For some reason I’ve never been able to work out, the John F. Kennedy Junior High School used to hold an “Hat Day” event. For a single day each school year, the draconian rules forbidding headwear were lifted, and students were encouraged to don their wildest choice of chapeaus.
Teen Andrew lived for moments like this, a time to cut loose and show off in zany ways which provided fodder for a fresh round of taunts and jeers from my classmates. Those complications were strictly long-term concerns, and therefore alien to my adolescent self. Tragedy tomorrow, Hat Day right now.
For my initial foray into the Hat Day festivities, I came to school sporting a WW2 Era M1-1-5 Optical Gas Mask flipped backwards on my skull.
The chemwar relic was one of a staggering number of bizarre artifacts that drifted down through the Weiss family over the decades before finally ending up in one of our toy boxes. (My best guess it that originated at the military surplus warehouse down the hill from the Weiss family manor, and was either purchased or swiped by my old man or uncle during their younger days.) It also came with a carrying satchel made of canvas fortified with an aluminum plate, which functioned as my bookbag up through my first year of high school.
The mask smelled like the guts of an inner tube and weighed a ton, thanks to the bulky filtration tank that dangled with bruise-inflicting aplomb. Wearing it, even backwards, for an entire schoolday was an ordeal but the stares and attention it generated in the halls made it a (literal) burden worth shouldering. For a single day, I’d become King Shit of Turd Mountain, savoring the envious glares of kids who’d thought Grandpa’s old Tyrolean hat or a Stetson left behind by their parents’ Urban Cowboy phase would earn them the crown.
Fifteen minutes before the final bell, the principal got on the school PA system to announce “this year’s Hat Day winners.” Winners? Nobody told me it was a contest. I was just doing it as a goof.
Mr. Tryolean and Miss Stetson nabbed third and second place, with the top honors going to “Andrew Weiss, 7th Grade.” Our prizes (PRIZES? HOLY CRAP!) could be picked up from the housemaster after the bell. What wonderful universe had I accidentally fallen into?
The prize was a six-pack of tonic chosen from the party stash. I went with Ramblin’ Root Beer because it was 1984 and they didn’t have any cream soda or Mello Yello, and I savored every drop.
I didn’t participate in Hat Day during my eighth grade year. My memory is a little hazy on the subject, but it either wasn’t held that year or I missed it during one of my many sick days. (Eighth grade was especially brutal for multiple reasons and I got into the habit of feigning illness whenever I needed a break or if important episode of Robotech was being aired during school hours.)
The final Hat Day of my middle school experience presented a challenge. As a former champion, all eyes were on me to outdo my gas mask stunt yet nothing suitably grand came to mind — until I spotted the remnant half of Fisher-Price “Little People” town playset that now served as a setting for our GI Joe battles. The process of transforming it into an actual “hat” was overseen by my craft-handy mother, who hit upon the idea of mounting it on top of a head-sized cardboard box with some spare speaker wire. She also helped me secure a couple of disposable action figures to appropriate locations and hit upon the idea of stringing up a wire-and-construction-paper laundry line across one of the roofs.
Even with all the work, the resulting masterpiece was almost impossible to wear and the stuff of severe neck pain. (It only occurred to me some thirty-three later that we should’ve fixed the liner of my dad’s surplus army helmet inside the box for extra support and the benefit of a chinstrap. Live and learn.) It also made a really tempting target for asshole classmates to twist sideways, blocking my already shitty vision as I navigated the halls between classes. (It did go better than the time I stuffed my head inside a Fisher-Price barn and ended up with a still-prominent v-shaped scar on the left side of my head, however.)
Did I pull off another walk-away Hat Day victory? You bet your ass I did.
The principal made the announcement, I went down to the housemaster’s office to pick up my score, and discovered that the first place reward had been upped to an entire case (four six-packs) of tonic.
“Oh, wow!” I said to the housemaster as I helped myself to twenty-four cans of lemon-lime and orange Slice.
“Oh, fuck,” I said to myself in the campus courtyard, as looked at the case of tonic, the oversized headpiece, and my shitty store-brand BMX bike.
Bringing the hat in on my bike had been difficult enough, never mind trying to balance that unwieldy object and twenty pounds of canned soft drinks. The art room where I had a personal work station was locked up for the day, as was the wing where my locker resided.
I ended up tossing all the cans in the pillowcase I’d used to transport the hat, then tying the improvised sack to the crossbar of the bike. With my satchel thrown across my back and the hat wobbling unsteadily on my noggin, I walked-rolled the half mile (across two busy intersections) back home. Fortunately, I was too preoccupied with trying to maintain my balance to notice the chorus jeers and mocking laughter from passing cars.
To this day, I can’t travel down the stretch of middle street between the school and Mishawum (mish-yoo-wahm) Road without having a weird out of body experience where I can see my scrawny, rat-tailed fourteen year old self wobbling down the sidewalk trying to simultaneously steady his overloaded bike and the Fisher-Price townscape on his head.
And then I wish there was someplace that still sold lemon-lime Slice.