The Big Yellow Hats

Salinas Rodeo Hats

When my kids were little, they loved to be read to. My son was a dinosaur fanatic. I read him every book that came out – fiction and nonfiction. He could identify a pachycephalosaurus or an ichthyosaurus better than I could. I just had to look them up to know how to spell them. So, when my daughter came along and her tastes in stories led us to discover books like Curious George, I was thrilled. Yea, something funny and easy to read.

It quickly dawned on me, however, that Curious George was a little more mischievous than I wanted my children to be. The stories revolved around him getting into some sort of self-induced trouble, only to be rescued at some point by the Man with the Yellow Hat. I knew, even in my most lenient moments, that misbehaving children were no fun to be around and that swooping in at the last minute to save the day was not always possible and not a great parenting choice.

But, children do believe in stories, which often leads to a tendency to misunderstand reality vs fantasy. Doesn’t that happen to the best of us?!

Object example. The first time my daughter saw the big yellow hats near the Rodeo grounds in Salinas she asked me if they were the hats the man wore. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying close attention to her question and I simply answered, “Yes, men wear hats like those.”

“No, mommy,” she said. “The man. Curious George’s friend.”

Hmmm. There’s always a moment in parenting a child, at any age, where you kind of wonder how much to try and explain and how much to just let go. Because kids like to ask questions, and once you start answering it leads to more and more and more and more … well, you get my drift … questions. I was in that realm. I honestly can’t really remember how I answered but I do remember quite vividly being stuck in that realm many times as my children grew up. Thankfully, they’re adults now.

Recently, my daughter, who lives in another state, was visiting. At some point, we ended up on North Main near the trio of Big Yellow Hats and for some inexplicable reason I started thinking about Curious George. Being with my grown-up daughter makes me want to reminisce about her childhood. It’s not a behavior she embraces! But I took a walk on the wild side and asked her about the books.

To my great dismay, she told me that Curious George wasn’t even a favorite childhood story. She did, however, think that the sculpture known as “Hat in Three Stages of Landing” was really cool public art. Oh, they grow up!

She’s right. The hats were designed, in the late 1970s by the artistic team of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, who were also married, and installed in 1982 to great fanfare at a time when it was believed public art should be a part of life, even in smaller cities like Salinas.

For most of my time here in Salinas, though, the hats have looked like anything but art. They took a beating from the weather over the years, losing their brightness and luster. The shortest hat was just perfect for climbing, which many people did, adding to its worn out look. Instead of standing as icons of the area, years of neglect left them in a sad state of disrepair.

But much like Curious George, who was forever being saved in the nick of time, the three hats were rescued. Under the direction of artist Oldenburg and with funds from his foundation and the City, they were refurbished and restored both structurally and cosmetically in 2013. A new yellow hue was chosen and the trio of hats gleamed once again.

During the new dedication, Oldenburg provided a glimpse into his artistic viewpoint, “…yellow for agricultural sun, a saddle shape in the upside-down brim, a colander as a tie to vegetables.” (LA Times, 11/29/13, D. Marcum) An appropriate tribute to what makes this area hum.

This time, the Man with the Big Yellow Hats once again ruled the day.

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