Spring may or may not be coming, so it's time to recycle a column I wrote when I worked for the Times-Record in Valley City, North Dakota. I've updated it a little, and doubt many of you have read it, unless you live in Valley City. I wrote four years-worth of columns, which probably ought to be published in one collection someday.
It ain't heavy; it's just ugly
I hate my coat. This is problem, because it's only February, and with this winter, it's possible that spring won't arrive for another six months.
I knew this was coming. I hated the same coat by the end of winter last year, but the darned thing refuses to wear out. I can't afford a new one. Even if I could, such wild extravagance would send all my Scots relatives spinning in their narrow, frugal graves.
I bought the thing in December of 2000, because I was heading to Washington, D.C., for research, courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and wanted a lighter coat for the warmer weather. I somehow thought denim would be lighter. It wasn't. In Washington, the denim coat didn't allow me to blend in with the natives, all of whom were wearing black in 2000. You'd have thought the District was a Johnny Cash convention with lobbyists. The other project researcher was a professor from North Dakota State University, and he wore his parka. We probably looked like Jean and Jerry Lundegaard from the movie, Fargo. You betcha.
If necessity had required that I wear the coat all year round, I would have worn it out sooner and replaced it. I've thought about leaving my coat somewhere, but it would probably come home like a cat, slinking up the driveway and flopping down on the porch.
Maybe I should name my coat. That simple act might have increased my affection. Years ago, my husband bought a used Buick, green and huge. We had five children at home then. In a pinch, I think we could all have lived in the trunk. Maybe even installed a hot tub.
Jeremy, in high school at the time, started calling that green machine "The Nimitz," after the aircraft carrier. We still remember The Nimitz with fondness, but what do you name a coat? Lester? Kiki?
To my relief (and probably everyone else's, who has to look at it), my coat is starting to wear out. I lost a button, which I haven't replaced yet. The cuffs are starting to fray, and it's getting shiny in the seat.
Still, there might be months and months to go until spring. Maybe I'll start a support group. Surely I'm not the only woman in the greater metropolitan Price/Wellington area who hates her coat. I'd offer to trade my dog of a coat to someone, but I'm too nice even to suggest that.
Something has to happen between now and summer, though, because I'm really starting to envy the German army of World War II. No irate, knee-jerk letters, please; hear me out. I know the Nazis were dirtbags. We historians - unless we work for Fox News - tend to look for the Big Picture. The Wehrmacht - the German army - was a bit different from the Nazis. The army had some remarkable commanders; the Nazis, not so much.
So here comes my guiltiest secret of all: I've long been an admirer of those sexy, ankle-length overcoats that German army officers wore. No army looked better than the German Army in wintertime, with those overcoats and shiny boots. It was Wehrmacht haute couture: warm coats, well-cut coats, grey double-breasted, kick ass coats with shiny buttons.
A few years ago, I taught a university course in modern European history. We spent some class time watching World War II newsreels, and I did a lot of reading. I invariably ended up at Stalingrad, a frightful slugfest on the Volga River that may have been the turning point of the war in Europe. Other historians point to the tank battle the following summer at Kursk, but it all is intertwined.
Of his namesake city, Stalin declared the Germans would not move beyond it. On the other side, Hitler said the German Army would never retreat. Between August 1942 and February 1943, two huge armies struggled by that bend in the Volga River, literally fighting room to room in the massive factories. (For a look at this, watch the 2001 movie, Enemy at the Gates, or the even better 1993 German film, Stalingrad.) The Soviets and citizens of Stalingrad gave new meaning to the word stubborn.
When it ended, the Wehrmacht's entire Sixth Army, bled white and starving, surrendered to victorious Soviets, who marched the 91,000 survivors to prison camp. Years passed. Fewer than 5,000 of those Germans ever returned to their homeland.
There is a terrible newsreel of a German POW walking by himself to internment and probable death. His beautiful grey overcoat is in shreds and he is wearing boxes on his bare feet because he has no fancy boots.
Suddenly, that coat I hate so well doesn't look too bad.