Recently I found a fedora in my closet. It was sitting where it has sat for almost two decades, wearing a fine coat of dust, pushed back out of sight on a high shelf. It’s a brown fedora with a wide cloth band that is also brown, though darker by several shades. The brim turns down in front, and in the back it turns up, in classic fedora style. Inside, the sweat-stained label identifies the hat as a Stetson.
I was seventeen when I met the man who owned the fedora, the same man who would become my father-in-law a few years later, and he scared the hell out of me. He was about six feet tall, and I don’t mean to insult him posthumously, but I suspect the needle on his bathroom scale stopped closer to three hundred pounds than two hundred. I had heard a few stories about how tough he was, and people said he had a mean streak. That may have been true when he was a younger man, but when I met him he was nearing sixty years old, and he must have mellowed, because he was always cordial to me. We didn’t have much in common, other than his daughter, and our conversations were usually short and stuck to general topics like the weather or his vegetable garden.
The only time I ever heard my father-in-law talk at length was on holidays when his family gathered at his house. He would sit with his two sons in the living room and talk for hours about a single subject that never varied over the years – the Missouri Pacific Railroad. All three of them were life-long MoPac men, so they talked about railroad people they knew who were sick, or hurt, or who had died or done something stupid, like run an engine off the track. They talked about the union and the latest injury settlements and supervisors who were idiots and men who got fired and then re-hired, because no one ever seemed to get fired permanently from the railroad. I would listen to their stories sometimes, but with nothing of my own to contribute, I would usually gravitate to another room and look for a football game on TV.
My father-in-law lived and breathed the Missouri Pacific, but Old Milwaukee beer was his sustenance. He had an old stuffed chair that he hauled out to his garage after it was deemed unsuitable for the den, and he stationed it within arms reach of a refrigerator that was perpetually stocked with beer. It didn’t matter if the weather outside was scorching hot or freezing cold, he would sit in that chair with the garage door open and drink his Old Milwaukee from the fourteen ounce cans, because it cost less than the other brands in a twelve ounce can. My father-in-law liked bang for his buck. I never asked him why he preferred the ratty old chair in the garage to a much nicer one in the house, but I have a theory about it. I can still picture him sitting there, Old Milwaukee beer in hand, wearing the fedora.
Standing in my closet a quarter of a century later, studying the dusty hat, a notion crossed my mind that I should start wearing it. I have always appreciated the look of the fedora, and given that my scalp now needs protection from the sun, I saw it as a fashionable solution to a bothersome problem. So I put it on my head, and to my amazement, it didn’t fit. It was too small. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. How could the head of such an imposing man be smaller than my own?
But apparently it was the case. So I put the fedora back on the shelf, to gather more layers of dust. It’s probably just as well. Even if the hat had fit, I could never think of it as mine. It belongs to a man from another place and time, and that’s how it should stay.