A Sweatshirt, A Memory

Woman giving thumbs-up in a gray sweatshirt
2012: I was taking pictures with the self-timer and getting tired of serious poses.

Ten years ago this week I bought one of my most beloved articles of clothing: A gray hooded sweatshirt. A heavy one, mostly cotton, with “Alaska Ship Supply” on the front.

In April 2009 I lived on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, and, for the first few days of the month, it was tied up at the Coast Guard’s dock in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. A few hours after I bought the sweatshirt, we had our first of many, many safety briefings, and, a few hours after that, the Healy got underway.

I’d arrived two days before buying the sweatshirt, on a three-hour flight from Anchorage down the length of the Aleutian Islands. The plane was so small, all of the passengers had to sit in the back for takeoff. I watched the mountains go by. The flight attendant, who seemed to be about 20 years old, pointed out her hometown when we flew over.

The plane’s final approach involved twisting through sharp white peaks that rose straight from the ocean—an ocean that got closer and closer until we touched down on a runway so short that the road past the far end had to close when planes were landing and taking off, just in case. The road ran away from town, along a particularly empty part of Dutch Harbor, past the Coast Guard dock and on to Alaska Ship Supply, the source of the sweatshirt.

A brief glance at Google Maps today shows that Alaska Ship Supply has moved; it’s now in a more central part of Dutch Harbor, near the Museum of the Aleutians (tiny, charming) and the hotel (larger, neutral on the charm issue). But back then it was a short walk along a gravel road—gravel that blasted my face as I walked. It was a serious wind.

Alaska Ship Supply is where you go to get your ship supplies—all the ropes and boots and porny magazines and whatever else you need if you are going looking for fish in the Bering Sea. It’s also, I learned from some of the other members of the ship’s science party, where you get sweatshirts with the name of the store on them. Apparently these sweatshirts had been worn by fishing boat crew members on the Discovery Channel show The Deadliest Catch, which makes them famous.

I didn’t care a lot about dressing like Discovery Channel stars, but I am a sucker for a piece of clothing with a bit of art and writing on it, and I do like having a souvenir that I can use in my daily life, so I bought one. It wasn’t that I was going to be cold. I knew I was going to be in sea ice for the next six weeks; I’d brought a lot of very warm clothes.

But the thing about being on a ship for six weeks in the ice without a port call, when you are a person who has never been on a ship for more than three days—and that was a dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef—is that you have no idea what you need or which particular piece of cold weather gear might turn out to be the perfect, can’t-live-without-it garment. But, to all of those fleeces and sweaters and down jackets and whatnot, I added one gray cotton sweatshirt.

Cotton-polyester blend sweatshirts are not the best idea for keeping warm in very cold places. For that, you have your wool and your down and your fancy synthetics. But for good old coziness and the warm hug of fuzz, you can’t beat a heavy old sweatshirt. It was a medium – that’s medium for an Alaska fisherman, enormous for a 5’6″ woman. Its unattractiveness makes it like armor. Its coziness makes it like an armored hug. Plus, when I was climbing between the ship’s various levels on steep stairs (ship pro tip: they call them ladders), I could carry a notebook and pen in the kangaroo pocket, in case I needed to interview someone.

So it did turn out to be the perfect, can’t-live-without-it garment. The ship was heated, but I could get a little chilly when I was in the science lounge at night. I pulled up the hood to show people not to bother me while I was writing. I wore it knitting on a couch, watching Flight of the Conchords with some of the other shipboard nerds. I wore it hanging around on the bridge, watching the ice and the birds and the seals and the sunsets. It kept me just warm enough that time I drove the ship through the ice.

In the middle of May, the sweatshirt and I and the other 121 people and the ship all pulled back into Dutch Harbor. The sweatshirt and the newly filled notebooks came back to my apartment here in Washington, D.C., and for 10 years they have stayed.

The sweatshirt used to leave the apartment pretty often. That became less frequent as the cuffs lost their stretch and shredded, the ends of the drawstrings frayed, and the super-softness wore away. I’ve done repairs on top of repairs. It’s no longer a particularly nice-looking sweatshirt, if it ever was.

But, when I’m sick, it’s the piece of clothing I want. When I’m cold and can’t warm up, I wear it to bed. When I’m a bit chilly in my apartment but not cold enough to get serious about hot drinks and layers, that hug of a sweatshirt is right there waiting for me. When I first thought of writing about its 10th anniversary, it was draped on the back of my desk chair, waiting for me to feel slightly cool. It has so many other associations and memories worn into it now that I rarely even think about when I bought it.

“Order Clothes Seen on Deadliest Catch” the store’s website says, so just to clarify: Yes, you, too, can wear a garment worn by grizzled fishermen. You can also wear a garment worn by a not-particularly-grizzled freelance writer who needed something to wrap her in comfort while she wrote.

Photo: Me

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