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Finding My Flattop by Will
Finding My Flattop
I grew up in the 50s & 60s, and had short hair, at least during the summer, until my early teens, but never a flattop. Afterwards I let my hair grow, tending towards a Beach Boys surfer look, but the whole time, I really wanted a flattop. Flattops seemed cool and masculine, but I never felt like I could pull it off. One summer after I’d let my hair get quite long and shaggy, I got up enough nerve to get a short cut, but I didn't know the terminology, and wound up with a #3 butch, which I hated. What I most disliked was the way my scalp showed right in front, where the short stiff hairs were parallel to the line of sight. I couldn’t wait for that haircut to grow out. Throughout high school my hair was long and full, covering forehead, ears, and collar. The longest hairs were at the crown, and fell forward, where i could pull them down to the tip of my nose. In college I hacked it "short" a few times—basically three or four finger-widths all over. By the time I was in my late 20s, my hair was fashionably long and layered—covering my ears and collar, but above my eyebrows. When it reached my eyebrows it was time for a trim. It was generally agreed I had "good" hair, thick, caramel-colored, with just a hint of red in the sun, and just enough curl to keep it from lying flat and lifeless. Girls and barbers loved my hair, but I didn’t—fantasized about getting it all whacked off into a flattop. One weekend, I went to a U2 concert, and was transfixed by Larry Mullin, Jr's flattop. I kept thinking that if he can pull it off, maybe I can too.
The next day, I set out with the intention of getting a flat. There was only one place to go, it had been my usual shop as kid, back when I got a "regular boy’s haircut" during school, and a "short Ivy League" or "Princeton" on the first day of summer vacation. I knew these barbers could cut a flattop. I’d watched them cut lots of them over the years, ranging from the the big, boxy, salt and pepper flat of my Scoutmaster, Mr. McDowell, to the whispy, blond, high and tight flattop of the choir director at my church. The summer I got a "Princeton," the boy ahead of me in line asked for "a short haircut for summer." Mr. Churchill suggested a flattop, so I got to watch a fresh flat being cut. I wanted a flattop too, but was too timid to ask, so I asked for "a short summer haircut," just like the last kid, thinking I’d get the same response. Mr. Churchill asked if I wanted my usual "Ivy League," and I said "no, something shorter this year." Instead of suggesting a flattop, he suggested something called a "Princeton." Today, most people think of the last two as different names for the same cut, Mr. Churchill, explained that they were similar, but distinct. His "Ivy League" was cropped short just over the crown, only as far as it took to get to the hair that wants to lay forward on top of the head. A "Princeton" was much shorter, shorn close all the way up to where the skull turns down toward the forehead, so only the hair from the temples forward was left long enough to comb. He described it as a crewcut with a combable bumper. He also explained that while the "Ivy League" could be cut with scissors, so the crown was short, but not necessarily shorn, he always cut a Princeton with clippers over the crown, usually a number 2 or 3, but sometimes shorter. For my "Princeton, he used a 1 ½ over the crown, and left just enough hair up front to brush it to one side, but not enough to make even a tiny quiff. It was not that much longer than the flattop I craved, but it didn’t seem as risky—or as exciting. I left pleased with the haircut, but disappointed with myself. My one complaint about the "Princeton" was that it didn’t grow long enough over the summer for my twin cowlicks to lay flat by the time I got my back to school haircut, so I was still in the awkward "growing out" stage for school pictures, and I have the spiky-haired seventh grades pics to prove it.
So there I was, 15 years later, back in the same barbershop, trying to get up the nerve to ask the same barber for the same flattop had been too nervous to ask for in seventh grade. I looked around, and there was not a single short-hair in sight. Even Mr. Churchill had grown his short taper out into a full, blocked, side-part with a big push-broom mustache. I fingered my hair, looked at it in the mirror, admired my sideburns, and tried to imagine it all gone. When I got in the chair, I chickened out—again—and asked for a shorter version of my usual layered cut. Mr. Churchill—Jim, now—cut it as directed, and did a great job. My ears were half exposed, and the back lay just over the the collar. It was about three to four inches long all over, and cut to maximize the tiny bit of wave in my hair. When he handed me the mirror to check it out, he said " You don't look happy. Did I get it wrong?" All of a sudden the words just popped out, "No, you did a great job! I got it wrong. I came in intending to ask for a flattop, but I chickened out." "Really? I can take care of that now, if you want. Do you want a flattop?" I hesitated, just a moment too long, apparently, because Jim whipped out scissors and comb, lifted my bangs, and chopped them off at about one and a half inches long, and asked "How about now?" I laughed, and said "Go for it!"
Watching the process was fascinating. First, he scissored the top to the same length as the mutilated bangs, sheared off the sides and back. Next, he massaged a big glop of gel into my hair. Then he spent a long time using a brush and blow dryer to get every hair standing upright. The whole time I was thinking "I cant believe he did that. I can't believe I'm doing this. What if my ears stick out? Oh, God, what will my friends think? Wow, that's REALLY short! How long will it take to grow this out? What if my hair's too limp? Too thin? Why did I say that? Oh, God, it's going to be FOREVER before my cowlicks lie down again." Just about then, Jim said "Hold still, and plowed the clippers freehand right down the center of my head, cutting a flat 2" furrow though the spiky mess. A few more passes, and I definitely had a flattop. Jim made several more freehand passes with the clippers, vigorously brushing what was left of my hair this way and that between runs. These later passes took no hair off in front, but it felt like he was getting closer and closer to my scalp on top, and at the crown. He seemed to be angling the clippers down towards the back of my head. Then he started trimming tiny bits, even individual hairs, with clipper over comb, followed by scissors over comb. Most of this was focused on the corners. Wow! I thought, my head has corners! That never happened before.
Finally, Jim spun the chair around so I could see myself in the closer mirror behind the chair. He was talking, but all I could take in was this cleancut stranger in the mirror. Every hair stood at attention, and all were EXACTLY the same length. It was incredibly sharp, crisp, and square—and insanely short.
I reached up and ran my hand up the back of my head. Instead of the soft fluff I'd had minutes before, it was stiff & bristly. I reached up to feel the top. First of all, my hair was not where I expected it to be, then I noticed how odd the flatness felt, and how stiff and springy. Pat, pat, pat, WOW! About then, my hearing kicked back in, and I heard the barber asking "Do you like it?" "I think so. Yeah, I like it a lot! Thanks!" I started to get up, but he put a hand on my shoulder, and said, not so fast young man! We're not done yet. I cut it pretty long, and left it boxy, with square corners, and not much skin showing. Is that what you want?" I took the hand mirror, and looked at the sides, back, and top of my head. He was right. I could see just a hint of scalp, no more. The back was tapered slightly, but not tight. I'd guess now it was no shorter than a number 3 ½ on the sides and back. He said " I can take it closer on the sides, if you want to see some skin, or I can skin it completely. Some guys like that. I rounded the back to keep your cowlicks under control, but I left the corners long and square. I can round those too, or bevel the sides so the flat deck is narrower. That will make it last longer between cuts, if you decide to keep it this way."
I told him it looked great, and said "I should have done this a long time ago!" He laughed, and said "It sounds like you're a flattop convert!" Then he lathered up around my ears, and gave me an outline shave, brushed me off, and sent me on my way with a tube of hair gel and a handleless brush. I loved that haircut, and couldn't stop feeling it, and looking at it in the mirror. Reception was decidedly mixed. Lots of USMC jokes, but lots of compliments and requests to touch it, too.
Three weeks later, it was looking less crisp. The corners were softening, the sides were starting to lay down, and it was taking longer to blow dry my flattop than it had taken with my old layer cut. I returned to get my flattop freshened up, but Jim was on vacation, so his older colleague, Dean, took care of me. Once I was caped, he asked "Flattop, right?" then asked if I like it short. I said yes, enthusiastically, thinking he meant short hair in general, not a short flattop. Dean smiled, and said "Alright, then, short it is!" His first pass with the clippers mowed a swathe down the center of my head, starting well below the mid-point of the front hairs. I gulped. Then I felt bare metal touch scalp midway back, and follow the curve of my skull over the crown and down in back. Oh s**t! "Is there something wrong? You said you like it short." I said, "I didn't know you meant THIS short, but OK, lets see how it turns out." He said, "Sorry, Buddy," and chuckled. He finished flattening the top, leaving it shorter than my grown out sides. Next, he ran the clippers straight up the back, all the way to the crown, and over. I couldn’t see how much hair fell, or how much was left. I could tell by the breeze on my scalp that this was the shortest my hair had ever been cut. As he worked his way around to my right temple, I saw huge chunks of hair falling, and finally, the whole side of my head stripped completely bare. I gulped hard—a couple of times. While Dean walked around to my left side, I ducked my head to glimpse the top of my head. Most of it was as bare as the right side. All I could think was "I’m bald! I’m totally freakin’ bald!"
Once he’d stripped the left side bare, Dean handed me the mirror. I was almost afraid to look. sure enough, my head was totally bald in the back, all the way up and over the crown. The sides were bald too, and my scalp was glaring white. On top, all that was left was a U of hair, less than half an inch long in front, and fading to bare scalp behind. There was also a pronounced inward slant to the sides, which left the flat top deck much narrower than before. Dean explained that this was the cut he used to be known for. He said customers used to drive for an hour or more to get one of his "special short flattops," but that he didn’t have many requests for it any more. As I was studying the result, Dean started the hot lather machine. I didn’t think anything of it when he spread the lather on the sides and back of my head—until he applied the razor a good inch and a half above my ear. This was no outline shave! There was no doubt about it, this was one brutal haircut, but it was also a masterpiece of precision. I couldn’t help but admire it, but I couldn’t recognize myself, or imagine going out in public before it grew out, either.
Once the remaining lather was wiped away, and I was uncaped, dusted, brushed, and wiped down, I couldn’t wait to feel my denuded scalp. The smooth skin at the nape and above my ears felt strange, alien. Above that it changed to a coarse sandpaper texture that made rasping sounds when I rubbed it. This continued up over the crown, and almost to the front hairline—right to the point Jim’s clippers cut on that long ago "Princeton." This second flattop was a much bigger shock than the first, and I took a lot more grief from friends and family. I hated the way it looked, but I absolutely loved the way it felt. The sensation of the sun and wind on my scalp as I drove home in my Alfa Spyder was incredible. "OK, I can live with this, if I can just avoid looking in the mirror."
Public reaction was not kind. It stung even more because I agreed that this was not a good look for me. I definitely didn’t have the attitude this haircut demanded. After a week, I had enough regrowth—and enough of a tan on my bare scalp, for my skinned horseshoe to have weathered in. Because my skin and hair were so close in color, it began to look more natural, almost like my head had been carved into a new shape, and I felt much less self-conscious. After 2 weeks, it was still much shorter than my original flattop, but I was beginning to miss that crisp, sandpapery feeling. I liked that the top was beginning to fill in, but not that it was looking more round than square.
I waited another two weeks before going back to the barbershop. This time, both Jim and Dean were in, and both greeted me. Choices, choices. I opted for Jim, and asked for him to cut the sides and back really close, but cut the top somewhere in between, with the sides beveled slightly. I asked him to cut the crown and landing strip about the same length he had originally cut the sides. The two barbers conferred briefly, and he began cutting. The result was great! I'd finally found MY flattop. I kept my hair in some form of flattop for much of the next thirty years. Sometimes I’d let it grow out in the winter, just to enjoy the thrill of having a full head of hair shorn off. Sometimes, I’d get a super short high and tight horseshoe in mid winter, just for the hell of it. Once or twice, I buzzed it down all over, but that was something I always regretted once the immediate thrill was past. I moved several times, and suffered through several atrocious flattops, before I finally resigned myself to cutting my own, if I wanted it done right. Over the years my hair has gotten thinner, which made longer flattops look limp and wispy, and developed patches of white that looked bald when cut too short. Finally, I shaved my head smooth. It took several months before I stopped startling myself in the mirror, but shiny bald or a number 1 buzz is now my new normal. Even so, I’m still a flattoper at heart.