As a parent volunteer, I was supposed to help our high school coach time the first race of the Maine ski season. He checked batteries in stopwatches as I handed out bib numbers - and checked out hats.
Growing up in the North, I remember winter hats as pretty standard fare. When I skated on a nearby pond that looked like glass and felt like concrete, I wore a long three-footer with a bell at the end. It kept my ears warm and gracefully trailed me as I glided across the pond. Its red-and-white stripes reminded me of a barber pole. That was my skating hat.
When I went to school in the morning, I wore a wool cloche that fit snugly around my ears with a pompom on top. If I missed the school bus at the end of the day, at least my head was protected from the whipping wind as I walked home. Those were the only two kinds of winter hats I remember.
Times have changed.
"I'm not wearing this hat for racing, mind you, only for skiing around after the race," one cross-country skier explained to me. "Of course," I said. I handed him a bib and gazed up at the Cat in the Hat. He was awesome. His tall wool hat was a stovepipe with a brim. We laughed. His teammates giggled. They informed me that it was just one of those fun and functional hats of the '90s.
Just then a ski coach from Vermont skied into view with a bearskin rug on his pate. He called himself the Mad Bomber. It was an outrageous furry bonnet that wrapped his head in warmth and distinction, complete with fold-up ear flaps. He looked ready for an air mission over the tundra. It was fearsome and bold, and I loved it. I'm sure his team could pick him out of a crowd easily. Maybe that's why he wore it.
Serious skiers change hats at the starting line. They drop the heavy rabbit face for a lightweight Norwegian cap that can easily be stuffed into a pocket when they warm up. The colorful jesters and belled fool's caps are thrown aside or left behind in favor of a skullcap or a snug fleece helmet. Baseball caps and visors are worn at the last race of the season in March to herald the end of itchy wool hats.
I've seen racers cross the finish line with knitted caps adorned with Viking horns, whirlybirds, braids and tassels, a bobtail, five splayed fingers across the top, and long, two-headed snakes that trail down their backs. It only took me a few races to get to know these racers, male and female - by their hats, of course.
"Oh, here comes the Grinch. Boy, didn't he have a good race time today! A minute better than last week!" I hollered.
He may have been Bobby Armstrong on the race roster, but by golly he was the Grinch by virtue of the hat on his head. I could never recognize these kids and their coaches at the awards banquet at the end of the ski season, when they were not in their race headdress.
"Hey, coach," I'd murmur, leaning forward. "Who's that blond-haired boy getting the 'most improved' award? Did he ski the circuit this season?"
"You mean Timmy?" he'd reply.
"That's Timmy? I didn't recognize him without his horns on. I mean his hat."
The rest of the skiing uniform has also undergone a drastic change. What happened to dirt-brown corduroy knickers? Classic red long johns? We had a friend who wore a ragged Army field coat that dragged in the snow behind him as he glided along the trails.
Nowadays, you frequently see one-piece unisex jumpsuits that are tight and aerodynamic. Blue, green, purple, with stars, stripes, and polka dots.
Meanwhile, gaiters are still the mainstay for protecting legs and keeping snow out of the ol' boots. They've held their own. But now these contraptions are also designed for your neck, and are cut large enough to protect your chin and lower face.
Hats have become more specialized now. It gets confusing. We have some for comfort, some for warmth, and some for self-expression. We have synthetic blends that were tested on the moon. We have fleeces that don't even come from sheep. I admit that those fuzzy ear warmers that look like headbands work better than pulling your cloche down over your ears at 4 o'clock on a January afternoon when you're walking home from school.
A hat with a drawstring top acts like a smokestack to allow excess heat to chimney up and off your head. And then we even have lighter and lighter hats that claim to offer better race results. Who knows? I'll have to look.
I discovered recently that hats and leggings are not the only winter wear that's taken a creative turn. My daughter had a birthday request this year in preparation for the ski season. She has an active imagination. I was ready. Could it be new skis? A new hat? New gloves?
Yes, she wanted new gloves. You mean those ragg-wool mittens or the gauntlets made of pigskin?
No. She wanted the new craze. The gloves that keep your fingers superwarm. The three-fingered ones. They look like lobster claws, or gloves for sloths. Two fingers fit in each of the two lobes, and there's a third for your thumb. I gave her a long look.
Ski season has now become lobster season.