Hats Off to a Hat

Hats have never been my thing. I say this with considerable regret, as I love to see them on others. One hat from my past, however, reminds me of youthful glory and a career in radio that lasted less than 20 minutes.

The hat in question was made of straw. It was white with little clumps of flowers sticking out the front. Two wired clips on the sides provided some reasonable chance that the bonnet would stay in its intended position. The hat looked perfect with my new navy coat with white trim, purchased specially for Easter vacation in New York City. I was 9.

My parents took these school vacations very seriously. Time away from home and classes was still an opportunity to learn. Mother spent hours during long car trips conducting grammar and spelling drills. She had a captive audience for the uses of "lie" and "lay," "me" and "I." She read aloud poetry and mysteries and "The Wind in the Willows," always carefully positioning herself between the two children most recently at war in the back seat.

New York was a wonder to three kids from corn country in the Midwest. Taxis and traffic and tall buildings. We liked the museums and landmarks, but the best place was the automat. We wanted to eat all our meals there. Each wall had dozens of tiny glass doors that displayed sandwiches, pies, salads, and rolls. Put in a nickel or two and open the door, like fishing without a line.

One day we had the opportunity to be part of the live audience of a radio quiz show. I was seated on the aisle, curiously watching the pre-show preparations on stage, when a man with a microphone came up from behind and leaned toward me. "Mighty pretty Easter bonnet you have there," he said.

"Thank you," I said, glad my mother was near-by to hear the semblance of good manners. "Where are you from?" he asked. I glanced back to see if Mother was preparing to hurl her pocketbook at this crouched inquisitor. "Naperville, Illinois," I answered.

People in the adjacent rows were now focusing on this exchange, and I realized my voice was coming through the auditorium speakers. "Well, I want to ask you an important question," he continued. "Are there more red or black squares on a checkerboard?" I looked at him for a moment, and then with all the wisdom of my nine years replied that there are the same number of each. A burst of applause spread through the hall, and the man announced that my family would be the contestants on the show that day!

We were escorted to the stage, with a flourish of organ music that sounded like a carousel was starting up behind the tall draperies. After all the introductions, the show's host said, "That's a real pretty Easter bonnet you've got on, Ann. I wish I could describe it to the people, but I don't know what you'd call that. It's kind of like a little ... uh.... What would you call it, Barbara? You're bigger than she is. Describe that hat."

Here was my sister's chance to bury all past sibling grievances. I stood up very straight, white hat gleaming under the lights. I was prepared to bask in her compliments, but she laughed and said it was "sorta flat on top." This early challenge to my taste in hats may explain my reluctance about their future use, but for that day my hat had been our ticket to center stage.

The first questions were no problem for us on the road to the $900 jackpot. Two easy nursery rhymes about Simple Simon and Snow White, which I answered, and Dad knew that Harry Truman was the haberdasher from Kansas City who later became president. After these three questions, we had amassed $30, and the road to the jackpot was looking rather long. Time was up, and we were invited to come back the next day.

GETTING around New York was a little more challenging than it was in our small town with two stoplights. As we rushed through the streets on our return trip to the studio, I clutched my famous hat to my head until the unthinkable happened. A gust of wind lifted the hat and sent it in upward swirls down the busy thoroughfare. Dad took off like the sprinter he had been in college, dodging cars, bikes, and people walking. We didn't dare show up without the hat.

With rousing applause and carousel fanfare, we were welcomed back to the spotlight and what proved to be our brief foray into radio. The emcee began: "I'm glad you wore that Easter bonnet again. I fell in love with that hat yesterday." As he continued his beautiful-bonnet soliloquy, I hoped he didn't notice the smeared dirt and grease stain next to the squished flowers. Dad had overtaken the runaway hat as it slid under a parked car.

We answered only a few more questions correctly that afternoon, never nearing the name of the show, "Break the Bank." Our grand winnings totaled $50. But occasionally I still listen to a scratchy recording of our two days of fame, and I remember the thrill of my fleeting romance with hats.

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