My grandfather had a plug hat. It was a silly looking thing, especially when he put it on his noggin. He didn’t mind though, he wasn’t the type of guy who fussed about his appearance or who cared much about what people thought of him. Something I learned about those particularities when I was a kid, was that because he didn’t care, no one else did either, in fact, people admired him for his lack of pretense.
People keep things for the darndest reasons. Like most people my grandparents had things stashed around their house that had meaning that only they understood. Some we know about, such as the little blue and white but very ordinary teacup and saucer my grandfather picked up in the ruins of the Red Front store before the building was consumed by the fires caused by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It meant something to him, but unless you now the story behind it, and believe me, there were many, because it was one of the greatest events of his life, you would have passed it by if you saw it on a shelf at Goodwill. My grandparents also kept a chaffing dish they had received for a wedding present. This, I never saw anywhere but the garage. It was covered copper on a stand but the one feature that kept it in the garage for nearly seventy years was the handle. The handle was made of a segment of deer horn. My grandmother though it was creepy, downright devilish and she wouldn’t allow it in the home, ever. I have no idea why she kept it all that time. Strangely enough, my brother still has it. It is as creepy looking as it ever was.
Now, as it turns out, there is a story behind the old plug hat. You see, it was the fancy of students who attended the University of California, Berkeley at the dawning of the twentieth century to wear them. Upperclassmen and women, of which my grandmother was one, wore the old beaten up hats as a fashion accessory, much as my father wore his beanie when he was a student at Cal in the 1930’s. They must have found them on trash heaps or second hand stores, useless to anyone but college students who delight in being contrarians. My grandmother and her friends would walk around campus, from the North Hall to the Bacon Library Hall, or gather at the Charter Oak, dressed in the style of 1908, wearing shirtwaists, high collars and long dresses over high button shoes. The stately look we imagine today as being their nature. It’s too easy to forget that they were twenty year old girls. Just as they are in college today, full of high spirits and dreams of a life yet to be lived.
Kids will always find a way to confound and confuse. In a day when women dressed in high collars and long skirts, where you could be sanctioned or expelled from Cal for showing too much shoe top under your skirt, they perched those crushed and worn hats atop there masses of carefully piled curls, looked the world straight in the eye and with a saucy grin, dared.
My grandmother Annie was 60 years old when I was born. She’d lived two thirds of an entire life and I was just beginning mine. She and my grandfather retired the dairy when I was nine. I had no curiosity about their life. Sitting on a treasure chest of experience both tragic and comic and never thinking of opening it. I have lived long enough now to see in some of the things we inherited from them, stories, though never told, that were somehow absorbed just by living in the soup of family life.
When I was young that old plug hat hung on the rack in the office where she did her accounts. The place where she counted the pennies and silver dollars people still paid their milk bills with. I suppose that the cash economy was dying then and only the stores that sold our milk paid by check. I spent much time sitting in the old bentwood chair she kept there, watching her count and roll the coins in their paper tubes, putting the money in the old green bag marked Bank of America, the color of the bag matching the baize cloth that covered the table where the family played serious games of poker after holiday dinners.
My grandad wore the hat during the Gay Nineties festival that we had in our little town to celebrate the end of the harvest season. Each year it would come down from its hook and be seen at various events. I saw him wear it during the skits, called “black outs,” that were performed in the old Mission theatre on Branch Street and once I saw a photo taken when the Pacific Coast Railroad ran its last celebratory train trip through Arroyo Grande. Nearly the whole town turned out in 1938 to wish the old narrow gauge railroad, which had been such a large part of our community for more than a half century, goodbye. People dressed in their best Gay Nineties style as people used to do for the old town celebrations. There they were in those old victorian costumes to wave the train off on her last trip before they tore up the tracks for good. Right in the middle is my grandfather Jack, the top hat tipped at a jaunty angle, fake mustache awry, sitting at the wheel of an old 1920 Model T Ford, Cornelia Conrow at his side.
They still had that topper in 1968 when Jack served as the Grand Marshal of the Harvest Festival. There is an old newspaper photo of him with Mutt Anderson standing next to the old Model A Ford they used for the parade. He is dressed in a claw hammer coat and string tie, the old hat cocked at a jaunty angle, in what was likely its last hurrah.
That old hat, some 80 years old, battered, dented had lost its gleam but it must have had some real meaning for my grandparents, some vestige of the romance they shared such a long time ago. My grandparents were married for nearly seventy years and shared all the ups and downs that families endured during the great depression, two world wars and the daily life of farm and ranch families. They didn’t seem to me to be particularly sentimental people. There wasn’t much around the old place that might remind you of older times. A box of old bolts and nails kept in the calf shed for possible reuse had more cachet than an old photo.
They raised two sons, my dad and my uncle who were much like them. Unsentimental, they kept things until they were used up and then discarded them without looking back. When the old place was sold in the eighties, they discarded most everything in the house that my grandparents built including the old top hat. I guess whatever magic it once held for my grandparents had all run out.