“Now, I know it’s up here.”
Jeff Tracy reached up as far as his arm would go, his hand searching along the tops of the boxes on the highest shelf of his walk-in closet. He was looking for a particular box, one he needed right away.
“It must have gotten pushed back somehow…”
He continued to search, his shoulder joint beginning to ache with the exertion. He was just about to give up and get a stepladder so he could actually see what was up there when his hand found the rounded corner of the container he wanted. Rising on tiptoe, stretching even farther, he finally caught the cord of the round box, pulling it carefully up and over the items in front of it. At the last moment, the front edge of the receptacle caught and it flipped over, falling on Jeff, who gave a surprised shout. He acted quickly to catch it, and after a bit of fumbling, the intact carton sat in its owner’s hands.
“Ah!” he said, satisfied. The box was wide and relatively flat, with a snug fitting cover. It was made of an opaque plastic designed to preserve antiques. Jeff took the container over to his bed, laid it down, and undid the catches that held the lid on tightly.
“There it is,” he murmured as he reached in to pull out a battered leather hat.
It was a dark brown, with what the hat makers called a flat crown. A leather braid, of the same dark brown, ran around the band of the hat. The brim was relatively wide and didn’t curl upward, nor did it the crown have a “pinch spot” as a western cattleman’s hat would. It was simple, functional, and had seen many, many better days.
He held it reverently, fingertips of one hand curled just inside the band, the brim resting on his palm. It was his father’s, the last in a succession of almost identical hats that Grant Tracy had worn over the decades of his life. Turning the leather headgear around on his hand, Jeff let his mind retreat to a fragment of memory, his first clear remembrance of his father and the hat that became his trademark.
The door to the kitchen opened and young Jeff looked up from setting the table for supper. The July day was hot and dry, making the eight-year-old glad for the air conditioned farmhouse. Not that he spent much time inside. In the mornings, before the day got hot, he did his chores: feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, making sure that the dogs had water. He would take his father’s lunch out to him, riding his two-wheeler down the dusty roads surrounding the seemingly vast fields of wheat to wherever his father was. Sometimes Grant would be testing soil or checking for insect infestation. Sometimes he’d be repairing the irrigation systems, or trying to decide if they needed to administer a fungicide. These days he was driving one of the giant combines, harvesting the tall stalks of wheat that he and his hired men had labored over for the past year.
On this particular evening, the sun was still shining when Grant came home. He brought with him a blast of hot air, and a cloud of dust swirled in with it as he stamped his feet on the mat just outside the kitchen door. His hat was wet with sweat, a wide, dark stain discoloring the leather around the band. His clothes were wet, too, the denim shirt dyed nearly navy blue from just below the shoulders down. He smelled of perspiration and hay, mixed with just a hint of Old Spice. Eleanor went to him, and Grant removed his hat before he leaned down to kiss her.
“Don’t know why you want to kiss me when I’m all soggy like this, El,” he said, smiling, as their long kiss ended.
“Haven’t seen you all day and you need some sugar,” she replied, pulling his head back down for another, more business-like kiss. When that was finished, she moved back to the stove. “Better clean up, Grant. Jeff, don’t forget the butter and jam for the biscuits.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeff answered.
“Here, hang this up for me, will you, son?” Grant asked, a bit of humor in his voice. He plunked his sweat drenched hat on Jeff’s head, pushing it forward to cover the boy’s eyes.
“Daaaad!” Jeff cried, pushing the hat up so he could see. It smelled heavily of leather, and felt warm and damp. His father chuckled and pushed it back down again.
“Grant,” Eleanor said in a warning tone.
“I’m going! I’m going!” the wheat farmer replied, his hands held up in protest. He headed out of the room, making for the upstairs bedrooms.
Jeff removed his father’s hat and hung it on a hook by the door. There it would dry, and in the morning – if Jeff was up early enough to see his father head for the fields – the sides of the hat would have a fine white edge where the sweat had stopped. He didn’t understand why his father preferred this to the feed caps that most of the hired hands, and indeed, most of the farmers in the area wore. But it didn’t matter. His father was who he was, an individual, and his choice of headgear just proclaimed it that much louder.
Jeff smiled at the memory, and lifted the hat to eye level to inspect it carefully. There was no trace of discoloration on this one, but then, it hadn’t gone through but a few hot Kansas summers, and even fewer days being worn out in the sun. And besides, before Jeff had put it in the box, he’d had it professionally cleaned.
“How many of these did he eventually have?” he wondered aloud, as he lowered the hat, fingering the slight indentation that ran just inside the edge of the crown. “Four, five? He must have bought more than one over the years, but I really only remember that one instance.”
Again, the memory rose like a snapshot, and Jeff stopped for a moment to savor it.
“Brr! It’s cold!” teenaged Jeff complained as he followed his father into the echoing aluminum pole barn they called a garage. He looked up as the walls shook and boomed, buffeted by the strong storm winds. “What a time for a blizzard!”
“We can’t choose the weather, Jeff. We’ve got to get the plow on the tractor, and do it now, before it gets dark,” Grant said, glancing up at the hanging fluorescent lights as they swung slightly in the cavernous room. “I don’t suppose we’ll have power for much longer. Then we’ll have to fire up the generator to provide electricity for the house…”
“But not the garage,” Jeff said, finishing his father’s sentence.
“Right,” Grant replied, nodding. “Let’s get to work.”
Father and son worked side by side, lifting the heavy plow with block and tackle then fastening it to the front of the enclosed tractor. The cold numbed their fingers, and they fumbled with the tools, dropping them on occasion, the metal clanging on the cement floor, resounding above the whistle of the winds outside. Their breath rose as steam before their faces, and it became difficult to talk through chapped lips and jaws that felt frozen in place.
At long last, they finished their task. Grant climbed into the cab of the tractor and started it up, making certain both that it would start and that they had connected vehicle and plow blade correctly. They had; the blade moved up and down, back and forth, as it should.
“Okay, son. Let’s get back to the house. I could use a cup of hot coffee,” Grant said as he wound his wool scarf around his neck and lower face.
“So could I,” Jeff agreed, pulling his close-fitting knit cap down around his ears. He was puzzled as to why his father hadn’t put on something warmer than his usual leather hat. He was about to ask, then stopped, and shrugged. The trek back to the house wasn’t far, and soon they’d be inside where it was warm.
“Ready, Jeff?” Grant asked, poised to open the side door and expose them to the wild weather.
Jeff tugged on his gloves. “Ready.”
They stepped outside into a world that seemed eager to sweep them from its face. The snow didn’t just fall; it whipped around them, stinging any exposed skin, making them squint through suddenly snow-laden lashes. The sky was darkening, both from the storm and the approach of night. The halogen flood lamps dimmed behind them as they advanced into the blizzard, and the only beacon they had before them was the warm yellow light over the kitchen door, where Eleanor watched fretfully for their return. Grant led the way, like an ice breaker, making a path through the deepening drifts for his slighter son, hoping to shield him somewhat from the fierce winds. Jeff shielded his eyes with a forearm, keeping them trained on his father’s back, following that dark mass and trying hard not to fall behind.
Suddenly there was a cry, and a movement to Jeff’s right, like a bird taking flight. It looked like his father stumbled before him and, for a heart-stopping moment, he thought two things in rapid succession. One, that his father had suffered some kind of attack, and two, that the lights had gone out. But no, there was still a gleam from behind, fainter than ever, but still marking the direction away from the garage. And his father still moved, trudging steadily through the snow toward the house.
It seemed like hours had passed before they reached the relative safety of the porch. They stomped the excess snow off their boots in preparation for going inside. It was then that he noticed the wet shine of his father’s hair under the porch light. He stared at it for a moment, wondering what was wrong with the picture, then the door opened and things fell into place.
“Grant!” Eleanor exclaimed as the two men stepped inside. “What happened to your hat?”
“Wind took it,” Grant mumbled as he unwound the muffler from his lower face. He turned to Jeff, who had pulled off his knit cap, making his dark hair stick up in all directions. “You okay, son?”
Jeff nodded, face still too numb to speak. His mother moved in to help him unzip his jacket as his father sat on the deacon’s bench and removed his wet boots.
Within a quarter hour, the three of them sat before the fire in the living room, hands cradling cups of hot coffee. Jeff took a scalding sip, then blew out a soft sigh.
“You gave me a scare there, Dad,” he said, looking up and behind him to where his parents sat close together on the settee. “I didn’t know what had happened when you shouted.”
“Damned wind took my hat, that’s all,” Grant groused. “Now I’ll have to order a new one. And I’d just gotten that one broken in, too.”
“Better to lose a hat than your life, Grant Tracy,” Eleanor said crisply. “I’m glad you had enough sense not to go chasing after it.”
Grant smiled slightly, and leaned over to kiss his wife on the cheek. “So am I.”
Brought back to the present, Jeff sat heavily on his bed and sighed. I didn’t lose my dad to that snowstorm, but to a later one when he had a heart attack while shoveling snow. Then the following year… I lost Lucille. He shook his head sadly. In a way, living out here has a benefit. There’s no snow to remind me of that terrible day.
He glanced over at his nightstand, where he kept two pictures. One was of Lucille, a candid shot taken not long before she died. She had complained that the picture showed off the few silver strands that had crept into her auburn hair. Jeff could never see what she was talking about.
The other picture was of the two of them, moments after he’d been officially released from WSA quarantine. It had been taken by his father and showed the still-young couple locked into a passionate, hungry embrace to the delight of the onlooking crowd. Another memory came to him and he unconsciously moved the hat to his chest, holding onto the crown as the images rose again in his mind’s eye.
The day was sunny, but not too hot. A good thing in Jeff’s mind as he and Lucille were sitting in the back seat of a red convertible, waving. An odd motion, that wave, more of a back-and-forth of the hand rather than an up-and-down. He had been told it be easier on his elbow joints than the traditional movement.
“I can’t believe it! All these people!” he told Lucille, nearly shouting in her ear above the cries and applause of the crowd that lined the main street of his Kansas hometown. “People must have come for miles around for this parade.”
Lucille turned and smiled at him. “Well, it’s not every day that a hometown boy is the first man to set foot on the moon in fifty years or more. You’re a bona fide hero, Jefferson Tracy. Now, wave to the crowds and look like you’re enjoying yourself!”
He laughed, and did as she said, smiling widely at the people who applauded them and cheered. Some waved American flags, some held banners that welcomed him home; it seemed everyone was excited and proud of him and his exploits. He knew it wouldn’t last; he’d been warned about the euphoria in his training and how fleeting it would be. But for now he intended to enjoy both it and the fact that he could share it with the one person who made his life complete.
Jeff scanned the crowd, seeing many familiar faces, too many such faces, and suddenly felt very self-conscious among these people. They knew him. He had gone to school with them, gotten into and out of scrapes with them, dated the girls, worked with their fathers. In short, these people didn’t only know Jefferson Tracy, astronaut and hero, but they knew him, Jeff Tracy, farmer’s son. His mouth suddenly went dry, and he held tightly to Lucille’s hand as the car slowly followed its escort of motorcycle riding state troopers.
The high school band was behind them, playing through their repertoire of patriotic songs. Before them marched a military color guard, made up of men and women from the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. He had been an Air Force man, a colonel, but as an astronaut in the World Space Agency, he was supposed to be above national military distinctions. Hence the mixed color guard.
As they continued down the street, Lucy pulled on Jeff’s hand and pointed. He leaned in closely to hear her say, “Look! There are our parents and the boys!”
Ahead of them, on the left, at the edge of the curb, stood Lucy’s father and mother. Her father held little Scott, a mere four years old, on his shoulders. He pointed to the car and waved, his wife waving as well, trying to show the little boy who was in that big red car. Scott looked around for a moment, then finally saw his parents riding by and took his fingers out of his mouth long enough to wave and smile at them. Beside Lucy’s parents, seated in a chair and protected by a wide umbrella, was Eleanor. On her lap she held a chubby baby boy, Jeff and Lucy’s second son, Virgil. She was bouncing the the baby gently on her knee, and when she realized who was driving by, she looked up and smiled, pointing at them and directing the baby’s attention to the people in the bright car.
Jeff tore his eyes away from his mother and sons and focused on his father. Grant Tracy didn’t look at his son and daughter-in-law at first. Instead, he stood at attention, his leather hat held over his heart as the color guard went by with the flag, his eyes watching it as it moved down the street. When it had passed him by completely, his gaze moved to Jeff and Lucy. His hat stayed over his heart, clutched by one hand, as the other came up in a salute.
It was a simple act, but it communicated so much. Honor, approval, appreciation, respect, love; all those feelings and more were wrapped up in that one gesture. Jeff felt his heart fill with emotion; his eyes stung with tears, and he swallowed heavily. Sitting up straighter, he raised his hand in a sharp salute to his father. He held it for a moment, then lowered his hand, and nodded. Grant returned the nod, and added a wink and a smile, then donned his leather hat again.