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When I wore a hat - Daniel Silliman

My dad gave me the hat without formality. He pulled it out of the dark recess of a closet and gave it to me without a speech or even a stern look. He just said, "Here. Wear this."

It was a ball cap, a black cap with the name of a chainsaw company on the front.

I was 11. I was going to work with my dad for a Saturday, and this was the first time I wore a hat.

For me, the moment marked a transition. Men wore hats. Children didn't.

Men wore hats the way Superman wore a cape and the Jolly Green Giant had a color. It was inexplicable, but somehow inseparable from the definition at the heart of the thing. My dad handed me this hat, and it still had sweat stains from where he'd worn it before, and I believed I was being invited to manhood.

I guess there were two adult males I knew who didn't wear hats. They weren't "men," though, except by some scientific classification. One was a lawyer and the other was a salesman, and both of them were weak and undependable. They were both paid to say what they said, both did what they did for the sake of money, and neither of them wore hats.

Men, the burly ones who spoke with deep voices, who knew how to do things with their hands and wouldn't take money to say something untrue, they wore hats.

Mostly they wore baseball caps, when I was a kid, but also there were hard hats.

That first day, working with my dad, I couldn't get the hat to fit right. I adjusted and readjusted the snaps on the back. I shifted the bill. I scratched where the band rubbed. I took it off and put it back on. It was the most uncomfortable thing I had ever worn.

The bill of the hat blocked my sight, but didn't defend me from the brutal, beating sun. The band soaked up sweat, but then when I turned my head, I inadvertently squeezed the saturated band and all that stored up, salty sweat gushed down the back of my neck. The hat, from what I could tell, was nothing but an insane asylum's brain-squeezer, squeezing my scalp until I was bald in the weirdest ways.

The hat, which I had accepted like a heritage of manliness, turned me into a spastic little boy. Which didn't stop me from wearing it permanently, like an attachment to my head.

It used to be all men wore hats, even white collar men and men with professions. Everyone wore hats, and hats came in classes and styles suiting occupations. Now, it's only eccentric old men who wear fedoras and bowlers, Panama, porkpie and bucket hats. Only eccentric old men and extremely eccentric young men, in this country anyway.

Every one I know who's worn one will basically say the hat suits him, and he tries to reclaim the time when everyone had a sense of identity, a clear sense of who he was and what he did, and he would wear it on his head.

Which makes me wonder what happened to those men, the generation of hat wearers, when the fashion passed and they were all suddenly bareheaded. Was the new fashion followed by an identity crisis, or prompted by one?

When I put on that hat, I thought it was transforming. I thought it had something to do with becoming a man.

Seven years later, driving around in a pick-up truck with a seat full of library books, I realized I wanted to write for a living. I realized I wanted to go to college, not own my own company and work with my hands.

So I stopped wearing a hat. I took it off, because writers and college students don't wear caps emblazoned with chainsaws. I put it back in the closet where my dad keeps his, on the shelf in the back in the dark. That was years ago. Sometimes, though, I still feel bareheaded.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.