It’s genetics, I suppose, that has relegated me to gazing wistfully at the striped pole that guards the entrance to the few remaining barber shops in small town America. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from debilitating hair envy, but must admit just a little aggravation at the likes of Tom Selleck and Mathew McConaughey with their full heads of hair and remarkable inability to age normally. As an Army brat, I was introduced to the barber’s chair at a very young age, sitting on the jump seat while less secure kids had to be beaten into submitting to a haircut. Barber Shops are far more than they appear to folks unaccustomed to the inner workings of these palaces of wisdom and prevarication. Let’s have a look…..
My first experiences with a barber occurred on military bases at what were affectionally referred to as simply “The Post Barber Shop”. Civilians manned the chairs and you were required to select from a series of five pictures on the wall behind the barbers all depicting a different style of acceptable military cuts. There were no cute names for these styles, instead they were either one, two, three, four or five. Truth be known, if you average these numbers you come to the number three and if you were the least bit hesitant when you sat down…a three is what you got. The styles ranged from a buzz cut to enough hair to part but they all resulted in whitewalls from the ears up. These works of art cost .75 and could be accomplished in just under two minutes, start to finish. The application of the strip of paper around your neck (Sanex strip, protecting your neck from the cape) and draping with the cape took more time than the cut. You picked a number when you walked in and seldom waited long to hit a chair. You were not afforded the luxury of “preferring” a particular barber which would have been an exercise in futility anyway.
As time passed, I graduated to an off base barber shop, where there was always a supply of the latest, well worn Playboy and Maxim magazines to make your wait just a little more tolerable. I still wore a very short hairstyle, a carryover from my upbringing. To this day, I cannot stand hair on the ears, which unfortunately, is about the only place I have any. Soon, I found myself back in a military barber shop as I transitioned from being “around” the Army to being “in” the Army. Believe me, there is a difference.
Throughout my years in the Highway Patrol, I enjoyed great relationships with a number of small town barbers and came to appreciate their uncanny wisdom relative to all things in life. Barbers are required to have a working knowledge of farming, hunting, fishing, carpentry, gambling and the co-existence of man and woman. For the most part, they have refined senses of humor and uncanny memories. Their profession should never be underestimated. I have never laughed as hard as I have in a barber shop, sometimes at my own expense. A couple of experiences come to mind.
In St. Joseph, Missouri, the preferred shop was a genuine boar’s nest. The wood walls were adorned with various mounts of deer, game birds and fish and the smell of tobacco wafted throughout the shop. I was in a chair, in uniform, when another trooper, off duty, brought his grandson in for a trim. It did not go well, with the kid screaming and fighting the experience in front of 15 or so patrons. From the chair, I called the child’s name and gained his attention. The shop became quiet as I promised the kid that his grand father was going to buy him a pony if he submitted to a haircut. He profusely thanked me, hugged his stunned grandfather and sat quietly for his haircut. Thankfully, I was armed and his grandfather was not. Grandpa thanked me and made promises that are unspeakable, not appreciating the calming affect that a simple pony could convey. We are still good friends and laugh often at my psychology. The grandson likely harbors a distrust of his grandfather to this day, as he did not get his pony.
On another occasion, I was sitting in the Southside Barber Shop on Dunklin, in Jefferson City, Missouri, deeply engrossed in the latest edition of Playboy magazine. I don’t remember the article that had my attention, nor was I paying any attention to the clientele that was moving about the shop. This was a three chair shop, manned by barbers who were a credit to their profession. Joe, Ronnie and Lonnie each had an area of expertise that could entertain you for hours and were masterful at pitting one customer against the other in the name of good humor. It was not uncommon for moms to bring their sons into the shop, which often, but not always, resulted in a certain dampening of the raucous conversation in the shop. A mom sat next to me as I perused the magazine and I looked up into the eyes of the Governor’s wife, who was smiling at my choice of literary fare. I immediately turned two shades of red as she winked at me and pronounced the young lady on the pages that I was entranced with as “simply beautiful”. It was an unforgettable moment, believe me and the subject of much humor on my return trips to the shop. These same barbers have backed me and countless other unsuspecting troopers around their shop with “snakes” in burlap bags and a contraption that had allegedly caught a squirrel that would pop open and fling a very real looking squirrel into the face of an inquisitive customer. The Highway Patrol owes much to these barbers as they provided humor when we most needed it on many, many occasions.
Below is the South Side Barber Shop.
I am hair challenged these days, and my barber is Sharon who skillfully wields a pair of Wahl clippers with deft precision, leaving me with a little grey on the sides for color. When I wear a hat, as I often do, my shiny pate is hidden from view. When I am sitting for my weekly trim, I close my eyes and imagine, just for a minute, the many hours spent in the magnificent chairs that adorned the barber shops in years past. Love her, though I do, there are some conversations that belong in the sanctity of the Barber Shop….and are not suitable for discussion with your wife!
If you still rely on a real barber, in a real barber shop, enjoy the moment! It is time well spent.