(Reading time 7 minutes)
In the mid 1950’s, I was a member of the businessmen luncheon group called the “Noonday Club of Delaware County”, in suburban Philadelphia. Our members gathered daily, when convenient, Monday through Friday. The second floor of the large restaurant where we met was designed for banquets and private parties. A long table was placed in the center of the room for our group. It would seat about 40 people, 20 on each side. As each member of our group would arrive, the routine was to visit the cloakroom, hang up a coat, and place their hat on a shelf above the coats. We would then sit at the next available seat, in order of arrival. This arrangement prevented clique. It engendered variety in socializing, encouraged conversation, joking, laughter and exchange of levity among of good fellows.
As we gathered on this particular day, Clarence Olsen joined us. He was one of our very straight laced, quite dignified, 6’2’’ tall, C.P.A. members – a quiet and pleasant man. Clarence didn’t like to attract attention to himself. On this day however, he was different. He passed by the cloakroom, then slowly pranced completely around the long, 40 seat banquet table. He was wearing an outstanding, obviously expensive, new, dark grey Homburg hat. Completely out of character for Clarence, he made sure to attract everyone’s attention. All eyes were upon him.
After he strutted past every occupied chair, turning all heads of those seated, he stood at the middle of the long table and said, “Well, gentlemen, what do you think?” We all gazed at the splendor of the chapeaux, cheered and applauded. He explained: “I have always wanted a Homburg but never had the courage to wear one, nor was it reasonably affordable at a younger age. Well now, at this age of 60 plus, I can afford one and now feel it to be acceptably distinguished attire.” He removed the hat, explaining that he had bought it at Stevens Haberdashery, a local quality men’s store, which we all patronized on occasion. Clarence removed his Homburg and displayed his initials, stamped in gold on the hat sweatband, to make sure it could be identified as his. We acknowledged with uniform approbation. Satisfied, he then proceeded to the cloakroom and placed the hat on a shelf, as we all did before dining. After our luncheon, he left early. We believed it was to walk down the avenue and display his new elegance in his hat, cane and black wool overcoat with a velvet collar.
One of our more mischievous members in the group stood up and gleefully suggested, “I have a great idea, something I read about in the Readers Digest. We can all chip in a few dollars and buy two more hats, just like the Homburg that Clarence bought. Buy one a size smaller and one a size larger. We can have his initials stamped on the band the same way, ‘C.O.’ in gold. When he sits down to eat, one of us can sneak into the cloakroom and change the hat to the larger one, put it on the shelf and hide his.” They all agreed. We bought the two identical hats putting gold initials “C.O.” on the band, like the original. The Haberdasher was sworn to secrecy.
Clarence arrived again, a few days after and we were ready for the switch. We noticed he was admiringly his reflection in a large floor to ceiling mirror along the wall leading to the dining room, while still wearing his Homburg. No doubt about it, he looked great. After placing his hat on a shelf with the others in the cloakroom, he joined us in the dining room. He took his seat next to the last arrival, as was the custom. He was quiet as usual during the meal, but he casually mentioned to the man on his right that he really liked his new hat.
While we were dining, our mischievous member left the table and went into the cloakroom where he exchanged Clarence’s hat for the one a size larger. He switched the size tag with one from the original with a piece of tape under the sweatband. Now the gold initials were his, “C.O.” and so was the exchanged size tag, 7 1/8. After lunch, Clarence prepared to leave and went to recover his hat and coat from the cloakroom. We at the table thought he would never emerge. The hat being too large, surely dropped down to his ears. We discovered the next day, why he was so long in the room. He had folded up some newspaper, put it under the sweatband to make it fit, however loosely, for his way home.
The next day, Clarence followed his usual routine. He did not mention the hat incident, but casually questioned some other members as to what they had for lunch the previous day and did they notice anything strange? Grimacing to keep a straight face, everyone feigned nonchalance and claimed no aberrations noted. Enough said. After lunch, the scene was repeated but this time, our jokester removed the folded paper from the larger hat and put it carefully under the band of the original 7¼ hat. There was another long visit in the cloakroom. Clarence finally emerged, wearing his original hat, which now fit fine, but he had a seemingly puzzled countenance about him. The next day, our prankster replaced the original hat with one a size smaller, size 7, but with size tag once again exchanged to 7 1/8. After what seemed an eternity, Clarence emerged not wearing, but carrying his hat in his hand.
We were all concerned about the absence of Clarence from the luncheon group for several days. We decided to tell him about our joke. After a week of no show, we learned that he had gone off to visit a brother in Pittsburgh. On the visit, while out for a walk in the hills, he suffered a heart attack and died. We could never confess or be forgiven for our mischief. He was gone and we had two beautiful dark grey Homburg hats left over from the prank. The original size 7 1/8 and another size 7¼, both with the initials “C. O.” on the sweatband, for our dear departed friend, Clarence Olsen.