Doffing the Hat

Back in the 1960s, when I was a kid, I wore a dark gray fedora to church. Most adult men of that era wore them whenever they wore a suit, though the hat’s popularity was starting to fade. I know I wasn’t the only boy who wore a fedora to church, but mostly you didn’t start wearing hats until you were a teenager, and I must have been 7 or 8 at the time.

What I remember most about it was that it made my head sweat like the dickens, that I had to keep careful watch over it (it was so easy to leave it on the hat shelf of a coat rack and forget it), and that it made me look like such a little gentleman when I would raise the brim a tiny bit and bow my head briefly in respect when a lady (an adult, not a girl) would walk by. Oh, how they loved that! I didn’t doff my hat, exactly, the way one does in moments of great respect or seriousness or grief, but just tipped it as a sophisticated and respectful greeting.

I don’t think I did that for more than a year. The head-sweating and the fear of misplacing it made me give it up.

It should be noted that I have this Gigantic Bald Spot on my head, which I actually don’t see unless the mirrors are right, so I tend to forget about it. In spite of said GBS, I almost never wear hats unless I’m going to be out in direct sun for an extended period of time, which I try to avoid at all costs. I own two: a straw fedora with a quiet little Mickey Mouse logo on the band (one guess where I bought that one), and a cap—does one call them baseball caps if they’re not worn for baseball?—that a dear friend brought back as a souvenir from her trip to Alaska.

Men in rural areas tend to wear caps. At breakfast at a restaurant in the Deep South, where every human being seemed to be smoking, and they served grits, sausage gravy, and country ham that was drier, saltier, tougher, and more strongly flavored than I could have imagined, every male past puberty wore a cap. I found the same phenomenon at Vermont diners, sans the smoking and with a different breakfast menu. The insignias on the hats mostly advertised hunting supplies or farm equipment: tools, tractors, rifles, feed, seeds.

I never quite “got” the penchant for cap-wearing by rappers and their teenage followers, brims turned backward or sideways, sometimes over a dew-rag. Outside of rural areas and ballparks, caps always seem to look thuggish to me, but then again I am now officially an Old Fogey.

My cap is from McKinley Kennels in Talkeetna, Alaska. My friend proudly told me that she learned they were the only “all-lesbian kennels ever to run the Iditarod.” On the back is emblazoned the kennel’s wonderful motto: “Never trust anyone without dog hair on their clothes.”

I’m not sure what prompted me to look them up on the Internet after all this time, but this morning I found this sad note:

Talkeetna resident Keli Mahoney, 35, died May 28, 2003, as a result of an aviation accident on South Hunter Pass in Denali National Park. The rosary was said June 1, and a Mass was held June 2 at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Talkeetna with the Rev. Leo Walsh as celebrant. A celebration of her life was held June 2 at the Talkeetna Elementary School gym.

Ms. Mahoney (left, with partner LeeAnn Wetzel) was born Feb. 20, 1968, in Quincy, Mass., to Roy and Francis Mahoney, the youngest of six children. At age 16, she became the first female member of the Seven Hill Yacht Club in Boston. A private pilot at age 16, she was a certified flight instructor at 18. After completing a bachelor’s degree at Bridgewater State College, she began flying the east coast corridor for the TWA regional commuter shuttle in 1989, at age 21. Mahoney moved to Bethel, where she flew for Hageland Aviation.

In 1993, she relocated to Talkeetna. She was chief pilot for Doug Geeting Aviation for the 1993 and 1994 seasons. In 1995, she and business partner LeeAnn Wetzel began McKinley Air Service, one of only four companies in the United States owned and operated by women. Specializing in ferrying climbers to base camp on Mount McKinley and flightseeing tours of Denali National Park, Ms. Mahoney acted in the capacity of co-owner and chief pilot for McKinley Air from 1995 until the time of her death.

She was an avid dog musher. Owner of McKinley Kennels, she raced in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome in 1997 and 1998, placing as high as 30th. She also ran in the Yukon Quest race between Whitehorse, Yukon, and Fairbanks in 2001 and 2002.

An active member of the Talkeetna community, Ms. Mahoney was a member of the volunteer ambulance service and was a volunteer firefighter.

Family and friends said: “Keli lived her life to its fullest capacity. There was no boundary she felt she couldn’t cross nor was there a challenge too great for her to tackle.”

This morning I wanted to doff my hat in her memory, but instead I think I’ll just wear it to breakfast. Here’s to you, Keli.

Categories: Death | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Doffing the Hat

  1. indigobunting

    Wow. Fascinating entry. Thank you.

  2. I just found an article in the Juneau Empire about the plane crash. Very sad.

  3. I don’t normally make comments like this, but I couldn’t help it in this case. I live in Talkeetna right next door to where Keli used to live. Although I didn’t know her well, I do know she was very well liked in this community — and that she had a great smile!

    I wanted to pass on information about a song written to commemorate her. (Disclosure: Esther Golton, the performer, is the love of my life.)

    Thanks for writing your entry so beautifully. My hat’s off to you…

  4. Jim, thanks so much for posting. Esther’s lyrics are quite lovely.

    Any word on LeeAnn? Did she stay in Talkeetna after Keli’s death?

  5. First, a note on the writing. Superb. The opening and movement into the theme was extraordinary. So, too, was the circle back to the start. I am a fan, as you know, of such structure and it was presented here with deft artistry and incredible skill.

    After reading this, all I could do was sit for a second. It was selfish. I wondered if, when my times comes, anything as magnificent as the last lines (“Keli lived her life to its fullest capacity. There was no boundary she felt she couldn’t cross nor was there a challenge too great for her to tackle”) could be said of me and, if not, what I could do about it now. Right now. Today.

    Then a thought: I had learned something from this woman, so far away, whom I had not met and had never heard of. How amazing that is. Of course, I’d like to manage that as well but I am delighted that, over the span of thousands of miles, Keli managed that for me.

    I am thankful for that. She has my gratitude.

    As do you.

    Thank you for bringing this to me.

  6. Craig,

    LeeAnn lives in, I believe, Fairbanks now. She comes to visit Talkeetna regularly though and I think may have a guest cabin in the area. She also has a wonderful smile…

  7. Donna

    Leeann is now a physician assistant in Fairbanks and still has some off those hats!

  8. Excellent, thanks so much for the update!

  9. Anonymous

    I only found this post because after 10 years we’ve decided to return to Alaska for our 20th anniversary. We wanted to go hang out on a glacier in nothing but quiet. Years ago Keli had told me there were places to do that. I went and grabbed my hat because I couldn’t remember or find the name of her company….and hence, I found this post instead. Sounds like a real loss to the community but at the same time a real example to us all! Now more than ever I want to come to the quiet. And I’d love get another hat from LeeAnn.

  10. Anonymous

    Lovely tribute! I have a friend who wore his “Two Babes and a Bird” cap all over the world until it was sadly lost in the Nile. I was looking to get him a new one for Christmas when I learned of the ending of the story. LeeAnn and Keli were, of course, the babes with the bird. Glad to know that many more than just my friend enjoyed their caps. Hats off to both babes.

  11. andy

    I flew with Keli in 2000 and had a great time. I have a mug that sits on my shelf overlooking the desk, and I have a picture of the plane hanging on the wall in my living room. It was a great experience. This year I took my 4 year old son up in a plane for the first time (he is obsessed with them!) and on a whim decided to look up McKinley Air Service, and learned about the sad story.

  12. Kelley

    2000, Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride, took the ARR north from Anchorage, got to Talkeetna on the prettiest day we had for two weeks. We were told it’s only clear 2-3 days a summer, so I got the bags while my wife ran across the tracks to get the first plane up from McKinley Air. never bought the cap, never bought the mug, but have pics of us throwing snowballs on the glacier, and of the blue in the crevasses, and of a moose looking up from the marshes as we flew back. THE BEST. Sorry about how she ended. Reminds us all that tomorrow is promised to no man. It’s why we volunteered to ride Fairbanks back to Anchorage that week in August. Gotta do it while you can.

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