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A Flattop to Remember by Ben Aldy
I was awestruck at age 16 when I found my dad's 1960 college yearbook, with its dusty smell and pages full of black and white photos of guys with extremely short haircuts, what I now know were butch cuts, crewcuts and flattops, lots of flattops. A feature spread showed the young men at the college barbershop getting shorn and had a quote from the barber saying that two-thirds of his clients now requested flattops.
My 80s long hair had never seen a real barber or clipper, but I thought the short cuts in the photos looked amazing, and must feel really good. For the first time, I contemplated what it would be like to have such a haircut: Where would I get it cut? What would my friends, family and girlfriend Karen think?
No one I knew in my small town had such haircut. Even considering such was madness. But I considered it. I studied all of the photos in the yearbook and finally got up the courage to talk with my dad about it.
"Dad, I was looking at your old yearbooks. You wore your hair a lot differently then. I really like it."
"You do," he said. "Flattops were all the rage when I was in college," he said, flipping through the pages of the yearbook with me. When he landed on the photo of the old fashioned barbershop, he pointed and commented, "We used to go to the barbershop every week or two to get our flats cleaned up."
"Did you like it? Why did you stop wearing one?"
Dad thought for a moment before responding: "I really liked the way it felt, and looked. Though, I remember it required a lot of maintenance. Longer hair came into fashion with The Beatles, and I grew my hair out. Have never been back to short hair. But it was fun while it lasted."
"Dad, do you think I would look good in a flattop?"
"Are you thinking about getting one?"
"Well, I really like the way flattops look in these photos, and I have never really worn my hair differently than I do now. I would just kind of like to try it."
"Well... I think you would look handsome with a flattop, and I know just the barbershop in town to take you to. But you know you really can't try a flattop. Once you've got one, you've got it for a while. You have to be committed. Are you?"
"I think so. I know the other guys will tease me, but I don't care too much about that. I do want Karen to like it, though."
Closing the yearbook and handing it back to me, Dad asked, "Do you like Karen because of the way she wears her hair?"
"No, I like her because... well, I just like her."
"And I think Karen will feel the same way about you."
That night Karen came over and we sat out on our porch together. After talking for a while, I brought up the idea of getting a new haircut, a really short one.
"Do you think I should?"
"Ben," she said as she turned and ran her hands through the back of my hair, "I would love you even if you had no hair," and she smiled with a look that let me know she was imagining what that would look like. "If you want to try a new haircut, go for it!"
"You won't be embarrassed to be seen with me if it looks stupid? You know the guys are going to give me a hard time."
"If you want to try it, try it. It's just hair. It will grow back.. unless you like it, and then you might not let it!"
This was a more positive reaction than I could have imagined.
"So, are you going to do it?" she asked.
"I don't know. We'll see. I'm still thinking about it."
The next morning was Saturday and by then my mind was set. I would get a flattop today.
I told Dad and asked him where to go. He said Jim’s Barbershop on Main. I knew the shop, though never would have gone there before now.
"Do you want me to go with you?" Dad asked.
"No, I think I can handle it."
"Ok, well I will look forward to seeing my flattopped son at lunch time. Make sure you wait for Barber Jim. He’s the flattop specialist. I’ll meet you at the diner across the street afterwards for a burger and shake."
I opened the door of Jim’s Barbershop shortly after 11am. The shop was an easy four-block walk from our house. The sounds and smells of the barbershop were new to me, but nice. Four barbers were cutting men’s hair and the waiting area was almost full, mostly older gentlemen. All of the barbers were wielding clippers, though none were cutting a flattop.
The wait ahead of me cleared surprisingly fast. These barbers were quick. When I was called to the chair by an old, white-haired barber, I spoke up and said, "I'm waiting for Barber Jim." To which he replied, "Well, you're in luck son, cause that's me." He beat his red leather barber chair with his white cape and unfurled it to greet me.
I stepped up onto the footrest of the chair and turned to sit. As soon as I had, the cape was draped over me and a neck stripped was being secured around my neck, too tightly I thought. The cape was then secured and the neck strip folded down over it. The barber spun me to face the mirror and gave me a little pat on the shoulder. "How do you want it, son?" he asked.
I scooted up in the chair, cleared my throat, and said rather softly, so as not to attract attention, "I was thinking about a flattop."
"Ok," he said. "A traditional flattop?" I immediately sensed that--unlike for me--this was not a big deal for him.
"I think so. Like the guys wore in my dad's 1960 yearbook."
"I got you. A number two on the sides and back then?"
"How long is a two?"
He pick up his largest set of black clippers, labeled the "Model 10," and snapped on a silver blade, showing me the engraved number "2" on it. He started the clippers and buzzed off my right sideburn. He swiveled the chair just enough that I could see it in the mirror. "That's a two. Close enough or do you want to go a little tighter? Maybe a 1 or 1-1/2."
I saw my white skin showing through the stubble. "No, that's close enough."
The barber swiveled the chair fully away from the mirror and began removing the hair from the back of my head. I could feel the blade heating up with each stroke that he made. I could also feel every eye in the barbershop watching my transformation.
The metal blade vibrated smoothly as it rounded the arc over my right ear. I closed my eyes and tried to take in the experience. In what seemed like only a minute, the hair had been removed from my entire back and sides. Then I heard a clearly different set of clippers come up to speed and felt the barber's hand on the top of my head. He gently but firmly guided my head down until my chin rested on my chest.
I felt the new clippers touch down on my nape, rise up, and flick away in a swift motion. He worked from right to left and then back again, keeping a firm grip on my head, and tilting it as he needed. The neck clipping seemed to go on for so long that I wondered what hair could be left. Finally, he raised my head and using the same clipper outlined my ears, taking the hair around them even closer.
I heard the clipper returned to its hook and then felt a jet of air blast around my ears and neck. The barber then blew the masses of my brown hair from the cape to the floor.
The clipper sound returned and I felt a comb lift my bangs from my forehead. In one swift stroke of the clippers running along the comb, my six inch bangs were history. The barber lifted another section of top hair, and I felt it fall, too. Soon all of the hair on top, in rapid succession, was similarly clipped.
The barber sprayed my hair with water and combed it straight back. He then spun the chair to face the mirror, and I saw myself for the first time, hair shorn on the sides and standing up in a short mess on top.
The barber dispensed some shaving foam into his hand from a machine on the counter and massaged it into my top hair. He grabbed his blow dryer and proceeded to brush and dry my hair on top until it stood more proudly erect.
The hair dryer was retired, and the barber began again with his clipper and comb leveling the hair on top of my head, until a crisp classic flattop emerged, just like I had admired in my dad's yearbook.
Barber Jim was meticulous in ensuring that the hair on top was perfect. At one point, I felt his comb laying directly on the top of my head, as he removed the hair above it. He covered my eyes with his left hand and blew the top of my head again with his air hose. The sound and pressure from this little hose was intense, like the sound of a punctured tire and the feel of air escaping out of a balloon.
I saw him open a small jar of Krew Comb on his counter and scoop out a small portion with his index finger. He rubbed it into his hands, and then rubbed his hands gently on the front, sides and top surface of my flattop causing it to become even more rigid and perfect.
He washed his hands and returned with scissors to clip a few straggler hairs from the deck of my flattop, ones that only he could see. He loosened the cape and folded back the neck tissue. I watched another mound of my hair fall off of the cape and onto my feet.
Barber Jim returned to the shaving cream dispenser to get another small amount in the cup of his hand. He then gingerly applied it over each ear and along the back of my neck.
My eyes surely widened as I saw him open a straight razor and begin sharpening it on a leather strop hanging from the barber chair.
"Ever been shaved before?" he asked in a caring manner. "No, sir," I answered.
"It will just make the outline a little cleaner, make it last a little longer."
He held my head tighter than before and with minute strokes outlined the hair around my ears and neck. It was a new sensation and scary. I kept my head still and was very glad when it was over. It hurt a little.
He wiped my ears and neck clean with a damp rag. Finally, he put some talcum powder on his brush and whisked my ears and neck clean.
Barber Jim looked at me through the mirror and seemed to smile at his creation. He grabbed his hand mirror from its hook and placed it behind me, angling it just right for me to see my neckline. He ran his finger from the pale white skin on my nape up into the stubble, and said "I tapered the back." Then he tilted my head a little forward and held the hand mirror higher, showing me the top of my head in the mirror in front of me. I saw a horseshoe-shaped ring of hair. Moving his finger along the top of my head, he said, "I rounded it over the back and gave you the slightest landing strip." I saw the white strip of skin he was referring to and now touching. "It's important for the classic 1960s look you described." And I knew from my yearbook studies that he was right.
The mirror returned to its hook, he continued, "This is a good looking haircut for you. If you decide to keep it, I'll need to see you back in two weeks. It will grow out quickly. The second one I can cut much faster, though."
I thanked him and told him that it was cut exactly like I wanted. The cape removed, I stood up and ran my hand up the back of my neck. Wow, it felt good! I could actually feel the hair texture change as I slid my hand from baby smooth skin up to the longest stubble.
I reached into my wallet and pulled out my cash. The barber handed me a can of Krew Comb and small plastic pocket brush and said, "You're going to need these, too. That'll be $8 total." I gave him $10 followed by a firm handshake, and thanked him again.
As I turned to walk out, I sensed again that everyone was looking at me, but I held my head high. I heard Barber Jim call out behind me, "Next!" I smiled and stepped onto the sidewalk.
By now, already after noon, the sun was shining brightly, and I startled myself with my reflection in the store windows as I walked to the corner to cross the street. The air was especially cool around my ears and neck, and I no longer felt any movement of hair atop my head as I bounced along, eager to see and hear my dad's reaction at the diner. A few passersby locked their eyes on my haircut as I passed. But that was as it should be: I knew I would do the same if I was them.
My dad beamed as he saw me approach from his corner booth at the back of the restaurant.
"Ben, you look two years older, so clean cut and confident!" he said as I sat down. "How do you like it?"
I rubbed the finger tips of my right hand along the stubble on the side of my head. "So far, I think I do. Barber Jim was amazing!" And I proceeded to detail the experience of the clippers and shave to him.
That evening, I knocked on Karen's door and waited. After what seemed like 10 minutes, the door opened. She looked beautiful! A big smile came across her face, and she gave me a big hug and kiss--one that sent shivers down my spine. She invited me inside, and we sat on the sofa in her den. She told me that my flattop looked even more amazing than she had imagined it would. She asked if she could touch it--of course--and said she already hoped that I would keep it. How could I not?
We then made out on her sofa for longer than we ever had before. I was getting intensely excited, and then she stopped me. I knew this was coming.
Karen looked down as if in thought and then looked me straight in the eyes.
"My parents are gone for the weekend. Would you like to go up to my room?"
I felt the hair--the stubble--on the back of my neck rise, as my heart skipped a beat and then raced. I took Karen by the hand and stood up, and she escorted me upstairs.
I lost more than hair the day I got my first flattop.