Editor's Note: Dan Vichorek was one of the most talented humorists Montana has ever produced, sadly passing away in 2001 from a sleeping disorder. He wrote recurring columns in Montana Magazine and Fishing & Hunting News, as well as several books, including The Hi-Line: Profiles of a Montana Land and others. This is reprinted with permission from Last Tango in Melrose, Montana: The Writing of Dan Vichorek, available from The University of Montana Press. Dan’s surviving family have generously seen to it that proceeds from the sale of this book go to fund a scholarship in Mr. Vichorek’s name to UM’s School of Journalism.
When they let me out of high school I didn't have a hat. That was okay. John Kennedy showed you you didn't need a hat to be successful. Kennedy was the first president since Abe Lincoln who was never photographed in a cowboy hat or Indian war bonnet. He got elected anyway, and girls liked him too. So much for hats.
I already had a lot of sad experiences with hats. Straw hats were the worst. I always unraveled them when I got scared at the movies. Sometimes I'd go into the movie with a brand-new straw cowboy hat and come out wearing a derby.
Then I entered military service, where they said they had just the hat for me. I was theoretically required to wear this hat all the time. Luckily, it could be crushed into a tiny ball and carried in my back pocket. When I saw somebody important coming, I would whip it out and reconstitute it on my head in time to salute. In the branch of the military I was in, you never salute unless you have your hat on, and if you don't salute the right people, they might shoot you. You can't get away with explaining that you didn't salute because you didn't have your hat on. They will shoot you twice.My military hat was not without problems. My head is uncomfortable in a hat, has a mind of its own, you could say, and gets rid of hats as soon as it can.
It wasn't my fault that me and my ill-fated hat were on a U.S. Navy ship. One of the unhappy things about that ship was the lack of air for anybody below the rank of ensign. The official policy was "No air for the enlisted men." Fortunately, the air ducts from the big ventilation fans ran through the enlisted men's quarters on the way to officers' country at the fore end of the ship. Several generations of Marines had used their bayonets to ventilate these ducts so the air was distributed a little more democratically. In fact, there were so many bayonet holes in the ducts that hardly any air got through to the officers. The officers said they'd rather have no air than try to take the bayonets away from the Marines.
One day I'm walking with my well-smashed hat on my head and I pass under one of the big ducts. The suction in the duct yanked my hat into the opening and it rolled and slid until it hit the fan. The fan put up a good fight, but finally stopped. It was old and had been supplied by the lowest bidder. Air ducts all over the ship fell silent. Officers below ducts took a deep breath, not knowing when they'd get another. Sailors dropped their mops and gasped. Marines picked up their bayonets, wondering whom they should kill. The answer wasn't far away, because my name was stenciled on my hat, as required by regulations. Fortunately, before they could kill me, they caught someone cheating at cards and killed him instead.
After I escaped the military I threw away my military hats. I was done saluting. However, I got a job putting up hay and needed to keep the sun off my ears and nose, so I bought a straw cowboy hat. One day I was operating a new supercharged hay stacker, roaring around like Barney Oldfield, gathering up hay a ton at a time and wedging it precisely into the stack. So impressive was my performance that the neighbors came to watch over the fence, trying to figure whether this infernal device could ever replace the mule. I put on speed for a better show. Just as I was about to impress even myself, my hat blew off and went into the fan. The tractor kept running but the hat was of no further use. I saw the boys by the fence stir slightly and kick their toes in the dirt. "Dang thing ate his hat," they agreed. "Better wait a few more years until they get the bugs ironed out," they decided, and went back to their primitive machinery.
Having lost my hat, I decided to go to college. "What college in Montana doesn't require you to wear a hat?" I asked my advisor. "There is only one school in Montana that doesn't require hats," he said, adding, "it's in Missoula and I have to warn you that some people there do not salute the flag or take regular baths. Not only that, they may make you dance."
"Only if they shoot my feet," I said, and anyway, three out of four ain't bad. I enrolled immediately.
A lot of sludge has gone over the bridge since, but I am still searching for my ideal hat. I have a pickup load or more of them, but none of them is me. Certainly not the Ernest Hemingway deep sea model with the 18-inch bill. Not the miracle-fiber camouflage lobster fisherman's rain hat. Not the French stocking cap with the long tassel. Not the war surplus Radar O'Reilly wool cap. Not the dashing woven wool Peruvian hat with the llama caravan going round and round the crown. Not the Vietnam crusher hat with the shotgun shells in the elastic band. Not the red felt logger hat. Not the Indiana Jones hat. Not the slouch hat that is said to replicate the only official uniform item adopted by the Confederate Army. Not even the all-wool $4.95 one size fits nobody Navy watchcap. I did not buy any of these coverings. They were all given to me by people who wanted to make fun of me or thought I needed them.
I don't own any gimme caps, those so-called baseball caps with advertising slogans or names written on them. The original one said "Cat," meaning Caterpillar. They call them gimme caps because of how they are sold. The strategy is to display these caps in stores where he-man goods are sold: shotgun shells, tractor tires, iron coffee pots. Guys come in to buy the goods, see the caps with their favorite brand names and say, "Gimme one of them caps." I will not use either the inside or the outside of my head for advertising.
I recently decided I might need a felt cowboy hat and went to the store to look over the possibilities, including models called the "Range Boss," "Buckaroo” and "Viper." I wondered if I had what it took to wear a hat like that.
The saleslady had the kindest, sweetest face you could imagine. She was like a doting grandmother beaming at me as though she knew I was a good boy, no matter what everybody else thought. I asked her, "Do you think I need a cowboy hat?" She smiled with surpassing warmth and said, "If you ain't got a cowboy hat, you ain't ****." She was still smiling.
I concluded that she could only say such a shocking thing because she had no idea what it meant. She was like an innocent schoolgirl who unknowingly has been taught filthy words in French by some low-life. She explained that some college student had come in to buy a Range Boss, and when she asked him why he needed it he said, "If you ain't got a cowboy hat, you ain't ****." He had finished school, and was on his way back to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where he lived. He was going to wear his Range Boss around there and when people asked him why, he was going to tell them, "In Montana, if you ain't got a cowboy hat, you ain't ****." I didn't buy one.