© 2019-2020 HAZELS THRIFT SHOP. Created October 2014 and maintained by Leanne Oliveira. Forwarded from http://www.hazelsthriftshop.org.

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Plane Crash Survival: The Life of One Thrift Shop Coat

In October 2011, at a thrift store in Washington, I bought a vintage black suit jacket, finely crosshatched with gray-and-crimson plaid. It didn’t cost much, and I intended to wear it on Halloween — a signifier, I hoped, of Bob Dylan circa “Blonde on Blonde.” Having served its purpose, it would presumably hang in my closet until I threw it away.


But it looked uncannily new. Though its exterior felt coarse, its lining was a silky burnt sienna. A tag revealed that it was handmade by Hickey Freeman, which now makes jackets that cost a thousand dollars or more. Even its buttons, with their woven reliefs and double-beveled edges, were beautiful. And it fit remarkably well. I ended up wearing it often — and then, months later, discovered a note in one of its pockets. It was just two sentences written in cursive on a yellowed postcard: “This suit was in the plane with Homer on December 6, 1974. It fell clear (was in a plastic suit bag) and was returned to us by funeral home.”


It became impossible not to dwell on the implications, in all their potent incompleteness. The jacket belonged to a man named Homer, and it fell to earth during the plane crash that killed him. Clothing had always seemed fragile, defeated by ink, by moths, by an elbow bursting through a sleeve. This jacket survived a disaster that took a life. I began wearing it to graduations and business meetings, weddings and first dates. When I moved to New York to work at a magazine, the jacket came with me, and when I was wearing it at lunch one day, I told some co-workers about the note. They wondered if I might be able to learn more.


I returned to my desk and typed the words “Homer” and “crash,” and the date from the postcard, into Google. Among the first results was a lengthy document: the ruling in a wrongful-death lawsuit detailing the crash of a twin-engine Cessna near Pine Bluff, Ark. It also described a man in one of the rear seats. His name was Homer Hendrickson, and the crash took place a few weeks before his 52nd birthday. I believe he would not mind my sharing all this because he had worked as a reporter for The Arkansas Democrat and as maritime editor for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He was, like me, a journalist.



This is how Homer died, according to the court document. On Dec. 6, 1974, at approximately 5:24 p.m., an associate of Homer’s from the shipping industry — a skilled pilot who hoped to buy the Cessna — took off from New Orleans on a test flight, accompanied by a colleague, a representative of the aircraft’s owner and Homer. As they descended after dark amid drizzle and fog, visibility was perilously low. The Pine Bluff airport had no radar at the time, and its control tower was staffed by an F.A.A. trainee.


“Cleared to land,” the trainee announced over the radio. “The runway lights are at the highest intensity.”

“Roger,” the pilot replied. “Leave them on bright for me.” Soon after, he announced that they had missed the landing and would try again.


The trainee saw the visibility begin to fall to zero and alerted an air-traffic controller in Little Rock — but not the Cessna. In the flight’s final moments, the plane struck a tree’s small top branches. Then its left wing hit a 50-foot oak. It eventually came to rest, upside down, not far from an open field. “All aboard were killed,” the court stated. “As it so often happens in the case of an airplane crash, there were no eyewitnesses.”



I learned that Homer had been married for 25 years, and that he and his wife had three children, all of them in college. He was described as “an ideal husband” and an excellent newspaperman. Particularly devastating was an account of his wife’s anguish over his unanticipated death: She left work, lost weight, was overcome by crying spells. The court awarded her more than $800,000 in damages.


I’ve often wondered what it all means — the small miracle of the jacket’s survival, of its story’s slow unfurling. To me, it means that used clothing isn’t just used, but rather soaked in the lives of the living and the dead. It means that clothes, for all their seeming functionality, fragility and disposability, can be more like medieval tapestries: mysterious, legible and enduring. Maybe “used” isn’t even the right word for garments like these. Nowadays I think of them as “other people’s clothing.” I respect them more, not because of what they do — how they look or fit or feel — but because the object was here before me and may very well be here after. It has, quite literally, a life of its own.


Thinking like this is an exercise in empathy. For years, I have possessed a suede jacket that my father bought with a bonus from one of his first jobs, and a bracelet, my mother’s, from a girlhood trip to the Dakotas. Only recently have I been moved to tears picturing those moments, before so many of life’s complexities set in — his giving himself a gift, her first encounter with the plains. In high school, I bought several shirts from a thrift store, each one’s collar marked with the same name. Now I wonder who he was and whether he had died.


I still look up Homer sometimes. I’ve seen a digital photo of his tombstone and read a descendant’s postings on Ancestry.com. In all likelihood, I have worn his jacket much more than he ever did, so much that it’s missing a button and the lining has split around the shoulders. But I don’t feel like its true owner; I’m more of a witness. Another person’s clothing never really belongs to you.





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