I AM MY HAT by Howard Feigenbaum
The meaning of appearance came to me one day in childhood. My mother allowed me to pick my clothes. A new world dawned. I could look like the people I admired. And the colors—hoo-hah! The combinations of red, blue and green were endless, and I was the canvas. The gates guarding the entrance of the path to free will had swung open.
Of the choices available, I found the hat, above all else, the most expressive piece of clothing. In a matter of seconds, my image was transformed. The symbolic shift rested on my head for the world to see. My mind adjusted.
My first encounter with a hat was in my infancy. An aging photograph showed me wearing a wool hat my grandmother knitted in advance of my arrival into the world. This hardworking woman, who had an indentation in her right index finger from years of knitting needles resting on that spot, did what she knew best to show her love. There it was, her love, enveloping my head, protecting me from the cold Catskill winter.
The next significant hat in my life was the cowboy hat—the heroic good guy hat, not the bad guy hat. Cowboys helped people. They were brave. They cared about their horses. I wanted to be one of them. With the hat on my head, I was.
When I think about my cowboy period, I realize that an understanding of the basics of morality drew me to the mythic figure. Even now, I wouldn’t mind being a cowboy. Of course, I would need a hand getting into the saddle.
My love for cowboys led me to the first crisis in my young life. Mom arranged for my sister and me to take tap dancing lessons at seven p.m. on Tuesdays—the same time that Gene Autry and his horse, Champion, appeared on channel five. What a calamity. After a few months of lessons, I learned that we were to appear in a school dance recital and perform to the tune On the Good Ship, Lollipop—with a massive piece of cardboard behind us, painted to look like a steamship. Not only would my friends see me tap dancing, but I would be dressed in white pants and a blue blazer with gold buttons. A hat turned everything around. My role, the captain of the good ship, required that I wear the captain’s hat to complete the costume. Hallelujah! Everyone would know that I was the captain. Power and the prestige came along with the hat’s gold braid. I happily shuffled into a time step and twirled my sister.
The usual hats of youth fascinated me, especially the odd-looking Daniel Boone coonskin cap with its defining tail. If the tail came off, the hat was no longer authentic. If you ever wore an untailed Daniel Boone cap, you risked being asked a thousand times, “Where’s the tail?” A surplus World War II Army helmet, along with a toy wood rifle, brought me into the righteous battle of defending America. The World War I pilot’s hat, with goggles, did look a bit goofy without a bi-plane nearby. The baseball cap was mandatory. My cap, with the New York Yankee insignia on the front, was a consistent winner.
An unexpected turn of events brought a new understanding of hat power. I visited my grandparents who vacationed in Miami Beach during the winter. At the beach, I amassed a wonderful collection of sea shells. My grandmother bought me a florescent orange fishing hat to protect my face and neck from the Florida sun, and probably to easily spot me as I wandered along the shore. As a surprise, before I returned home, she sewed a substantial number of the sea shells onto the hat. What an impressive sight. I was sure no other hat like it existed. You couldn’t have bought the hat from me for a million bucks, although no one tried. But if they did, I had an answer ready.
When I returned to school, I decided to wear the “shell hat,” as I fondly called it. My cousin, Ellen, whom I loved and admired, was eight years older and in high school. In our town, all the grades occupied one building. One afternoon as the school day ended, the unpredictable happened. I caught sight of Ellen walking down the hall with two girlfriends. I waved and called out, “Hi, Ellen. Hi.”
After a quick glance in my direction, she averted her gaze and walked on.
Later that day, my mother received a phone call from Ellen. “Aunt, Adele, can you please ask Howard to stop wearing that hat to school?”
What a coup! Ellen noticed me, not in a good way, but she noticed me. The hat functioned like a magnet. Her request to my mother was proof. After the “incident” at school, my desire to wear the hat increased. Who knew how many people wanted to spend a few moments taking in the sight of that marvelous chapeaux and the person wearing it? Maybe hundreds, I thought. The hat would make me famous.
In junior high, I favored the black motorcycle cap with the flying wheel emblem. The hat complemented my leather jacket and sent a subtle message, “Don’t mess with me. I’m the kind of guy who could kick your ass.” Marlon Brando’s The Wild One role was the blueprint. Of course, I wasn’t that kind of guy, but neither was Marlon. However, advertising the ass-kicking possibility might discourage some hormone-fueled, pre-teen young man who had a combative nature. I backed up the image with a practiced serious stare, sunglasses and a “Detroit” ducktail haircut. The best part, when my reflection appeared in windows, was asking, “Is that really me?” and answering, “Boy, do you look tough.”
John F. Kennedy disfavored wearing a hat. So, in high school, I followed suit. Those were the “hatless years.”
After purchasing a Suzuki 150 motorcycle for commuting to UCLA, I returned to the hat. At a neighborhood Scottish imports store, I adopted the English beret and the MacLeod clan yellow plaid wool scarf. Lacking an impressive motorbike, I thought the continental look would more than make up for a having a whining engine instead of the full-throated roar of horsepower. I imagined the ladies asking, “Who is that dashing young man on the small motorcycle?”
In adulthood, I became an aficionado. As I built my collection, inspiration came from everywhere: the Hamburg and fedora from my grandfather, the newsboy cap from Robert Redford in The Sting, the backward Kangol cap from my soul brother, Samuel L. Jackson, and the Panama hat from Teddy Roosevelt.
The high point of my headgear round up was my pilgrimage to Montecristi in the mountains of Ecuador, a literal high point. The journey brought me to the true home of the Panama hat. I watched a craftsman shred agave for the fibers, which diminutive women wove on bulky wood looms to create the unique fabric.
When made well, the topper holds water without leaking. In times past, an Ecuadorian riding through the mountains could pour water from a canteen into the sombrero and allow the horse to wet his whinny. This feature sold me on owning the magnificent Montecristi millinery. After all, with my cowboy background, how could I say “no?”