Passing the open closet doors in my room, you can see it peeking out from behind the boxes of older model digital cameras that are waiting to go through the eBay process. It seems oddly out of place, but has resided there among the cast off camera equipment for the past ten years. I do not wear cowboy hats, and even if I did, I would never wear a broken down, out of shape, soiled cowboy hat like this one. The edges are curled slightly, and inside the band, you can see the resulting stains of the southern California hot sun. At one time, it must have seen enough wear that a special hat block was purchased to keep it in shape. Not one question has ever been raised about this uncharacteristic resident of the top shelf, most likely due to the lack of curious onlookers.My room does not see many visitors or non-family members who might question its existence at all, much less that it belongs to me. I see it there sometimes as I pass the closet though. I know what it is and where it came from, but even I question why it is still up in my closet. What am I saving it for? And, how long is it going to live there?
When I see the hat on the shelf, I envision it being worn by a man who is certainly not the tallest fellow you will ever see. He is of medium height and medium build but always seemed much taller to me. He was usually dressed in jeans, cowboy hat and boots or in his gray flight suit decorated with Strategic Air Command patches and pilot wings.
Most often, I remember that hat being worn by the man who rode beside me nearly every Saturday morning that he was not off flying to some far part of the world. We would leave early in the morning, before it became unbearably hot in the southern California sun. The saddlebags on both horses were filled with coffee, water, sandwiches, a first aid box that included a snake bite kit, extra jackets and sugar cubes.
Our area of Riverside County was terribly flat and you could see a tarantula crossing the road a mile ahead because everything was so level. In the middle of all that smooth land and directly across from our home stood Mt. Russell, which could be seen for miles in any direction. There was not much of anything up there on the mountain but a few fire roads, and at the top, a fire tower used to spot the dreaded summer forest fires. If you did not go too fast, and stopped to look at all the little things of interest, you could take an entire day to ride up to the top, look around and return down a different road. It made a complete circle back to our home, as should most roads in life.
By late morning, it would get hot, and we would look for some lone tree to offer up an almost insignificant amount of shade. The lunches were unpacked, the horses got their sugar cubes and we would walk around awhile to see what this stop had for “souvenirs”. My best find ever was on the highest part of the mountain. Walking through sagebrush and dry dusty clods of dirt, I kicked away a piece of dirt clod to see the most wondrous thing. A small, white, perfectly formed seashell was only half buried in the dust. To this day, I wish I had revered that shell or had kept it somewhere special. It is long gone with childhood possessions, and only now do I fully realize how special it was. All I recall from that day was my riding companion explaining its existence with the statement, “Once the oceans came all the way up to the top of this mountain.” It seemed too hard to believe that could be true.
After lunch, the ride became so relaxed and lazy that even the horses could feel it. They would plod down the graded dirt roads with all the excitement of a death march while the man whistled old Gene Autry tunes in time to the creaking saddle leather. The roads up the mountain were actually just graded dirt roads with high banks of dirt piled on either side. Several times a year, road maintenance was accomplished by running large graders up and down a few times, and “voila” – a new road would appear.
One day, I leaned of a sacred old Indian remedy after being stung by a bee on the ride home. As soon as he carefully removed the stinger, he reached out and grabbed a big handful of dirt from the bank on his side of the road. Slowly he added the exact amount of spit, and stirred it around in the palm of his hand until it had reached the perfect, powerful consistency. All the while he stirred and spit, he was explaining why it was so critical to get the mixture just right. By the time it was deemed ready to apply, I had stopped sobbing and put my arm out to have it encased in the magical, old Indian remedy. “This will take the sting out and make you strong so it doesn’t hurt”, he explained. It never occurred to me back then to find spit and dirt anything but enchanting. He assured me that, “The Indians used this to dress their battle wounds, so it will certainly take care of one little bee sting.”
As we settled back down to continue our ride, his gaze suddenly seemed to rest slightly behind me. Keep in mind those tall banks on either side of the road, and know that when seated on a horse, I sat about eye level with the top of the dirt bank on either side. Just when I was about to turn to follow his stare, the man said in the calmest voice, “Move very slowly away from the bank. Just bring your horse around behind me very easy.” Something in the tone of his voice told me to do exactly what he said without question or speaking. I did precisely as I was told, and only when safely away did he tell me to turn around and see the coiled rattlesnake that had been watching from a short distance away on the top of the bank next to me. I was not nearly as upset back then as I am today remembering it.
There was a certain point in the ride home that I could never determine exactly, but the horses sure could. It was the final turn in direction that headed them home to food and water. The “death march” would always go into high gear and you really had to work to keep them in check. The old nags that plodded up and down the mountain were suddenly transformed into belligerent adolescents that had definite minds of their own.
On one particular trip, my ride for the day was one of the least cultured of the lot, and no amount of checking kept me in control. Not far from home he had enough of me, and took off on a dead run for the home pasture, with my riding companion in hot pursuit. As you came down the final stretch of road, you had to make a hard right into the pasture. Not a problem for the horse, however sheer physics kept my slight, eight year old frame on a straight ahead course, right into the biggest pile of cactus, growing next to the gate. For the better part of two days, I never stopped wondering, “Who in their right mind would plant cactus that close to any place humans might sail through the air?” Moreover, the man, my father, never heard the end of my mother asking him, “Who in their right mind would let this child fall off a horse into cactus?”So the hat will stay on my shelf, because each time I take a moment to look at it again, some new little adventure or memory pops into my head. Like the time they let me ride the big dancing buckskin in the parade, right in front of the high school marching band, but that is another story. Sometimes I see how my father used that hat for something other than a hat. One time when the horses were extremely thirsty, he filled it to the brim from a spring in the side of the hill and let them drink from it. I recall is being used to encourage the reluctant ones to actually get into the horse trailer when it slapped them squarely on the backside. I had seen it used to gather wildflowers, and special rocks and treasures found on the trail. Later in his life, my father would occasionally smoke a pipe, and during that time, the hat would keep his matches safe and dry. It was so much more than a hat.
I guess that is why I keep the hat on the shelf, and these days look for “hats” for my own children to keep. “Hats” they can store away on their closet shelves that someday will be worth more than a thousand words. Hats, or any object that when viewed or touched can bring back the best memories of cherished childhood times. I look for something that can summon up in an instant the sights, sounds and smells that bring back all those special adventures; something that will sit on the shelf quietly, and peek out at them from across the room.
Many years ago, determined to finish up my degree, I returned to school as an adult. Challenging task to be raising two daughters on my own, working, and tackling English 101. Just a few weeks into the course, we were asked to do a “personal narrative”…….and I had no idea what that even meant. Eventually, I ended up with this story about my dad, and received a near perfect grade. I was stunned that anyone found this personal tidbit even remotely entertaining, but apparently it strikes a chord with some. Ended up that I never did finish that degree, but have some very good memories of the classes I was able to attend.
With no pictures of my own, other than the head shot of my dad, and the B-52, images are from Wikimedia Commons, and so noted. Thank goodness for people who post their images to share.
The story goes that my mother had attempted to get a confirmation from the USAF, that my father had indeed piloted this B-52 that ended up on display at Griffiss AFB. She was told that given the time frames my father was stationed at the Griff, it was an almost certainty that he had piloted this same aircraft during any of his many tours here. So that’s what I believe and have told my children. It brings great comfort to have it just down the street from where we used to live, and to drive past it every day. I’ve even been known to visit it when under extreme duress, just to have a little visit with my father. It works for me.
Hope you all are enjoying a good Father’s Day filled with your own memories, love, family, forgiveness, or whatever the day means to you. Thank you for letting me share this little bit of personal memory with you all, and hope you find something in it to make you smile!!
Until next time, Happy Trails to you all,
Janet, Randy and Molly