My brother is mildly famous around these parts for spotting stuff by the side of the road; dead animals mostly, rattlesnakes, deer, wild pigs, bear, but also tools, rope, money and once even a humongous rhino horn dildo.
Occasionally he brings this stuff home. About three months ago he walked in the door and tossed me his latest discovery.
“Road hat,” he said. He’d been driving over by Shingletown, and apparently it had blown right off the top of some dude’s head into the weeds beside the road: a black felt cowboy hat, by the looks of it an expensive one. I settled it on my head. It fit perfectly but I instantly felt uncomfortable and embarrassed.
I’m no cowboy, you see. I’ve never even ridden a horse. Horses have scared the daylights out of me since the age of 5, when dressed in my cowboy outfit I was bitten savagely by a Shetland pony at the petting zoo. I was also chased by a goose. Later we moved to Idaho where all of the kids except me rode horses. I rode dirt bikes and kept my distance. I looked at my brother suspiciously, waiting for the punch line.
He shrugged and said, “It’s just a road hat.”
We live 30 miles outside of town, deep in the woods, beyond civilization’s reach. At least that’s what it felt like when I moved back to Shasta County a little more than a year ago.
Out here in the woods, no one gives two hoots if you’re wearing a cowboy hat. Mostly that’s because there’s no one around except family, and they’re not going to cut you down because you’re wearing the cowboy hat your brother found on the road. Especially my parents, who I’m sure were just as traumatized by the petting zoo incident as I was.
So what happened is that just like the hat settled perfectly on my head when I first put it on, I settled perfectly into the hat. It took maybe two weeks. Mom started calling me “the cowboy,” even though my dirty sweatpants are a long way from a rhinestone nudie suit. People started nodding when I passed them in the truck. The people at the store suddenly seemed a lot more friendly. It felt good to be a cowboy. My girlfriend approved.
“You can’t wear a hat like that ironically,” she complimented.
But I didn’t understand the true power of the hat until a visit to the Veteran’s Administration Outpatient Clinic in Redding last month. Contrary to recent news events, the VA does a pretty good job. The problems we’ve all been hearing about during the past year, the backlog of recently discharged veterans face getting into the VA system, could be solved simply by giving every soldier VA insurance for life the second they put their life on the line.
Anyway, when you have a problem with your benefits and you live in Redding, you go to the outpatient clinic’s business office. When I entered the office on this particular afternoon, there was one of those recently discharged veterans mentioned above, going through the rigmarole all soldiers must go through to get benefits, with the assistance of an extremely competent VA benefits worker. There was one other clerk and five of us crammed into a relatively small waiting room.
When I walked in, this 40-something guy, who turned out not to be a veteran, was telling the young soldier, in a very loud voice, that government workers were all lazy people, the government is inefficient, the VA should be privatized, thank you for your service.
I’ve been going to the VA for a long time, and I’ve heard this sort of criticism before. Besides being just plain rude, in the case of the VA, it’s absolutely false. Study after study has shown that the VA, because it doesn’t gouge patients 30 percent or more on overhead, is far more efficient than the private healthcare system.
Despite this knowledge rattling around in my skull, I’ve held my tongue when I’ve encountered such yayhoos in the past. The only difference this time was the road hat framing the whole sordid scene unfolding before my eyes.
He told the young veteran that President Barack “Hussein” Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry were cowards and traitors who had fled Washington D.C. rather than listen to Sean Hannity’s president of the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, address the U.S. Congress the next day.
I’ve got all kinds of problems with President Obama’s policies, but insulting the commander-in-chief in a quasi-military setting like a VA outpatient clinic is seriously misguided. If you’re a veteran, you’re bound to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and you don’t insult the higher-ups, you take your problems up the chain of command. Which is exactly what I told this yayhoo, who didn’t know shellac from shinola about the military.
“Hey, you!” I glared from under the hat’s brim. “Who’s the commander-in-chief?”
He immediately started stuttering.
“I d-d-d-don’t recognize him!”
“Is that what you did in the military, call your commanding officers cowards and traitors behind their backs? Not recognize them?”
The second office worker told us both to shut up.
To our credit, we both shut up immediately. Two minutes of uncomfortable silence later, he slunk out of the room. Those of us left sitting, the real veterans and the office workers, breathed a sigh of relief.
“A lot of us feel the same way you do,” the veteran sitting next to me said. “Thanks.”
“Can I help you sir?” the second clerk beamed at me. I told her my issue, she cheerfully addressed it, and I was out of there in three minutes.
I started wearing the road hat everywhere after that. It seems to be real popular with the ladies, a phenomenon I chalked up to added height: In bare feet, I’m 5-foot-11, which is one reason I’m angry at God. But with my boots and hat on, I’m 6-foot-4. But it wasn’t just that. Men liked the hat too.
My girlfriend was more right than she knew: You can’t wear a hat, especially a cowboy hat like the one my brother found, ironically.
If you do, the hat winds up wearing you.