Jeff and his sons

Jeff started, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. He suddenly realized how he was holding the hat, and lowered his arm, propping the hat on one knee. A glance at the clock made him get quickly to his feet. “I’ve been woolgathering too long,” he muttered as he put the hat on his head and left the room.

He passed through his suite and down the hallway toward the lounge, where almost everyone was gathered. He passed by Scott’s set of rooms, and slowed as a memory of another time he wore the hat came to mind.

June, 2047 – Scott

“So, how much farther to the campsite?” Scott asked as he trudged alongside his tall father, a heavy pack on his back.

Jeff shook his head and hooked his thumbs in the straps of his own backpack, hoping to ease the pressure on his shoulders. “I have no idea, son. You’d better ask your scoutmaster.”

“Hmph,” Scott groused, looking up the long line of fathers and sons to the man in the khaki uniform shirt who led them up the wooded trail. “It would take too long to get up there.” He gazed hopefully up at his father. “Would you ask him? You’ve got the radio.”

Snorting a laugh, Jeff shook his head. “No, Scott, I’m not going to ask. Yes, I’ve got the radio, but it’s for emergencies, in case anyone has to stop and would fall behind. Using it just to ask how much farther isn’t an emergency.” He reached out and pulled off Scott’s khaki Scout’s cap and ruffled his dark hair. “Besides it would sound too much like someone was asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ And you know how much that irritates grown-ups.”

Scott snatched his cap back and put it on with a firm tug. “Yeah, I guess so.” He looked up at Jeff again, squinting a bit this time as they entered a sunny spot. “How come we have to be rear guard, anyway?”

“Because I’ve had survival training, that’s why,” Jeff replied. He pulled off the leather hat, ran a hand through his sweaty hair, and gestured with his head at the line of boys and men. “Now, you and I are falling behind. Let’s get moving and catch up with the others.”

“Okay,” Scott said.

Jeff put his hat back on and lengthened his stride. Scott moved in front of his father, then glanced back with a mischievous grin. Before Jeff could react, the cheeky boy had jumped up, snatched the hat from his father’s head, and was off and running as quickly as his burden would let him.

“Hey!” Jeff cried. “Gimme back that hat!”

“Come and get it!” was the impish answer.

Jeff grinned, and took off after his son.

Jeff grinned just as he had years before. He came back to the present and found himself in front of Virgil’s door. He stopped for a moment and took off the hat, examining it once again as an incident with Virgil came to mind.

February, 2052 – Virgil

“Dad?” Virgil poked his head around Jeff’s open study door and knocked on the door frame.

Jeff glanced up from the reports he was looking over, his attitude harried. “Yes, son?” he asked, his eyes straying back to the computer screen.

“Can I borrow Grandpa’s hat?”

This caught Jeff’s attention. “Why?” he asked, looking up and frowning.

“I have to do a still life for art class, and it’s due Friday,” Virgil explained nervously. “I’ve got this scene in my mind and it won’t let me go. The hat is important to the scene. Can I borrow it? I promise to be careful with it.”

Jeff turned his eyes away for a moment, trying to think, but his mind was too full of the business he was conducting. Finally, he distractedly waved a hand.

“Sure, go ahead,” he said. “Your grandmother should know where it is.”

“Thanks, Dad!”

The obvious delight in his son’s voice made him look up, and still, he nearly missed the sudden, joyful brightening of Virgil’s face before the teen took off.

“You’re welcome, son,” he called before turning back to the computer.

On Thursday evening, he came across his artistic son in the den, working feverishly on coloring his still life. The hat lay on the knotty pine of the coffee table, with a coiled lariat lying beside it. Jeff wondered where he had gotten the rope. Virgil had also borrowed one of Alan’s old toy guns and holster, arranging those pieces to evoke a mood, one of nostalgia, of yearning for the old days.

As Jeff moved behind him to see the picture, Virgil became aware of his presence and clutched the sketch pad to his chest. He looked up at his father imploringly.

“Not now, Dad, please. I’ll show it to you when I’m finished.”

Jeff opened his mouth to cajole the artist into showing him the picture, then thought better of it. Instead, he smiled and nodded. “Okay, Virgil. Show me later, when it’s done.”

He was up and gone early on Friday morning, and didn’t get to see the picture until the night of the student projects exhibition. He had gotten home late in the afternoon, bone tired, and wanted nothing more than an early bedtime, but Eleanor had insisted that they go.

“Jeff, both John and Virgil have projects on display, and you need to be there,” she told him in a tone that brooked no argument. So he sighed, put on a tie again, and went with the boys to the middle school.

Sixth-grader John’s science project was an in depth study of the various heavenly bodies that had been photographed for the first time over the past year. Jeff looked at it with interest and pride, happy that at least one of his sons seemed to be following in his footsteps.

But it was Virgil’s drawing that truly surprised him. Not only had the young artist managed to capture the sense of nostalgia he had been working for, but the artwork had also been entered in a statewide contest, and had won first place in the middle school division.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Virgil?” Jeff asked his son, amazed at the blue ribbon attached to the framed and matted picture.

Virgil looked down at the toes of his dress shoes and murmured modestly, “I wanted to surprise you.”

Jeff laughed and put an arm around his son, squeezing him in a sideways hug. “And what a wonderful surprise it is! Congratulations!”

Jeff shook himself, and gazed down the hallway. Next to Virgil’s room was Alan’s suite, then Gordon’s, and at the end of the corridor was John’s. He stared at the far door, suddenly struck by another memory. Oh, God, Jeff thought as he looked down at the hat. John. That hot day… the hat. I haven’t thought about that for years.

August, 2043 – John

“Damn, it’s hot today,” Jeff complained to Lucille as they walked along. Jeff was pushing the stroller that held a sleeping, six-month-old Gordon while Lucy held the hand of a nearly-three year-old John. Scott and Virgil were running ahead, stopping at the next animal exhibit.

“I know, Jeff. At least Gordon’s in the shade,” Lucy said wearily, fanning herself with a brochure. They walked at what the older boys thought was a snail’s pace, for Lucy was pregnant with their fifth son and Jeff wanted to go easy on her. He was thankful for the shade of his father’s old hat, a last minute thought in the busyness of packing to take three active boys and a baby to the zoo.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Jeff sincerely told his wife. “I had no idea it was going to be so hot, or crowded here today.” He frowned and called to his older sons, “Scott, Virgil, get back here and stay close!”

The two brothers came at his call, but both were excited and anxious to get on and see all the animals.

“Mom, Dad, there’s a cool lemur exhibit up there,” Scott said, pulling on Lucy’s hand. “Come on!”

Jeff stopped in his tracks and faced his wife and sons. “Okay, that’s enough, Scott.” He turned his eyes to the food pavilion, a shady spot ahead of them. “Listen, boys.” He looked down at Scott and Virgil. “Your mother is really tired. So this is what we’re going to do.”

Within ten minutes, the family was sitting at a picnic table beneath the pavilion, out of the sun. It was cooler there, and Jeff left Virgil and John with Lucy while he and Scott purchased cold soft drinks for them all. They sat and rested, quenching their thirst, and finally the boys were ready to go again.

“Lucy, I’ll take the boys around. You stay here where it’s cooler. We’ll be back soon.”

Lucille sighed with relief. As much as she enjoyed the zoo, she was tired and hot. Both the shade and the chance to sit were welcome.

“Thanks, Jeff. We’ll be here.”

“Come on, Dad!” Scott said eagerly, pulling on his father’s arm.

“Just a minute, Scott.” Jeff got down on John’s level and put a knuckle under his third son’s chin. “Now, John, will you stay here and help your mother with Gordon?”

“I wanna go wi’ you, Daddy,” the little boy said, his lower lip trembling. “I wanna see the ellepants.”

“You want to see the elephants?”

“Yes, sir.”

Jeff smiled softly. “It’s a long walk to see the elephants, John, and your brothers want to walk really fast. Are you sure you want to go?”

John nodded, his eyes filling with tears. Lucy put a hand on Jeff’s arm. He turned to her, and listened closely as she murmured her opinion in his ear. He smiled, kissed her on the lips, then turned back to the tow-headed boy.

“Well, John, if you want to see elephants, then elephants you shall see,” he said. Taking off the leather hat, he swung the boy to his shoulders. “Here, put this on your head,” he instructed, handing the hat up to his now smiling son. “Hold on, John. Scott, Virgil, let’s go. Lucy, we’ll be back soon.”

“Bye, Mommy!” John called, waving to Lucy as the four Tracys left the shade of the pavilion and headed off to see the elephants and whatever else the zoo had to offer.

He stood there for a moment, realizing that the hat figured into a lot of good memories, ones that he should tell his sons about. But this isn’t getting me to the lounge now, is it? he said to himself. He walked purposefully toward the study but his step slowed again as the smooth, warm leather beneath his fingers brought up another slice of his life.

March, 2047 – Gordon

“Daddy, will you play horsey wi’ me?” The redheaded three-year-old opened the study door without knocking and stuck his head inside to ask his question.

Jeff glanced over at the tyke and said sternly, “Gordon, you know you’re supposed to knock at the study door, especially when it’s closed.”

“Oh, okay. I’m sorry, Daddy,” Gordon replied, looking appropriately sorrowful.

“I forgive you, son. Now, please let me get back to work.”

“Okay, Daddy.” The little head withdrew and the door shut with a muted bang.

Jeff started counting. He knew exactly what was going to happen. Sure enough, at the count of fifteen, there was a single knock on the door.

“Come in, Gordon,” he said, sighing.

The little boy stuck his head in, grinning from ear to ear. “Daddy, will you play horsey wi’ me?”

Jeff looked at him pointedly. “How do you ask, Gordon?” he prompted.

Gordon stopped for a moment, his baby face wrinkled in a puzzled frown. Then it cleared. “Oh, yeah. Be right back.” He shut the door again, and Jeff began to silently count.

This time, he only got to ten before the one knock came. “Come in, Gordon.”

“Hi, Daddy!” The boy smiled cheerfully at him as he stuck his head in again. “Daddy, will you play horsey wi’ me, please?”

“Why can’t you play horsey with Scott?” Jeff asked, hoping that perhaps his eldest could stand in for him this once.

Gordon rolled his eyes. “He’s doin’ homework.”

“What about Virgil?”

“He’s playin’ the piano.”

“How about John?”

Gordon frowned. “John’s not a good horsey. He always falls down.” He gave his father his very best impression of a lonely puppy dog. “You’re the bestest horsey, Daddy. Please?”

That little face looked so hopeful that Jeff was loath to turn him down. But he was in the middle of a reading a very important proposal, one that had a swiftly approaching deadline. So, against his better inclination, he said sadly, “I’m sorry, Gordon, but Daddy has to work right now. We’ll play horsey later, okay?”

“Promise?” The boy’s big brown eyes looked so serious as his smile faded.

“I promise,” Jeff said solemnly.

“Okay, Daddy.” Gordon sounded very disappointed and started to withdraw, then suddenly poked his head back in. “’Member, Daddy. You promised.”

Jeff nodded and smiled slightly. “I’ll remember. Now please let me get back to work.”

“Okay, Daddy.” The head disappeared and a hand took its place, waving up and down. “Bye, Daddy.”

Jeff couldn’t help but chuckle. “Bye, Gordon.”

He took the time to write himself a note about Gordon and stuck it to the side of his computer. Then he got back to work.

Before he knew it, supper time had rolled around, and Jeff still had a lot to do. He saw the note on his computer, and groaned. Still, a promise is a promise, he said to himself as he headed for the dining room.

“Hey, Dad!” Scott said, as Jeff sat down with the family. “Can you help me with my history homework? We’re studying the beginnings of space flight and I have to memorize the names of the first NASA programs.”

Jeff’s eyes lit up, and he started to tell Scott that he would, but a pair of accusing brown eyes farther down the table caught his gaze. He paused for a moment, and changed his tack.

“Sure, Scott, I can help. But it’ll have to wait a little bit. I promised to spend some time with Gordon.”

Gordon’s face lit up, and he beamed as Jeff gave him a wink. Eleanor caught her son’s eye, giving him a soft smile and an approving nod.

After dinner, Jeff went up to his room and pulled out his father’s leather hat. He traced a finger over its crown, then held it behind his back as he came down the stairs. Gordon was calling for him, and standing beside the three-year-old was his younger brother.

“Daddy? Can we play horsey now? Please?”

“Yes, son. Let’s go down to the family room.”

“Can Alan play, too? Please?”

Jeff gazed down on his sons and grinned. ”Sure, he can play, too. But one at a time, okay?” He pulled the hat out from behind his back and plunked it on Gordon’s head. ”Here. Every cowboy needs a proper hat.”

Gordon laughed with delight. “Grandpa’s hat! I get to wear Grandpa’s hat!”

For the next half hour, Jeff was a bucking bronco, rearing up from hands and knees, crawling around as his youngest sons rode on his back. Finally, he tired and flopped to the carpeted family room floor, where both Alan and Gordon fell on him for some rough and tumble wrestling. His knees would sting with rug burns for a day or so, and he knew his back would ache in the morning, but the sounds of their laughter still rang sweetly in his ears.

June, 2069 – Alan

The thought of him playing “horse” to his boys finally got him moving. He reached the study and opened the door quietly, sneaking in and peeking around the corner. Most everyone was crowded around Tin-Tin, who held a bundle of blue in her arms. Everyone but one; a little girl who was playing with a doll baby near the steps to the study.

“Samani,” he called quietly. “Sammy, come here.”

The child turned her face to his voice, her golden skin and tumble of black curls at odds with her dark blue eyes. “Ganpa?” she called.

He crooked a finger at her, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. She got up and went to him, and he whispered in her ear.

A few minutes later, little Samani toddled out of the study, the leather hat almost covering her eyes. She walked boldly up to her father and said, “Play horsey, Daddy? Please?”

Alan turned from his wife and new son, and his eyes widened in surprise at the sight of his daughter. “Hey, Sammy, where’d you get that hat?”

“Ganpa’s hat!” she said proudly.

All the occupants of the lounge looked up to see Jeff standing in the opening between the study and the lounge, leaning on the edge of the grillwork door, arms folded, smiling at the little girl in the battered old hat. He raised his eyes to Alan’s and the smile turned into a grin.

“Well, Alan? The child asked you politely. And she’s certainly decked out properly. I want to see if you’re going to be as good a horse as I was.”

“Why not ol’ Uncle Gordon here?” Alan asked, half to his child, half to his father. He hooked a thumb over one shoulder to indicate his older brother.

“Don’t you remember, Al?” Gordon replied with a grin. “Daddies make the bestest horseys.”

Alan snorted a laugh, and got down on his hands and knees. Gordon lifted the little girl onto her father’s back and told her, “Now hold on tight and don’t let this old bronco buck you off, y’here?”

“Okay, Unca Gordy.”

Alan the horse began to neigh and snort, timidly at first, then with more gusto as he got into acting the part. His brothers laughed, and his grandmother cautioned him to be careful, but his father just stood there and watched, grinning and saving up the memory, adding it to the collection that surrounded his father’s hat.

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