Thursday, July 10, 2008

Red Headed Stranger

When I was in the Navy, stationed in El Centro, CA, a bunch of us went to the Imperial County Fair one night to hear Willie Nelson perform. Much has been written about his broad appeal, and our squadron alone was evidence of that. Among us were hard-core metal heads, rockers, jazz aficionados, country fans, you name it. All of us loved Willie Nelson. Maybe the reason so many different types of music lovers love Willie is because he speaks to the inner misfit in all of us. We've all felt different at some point in our lives.

My friend Stosh was with us that night. His real name was Chris. A year earlier, when I transferred in to the squadron and was getting to know everyone, someone told me that "Stosh" was Polish for "a good man". I still don't know if that's true, but it certainly fit Chris. He was one of the best guys that anyone could hope to meet.

People were throwing their hats on stage. Willie would pick one up, wear it for a few minutes, and then toss it back out into the crowd. I was wearing the only cowboy hat I owned, a beat-up straw Stetson that was bent, ragged, and sported a bullet hole in the crown from my first time shooting a pistol. I was twenty and thought it would be cool to have a hat with a bullet hole in it. Stosh turned to me and said he was going to propose to his girlfriend. I congratulated him, but didn't really know what to do or say beyond that, so in an attempt to let Stosh know I shared in his happiness, I announced that I would toss my hat on the stage as a celebration of this new milestone in his life.

It flew onto the stage like a Frisbee, almost as beat-up as Willie's guitar, Trigger. He placed it on his head and left it there for a couple of songs, before taking it off and whipping it back into the crowd.

"We have to get it back! That's your hat, man."

What have I done, I wondered. Stosh was right. We saw the area the hat landed in and worked our way through the crowd. We found the couple that got my hat. They were in their early fifties, life long Willie Nelson fans, and weren't about to give it up.

"I'll take real good care of it, son." He was a big man, and looked me in the eye with sincerity.

There was nothing else to do. Stosh and I walked back to where the rest of our group was waiting for us. It's been over twenty years, and I've never owned another cowboy hat.

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