Columns / Discourse / April 26, 2017

Wearing a jacket for more than just warmth

Is anyone familiar with the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors? Joseph is given a coat by his father, making his siblings jealous as they believe this is a sign for future greatness and favor for Joseph. Biblical symbolism aside, I am Joseph Peterson, and I have my own coat, of only one bright fluorescent color, but with its own interesting origins story.

A few years ago, my mother started a job here in Galesburg that was essentially a taxi service for the BNSF railroad workers. This is where the jacket first entered my life. The jacket is worn by all the railway employees while on duty for safety reasons. Off duty, though, it seems to serve as a powerful symbol of identity. My mother stopped working for the railroad but she gave the jacket to me so we wouldn’t have to buy a new winter jacket for that year. I gladly accepted the gift because it is warm, weatherproof and really freaking cool to look at!

Unfortunately, not everyone knows this personal origin story and instead frame their perception of my jacket through their own experiences. Many others in town who wear the jacket also work for BNSF. I am a young college student and wearing this jacket seems to be comparable to someone wearing a military uniform but never enlisting. This may seem like an extreme comparison, but I experienced one night in particular that demonstrated the intense feelings that can be attached to this particular article of clothing.

It was karaoke night at Cherry Street Bar, and I was having a really swell time with friends and had sung a few songs so the bar had been made very aware of my presence that night. I had run into some old friends from high school, both of them my age. Instead of being greeted with a polite hello, one informed me that it should be him wearing the BNSF jacket and not me, as he applied to work there and didn’t get hired. His friend was able to sidetail his frustrations and we were able to catch up for a bit but my jacket caused confrontation already and the night was still young. As I got ready to leave, a man stopped me and told me that he wanted my jacket. I asked him if he wanted to buy it, and he just simply demanded to see my jacket and asked where I had gotten it. He was obviously drunk and his friend was trying to turn him away. I excused myself to the bathroom and started to feel very uncomfortable. As I got into the restroom a gentleman followed and asked me why I was wearing the jacket and he was just “curious.” After telling him it was a gift from my mother who worked for the railroad he replied, “That’s a good answer,” as if there wasa bad answer to the question.

Since that night, I’ve started to become more aware of how others may perceive me, a common theme since first arriving at Knox. It was truly fascinating that I could get so many different reactions to a bright BNSF coat. It’s understandable given the role the railroad plays in shaping the image of Galesburg. I’m sure when first year Knox students were introduced to Galesburg, the sound of the train’s horn was a constant annoyance that one never really gets used to. I lived in a house that was right next to the railroad tracks; having the house shake every time a train would pass is a great way to never forget their existence. Apparently those people that night at Cherry Street weren’t going to have me forget their existence either.

I’m not going to stop wearing the jacket anytime soon. Just because some people’s egos can be hurt because they consider me unfit to wear it, I decided I am going to continue to challenge that idea. This jacket’s story is a complex one but I try to stay aware of the different contexts everytime I put the jacket on as I am communicating these stories without having to say a word. With today’s hustle and bustle, anyone can get caught up with the crowd, so wearing this jacket brings me much joy knowing that I can communicate aspects and influences of my individuality.

Joey Peterson

Tags:  BNSF column discourse Galesburg jacket railroad train

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