The Captain’s Hat, an original short story set in Mexico

articles Culture & Arts

David Roland

Captain's hatWhen the noisy group of American tourists surged into the cantina, Lancer knew it was time to leave. The “official” beginning of the tourist season was still a week away – but here they were, with their mangled Spanish and their loud demands. Lancer finished his drink and looked around for his hat.

Ah, the Hat. It was a fine old hat, a military officer’s hat with a thick lacquered bill that was black on the top and dull green underneath. The Hat had once been white, had in fact started out crisp and snowy, for it had been worn by a man who strode a deck and commanded men at sea. Sometime later, the Hat somehow found its way into the possession of a Panamanian banana-boat captain, who wound up giving it to Lancer. And under the Hat, Lancer had subsequently moved safely through most of Mexico and Central America, as well as Hawaii and parts of Europe and Asia.

The Hat was US. Coast Guard issue, from the 1940s or before – an old hat, mottled in several shades of light tan and a color not unlike the sandy shore of a river. The top of the Hat was also marked with sweat and dappled with human grease, and there was a small smear there that was most likely a bloodstain, though it was free of any other oil or engine grease. Its thick brim had a deep gash in the edge just over the left eye, and the brim itself was coming free of the band on the right side. The Hat’s wide band had faded from black to a spotted charcoal grey, and its interior was disintegrating. Close inspection revealed that one of the two well-tarnished gold buttons that anchored the cording across its front was not, in fact, issued by any U.S. military branch.

A hat like that could take a man anywhere in 90% of the world – in the backwaters and towns, on the wharves and docks, even in the mountains or upcountry outposts. It would take you anywhere that people recognized the strength of a working man, the slowly-earned benefit of labor and the wisdom such labor produced. In Central America, that place of rigid social convention and strict class distinctions, the Hat would identify the right wearer as El Capitán, an educated man who stood a cut above the crowd. It could indeed mark a man as a member of (if not the ruling class) that class of men who make their own destinies, who command respect without needing to demand it – men who are able to lead and gain and win. And to the thoughtful observer, the Hat also added another layer, signifying a leader who had been there, who had earned his place at the head of the group.

But the Hat wouldn’t have the same effect in America, or in the upper-class establishments of the big cities of the world, in the places where it only resembled a threadbare old hat worn by a slovenly janitor. And in Hollywood, where Lancer lived when he wasn’t traipsing around in other countries, the Hat would be merely an affectation, a prop for a poseur, a piece of costume intended to give the wearer an air of adventure or intrigue – unless the man who wore it actually fit the Hat, unless he looked as if he had worn that hat for years… in which case, he had marked himself as eccentric, and limited his travel to a very restricted social circuit, for the prime distinguishers in Hollywood were money and the show of style.

* * *

Now Lancer felt differently about the Hat than he once had. Alvaro, the Panamanian banana-boat captain, had practically fallen out of the bed of the pickup truck speeding along a mostly-paved road in the southern Mexican jungle. Don’t even ask what Lancer had been doing deep in the interior with two local hitchhikers so many years before, when he was a young man, when he still had so many adventures ahead of him. And don’t ask what had brought him and Alvaro to be sitting next to each other in the back of the rusted and rattling truck, bouncing through the upcountry jungles where gringos seldom went. It is enough to know that they were there, speeding along in the failing light, and that the man had been jostled almost entirely out of the scarred bed of the truck. Now he was hanging out of the truck by one leg, his head just inches from the roadbed speeding by, the tire kicking up gravel and small stones into his face while the others shouted.

Lancer had grabbed Alvaro’s calf as it passed him on the upswing, and he threw himself to the bed of the truck, holding on to that leg and hoping that he wasn’t doing the captain more harm by not letting go. The truck was finally stopped, after much yelling and pounding on the fenders and the rear window of the cab by the other hitchhiker. And the captain was hauled back into the bed, lifted up by Lancer and two grimy mestizos from the truck’s cab. Alvaro was placed precariously on the truck’s gunwale, where he angrily insisted that the driver turn the truck around and go back for his hat.

Later in the evening, in a small dirty bar of leaning corrugated metal overgrown with vines and half-buried by towering banana trees, over the empty dinner dishes and beer bottles, Alvaro had drunkenly pressed the Hat on Lancer in a fit of tearful generosity.

Lancer had smiled crookedly back and stuck the Hat on his head, all askew. In the morning, he awakened still wearing the Hat. When he left Mexico, he’d taken the Hat with him back to his hometown, and wore it around for a while, fascinating his friends with the tale of danger and daring. And, after another while, the Hat was accorded a nail in a prominent spot on his wall, where it resided as in a place of respect. When a year had gone by, it was just one more hat that Lancer occasionally wore. And so the years rolled on.

But when he returned to Mexico, or when he traveled elsewhere in Central America, Lancer always wore the Hat. On his single trip to Asia, he had taken the Hat with him, wearing it wherever he went. A man could go far in a hat like that one, quite far enough if you were in the right spot to begin with.

Lancer had found in his travels that he was treated differently when wearing the Hat, and that this single old and beat-up item opened the way for him in the back-ways of his wanderings. He liked that some men called him ‘captain’ when he wore the Hat, and when they did this, it always awakened a small fantasy of actually being a real Captain, though Lancer himself had never attained a rank that high.

Yes, you could go far in a hat like that – but you should be able to back it up with years on a deck. And Lancer hadn’t spent years on a deck, or in any other single place either, for that matter. He’d been a maverick, never sticking in one place for very long, never holding down a job for very long – a restless soul, unable to settle and relax. He’d worked decks in his time, but in a short time always traded them for the next adventure.

Lancer’s adventures, of course, always involved travel. Lancer traveled well enough, but he disliked tourists. Sometimes he felt a bit fraudulent in the Hat, like a man on his way to a Halloween party – as though his lack of deck-years showed or was important in the larger scheme of things. And Lancer sometimes felt that he hadn’t really earned the Hat, and he had grown to now suspect that he might not have earned the banana-boat captain’s generosity either. Lancer felt that the man hadn’t known him well enough for him to consider it the gift of a friend, and these many years later he thought that Alvaro probably later regretted having to break in a new hat.

Sometimes these thoughts bothered Lancer. He trudged around in the Hat, appearing to be a worldly and experienced guy going about some specific business, when he felt that in reality he was just another species of lost tourist – just one more traveler out of popular uniform, stopping in small cafes to write in his rough student notebooks the observations he hoped to turn into a book, taking snapshots of scenes he found interesting (he told himself the photos would be used later to augment the writing of physical descriptions). But the most difficult part of this train of realization came to its painful end when Lancer admitted to himself one day that he felt not only like a pretender but a travel snob, because he actually enjoyed looking down on those loud and ignorant tourists.

* * *

Many years later, on a bright blue-sky day in Mazatlan, Lancer was wearing the Hat while he wandered around a neighborhood far from the tiled sidewalks of the old plazas. He was looking at the old colonial buildings, decaying old structures still graceful and proud in a dazzling mid-day sun. As he rounded a corner, he came very close to mowing down an ancient white-haired man. Lancer pulled up short and made a shallow bow to the man, who wore an old but carefully-ironed white shirt with a buttoned collar much too large for him, from which his thin corded neck extended like a sunburnt plant stalk. He wore a pair of ancient dark wool trousers, baggy and a bit fuzzy at the seams. The man’s wrinkled face registered surprise, and by way of greeting, he said with a slow nod, “Capitán.”

Startled by the encounter, Lancer could only answer “Discúlpame,” before the old man turned and shuffled away. He was a block or two further down the unpaved street when it occurred to Lancer that he’d missed a chance to connect with the old man, to entertain him in a small but entirely human way. It didn’t bother him greatly that he’d missed this chance, and he soon forgot about the incident. It did, however, plant a small idea in his head, and so he was prepared the next time he had the chance.

Several days later, he was walking on the high sidewalk in el centro when he saw a man about his own age coming out of the farmacia. The man was dressed poorly in a frayed blue flannel shirt and grey pants gone shiny in the seat. He wore a two-day stubble and his hair was uncombed. He hobbled between two old and weathered crutches, painfully and slowly making his way down the street. Lancer stopped to let the man pass as he approached, but the invalid took one look at him and leaned back on his crutch. He put the other hand in the air the air as a flat-handed salute, while pinning the crutch to his body, crying, “Capitán.”

At this, Lancer straightened up, facing the man who tried to stand erect, but was bent and leaning on one crutch with the other hand still raised. Lancer gave the man a smart salute, saying, “Mi colonel.”

Surprised, the invalid grinned at him. Dropping his hand from the salute, Lancer continued, “¡Qué sonrisa! Usted va a ganar, mi colonel.” *

The man gave him a laugh, and seemed for a moment to be free of all his impediments. Lancer winked back at him and the two men shook hands. “Adios, Capitán.”

Lancer said, “Adios, amigo,” before going on his way.

And he never again regretted wearing the Hat, nor did he feel like a pretender. (And he even began to view tourists with a bit more generosity.)

* “What a smile! You must win, my colonel.”

Published or Updated on: February 1, 2009 by David Roland © 2009
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