Rest In Peace, Old Red


August 14, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Old Red is dead, and I've nothing to wear to the funeral. I've nothing to wear because Old Red is dead.

Old Red was my favorite gardening shirt. He was filthy and faded and falling apart, but that was part of his charm. He was smelly and stained and a sight to behold, but I felt proud to wear him.

I loved that old T-shirt. We worked together for 20 years, mowing and hoeing and seeding and weeding. We became inseparable, Old Red and I. In fact, on hot sticky days, you couldn't tear us apart. Perspiration glued us together. I had to dry out before shedding Old Red.

Everyone has their favorite work clothes, and mine was this raunchy old garment. He wasn't much to look at, but Old Red was the most comfortable shirt I owned. I wore him for days on end, slipping into the shirt every night to do chores; on weekends, we were pals from dawn to dusk.

The grind finally caught up with my bosom buddy. Toward the end he was tattered and riddled with holes, but I never considered a change. I would have felt naked without him.

I was practically bare-chested anyway. There were 19 holes in Old Red, some as large as a melon. The shirt was so ragged it was giving me sunburn. Peeling it off, I looked like a piece of Swiss cheese.

I figured the end was near. There was not much left of Old Red this year. He lost one sleeve in 1992 when it snagged on a wire tomato cage. The other sleeve vanished last spring in the washing machine. It must be up there in sock heaven with all my missing footwear.

Old Red's armpits disintegrated long ago. The collar was hanging by a thread. Not that it really mattered. The other holes in the shirt were so large, any one could have fit my head -- and often did.

Old Red was a ragged shadow of his former self, but what memories we had! Every stain on the shirt told a story. The crimson splotch marked the time I tripped on the garden hoe and sprawled into the tomato patch. The black smear was oil from the sputtering rototiller. The green marks were cabbage worms that I squashed in disgust.

That shirt bore the stains and scents of every plant I've grown, from bush beans to basil, and many plants I have not. I lugged armloads of weeds while wearing Old Red, and all left their marks. Inspecting that shirt was like examining the rings on a tree. The stains told the history of my garden. Any spot that perplexed me, I would rub vigorously and smell. Old Red was a scratch-and-sniff shirt.

He was versatile, too. Old Red had more uses than a Swiss army knife. He was a towel to mop my sweaty brow; a pillow for when I collapsed in the heat; and a weapon with which to thwack flying insects.

I used the shirt as a container to harvest vegetables, holding it out like an apron and filling it with peas, peppers and even tomatoes. Then I'd head for the house carrying a shirtful of produce. The big beefsteak tomatoes really stretched the fabric.

My wife accepted Old Red for the grunge that he was. Meg laundered the shirt (but always by itself). She even tried to sew up the wounds until it became apparent that what remained of Old Red was more hole than shirt.

Meg's only request was that I not wear him in public. Once, I forgot and drove to the mall. As I walked toward the entrance, someone tossed me a quarter.

Old Red's looks never bothered me. Nor did it matter that whenever I donned the shirt, the family fled for the hills. To me, gardening is a time for solitude, a moment for man to commune with nature. My yucky shirt kept the world at bay, and for that I am grateful.

I suspect Old Red's yuckiness probably prolonged his life. When I packed him away for the winter, even the moths stayed away.

I'd give the shirt off my back to have kept my friend, but it was time to let go. Old Red was letting in more flies than a ratty screen door. Maybe I'll use his remains to make a scarecrow. Or maybe I'll cut him into cloth strips to tie up tomato vines.

Neither seems a fitting tribute for Old Red, though. So even if I do use his remains awhile longer, I'll bury him in the garden by summer's end. He'll be happy there.

I've also got plans to groom his successor, a respectable green T-shirt with no grimy marks and both arms intact.

I'll bury him for a week beside Old Red, and then dig him up. He ought to be ripe by then.

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