Just before leaving for basic training, I decided I might want to do a little preparation work for the journey. I ventured downtown and wandered into the local barbershop. Calling it a barbershop is social terminology, more than an accurate designation. It should have been called, “the place people met to talk about town events and sometimes get their hair cut.” The barber, we will call him Tom, was a true multi-tasker. Without missing a syllable in his rendition of the infamous lost pig story, he simultaneously flipped the haircutting bib from the chain, set his cigar in the ash tray and pointed to the follicle-encased barber’s chair, with the scissors precariously dangling from his thumb and forefinger of his free hand.
“You’re next, boy!” echoed throughout the shop. I had known Tom for as many years as a young man’s mind could recall; yet at that moment, he was a stranger. He became the reaper of vengeance of every coach, uncle and father figure in my life at the time. He hungered to lop off the flowing mane I had so painstakingly grown as an expression of freedom and separation from the establishment. Truth be told, I just wanted to look like everybody else my age in the late ‘60s.
The mumbling inside the shop slowed, but never ceased. As I made my way down the row of onlookers, I could hear their thoughts: “I would have thought it was a girl,” “The beauty shop is down the street,” “Wonder if he’s getting a haircut, or an estimate?” Well, maybe they weren’t thinking those thoughts, but I sure heard them.
There I stood, before the “Chair of Doom, The Reaper of the Razor, Tom the Barber of Milford.” In reality it was not that bad, but it’s my story. I sat in the chair and awaited the dreaded question: “How do you want it?” I knew he was going to ask that, I just knew it. I situated myself in the chair. I kept reviewing in my mind what my uncle had told me to say. Then it happened: he asked the question, “How are we doing today?” Without thinking, I blurted out, “High and tight, short on top, bloody on the sides!” The room became deadly quiet. The scissors quit slicing the air, the clack of the trimmers became silent, and the vicious mumbling of Milford elders mingled into one gasp of air as the buzz of the barber’s pole disappeared into the sunlight.
Tom turned the chair and asked, “Brian, you okay?” I guess that instant recall was still playing back the previous conversations, and I realized he had asked me how I was, not how I wanted it. I laughed. He laughed, and everyone started laughing - that kind of slow growth type of laughter.
Realizing that Tom was not some knife-wielding axe murderer hidden in small-town America, I became more relaxed. Tom asked again if I was all right. I relayed to him the entire story about how I was going into boot camp in about 10 days, and that after talking to my uncle and father, I decided to get my hair cut before the “ghouls of boot camp” could conjure up an “improper first impression.” Everyone in the shop was intently listening to me describe my desires to serve in the United States military, how I wanted to be the best there was, and blah de dah dah. I swear that, in the background over the low hum, America the Beautiful was playing, flags were waving, and fireworks were exploding in everyone’s minds.
I remember Mr. Carpenter leading a standing ovation when I had finished my story, but in hindsight, he was just getting up to use the bathroom. Everyone in the shop was telling me how proud they were, as though I were their own child. It would be a couple of years later before I would know I really was their child. In their minds, I was one of theirs, a child of small-town America, doing what duty and honor called for: I was enlisting.
Tom slapped me on the back, spun the chair, flipped the barber’s bib, clipped it to my shirt, picked up his scissors, took a couple of hits off his cigar, and initiated a conversation with the voyeurs of the shop about his days in the military during the “big one,” World War II. I closed my eyes, because as everyone knows, you can’t be found or hurt if you close your eyes. Tom tapped the back of my head, which in barber talk means: “Bow your head forward.” I kept waiting to hear the clack of those monstrous clippers, the dreaded hedge trimmers of the barber’s world. As the haircut progressed, the deafening report of the clippers seemed inevitable. Yet, it did not happen. I am not sure what Tom’s story was or what he was talking about, because my mind was ablaze with the harassment I would suffer at the hands of my friends, who would see me without the “mane of malcontent” and then realize that I had become part of the establishment.
I don’t know how much time passed between the initiation of the haircut and the subtle tap on my shoulder, as the chair swung towards the mirror, which is barber talk for: “Wake up and look in the minor. I am almost finished.”
Fearing that I would not recognize myself in the mirror, I slowly opened my eyes and peered into the image staring back at me. There, before me was a clean-cut, all-American kid, who had one of the best haircuts of his lifetime. I stared at the reflection as if it were going to disappear and reveal the true picture of my appearance. Splotchy plops of hair were strewn throughout my head, yet the picture never changed. My hair was cropped, cut, pleasant to look at, and it had been done with professionalism and integrity. I felt as though someone had lifted 10 pounds off my shoulders. Of course, it may have just been the 10 pounds of hair that lay scattered on the floor, I am not sure. Tom had given me a standard military haircut, using nothing more than a pair of scissors and the straight razor for the back of the neck and around the ears.
Almost in slow motion, I heard Tom ask, “How do you like it?” Before I could answer, the chattering ambiance of the room became a silent vacuum. I glanced back at the mirror, looked at Tom, and said, “I like it. It looks good!”
In the same instant as my response, the bib flew off my neck and Tom was brushing me off with talc powder and a whiskbroom. I stood up and reached into my pocket for the money to pay for the sculpturing of my flowing mane into the picturesque standard of military acceptance. Tom grabbed my arm and stopped my hand from leaving my pocket. “My treat, son,” Tom said, as his strong booming voice crackled a little bit. “You come back a couple of days before you leave, and I will trim it up for you.” “Thanks, Tom!” I uttered. “Are you sure?” Tom started messing with his tools of artistic rendering, and he mumbled a few words and said: “You go out there and make us proud.” I pulled the dollar out of my pocket, so that I could put it in his tip jar, but Mr. Carpenter gave me that “Don’t you dare” look. I scrunched up the buck and slid it back in my pocket. As I made my way through the onlookers, they shook my hand slapped my back, and told me how proud of me they were.
I went in the barbershop to get a simple haircut, and I left with a life lesson. I will never forget the pride that they had in me, for a simple gesture I had made as an obligation I felt for servitude to my country. I was a child in a young man’s body. I had no knowledge of the history of our small town heroes. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Tom’s own son had been killed in the service of our country in 1965. Being able to do something special for a young man was Tom’s way of touching the heartstrings of his son’s memory.