The Day the Rum Hat Came Off

You visit a room often enough and it becomes impossible to separate the room, its “things” and its inhabitants.  So it was for me and my Aunt Meggie’s den… first in Woodbury and then re-created on the Cape in Chatham. 

As a kid, I loved Meggie’s house… the many small rooms, each containing special corners and hiding places… perfect ground for a young imagination.  No room captured me more than her den.  No room offered a better representation of my Aunt… art on the wall, figurines in the étagère, the furniture itself: Uncle Saul’s blue club chair, the thick couch, the Hitchcock rocking chair and a formal chair that no one sat on.  It was all Meggie.

Each visit I would find something new.  Not that it was new.  Just a new discovery to young eyes.  “New” because there was only so much that I could take in on any given occasion.  Sure I may have loved Meggie’s oatmeal raisin cookies… I think I loved this room more… the old fashioned globe standing in the corner, the tally desk with its multiple drawers (each one that had to be investigated), the Beatrix Potter figurines, the hat rack, the Lautrec poster, the Tiffany lamp, built-in bookshelves, a Sharp’s buffalo rifle (perhaps the biggest surprise to those who did not know of Saul and Meggie’s early days)… I loved it, particularly when the adults talked elsewhere, leaving me to explore the den and its possessions in solitary joy.

But at some point in the visit, Meggie would get comfortable in the den.  If Uncle Saul commanded the dinner table, Aunt Meggie held court in the den.  When I was a kid and the adults gathered there, “adult conversation” ruled… meaning: how cousin Roz looked like “death warmed over” because of her ridiculous diet.  Or: how Philophage the florist got a girl in trouble (I didn’t know what that meant).  I would try my best to ignore their talk… and rather busied myself with the miniature lead dinosaurs from the Peabody Museum that graced the lower shelf of the étagère.

It was only later… after Uncle Saul, my Mom & Dad had passed away, that I truly learned to appreciate that room, and the stage it provided for the marvelous stories Meggie could weave.  No one told a better story than Meggie.

My visits to the den in Chatham were usually motivated by a need for healing… to re-connect with firm ideas and secure emotions… what my Father would have called touching base.

On one visit, the hat rack called to me.  An old Yale football helmet (supposedly worn by Albie Booth), a nifty straw boater (retrieved from the Head of the Charles Regatta), a dusty Stetson (I was told that it was worn by Bill Hickock when he drew a hand of aces over eights), a freshman beanie from Union’s Class of ’71 (this was my contribution), a small mauve colored hat with lace trim (worn by Katherine Hepburn, if we are to believe).  And then some dumb non-descript porkpie hat that seemed out of place for lacking notoriety or a story.  Or so I thought.

I looked out the den window… storm clouds gathered over the Atlantic.  The sky deepened to a dark grey, the wind picked the water into white caps.  Aunt Meggie turned on the Tiffany table lamp which cast a dim glow to the room and its many artifacts.  She sipped her glass of tea and I contented myself with a whisky.

“Meggie… is that ugly hat new?  Tell me that Clyde Barrow wore it when he bought the farm!”

“That hat?  No, it’s not new.  Hardly.  Maybe it was too ordinary for you to have noticed it before.”

She put her glass of tea down, got up from the Hitchcock rocker, approached the rack and took down the mouse colored hat from its perch.  She brushed it… she held it to her breast and closed her eyes.

“This was your Uncle Saul’s.  Well… not really his.  But he ended picking it up off the floor.”

I took another sip and let Meggie’s voice lull me.

“Saul and I first met in Paris.  We were young and each of us had gone to Europe in search of adventure.  I was going to study dance and Saul was playing clarinet in a klezmer band.  What can I say?  We were young.  Paris.  Broke.  We fell in love.  We didn’t know from the Depression. Everyone was broke.  It wasn’t a special deal.  We lived in a fifth floor flat in Montmartre… from our tiny kitchen (a closet really) we could see the Sacre Coeur.  Those were the days!  Some of the happiest I have spent.  Young, in love… when a half baguette, some cheese and a bottle of red was a banquet!”

She put the hat back to its proper place and returned to the Hitchcock.

“Time marched on.  And Europe was getting ugly.  It was 1934.  Hunger in our bellies we could deal with… but what was taking place in Germany put a damper on our pursuit of art.  I had hurt my knee.  Saul’s band split up. That mishuga Hitler was Chancellor.  It was time to return home.  But we were broke and couldn’t afford passage home.  And did I mention that my parents, your grandparents, weren’t pleased that we were living in sin?” 

I think she enjoyed this part of the story the most. It made her feel contemporary… “living in sin”.  That’s my Aunt Meggie and Uncle Saul!  I just can imagine my Grandfather waiting at the dock in New York with a shotgun… make that a Sharp’s buffalo rifle!

“The RMS Mauretania was getting set to sail to New York on what would be her final voyage.  Saul noticed that there was an opportunity for couples to dance their way across the Atlantic!  Cunard Lines had the idea of offering ’round the clock entertainment on board ship.  A ‘non-stop dance marathon’ for the amusement of the paying patrons… a sizeable cash prize to be awarded in New York for the winning couple… and of course there would be some wagering that would add sporting interest to the contest.”

She got up from the rocker again… went to the bookshelf and fetched a shoebox… another item I had not noticed before, maybe it was also too ordinary to attract the curious eye.  Meggie opened it to show me a pair of red pumps with a low heel.

“I wore these shoes from Liverpool to New York!  Two days before boarding ship the Cunard hosted a ‘dance night’… the purpose was to give ‘sponsors’ a chance to see couples dance.  The sponsors would cover the cost of the trans-Atlantic ticket… and hopefully would have their investment returned in New York in the form of the cash reward… and of course there would be side bets as well.  Fifty couples were permitted on board.  We were one of the lucky ones.  Couple #12.  Our sponsor was Michael R. Sullivan… also known as Mickey the Cigar.”

She closed the box. “My Saul-ie… what a dancer!  He knew all the steps.  Which was a good thing… because we would foxtrot, charleston and waltz from one side of the Atlantic to the other… 10 minutes of rest each hour… and a half hour every eight hours.  And me with a bum knee!  But we danced and danced.  Our sponsors watched from tables that lined the outside of the dance floor… they shouted encouragement, words of advice and threats!  There were contests within the main contest… who did the best tango… who was the best looking couple… that sort of thing.  The wagering became quite heavy.”

She looked at the storm brewing on the Atlantic… my guess is that the storm didn’t interest her.  But her story brought her back to the day when she crossed that body of water… and she looked at the Atlantic in a personal way… as if it shared in her memory.

“One night… at least I think it was night, we were to have a ‘foxtrot contest’.  There was to be a $500 award for this contest, which by agreement would have gone to Mickey the Cigar.  $500 was a ton of money then.  Fine.  We were just happy to find a way to get back home.  Mickey took his seat at a table right by the dance floor… he wore this thick striped brown suit, a dark tie, brown and white spectator shoes and a porkpie hat… and, as you would imagine, a cigar gripped in his teeth.  We danced near the table, he raised his mai tai and said, ‘look kids, I’m wearin’ my drinkin’ shoes and I got my rum hat on… we’re winnin’ tonight!’ and he finished the mai tai and ordered another.  That was the first time I heard of a mai tai… some guy, Donn Beach invented the rum drink that year and it was the rage.  Well, we danced our hearts off, and Mickey downed mai tai after mai tai.”

I looked at my whisky… mai tais?  I think I’ve had one years ago… maybe.

“The judge moved through the dance floor, looking at each couple, making his notes.  One song after another, without pause. The excitement in the ballroom increased with each number… more wagers were being put down.  Folks were cheering and hooting… supporting their favorites booing others.  Mickey kept the flow of mai tais going… he loosened his tie and he was certainly ‘into it’.  We were into the last number before the conclusion of the judging.  And the judge was very close to us… Saul whispered to me, ‘he likes us, I think we’re going to win.  Just keep smiling.’  The Judge ran some type of dance studio in New York and he was always dressed impeccably.  He nodded in our direction and then turned away and gave the award to a couple from Philadelphia!  We were surprised.  But Mickey the Cigar?  He was pissed!”

Meggie shook her head and had a good laugh.  She took off her glasses to give them a good cleaning before continuing with the narrative.

“Mickey stood up and started pointing at the Judge, and then he shouted, ‘come here you dumb little faggot, I’m gonna beat the shit outya!!’ He made a move to go on to the dance floor, he upturned his table… he knocked over the table next to him, too… which gets other people involved, then he took his hat off and slammed it to the floor, ‘come here you little piece of shit… we just got robbed! Da fix was in!’  And the next thing you know there was a ruckus that spread to the dance floor.  People were shouting, fists flying… it was a good thing that we were coming to our half hour break.”

She just shook her head and smiled.

“We were near Mickey’s table, or I should say where the table had been.  Saul picked up Mickey’ porkpie, and we headed back to our bunks for a rest.  Saul intended giving the hat back to him.  But that was the last we ever saw of Mickey the Cigar: slugging it out with someone on the dance floor.  Years later we tried looking him up.  No luck.  One day I saw something in the paper about someone named Michael R. Sullivan being killed at Omaha Beach.  How many Michael R. Sullivans are there?  Lots, I suppose…”

“Did you win Aunt Meggie?”

“Win?  Saul and I did get married…”

“No, did you win the big prize?”

“Oh… that?  No.  The Philadelphia couple took the big prize, too.  We finished fifth out of fifty.  No money; but we felt pretty proud. Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times, Saul would look at me and say, ‘Doll, we’re top five stuff!'” 

I looked around the room.  And in the quiet of the pause, I could hear the wind picking up.  I looked for the old reference points of my youth.  My attention was drawn to the étagère and its lower shelf.

“Did you get those dinosaurs just to keep me occupied?”

“That was your Mother’s idea.  She bought them at the Museum Gift Shop, and gave them to me so that you would have something that was yours when you came for a visit.  She was sharp that way.”

“Sure.  Sharp like her Sister!”

“Oh… one more thing, Jimmy.  Clyde Barrow was wearing a fedora when he bought the farm.”

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