Walter Bitner

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My Hat

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James River, Midlothian, Virginia, March 16, 2022 ~ click images to enlarge

This is my hat. If you know me personally, you probably recognize it: this has been my winter hat for about 35 years now. I bought it from a boutique in Asheville, North Carolina around 1987, give or take a year. My wife has one too, which we bought in the same store at the same time. Hers is white, mine is black. They are both made of wool, although her hat is softer than mine.

It is incredibly warm, and it fits my (big) head very comfortably, which is why I have never wanted, or worn, a different winter hat.

My Hat

It is a pakol, a men’s hat from Central Asia that has been part of traditional dress in that part of the world for more than two thousand years. Pakol are believed to have originated in Chitral, a town and district in Pakistan. Once a shepherd’s hat, pakol are now worn by men of all social classes in Pakistan and Afghanistan (and beyond) as an alternative to the more heavy and cumbersome turban.

At the time I bought it, Afghan rebels were generally depicted favorably by the U.S. press. I had seen hats like this in photos of the muhjadeen, who were engaged in a decade-long guerrilla war with the occupying soviet government at that time. I wonder how many remember that at one time, people in our country regarded the insurgents in this troubled land as heroes, as they fought against our mutual communist authoritarian adversary. By 1987, the Cold War was coming to a close, and the Soviet-Afghan War was winding down as the U.S.S.R. made their exit from Afghanistan. The Berlin Wall would fall a couple of years later in 1989, in the mid-1990s the Taliban would form in the power vacuum left behind by the soviet withdrawal. It would still be several more years after that before the U.S. would begin to wage war in the region after the al-Quaeda attacks on September 11, 2001.

Afghan muhjadeen, 1987

When I was in my teens and early twenties I developed a rather eclectic style of dress, did not care unduly about what was conventionally fashionable, and my wardrobe included a variety of colorful, handmade, and unusual pieces from around the world that I had found at import boutiques or arts festivals around the country. Actually I’m still a bit like this. The fact that nobody I knew personally had or wore a hat like this didn’t deter me from buying it – quite the opposite, in fact.

Also beginning around this time, I became interested in ancient and esoteric traditions including Sufism and especially the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. The idea of sporting exotic headgear like Gurdjieff and other hat dudes from fabled lands to the East amused me and appealed to my vanity.

G.I. Gurdjieff in Olginka, autumn 1917, collection of Thomas C. Daly

Hats were a ubiquitous part of the male wardrobe until about a hundred years ago. I have heard that one of the major causes for the decline in hat-wearing was the rise of automobile culture – it has long been customary to remove one’s hat indoors, and as it became more common for people to travel between indoor venues inside cars, it became less common for people to wear hats in general, as often it is not comfortable or necessary to wear a hat inside a car. Certainly one of the first things I do when I get in a car is to take off my hat, if I am wearing one.

Detroit, February 4, 2016

I have other hats, some which I have had nearly as long, including a couple of beautiful fedoras I love to wear when hiking in the mountains. But there is something about this black wool hat and the place it has taken in my wardrobe that qualifies it as my hat, if I have to narrow this category down to one item.

In fact, there are almost no other items of clothing I have had so long, and none that are still a regular part of my (albeit seasonal) wardrobe. I’ve had this hat longer than my wedding band and about the same length of time as my engagement ring. Besides these items which I never take off, I don’t think that there are many other objects that I have worn so much in my life, and none I have worn over such a long period of time.

Thirty-five years. Since I bought this hat and began wearing it I have gotten married, raised two children from birth to adulthood, began and ended my nearly 25-year school teaching career, moved from Florida to New York to Florida to Nashville to Virginia, spent fifteen years in formal Zen practice, learned to play the lute… all wearing the same hat when the weather turns cold each year.

I have an oversized head – every other hat I own fits my head tightly (or really doesn’t fit and is actually a little too small), and I always buy the biggest hats I can find. My pakol, however, is even more oversized than my head. It sits comfortably without squeezing over my ears: I can pull it down to cover them almost completely on very cold or windy days. It’s made from very heavy black wool, and I remember that when I first bought it it felt a bit scratchy against my ears. Now it feels softer to me, not scratchy, and I wonder if that is because it’s been worn in, or just because I am used to it? It’s not really very soft as far as wool goes – it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from Merino or Cashmere.

And it doesn’t look any more worn to me than it did on the day I bought it. (OK, maybe the color has faded a little.) One reason it has lasted so well may be because it was made for a life lived outside. Compared to the lives of those who invented this hat millennia ago, and all the generations who have been wearing hats like this for centuries, proportionately little of my life has been spent outdoors.

However, I have worn my hat through hundreds of hours of winter playground duty during the years I taught elementary and middle school in my twenties and thirties. Remembering them now I can almost hear the children’s voices scattered across the playground, in the yard or the woods as my breath makes clouds in the air before me and I stomp my feet on the cold ground, as if it will help to warm me up. At least my head is warm.

I have worn my hat on many a winter hike or walk through my neighborhood. I have worn it in rain, sleet, and snow. I have worn it on trains, planes, and in automobiles.

I hold my hat in my hands, in my lap, on my head as I write this. When I began to write it I came to realize how much my hat has become a part of me, how much it means to me. It’s a hat – an inanimate object. Yet it is just as much a part of the world as I am.

It has become like a key that unlocks memories, so many memories of moments I experienced when wearing it. I would be sad if were I to lose my hat, and I will miss it once the time comes for us to part ways, if I am around for that.

Today is the first day of spring, and I will soon be putting my hat away for the season, until the weather turns cold again in eight or nine months. I am looking forward to that.

Chinese New Year parade at Blue Rock School, 1992


5 Comments

  1. Gary says:

    Hey my friend! Just wanted to say hi. It’s been a bit. 🙂 Hope you are well. Gary

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. cmbitner says:

    Loved this!

    >

  3. Alanna Reid says:

    I love this. What a delightful essay. It’s rather cheering considering all the ghastly stuff that gets thrown at us these days. I have always enjoyed your articles. I teach the piano hence how I originally found you.

    May I ask, have you ever washed the hat? Did it shrink. I hope you keep it.
    All the best.

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