July 26: “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” by Elizabeth McCracken

Hello, Story366! It’s Tuesday, meaning I’ve been back from Cub Scout camp for three days now, exactly as long as I was at Cub Scout camp, so it’s probably time to move on from that topic after today. My heat rash is gone, the horrendous whatever-bite on my arm has leveled, and I don’t feel like I have ants all over me any more. Any weight I lost from the limited meals, no snacking, drinking lots of water, hiking over five miles a day, and sweating my nads off has come back, my terrible eating habits catching up with me and bringing friends.

Since I’ve been talking Cub Scouts the last several days, I want to end that topic with my thoughts on Scouting in general. As a kid, I was a member of Cub Scouts, going the full way and earning the Arrow of Light (what my son is working on this year), and made it through three years of Boy Scouts, to the First Class rank before my troop disbanded; basically, none of the guys, including me, wanted to take Scouting into high school, which was not a popular thing where I grew up (though it’s much more in fashion here). I didn’t think about Scouting for decades then, aside from some lingering regrets that I didn’t get to Eagle, not until my own son got into first grade and we saw the flier for a sign-up meeting at his school. Since I enjoyed Scouts and my son wasn’t involved in any activities—we’d just moved to Missouri and he absolutely hates sports—I was sold on Cub Scouts as the thing he’d do in his free time and that I’d be his den leader, what I’d do as my community service and bonding time with him.

I think it was Karen who pointed out a moral dilemma, something I hadn’t thought of: Boy Scouts of America forbade both gay Scouts and gay leaders. I’m not gay, and my son was six, so it wasn’t like we were going to have to lie or hope for Don’t ask, Don’t tell. But what about the philosophy behind it? Karen and I decided to look into it.

The anti-gay stance that the BSA took at that time—2012—seemed to be based on both its fear of child molestation cases (which, of course, they were wrongly conflating with being gay) and their roots as a church-based organization, an organization that sees more than half its units sponsored by Baptist churches. On moral ground alone, we should have run screaming; before I thought about any of this, however, I’d already been talking up Scouting and our son seemed very, very interested. Again, he wasn’t interested or involved with anything at that point, was the new kid in school, and hadn’t made a friend yet. We decided to go to the sign-up meeting, meet the folks in charge, and gauge what kind of pack they ran, what the leaders’ stances were. We attended one meeting and met a really nice guy named Todd who just passed out paperwork, then another meeting—at the neighborhood Baptist church that served as the pack’s sponsor—where we met everyone involved. We talked to other parents, we talked to the leaders, and in the end, we were pretty satisfied that these particular people in this particular group were not on board with the anti-gay stances of the BSA. The leaders had also noted that the BSA was working on this issue, were ready to make some changes.

We let our son join. I signed up for den leadership. The four families in our den, including ours, seemed to be liberal, sensible people. My son enjoyed Scouting. At the end of the year, the BSA indeed changed their stance somewhat—you might remember a few high school-aged Scouts being kicked out, just short of Eagle, after coming out—allowing Scouts to be gay, though not leaders. The Baptist church that sponsored us dropped us, dropped Scouting, immediately, but we found a new sponsor at my son’s public elementary school. The school is nestled in the liberal center of Springfield, just off the university, many faculty members in the neighborhood. The issue hasn’t come up again. As our son enters his fifth and final year in Cub Scouts, he’ll have to decide if he wants to move on to Boy Scouts in the spring. We’re tuned in, our eyes and ears open.

That’s probably the longest pre-story I’ve included so far on Story366, and maybe the most personal, but as I’ve been bandying the Cub Scout flag about here these past few days, I wanted my stance on this issue—which is extremely important to me—to be known.

I’ve read Elizabeth McCracken stories for a long time. I never had a collection of hers, though, but wanted to include her in this project, so I tracked down a copy of Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, out from Random House, which has a few stories by McCracken in it that I’ve read before. I glanced over the titles and read into the pieces to see if I could remember any—I could—then headed straight to the title story, which I hadn’t read, and settled in. I enjoyed “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” very much and will focus on it today.

“Here’s Your Hat What’s You’re Hurry” is about Aunt Helen Beck, an eccentric woman who travels about, from distant relative to distant relative, putting her feet up in the spare room for as long as the family will let her. When they’re tired of her, she moves on to the next third cousin, great nephew, or whathaveyou. In this story, Aunt Helen Beck comes to visit/stay with her nephew, Ford, whose grandfather is her uncle. Ford remembers his Aunt Helen from years before, or at least he thinks he does, but he’s a kind, family-centered man, and when he finds out from his cousin Abbie that their aunt needs a place to stay, he feels it’s his duty to take his turn.

Aunt Helen Beck heads to Ford’s house, and on the way, McCracken really focuses the narrative on building her character. I mentioned before that she is an eccentric person, and the author takes several pages to make this come to life. Aunt Helen Beck—who is referred to as “Aunt Helen Beck” throughout the story—has her quirks, to be modest. One practice she’s known for is writing long letters to long-dead relatives, which she dictates to the family members with whom she’s staying. She carries a coin purse, too, with exactly two pennies in it, which she never spends, a gift from her brother George just before he died at seven years old. Aunt Helen Beck is also abrasive with everyone she meets. She asks why Ford’s son, Mercury, is named Mercury, and when Ford tells her that his wife, Chris, likes planets, Aunt Helen Beck replies, “I like vegetables, but I wouldn’t name my kid Rutabaga.” She then rips on Mercury for his haircut, which makes his gender hard to determine. Aunt Helen Beck takes no prisoners, leaves nothing on the table.

Aunt Helen Beck reminds me a bit of the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” though she makes herself less a burden. When Aunt Helen Beck stays with family, she makes herself useful, making it hard for anyone to want her to leave. She cooks. She cleans. She watches children. It’s pretty clear, after a while, that Aunt Helen Beck isn’t just visiting: She has no place to go. Once, when Chris walks into the kitchen, she fakes a phone call that reveals this fact, gaining Chris’ sympathy. At this point, it’s becoming clear that Aunt Helen Beck, as big of a force as she is, is also vulnerable, more than just a whirlwind.

There’s still a lot of story left at this point, including two pretty large twists. I won’t reveal them—they’re too marvelous and need to be discovered on their own—but I was impressed. McCracken starts off her tale with a long character-building stretch and then turns that human loose in a story, a story I enjoyed as much as any I’ve read this year, with one of the best and most satisfying endings to boot. Get out and read this story.

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of novels and story collections, books spread out over twenty years. I’ve always admired her work and am glad I tracked down Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, as I got to read this great title story and a few others, too.

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