The Folklore Project
Mousey's Red Hat
By Shawn Pitts
My good friend, Harold — known to most as Mousey — took flight for realms unknown last year. Mousey never really bothered to file a flight plan for this life, much less the next. He was always just flying by the seat of his pants, and that’s what I loved about him. Harold was living proof that the South turns out more than its fair share of peculiar personalities without even trying, and I say that with the greatest affection for both the man and the region.
Mousey did a little bit of everything — from working in a shoe factory to running a tire shop to building a makeshift golf course in his own backyard. But for the past 30 years he was most well known as the co-owner of a cultural institution known as Pat’s Cafe, for which he improvised the marketing slogan, “International Home of the Slugburger.” (Don’t ask: The Slugburger is a whole other story.)
The restaurant — actually more of a lunch counter — derives its name from Harold’s loving bride who was, and is, the brains, muscle, and public face of the operation. What, you might ask, was Harold’s role if Pat wore all those hats? Harold was the cultural historian, cruise director, and comic relief for Pat’s Cafe, if not the whole town. He had a razor-sharp wit, which he routinely employed as an armchair social critic and satirist. He was a brilliant storyteller with a vast reservoir of humorous and insightful narratives drawn from a lifetime of experiences that follow from simply loving people, which Mousey did with great gusto. All these services were complimentary with each slugburger, and his stories were essential to the enhanced dining experience at Pat’s. To fully appreciate this, one can only tell a story or two. Be assured, Mousey would’ve had it no other way.
One afternoon, Mousey came bounding into my office with two young people in tow. That wasn’t entirely unusual since he was a frequent visitor and loved to have company as he made his weekly downtown rounds. The young man I recognized immediately as a neighborhood kid about the age of my own children. The wide-eyed young woman I did not know.
Mousey was more buoyant than usual, as he introduced the kids, carefully unpacked their stories, and revealed his reason for bringing them to see me. The young man — we’ll call him Randy — had been on a cultural exchange trip to Europe. There, he met the pleasant young woman, who obviously had limited English-language proficiency. Despite the communication barrier, a bit of a romance had developed, and so, on holiday, the young woman — we’ll her call Olga — was visiting the States for the first time. The couple had landed at Pat’s Cafe for the cultural-immersion experience, and, naturally, Mousey intended to give them the full treatment. While they enjoyed slugburgers — undoubtedly Olga’s first and last — Mouse regaled them with local music lore and soon discovered Olga’s father was a rockabilly enthusiast.
This is where I come into the story. I had recently led a team that had rediscovered and digitized three previously unknown Carl Perkins tunes from an archive of local home recordings. Harold knew I had the material on my hard drive, and he had been the grand marshal of a month-long parade of curious local listeners who arrived in the afternoon — after Pat’s lunch rush — to hear the recordings. Far from being a nuisance, many in Mousey’s procession provided tantalizing tidbits of local information about the history of those recordings or valuable insights that pointed to other, more knowledgeable sources. But as far as I recall, Olga was the first international visitor.
I busied myself pulling up the Perkins files as Mousey concluded the introductions. The end of it went something like this: “Now, Randy is real interested in all the local music heritage, and Olga’s daddy is a big Carl Perkins fan.” That explanation would have sufficed for most people, but not Mousey, who continued, “It seems that Randy went on a study abroad trip, and it turns out Olga was the broad he was a studying.” Mic drop. Walk offstage. Mousey never cracked a smile.
If the earth had opened and swallowed Randy, I believe he would have been content with that outcome. But Olga, completely oblivious to sexist, American colloquialisms of the mid-20th century, just smiled nervously and said, “Oh, yah! Ha! Ha!”
On another occasion I found myself, a third-rate community scholar with an agenda, attending a gathering of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in rural Mississippi with Mousey, a first-rate Southern eccentric with exactly zero restraint. I ask you, what could go wrong?
I was a local coordinator for the Tennessee Civil War Trails project, which involved, among other duties, finding financial sponsors for a number of interpretive wayside markers. In that capacity, I had been invited to an SCV meeting to make a pitch for the program. When Mouse heard I was going, he virtually begged me to let him tag along, and I reluctantly consented. I did so partly because I didn’t know what to expect at an SCV meeting, and the thought of a wingman — even one such as Mousey — gave me some comfort.
Even so, the whole ride to the meeting consisted of me preemptively thwarting trouble by warning Mousey to keep his mouth shut no matter what happened. This was unnecessary paranoia on my part, but in my defense, Mousey wasn’t exactly sympathetic, much less sentimental, about The Lost Cause, and he never had a functioning filter. Intentionally merging latter-day rebels obsessed with maintaining the dignity of Confederate heritage, and Mousey, who detested elitism in all its forms, felt a little like an invitation to see the elephant for the first time — to borrow an appropriate period phase.
Though there were several tense moments during the meeting when I stared Mousey down, he behaved well enough, and the program, to our surprise, was really quite engaging. An extremely knowledgeable Civil War reenactor offered an informative presentation on the day-to-day lives of period cavalrymen. He spent a great deal of time discussing human hardships and depredations rather than the gallantry and pageantry of war, which I might have expected at such a gathering. He even compared estimated average body-mass figures for the soldiers at enlistment and discharge to emphasis the dramatic physical toll of long, sleepless hours in the saddle, foraging for a subsistence diet. The horses, of course, had it even worse.
It was during the Q&A that everything threatened to go south, if you’ll pardon the pun. One of the Sons asked the presenter, with a straight face, where the cavalrymen could possibly pack all that forage to feed themselves and their mounts while constantly on the move. My heart skipped a beat, and I immediately shot a glance at Harold, who was visibly on the brink of ungovernable mirth. He squirmed in his seat. He wiped away tears. He bit his tongue. He blew his nose in his napkin. Nobody else flinched. Through herculean effort, Mousey managed to stifle the guffaw straining at the back of his throat as the presenter patiently explained the verb, to forage. It was a close call, but we got out of there without incident — or a financial pledge for the Civil War Trails project, I might add.
I expected Mousey to let loose as soon as we were out of earshot, but he was uncharacteristically quiet and contemplative on the ride home. About halfway, he asked if I imagined everyone in that room was actually a descendant of a Confederate soldier. I explained that proof of such pedigree was indeed a prerequisite for membership, as I understood it. There was a long pause while Harold digested that.
“Forage!” he finally barked with a wry grin. “I understand a lot more about how the South lost that war.”
Good lord, I’m glad we got out of there when we did.
Like everyone else who knew him, I have dozens of these stories, but one in particular seems to say the most about who this man really was. It’s a Christmas story.
One winter morning, Mousey casually asked me where he could find a red hat. Of course, I had no idea.
“You’re a hat guy,” he pressed, “I really need to know where I can get a red one. It’s important.”
But I was no help. A few days later, he came around with the same question. When I suggested that anyone can buy anything online, even fashionably suspect male headgear, he replied, “No, I’ve heard all about that internet identity theft. I’d get online and get my identity stolen and then there’d be two of me running around out there. The world just ain’t ready for that.” I couldn’t argue with the logic.
By the following week, Mousey was sporting a vibrant crimson newsboy cap. I asked him where he finally found a red hat and he deadpanned, “I didn’t find a red hat.” When I asked what that was atop his head, he replied, “a red hat.” Even though I knew I was being baited, I joyfully took it hook, line, and sinker.
“So, you didn’t find a red hat, but you have a red hat on your head. How do explain that?”
He set the hook and reeled it in, “I found a white hat and a can of red spray paint.” That’s vintage Mousey. He wasn’t kidding either. He’d actually spray-painted a hat, which might sound seriously quirky until you realize he’d done the same thing to an objectionably hued sofa on another occasion.
What Mousey didn’t say was that he had also inherited a fur-lined, red suit and matching cap from a relative. He went about town the whole month of December portraying Santa — albeit with a deeply Southern twang and the faint aroma of slugburgers — at children’s events and holiday gatherings. Much to his satisfaction, they even asked him to portray Father Christmas in the local parade. When he wasn’t in costume he wore that spray-painted newsboy cap and a matching red sweater as Santa’s official emissary to local children.
“Now listen,” he’d say, with a wink and a natural twinkle that would rival the Jolly Ol’ Elf, “I know the big man personally. You know who I’m talking about. And he’s a coming in just a few days. You can count on that.”
If Mousey sniffed out a kid whose experience said otherwise, he would ensure they had a change of heart come Christmas morning, even while Pat — playing Mrs. Claus to Harold’s Santa — headed a local effort to collect supplies, lifesaving water filters, and choice Christmas treats for impoverished third world children. Seems to me we could use a little more of that kind of thing just now.
I regret that I missed Harold’s down-home political commentary, wit, and wisdom during the last election. He would have had plenty to say about our current state of affairs. But my biggest regret, by far, is that the world is a little meaner and a lot less interesting without Mousey.
Anybody know where I can find a red hat?