Random Thoughts

The Tilley Hat

... a hat to keep forever

by Ann Robbins Talbot

My retirement trip was a journey across the North Atlantic on the Cast freighter Musk Ox. Dick and I chose this trip for two reasons. We had seen a freighter with passengers sitting on the deck at the Messina Locks in the mid-seventies. They waved to us and it looked like a great adventure. The second reason was a piece of advice – “Get out of town when school begins in September.” Perhaps we overdid it by jumping on a tramp steamer for a month.

From Montreal to Antwerp our traveling companions were two other married couples, two retired sisters, a nurse and an adventurous single lady. On the way back we picked up three people who had spent some time in Europe – a scientist, a retired English professor and a sweet man named George.

George lived with his daughter in Montreal. He was returning from a summer spent with his son who lived in England and transported tourists to Spain and Morocco. He had not shaved since the beginning of his trip so he sported a bushy white beard. George had meant to get a haircut in Europe but would have to wait until he got to his own barber in Canada. He was a beer drinker, loved pubs, but drank only red wine at meals because it matched his tie (which he never wore). George had a wonderful dry wit which was greatly enjoyed at mealtime. He spent hours at our favorite pastime, leaning on the rail watching the sky, the sea and the animals that swam along with us. He preferred the bridge rather than the bow because he didn’t like the spray. And George owned a hat which tied under his chin so it wouldn’t land in the ocean.

The deck of a freighter is no place to dress up. The smoke stacks emit a fine, black ash that sticks wherever it lands. The crew spent all day, every day, washing that ship. A baseball cap was no match for the wind. I often wore a rolled up kerchief now made popular by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. But George wore the perfect hat, a Tilley Hat.

Years later, I too own a Tilley Hat. I was drawn by the advertisement in a travelers’ catalog. Upon opening the box, I was delighted to see George’s hat. And the printing inside the crown reminded me of his wonderful humor. It says ”This is the Tilley Hat. It is the best outdoor hat in the world. It floats, ties on, repels rain and mildew, won’t shrink, and will be replaced free if it wears out. (Yes, put it in your will.) Ten-ounce, USA-treated cotton duck. Solid British brass hardware. Sewn with Canadian persnicketiness. Read and enjoy the four-page owner’s manual and the “brag tags”. Then phone or write for a catalogue of the world’s best travel and adventure clothing.” After the address of Tilley Endurables in Ontario is a line reading “Print your name and phone number inside the hat!”

And we haven’t even got to the care instructions: “ Wash your Tilley frequently; sweat weakens the fabric. 1. Machine-wash warm (dark colours: COLD)  Don’t use chlorine bleach 2. Reshape by hand 3. Air dry 4. Restretch over knee” All of this information is printed on a label which makes a pocket closed by Velcro inside the top of the hat.

And we are still not done with instructions because inside the pocket is a plastic bag containing a brochure containing the “brag tags”, amazing testimonials from Tilley Hat wearers including Sir Edmund Hillary who said “It’s a terrific hat!” One item is about a Hat-Eating Elephant. It states: “Elephant trainer Michael Hackenberger of the Bowmanville (Ontario) Zoo had his Tilley Hat snatched from his head and eaten by an elephant. Three times. Michael later would pick up his Hat, wash it thoroughly, and wear it. He had declined to accept a new one in order that we may have his well-traveled ‘Tilley’ for our museum. We are secretly pleased.” There are even directions for the plastic bag – “You might find it useful for storing a fishing license or a spare $10 bill in the crown. (In your case, perhaps, a twenty.)” signed by Alex Tilley.

The last quote also comes from the brochure which actually is a series of perforated tags to be given out to interested people. It is titled Privileged Information. “Most Tilley Hat wearers, and the person beside you is a prime example, are interesting people of sterling character. It is well worth cultivating their acquaintance! To that end, you’ll be pleased to learn it is customary to provide the giver of Tilley Hat procurement information with A WARM HUG, OR STAND HIM OR HER TO A DRINK.”

Every time I put on my Tilley Hat, I think of George nearly twenty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed making the trans-Atlantic freighter trip with him, and probably would enjoy Alex Tilley, too.  

July 3, 2008

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