroit Slacks, Inc., at Detroit, Al., and the plant was owned by Coy Glenn, a textile mogul of that time. So all I had to do was let my dad take me to my sister's house and then let me out and I would do the rest. This plan that I made-up had a great chance of succeeding.
I already had my hair slicked down at home before my dad took me to my sister's house. But I was careful to make sure that my dad was clean out of sight before I slipped into my very own young man's sweater that my sister had promised to pay a store in Hamilton, Sherman's, and my mother, now working, could swing the $1.45 for my sweater. I loved how it took to my shape. It felt smooth and easy. Sharp, man. Mirrors do not lie.
My heart was pumping faster than any oil well in Oklahoma as I watched the road from my sister's picture window so I could get on the bus to carry me to Hamilton and take my first day of the Seventh Grade, Junior High, yeah, man. My sweater made me feel alive, confident and cool. I knew that Perry Como had something going with his sweater wearing. That was why he was always seen wearing a snazzy-looking sweater looking so cool and popular.
I was wearing, along with the light blue sweater that my sister bought for me, a pair of solid black slip-on loafers with black pants and a starched white shirt to make my ensemble look complete. I walked slowly down the steps at the front of the bus and then I headed toward the school building where a lot of students, some that I would hope to be friends, were all standing around and talking, but the door was not open. Rats! Something was up.
A fast-walking lady in her early 30s came to the door and with one swipe, the door was open. I was not first to walk through. I wanted to blend into the crowd--and let my city school students see me all slicked down and "Dressed to The Nines," like a young Perry Como or even a young Paul Anka, a rising heartthrob now doing great in Hollywood. But I was still a Como fan through and through. He was faithful to his sweater and so was I.
Before I could get settled into what a woman said was our Home Room, the hallway went completely silent--as if someone has passed away. I heard whispers, some feet scuffing on the tile floor and I knew something was wrong. Very wrong. I started to feel panic in my spirit. I was trapped. Nowhere to run. My heart beat fast as sweat surfaced on my forehead and ran down the back of my neck. I felt hot underneath my new sweater. It was all on the line. I dressed like this on purpose to see how I would do as a male student in Junior High wearing a sweater.
Me starting the first day of my Junior High year in 1967, at Hamilton (Al.) High School was more like an eye-opening experience rather than being excited about my first day of school like the other students who were milling around in the hallway. One of the things that (a) rural farming school student (like me) had not counted on was just how verbally cruel and heartless the city students could be--I continued to stand still and pray to God that I was not bring myself any unwanted attention.
It was like turning the page of a novel--on the first page, a peaceful beginning and then, before I could think twice, it was page two, cruel, slurs, mean things being hurled at me, but I relied on my rural wisdom to hopefully not be the one whom these ugly things were being said about me. That did not last. I think that the city students all parted like Moses parting the Red Sea heading toward the Land of Canaan. Things sometimes happen that fast.
A slight breeze drifted throughout the hallway due to the huge air conditioning system that our Building Custodian, (janitor in old time language), "Jim," the only name we knew him as, turning on the cooling system to rid the August heat that was still evident in the building. I felt the breeze kiss the back of my neck and with the sweat, I felt like I had jumped into one of our local bodies of water: The Butthatchee River. I didn't mind the cool, but now the hundreds of students were just standing staring at me as if I had just been released from prison. In a cold comparison, the feeling about being pardoned felt a bit better for I hated for people to just stare at me and some of the students had their mouths open.
I grew impatient. I had been told that my homeroom teacher was going to be (a) Mrs. Lena Shotts, a pure Southern Gentle Lady, but for her age, she looked very Southern Bellish and oh so mild spoken. I viewed a woman sitting at her desk in the room which I was told would be our Home Room and to my way of thinking, the woman just had to be Mrs. Shotts. She must have read my thoughts for she looked a little startled and then glanced toward the door. I mouthed, please open the door! She smiled softly and continued doing the work on her desk.
But before she unlocked the door, I knew it was coming and actually thought that the sooner it started, maybe it would end--and I am talking about the City Students form of Hazing for those bigger New England Colleges, but with city students studying in our high school, that didn't phase them about all of us living in rural northwest Alabama.
Before the City Students Razzing, I heard a few of the students' teeth gnash and that was a sure sign that I was in for it. I wasn't wrong.
"Sissy!" "Click-a Click," "Homo!" Click-a Click," "Candy Butt!" Click-a Click," "Panty Waist!" Click-a Click," "Mama's Boy!" Click-a Click!" . . .this razzing continued I know, for 15 minutes straight. I kept my back to the students hurtful phrases. They said all of these ugly things simply because I wore a sweater to the first day of Junior High. I hadn't robbed a bank, been arrested for rape, or selling dope. Just for wearing a sweater that I loved. What I noticed about this crowd of city students, NO rural farming school students dared join in with the city kids. No, sir. Taboo, maybe blasphemy in their eyes. These few rural kids just stayed off to themselves with heads bowed and took it like I did. The faces of the city students looked like zombies for their eyes were frozen, but their mouths called out their slurs at me and in the end, began to sway back and forth as if they were in a high school musical. Not on your life!
Now, Mrs. Shotts smiled at me, then the city kids as they chanted out their vulgar phrases and soon they filed as straight as any arrow in perfect line, without a word, and found their desks and sat down with a half-smile on their face--none of them looked at me. I praised God in my heart for this short relief. Before we were let into our Home Room, I was very tempted to just chunk it all. Call it a day. And then head home on foot. I'm not sure that was not not a wise decision for on that day, my first day of Junior High, I toughed it out.
During that first day in each of the different classes that we now had to change, not one city student said anything to me. Oh, the rural farming school students were treated very friendly--and even went out of their way to escort some of them to find their classes. Any idiot could see that I was being the victim of Sweater Racism--plain and pure.
In the rough days ahead in Junior High, I managed to keep a mild focus on my studies as I wanted to pass the seventh grade so my dad and mom would be proud. I did not continue to wear my pretty blue sweater after my first day for I had rather avoid any sign of trouble than face it. It worked, but still, the city students had great memories of how I was the only kid in Junior High to wear a gawdy, attention-getting, rebellious sweater of all things. One big kid who we thought was on our football team, told me one day as I walked to the bus to go home . . ."Hey, you who wore that blue sweater on the first day of school! I ain't forgot how you shamed our school and make the student body look shabby. It would have been better for you if you had come to school on that first day in the nude!" He yelled that slur, grinned, and waddled away and was I about to challenge him? Are you stupid?
"Ken, I know that you feel down right now, but cheer up. Things will get better," my mom would say to reassure me that I had not committed any crime in wearing a sweater. I was not a troublemaker. I loved to be at peace with those around me. And still, my sweater was always going to be the root of trouble for my school days--even when I swore off wearing that pretty sweater that my sister and mom had bought for me.
And my dad was no better in giving me useless information. "Hey, son. Want me to run down there to your school and have a good talk with that Mr. Sargent, the principal? I don't care to," he said with his eyes wide.
I was really tempted to say yes to dad. But then I realized that his talking to Principal Sargent might cause even more trouble for me as other city kids carrying their hatred on their shoulders would verbally jab at me in the hallways, lunch room and walking to class: "Mama's boy! Don't you know that boys who wear sweaters are just mama's boy!" Laugh that jackass laugh, rib each other in the ribs and walk away to class. There is no telling how many tears that I shed in that Hellish Seventh Grade--Junior High's Gateway to Torment.
I haven't told you about the run-in's that I had with the city kids. Some even while the teachers were present and witnessing how brutish that I was treated. To make me feel lower than a Cotton Mouth snake, when I was with a couple of rural farming school kids, the city kids would shove me to the floor, yell at me and swing their fists at me while laughing their patented Jackass Laughing Styles.
Many times, I would yell to the teachers who were watching me take another physical altercation: "Sir? Do you see what these students are doing to me? Help!" Then it was up to the teacher responsible for seeing me treated like a stray dog. One teacher just grinned at me and said, "Now, Ken. These kids are lively for their age and haven't learned how to deal with different people. Say how did you get that nasty bruise on your face? The blood is pouring from your cheek--you best walk on to class and let your shirt tail soak up the blood. We don't have a big School Budget to afford many packs of bathroom tissue." Even the teachers were taking their anger at me for wearing my blue sweater.
One day, after another razzing and this time from "Jim," the School Custodian, who very sneaky, set fire to my shoelaces while I was trying to eat lunch. "Jim" crawled on his stomach on the lunchroom floor very silently (thanks to his Army training) and the city students at lunch didn't let on and allowed me to almost get my feet and ankles burned from the fire that he set.
I wanted to sit down with Mr. Sargent about what had been going on since that past August when I started in Junior High and just maybe, he would feel sympathetic for my need to be respected, and tend to this needless (I hate to say it) Sweater Bullying.
I was pumped and ready to walk to Mr. Sargent's office. I walked into the outer office, wrote my name down on the Visitor's Log and just when Mr. Sargent, who was in his office, saw me, he bolted like a scared buck in the woods and vanished. The amazing thing was a man as old as Mr. Sargent bolting was a sight to see, so I just gave up and went about my business.
Time went by and the Sweater Bullying continued. Some days worse. Some days mild. But everyday some form of some city students making me feel inferior, like the worst refuse in a landfill, for wearing a sweater. Even the most-academic, athletic and popular city kids did NOT go near a sweater. It was like a sweater was the equivalent to being Cancer. And if you had walked in my shoes, you would feel the same way.
Time kept going by. The Sweater Bullying kept charging forward and the day came when two representatives from the Alabama State Dept of Education showed up for a random inspection that went on for every school system in Alabama, that I was called to Mr. Sargent's office one Tuesday morning and dressed in my low-life rural wardrobe: ragged flannel shirt; shoes with holes in the soles; and hardly no buttons on my shirt, but I went to the office anyway. I was not going to be considered a coward.
When I entered Mr. Sargent's office, he was sitting off to the side while (a) "Mr. Dewey Waystein," and (a) "Mrs. Jules Montgomery," both with Ph.d's in Education had obviously heard about my problem of how I was treated for wearing a sweater on the first day of Junior High. Mr. Sargent only looked down at the floor. Both of the State Education Inspectors looked at a folder with a lot of papers in it and cleared their thtoats a few times then "Mr. Waystein," spoke:
"Uhhh, (small cough), Let's see . . .you are Ken Avery, resident of Hamilton, Alabama, and came from a small, rural farming school: New Home. Right? (I nodded). Okay. We aren't here to make you feel badly, but in our school system, this one included, there are, I'm afraid, a few stringent rules that are to be honored and kept if one wants to graduate from this institute of learning that will enable one, by hard work, patience, and not causing any trouble, to be a success at what he has chosen in his studies. On the other hand, Ken, you have started on a dark pathway--and I have it recorded here that you wore a blue sweater on the first day of Junior High, this year. So I must tell you that if you continue to be in such a rebellious mindset, all of this sweater-wearing, well, we will have to enforce those ugly laws that even we do not want to bring up. You, I see are dressed as a rural boy should--ragged clothes, dirty shoes. Good. No way you can cause trouble with that wardrobe. Just leave wearing sweaters be. I am serious. The next Sweater Offense will cause us to terminate your schooling with this institution."
"Mr. Dewey Waystein," grinned. And let me see a fake smile as he motioned me to leave Mr. Sargent's office and continue with my school day. And all of this because I dared to wear a blue sweater on the first day of school," this thought rolled over and over in my head.
A few months from then, I had to tell my mom that she was right about things getting better. They did and if you are like me, looking for signs of things good or bad, then you know what I am talking about. My dad, mom, and myself were invited to visit my sister and her husband to have supper, popcorn, and enjoy an evening of great TV--that included Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, and The Perry Como Show. My stomach was all a-quiver as I ate my pork chops and potato casserole for supper because my mind was not on my stomach, but the Perry Como Show. I ain't lying. I had waited for such a long time to see Perry and how he sang and entertained his fans. I felt that during this Friday night, things might be looking up for me.
My sister, husband, dad and mom thoroughly enjoyed Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, but frowned when The Perry Como Show came on. I rubbed my hands together as a gesture of "it's about time," and as Como came out from the curtain, I saw it. I really thought that I was watching a vision. But visions don't appear in the spirits of rural school children. Those are only for city kids and kids with parents with money. I had a problem keeping that straight.
Perry Como was wearing a very stylish BLUE sweater with small areas of black on top of the pockets and the sleeves were partially rolled up. Would you think that I am crazy for saying this: In that magical moment, I really believe that Como and I were sharing an eye-to-eye encounter with him on my sister's TV. No one else had to know. Each word, sentence that he said, he was talking right at me. I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to jump up in the middle of the living room floor and click my heels for being so happy at watching Perry Como.
Perry's guest star for that Friday night's show was: "Lonesome" George Gobel--comedian; musician and overall loving entertainer loved by all. Then something really strange happened. Something really impromptu. Out of the natural order of things. And seemingly, I was the only one in the room who was paying attention. Dad, mom, sister and husband were seriously-engaged in a heated discussion about America's Involvement in Vietnam and which side of the country did they belong to. I admit it. I almost looked away from Como telling about, as he said, something really special.
Como's usually-calm, laid-back facial appearance, changed to an obviously-stern, but yet humble look and proceded to say something that not only impressed me, but rekindled my once-flickering hope that I once had inside that I believed with all of my heart, one day I would again, wear a sweater of any design, color, and wear it wherever I wanted. I wasn't being arrogant. Just confident.
"I want my audience and you out there, my fans watching TV," Como said in a very rocky voice. "I received a letter last week from a lady with something to say--something really sad to say. There is, I understand, a kid, I won't call his name, but he has followed my career every step of the way and listens faithfully to my songs and watches my show . . .not every fan of mine can say that. His sister, who asked not to be named, for me to tell you, the guys in America from all points east, west, north and south--where this young kid lives and his sister's very touching letter told me how cruel he was treated for over two years when he made a "mistake," of wearing a blue sweater to the first day of Junior High . . .(Como laughs sarcastically), can you believe that, ladies and gentlemen? This kid took abuse verbally and I assume, physically, for WEARING A BLUE SWEATER? Como said almost shouting to the camera. "I am as of when this show has been taped, start my own Save The Sweater Foundation for anyone young, old, black, white, Indian, German . . .it doesn't matter! Sweaters do NOT make the man! If you are a man and like to wear sweaters in private or public . . .DO IT! (now Como is looking fierce). We live in America: Land of The Free! Free to wear sweaters if we want. Free to breathe free air while wearing a sweater. I am telling you, friends, there is going to be a day coming soon and I am going to see it happen that anyone will be free to wear a sweater." Como threw that sad letter down and went to a commercial.
I cried more then than I had ever cried when those city scuzes made my life miserable in Junior High. But the fight was not over--it had just begun in that day after Perry Como made that cry for America to wake up and grow up and be tolerant for those who wear sweaters.
It was not until early 1968 that now saw me and my family owning a Zenith color TV when I was a Sophomore in high school at Hamilton (Al.) High School, when guys and girls both were living the dream of being free to be able to wear a sweater if they wanted. And the more TV shows that I watched in 1968, I saw celebrities such as: Dick Cavett; Fred MacMurray; Bob Newhart; Perry Como; Dean Martin and Bob Hope--the Pioneers of Perry Como's Save The Sweater Foundation.
Sometimes a miracle is standing right in front of you. It did me. And to think. All of those times when I would look at the men's sweater ads on those women's magazines that my sister left when she moved out of our house to have a life with her husband, who, by the way, I found out, did not and does not wear a sweater to this day.
Some people will never see the truth.
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© 2017 Kenneth Avery