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“Green Hats and Camel Hair Coats” is a short story in three parts from a collection of essays I am compiling for future publication. Drawing from a childhood spent living in a tiny fishing community on the coast of Maine, “Green Hats” not only resonates with local homespun flavor but also provides invaluable God-centered life lessons I wouldn’t trade for the world. You didn’t ask for it but you are getting it anyway … I present to you “Green Hats and Camel Hair Coats”.
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Green Hats and Camel Hair Coats, Part 1

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Green Hats and Camel Hair Coats, Part 2

By Chris Carpenter Program Director

CBN.comPart 2

Where was I?  Oh yeah, the ugly green wool hat with matching pom-pom.  Convinced the hat could not dry out on its own in the oven due to a news report she had recently seen on acid rain (acid rain might contaminate future casseroles), my mother opted to put it through the washing machine instead.

Not only did the hat shrink about four sizes after a few revolutions through the spin cycle and subsequent tumble dry, but the pom-pom had now taken on the eerie quality of one of those little Hawaiian dolls with the crazy hair.  To be fair, you could also make a more conservative comparison to a chia pet gone wild to the exponential power of three. 

“I can’t wear this!” I bellowed in disgust after seeing the effects of warm air on wool.

“It will loosen up once you put it on your head,” my mother promised.  “Besides, the tighter it is the warmer your head will be.”

Ah, a mother’s wisdom. 

As I trudged to the bus stop the next morning with saxophone case in hand, I felt as if my brain was being slowly compressed into algae colored sludge due to the vice grip elasticity of my hat.  Was this some sort of evil science experiment being conducted by the entire neighborhood?  Nobody was exempt from my conspiracy theory.  Mrs. Hunter, my mother, even Mr. Woodcock.  Nobody. 

Now, I must admit my head was amazingly warm.  The only drawback was that it made me look like I had had a really poor face lift.  You know -- a nip and a tuck.  One eye now rested slightly higher than the other.  Imagine Phyllis Diller on a bad make-up day and you will completely understand what I am talking about.

Shortly after arriving at Bus Stop #7, my friend and fellow saxophonist Jeff sauntered up behind me.  For the record, he was in no position to make fun of me as he was wearing a denim jacket with an extremely pregnant looking Indian chief sewn on the back.  His mother and my mother must have been comparing notes in those days, because his coat had undoubtedly been put through the washer too.  All of the stuffing had shifted to the Indian chief’s midsection, giving the impression that he might deliver at any moment.

“Hey Bert! Did you bring your rubber ducky?” Jeff chortled, a vicious comparison between my ghastly pom-pom and the hair styles of Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street.

“No, I didn’t Chief with Big Stomach, you dog licking weasel.”

In case you didn’t notice, we were in our insult phase, something most adolescent boys go through.  Or at least we did.  Before Jeff could respond, we heard a screen door pump and hiss behind us.  That could only mean one thing.

“Top of the morning to you boys,” prattled Mrs. Hunter, who just happened to be visiting Mrs. Lindley, whose house served as a scenic backdrop to Bus Stop #7.  “And what a lovely knit cap you are …”

Her voice trailed off.  Mrs. Hunter was mesmerized by what remained of her handiwork resting snugly on my head.  Slowly her hand rose to meet my increasingly woozy noggin.  With a swift motion she yanked my cranial misery from its resting place.  It was like Mrs. Hunter had popped the cork on a New Year’s Eve bottle of bubbly.  My brain felt like it was spilling from my ears.  It was a terrifying feeling but the best feeling in the world all at the same time.  Sort of like riding on a roller coaster.  Have you ever felt like that?

“Great Caesar’s Ghost, what has happened to your blessing?”

“It looks like a squirrel got into some paint, crawled on top of his head and died,” Jeff offered.

“Shut up!” I shouted in a staccato-like cadence.  “My mother put it through the washing machine, Mrs. Hunter.”

“Why would she do such a thing?

I had no clear cut answer.  I either needed to tell the truth or quickly change the subject.  I chose the latter option.

“Why does my mother do anything?  For Pete’s sake, she heats flannel shirts in the frying pan whenever I am sick and then soaks them in Vick’s Vapo-Rub.” 

Before I could continue further with my tale of feigned misfortune, Mrs. Hunter picked at the greenish object of my wrath with her bony fingers.  This lady had to have the ugliest fingers in town.  Yellowed from fish oil and gnarled to a fault, her digits were actually legendary.  Before taking up knitting as a sort of retirement activity, she had been the fastest sardine snipper in the county.  Her exploits were local folklore.  It is believed that she could snip the heads off more than 1,000 fish in less than an hour, a record that still stands today down at the local fish processing plant.  In fact, she was once the cover girl for our local newspaper for her deboning wizardry.

Mesmerized by the abnormally hooked curvature of her index fingers, I heard Mrs. Hunter’s voice wheeze to me, “That is no way to talk about your mother.  I am sure she had very good reason to wash your blessing.  Based on your salty tongued answer, she may have been washing your sins away from such a frail existence.”

I always hated that … when grownups started talking to me in theological gibberish. Still do.  Not grownups per se, but the concept of juxtaposing language just to fit into the limited complexity of an average person’s theology.  Can’t we all be real and relevant in what we say?  Why do people see the need to philosophize in abstract, esoteric terms?  Couldn’t Mrs. Hunter have simply said, “God isn’t happy with that kind of talk.”  Instead, an 11 year old is forced to sift through the metaphorical significance or lack thereof, of someone who is expressing the finer points of his or her religion.

From behind me, Jeff pulled the conversation back into perspective.  He said, “Your mother heats up flannel shirts on the stove?  That’s weird.”

“I think both of you boys need to respect your parents,” said Mrs. Hunter.  “When I was  a young girl, I would never have dared speak of my dear mother or father in such a way.  How times have changed.”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Hunter caught both of us rolling our eyes at her suggestion.  Rather than just passing us off as a pair of disrespectful, snot nosed  kids, she decided that she would make an example of us in her own special way.  As she handed my green tether-balled hat back to me, I couldn’t help but notice her eying my saxophone case inquisitively.  It was hard to tell though because she had a funny eye.  You know the type of person, always looking at you but talking to someone else.  For all I knew, she could have been looking at Mrs. Lindley’s mailbox beside me.  How the lady could even knit or snip sardines was a marvel of modern science.

“Why don’t you take out your saxophones and play me a song?” asked Mrs. Hunter.

I looked at Jeff.  He looked back at me in wide eyed wonder.  Tugging my hat back into place (doing so pulled at least three years off my life), I couldn’t help but think how surreal the last 24 hours had become.  Being blessed with the hat, hiding the hat, lying about the hat, washing the hat, drying the hat, wearing the hat, peeling off the hat, actually defending the hat, now being punished due to the hat, all in a relatively short amount of time.  Now an old lady with grotesque fingers and a funny eye was asking my friend and me to serenade her with musical instruments at a bus stop.  Even as a sixth grader I realized the situation could not get any more bizarre than this.  But as you will soon read, it did.

“What would you like to hear Mrs. Hunter?” I asked, hoping the question would buy us a few precious moments until the bus arrived.

“Oh, surprise me,” she countered.  “I love old hymns.”

“Ah, we don’t know any songs about old guys,” Jeff interjected.  It should be noted, my faithful friend rarely attended church so the word hymn was a foreign concept to him. 

“Then just play me whatever you boys have been practicing lately.  That will suit me just fine.”

We had prolonged the moment long enough.  The flashing red lights of the school bus were nowhere on the horizon, so begrudgingly, we began assembling our saxophones.  As we twisted our instruments various components into place, Mrs. Hunter made herself comfortable in a lawn chair she had found by Mrs. Lindley’s garage door.  How foolish we must have looked … two adolescent boys, one wearing what appeared to be spinach on his head, the other sporting a denim jacket with a pregnant Indian chief on the back, playing a saxophone duet for an elderly woman sitting directly in front of them in a lawn chair at seven o’clock in the morning.

Almost bashfully, Jeff whispered to me, “What should we play?”

I snapped back sarcastically, “I don’t know Big Chief with child.  Let’s just play whatever is in the front of our music book.”

Jeff nodded in agreement.

So, with little pomp or pageantry we launched into a half-hearted rendition of “Hot Stuff”, by disco diva Donna Summer.  Very nice.  We were now playing a song glorifying prostitution for one of the grand old saints of my father’s church.

As we played, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sinful, dirty if you will.  It was as if we were showing Mrs. Hunter an adult magazine, the kind that sits high on shelves and comes in an opaque plastic wrapper.  Further abetting the lurid imagery floating through my consciousness, Mrs. Hunter was tapping her equally gnarled toes to the beat in a pair of open-toed pink slippers.

Making matters worse, Jeff had a bad habit of closing his eyes when he played a song he knew by heart.  As we launched into the song’s second verse, the image of my soulful counterpart’s half-lidded, free flowing style caused me to break out in a cold sweat.  Mrs. Hunter was oblivious to the devil’s potion we were brewing up for her.

Thankfully, as we closed out the second chorus, I could hear the distant rumble of the school bus making its initial approach.  I stopped playing immediately and took a slight bow as Mrs. Hunter clapped.  Jeff continued on.  It was if he had transported himself to another time and place.

“That’s catchy,” said Mrs. Hunter.  “What do you call that?”

“Hot Muffins,” I quickly countered.  “It is called “Hot Muffins” … sort of a contemporary version of “Hot Cross Buns”.

“Well, whatever it is, you both play it so well.  Are there words to it?”

“Yes,” said Jeff, oblivious to who we were talking to.  He had finally emerged from his stream of musical unconsciousness.

“No,” I shouted.  “I mean yes.  What I mean to say is that there are words but our band teacher doesn’t allow us to know them.  She wants us to concentrate on the music, not the words.  She believes it will help us to play better.”

Mrs. Hunter nodded in a knowing manner.

Next Week:  My entire perception of faith changes with the frightening slash of a knife’s blade.


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