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Bobby makes peace with his father by Manny
The whole week leading up to the conference in St. Louis, I felt antsy. I had only been there once -- actually, just passing through -- and that had been decades ago, when I was a teen. But St. Louis lived in my mind as a place of torment, a place of suffering, a place of humiliation.
The year was 1973. Long hair on boys had become the norm almost everywhere. It was summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I was itching to move out -- be free from my parents' restrictions. They were still stuck in the early 60s, when "father knew best" and boys minded their elders.
For my parents, hair for boys was definitely off the eyebrows, ears and collar. I had the shortest hair in the school, even though I had been able to convince my father to stop using his traditional barber shop.
I also played lots of tricks to wear it as long as possible -- bangs combed to the side when at home, hair tucked behind the ears and even walking around looking down so my hair wouldn't be too noticeable over the collar in back.
That summer, I had done an impressive job of avoiding haircuts all together and my hair had never been longer. First away at camp, then my father was away on a long business trip and finally going with my best friend's family on their summer holiday to the beach. My hair was gloriously long and shaggy -- sun kissed too that brought out blond highlights I never knew I had. For the first time, I looked like all the other teens my age -- I even gave myself a center part and let the locks cascade over my ears.
We didn't go on a family vacation to the lake house that year -- instead the whole family was thrown into the station wagon for a marathon drive to the west coast. My oldest cousin was getting married and we were attending the wedding. There was some mention of "maybe going to Disney Land" while we were out there, but no promises.
On day two of the trip, the mood in the family wagon was not good. My parents bickered and my two younger sisters prattled on inanely. I was left staring out the window. I also spent quite a bit of time staring at the reflection of me in the window -- marveling at my long hair and hoping it could pass all the way till school started at the end of the month.
"We're getting ready to cross the Mississippi River, kids! Let's give a loud cheer when we hit the Missouri state line," my mother chirped from the front seat.
"Let's not," I sulked back.
My father's head whirled around and he glared at me big time. "Your mother wasn't asking you, she was telling you, and you will do as she says....understood?!"
I could almost feel the flames shooting out of his ears.
"Yes, sir," I murmured, knowing full well that when he was agitated, the slightest thing could set him off into a shouting rant.
"Let's hold our breath on the bridge," one of my sisters giggled.
"Let's not," I dead-panned back.
My father's head whipped around again. "What is with you?!"
Oh my, we were already on the bridge and he was glaring at me instead of the road in front. I thought we would careen over the guard rail.
He continued fuming, "I'll tell you what's wrong with you. You need a proper haircut! We'll show up at the wedding and they'll think we have three daughters! Isn't that right, Mary?"
My Mom knew better than to contradict. "Well, it is fairly long. Too bad Bobby didn't get a haircut before we left."
"It's Rob, Mom. Stop calling me Bobby," I whined.
"That does it!" my father shrieked. "First exit over the bridge, I'm taking it. And we're finding a barber shop. You think I haven't seen you studying your pretty tresses in the window back there? What's going on? Dreaming about having a nice perm and slipping into one of your mother's dresses?"
The car lurched down the exit ramp. "I'll take the girls to get some lunch and bring you back some while you're in the barber shop with Bobby -- I mean, with Rob," my mom said.
"Maybe there's something in that plaza," my father said, hopefully.
Saved for the moment. We whirled around a bit and my father stopped to get gas. "It's cheaper in Missouri," he beamed.
While gassing up, my father struck up a conversation with a gent on the other side of the pump, "Can you recommend a good barbershop near here? That's quite a snappy flattop you've got there. Don't see too many of those where we're from anymore. It's a pity....."
"You're a block away from the best barber in St. Louis. King of the flattops, if that's what you're after. Just stay on this road -- next to the Burger King, in a stand-alone place. Chet's Barber shop. Blue awning, whirling barber pole. You won't miss it."
My stomach churned. Chet's Barber Shop! King of flattops!! The nightmare had truly begun.
"What do you say we show up at the wedding with matching flattops, Bobby?" my father smirked. "Or, shall I call you Bobbi Jo?!"
"No thank you," I said, treading lightly. "Just a trim will do for me."
"Well, since I'm paying old Chet, what I says goes. Understood? No sassing me in that shop or you'll be sorry. Am I making myself clear?" I just sat in stony silence, dreading the worst and hoping for something tolerable. Maybe Chet's Barber Shop would be closed!
After we left my mom and sisters at the Burger King we pulled into the parking lot of Chet's Barber Shop. The "open" sign and cars in the lot removed any glimmer of hope I had. The place was for old geezers, for sure. Not a man under 55 in the shop when we walked in.
The ancient barber was working on an old man, "Trim the eyebrows today, Gene?"
Then a younger barber emerged from the back. He looked to be about 40 and is hair was cut into a short military style; he wore a traditional barber's tunic. "Which of you will be first?"
"He will," my father said, pointing at me. "I'm just here to make sure he leaves looking like a proper lad."
"Okay, son, this chair has your name one it. Hop on up here and let's take a look at what we can do for you today."
"I understand you're the king of flattops," my father piped from the peanut gallery.
"But, I just want a trim," I said quickly.
The barber fastened a large white cape into place and turned the chair away from the mirror, facing my father.
He combed my hair straight down -- it's full length was exposed! Bangs down past my eyes, ears fully covered except the lobe. Collar was under the cape....but what he saw made my father's blood boil.
"So, just a trim for your son, sir? You did mention flattops. But my father is the expert. Of course, I can give it a try....but I'm not sure sonny boy here would like it too much."
"Please, Dad!" I stammered, unable to see his angry face for the veil of hair over my eyes.
"We don't want to see a grown boy cry, I suppose," my father said. "Give him a nice, short 'back to school' haircut. We want him seeing the chalk board and hearing the teacher."
"The boys around here still get crewcuts for back to school. Will that suit you?" the barber asked, reaching for his shears that were sticking out of his tunic pocket.
"Dad...." I stammered.
"A crewcut? That sounds perfect," my father pronounced with a tone of total approval.
In an instant, the barber secured my head so that it couldn't move. I felt the shears at the very top of my forehead. I couldn't believe what was happening to me.
Snip, snip, snip. The chunks of my treasured hair fell so easily, there was no resistance at all to stand the barber's onslaught. Down, past my eyes to the cape. Clumps lay there, lifeless -- testament to the massacre that was ensuing.
"There!" announced the barber, once my long bangs were gone. "Now he won't idly dream he's not ending up with the crewcut Dad prefers. Once the boys turn into longhairs, it's a losing battle for parents. They're surly, mouth off, engage in every sort of disrespectful chatter with their elders..."
The barber reached for the clippers. His little speech had put an end to all my hopes. There was nothing else to do but to submit....and seethe inwardly. I would not give me father the joy of knowing my torment.
The barber pushed my head forward which mercifully kept me from having to stare at the monster who had "preferred" me with a crewcut. I felt the clippers run tightly up the back of my head.
"Give me my money's worth, Chet," my father said to goad the barber on. "I'm all in favor of a respectful son who knows how to honor his parents."
"Oh, Chet is my father there. I'm Sam," he announced.
Sam went to town with the clippers, stripping me of virtually all my plush length.
I sat, feeling numb and angry. I didn't want the haircut, I didn't want the trip to my cousin's wedding, I didn't want anything but getting away from home and being my true self, not some puppet of my parents.
The torment of the haircut was mercifully quick. Sam wielded the clippers in an extraordinarily fast tempo.
The pile of hair around the base of the barber chair, when I was finally released from my ordeal, was staggering.
I looked at the awkward boy in the mirror. It was me, for sure. I looked straight out of the early 1960s. I took my hand to the clipped pelt of hair to ensure it wasn't a horrible dream. Apart from the awfulness of the length, my forehead and ears were white, compared to the tanned rest of my head from the beach trip with my friend's family. I was almost freakish....
As we left the shop together I murmured to my father, "I hate you and I can't wait to leave this family."
I think my anger took him aback. We walked in silence. Before reaching the car where my mom and sisters were waiting, he said in a low, penitent voice, "Sorry it's so short. From now own, you're on your own with regard to your haircuts."
I perked up a bit, "Really?" I couldn't believe the unexpected olive branch.
"Really," my father said with a warm tone.
"You mean, even if I want to look like a hippie? Hair past my shoulders?" I asked skeptically.
"I'd hate the long hair, but never my son," he said kindly. "I'm doing the best I can as a father. It's not easy, you know. Perhaps one day you'll understand I want the best for you." Then he gave me a quick rub on the bristles. It was the most affection my father had ever shown me.
My mother tried to downplay the haircut catastrophe. But, once we were out west at my cousins, I was in for serious ridicule. The boys all had long hair in the latest feathered back fashion. I looked like a military cadet. The low point came when the photographer who was taking our family portrait shouted out, "Hey, Baldy, let's put you in the middle!" The cousins roared with laughter, and from there on only called or referred to me as 'Baldy'.
Now I was in St. Louis again. There was a two-hour lunch break in our company meetings on the last day. All week long I had considered using it to go see if Chet's Barber Shop was still in operation. For some strange reason, I wanted to re-live that traumatic day. My father had died of a heart attack during my sophomore year in college. The interaction outside the barber shop had been my enduring memory of him.
As I drove towards Chet's, I checked my hair in the rear view mirror. It was still thick and glossy. I was quite pleased with the way in held up in my middle years. I had it styled in a longish business look, quite full on top, as well as at the sides and back, lapping down almost to the base of my dress shirt collar. I certainly didn't look in my mid-40s with my luxuriant mane of coiffed hair.
The Burger King was still there, and so was Chet's! My heart beat quickly. I had to enter the shop. I could still envision my father sitting in the waiting area goading the barber on....
I decided to walk past the barber shop and look in. It was a young barber -- looked to be in his late 20s. Certainly not Chet or Sam. Apart from that, the place looked totally frozen in time. Everything was the same as that fateful day in 1973.
Spontaneously, I grasped the door handle and pushed it open. I had not planned on going in, just looking at the shop from a distance. But, suddenly, I was inside again. The young barber had someone in the chair and two older men were waiting. I figured I could wait and then leave, explaining that things were taking too long. After all, I had on a business suit and tie! I obviously was a working, professional man without a lot of idle time.
The barber greeted me. "Hello. It'll just be a minute or two."
I sat where my father had sat. Being in that place made me feel uncomfortable; I squirmed on the hard chair. Then, I panicked a bit, but managed to stay seated. I tried to act casual and thumbed through an old fishing magazine. The client's haircut was coming to an end -- but there were still the other two in front of me.
Without warning, my heart began to race. I couldn't believe what I was feeling. I wanted to be in that chair again, under that cape! My hands felt clammy. I ran my fingers through my hair as I normally did when I was nervous. There was so much hair -- so plush, so soft. I remember feeling the crewcut for the first time in that same shop thirty years earlier. The horror of the bristles....
"Okay, sir, you're next!" the barber said cheerfully after he had collected his fee for the previous client.
"But, they...." I motioned to the two men.
"Oh, they're waiting for my father. He's semi-retired....but will be in shortly."
"Sam is your father?" I asked, rising and moving to the chair.
"That's right. Now take a seat. You know him?" the young barber asked.
"He gave me the only crewcut I've ever had -- right in his same chair, almost 30 years ago!" I said.
The cape flew through the air expertly. Barbering was in the genes of this family!
"I'm Brandon, by the way," the barber said. "What'll it be today for you?"
I looked at myself in the mirror -- my nicely coiffed executive look. I needed to confront my demons and slay them. My throat felt dry, but I forced out the words, "Same as last time?" It was a question/command.
Brandon looked surprised. "That would be a big change for you, sir."
"It was back then too. Crewcuts were not wildly popular in 1973," I said with a dry, shallow laugh.
Brandon combed my hair and smoothed it down with his hands. "A crewcut is a classic haircut. All these years later and you're still wanting one. Should I go easy on you or give you your money's worth?"
My stomach churned. "What do you think?" I asked.
Brandon grinned. "You look like a successful businessman who wants his money's worth!"
Without another word, he combed down my plush, long forelock that normally was swept back from my face. The lock dangled in front of my eyes.
Though my vision was obstructed, I could hear Brandon prepping for the first chop. He snapped the shears open and shut a few times. Then, without ceremony, he brought them up to the very top of my forehead and began snipping the forelock off, almost at its base.
The shears traveled quickly across the top of my forehead. In a few instants I saw myself with no bangs! I glanced down to my lap and saw the severed lock in the middle of the vast expanse of cloth.
"I love the start of a makeover," the barber exclaimed. Then I watched Brandon reach for the clippers.
My heart beat wildly. How would I explain the makeover to my colleagues when I returned from lunch with a crewcut?
I didn't have time to conjure up an answer. Brandon snapped on the machine. "Ready? There's no turning back now," he said in an animated voice.
I gripped the arms of the barber chair to brace myself. Brandon brought the screaming metal teeth, sheathed by a small plastic guard, right past my eyes and drove them down the top of my head.
With a swift maneuver, he peel off a layer of padding, as well as a layer of my confidence. Oh, my....the shorn swath down the middle was extremely short!
"I did say I wanted my money's worth," I croaked, as I surveyed the damage the barber had inflicted. "And that's what you're giving me, I see."
"It's not everyday a businessman comes in here and asks for a crewcut," Brandon commented as he continued stripping away my pampered hair.
Without any ceremony, he shoved my head forward to tackle my nape.
I was more than happy to comply. I even leaned my head back, hoping it would make the crewcut even tighter than the barber intended.
"My money's worth, remember!" I said from the submissive position under the cape.
"Don't worry, you'll be pleasantly surprised when I'm finished," the barber assured me.
I felt exhilarated and numb as I examined the new, almost hairless, me in the mirror.
Brandon rubbed the bristles, "Just the way you wanted it."
He finished off the haircut with lather and a straight razor around the ears and nape. I was unrecognizable.
I looked at the pile of the hair on the floor. This time, it was my doing -- not my father's! I had requested the crewcut....and like 30 years ago, there would be a lot of ridicule when friends and loved ones reacted to the haircut.
As I stumbled out of the shop, an elderly barber in his trademark tunic approached. The name "Sam" was embroidered on his pocket.
"Your son just gave me a great crewcut, Sam," I said to him as we crossed.
"Looks like you got your money's worth!" he laughed. "Usually Brandon doesn't go so short on men your age."
"Well, I told him too -- just the way you cut my hair 30 years ago."
"Really, you don't way," the barber said, eyeing me in a particular way.
Driving back to the conference center, I got a bad case of the jitters. But there was nothing to do. I would have to let everyone laugh at the new me. It had happened before, and I survived.
I thought of my father. He'd be so proud of me, with my freshly shorn crewcut. I looked in the rearview mirror and rubbed my bristles.
My legs felt like jelly.....why not? I thought to myself. Yes, I owed it to my father! I thought of his touching show of emotion toward me when he told me, "Bobby, I'm doing the best I can as a father. It's not easy, you know. Perhaps one day you'll understand I want the best for you." Suddenly, I understood it! He was a creature of his generation. His decision to have me shorn against my will was his way of saying, "I love you."
Then I made up my mind. This time, the crewcut was a keeper! I would not grow my hair back. I'd keep it shorn tight, as a tribute to my dear, departed father.
Entering the conference room was scary.
"Whoa! What happened to your hair?" one of my colleagues shrieked.
"Got a crewcut," I muttered. "And, I like it."
Just then, I heard the company brass assembling. "Photo time....everyone up here by the corporate banner."
I half expected it, and the photographer complied on cue, "Hey, Baldy, move to the middle won't you!"
As we stood there, between shots, the young fellow next to me whispered in my ear, "I think you look like a stud with your shorn head! The haircut took about 15 years off your looks." Then I felt his hand squeeze my ass.....
I'd made the right decision!