A hat on a man is a funny thing, but you want to be careful here, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Look closely and you can see two men: the man in a hat he wants to be, and the man in a hat he really is. Putting on a hat is like putting on a crown; you want to make a statement. But you always have to turn to the mirror to admire yourself and this is the moment of disappointment; you look a little foolish in a hat. You can either accept this and wear it anyway to keep your head covered, or you put it down and move on, holding out the small hope that there’s a hat out there somewhere for you, the one you put on and take your place among the real hat men. These are the men who can really wear a hat, the men who put on a hat and become a character, a character with a story.
As many hats as I’ve tried on, I’ve never found the one. They all reveal a slightly lunatic expression that lies just under the surface in me. I’ll pick one up and think, this is the one, this will be my hat. I pull it on, adjust the brim, cock it a little, and as I turn to look for approval I catch embarrassed smiles looking away.
My father used to wear a hat. After the divorce the only time I got a good look at him was in the photos next to his magazine articles and on the dust covers of his books. These always caught me by surprise. I’d be turning the pages of a magazine and there he’d be, looking out at me with his impish grin, but in a hat now, something he never wore when I knew him. He looked like he was trying to be somebody else, and I wondered, why would he want to look like this jerk?
First it was in Mad Magazine, without a hat. Then it was Playboy, with tales of his mythological childhood in between the pictures of girls. And when I wanted to look at pictures of cars instead, there he was in 'Car and Driver' telling stories about all the neat cars he had known. These were the places I’d go as a kid looking for what was cool, and there he was. He even showed up on posters around town every year announcing his show onstage at the local college. But it was on the radio, where you couldn’t see him that he was the coolest.
I’m eight years old, I’m living in New York City and my dad is Jean Shepherd and he has his own show on the radio. This is very cool. Only my dad doesn’t play music, he talks, and he tells stories late at night, but not really kid stories. I have this brand new transistor radio I built myself from a kit. He gave me this kit because I am his kid and he is in radio and he is going to teach me radio the way he learned it, by building them. It’s after my bedtime and I’ve got the radio under my blankets, along with a hundred thousand other boys with radios under their blankets, all of us waiting in the dark for my dad.
Ten fifteen every weekday night the hundred thousand of us tune in our radio dials, waiting for his theme. It’s driven by fifty thousand watts of clear channel AM power crackling off a three hundred foot steel antenna, little red lights blinking in the dark somewhere out in the swamps off the New Jersey Turnpike. A lone bugle calls the horses to the starting gate at the racetrack and the last note hangs there. A full orchestra leaps forth with two swift downbeats, then a few more to pick up speed, and we’re off. The clippity-clop of horses’ hooves taps out on a woodblock, brasses sally in with an oom pah-pah, oom pah-pah, and here come the piccolos, oh the piccolos, and glee is breaking out under blankets everywhere. Bass drums are thundering, cymbals are splashing, and the music is spinning like a Ferris wheel jumped off its moorings heading right at you. But behind the music you sense him silently waiting for his moment. The music backs off a little and he comes in, he’s raving like he’s in the middle of a story you’ve already missed, you’re straining to hear what he’s saying and he laughs as a surge of horns washes over him. The orchestra is listing now, it’s dizzy and it’s beginning to wobble and it’s time for him to take over. The orchestra fades away meekly into the distance and there he is alone, a man in the dark in front of a microphone.
He could take off on nothing more than a little scrap of newspaper from The New York Times that he saved in his pants pocket, a one-line Associated Press item they used to fill out a column to the bottom of the page. He reads it aloud and pauses, letting it settle in. He rolls it around in his mind and shows you the absurdity of our life here as summed up in this bit and you get it, you knew it all along. Now he’s warmed up and tapped into his mental current and it’s like his theme, it’s electric, and you have to hold on for the ride. For forty-five minutes he’s chasing his thoughts, unwinding stories, running down tangents and you’re wondering how the hell is he going to wrap this all together. Then the music tiptoes up behind him again, this time more urgent because his story isn’t finished. The music is trying to push him off the air and you don’t want it to stop, the orchestra is swelling behind him, the music is bearing down on the finish line and it’s too late. He quickly ties up the loose ends to the story he can get his hands on, the final crescendo comes crashing down and he’s gone.
Under your blankets you wonder what it meant. Flush with the excitement of the show I can’t just go to sleep. I look out the window at the street below for a yellow cab to stop, for him to get out and come upstairs to tuck me in. It never happened. He was always late. Hours late, days late, sometimes weeks late if he came home at all. He was a serial no-show act at our house. When I asked him why, he said it was show business.
Growing up you watch your father and you are looking at much of the raw material that you are made from, but you don’t know this yet. As his son you watch him take his turn on the stage of life and from your front row seat you put down his successes and applaud his failures. But when you take your own turn up there your performance will share many of the same uncomfortable moments, the smoldering anger at the world, the caustic mouth with a fast opinion, the casual pain done to others. Like it or not, he shows up again in you.
When I was thirteen he wrote out the Morse code for me on a yellow sheet of legal paper. This was on one of his infrequent visits to our house, more to pick up the car he kept in our garage for the winter than to check in on his children. He taught me how to practice the code in speech using the sound “dah” and “dit” for the dashes and dots. His idea was that I would memorize this code and the next time he came to visit he would test me on it. It wasn’t that we were going to communicate with each other using the code. It was a parlor trick that meant nothing to me, but I should practice this code and the next time he dropped in I could perform it for him. After he left, the paper got taped to the back of my closet door and I looked at it once or twice, but I never bothered learning it. He never showed up again either.
But you’re young and hope still bubbles up to the surface. When his first real book was published a book-signing event with him was advertised at the local university bookstore in my town. I went to see him, maybe fourteen years old, hoping for an acknowledgement, a nod, a smile, some friendly words from him in the throng of admiring college students gathered in a crowded circle around him. But as I nudge my way through the crowd to put myself in front of him, he continues to play to the fans, turning slightly to address those to his left, and away from me. I try to follow his turn to catch his eye but he keeps turning away, keeping me off to his side, focused on the banter with the crowd. I finally see the futility of this and in a flush of humiliation I struggle against the adoring crowd and out the door into the searing sunlight outside.
I stopped listening to his show. I never knew when he went off the air. Thirty years went by and every once in a while I’d try him on the phone. I’d always get an answering machine oozing with show biz cheer recorded by his last wife. She’d ask that if you were coming in from New York to be sure to bring a pastrami sandwich from the Stage Deli. Then one night there’s a report on the radio that he’s died somewhere down in Florida. It’s clear now there isn’t going to be that hoped for reunion that always lingered in the back of my mind in the realm of slim possibilities. There’s nothing to do but make a trip down to his house and see what’s left of him there, to try to catch a faint echo of him, like peering through a telescope at starlight reaching you from light years away.
The times I considered dropping in on him in Florida over the years, and I hesitated, put it off, what if he turned me away? That won’t happen now. Still, crossing over the bridge to his island it feels foreign, tropical and hostile at my approach. The palm trees on both sides of the road fill in the sky overhead, the storefronts are dark and there are no people on the sidewalks. I step on the gas and get out of town, onto a swamp of tall golden reeds swaying in the wind, warning me off and waving me on until I pass the entrance to his cul-de-sac and have to turn the rental car around.
A crumbling guardhouse stands empty at the gate. I pass through winding streets lined with expensive looking homes, well-tended tropical plantings and shiny foreign cars parked in front. Then there is his house, a hunched over gray wooden box. His lot is overgrown and brown palm fronds litter the yard. I park the car and listen to the silence. The windows on both sides of the door make a lifeless face looking me over. I climb the steps to his front door but before I ring the bell I notice spider webs knitted into the doorframe dotted with decaying insects. The doorbell is silent and the handle is frozen. Phone books yellowing inside plastic delivery bags are strewn around the porch floor. I go downstairs and around to the back, stepping over dead palm fronds on the white gravel path. Before climbing the back stairway I look up into the sun. Squinting into the light I see metal straps on the corner of his house and on the ground is a pole, a weathered gray aluminum antenna, a ham radio antenna.
One of the bits and pieces of his life that he left behind with us was his US Army Signal Corps telegraph key, manufactured for the army by The Lionel Corporation. It’s a slim metal reed suspended by springs and gimbals and mounted on a heavy block of steel. It’s gotten knocked around a bit and I’m not sure it could be resurrected into a useable telegraph key again. It sits silently on my bookshelf trying to tell me something about my father. This key knows him better than I do.
By the time your father dies you’re old enough to wear a hat. Middle age tilts you toward softer, warmer, and more protection from the weather. The winter my father died was a hard one and it seems like the dog and I were always heading into a wind. I had buried my father in my own mind a long time ago. Now he’s dead and the obituary writers pour forth with their praise of the long ago nighttime comfort of his voice, the hundred thousand lonely boys all grown up. And now he’s on the radio again, laughing in the dark. With the death of your father it’s clear the days of your imagined immortality are over.
Disappointment seems like a theme without words that plays often in the lifetime shared by a parent and child. As a kid you have an idea of what people are and what life is going to be, and you expect to be somewhere close to the center of your universe. But a much larger universe takes over; the center grows away from you, and the heroes stumble and fall down. One day you have children of your own and you think this is my chance to fix that world and spare them the pain. And that larger universe wades in once more. You see the old failures and flaws surface once more in their fresh faces and you see that character again, it’s so familiar and you can’t stop it. It’s not all heartache, there are pleasant surprises, but it’s always your genes trying to dig out from under that goddamn larger universe. Sometimes you look back on the woof and the warp of time from before your father to you to beyond your child, and you think, “Where could it have been different…”
When I was seven or eight I was taken to see him in an Off-Broadway play. I don’t recall anything about the show but I do remember being ushered backstage to see him afterwards, and he repeatedly asked me, “Well, how was I? Did you like it? What did you think, wasn’t I great?” After waiting a moment I came out with my new favorite line at the time, “What do you want me to do? Stand on my head and spit out wooden nickels?” I was pretty amused with that response, but looking back I bet it was like a knife going through him.
Winters come and go and when it’s time to walk the dog I reach for a hat. It doesn’t matter any more which one. I’ll look a little ridiculous in it, but I’ll be warm. The dog and I get out beyond the streetlights and I’ll look up at Orion marching across the sky. Sometimes in the dark I’ll think, “If I had just learned that code. . .”
© 2005 Randall Shepherd