Worse than the fire were the orange shirts they had to wear afterward.

Worse than the fire were the orange shirts they had to wear afterward.

by Hugh Gilmore

This little story is offered for the other boys and girls who have had to wear orange shirts. My family had recently moved from Northeast Philadelphia to Colwyn, Delaware County, a bucolic little town in those days.

In the middle of that summer, I turned 12, and I took a brief vacation at my Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Frank’s home in West Philadelphia. They lived in a row house, but it felt like a mansion because they were nice and they only had one child, my cousin Frankie, and their home was quiet as a church nave compared to ours. At the end of the week, my aunt and uncle were driving me home, and as we turned the corner on Fourth Street and started down our street, Thatcher Avenue, Aunt Eleanor said, “Oh my God, what’s this up ahead, Frank?”

It was near sunset and outside our Colwyn bungalow the flashing lights of fire trucks and police cars lit up the street. A small crowd of people watched. A young policeman stopped my uncle’s car.

“That’s my brother’s house,” Aunt Eleanor said, “my nephew here lives there.”

“There’s been a fire,” the policeman said.

“Oh my God,” Aunt Eleanor said, already out of the car and rushing past him, “Is anyone hurt?”

The volunteer cop hurried to keep up with her. I started to get out of the car, but Uncle Frank told me to wait.

I couldn’t make any sense out of the flashing red lights and men in black rubber fire coats. Soon Aunt Eleanor was back at the car, telling me I was going back to her house for a few more days. “Everything’s okay at your house. They just had a little fire, but everybody’s okay.”

That’s all grownups would tell you when you were a kid in those days. No explanations. No grief counselors. No one asking, “How did you feel about coming home to see fire engines at your house?”

So, I listened between the lines and eavesdropped after we got back to Aunt Eleanor’s house. I heard her and Uncle Frank wondering if my Dad was at fault, falling asleep drunk with a cigarette. But no, I overheard when she talked on the phone with my mother, it was an electrical fire that spread to the sofa. Oh, I thought … but Dad’s an electrician.

In about a week, we moved back into a fascinating house. The walls were charred. The plastic clock on the kitchen wall had melted as though Salvador Dali himself had redecorated our home. Everything smelled of soot. The distortions were wonderful in a way, like an amusement park funhouse. We felt very special. No other kid’s house measured up to ours in strangeness. We invited them over to look and smell for themselves. The Dali clock was the main attraction.

Not all was sweet in that way, however. All our clothes were either charred or soot-stained and not wearable. We couldn’t afford new ones until the insurance claim was settled. Some kind soul arranged for us to be clothed through the St. Vincent De Paul Society.

That charity’s kindness is remarkable to this day, and, from a grownup point of view, we were quite lucky. But when we heard about where our new wardrobes were coming from, my brother and I worried all the way over to St. Vincent’s warehouse what kind of clothes they’d be giving us.

Things went bad right off. The pants closet had only old-man-style black pants with giant belt loops (at a time when skinny belts were in style). Then they led us to the shirt closet and invited us to take whatever we wanted. To our ungrateful dismay, there was only one style: a kind of flared collar, Bowery-bum look. And two colors: bright orange or lemony green. We thought both were ugly. Desperate, we pulled the racks apart hoping for more choice, but that was it: pasty orange or sickly green.

We knew how we’d be received back at school. And, true to the mean spirit that eternally runs through the hearts of seventh and eighth graders, we were ragged mercilessly when we returned. And worse, as I walked the halls of school, I noticed something even more disturbing than the taunts—the three other always-badly dressed kids in the school were wearing the same orange or green shirts and black pants. I was one of them now. It was official. I was walking around St. Clement School advertising my family’s poverty.

I burned with helpless rage and embarrassment, convinced they’d deliberately chosen those colors to help us conquer the sin of Pride. Someone, somewhere, wanted us to remain a step behind everyone else, so no one would ever suggest that those on charity were giving themselves airs—going around being better dressed than those whose fathers worked.

We wearers-of-the-orange shirt were hardly a secret fraternity. Branded now myself, I hated the sight of those other boys walking the halls of the school in their charity shirts. I hated them for being poor.

Story adapted from Hugh Gilmore’s in-press memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story about Fathers and Sons.” Book launch, with public reading and book signing, sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Book Festival, will be held at the Chestnut Hill Hotel’s Bombay Room from 7 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb 27, Reception to follow.