John B. Stetson invented the cowboy hat in 1865. Ironically, the man who designed the icon universally associated with all things rugged and west, was from New Jersey. Stetson was on a trek to Pike’s Peak. In those days, the hats worn by cowboys and vaqueros were made of straw. Demonstrating that necessity truly is the mother of invention, The Boss of the Plains was made of waterproof felt with a four-inch brim that kept the rain from running down the back of the neck all the way to a cowboy’s crack, and shaded their eyes when the sun shined. The crown formed a built-in bucket to pull water from a stream for your horse. The brim curled nicely to form a cup for the cowboy.
(One would assume they are drinking from the same stream they’ve just driven a herd of cows through. In which case, nineteenth-century cowboys must have been of stout constitution, made frequent nature breaks, or went through a lot of metronidazole.)
With thumb and middle clutching the crown and middle finger in the crease, the rig was large enough to fan embers into flames for the chuckwagon, or turn a thundering herd of cattle when waved above the cowboy’s head.
The first generation I-phone was released ten years ago. Compared to the I-phone 7, circa 2017, it is a wall-mounted black rotary phone with a cord. In contrast, the design set forth by Stetson more than 150 years ago remains intact, untouched, and celebrated.
Go see a Garth Brooks concert. The most ear-splitting cheer of the night will be in the middle of the third verse of “I’m Much Too Young to Feel this Damn Old.” He’ll sing, “…competition’s getting younger, tougher broncs, you know I can’t recall.” The Oklahoma cowboy will pause with his hat over his heart and bless his friend, before launching into “…worn-out tape of Chris Ledoux, lonely women and bad booze, seem to be the only friends I’ve left at all”.
LeDoux was a high school, intercollegiate, and National Finals Rodeo bareback riding champion. In order to make expenses of a travelin’ rodeo hand, he turned to the lucrative craft of writing songs. In the early seventies he met the woman who would become his wife. In declaring his love for her, he did so from hat down: “Under this ol' hat, Is the head you turned around…”
It must have worked. They were married for thirty-three years, and had five kids together.
In “This Cowboy’s Hat,” LeDoux describes an encounter in a coffee shop. A biker having a bad day threatened to dishonor his friend. Looking to keep the peace, but willing to throw-down, his buddy shared the significance of the cowboy hat that prompted the chiding by the misguided motorcycle man.
Chris LeDoux died in 2005 of liver disease. You’ll never hear Garth Brooks interviewed when he will not declare his love and respect for his friend. What he does not share, is that he offered a lobe of his liver.
In his role as Sean Tuohy in The Blind Side, Tim McGraw was staunch in his support of his wife and adopted son. Clad in khakis, loafers, and an Oxford in most scenes, he was no more a heartthrob than the Walgreens pharmacist. Years of CrossFit and $1200 blue jeans notwithstanding, throw a microphone in his hand and a black Bullhide Shantung Panama Straw Western Hat on his head, and he'll have women half his age swooning all the way to the cheap seats.
It's not all about cowboy hats.
After spending the seventies in the garage, Dad realized that if I had to feed myself with a socket set, cuttin’ torch, and a welder; I’d still be living in the basement, eating Mom’s cooking when I was thirty-five. He nudged me towards Champaign, and the hallowed halls and marble steps of the University of Illinois. I dedicated the better part of the eighties to book learning. The education involved four years in the College of Agriculture, followed by another stint at the College of Veterinary Medicine. (After graduation, Dad concluded that it’d take him six months out back to make me worth anything again.)
Summers, holidays, and spring break were spent feeding, cleaning pens, and weighing hogs at the University of Illinois Swine Research Center. The summer of 1988 was an epic drought, both in the meteorological sense, as well as affairs of the heart. Recreation and exercise was carving an imaginary slalom course sixty-five feet behind a twenty-one foot, under-powered, four-cylinder, Crestliner towboat christened The Cat Dancer and piloted by my friend Gary Edmonds. In the summer of ‘85 Gary was out-skiing the old wooden slalom with a rear toe loop. He laid down 400 hog-farm dollars for a new carbon-fiber, double high wrap, competition Connelly slalom, and two black corduroy hats. The second of which he gave to me.
One would assume that our farm tans, chiseled physiques, and witty banter would carry the day when it came to courtin’, but it never hurts to have a pitch. Champagne-Urbana, minus a dirty creek through campus and the borrow pits around the bypasses, is land-locked. Advertising our prowess in a boat and water-based sports on our heads was far more subtle than carrying a ski case and tow rope down Green Street (not that we would try that), and would surely draw campus co-eds looking for a day on the lake like Winnie the Pooh to a pot of Doug Jenks’ honey.
Not so much. My therapist says it’s just fine if I use the aura of SRC (AKA eau de swine) that followed me like Pig Pen to rationalize my inability to lure a woman closer than six feet.
That black Connelly corduroy hat was given by a brother, without whom there’s no proof I could have gotten through the rough patches. Between agonizing over a left-shifted leukogram and an elevated ALP on a clinical pathology retest, I could adjust the brim and take a mini-mental excursion to Lake Shelbyville.
I refused to attempt any major academic challenge without that hat on my head and size 12 Redwing Supersoles on my feet. After twenty-eight years of academia and dependence, I turned my tassel May 15th, 1992. I loaded the Bronco, and crossed the Cheddar Curtain into Wisconsin. The cords had long-since worn smooth. After a million or more agonizing adjustments whilst fretting over carbon rings in the Kreb’s cycle, cardiac physiology, and muscular insertions and origins, the plastic brim cracked, and gave up its Mosati curl*. After damn-near a decade under the summer sun and classroom fluorescent fade, the red-to-yellow embroidered Connelly was legible only by memory.
Whether there were a few mechanisms of action stored in that old hat, or it was the comfort of knowing Gary was with me, I could give a flip. I’m here.
For all the aspiring self-published authors out there, I offer some sales insight. The New York Times best seller list remains just out of reach, and I still haven’t heard from Oprah, but I do have a pallet of books in my daughter’s closet that is slowly shrinking as testament to my success. First, whenever your book is done, release it in September or October. Second, don’t miss a small-town holiday market, dog fair, or pet wellness expo. The booth fees can usually be covered with the sale of fewer than ten copies, and you meet a lot of really cool people. Once you learn the game, you can request your booth between the fudge and the kettle corn guy.
There is an art to sales.
I have an eight foot banquet table, and a red and white checkered tablecloth given by my sister Sarah that feels like Sunday dinner at grandma’s house. I cobbled together double-decker re-purposed barnwood book holders that display each of my two books, exposing front and back covers. Readers will approach slowly, and go straight for the back-cover synopsis. Walgreens will print (almost) anything you want on 14x17 posterboard. Anyone old enough to be grandparents or started receiving AARP junk mail will recognize the titles’ association with All Creatures Great and Small. I cut down an art easel to hold a three-by-four repurposed (Dad and I called it scrap) wood bulletin board with an old picture of my dog Cooder, front and center. When the legions who love labs pause and ooohhh, I’ll tell them the time he donated blood to save the dog of a boy in a wheelchair. I’ll put a pic of Calvin, Dad, and me at the John Deere Pavilion, and a view from the peak of Crested Butte. A shot of Chief the Great Dane tilting his head has pulled folks across the aisle for a better look.
Shoppers are like bike riders in the parking lot after a race. There are no changing rooms. If you don’t make eye contact, no one saw a thing. They walk by in stealth mode on the first lap. The art is to not make eye contact, while making enough observations to engage them. I have a camp chair and a book to pretend like I’m reading. I look over the top as dog lovers and holiday shoppers side-shuffle down the aisle.
In winter in Wisconsin we can always start a conversation with the Packers or weather, but with regularity, the key to meaningful engagement of a potential friend or customer, is on their head.
My favorite is to go for the guy in the John Deere hat who got dragged along by his wife. I’ll have a book mark on the page with a story about my Uncle Con. For those with an Outdoor Life camouflaged lid I have a Cliff’s Notes version of “Buck,” ready to hit play. There will always be guys and gals with a gold fish hook clipped to the brim who go for “Fishin’ Magician,” the story about my dad and his one-armed buddy, Harry.
At the 2015 Fort Atkinson Holiday Market, my booth was in the hallway between the rectory and gymnasium at St. Mark’s Church. I saw him first in the bright light streaming through the clear pane of the stained glass. Though he fit right in among the farmers, wood carvers, and artists, his posture was outta place like Pa Walton at L’Etoile. He buried his hands in the pocket of his faded bibs. With his head pointed at the floor and his eyes slowly rising, he politely declined free samples from The Salsa Man and The Kettle Corn guy in the booth next to me.
Slow as a sundial, he rounded my easel. I knew his eyes would never rise. “Steamfitter?” I asked in his general direction. With an inhale his shoulders separated, back straightened, and his eyes briefly met mine, “Well, yeah.”
“Looking for something for your wife,” I took no chance at all. His face softened and eyes relaxed, “We just bought a place out in the country, so money’s a little tight, but I wanted to get her something nice.”
“What d’you have?”
“Ah, right now just a half-dozen chickens, a couple-a dogs and a goat, but if I let her, she’d have a whole zoo.”
I pulled down my sloppy copy of In Herriot’s Shadow and pointed to “Black, White, and Red” and “Distracted Driver.” Acknowledging that after eight hours under a welding hood and building fence ‘til dark a guy wasn’t gonna last long in the La-Z-Boy with War and Peace or Moby Dick, I pointed out “Hail the Workin’ Man,” and remarked that my cousin Jim had reviewed the book of short stories as “a good one for the shitter.”
Ricky Van Shelton crooned inside my head as I thought of the woman who married this gentle giant.
“She wears a gold ring, on her finger, and I’m so glad that it’s mine…”
I asked him what she did for a living. “She’s a nurse.” I dropped my head, put my pen to the inside flap of the book, and thanked her and her profession for their compassion and care.
He shook my hand as I handed him the book, then paused two steps from the table. “How’d you know I was a steamfitter?” I put my finger on my temple. He adjusted the short brim of his red and white polka-dot hat, and smiled.
My family and friends had all gathered on the porch of our rental to celebrate the miracle of my graduation. Someone with a Kodachrome on the high side of the street took a drone’s eye view of the event. My first reaction was a moment of denial. My buddy Wes, the World War II Veteran barber, called me Duroc, for the wiry auburn mop he’d fashion into a flat-top. Either he wasn’t tall enough to see the top of my head, or as a courtesy of the profession, he failed to mention: like a low-spot in the middle of an Illinois bean field was an oval of lily-white flesh.
In the years to follow, I wrestled with rationalization and (over)compensation, which have since settled into resignation. That I’m bald does not so much bother me as how I’m bald. I look at this old man in the mirror. There sits a homogenous ovoid globe of wrinkled flesh in what Michael Perry famously calls full-blown crop failure, on my shoulders. Though I still won’t wear them at the dinner table, in church, or in a profile picture on an internet dating site, I’ve taken to wearing hats as a lifestyle.
To be honest, it really wasn’t that much of a stretch.
I have written extensively on the purpose, fashion, and function of the touk. I keep fewer than three in constant rotation depending on temperature, smell, and my ability find them when heading into the winter. I will seldom be seen without one from Halloween through Easter. The Connelly hat has been retired to the museum, and replaced by a grey special occasions lid from my personal utopia, Camp 4 Coffee, just off Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado. (In small letters over the strap in back: Coffee, it makes you poop.) Seven years ago, when Dad pre-inherited Sheila and me the John Deere 2520, he got two free hats from the Sloan implement dealer in Assumption, Illinois. Those two are getting faded, and fit just about right for the sweat, grease, and cowshit occasions. Being a cradle flatlander, I’ll be seen in a Packers lid that’s been through the wash a few times so’s my allegiance never comes into question.
I’ve always wanted the hat to complement my I’m not on call underwear, and so the maître d’ doesn’t ask, “Table for you and your daughter, sir?” when I’m out with Sheila.
Sheila and I were on a four-day weekend in Nashville. I lingered by Goorin Bros. hat store, trying not to be caught, like a pimple-faced eighth grade boy in the Victoria’s Secret. Finally, Sheila took me by the arm, and dragged me in. Looking like a tattooed and pierced 2016 reincarnation of Janis Joplin, the clerk listened as I said, “I’m looking for the hat.” She understood. Though shopping of any sort makes me crazy, hats are infinitely more efficient to try on than pants. In a flurry of minutes that seemed like hours, I stood in front of a three-direction mirror in a pea-green flat Newsboy cap. Like Pitt or Clooney at the break point and camera tight, I turned my chin two ticks to the right and a couple degrees up. I creased my left eye for a moment, and nodded. “That’s it.”
The jury on the hat is still out, but Janis’ music suggestion was worth the price of the lid. In the middle of a Thursday afternoon on South Broadway in Nashville, there are a dozen aspiring young songwriters with acoustic guitars strumming bar chords and singing Eric Church and Blake Shelton covers for tips. Her friends, The High Jivers, were a rockabilly bad-ass breath of fresh air and had us swing dancing with abandon at three o’clock in the afternoon.
There are hats I will not wear.
If someone helps me saddle him and he’s damn-near bomb proof, I can ride a horse. I’ve never faced the fury of a green two-year-old colt, or roped a coyote at a dead run. I do not wake up every day, kiss my family goodbye and knowingly place myself in harm’s way in protection of my community. I’ve never dragged a hose into a burning building or dodged flames to save a baby or a kitten. I can barely make a bubblegum weld on two flat pieces of steel with a stick welder. I have never volunteered four years of my life in protection of my country and our freedom.
Therefore, I’ll not be seen in a Stetson, police, fire, welding, or Army hat.
I’ve never seen a student loan bill, thanks to a long-boom crane operator. Every Labor Day I wear a white hat with the emblem of the International Union of Operating Engineers, local 965.
Dad never missed a minute of overtime, or a high-school band concert. He shined his shoes and washed the ’76 Mercury Marquis he paid cash for, before taking us for a steak at Dante’s. When he retired, he took Mom to New York City, because she said she wanted to go… once. In the ultimate expression of ‘til death do us part, he cared for mom until her last three months.
After she passed, he cooked, cleaned, and lived on his own until he was eighty-two. Since July 2016 a blood clot and the bastard of an affliction broadly known as dementia has reduced him to a leather recliner, a TV, and a bed in an assisted living center. The man who could set 350 tons of nuclear fuel rods through a quarter-inch slot from the clutches and controls of a 500-ton Manitowoc tower crane can barely drive a lawn mower in a circle.
He has a Navy-blue cap featuring a pissed-off bumblebee clutching a machine gun, that he wears when we go to restaurants and church. Once a trademark, his shit-eatin’ grin is gone, but there is a momentary flash of pride when the cashier at Pick‘n Save offers her hand and thanks him for his service in the Seabees.