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Level-Headed Man (P 2): The Big Change by Lee

Becoming a Level-Headed Man (Part 2): The Big Change

The remaining weeks of the school year flew by and before I knew it I was on the bus heading off for my adventure in the country. Aunt Marilyn let the three guys come pick me up at the bus station in Valparaiso and head back the ten miles or so to Hebron.

As we were driving along (sitting four across in his giant Ford pickup) and initial small talk died down, my uncle glanced over at me at his elbow and said, "Okay, so there's one thing I need to talk to you about today.” I nodded my head and looked back at the corn fields rolling by. "I promised your mom that I wouldn't make you get a short haircut if you came for the summer. But that doesn't mean that you can't decide to get that haircut yourself. Let me give you a few things to think about. First, twice a day you and the boys will be helping me in the milking barn. If you keep your long hair, you're going to have to wear a hairnet to make sure none of those greasy locks end up in the milk—not to mention you're going to end up with some cow poop in your hair at some point, which is gross enough when you have hair like ours. With hair like yours, I'm going to be hitting you with the hose on a regular basis before Aunt Marilyn will let you back into the house. Ever been hit with a hose of well water? It's about 48 degrees and might just make your hair shrivel up and fall off by itself! And speaking of your Aunt Marilyn, she likes her men clean cut and practically made me promise I wouldn't bring you home until I had you cleaned up. And let's be honest, I've seen you look at your cousins' hair for years—Stephen, let him zip his hand up the back of your head, go on—you should see your face, Lee. Anyone who likes that as much as you just did deserves to have his own smooth nape to feel. Am I wrong? Would you like a haircut like us? Because now is your chance to get the haircut you dad would have wanted for you if he was still around.” As I snapped my gaze back to him at that remark, he met my eye, nodded his head, and then looked back at the road. "I promise you that.”

I was in shock—was I that obvious? And I was out of my mind with excitement—were we really having this conversation? My mouth went dry, but I croaked out a "sure, okay, I guess I could try something shorter,” and kept my eyes straight out the windshield to try to keep myself together.

Doug thought I was upset and said, "It's okay, Lee—you're gonna love it. Besides, you don't know anybody here except us so it doesn't matter even if you don't like how it looks.” I just nodded my head in disbelief.

"Well then, it's settled!” Uncle Jack said with a huge smile as we bounced down the road, "We'll stop in town and all get freshened up at Tom's Barbershop before we head out to the farm. Ha! After all these years, you're finally going to get to meet my barber! Your dad would have loved this.”

A month ago I had given up on the idea that I'd be able to get that haircut I always wanted, and now it was happening so quickly I didn't have time to think about it or turn back. I had no memories of ever going into a barbershop, although I had ridden past the two downtown shops in Royal Oak many times, glancing in at the older men getting haircuts that were hopelessly out of date but that were, at least in my mind, the kinds of haircuts men (and boys like me) should have. Maybe there was something to my cousin's comment to me years ago—could it be that's just the kind of haircut that men in our family were supposed to have? No turning back at this point—I was about to find out!

Hebron had a quiet, dusty downtown with a look like many other Midwest rural communities. At the edge of town was a lumberyard and a feed store that bumped up against the Purina-checkered granary towers stacked against the train tracks. Within the store fronts there was a card shop, a small clothing store, a bakery, a few beauty salons, and the town's watering hole simply called The Hotel (apparently there actually was a hotel in the upper two floors that had shut down many years ago, leaving the iconic bar as the only reminder of its existence). There was at least one barber shop stuffed among the little store fronts, but Tom's Barbershop was in a classic wood frame building just steps from the railroad tracks, with huge plate glass windows on either side of the door that put patrons on an impressive elevated stage for anyone driving by as they slowed to go over the tracks. And those windows also rattled impressively in their frames when freight trains roared through town with their horns blotting out any conversation in the shop for a few seconds. Parking was to the side in a small graveled lot.

When Uncle Jack pulled up and stopped, a cloud of white dust enveloped the truck momentarily. He shut down the engine and it ticked and complained as it cooled down in the afternoon heat.

"Here we are, boys!” he said. "Lee, do you even remember being in a barbershop before?”

"Not really.”

"Well, it's a great place to spend some time on a Saturday morning. Just follow our lead, since the three of us need some touching up ourselves.”

This was a surprise to me, as to my eye all three guys had perfectly clipped heads, without a hair out of place. Maybe they were going through the motions to make me feel more comfortable. As I slid across the seat and got down from the truck, my knees were rubbery and my mouth had gone as dry as the gravel I stepped on—but I tried to hide my anxiousness. However things turned out, I had 12 weeks to grow back something on my head before I reported for middle school.

The bell on the door rang as the four of us entered the shop. There were two chairs, but only one barber working, currently finishing up a basic businessman's cut on a fifty-ish patron.

"Hey Jack, hi boys!” Tom said with a quick glance away from his focus on the current customer. "Who's the new face? Is this the nephew I've been hearing about over the years?”

"Tom, I'd like you to meet my brother's boy, Lee. He's just off the bus from Detroit and here with us now through Labor Day,” replied Uncle Jack.

"I gave an embarrassed wave and said "Hi” as Uncle Jack pointed me to one of the vacant plastic seats. He and the boys sat around me. Doug and Stephen grabbed comic books and dove in while the men engaged in small talk. I sat and looked around the shop, admiring the space. To this day, I think the barber chairs were the biggest I've ever seen. They were tall and wide, trimmed in old, soft leather and had huge rectangular platforms as footrests that swiveled front to back (well, if you were tall enough for your feet to touch them, I guess). Tom told me later that the chairs dated back to the 1930s when the first shop had opened on the site, and he never had the heart or desire to replace them even when he did occasional updates. Anyone much smaller than Stephen got hoisted onto a wooden crossbench Tom would pull from under his equipment shelf and fasten to the chair arms so the junior customer wouldn't get lost in the expanse of the chair.

There was an H.O. model train set mounted on a high wall shelf that circled the room, with ramped bridges that raised the track above and across the door and front windows. The train wasn't running when we came in, but within a few minutes Stephen had lost interest in the comic book and made his way to the transformer block and train control on a lower shelf in the back. Soon there was a 10-car train making the rounds and before long I could smell the oil warming up from the locomotive, mixing with the smell of clippers, tonics, talc, and residue from earlier customers who had enjoyed a smoke while waiting.

On the back wall was a classic hairstyle poster, with eight sketched heads—four boys and four men—each sporting a different iconic short haircut with a corresponding label beneath. According to the poster, apparently Uncle Jack had a flattop and my two cousins had crewcuts. At least I had a name for what I wanted. My heart raced just thinking about how different I would look in a few minutes.

My focus was pulled back suddenly as Tom's customer exited the chair, paid and left. Now there were just the four of us in the shop. Without missing a beat, Uncle Jack was in the chair before Tom could clean up his station. At that point I just sat and watched as Tom and Uncle Jack chatted and Tom very carefully peeled off what little growth Uncle Jack had accumulated since his last cut. As subtle as the change was, I could see Uncle Jack coming out the other side looking definitely sharper and "crisper” than when he sat down. I loved the total lack of play in his hair—every piece was in place—every edge and angle was perfect. I could see the top of my own head reflected in the mirror behind the barber chair. My stick-straight, coarse auburn hair reminded me of a grassy field in the wind—with stuff sticking up every which way. Must have done a number on myself when I smashed my head against the corner of my bus seat and dozed on the way down, I thought. No wonder Uncle Jack wanted an intervention!

Next came Doug and Stephen. Watching Tom methodically tighten them up had me squirming inside. I responded to Uncle Jack's questions about home and school and the trip here, but my brain couldn't focus on anything other than Tom's clippers. As he finished the final bristles on Stephen's deck to perfect straightness and precision, I had to force myself to breathe more deeply or I knew I wouldn't make it across the three steps it would take for me to replace Stephen in the chair.

As Tom shook off the cape and released Stephen back to the train set, he turned to Uncle Jack. "Are we set, or does Lee here want me to help him with that mop of his?”

Uncle Jack looked at me. "Change your mind?”

I looked back at him. Behind me Doug was poking my shoulder, whispering "Go for it, man.”

Without saying a word, I got up and stepped slowly into the giant chair. Tom didn't need any encouragement. With a flourish, the cape was around me, a tissue paper strip was around my neck, the cape was tightened, and he released a few hairs in back that were long enough to sneak in under the cape.

"So what are we doing today?” he asked. "Just trim it up or something different than usual?”

Everyone was looking at me. Two long seconds of silence filled the shop before I croaked out, "Make it look like Stephen and Doug.”

"Good choice!” Tom said cheerfully. "One Stephen and Doug special coming up!”

As he combed out my hair to start, I felt him working through some tangled areas.

"Sorry—I have really bad hair,” I said.

Tom leaned into view and said, "Who told you that? You actually have fantastic hair—you just have a terrible haircut. When I'm done you're gonna look so sharp you won't know what to do with yourself.”

And with that, the clippers turned on and my transformation was under way. Tom started removing chunks of hair with his clipper and comb first. He was very smooth about flicking the cut hair away so it wasn't in my nose and mouth, but nonetheless, the cape started filling with an impressive mound of my hair as it came off.

"We'll only have to do this first step once,” he said. "Before I can zero in on a final shape, I had to get some this thick stuff off.” I felt him lift and clip, lift and clip all the way around my head. Without my glasses on I couldn't see my image clearly, but the mirror behind my family's heads showed the rapid hair removal clearly enough to mesmerize me.

"Look, Jack—he's got perfect little ears just like Doug,” Tom said as he finished freeing my second ear. "Can you hear us better? Am I talking too loud?” he joked.

The clippers turned off and Tom undid the cape, shook the mound of hair to the floor, and refastened the cape. "I predict once you get comfortable in your new haircut, you'll never go back to something like that,” he said. "Once most guys get hooked on a good clipper cut, they can't let go more than few weeks without a clean-up. You think I'm crazy, but wait and see.”

Behind me I heard him cleaning and re-oiling his clippers. At this point, all pretense of distraction had ended. As Tom turned on the clippers and pushed my head forward, all three spectators were quiet and three sets of eyes were firmly planted on my rapidly changing head.

As the clippers worked their way up the back of my head, now I could feel their warmth and the breeze they left behind as air hit parts of my head that were being freed of any cover. Carefully, slowly, precisely Tom clippered my back and sides into a perfect fade. His concentration was intense—this was an artist at work. In the mirror opposite, the blurry image was getting lighter as the hair fell away and my pale scalp shined through. The last step on the sides was a careful edging and clean-up of the cut, with Tom removing any peach fuzz outside the official lines of the cut. Now he shifted his attention to the top.

With a short break from the clippers, Tom wet down the remaining hair on the top of my head and then used a coarse bristle brush to work the hair back and up. He kept brushing it until the hair was almost dry and had surrendered all resistance. Then he rubbed some butch wax in his hands to warm it up, worked that in, and again brushed the hair into submission. I could see my scalp turning a little pink in the mirror from all the brushing.

"I don't have to do this so much with these guys,” Tom explained. "We've trained their hair so perfectly over the years it wouldn't dare move unless I tell it to. A few more of these cuts and yours'll be the same way. Once you reach that point, you're really going to love this style because it won't ever be messed up.”

"What about when it grows back out—how long will it take for it to lay back down?” I asked.

Tom looked at the other three and me in the mirror behind them. "Hmm. Well, I don't know why you'd want to do that, but I suppose it would fall down eventually after a few months. But in your family this cut is kind of a tradition. My guess is that by the end of the summer you'll pretty much lock into this cut. Anything else is just going to feel too sloppy to you. Just wait and see.”

And with that, the clippers came back on and he zeroed in on my new top, using the clippers and comb to flatten the front and create a perfect deck. His last step was to do a final brush through and then do some careful trimming by hand. I could feel the clippers as he worked them back to my crown, knowing that meant there couldn't be much hair left back there at all.

"So this is best part of this cut to me,” he explained as he was doing this. "We're changing the shape of your head, really, from an egg to a perfectly level top. It'll take you a few weeks to stop being surprised when you catch yourself in the mirror. These two bozos have never seen the top of their head any other way so they never give it a second thought. But from now on, you're telling the world you're a level-headed guy. People will tend to trust you right away. Why do you think police and army generals choose this cut? You're going to look clean cut, honest, trustworthy—a straight shooter. This cut makes a great statement about you, young man.”

The clippers turned off and he slowly turned me 360 degrees in the chair in a show for my audience of three. Then Tom handed me my glasses and a hand mirror and did the 360 again for me. It was like an out of body experience—I didn't recognize myself. What I saw was Doug looking back at me in the mirror but with the wrong hair color and specs. I never realized how much we resembled each other because we had such different haircuts. I looked fantastic, although I wasn't sure my tear-drop wire rims matched the new lines of my head very well. My thick, straight hair seemed made for this cut. I rubbed my nape the wrong way and felt that perfect gradual progression from smoothness to stubble to softer hair near my crown. I had only felt this on my cousins' head until now. And I grinned.

"Do you like it?” asked Stephen a little sheepishly.

"Is it me or does he look just like Doug?” asked Tom.

"It's uncanny,” agreed Uncle Jack.

"Okay, one more step and we'll get you out of here so you can start your summer, Lee,” said Tom. He loosened the cape, removed the tissue paper and proceeded to give me my first hot lather edge shaving. A quick rub of talc all around and he released me from the chair.

As Uncle Jack paid and we boys walked out the door, Doug and Stephen took turns rubbing my freshly clipped head. The suburbs of Detroit seemed far away and I finally felt right about how I looked.

"See you next week,” called out Tom to Uncle Jack as he exited the shop behind us.

Did I just hear him correctly?

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