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Level-Headed Man (P 3) Making it a Habit by Lee

Becoming a Level-Headed Man (Part 3): Making It a Habit

As we drove away in the pickup, I felt closer to my uncle and cousins than ever before. We were four peas in a pod, with perfect haircuts down the line. I caught little Stephen staring at my new haircut in wonder about 50 times on that 10 minute drive. I suppose it was strange to see his long-haired cousin properly clippered into shape. My aunt was happy to see me and complimented me on my decision to choose a more "clean cut, handsome style” for a change. I settled into what turned out to be a spectacular summer. The cows were milked at 6:30am and 6:30pm, and Uncle Jack wasn't shy about putting his third farm hand to work in the barns. My cousins had grown up with tremendous responsibilities surrounding the care and milking of the livestock—but for a suburban slacker for me, the work was at once exciting, exhausting, and gratifying. And Uncle Jack was right—I soon got used to washing cows**t off every part of my body, and had I kept long hair it would have made all of that harder. It became another reason to love my new hair style—unlike the silly long haircuts that surrounded me in Royal Oak, this cut was practical in addition to having a defined style. It looked good but worked well for a man or boy who worked hard and had purpose and pride in his day.

The morning I arrived, Uncle Jack told Doug to show me my bedroom. After our showers that night, Uncle Jack came into our bathroom as I was brushing my teeth and showed me how to use the butch wax to lock my new hair in place. "Help him with that in the morning,” he told Doug. "For the next few weeks you'll need to use a generous amount, but once your hair catches on you'll be able to lock it in all day with just a little dab.” I couldn't help staring at my image in every mirror. I looked nothing like I could ever remember seeing, and I looked so much more precise and put together. I couldn't help but stand up a little straighter.

In the mornings after milking and barn chores, Uncle Jack would release us by 8:00. We'd go back to the house and wash up and Aunt Marilyn would serve us a full breakfast. Most days, that usually left us to our own devices until we had to set the table for dinner at 5:00. We ran through the fields and nearby woods, and I became an expert tree climber. There was a small creek that ran through the woods and I loved to wade through it and catch frogs. Royal Oak was completely developed and surrounded by other completely developed areas. There had been nothing open and "wild” like this in my area since the 1940s. This was a summer of discovery and self discovery, and a summer of bonding with two boys that were more like me than any friend I had ever had back home. My head started tanning up almost immediately and even the short haircut lost any sense of "white wall” severity—I loved the way it looked and I loved the way it felt and I loved the way I felt with it.

Saturdays were different. After breakfast, the boys would pile in the Ford and head to Tom's for our "weekly clean-up.” The first Saturday I was shocked, because (in spite of Tom's farewell) I was still thinking my cut was a one-time thing. When I suggested maybe I'd sit this one out, Uncle Jack took me into the dining room and showed me the latest school pictures of his boys and then two smaller ones of my sister and me.

"Every year I put up your new picture and every year I shake my head and think how much better you would look with a proper haircut. Now you have the right cut and you look fantastic—don't tell me you don't. Well, this year I was hoping that I could get an 8x10 of you with your new haircut so I can put you up there next to those other two dingbats, and then I'd have all three of my boys in a row. You said you'd like to try something short for the summer. I think you should keep your word and really try it for the whole summer. I've got 11 more Saturdays before I put you on the bus the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, and Tom said he'd open early that day just to make sure we send you off on the bus to home with a fresh cut so your school picture will be perfect. After that, you're on your own and can decide whether you're going to stay level headed or fall back into your moppy look. Will you do that for me? I give you the whole summer with us, and you give me the school picture of you I've always wanted as your thank-you?”

How do you say no to a request like that from your life hero? It took a slight adjustment to my thinking, because now I had just agreed to my sister's worst case scenario—I was starting middle school and there would be no blending in. But part of me—most of me—wanted to play this out and see how I felt by the end of the summer. Uncle Jack played me well, but he kept a casual poker face the whole time.

"Back for a clean-up?” a clearly delighted Tom exclaimed when I walked through the door the following Saturday. I think that second cut was even sharper as my hair adjusted and Tom dialed into the shape of my head and the growth pattern of my hair.

"Now you can relax and enjoy this,” he said. "Last week I thought your hammering heart was going to tear a hole in my cape!” That was the only time he ever admitted noticing how much the new haircut excited me. And after the perfection of the second cut that Saturday, I swear I never had a hair out of place for the rest of the summer. Like I said, the man was an artist with the clippers.

Hebron also introduced me to two other new traditions. First, although I was raised a "casual” Catholic, my Uncle Jack and Aunt Marilyn were much more devout and never missed Mass—and they always went to the Saturday 4pm Mass in town because it didn't interfere with the milking schedule. Like Saturday afternoon Masses everywhere it seems, that Mass was always packed with senior citizens. Doug and Stephen had been "volunteered” as the two permanent altar boys for that Mass for the summer, since most fun-loving boys wouldn't be caught dead in church on a sunny Saturday afternoon. They quickly trained me as the third. The pastor was a funny, kind man who sported an extremely short ivy league (cut apparently by our favorite barber). Every Saturday we'd arrive freshly shorn and suit up. Fr. Al always insisted that we greet parishioners with him at the doors after Mass before disrobing, and the old ladies would fawn over us, commenting on what handsome, nice boys we were. I suspect I would have gotten a much colder reaction had I sported my haircut from home!

The second tradition was one my uncle and aunt had apparently done since before they had the boys. Unlike crop farmers, dairy farmers are tethered by their milking schedules. As a result, Uncle Jack and Aunt Marilyn rarely went on dates or out to eat. Instead, every Sunday Aunt Marilyn set a beautiful table in the formal dining room, and the whole family dressed up for a delicious farmhouse dinner. Uncle Jack would put on a dress shirt and tie, and from the time they were little, the boys did the same. The day after I arrived after we washed for dinner, Doug dragged me to his room and handed me one of his white dress shirts and a narrow tie. Uncle Jack came in a few minutes later and showed me how to tie a Windsor knot—it was pretty touching for me, as my dad had never been around to do that kind of thing for me. Aunt Marilyn always ironed and starched the dress shirts, so we looked sharp with our tanned faces and every hair in place when we sat down for Sunday dinner. But that was the only formal part of the affair—at the table we'd talk and laugh and share our day. It was so much better than my DIY dinners back home.

As the summer went on, Tom was right. My perfectly trimmed crewcut and "level” head became who I was. I could barely remember what it felt like to have long hair—and when I caught a glimpse of my old school picture on the dining room side table, I didn't think it looked like me…and I truly never wanted to look like that again. But I couldn't imagine keeping my crewcut in Royal Oak Middle School, either. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?!) as well, the frequent cuts were having their intended effect. By the end of each week I could see that my cut was losing "precision” and my nape was losing that just-cut bristly feel when I absently rubbed it, so I began to actually look forward to the weekly "tune-up” with Tom. My Uncle Jack was quietly setting me up for excellent grooming habits and an eye for exactness in haircuts that would guide my behavior on my own when he wasn't there to directly supervise.

About four weeks into the summer, Doug and I were high up in one of our climbing trees. I turned to say something to him and my head collided with his arm right at the corner of my glasses. I heard a snap and then watched them fall about 25 feet to the ground, bouncing off branches and a rock or two in the process. We scrambled down to assess the damage. It was an 11-year old's disaster. The ear piece had broken off from the front, one of the plastic nose pieces was gone, and one of the lenses was had deep scratches across the center. Neither of us wanted to face Uncle Jack, but we headed back to the farm and found him in the barn. I showed him what had happened and in a shaky voice said I was sorry and that I would call my mom and ask if she should send money to get a new pair.

Uncle Jack sighed. He was clearly unhappy but kept his frustration in check. He looked over the pieces slowly and held the lenses up to the light. "Well hell, one thing's for certain—I think you've killed these glasses for sure. Hmm. I tell you what, let's not bother your mom just yet. I'll run you into Doug's optometrist, Dr. Lobert, after lunch and see if he can come up with a solution. I'm not going to be able to afford fancy frames like these, but I think we can find you something that won't break my bank that'll do for now, then if you get home and your mom doesn't like them she can swap them out. Or would you rather call you mom?”

Not wanting to bear the wrath of my mother, I readily agreed. Dr. Lobert confirmed the untimely death of my specs, and we set about finding a new set of frames. I could see that the wire frames were twice as expensive as the plastic frames, and Uncle Jack didn't spend a lot of time looking. "Hey Doc, where are the frames we got for Doug last time?” he asked. "Those weren't that expensive and they've worked out fine for him.”

Dr. Lobert brought over a box with three tortoise-shell squared off plastic frames with different shades of color baked in. Uncle Jack pulled out the middle one and said, "This one is Doug's but the color isn't quite right for you, I don't think.” Then he grabbed a second pair and handed them to me. "Try these on—they've got a little more red in them. Should go better with your hair color.” I put them on and looked at him. Before I could look at the mirror, he reached over and pulled them off. "Yup, these will work for you.” Dr. Lobert pulled my prescription off the old lenses and said the new frames would be ready in four days. We headed back to the ranch and I dealt with blurred vision for a few days, but it was better than explaining to my mom how I broke my expensive frames.

When the new frames were in, we headed back to the optometrist. I hadn't had this type of frame before, so I wasn't used to the way plastic frames were fitted to your face back then. Dr. Lobert put the new frames on me and stared, then pulled them off and put them in a warming machine so he could bend them without breaking them. After several attempts, he had them straight and had molded the ear pieces so they were tight around my ears and molded inward against my scalp. When he decided he had them right, my uncle leaned over and handed him an ear strap from off a hook at the counter. "Here—add one of these, too.”

Dr. Lobert quickly attached the strap, made some adjustments, and proclaimed me ready to go. Uncle Jack looked at me and said, "Well, let's do a test. Stand up. Look down, look up, shake your head…yup, doc, I think we're good—we won't be having any problem with this pair.” As we left, I stopped and looked in the mirror. Now I looked even more like Doug. And feeling the gentle pressure of the strap against my scalp, I realized my days of pushing my glasses up on my nose were done—because these frames felt like they were part of my face. It's funny, at the time I was thinking even though the frames weren't "in style,” they actually had a nice style to them and their squared-off lines complemented my new "level head” better than the old rounded frames. Looking back now, I see that Uncle Jack had quietly taken my appearance back about ten years in terms of fashion trends, but in his mind all he was doing was quietly, systematically cleaning me up and shaping me into a young man with a clean cut, practical appearance.

On the way home, he asked, "So, how do they feel? I'm glad to get rid of those old frames—you pushed them up your nose about 50 times a day because they're so heavy. These frames are lighter, they're shaped to your head, and thanks to Tom's handy work, the strap sits nicely on the back of your head with no hair to get twisted up in it. It's another reason long hair makes no sense to me on a boy. Now you can go have fun and not worry about your glasses any more. And you look more handsome in these new frames to boot!”

As Tom was clippering me down again on the first Saturday in August, he said "Only a few weeks left, huh? I suppose I better give you some tips for when you go to your new barber back home.”

"What do you mean?” I asked. I hadn't thought about the actual act of getting my haircut anywhere but here with Tom.

"Well, I figure you're going to head back and then someone's going to say something about your haircut because middle schoolers are assholes—sorry Jack, pardon my French! And then you're going to think, well, I'll just grow my hair out again. But then you're going to go about a month and you'll look in the mirror at some point and think, but I look so shaggy. Then you'll get your courage up again and go to a barber there and he'll screw up my good work because he won't be able to follow my cut properly, and then you won't know what to do. So here's what you should do—you probably won't listen, but here it is. Your uncle here might disagree, but you don't have to keep getting your haircut once a week. You can keep your crewcut sharp enough if you get it cleaned up every two weeks. You'll notice that it's losing its shape a bit because your uncle here has given you a chance to sharpen your eyesight a little when it comes to hair, but you'll still look good. After two weeks, go find a good barber and tell him to clean you up. Tell him start with a 1 on the sides and he'll know how to get the rest back to snuff. And here's the best part—nobody's going to say anything to you when you get to school on Monday because they won't notice the difference. To them, it'll just be like your hair never grows. And you'll stay sharp and be happy. And they can be an asshole to somebody else who makes their own decision about something—oops! Pardon my French again.”

"Okay, but I don't think my Mom is going to like this haircut very much. What do I tell her?”

"Your mom? Oh, that's easy. Moms never want to see their boys get a sharp haircut until they see their boy in a sharp haircut. Doug here didn't get his first crewcut until he was about four and your uncle brought him in and then begged for forgiveness from your aunt afterward. Two weeks later Marilyn stopped by with the boys when she was in town and asked if I could give Stephen a matching cut—he barely stayed on the plank he was so little. These two clowns have been crisp and clean ever since. Your mom may say she doesn't like it, but after a few clean-ups, she's going to be quiet about it. And I bet you a few weeks after that, she's going to take you for a clean-up herself. And when that happens then you can relax because there's no way she's ever going to let you have long hair after that. Trust me, if you want this haircut, she's going to make sure you keep it even if she doesn't know it yet. Because it looks good on you.”

When Labor Day weekend approached, I was really sad to leave a situation that felt more natural to me than anything I had encountered in Detroit suburbia. I missed my mom, but in spite of Tom's coaching I was nervous about her reaction to my new look. I was MORE nervous about facing suburban Detroit middle school clearly looking different than everyone around me. The bus was leaving at 10:00am. We got up and took care of the cows one last time, then Aunty Marilyn insisted I shower so I would pass Mom's inspection when I got off the bus. After breakfast, she showed me a freshly pressed white dress shirt and a new navy blazer and tie she had picked out for me to wear home.

"You don't have to, but this would be a great outfit to wear for your school picture this year,” she hinted. "It would make your Uncle extremely happy, but work it out with your mom.” She reminded me to have my mom order the package with two 8x10s so there'd be an extra one to send to them.

We packed up the truck, she gave me a big hug, and the four guys stuffed ourselves into the Ford and headed to town. First stop was Tom's, where—true to his word—he had come in on a holiday Saturday to give me one final clean-up.

"Now, remember what I said,” he coached me. "Some jackasses are going to say something about your haircut, but just remember they're jackasses and they don't know what they're talking about. But they'll get bored with it in a day or two. And don't wait more than two weeks to get a clean-up or those fools at the middle school will start all over again on you. When you step into a new barbershop, it's going to feel like the first time all over again—because next time you're going to be brave enough to choose a nice crewcut on your own and you won't have these knuckleheads here to make you feel at home. The first time you're in that chair, you're going to wonder if you're nuts. The second time will easier, and by the third time you won't give it another thought and neither will anyone else at school.”

As Uncle Jack paid Tom, I looked in his mirror one last time, I realized how different I looked and felt about myself than when I had first met him in June. I had muscles from the barn work all summer; my face looked healthy and tan; and I looked really sharp in my starched shirt and tie and new sport coat. I shook Tom's hand and the four of us headed out the door one last time.

Uncle Jack didn't linger at the bus stop. I gave everyone hugs and quickly got on the bus so I could stop myself from balling my eyes out in front of everyone. I wiped my eyes when I got my seat and waved to them one last time. They waved but didn't wait for the bus to pull out. I watched them walk back across the dusty gravel lot and drive away in the Ford. Then I was sadder than ever, but excited about getting home in spite of myself.

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