A Case of Hatback

He was the best shot in Baker, Oregon, where he ranched for years before buying a house on Payette Lake and the first 4WD vehicle in McCall, Idaho. The subsequent house I remember in Milwaukie, Oregon featured meticulously rowed beds of drupelet fruit; a two-tone, turquoise and cream fishing boat just big enough for a steering station; and a lever-action recliner where up to three of us could climb into his big lap at any one time, laying our cheeks against scratchy Pendleton plaid in the winter or wildly printed Hawaiian shirts in the summertime.

I was a little afraid of him. His voice was huge, his laugh was thunder, and he must have been nine feet tall.

Grandpa died when I was a single-digit tot, which is how I first understood the breakability of living legend. Even Casey Jones took his last ride; even John Henry laid down his hammer and soughed into history, but I never thought it would apply to the only man I ever knew to stare my father down.

They literally don’t make ’em like this anymore.

It may be that I remember his funeral now better than the man himself. Chances enough I had to ask his wife. She lived, after all, to 101. Still, she was a busy woman for most of that time, and I still hadn’t learned the lesson of expiration dates.

He looked a certain way. Besides size and presence, Grandpa was a hat-wearing man. Winter or summer, horseback or in church, unless it was severely cold, a pale Stetson rode on his head (hunting in the deep cold meant a Stormy Kromer cap, AKA “Elmer Fudd hat”). His hats had formal bands and full brims, but they were never “cowboy hats” because Grandpa wasn’t any kind of boy. He was a rancher who wore hats built for a man precisely aware of who and what kind of man he was. I remember the first day I was tall enough to reverentially pull one off its hallway peg (after first, with my heart pounding, peering left and right like a cartoon jewel thief), and peer inside to see Stetson’s famous marque through its crinkly crown liner – then to flush with indignation at the church bazaar fakery of a “Stetson” that clearly wasn’t a cowboy hat.

All bat, no cattle: my Dad ca. 1951.
© Jerry Jansen

I knew things, you see. Had my own nickel-plated cap gun, complete with pearly plastic grips. “Stetson” meant “cowboy hat.” I would not be taken in so easily. Dad was a cowboy first before he became a fighter pilot, and he’ll tell you that to this day, squinting up from underneath a silverbelly, silver-buckled Stetson El Patron. Dad’s hero remains John Wayne, a big presence in an even bigger hat; the great patriot who play-acted every military role he wished he’d served.

As for Grandpa, he flew the mail first, then ranched. My dad’s dad didn’t need a wide screen to take up the whole room and he wore a quarter-section owner’s hat, the kind that Stetson once practically gave away, at granges and stock auctions and grain elevators, to influential ruralites. Once he moved on from hogs, Grandpa became all cattle and just enough hat.

Hats don’t make no cowboy. Yodelin’ does. Lambda Chi Alpha chorus at USC, early 1950s. © Jerry Jansen

As for myself, nameless fifth grandson of that Baker cattleman, I’d been seeking the right sort of hat since I got out of the army that first time, thirty-some years ago, and realized how undressed I felt any time I found myself outdoors without boots and a cap. Out in the world, though, truck drivers’ “gimme caps” seemed a tawdry, juvenile replacement for the faithful and comfy patrol cap. Brims they may have had, but what kind of man intentionally tangles his head in bright plastic netting? As for today’s “street gear,” with brims ironed flat and shiny foil stickers and plastic snap bands, well… let’s just agree that a fetish for the new is a poor substitute for quality gear.

Having never owned a genuine, fur felt hat made finding the right lid problematic, but Seattle in those days was graced with genuine hat fitment by venerable downtown hatter, Byrnie Utz. Finally tiptoeing in there in the mid-90s after stooging furtively outside their windows like Charlie Bucket at the candy shop, I came away with a pale grey, dark-banded homburg. Against their recommendations, I convinced Utz’s staff to steam dimples into the forecrown; made it look more like a rancher’s hat.

Of course, I could have simply bought a rancher’s hat with a cattleman’s crease installed at the factory. A couple of weeks later, after realizing how ridiculous that Homburg looked with a two-button business suit worn west of the Appalachian range (or riding the skull of anyone south of sixty years old), I returned for another go and walked out with a Stetson Open Road, the very style once famously worn by Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Ain’t no cowboy when he’s gone.
©Shasta Willson

But not by Grandpa, and it anyway looked absurd spreading its brim over my still-lanky frame, wrapped as that was in polo-style company shirts and logoed nylon windbreakers. It also cut into my scar-roped, Neanderthal brow as cruelly as a Simpson M32 helmet, and was stiff as a whippet’s tail into the bargain. Some guys have Shoei heads and others Stetson; mine is an Arai head. I put them both in boxes, stacked them onto a high shelf in my shop, and gave up on hats indefinitely.

But not forever.

Father Daughter Ride ©Shasta Willson
“Be cheerful; wipe thine eyes: Some falls are means the happier to Arais.”
William Shakespeare (mostly)
©Shasta Willson

Seven or eight years back, on my third determined foray to Byrnie Utz, I ended up with a Stetson Firenze, dark-chocolate brown, in “Sovereign” grade (not their finest) with a silk finish. Fits brilliantly; it’s rain-proof for hours; soft as rabbit butter; perfect modest brim for my long, bony brain box and (damn it all) fairly narrow shoulders.

The lovely and attentive shop girl brushed it out for me on a return visit, steamed it to a more precise fit, and even replaced the tinny “STETSON” band pin with a miniature, silvered Combat Action Badge before stitching my redecorated hatband back in place. She made that brown topper mine, and it’s since logged more hours on my head (though far fewer miles) than even the tatterdemalion DCU cap that I passed along to Daughtergirl as a souvenir, once I was pretty sure I’d never deploy again. That camouflage pattern is now as obsolete as I am, anyway.

Favored tools wear fastest.

No longer befeathered but just personalized enough, the Firenze suits me well. Even Pretty Wife (no fan of hats, generally) acknowledges that I look well in it, despite the brim scalloping slightly with age and weather and wear, and the crown fitting a bit tighter after several Northwest drenchings. It’s a wonder of haberdashery and I immediately felt privileged to own it – but it still wasn’t much like Grandpa’s.

So once in a while, when up late and musing about things as they were, might once have been if I’d remembered correctly, or at some point possibly could have been, I’d punch up Craigslist and wander through nearby Stetson offerings. I always started from the most or least expensive to screen out t-shirts, furniture, “street gear,” and cologne. It surprised me how many folks were getting rid of their dad’s or grandpa’s chapeau, but I should have expected it. In an age of factory-formed veggie burgers, pleather shoes, and polyester “jeans,” who has time to brush and form an old felt hat?

One morning around 0300, shortly after walking our perimeter (you do that, too, right?), I spied a camel-beige Stetson among the listings. Unusually, the poster understood how hat sizes are listed. It was my size, right to the fraction. She wanted 40 bucks. Big-budget baller that I am, I dithered several days before sending her a note, then shoved it out of mind. One should never squint too hard at a raffle ticket. It’s bad ju-ju.

Once the poster responded, we underwent several back-and-forths to work out a meet-up. It turned out the Stetson had been her father’s dress hat, but he’d stowed it away in a box sometime in the Sixties, like ya do.

A couple of days later, whizzing through town on a finely made electric motorcycle to perform a merry errand, I stopped for a pedestrian in a crosswalk and enjoyed a pleasant vision of that trail dust-colored Stetson just before a meth-head driver in a clapped-out Subaru ran me down from behind.

See? I warned you! Bad ju-ju…

It was the third time I’d broken my spine, and hopefully will remain the last. My next few months were largely occupied by rehabilitating smashed-up lumbar vertebrae. Nobody needs a hat indoors; it’s plain rude, especially at supper, and also doesn’t pair well with lying around, groaning, whilst you fumble for the little silver bell next to your easy chair. Anyway, I was already accessorizing with a super-sexy, custom-tailored TLSO brace.

Don’t laugh. I got compliments.

It was a while before I got up again, but Grandpa never quit and neither did Dad so I can’t, either.

A month later, while searching for something in my “SENT” file, I turned up an unread message from a woman we’ll agree to call “Carol.”

Carol wanted to know whether I was still interested in the Stetson she had – or had wanted to know, sometime early in the previous month. Flooded with guilt over being a Craigslist flake, I dropped her a quick note of apology and explained why I’d dropped off the radar.

Her sympathy was genuine and unforced, and she’d already pulled her Stetson listing off Craigslist in preparation for a household remodel. Carol wished me a strong recovery. Carol would get in touch.

Carol didn’t and that hat – like so many shiny hot rods, rusty pickup trucks, and vintage motorcycles – went into a box on the Memory & Imagination shelf while I moved on to other fascinations.

Like ya do.

A full year later, another email message came from Carol, and this is what it said:


I was cleaning up my e-mail and came across a message from you from June of last year.

You were responding to a Stetson hat I was selling.

I know that what happened is a serious fracture.

I never sold the hat so every time I see it I think of you.

If you live somewhere not too far away and still are interested I would love to gift the hat to you.

I live in NE Seattle.

I wish you all the best.


Well, that was unexpected. After marveling at it for a few minutes, and exclaiming over it with Pretty Wife, we agreed to offer a reciprocal gift: a signed copy of Nothing in Reserve. Carol seemed delighted, and sent us an address.

Carol and her husband kept a beautiful house, perched on a view hillside in a nice Seattle neighborhood. Their remodeling complete, they’d moved out of the basement. She was happy to pass along her father’s hat to me.

It was a dilly.

Soft-handed and sleek, that battered old fedora held notably more memory hooks than its basic resemblance to Grandpa’s ranch bonnet. First familiar note was discovering it was graced with the silky, 1950s-era cellophane top liner that kept pomade and skull grease from fouling the crown, just like his. None of my hats of recent manufacture (and I own several now) have this feature. No longer a company in its own right but (like Resistol) a brand managed by Hatco, Stetson abandoned the practice decades ago. Another feature no longer practiced in our fallen world is the thickened, carefully sewn edge that keeps its brim line fair. From the top, it resembles a Cavanagh brim. Underneath sweeps a line of tiny stiches.

Per the gilded embossments in its sweatband, my now-favorite fedora was first sold by Bradford’s Clothing, a haberdasher founded in 1913 in my own hometown of Portland, Oregon. With its distinctively high crown, my hat is quite likely old enough to have been more contemporary to Grandpa’s young business life in Los Angeles (there are pictures) than to his later retired life in Milwaukie. It’s definitely no newer than the 1950s, given that Bradford Clothing went out of business during that decade.

It pleased my own wife, proud Zioness that she is, to learn that Bradford’s was established by Jewish businessman Jacob Lauterstein, who likely secreted a yarmulke under his own fedora. Jacob fell for a concert pianist from Copenhagen over their shared interest in Palestine, during the pre-Holocaust days when Israel existed only as a Zionist dream of catapulting the Hebrew past into an Israeli future.

They married shortly after Jacob started Bradford’s in a tiny shop on First & Washington. While he prospered well and occupied progressively larger spaces on Second, then Fourth, Lauterstein never fired an employee. Those remaining at the store after Jacob died kept the business humming under his brother’s management, and one of them likely sold a buff-colored Stetson to Carol’s dad.

And I believe that it likewise pleased Carol to pass her father’s fedora, still in fine working fettle, along to someone with a wee bit of shared history. I didn’t give her a book, as it turned out. Rather, I signed that book over to her husband, who couldn’t walk out to meet us due to having broken his own spine. I was leaning on a cane by then, but his recovery hadn’t come as far as mine. I felt for him. Still do, with literally every step I take – yet I’m happy for each step left to me.

Everything looks better on a pretty girl. Everything.

Though careworn in places, it proved a beautiful hat. There isn’t a stain or a moth nibble to be found, the brim holds a pukka swoop, and the crown stands up proud. The sweatband stamps, and even the size tag and ribbon knot, remain in perfect shape. It carries not a whiff of Justin Timberlake’s incel-favored trilbies.

Though it’s closer by far to a paler, narrower version of Harrison Ford’s high-crowned “Indiana Jones” hat, my grandfather was cooler than Harrison Ford and a better pilot, too – he didn’t fly airplanes for fun until he’d already had four careers, one of them flying airplanes for money. Like Grandpa’s remembered grey Stetson, my tan one evidences care in its even, well-brushed nap.

It’s been worn, though. Worn plenty, in fact. This isn’t the hat that someone bought, regretted, and hid up high on a shelf in their shop. It’s got miles enough on it to slightly separate the sweatband at the forehead. The bottom edge of the sweat has its brown finish worn through to beige in places. There’s a perennial, horizontal concavity at the top rear of the crown, the “pinch” is slightly lopsided, and it’s dented here and there. I run my fingers over it from time to time, absently pushing out the dimples, reshaping it to my taste.

Viki sez this color is “fawn.”

Just as it outlived its original buyer, it will likely outlive me. It bears wear marks, not structural damage, and I take better care of my things than I do of myself.

Just a simple businessman’s hat with a narrow, color-matched, grosgrain band in “Royal Sovereign” grade, it’s surely not my best topper. That might be the NOS Homburg mentioned above or the Biltmore I found at Byrnie Utz in 2014, fresh out of its factory box from a bankrupt Canadian firm; could also be my Stratoliner from last year’s birthday, or this year’s promised birthday Borsalino that I’m supposed to have forgotten about. Still, the dented freebie remains a favorite. I wear it even more than my semi-customized Firenze, now, in part because – despite my nostalgia for the marvelous, magical resource that was Byrnie Utz – it holds more stories.

No boy can match the gravitas of the man who wears a Biltmore.

Those stories – my own, Carol’s, Dad’s, Pretty Wife’s, Grandpa’s, and even the Lautersteins’ – have been crushed together under the heat and wet pressure of overlapping lives into an inextricably felted fabric, compressed like the damp clouds of microscopic fibers spun onto the cone of a forming machine defined by the equation (space)(time)/love + persistence.

Along the way, its form became self-contained narrative, large and containing multitudes; became more than a mere, empty thing by dint of holding fast to its slowly dissolving integrity in pure defiance of time, pain, wear, and grief. Along that same way, like its tiny, felted fibers, we find ourselves subsumed by worlds larger than we ken.

My head may retain fewer stories than it used to, but the old hat covering it writes another by the day.


  1. Carl Lincoln says

    You inspired me to get my own Stratoliner last year; it might be my “best” hat, unless it is my Stetson Dune, with my oldest possession on it, a concha hat band my Mom gave me in 1971….Lately I have been rocking a Bromley top hat when hanging out in town with the great granddaughter; my pretty wife thinks it ridiculous but maybe that just makes it more fun…..So from one motorcycle/hat guy to another a big ol thank you for all you do. Love you, man!

  2. Dave Halperin says

    Thank you for posting this! Thoughtful and interesting as always.

  3. Roger Matthews says

    Welcome back Jack. Awe inspiring is the only description I can use.

  4. bruce goddard says

    What a great story, Jack. Thank you. Reminded me of the only Stetson I’ve ever owned. Had the wonderful fortune to find it at a church rummage sale for a dollar. It was a beauty and I married my second wife wearing it. Neither are with me now but it was a great read and got me thinking about looking for another. (Stetson)
    First read your stuff in a bike magazine, then found your books. Glad you’re writing more. Thanks again.

  5. Nice post! It’s interesting how hats (some hats) soak up something from our souls. I remember how my grandpa would sometimes forget his hat at our house after a visit, and when I saw it, I felt as if he hadn’t completely gone home. (It gave him an excuse to visit again).

    I discovered that Stetson made other hat styles beyond western when I bought a fedora that didn’t remotely resemble anything western, but was, to my surprise, made by Stetson. “All American Stetson” reads the big label I saw in the store. Cool! “Made in China” says the much smaller label beneath. Oh, well.

  6. Mr. William M Treadway says

    Yeah, checking the perimeter still helps me sleep too and it’s been over fifty years, dammit.

    • Seems like it’s hard to turn off that subsystem, once it’s installed.

      Be well, William. Enjoy the days we have.

      • Mr. William M Treadway says

        Healthy adjustment to an unhealthy situation is my response to the stress questions when at the VA. Sorry to learn of your back. I first ran across you when you wrote for the motorcycle mag. Always liked your style. Not riding is a bitch.

  7. Stacy Oaks says

    Byrnie Utz Hats is having a liquidation sale on Saturday Feb 8th, and Sunday Feb 9th…
    It will be at Hengst Studio in Seattle(part of old Rainier Brewery) 3200 Airport Way S.
    10am-6pm both days
    75% off!
    More info available on our facebook page.

    Hope all you hat lovers can make it!

    • Thanks, Stacy! That is uniquely the one and only sales-related comment I’ve ever approved on this blog, and will likely remain so.

      We had a great time at your Everett event, and saw several good friends there.

      Sure do miss the store. Even in business demise, you’ve all shown grace, customer care, and good humor. I wish the very best to all of you lovely people.

  8. Art Ellison says

    When I worked for the Forest Service, as part of the official uniform there was a crappy looking hat. Nothing a real outdoorsman would wear. It might have been a Resistol, but memory fades after a while. It almost resembled a bowler hat! Awful. I kept it in it’s original box, never to see the light of day.

    Then I went out and got a Stetson. Not the fanciest, you understand, as it was to be worn in the field to keep the sun out of my eyes and the rain off of my head, not unlike a cowboy. Oh, did I mention the western boots? Our dress uniform called for cordovans but they never really had a uniform component for the feet, Needless to say, those also lived in their box. So plain (sort of) brown western boots it was.

    I must have worn out 2 or three Stetsons during my career. Mostly kept the brim turned slightly down in the “intimidation” mode! Thought I looked the part, although at 5’7″ and about 130 pounds I had difficulty projecting that image.

    Anyway, your story brought all this back. Thanks.

  9. Don Arneson says

    Great writing as always Jack. I like hats and caps. Since I still ride my usual choice is a baseball-type cap from one of the National Parks I’ve visited in my two-wheeled or four-wheeled travels. Since I’ve retired I spend part of my traveling “Goin’ Mobile” in a 29 foot toy hauler. It allows me to enjoy the comforts of home where ever I park plus the added benefit of bringing along one or two of my favorite motorcycles, plus a bicycle. I have a battered inexpensive fedora and a couple of inexpensive Indiana Jones style hats. I like window-shopping at proper hat shops and this essay might just inspire me to buy a nice hat. Thanks for the entertaining read

  10. Tom Ortiz-Owens says

    I’ve been putting it off for too long. I’m buying a damn hat.

    Hats, somehow, contain a bit of the thoughts of all who wore them. Soulful things, often.

    When my grandfather died about 20 years ago I inherited his Osh-Kosh overalls, his cowboy boots, the bedroom set he and my grandmother received as a wedding gift in 1925, and his cowboy hat.

    Sadly, the hat is too small for me but it hangs on the hat rack just inside the front door to this day.

    Thanks for the stories, Jack. Carry on, friend.

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