A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


Our 12-year-old son Jonathan has always had this thing about hats.

I mean, he LOVES them.  He always has.  From the time he was just a baby he has been fascinated by them.  He loves to look at them.  He loves to play with them.  But more than anything else, he loves to wear them.  When Jon was little there were people in our neighborhood who didn’t know what color his hair was because whenever they saw him he was wearing a hat – usually the red, blue and yellow one that was his favorite for a long, long time.

On a breezy day when he was about 18 months old, Jon and I were walking along (well, OK – I was walking along; Jon was kicking back in a comfortable padded stroller, gnawing on a sucker and carrying on an animated and completely unintelligible conversation with every dog, cat or bird we saw) when suddenly, a big gust of wind blew Jon’s favorite cap right off his head.

“’at!  at!” Jon cried, reaching anxiously for his now-bare head.

I dashed (oh, all right – I lumbered) after the hat for about 10 yards or so, but the brisk spring breeze carried it more swiftly than I could run.  It was as if the little beanie had sprouted legs and was springing straight toward a busy highway.  And if it blew out there amid the onrushing cars, trucks and buses . . . well, I didn’t want to think about it.  And I certainly didn’t want to see it.  After all, hatricide isn’t pretty.

I turned back to Jonathan, who was climbing out of the stroller to go after his hat himself.  Thankfully, he wasn’t as fast as his hat, and I got back to him in time to catch him as he started to tumble out of the stroller.  But now I was faced with a parental dilemma: do I go after the hat and leave Jon alone, or do I ignore the hat and accept the tearful disappointment of my child?

I was so focused on the quick decision I had to make that I didn’t notice the truck that pulled to stop alongside the highway.  But I started to pay more attention when a bare-chested young man leapt from the passenger’s side of the truck, his shoulder-length hair whipping wildly around his neck and face in the breeze.  He snared Jon’s hat just as it was tumbling to the edge of the highway, then held it up, waving it triumphantly as he trotted toward us.

Jon was, of course, delighted.

“`at!  at!” he exclaimed, smiling more broadly than I’d seen him smile since . . . well, since we first bought that hat for him.  But I felt a little trepidation as the young man approached us.  He was tattooed and had a jagged scare on his face.  And there was this chained ornament dangling from part of his anatomy one doesn’t normally consider a prime candidate for piercing.  The first word that popped into my mind as I looked at the teenager was “scary.”

But there was nothing scary about the guy who crouched down to gently put the hat back on Jon’s head.

“Hey, buddy,” the young man said, almost sweetly, “did you lose something?”

Jon smiled, chattered something in Toddler-ese, and reached out to grab the dangly thing on the kid’s chest.  The young man played with him, then stood to receive my thanks.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” he said casually.  “I know how I’d feel if I lost my hat.”

I glanced up at the hat on his head.  The slogan printed on it was obscene.

OK, so maybe I can’t turn Jonathan’s hat-rescuer into a knight in shining armor.  But what’s wrong with a knight in dingy armor?  Although it is tempting to paint everyone we meet in bold colors of absolute hue, the simple fact is that most of humanity comes in various shades of gray.  Within all of us there is both good stuff and bad stuff.  The way I see it, reality doesn’t make our heroes any less heroic.  It just makes them more real.

And sometimes a little less . . . you know . . . scary.

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— © Joseph Walker

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