By Debbie Raney
The faded black hat hangs on the hook by the back door. Its band
is soiled, the brim so flimsy that it can no longer hold a shape,
and the crown is cracked and torn on the creases.
When he first pulled it out of the box, it was Christmas, 1965.
The 10x felt was so perfect, and the long oval was an exact fit.
It was the nicest hat he had ever owned. The black hat went to
BLM meetings and cattlemen conventions. It attended family weddings,
graduations, and funerals. During many renditions of the Star
Spangled Banner, he held it proudly over his heart. Once home,
it was always brushed clean and returned to its box.
After the year it poured rain during the county fair, he began
to wear it for work. Dust collected on the now weakened brim,
desert heat made the crown begin to crack and sweat stains accumulated.
More than once, it was thrown in the path of an angry gate-hunting
cow, and it fanned many bucking colts ears. The dog got hold
of it once, but it popped back into shape pretty well, and the
teeth marks werent very noticeable. The only time the black hat
was worn to town was for rush trips to the vet or parts store.
His grandkids soon began taking turns wearing it when they were
riding their stick horses. The first time that the oldest rode
the drag when the cows went to summer pasture, he let her have
the black hat to use. But, the next month, a brand new silver
belly was wrapped for her birthday, so she returned Grandpas
It wasnt used much after that; it only came off the hook to go
fishing, or during bad rain storms. The black hat was beyond damaging,
and it couldnt get any uglier.
When he had his heart attack he couldnt help on the ranch any
more. He had to content himself with sitting in his chair, watching
out the window. Every morning, though, he would pull the beaten
up black hat off the hook and place it on his greyed head. The
wear and tear reminded him of his past.
It has been over a year since the black hat has been removed from
the wall. His wife touches it lovingly each morning to get the
strength to face the day and every evening to help her make it
through one more lonely night. Soiled and flimsy, it hangs as
a tribute to the life of the man who received it as a Christmas
gift over 30 years ago.
Debbie Raneys grandfather, Fred Witzel, shown above, is shaded
from the Harney County sun by his weathered black hat.