“Uncle Pembroke’s Black Felt Hat,” Friend, May 1984, 30
Every time Olin Pinter heard his Uncle Pembroke’s coal-box buggy banging over the little bridge just up the ridge from his family’s sod house, the boy hooted louder than a lightning-struck owl and ran to greet his uncle.
Outside of a good meal, Olin reckoned Uncle Pembroke was the most welcome sight the end of a day could bring. The bearded, gray-haired wheelwright, who rode out from Livingston every month or so to talk and laugh and spend the night, always brought with him his magic black felt hat.
Following supper and some fireside talk, and maybe even a tall tale or two, Arthur Pembroke would ask Olin to fetch his hat from the deerhorn coatrack on the wall where he always hung it when he first came in. In less time than it took Uncle Pembroke to shake his head and slap his knee, Olin would be back with the tall headpiece.
He would plop down on the old bearskin rug in front of his uncle, his brown eyes glued to the strange hat in the dancing firelight. Olin would fidget anxiously as the stout little man rubbed his hands together, scratched his invisible chin through his long whiskers, and winked slyly at Olin’s father and mother. Then Uncle Pembroke would pretend to clean a dust speck off his gold-rimmed spectacles with his old red bandanna.
Just when it appeared that his nephew’s patience would give out, the little man would burst out laughing and reach into the hat. Olin would sit spellbound, as though the slightest movement would somehow jinx the flow of magic from the hat.
Almost anything could appear from the hat. Maybe, Olin reasoned, that was the best part of all—the not knowing. One time a real live rabbit was pulled from it! Another time it was a jar crammed full of jellybeans. He remembered the time a windup toy soldier that played music was drawn out of the magical hat. Once a fine china cup for his mother came out of the hat. The cup had come all the way from Paris. Even a pair of shoes with tiny gold buckles for Baby LeRoy had come from that wondrous hat.
How his uncle managed to get so many different things out of his hat was always a mystery to Olin. Before he ever took the hat to his uncle, Olin always checked it carefully inside and out, but there was never a clue as to what would soon materialize from inside it.
Olin had concluded that Uncle Pembroke was pure magic. In fact, Olin was sure his uncle could make anything happen that he set his mind to. He could turn a frown into a smile or a gloomy day into a happy one.
This visit, however, was to be different. When Uncle Pembroke’s buggy appeared on the little bridge over Sweetwater Creek, the look on the man’s face was as gray as his hair, and no shout was heard from the boy waiting quietly by the front porch.
“Father’s mournful sick, Uncle Pembroke,” Olin announced when the buggy came to a halt. “He’s got a graveyard fever!”
Arthur Pembroke nodded somberly. “I know, Olin. Doc Chamberlain told me as soon as he got back to town.”
“He’s out of his head,” Olin continued. “Mother nearly had to tie him down to the bed.”
The wheelwright put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and they started toward the house.
“You can help him, Uncle Pembroke!” Olin went on confidently. “I know you can. You’re magic. You can do anything!”
Uncle Pembroke stopped just outside the door and eyed Olin gravely. “I’m afraid there’s no magic in my hat, or in my possession, that can help your father, lad.”
Olin looked at his uncle with surprise. “What do you mean?”
Uncle Pembroke took off his glasses, sighed, and looked Olin straight in the eye. “It’s one thing to pull a rabbit out of a hat, Olin. Anyone can do that if they’re clever enough and their hand is quick enough. It’s quite another thing to snap my fingers and take the fever from a man, even your father.”
Olin sagged, and the near awe he had for the little man with the bright gold spectacles began to evaporate. His uncle sagged inwardly, too, as he beheld the boy’s faith in him flicker.
Uncle Pembroke turned away and started to open the door. Then he paused and looked back, his dark eyes misting. “I do know a kind of ‘magic’ that may help, lad. It’s a power far greater than my own, or even the doctor’s. It will take all of us together to make it work, if it is indeed meant to work.” He regarded Olin with solemn reassurance and motioned for the boy to follow him inside. Olin held back for a moment, his face reflecting his bewilderment.
The moon quivered in the heat waves that poured out of the chimney of the sod house, and the stars shimmered and blinked in the dusky heavens like a million fireflies frozen in flight. Inside, Olin and Uncle Pembroke were kneeling in prayer by the great, warm hearth. Olin shifted his knees. He, like the old man, had been on them for some time. Olin looked up for a moment. He could see his mother seated beside his father’s bed through an open bedroom door. She was wiping a cool cloth across his brow. Then he looked over at Uncle Pembroke. Olin had never seen him so serious, so humble and dependent on a power other than his own.
Olin bowed his head and started to pray again. Sure, he was tired, but how much more tired his Uncle Pembroke must be, and he had not stopped.
Morning’s crimson light splashed down over the top of the dark hills and flooded through the window. Uncle Pembroke stirred from where he had fallen asleep on the floor. He saw Olin still praying by the dying fire. The boy was whispering so as not to disturb his uncle. The wheelwright pulled his crumpled bandanna from his pocket and wiped a tear from his eye.
When Olin’s mother stepped into the room, the sound of the bedroom door closing behind her roused Olin from his fervent prayer.
“His fever’s broken,” Mother said, tears streaming down her face. “He’ll be all right”—her eyes settled on Uncle Pembroke—“thanks to you.”
Uncle Pembroke pointed to Olin. “It’s the boy who kept up the vigil with heaven, Polly.”
Olin blinked back his tears. “And it’s you who showed me the way, Uncle Pembroke.”
Polly, Olin, and Uncle Pembroke knelt together, and Uncle Pembroke, on behalf of them all, thanked a merciful God for extending the life of their loved one.
Uncle Pembroke would come again, and Olin would listen for the welcome sound of the coal-box buggy rattling over the bridge. He would run to greet his uncle, but no longer was it just for the fun of seeing him make magic pop out of his black felt hat. It was more for the pure joy of seeing the wheelwright himself—and for the memory he brought of a power he had helped Olin discover, a power that could lift a man or boy to heaven.