“The Coat,” Friend, Sept. 1987, 34
The first thing that Nathan Wakefield saw after he had climbed into the dimly lit attic of his family’s sod-roof cabin was his father’s old Civil War uniform hanging from a rafter. Nathan felt that he had nothing better to do than to explore the attic. Besides, on this rainy day his best friend, Eddy Fairfax, had taken a steamboat ride up Cedar River with his parents to visit his uncle in Springdale.
Nathan ran his finger along the dusty length of the army carbine that stood in the shadowy corner of the attic, and he thought about “the big sadness,” which is what his father called the Civil War. Then he saw something else—a coat draped across an old chest. It was made of hides and furs, and it looked and felt wonderfully strange. Nathan pushed his hand through its musty softness.
“That was your Grandpa John’s coat,” came his father’s voice from behind him. Nathan turned around with a start and faced his father, who stood on the attic ladder, a smile on his face. “Your great-grandfather made it for him when he was just about your age. It kept him warm on a lot of cold winter nights.” Sensing Nathan’s fascination with the coat, he added, “How would you like to have it, Nathan?”
Nathan’s eyes grew round. “You really mean it, Papa?” he asked happily.
“Coats are for wearing,” Papa returned. “And since you’re the only one in this family who can fit into it …”
So excited was Nathan over the gift of Grandpa John’s unusual coat, that he asked his mother the following morning if he could wear it to school.
She smiled and commented that it did look rather striking on him. And since the weather was still about as cold and wet as Cedar River, she guessed that it would be all right.
Cylus Murphy, a boy who lived nearby and who normally walked to school with Nathan, caught cold that day. Nathan didn’t. Maybe the coat’s magic, Nathan thought on his way home that afternoon. Then he decided that he simply hadn’t caught cold because the big coat had kept him warm and dry.
And the next day when Nathan discovered a gold coin on his way to school, he was sure that the coat had nothing to do with it. However, when Mr. Styker sprang a test on the class after Nathan had slipped into the coat because the classroom stove had been banked for the day—and he had received the highest score—he began to wonder if the unique garment really did produce “good luck” for its wearer.
After a few other good things happened while he was wearing the coat, the eleven-year-old boy was certain that the coat brought good luck.
Nathan’s parents didn’t seem to question their son’s unusually strong attachment to Grandpa John’s coat until they discovered that Nathan believed that his small good fortunes had come because he’d been wearing it.
“I think that you should talk to Nathan about it,” his mother suggested to Papa one day. “That coat is starting to take its toll on his faith in himself—and maybe on his faith in general.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Papa assured her. “But,” he added with gentle wisdom, “sometimes the lessons learned best are the ones we learn through our own experiences.”
The following Saturday morning Nathan’s mother asked him to go to Big Wood Lake and gather reeds for her so that she could make a few baskets to sell at Mr. Rowland’s store in Hasting’s Grove.
“Don’t cut them on the west side of the lake,” his father cautioned. “They are more plentiful there, but there have been reports of wild boars spotted in that area, and they can get as nasty as a hungry bear up a played-out honey tree! You’ll be perfectly safe, however, if you stay on the east side of the lake.”
Frost seemed to hang on the morning like Nathan’s mother’s clothes on a line, so he snuggled into Grandpa John’s big, warm coat and started off toward the lake. He decided that it would be easier to gather reeds on the west side of Big Wood Lake, even though he had been told not to. They really were more numerous there, and he would have time left over to do what he wanted to. Maybe he could talk Papa into coming back to the lake to fish with him. Besides, Nathan told himself, the coat would protect him.
Not more than an hour had passed before Nathan had cut all the reeds that his mother would need. As he started to bind them together with a strip of leather, he heard sounds of thrashing and snorting in the deadwood up the shoreline behind him. He whirled around and spied three large boars erupting from the brush, their foul, twisted tusks ripping and gouging in fits of frenzy at the misted air. Piercing Nathan’s dread was the thought, The coat will protect me.
But as the boars tore down the bank toward him, he jumped up and started to run. Stumbling over a rotted log, he fell into the mud on the lakeshore. Getting up, he started to run again, but the big coat kept snagging on protruding limbs and jerking him back, and the accumulated lake mud on it was slowing him considerably.
Nathan was barely able to grab onto a low-hanging tree limb and swing his legs up around it before one of the pigs snagged the bottom of the coat. Yanking on it, the boar shook its ugly head in a squealing rage, slashing its tusks through Nathan’s shirttail. The added weight of the boar was now starting to drag the boy down—down to where the other two pigs rooted about, waiting for him to fall!
Suddenly the pig that had hold of Nathan’s clothes squealed sharply, released its hold, and fell lifeless into the mud. At the same time, the remaining two pigs dashed madly up the bank and disappeared into the brushwood. Nathan blinked mud from his eyes and looked over his shoulder to where Papa stood along the shoreline, holding his still-smoking carbine.
Nathan dropped to the ground and started running toward his father. Just short of reaching his father’s strong arms, his legs gave out. Papa dropped his rifle and sank to his knees in the mud beside his son, pulling Nathan onto his lap. For a long moment they sat in silence, each holding on to the other. Nathan was thinking that his father would scold him for disobeying, but all Papa did was run his hand through the boy’s mud-clotted hair and tell him softly that he loved him.
“This coat almost got me killed,” Nathan finally said, his voice trembling with fear and shame. “It would have, too, Papa, if you hadn’t come along when you did.” Then he added, “Why did you come?”
“Something inside told me that maybe you could use a little help.”
Nathan’s eyes tried to meet his father’s, but they couldn’t—not yet. “How could I have been so stupid as to ever think that a silly old coat could do anything more than keep me warm.”
Papa smiled. “Anything seems possible when you’re young, I guess.”
Nathan lifted the muddy bottom of the coat and let it drop. “I imagine the closest thing to there being any real magic in the world is a body’s thinking that there is.”
Papa patted the youth’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” he said, pointing off across the lake to the misted mountains lit with gold. “I’d say it took Heavenly Father a fair share of ‘magic’ to put that together. Of course, what looks to us to be magic or miraculous is to Him a matter of perfect knowledge and the execution of natural law. We don’t understand it, so to us, it’s a wonder.” Papa helped Nathan up, adding, “Life, itself, is a kind of magic, a kind of miracle, wouldn’t you say?”
Nathan thought for a moment, then nodded excitedly. “You mean like a tiny seed growing into a big old oak tree?”
“And a lot more,” Papa said. “Like the power of the priesthood. An answer to prayer. What your mother does in the kitchen every day along about suppertime. Even failure.”
“Failure?” Nathan questioned.
Papa smiled. “It allows a person to start over again, giving him a second chance to do something better than he had done it before.”
Nathan thought about the second chance he was fortunate to have: The next time Papa instructs me not to do something, I’ll obey better than I ever have before!
Picking up his carbine, Papa rested his arm over the boy’s shoulder, and the two started toward home.
“There’s one more miracle that I almost forgot about,” Papa proclaimed as they tromped along, a jestful gleam in his eye.
“What’s that?” Nathan queried.
“Your mother’s homemade lye soap. I’ve seen it take a week’s worth of summer off you in less than a groan. But,” he added with a chuckle, “judging from all that mud on you today, it’s a miracle that will be sorely tried!”