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Level-Headed Man (P 1): What Feels Right by Lee

Becoming a Level-Headed Man (Part 1): What Feels Right

I lost my dad in a car accident back in 1968 when I was four years old. My mom raised my sister and me as best she could but worked long hours as an executive assistant to what I now realize was an over-demanding asshole. We never moved from our upscale Detroit suburban home thanks to an insurance settlement that paid off the mortgage and would eventually cover our college costs. My sister is five years older than I am, so she had time to have a strong relationship and many memories of my dad, but I remembered him mostly through stories and old photos. I did apparently inherit his bad eye sight, and had my first pair of glasses by the time I was in second grade. My mom paid extra to get me the latest in wire "tear drop” frames—which helped me feel fashionable but were heavy and didn't fit my face very well.

The only man in my life was my dad's brother, my Uncle Jack, who was a successful dairy farmer in Hebron, a rural town in northern Indiana where he and my dad grew up. He was married to a sweet but strong woman, Aunt Marilyn, and they had two boys. Doug was about eight months older than me and Stephen was about eight months younger. Our parents made sure the cousins knew each other and we tried to connect for major holidays, but it was a challenge to get us together for any extended periods of time because of my mom's lack of vacation time and my uncle being tethered to the milking schedule of major dairy operation. We'd make the four hour drive to Indiana a few weekends a year, and Uncle Jack had an arrangement with a neighboring dairy farmer that worked his herd over Thanksgiving so Jack's family could come to Detroit and then he worked the neighbor's herd so the neighbor could travel around Christmas. Even though we had limited time together, I adored my Uncle Jack and I think he always felt he needed to provide me with some of the fatherly love and care that I had lost with my father's early death. With my sister it was a different story—she saw Jack as an unsophisticated hick and rejected him as a poor substitute for her dad, so he kept their relationship cordial but it was nothing special.

According to my stack of old photos, my Uncle Jack and dad had at least two things in common: a perfectly maintained flattop and classic squared off plastic frames to correct their impressive near-sightedness—and regardless of the hair fashions of the day, my uncle maintained his flattop for the rest of his long and happy life. For about three of my first four years on the planet, I appear to have sported a perfect #2 butch cut. Looking through photos, I wondered if my hair ever grew, because it never seemed to vary in length. My dad passed away just as longer hairstyles in young boys became more fashionable, and my mom apparently had let my hair grow out into long bangs by the time I had my Kindergarten photo taken. By first grade, I had the classic 70s bangs and ear tips showing—but more of the single length, non-layered "chopped” look variety. My mom did the trimming, not because she fancied herself a stylist so much as she viewed hair as unimportant on little boys—just keep it out of their eyes and they'll be fine. I think she liked a little wild look in her son, frankly—maybe as a way of not growing up too quickly. Things were very casual in our household—the two kids had lots of autonomy and we foraged for ourselves many nights. My sister would cook dinner for us when my mom was late, and we rarely ate meals together. I guess the hair was probably an extension of that lifestyle as well.

As you can probably guess by now, there were different hair standards in my cousins' house. Whenever I saw them, both Doug and Stephen had precise, textbook crew cuts—tight, perfectly faded sides and back with the crown kept close and a perfect short, flat deck ending with about a half-inch squared off rise in the front. And coming from the loose, hairy suburban Detroit school hairstyles of the early 70s, I was completely fascinated with their hair. Whenever we got together, we'd be wrestling or rough housing and I'd end up with my hand on one of their heads and quietly marvel at the way their bristly top hair never moved and the fantastic feel of going against the grain of their tightly tapered napes. Stephen was a little monkey who loved to grab around my waste with his legs and arms and let me carry him around the house front pack style. The whole time we walked around I was zipping my hands up and down the back of his head, secretly wondering what that would feel like to have that on my own head. Doug and I were similar in size and build—and unfortunately, eye sight. But whereas my mom always made sure I had the latest fashion frames, Doug wore more classic squared off tortoise shell plastic frames, with an elastic strap holding them perfectly in place at all times. I suspect his dad had the same practical taste in eyeglasses as he did in haircuts, but I had to admit that Doug looked good in those frames even if he wouldn't have won a 1973 fashion contest. When I was in first grade I asked my mom if I could have my hair cut like Doug and Stephen after we drove away from a visit to the farm. My sister laughed from the front seat and said I'd look like a freak—my mom simply dismissed the idea with a "oh, I don't think you'd like that” remark.

By third grade, the complete lack of any boys sporting a haircut that even showed their ears much less a clippered top sucked away my courage to ask about matching my cousins' style any more. My sister was kind of right—I'd feel like a freak if I showed up to school with a flat spikey head and my ears hanging out in the air for all to see. But thankfully for me, no one from the Indiana household seemed to be changing their hairstyles any time soon. I heard my mom ask Aunt Marilyn once if she was thinking about letting her boys grow out their hair and she simply replied, "no” and changed the subject. And EVERY time we saw my Uncle Jack, he asked me how I could see through that mop and if I wanted him to take me to see his barber (when we were in Indiana) or whether I'd like him to introduce me to a barber in town (when we were in Detroit). He only did it once per visit, and it became our ritual greeting, completed with a nervous laugh and "no thanks” each time. I didn't think at the time he suspected I so wanted to say yes every time, but now I'm pretty sure my fascination with his sons' hair didn't go unnoticed, either. When I asked my cousins about whether they wanted long hair, they always said the same thing. "No, this is the way men in our family wear their hair, so we like it.” I also figured that in rural Indiana they probably didn't look that unusual—even in the early 70s—but I didn't know for sure. I was just glad I could still look at their hair and touch it a few times a year and dream about having my hair cut just like theirs, even though I couldn't see it happening in real life.

In the early spring of my fifth grade year, my sister and I were watching TV when my mom came in after getting off a long call with my uncle.

"Everyone in Indiana is fine and the boys said to say hi,” she said. "Uncle Jack made an generous offer to have either or both of you come down to Hebron and spend the summer on the farm to give you a change in scenery for a few months. You know how my hours crank up in the summer, so I was thinking it might be better than staring at each other around here. I'd really miss you of course, but I told him I'd throw the idea out to you and see what you said.”

My 16-year old sister just rolled her eyes and said, "Oh just kill me! What would I do, sit around and watch the cows lactate?”

"Well, I think he was probably thinking Lee would enjoy it, but didn't want you to feel left out,” my mom laughed. "Okay, I figured you'd say that, but I wasn't sure about you, Lee—what do you think, would that be something you might want to do?”

"Yeah, Lee,” my sister jumped in, "Do you want to spend your summer staring at corn fields? Be careful, if he had you for three months, Uncle Jack might finally give you that boot camp haircut he keeps offering every time he sees you—that'd be a great look to sport for your first year in middle school! You'd miss my wit and beauty, but don't let me stop you, though—a summer free of you and your freaky friends hanging around here would be a dream.”

Inside I was thrilled, but I didn't want to hurt my mom's feelings—so I said, "I might—let me think about it.” Then I waited for a time when my sister wasn't hanging around and talked to my mom about it some more. She assured me she thought it would be a good experience to be away from home for three months for the first time in my life, and knew that she'd miss me but that I'd be in good hands with Uncle Jack and Aunt Marilyn. (Not to mention a fairly unsupervised summer with my cousins could be a blast, too.) Secretly, I was fantasizing about Uncle Jack dragging me off to the barbershop in the first few weeks of being there and feeling my hair getting clippered and leveled off. I wondered if he'd have the nerve to do that or whether he'd feel like my hair style would be a decision he had to leave strictly to my mom. And then I wondered if he did push me into the chair, how much hair I could grow before I headed back to Michigan to start middle school the Tuesday after Labor Day. The possibilities kept me awake at night.

The next time she talked with Aunt Marilyn on the phone she ended the call by talking to Uncle Jack and firming up the details of the summer. I would be taking the Greyhound for the five-hour drive there and back by myself, so my adventure would start from the moment my mom said goodbye at the bus station in Pontiac. My mom would secure a bus ticket on the first day of my summer vacation and I wouldn't come home until the Monday of Labor Day Weekend—and school started with a half-session the following day, so I would literally spend my entire 12 weeks in Hebron.

"And,” she added, "I thought about your sister's joke and I made Uncle Jack promise he wouldn't make you get a short haircut, so you don't have to worry about that possibility. I think this is going to be a fantastic summer for you, honey.”

My plastic smile may have fooled her, but inside I was crushed—my stupid sister had just ruined my last chance for a clippered head of my own—even if it was a single haircut with three months to grow it out. There was no way my uncle would go against my mom after she made him assure her I could keep my mess of poorly styled hair. I pushed the possibility down and concentrated on the great time I was going to get to spend with Doug and Stephen. But man, was I disappointed.

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