The heat index the other day was about at the level that Ray Bradbury might have used as a book title back in the 1950s, and I was longing for some way to avoid the sun. There's a closet upstairs with part of the vast household collection of baseball caps, and my hand fell on something out of the long-ago: the long-billed fishing cap my son got in New York City for his 16th birthday, 25 years ago this summer. He's in Idaho and I'm in Virginia, and it sure looked like a hand-me-up to me. Now most days that old black-billed cap helps keep sunlight off this old worn-out face.
I forgot we still had that cap. I know for sure it went to Europe with him once, and off to college, and I could have sworn it spent some time on his noggin down in Ecuador, but maybe not. The thing looks like it hasn't been out of the box long. But somehow it made it back home to Raleigh and survived a brutal move a year ago, when stuff went flying out every door and window of the house in our feverish race to get rid of Too Much Stuff. I never have found five or six cartons of books I meant to keep, so I have no idea how the fishing cap made the cut.
It's a genuine Abercrombie & Fitch fishing cap, with a bill at least two inches longer than any of the other ball caps hanging on pegs at the house, the barn and the shop. Well, genuine Abercrombie & Fitch to a point; the original Abercrombie & Fitch had gone into bankruptcy around 1977, and the store that David Abercrombie, once the chief surveyor for the Norfolk & Western, and a lawyer named Ezra Fitch had developed was no longer in business. The big outfitter's store on Fifth Avenue had closed up, but not before I had visited it in the mid-1960s when I had a summer job in New York City, and later whenever I was in town to cover political conventions.
But by the time John Betts turned 16 in 1987, a rival had bought up the Abercrombie & Fitch brand and had opened a new store down near the Battery, and it stocked a line of trendy clothes for the younger set. The trip to New York at 16 was John's big birthday present; we drove up to Baltimore and hopped the Amtrak for the city. We checked into the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th, home of the once-famous Round Table where the wits and writers of an earlier era, such as Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross and Alexander Woolcott, held court in, as one described it, "a vicious circle." My son's grandfather, on a business trip to New York in the 1950s, was to meet another textile executive from Greensboro in the Algonquin lobby, and failed to notice, as he read his evening newspaper, that sitting next to him was a clarinet played named Benny Goodman. His friend clued him in as they left the Algonquin lobby, and loved to rib him about it in years to come. But that's another story.
When we got settled at the hotel, I asked John what he wanted to do. "This is the crossroads of the world, and you can do anything you want," I said, or something mighty like it. I was thinking Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, the Bronx Zoo, that kind of thing. He said, "I want to go to Abercrombie & Fitch and then see the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie." Off we went.
At A&F we prowled the store looking for something useful. When he saw the long-billed cap -- shiny black bill on the top, flat black underneath, attached to a khaki-colored dome, with four ventilator grommets on each side to let off steam -- he had to have it; it would be just the thing to wear while strolling down Broadway and being awed by the tall buildings and hurried strangers. And it was, it was. And we went to see "Predator," then took the subway up to the Bronx and watched his New York Yankees whip my Baltimore Orioles. He cut quite the dashing figure in that long-billed cap. I was just happy it wasn't a Yankee cap, though if he'd asked, I'd have paid for it. It was a long evening, as the O's had little going on at the plate and less on the mound.
The next day I put him and the long-billed cap on the plane for a summer adventure and made my way back south, figuring that hat would blow off somewhere along the way and that's the last we'd see of Abercrombie & Fitch.
Happy to be wrong about that. It's still in the family, and still doing service. Turns out to be a dadgum good tractor hat and a pretty fair weed-pulling hat, too. The weather broke the other day and the well-traveled cap went back on a peg, awaiting its next shift.
But the weather forecasters are predicting another hot spell, and there's a 70% chance I'm going to need some shade. When that heat arrives, I'm going with the old A&F, yessireebob.