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Tom Clyde: The burning of the hat

The Labor Day weekend was a great mini-vacation. I didn’t go anywhere, just hung out on the ranch, but various branches of the extended family were here. We tackled a couple of big projects, hiked, biked, walked the dogs and just enjoyed each other and the place we call home. Somehow all the world’s problems went away.

The biggest project was cleaning out a barn. I had made the mistake of telling a tenant that he could store some of his stuff in one end of the barn. The house is so small it seemed reasonable compared to having snow tires in the living room. By the time they moved, the barn was packed full of crap, which they left. Two truckloads of paint to the hazmat place, and one dumpster later, we were almost able to reach the back wall. We got another dumpster. The only problematic item left was a huge deep freezer.

The freezer had been there for something like 50 years. It technically was my aunt’s, but she has been gone for many years now. It wasn’t running, but she thought it would be a great mouse-proof storage container. She had hoards of food squirreled around all over the place. I thought with five or six of us, we could just push it out the door and into the dumpster. No such luck. In addition to being kind of rusted to the floor, the thing weighs a ton. There is more steel in that freezer than there is in my Subaru. It wasn’t moving.

Of course the weight made us wonder what was in it. We are all dedicated “Yellowstone” fans, and while my uncle was no John Dutton, you didn’t want to get on his wrong side. The freezer could be full of the remains of former employees who showed up late for milking back in the dairy days, or the bodies of neighbors with fence line issues. Nobody was willing to open it and find out what was lurking inside. To get it out of the barn, I finally wrapped a chain around it and dragged it out with a tractor.

I have only recently realized that not all families ritually burn a hat on Labor Day. That’s their loss.”

When we pushed it into the dumpster, it rolled over and spilled. It was as empty as Al Capone’s vault. The only thing inside was a couple of bags of moldy sugar. But it smelled bad enough to lend credence to the dead body theory.

The high point of the holiday was the annual Burning of the Hat. I have only recently realized that not all families ritually burn a hat on Labor Day. That’s their loss. Every Labor Day, we sit around a bonfire and reminisce about the summer and all the work that got done on the ranch (and how little there is to show for it), and what a joy it is to be here with the deer flies and mosquitoes. My father started it by spontaneously tossing a sweat-stained, paint spattered, crushed-up cowboy hat on the fire and announcing that another season was gone to hell. So 60 years later, we still burn a hat on Labor Day.

It’s a big deal, and there are protocols involved that would make the Catholic Church envious. It’s on par with Christmas. This year was different. I’m responsible for the selection of the hat, mostly because I do all the work on the ranch and usually have one or two particularly disgusting baseball caps that are in need of burning. But this year, there wasn’t really a hat I was willing to part with. Maybe I’ve been buying better quality hats, and they are all beloved vacation souvenirs. They wash up better than cheap hats used to. So there wasn’t an obvious candidate for the burnt offering.

Then it hit me. I had a straw cowboy hat that I never wear because it didn’t have any ventilation in it, and the sweat would run into my eyes. Might as well get rid of that one, even though it was essentially new. From there, it was a quick step to deciding to have everybody write one of the crappy things that has happened in 2020 on the hat, and burn them along with the hat. So there you have it. It was passed around at dinner and everybody added something: Plague, drought, Trump, the cattle market, home schooling, working from home, a nephew’s cancer, riots, Trump again, police shootings, ski season, fires, smoke, loud motorcycle traffic all times of day and night, and on and on. A whole year’s worth of grievances (and this year had a lot to offer) duly noted on the cowboy hat.

And then, after the ice cream, it went on the fire and we all cheered as the flames consumed it all. For the first time since the world turned sideways last March, I slept like a baby. It was a wonderfully therapeutic holiday.

Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.


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