This tale of Franklin’s hat was told to me by an old raccoon.
Once, on a rainy and windy autumn evening I was sitting and battling my boredom by browsing through a book – an illustrated biography of Benjamin Franklin.
Suddenly I heard an unfamiliar sound on the porch. When I opened the door I saw a very cold and wet raccoon. I invited him in. The raccoon declined for a long time, saying that he didn’t want to disturb me and would leave footprints all over the house. After hesitating for a while, he finally wiped his paws and agreed.
I found a towel that the raccoon could use to wipe himself, boiled some tea and opened a large tin of vanilla cookies. The fireplace blazed, we drank tea and chewed on the cookies.
The raccoon, noticing the open book, suddenly exclaimed – “Ha! Franklin! Benjamin Franklin! Interesting to see what they’ve written about him.” He leafed through the book with unbelievable quickness, reading a paragraph here and there, and stopped at an illustration. He looked at the illustration for a long time, smiling. The illustration depicted Franklin wearing his raccoon skin hat.
I was bewildered. Maybe the raccoon didn’t like hats, especially hats made from raccoon skin?
No, my guest didn’t look offended, but rather amused. Holding his teacup in both paws so that it wouldn’t spill, he shook with laughter.
Having laughed heartily, he turned in my direction – “You also think that the hat was made from raccoon skin?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, I don’t know – back then all kinds of synthetic fabrics hadn’t yet been invented. At least, it’s written that it was made from raccoon skin.”
“Written! They write a lot of things. But was the writer there? I swear on a lightning rod, he wasn’t even close.” Here my guest grimaced in displeasure. “That was a live raccoon! A real live raccoon!”
“ ?!” I almost gagged on a cookie in surprise.
“Hmm...” – the raccoon scrunched his forehead into a row of wrinkles, “I thought you knew everything! This story about Franklin’s hat was told to me as a child by my grandfather, and to him by his grandfather, who heard it from his grandfather. This tale has been passed from generation to generation - every raccoon in my family knows the true strory! You mean that you never…” here he looked into my eyes with disbelief „you have never heard the story of Franklin’s hat?”
“Never!” I swore, raising my hand.
“Then listen! The night is long, we have tea, cookies,“ the raccoon shook the tin, “we still have some. I hope you aren’t sleepy yet! You know, we raccoons almost never sleep at night.”
I gestured in agreement, indicating that what the raccoon had to say truly interested me.
“Then listen!” Arranging himself comfortably in a rocking chair, the raccoon began his story.
”One day, Benjamin Franklin went out for a walk. He was walking through the woods and noticed a raccoon sitting in a tree! Franklin raised his rifle – it was common to take a rifle along on walks around Boston back in those days because indians and bears also liked to take walks. The raccoon looked at Franklin and asked, ‘What do you plan to do with that rifle? I hope you don’t plan on shooting. You know, I hate loud noises!
Franklin was startled. That’s exactly what he planned to do, to shoot his rifle and shoot down a raccoon.
“You know’, Franklin said somewhat perplexed, “I need a new hat. Winter is coming and it’s getting cold.”
The raccoon’s eyes opened wide. ”You want to shoot me? And just because you want to sew yourself a hat from my skin? No way that that is a good idea.”
Franklin began to think. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all?
The raccoon climbed down a few branches lower and took a long hard look at Franklin.
“You say that you really need a new hat? And precisely made of raccoon skin? Fine, I will be your hat!”
With these words, he slipped off the branch he was sitting on and jumped right on top of Franklin’s head!
Franklin was so shocked that he lost his voice and grabbed his head, for the raccoon was lying across it as if he had been poured onto it.
He went home and studied his reflection in the mirror from all sides. True, no one had a raccoon skin hat like that in Boston, nor even in the entire state of Massachusetts.
The raccoon was soft, warm and his striped tailed hung elegantly down the back.
From then on, Benjamin Franklin and the raccoon remained together and experienced all kinds of different things together.
Here, the raccoon, his mouth full of cookies, asked, “And the way he discovered the lightning rod – you at least know that?”
The fact that Benjamin Franklin was a prominent scientist, and was indeed the person who had invented the lightning rod, was something that I, of course, knew. But I had no idea that a raccoon had taken part in the event.
Noting my interest, the raccoon finished his mouthful of cookies, carefully wiped his paws and mouth on a napkin, and continued.
“Every fall Benjamin Franklin’s house was visited by uninvited mice. They came in large numbers and settled in the cellar and attic, scurried and scratched around every corner, emptied out the kitchen and its cabinet. Day and night they pittered about so that Franklin couldn’t work during the day or sleep at night. Although he was a peaceloving and reasonable person, he finally had had enough. He grabbed his rifle and started to run around the house, shooting.
Of course, the mice got frightened and hid, but not for very long. At night they rashly snuck out of their little holes and boldly continued their noisemaking. Franklin ran from one corner of the house to the other, search through the attic, crawled up and down the steep cellar steps and let loose with a barrage of rifle shots that almost used up all his income on lead pellets.
The raccoon finally got annoyed with all this shooting. He called over an old, and judging by his grey whiskers, wise and respectable mouse, and he made a deal – the mice would all as one have to clear out of Franklin’s house and relocate to the grain storage barn. This put an end to the shooting, for as it turned out, the mice also weren’t very fond of loud and scary sounds.
In the evening, as it began to get dark, the mice gathered together their treasures, household goods and countless herds of children to prepare to relocate to their new living quarters.
The raccoon carried Franklin’s rifle out of the house and hid it in the bushes.
All evening it was quiet, until suddenly the sky grew dark, rain began to fall, lightning began to strike and thunder roared.
Reclining in their rocking chairs, Franklin and the raccoon sat on the terrace and watched the storm. Everything was normal, except…
“Why does the lightning always strike in one and the same place?” wondered Franklin. “Always the same place!”
The raccoon shrugged his shoulders – the lightning struck and struck. Obviously it liked to strike there.
When the storm ended, Franklin, who was curious, (not to be confused with nosy) ran outside, and found his rifle in the bushes.
The raccoon was convinced that Franklin would wonder how his rifle, all by itself, had ended up outside in the storm and rain, as opposed to resting in the house, where it was warm and dry. But the raccoon was mistaken.
Franklin lifted up the rifle and looked at it up and down and all around and quietly murmmered to himself, “It appears that the rifle attracts lightning. Thus, thus. But why? It is made of iron, so iron must attract lightning. If I carried the rifle up to the roof then the lightning would strike there! Yes, but then the lightning could strike the house and burn it down! But, if in place of the rifle I took an iron rod and fixed it to a high place, lets say by the chimney, and then buried the other end of the rod in the ground, then the lightning would run down the rod and hide in the ground! What do you think?” he asked the raccoon.
The raccoon nodded in agreement. Let everyone hide where they want!
For all of the next day Franklin crafted a new tool, which was later called a lightning rod.
“I have to say” the raccoon added, “ that news of Franklin’s invention traveled with lightning speed to all the neighbors, who agreed that this new invention was a good thing. Franklin’s reputation grew from day to day.
“I think,” added the raccoon, closing his eyes and tossing another cookie into his mouth. “that if my ancestor hadn’t hauled that stupid rifle outside, then nothing would have happened! Thunder would roar, lightning would strike, it would hit houses and burn them to the ground in blue flames. Insurance companies would go bankrupt one after another and America would never have become the wealthiest country in the world!”
Growing silent for a moment, the raccoon carefully wiped his paws on the napkin, paged through the book and said, “Hmm... Franklin’s visit with the King of France. Interesting.”
Here I decided to show off some of my knowledge. “Of course! After two years of long and difficult talks, on February 6, 1778, America and France signed a trade and friendship agreement, which meant that the United States was no longer alone its struggle for independence.”
“Of course!” the raccoon nodded in agreement. “But! But if Franklin had not been there to together with my great-great-great…” here the raccoon tossed another handful of cookies into his mouth and continued to talk with his mouth full, so that I never learned just how many generations of raccoons have lived since those times, “then history would have been very different!” The raccoon smiled triumphantly.
“You know, at the beginning of its war of independence America was alone against Great Britain. No one supported it. The Dutch and Spanish made promises, but…even the French hesitated. Then Franklin went to Paris. For days and night, weeks and even months he wrote to the newspapers, he sat in Parisian cafes and tried to convince the French. You know that in Paris everyone sits in the cafes and talks and talks and talks.”
The French came to like Franklin, - a famous scientist, visiting from such a faraway land, and he even looks interesting – dressed in black clothes with a wig, then there was his hat! First it’s on his head, then it jumps down to the ground! Even more - Franklin always ordered a bowl of milk for his hat, because raccoons don’t like coffee. There were even some cafe patrons who tried to imitate the raccoon and poured a little milk into their coffee – that’s why to this day the French still love their cafe au lait – coffee with milk.
Then, after long and difficult talks and discussions, and endless hours in Parisian cafes, yes, it was truly my ancestor who taught the French to drink coffee with milk. And Franklin was invited to meet the King.”
“ Louis the XVI!” I beamed with pride.
“Exactly! In the royal palace!”
“Yes, Versailles. But you better listen. Thus Franklin, with my ancestor on his head of course, arrived at the Palace of Versailles. A palace among palaces, endless rooms, filled with mirrors and gold…”
“So Franklin stands in the middle of the royal court but forgets to take off his hat. You know, scientists can be that way.”
“The members of the court start to whisper, but no one says anything, thinking that maybe that’s how they do things in America.”
“The door opens, everyone freezes. ‘The King is coming!” But first a little dog runs in with crooked, trembling legs but a very loud mouth. He sniffs the air and starts to bark relentlessly. He had smelled the raccoon! My ancestor, seeing the dog, jumped down from Franklin’s head and started to play hide and seek with the dog. Or maybe he was playing ‘doggies’?”
“The courtiers stood with their mouths open. Those Americans sure do have strange hats! But then the King himself appeared. He chuckled and then both sat down at the table and signed the treaty. But imagine what would have happened if my ancestors had fallen asleep and the dog hadn’t started to bark? You know how the French love etiquette, and all kinds of manners? You understand what I mean?”
I understood. The raccoon unsuccessfully tried to shake some drops of tea from the tea pot and then looked at me questioningly. I understood that as well and rushed to the kitchen, returning quickly with a fresh pot of tea. There were no more vanilla cookies, but I found some cinnamon cookies, which thank God, were very agreeable to my guest.
“Do you know how the American Declaration of Independence was signed?” the raccoon asked after taking a sip of his tea.
“Who in America doesn’t know that????!” I exclaimed, ”The Second Continental Congress, July 4th, 1776.!”
The raccoon nodded in agreement. “Yes, of course, but how? Do you know that? Did you know that a British agent was working in the hall where the Declaration was signed? And you know of course that this very clever and sneaky agent almost sabotaged the signing of the Declaration?”
„They didn’t teach us that in school,” I exclaimed.
„In school! I haven’t gone to school but I know! Then listen! The British agent worked as chef’s assistance in a Philadelphia restaurant, where he spied for many years for Great Britain. He was already old, well fed and fat because the English paid him very well. On the night before the signing of the Declaration he snuck into the hall where the solemn ceremony was to take place and stole all the goose feathers - back then everyone wrote only with goose feathers - and tossed them all into the fireplace!”
“The next morning, when the Congress delegates arrived, there was not one, not one goose feather! Everyone sat in stunned silence. Even Franklin sat silently. So my ancestor ran outside, saw a goose swimming in the lake and hurried over to the lakeside.”
“Goose! Goose!” he yelled.
The goose looked up. What was a raccoon looking for here alongside the lake?
“Goose, goose! I love you so, sooo much, you are so delicious!” The raccoon hungrily licked his lips.
The goose looked.
“I will catch at least one of you and eat you!” my ancestor announced, “but there is another option.”
The goose trumpeted with fear.
“Each of you must give me one tail feather, as a payment.” The geese gaggled in confusion, but eventually each one parted with one tail feather.
“As fast as he could, my ancestor chewed the end of each feather so that it could be used for writing, then called Franklin over and handed him a bundle of writing quills. Franklin returned to the meeting room table and proudly pulled the quills from his coat pocket. The Declaration was signed!”
Smiling triumphantly, the raccoon winked his eye, “I think that was the first payment of a federal income tax in the history of the United States of America. Now do you understand the role of my great-great-great and so on grandfather’s role in American history?”
With these words my guest poured the last crumbs of the cinnamon cookies into his mouth and got up to leave.
“Wait!” There’s something I don’t understand! Why is it that on the 100 dollar banknote that features a picture of Benjamin Franklin, he doesn’t have a raccoon on his head?”
“Maybe the artist didn’t know how to draw raccoons!” the raccoon shouted back as he disappeared into the morning mist.