|The hat was still young and healthy when I wore it at this Peace Vigil in Harvard, Illinois in March of 2002.|
One Fall day back in 2014 I was stumped for a blog post. Everything I found either bored me or would require such an enormous effort at research and probably turn into one of those things that runs to 6,000 words. I know that no one reads those posts unless a blood relative is the subject. Sometime I do them anyway if the topic interests me, but I always regret it. Anyway, both stumped and unmotivated. So I lay idly on a couch for an hour or so, turning my old brown felt hat over and over in my hand closely examining the damning evidence of long hard usage. After a while I said to myself—aloud because the house was empty—“I may as well just write about the damn thing!” Five minutes later I was pounding out the ode below.
Once again, I have nothing better to offer, so here it is again.
The hat in question was a Christmas gift from my wife Kathy in 2001. I was in desperate need of a new dress lid. My everyday work hat was an Indiana Jones style brown fedora I had acquired in the mid-80’s and re-creased into my favored style with a peaked center ridge pinched on either side and the brim slouched. I wore it every day to work as a head building custodian in Cary, Illinois and to whatever second job I held—at the time a second shift gas station clerk at a Crystal Lake Mobile. It was battered, sweat stained, filthy, and looked like it had been run over by a garbage truck.
The trouble was my current dress hat was not in much better shape, even though it was a much higher quality sombrero. It was a nice silver belly Stetson XXX Open Road. I had likewise reshaped it but with it higher crown and a broader brim bound with a ribbed silk ribbon it had once gleamed spectacularly atop my head. It was then only five years old but because of it its light color now looked grimy and dingy. A hole was even emerging from the front of the peak where I grabbed the hat between my thumb and forefingers to take off and on. It clearly no longer qualified as my dress hat and Kathy was embarrassed to be seen with me in either hat. She was a motivated giver.
Kathy spotted the hat on sale during a Christmas shopping expedition we made to Springhill Mall, the closest big merchandising Mecca in a still bustling Sears. Later, when we split up to check out other stores in the Mall, she doubled back and bought it then hid it somehow in the car. It was a light brown, soft felt with a low, flat crown and a wide brim. It had a narrow, light beige suede band that had not been well cut—it varied in width from here to there. It was a then popular style of an exaggerated fedora with an extra wide brim, but was on the low end of the quality scale. She paid about $15 for her prize.
When I opened her present on Christmas morning, I was a bit skeptical. I had never worn a hat with that low a crown. It would not hold my attempts to re-crease it in my favored center peak. It would just pop back into shape. The damn hat had a will of its own. It would not be anything other than how it was made. Sigh. But I needed a hat, so I put it to work.
A week after Christmas it got it’s baptism of activism, when I wore it to a small New Year’s Day peace vigil organized by the American Friends Service Committee—the Quakers—by winter dormant Buckingham Fountain. Kathy and I met my former sister-in-law Arlene Brennan and her husband Michael, my nephew Ira S. Murfin and a girl he knew who was on her way to a winter job shooing bison back into Yellowstone Park to keep them from being shot by Montana ranchers. It was the first of scores of vigils, marches, rallies, and demonstrations over the next 16 years at which I wore the hat. Paired with a trench coat, it went with me to a giant anti-war march in Washington, D.C. later that January and sheltered my head through weekly roadside vigils that the McHenry County Peace Group kept up over the next two and a half years through all sorts of inclement weather.
|The hat and I at the Haymarket monument in Chicago one May Day after I led a Labor service at a U.U. Congregation.|
When I wrote and posted my poem six years ago, the old chapeau was still in daily service. Today it has been demoted to rough duty status. Although it has held its shape remarkably well and resists popping holes at pressure points—which eventually dooms my higher quality Stetsons—the fading and sweat stains can no longer be ignored. I no longer wear it for regular daily use to unless there is heavy rain—its broad brim makes it the best rain hat I ever had. It also holds up well when it is snowing so hard it measurably accumulates on the brim. I still throw it on for yard work, snow shoveling, or and when I walk the dog.The "new evey day hat, then nine years old, on the Old Man's head in Woodstock in 2018. Photo by Bill Delaney
The old brown hat has been replaced for everyday use by a grey Bailey’s U-Roll-It that I picked up in Sheridan, Wyoming back in 2009. It is very different from the old one—curled brim with the front slouched down and a higher crown. It is showing its age too, but is still serviceable for the general running around of a retired geezer.
For Christmas two years ago Kathy got me another new dress hat. This one is very nice but black, a hat color I had never worn. I break it out for our dinner dates at better places, to go to the theater, and for a few special occasions. Most of those opportunities are on hold due to Coronavirus precautions. I have to keep the new hat in a tightly closed plastic bag because each speck of dust stands out against the black.
Anyway, here is my ode to an old hat.The old hat made one of its final appearances at a demo or action at a Chicago Labor Day march in 2017. Note the sweat stains and faded braided band.
When You Wear a Hat as Long as This One
When you wear a hat as long as this one—
you know, the old brown one
with the broad flat brim
and low crown,
the one Kathy bought you for Christmas
the holiday after 9/11—
you learn to understand that the Universe
is falling down upon you day after day
that stardust, ashes, and cat dander
sift unseen and constant
day after day,
year after year,
one decade into the next
drifting into the creases of the crown,
balling just a tad if you rub your
thumb or fingers across the brim
which has subtly changed color
under the weight
nothing to be done about it
the heaviest downpour does not
wash it away,
nor can you brush it,
or beat it against your leg,
the stuff clings to the fine wool fibers
of the soft felt
and where the sweat and
oil from your dirty hair
touch it, it becomes a little hard
and the old band twisted and stained
must be covered by one braided from
bright fabrics somewhere in Nicaragua
and even that band is faded and
dusted in its folds and knots,
and the universe continues to fall unconcerned.