I would rather attempt to climb the Washington Monument -- from the outside -- than endure again the angst of my recent shopping expedition to buy a vest.

Yes, a vest. The inner garment worn under a sport or dinner jacket and used for a variety of reason: to hold down a tie, conceal a missing button, hide a stain or suspenders, or contain a bulging midriff.

My quest for a vest began when my mother -- hearing of my difficulties reading the face of my wrist watch -- gave me my dear, departed father's cherished gold pocket watch and chain, to which I hung a good-luck gold-topped shark's tooth. (Trousers are no longer designed with a little pocket in which the watch can be stored since clothing manufacturers do not believe men use pocket watches.)

An easy task? I thought so. I figured it would take me 20 minutes to find the vest, which would cost about $25. I was wrong. I returned home, not with a vest, but with a Grade-A complex.

It seems my chest has dropped an inch or two and has formed a funny bulge above the belt line. It's a revelation you refuse -- unless forced -- to recognize. The once-beautiful muscular body is no longer a vision of wonder. Or, as one nasty salesperson put it: "Your bod has gone to pot."

Even though I started my two-hour shopping safari in good humor, I returned to my home in Springfield despising the clothing industry and all salespeople.

My first mistake was accepting the gold pocket watch and chain. The second was stopping at the Tall Man's Store at Seven Corners.

An initally very pleasant clerk gave me the once over as I entered and then barely smothered a chuckle when I told him I wanted a casual vest.

"The biggest vest I have in the store is a 44 extra large and that won't even fit md," he muttered, as he went off to pursue a person with greater sales potential. He did suggest I try Syms up the steet, as they sometimes carried "oddball" sizes.

Syms was packed with both male and female customers carrying armsful of goods to the cashiers. The sight was encouraging; the final result was not. A very pleasant German saleslady told me of a store in Falls Church that carries large sizes. Again, no sale, but more instructions directing me to a store in Parkington. The same: Nothing fit.

Three more stores, including Hecht's, found me still without my vest, gas in the car or lunch. The only thing I had managed to produce was a very short temper.

I vowed to strangle the next sales person who threw the "try Omar" line at me. A tailor in Alexandria worked his tapeline and with a sneer, informed me that if I supplied two yards of material, he'd supply the satin backing. He could make me a vest for $100 in six weeks.

After two replies of "Omar doesn't work here anymore," one "we don't carry a line that large anymore," and "I think your best bet is to see a tailor with lots of time and material" (this one almost earning the salesman a trip to permanent Sales Limbo), I continued on to Joseph A. Bank Clothiers. All I wanted was a casual, lightweight, cheap, netural-colored vest on which my treasured family heirloom could be displayed.

The salesman greeted me with a big smile, and after a battle with his measuring tape, determined I needed a "size 54, portly, extra long vest" to cover the chest that once was considered manly by many a female and almost perfectly proportioned.

Following a search-and-fail bout through the clothing racks, the young man recommended that his tailor make me a country leather vest for $115 in only six weeks.

He dropped those words without so much as a smirk (or a drink) to bring me out of my shock. I couldn't decide whether it was the $115 price tag that got me, or the jolt from knowing the body -- that once drew gasps of admiration -- couldn't be fitted.

After visiting stores and two tailor shops, I summoned my final burst of courage to travel to the Springfield Mall and try the Leather Shop. I was told it would cost $175 for a custom-made vest and take eight weeks. But, the man continued, a simulated leather model would cost a little less. I walked out.

Although just about completely defeated, I passed a tailor shop in Annandale and decided to make a final try.Nothing to it, I was told. You buy the material, give me $50 and come back in six weeks to pick it up.

I'll talk it over with my wife was my feeble excuse as I left, suspicious of the low cost, failure to measure me, and lack of some wisecrack about my size and shape. Something, I decided, had to be wrong.

While driving home I decided to forgo the vest, pack up my dad's cherished pocket watch and return it to my mother. I wanted the watch in the worst way, but I couldn't find, nor afford a tailor-made vest on which I could display it.

But as I walked up the driveway, my neighbor Mary Ellen Nash came along to restore my faith in humanity.

Asked why I looked so dejected, I told her of being insulted, abused and rejected by salespeople in my attempt to find a vest.

"I'll make you one," announced the little woman as she smiled up at my 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame that had all but lost its self-respect. "Just give me one of your old vests and I can make a pattern for the new one." No mention of $115 or six to eight weeks.

At last, my dad's cherished pocket watch and chain with my gold-topped shark's tooth will be seen by all. And I'll never go shopping again.