I was riding the subway this afternoon, and a remarkable thing happened: I saw a man wearing whale pants. That is to say, pants like these, embroidered with decorative designs of genial-looking whales spewing water out of their blowholes and into a languid khaki atmosphere. I'm not sure if I'd ever had a casual encounter with whale pants before. Until today, I presumed they'd long ago gone extinct.
Of course, this struck me because I have long had a special relationship with the use of giant cetaceans as sartorial emblems. As with so many of the seminally odd experiences of my childhood, this is due to Joe Paterno.
Here's the story: In 1982, Paterno wore a pair of whale pants during a football game, and thereby engendered an entire mythology in central Pennsylvania.* The story goes that Paterno bought the pants at the Jersey Shore, at one of those chintzy prepster beach shops where they sell things like...well, like pants with whales on them. His wife Sue dared him to buy them, thinking that he never would. But he did it. And one Saturday in the fall, when his regular khakis were in the wash, he donned the whale pants, left his house, walked twenty minutes across the campus to Beaver Stadium, and coached a football game while his players and eighty thousand spectators stifled their laughter. Soon, whale pants became an inside joke, shorthand for Paterno's obliviousness to the modern world. The whale pants represented an ethic, a morality, the complete lack of self-regard that enveloped Paterno at the height of his creative genius in the 1980's.
At the time, I didn't think much of it. I was ten years old. I myself wore polka-dot pajamas. I thought this was a typical thing; I thought that perhaps all football coaches possessed marine-themed sportswear. For that matter, I kind of presumed all football coaches were like Joe Paterno, that they were all quirky and unassuming and disinterested in the trappings of glamor. It took me years to realize that Paterno was, in fact, unlike anyone else who had come before him, or anyone since. It took me years to realize that by growing up in State College, Pennsylvania, I had come of age amid the gravity of a true American original, of a man whose very obliviousness to style in fact engendered its own style. "As far as I'm concerned, if he wants to wear a clown uniform, he'd be stylish," said the late GQ editor Art Cooper, a Penn State graduate. "With Bear Bryant, it was the hat. With Joe, it's the rolled up cuffs."
Of course, just as Paterno wore the whale pants because they were the only clean pair he could find, he rolled up his cuffs for the sake of utility. He did it--he does it--to keep them clean. Why else would he do it?
I understand that the whole notion of purity in athletics feels like a hollow concept these days. We all know, even if we're not willing to admit it, that college sports have become a corporate enterprise, they they are too often an unruly example of unfettered capitalism at work. If there's anything the Rick Pitino saga has taught us, it's that modern coaching is an exercise in ego and self-aggrandizement. And I should say that I've had my issues with Paterno's policies over the years. I think he can be condescending to the media and overly controlling of his program. I think at times, he's been slow to adapt to the changes in youth culture. I think he should have named his successor several years ago and the fact that he hasn't is unfair to the long-time assistants who have served him for decades. I am skeptical about certain things, but even now, even as he steams toward his mid-eighties, even as he becomes fodder for doddering octogenarian jokes, there is something about Paterno that even his detractors would admit remains inexplicably pure. Here is a man who lives by his own rules, who generally believes in the same principles he did back in 1955. Here is a man who has created his own style--who has thrived through five decades of American life--simply by refusing to grasp at trends.
It's football season again, and I'm not sure how many more of these Paterno has left in him. All I know is that it's going to feel very strange to turn on my television one Saturday in September and not see him anymore, dressed like a man anticipating flood waters. "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation," wrote Herman Melville, a man who knew a few things about whales, and those pants, while they may have failed in their execution, will always remain in my mind as an emblem of the singularity of one Joseph Vincent Paterno.
*For a time, a friend of mine envisioned starting a publishing company called Whale Pants Press. If nothing else, it would have been an outstanding logo for a book spine.