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Remembering the Versatile Kerchief

By Christopher Nyerges

Note the kerchief on the head of this intrepid hiker who conquered Mt. Baldy in the 1920's.
Photo courtesy Virginia Bagnard

Access to technology does not automatically mean that we become smarter.

In many ways, today's television culture -- though highly informed in many general ways -- has become incompetent in many practical ways. We think that by looking at something we have actually learned or acquired a new skill. We pride ourselves in our sophistication until we are severely humbled by a real life test. In many ways, staring at the "boob tube" has numbed us, de-sensitized us.

Case in point: One Saturday afternoon, my wife was in the back yard and yelled out to me and a visiting friend: "Fire, the neighbor's house is on fire!" From our vantage point, we were looking at the back side of their house. We raced around to the front of their house and were amazed to see most of the neighbors standing in their front yards watching. One lady was leisurely washing her car with the garden hose.

"The house is on fire!" we yelled. "We know," she informed me, as if we were simpletons. "We called the fire department."

We were stunned, noticing that everyone was staring at the fire with the same stupor that they probably stare at their televisions. So we ordered people about, had someone bring a ladder, another a hose, and we were up there and had the fire out in minutes, before the fire department ever arrived. (We were never thanked, by the way).

The point is that we have embraced our technological wonders at the expense of thinking, at the expense of living life, and we have therefore dropped and forgotten many of the "old ways" people in the past simply took for granted.

"Old fashioned" values include working together with your neighbors, never throwing things away that can be given away or made into something else, and that simple desire to not waste or use more than you need for a project.

And though there are literally hundreds of related topics that I could go into (now that I'm warmed up), let's look at the many practical uses of the ordinary kerchief. You know that square of cotton that you'd see in the old cowboy movies. John Wayne or Ronald Reagan or the Lone Ranger would have their kerchief around their necks and ready to pull over their noses should there be too much dust. This was a practical necessary part of one's apparel in the old West, not a mere decoration as worn by some television cowboys.

A big cotton kerchief (or two, or three) should be carried at all times.

For years and years, I wore one all the time around my neck, and though I did attempt to make it a decorative part of my outfit, it was still there ready to be used, and I often did use it. If not around my neck, I wear one around my head, and typically carry one in my pocket.

What are they good for? The obvious, of course -- wiping your nose and wiping your forehead. But that is just the beginning.

Sitting around the campfire, cooking stew for dinner or a cactus omelet, I have pulled my kerchief out many times to use as my potholder. Similarly, when out camping, I wet the kerchief in the river in the morning and use it as washcloth for my face and hands. In the same way, I take another (dry) kerchief and use it as my towel (not essential, but makes life less savage).

Though I don't do this often, I have used cotton kerchiefs as emergency filters for coffee grounds. This is primarily a trail technique, but I have done it in the city too. I've also filtered coffee through a (clean) sock when I lacked a coffee filter, but I prefer the kerchief for obvious reasons. Kerchiefs can also be employed for filtering out insects and sediment from various water sources. Typically, this requires two containers. Cover your water jug opening with the kerchief filter, and scoop the water from the spring or river (etc.) and pour through the kerchief.

If you are in the desert and need water, let's hope you know how to get water from cactus, from the solar still, and from digging. Also, there is much dew that can be collected in the early mornings. There are several ways to do it. One way is to lay your kerchiefs (the more the better) over bushes or grass until they are saturated with dew. You then wring out the cloth and let the moisture drip into your water jug. This may sound tedious, but in some cases you can actually get a fair amount of water. Also, it is not "tedious" when compared to having no water!

For cuts, I have often pulled out my kerchief and pressed it onto the wound, so the direct pressure would stop the bleeding. In one instance late at night, I was getting off the freeway when I noticed a man who'd just fallen off his motorcycle. He had a bad cut into his upper arm, and I took my kerchief and tied it off securely. For whatever reason, he did not want me to summon any medical assistance, and he drove off.

Another medical use of the kerchief is to help secure a splint to someone's broken or sprained leg or arm. Of course, any twine or cordage could be used.

When out hiking in hot weather, I have often wet my headband kerchief and put it back on to cool me down. If I had no sunglasses, I have made the headband thicker and pulled it down closer to my eyes. I have also used the headband to create a sun shade in the desert. This is done by simply sticking a lot of brush into the headband to create a shade.

I've never made a hat out of a headband, but I've seen bald guys do it. They just tie a big kerchief around their head and tie two small knots to keep it in place. I've seen women who didn't have a bathing outfit take two kerchiefs and make a top -- sometimes this works, sometimes not – depends on the size of the woman.

Hey, I've even seen a mother use a big kerchief as an emergency diaper for her baby. (In that case, that's all you will ever want to use that kerchief for).

Remember the hobos of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl days? Well, lots of you won't personally remember, but you've probably seen pictures and drawing of the 'bos who would carry their gear all wrapped in a bag suspended from a stick. That's another practical use of that kerchief, if it's big enough. (Today's homeless population no longer use kerchiefs -- they use those ubiquitous linear-D plastic bags from the supermarkets).

I don't know if today's youngsters would "get it" or not about the value of kerchiefs. Would it fit their garb? Who can say, with their ridiculously baggy clown pants with their underwear showing and the hats pointing backwards (indicating they don't know which way they are going).

By the way, you needn't go out and buy kerchiefs. Though the cost is not high (they range from $1 to $4, generally), you can easily make your own simply by cutting squares from old cotton sheets. If you don't like the color, dye them the color that you like.

An unfortunate warning: If you live in any of the major U.S. cities, you should be aware that some of the street gangs use colored kerchiefs to indicate their gang affiliation, such as the Crips and Bloods of Los Angeles who use red and blue kerchiefs. This is a sign of the times we live in, and so you should be wary of the "colors" you choose so you avoid undesired human interference.

I don't expect everyone to start wearing kerchiefs -- I know that too many people are too geared into their fashion ideas from TV and magazines and the kerchief may not be "in." But I'm certain that at least a few of you will see the practical value in always carrying a kerchief or two.

[Nyerges and his wife are the directors of the School of Self-Reliance. Nyerges is the author of "Enter the Forest," "Guide to Wild Foods," and "Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills." His books are available at Sport Chalet stores and through Mountain Marketplace. He has led wilderness field trips since 1974. A schedule of his classes is available from School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at www.self-reliance.net.]

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Copyright 1999