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Level-Headed Man (P 4): Permanent Change by Lee


Becoming a Level-Headed Man (Part 4): Permanent Change

When I got off the bus in Pontiac, my mom didn't recognize me at first. She gave me kiss and a hug and fussed and stewed for a few minutes, wanting to know what happened to my hair and glasses. I told her the hair was my idea and made her promise not to harass Uncle Jack and Aunt Marilyn about it, and then chattered all the way home about the summer. My sister gave me crap about everything as expected—part of me figured she was probably good practice for the first day of school on Tuesday. In the meantime, I spent the rest of the weekend catching up with friends (who were equally shocked by my appearance but a little nicer about it), and getting used to the noise and faster pacing of Royal Oak. I've traveled and experienced other countries in my life, but I think the culture shock I experienced that weekend was probably more disturbing than any I've experienced since.

The first day of school brought comments about boot camp, joining the Army, and even some pointing and exaggerated laughter in the hallways. I had an old jock for a gym teacher that started calling me "Butch” on day one and never let up. For him that year, the joke never grew old. But I noticed that other teachers, like the old ladies greeting us after Mass, seemed to take a shine to me almost immediately. Maybe they knew my mom was widowed, or maybe they felt sorry for a boy in 1977 being forced to maintain that haircut, but I really think it was mostly a reaction to my consistent, clean-cut appearance. I had become a "level-headed” boy and they just couldn't help but respond more positively to me than some of my hairier, more unkept classmates.

Anyway, let's get back to September. School picture day was on the Thursday after Labor Day, on the third day of school. When I showed up at the breakfast table with my white shirt, tie, and blazer my mom laughed and said, "Wow—I guess I'm not going to be picking out your picture outfit this year? Okay—if Jack wants an 8 by 10 glossy of his little clone, I can tell I won't win that argument.” The reaction at school was a little harsher. Let's just say it wasn't a great day for me in the hallways, lunch room, and locker room. Looking at the style freedom of modern middle schoolers (where boys sport everything from tight buzz cuts to below the shoulder mops and equally broad choice in clothing), it's clear that the high pressure to conform and the harassment over clothes and hair that characterized my middle school life in the ‘70s is largely a thing of the past. But at the time it was VERY real and I was clearly seen as doing the WRONG thing. In the end, Uncle Jack got a great 8 by 10 and I have an official record of when I made my biggest style change in life. At a visit later that year when I saw my photo in Uncle Jack's dining room in between Doug and Stephen—also in sport coat and tie—it was clear that my father's side dominated my looks because you could barely tell the three of us apart.

In spite of all my assurances to Tom, at the two week mark I still hadn't decided what to do. I can't lie—the urge to fit in was getting stronger and stronger when there was no one with a haircut that even showed their ears, much less a perfectly level deck on top. By the end of the week I could feel myself chickening out. The summer experience was fantastic, I got to have my fantasy haircut and live a completely different life for a few months, but now it was time to get back to reality and fit in where I lived right now. I actually felt guilty, like I was letting Uncle Jack and my cousins down, but the pressure to conform was stronger still. Who doesn't want to fit in during their middle school years?

Saturday morning I rode my bike to the library, passing downtown on the way. As I rode through, I saw Ed's Barbershop on my left. The barber had propped open the door to let some mild September air in the shop, and I actually remember getting a good wiff of that distinct barbershop smell as I zipped by on the sidewalk—it must be a combination of hair, clipper oil, talc, wax, shaving cream, and sanitizer, but whatever it was, I found it intoxicating. I came to a stop light at the next block and was waiting to cross and continue, when instead I caught myself turning around and going back to the shop.

I parked my bike by the window and saw that there was a man in the chair and another one waiting, with a single barber in his 50s doing a short ivy league on his current customer. My heart was racing in my chest as I stepped across the threshold—was I really going to maintain this haircut in suburbia? I must be crazy! But those thoughts didn't stop me from moving forward. Entering the shop, I had all eyes on me immediately and the conversation stopped.

"Sherman, set the Way Back Machine to 1967!” cried the barber, and the other two men chuckled. I was a little slow.

"Huh?” I stammered, thinking it might be best to turn around and crank myself out of there.

The barber saw he had embarrassed me and immediately changed tone. "Don't worry, son, I'm just joking with you,” he said. "I'm just a little shocked to see such a handsome, clean-cut young man come into my shop. I thought I was in a time warp back to '67 for a second there. Nowadays seems like all the boys your age look like girls. Come on in and sit down. I'm assuming you're here for a clean-up and I'd be happy to do that for you once these two gentlemen are done.”

I grabbed a magazine and held on for dear life. My heart was bounding at full speed again. When his first customer had paid and was leaving, I looked to see if the other customer would jump into the chair. Instead he gestured for me to get in the chair instead. "Go ahead, you look like you've got more things to do today than I do,” he said, but I think he wanted to see what I was going to tell the barber.

"Well '67, what'll it be today?” the barber asked as he caped me and turned me to face the mirror.

Remembering Tom's instructions, I told him my story. I wanted to see how he'd react. "I used to have long hair but I stayed with my uncle in Indiana for the summer and he has a flat top and let me try a crewcut. And now I think I'm going to keep short for now. It's been two weeks since I got it cut, so I guess it's time for a clean-up. I like it faded to a #1 on the sides and a half-inch shelf in the front. His barber said you could follow his cut if I didn't wait too long. Does that make sense? Did I ask for the right thing?”

"Yes, that was perfect, and I'll have you tightened up here in no time. I think your uncle's a smart man and you must take after him, because this is a perfect haircut for you,” he said. "By the way, nice to meet you, '67. I'm Ed.” And with that, the clippers fired up and I felt two weeks of growth coming off my sides. As I saw small mounds of fuzzy hair starting to accumulate on the cape, I was a mess inside and my heart was pounding so quickly I thought it was going to blow. Part of me was in disbelief—was I voluntarily choosing to have my hair clippered down again? I was rapidly losing two weeks of growth and was going to be right back where I started. Maybe I should tell him to leave the top alone and grow that out in a compromise between Indiana and Michigan? The other part of me was enjoying the sensation as the clippers warmed up and I could feel the "sloppiness” that apparently only I could see (thanks, Uncle Jack!) getting corrected. I would leave here with my hair as precise as I wanted—needed—it to look.

Ed took his time and did a good job of following Tom's cut exactly. My favorite part was when he got that same intense stare that Tom would get as he did final the final leveling of my shelf in the front. Ed was close to my face but his undivided attention was on those bristles, making sure each one was perfectly erect and in place before he clicked off the clippers and pronounced me complete. The customer chatted with Ed all the while but never took his eye off my head. He was clearly enjoying this as much as I was. When Ed turned the chair back to the mirror to get my approval on his first cut, I was simultaneously appalled (what have I done? I'm right back to where I started!) and thrilled (I'm right back to where I like it!). I thanked him and shook his hand, telling him my name was Lee. He wouldn't let me pay ("First one's on me!”), but reminded me to come back in two weeks or I'd start to look shabby. I headed off to the library, picked out some books and sat at a table, rubbing my bristly neck hair and diving into a new Ben Bova science fiction book.

When I got home later, I waited to see what my mom and sister would say. My sister didn't notice that I had gotten a fresh crewcut but my mom looked at me as she was unpacking groceries. She leaned over the couch where I was sitting and zipped her hand up the back of my head. "Did you get a haircut again already?”

"Just a trim. I thought it was getting a little floppy,” I said, playing it casual.

"Do you want to keep it so severe? It was finally softening up a little bit,” she replied.

Now I felt embarrassed. "It's not SEVERE, it's PRECISE,” I argued. "That's the way I like it—precise. Does it bother you?”

"No, it doesn't bother me. That's fine if you want to try this for a while. Is anyone harassing you about it at school?” she asked.

"Not really. Maybe a little on first day, but not so much now. It's okay, it doesn't bother me because I like my hair this way. Like Doug says, it's how men in our family have it cut.”

"Well, I guess you've got a point there—although I'm not sure your father would still be sporting a flat top if he was still with us.” But I could tell she actually thought about that one for a few minutes. Maybe she was remembering rubbing her palm on his neck one time when he came home with a fresh cut.

As Tom predicted, the change wasn't enough for people at school to notice. They were on to the next person who dared to be different in some way. When I arrived at Ed's two weeks later for a second clean-up, he greeted me with my new nickname, '67—and did an equally high quality job. A part of me was thinking about the starting over thing, but most of me was ready to move on. By the third cut, I was back into a routine and mentally locked on keeping a crewcut for the foreseeable future. Mom wasn't saying anything, but did start giving me money for the cuts. She said Ed was about half the price she'd pay if she took me to a salon, so it kind of worked out about even. In reality, I think she was really liking the look on me.

On the Saturday before Halloween, things changed permanently. My mom came into my bedroom in the morning to wake me up. She said she had some errands we needed to do, so she wanted me to get up and get breakfast so she could drop me at Ed's while she went to the bank, then she'd pick me up and we'd do everything else. As she walked out of my room, I realized she had tracked that it was haircut day for me and wanted to make sure we fit it in. Tom's prediction had come true—the decision to keep the crewcut had passed from me to her and was now largely out of my control. It felt strange in a way, like there was no turning back—but reassuring as well. This was the haircut that men in my family had, and so it would be mine as well from now on.

I spent the next few summers in Hebron, but gradually had to reduce my visits as high school jobs and sports reduced my free time. At 16 I transitioned (as did Doug) to a slightly longer deck, turning my crew more into a traditional flattop. Ironically, by the time I was at Michigan State in the early ‘80s, the punk movement had reintroduced some counterculture haircuts, and musical groups like Madness even sported flattops. I was suddenly hip! But once again, as styles transitioned away again to longer cuts, I continued to happily maintain my flattop into middle age. Uncle Jack passed recently, and Doug now runs the farm. Stephen pursued a veterinary degree and has a practice near Hebron, and all three of us still sport sharp, short flattops. I will forever be grateful for Uncle Jack's guidance on many things, not the least of which was showing me the value of being a clean-cut, "level-headed” man.




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