MILWAUKEE — It’s mid-August, blazing hot and sunny, and Allan Plato sits and knits.
Some people would call Allan burly. He puts it another way. “I’m Big Fat Al,” he said by way of introduction.
Ask him how he is and he says what he usually says: “I’m nice.”
The kids who get the caps he knits certainly think he is. So do the cancer patients. Their heads, bald from chemo treatments, get cold.
Those caps come in handy. Hundreds of caps have gone to wiggly newborns in hospitals. Some of Allan Plato’s hats have gone to soldiers in Afghanistan, too — sent there by a veterans organization.
“There’s caps of mine in Florida. There’s some in Colorado.”
Plato is 80 years old and has been knitting for the past three years — almost continuously, if you ask his wife, Joan.
He saw his daughter-in-law, Kim Plato, knitting on a round loom, looping yarn over pegs and then scooping the loops over the peg. Kim saw him watching her at work. One day, she presented him with a loom.
Allan got right to work. Ever since, his days follow this rhythm — up by 8:40 a.m. at his Muskego home, with its “Elephant Crossing” sign amid a bed of snapdragons out front.
His wife has collected elephant figures ever since Allan gave her a pair on their honeymoon 56 years ago. Now they nearly take over the house — and some of them wear caps made by Allan.
Allan says he is not an early riser, but he is at work by 9. The television goes on to an easy listening music station, and the knitting begins.
He had heart surgery six years ago — bypass and a valve replacement — and he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease..
“If I walk 100 yards or so, I gotta rest. I get winded early,” he said.
He gets his yarn from Walmart — “they got the best buy on it,” he said. His favorite brand is called Red Heart. People bring him yarn, too. They bring it in boxes and big plastic bags — new or left over. They know Allan Plato will loop his way through it.
Does he do this every day?
“No,” he said.
“Just about every day he does some,” Joan said. “Very few days that you don’t do knitting.”
He doesn’t fight that idea. He keeps knitting.
3 caps a day
Generally, he makes three caps a day, and gets a start on a fourth. If you add it all up, and carry the one, that makes — well, Allan doesn’t really care how many caps he’s made these past three years.
“Probably a couple thousand,” he said. “I don’t know.”
And he doesn’t really care who gets them, he says. “You want one? Take a couple.”
The caps for the newborns — and there are a lot of those caps — are tassel-free (which is a shame because, as Joan says, “He really does a nice job on the tassels.”)
This is because Al worries. “I’m afraid they might come off. I’m afraid the babies might swallow a piece of yarn. So they don’t get no tassels.”
Newborn caps have gone to Columbia-St. Mary’s, Elmbrook Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minn. — passed along through acquaintances.
Every Christmas, the “cap and mitten tree” at their church, Hales Corners Lutheran, gets 100 caps. His deer-hunter sons asked for and received blaze orange caps — for themselves and hunting buddies.
Joan carries a bag of caps in the trunk of her car. You never know. She goes to the local Y every day, and her friends often find a need for a cap. They don’t bother to ask if she has one. They know she does.
“I have friends on social security,” Joan said. “They don’t have a lot of money. At Christmastime, they come and get caps for gifts. They don’t have much, but they want to do something.”
Last year, Allan heard about two classes of kids learning English. He got a call for more than 50 caps for them. It was a challenge to get them done before the holidays, but he got it done.
There were the homeless kids that a local Home Depot invited for a holiday event. His daughter-in-law, who worked at Home Depot, asked him if he could make some caps. He did, for two years, dozens of caps. Those kids were surprised. They didn’t expect to be able to keep the caps.
“I don’t care where they go,” Allan said of his caps. But he does keep the hand-drawn cards from kids thanking him. There are stacks of them.
“Dear Secret Santa,” one begins.
“I liked the present that you gave us, and my mom told me I’m lucky to have that hat to keep me warm.”