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Midcourse Correction by Lee


The late 60s and early 70s never made it to my household when it came to hair styles. I was the youngest of six boys, with a father who had maintained clean-cut sons since his first was born in 1950. When I came along in 1964 after a 6-year hiatus, there wasn’t going to be a sudden change in routine. Every four weeks without fail, the entire troop headed off to Andy’s Barbershop in our small Ohio town for simple tapered butch cuts—my dad called them "the old 1-2-3": tapered sides and back from a 1 to a 2 guard, with a #3 on top. No exceptions. When sons turned 16, they were allowed to move to a short back and sides/side part circa 1962, but nothing more "radical" than that. True to his values, my dad maintained something in between the two for his entire adult life: a short ivy league that looked like a crewcut from behind, but with enough left toward the front for a modest comb-over.

By the time I reached middle school in 1975 and the last brother in the house left for college, I stood out like a sore thumb with my classic butch. Intense lobbying to my mother over the course of the summer before the start of sixth grade finally got dad to relinquish hair control over and allow me to start growing it out about a month before school started. By Thanksgiving, I had approached the common 70s "long bangs and straight across the bottom of the ears" look, but continued asking my mom’s salon stylist to leave the bangs longer until I could start a good side part. By spring of 6th grade I had thick, straight blond hair and long locks I used to comb over. I carried one of those classic 1970s thick, shiny combs made of translucent plastic in my hip pocket at all times, and would flick my head at a ridiculous frequency to keep the hair out of my eyes. My dad kept making comments about it, but I think my mom enjoyed having a son with modern hair and reminded him "it’s just the style now." Looking back, I was clearly ignoring some veiled warnings from my dad to get the "style" under control, and he regularly growled when he saw me do my patented head flick. At the time, I was enjoying some new-found popularity with middle school girls, and loved it when they commented on my hair or touched it when flirting with me. Inside, I had gained self-confidence now that I was finally on the edge of fashion.

My mom had an aunt in Indiana that my dad wasn’t particularly fond of (actually, none of us were!), but my mom was good niece and made an annual trek to visit her for a week right after school was out. School ended on a Thursday and she left the following morning. On Saturday morning, my dad came in at the wee hour of 9:00am (horrors!) and woke me to say we had a slew of errands to run and he didn’t want to wait any later for me to get up. I was groggy, but didn’t mind too much, as I enjoyed running shotgun with him on weekend tasks sometimes. He served me some breakfast and we headed into town. On the way, he said first stop would be the barbershop because we both needed haircuts. That started me protesting, because I hadn’t had my haircut at Andy’s since the previous July and didn’t want to reverse that shift in the least.

He wasn’t hearing any of it, and like a fool I kept complaining all the way into the shop. When the door opened, the old familiar smell hit me—clipper oil, cigarette smoke, shaving cream, and some combination of hair waxes and pomades. Definitely a distinctly different smell from the beauty salon’s bitter combination of permanents, hair colors, and sprays. The interior hadn’t changed in my lifetime—and perhaps my dad’s lifetime—but the clientele sure had. No one in the two chairs or the waiting area was below the age of 30, and most were well past 50. As my dad and I sat down, I was facing a man who was one of the youngest customers, but nevertheless was in the process of having Andy clean up what was already a fairly crisp flattop.

I turned to my dad and said in slightly too loud of whisper that the customer clearly heard from the chair, "See, this is why I didn’t want to come here. The only kind of haircuts this place gives are old man cuts from 1958."

My dad was normally very even-tempered, but he was diligent about teaching his sons to be respectful and this kind of rudeness was something he didn’t tolerate. He flushed immediately, and said (in a full voice so that everyone in the shop heard), "Bobby, what’s gotten into you? Apologize to Andy AND this gentleman, then close your mouth until it’s your turn in the chair."

I was at least smart enough to obey him at this point. I apologized to both men, who accepted my feeble "I’m sorry—that was rude of me" with a chuckle, and the gentleman’s flattop continued as I picked up a magazine to try to disengage in my embarrassment. After a minute or two of silence, with me stewing about what was inevitably going to be my least favorite haircut of the year, the customer struck up a conversation with my father.

"The funniest part of this little matter is that my dad made me get my first flattop when I was about your son’s age, and it was actually in 1958. He had let me sport a rockabilly with a ducktail when I was in elementary school—thought it was cute to have a little greaser, I guess. But then I took it too much to heart and started sassing and blowing off school work. When he found out, he dragged my butt straight to the barbershop and told the barber I required a ‘midcourse correction.’ Once I was caped and in the chair, my dad asked the barber what haircut he associated with polite, obedient boys. The barber winked at me in the mirror and suggested a tight flattop, cleaned up every 2 weeks without fail. My dad said that sounded great, the clippers came on, and that was the end of my rockabilly days. Every two weeks without fail, my dad had me back in that chair. I hated it at first, but there was something about it that set expectations and boundaries. I tried growing it out a few years ago, but gave up after a few months. I’m not even sure it’s about the style—I think it’s more about the perfection of it. Everything else just looks sloppy to me now. Don’t worry, little man, whatever cut your dad decides, remember it always grows back. Although come to think of it, Andy, I guess mine never did!"

That drew a round of laughter from everyone except me. Even as I pretended to still read the magazine, I was willing the customer to stop talking, worried my dad would get ideas. I figured he was going to compromise with my mom and tell Andy to cut my hair above the ears with a side part like my brothers sported in high school. That would be bad enough in 1976, but when mom got back in a week, she would put an end to any follow-ups at Andy’s—and by the time 7th grade started in the fall, it would be long enough that no one would really notice.

The flattop customer left with absolutely no play on his perfectly level deck and not much more than a dusting of hair on the sides, and then Andy proceeded to plow through a few older customers. My dad stepped up and got his usual too-close for my comfort ivy league, and then it was me, doing a "dead man walking" routine for the three steps to the chair. Andy tissued and tightly caped me, then started pumping me up as he turned back to my dad.

"So, what are we doing with this hairy monster today, Mike?"

My dad looked straight at me for a moment, then over to Andy and said, "I was going to suggest a short back and sides for the summer, but your earlier customer made some really good points. I let my wife take over the haircare for this guy, and I’m not happy with the results. What did that other guy’s dad say? I think it’s time for a midcourse correction. Bobby here needs a little more focus and crispness in his life. I think a flattop would be a great start to that—same length as that earlier guy."

My face turned red and I said, "Dad, no way…" But my dad looked at me and put his finger to his lips—a move he had done with all of his kids. It meant another word out of your mouth would result in some serious punishment—it was a signal to be missed at your own peril. I shut up immediately, thinking another word would result in something even worse, like a total head shave. I gripped the arms of the chair, furious, and steeled myself for whatever happened next.

To my surprise, Andy seemed to come to my rescue.

"Are you sure?" he asked my dad. "With that blond hair of his, he’d look really sharp in a flattop—I haven’t cut one on a boy his age for years. But I usually don’t recommend a flattop for a kid that doesn’t want it, because it requires a commitment—especially if you’re going to maintain it. You have to wax it up every morning, and you have it cleaned up every two weeks. If he doesn’t take care of it, it’s not going to look good. Hey, I’m not complaining—Bobby here could become a regular customer again, but he doesn’t look too happy about it. Maybe we should just give him the old 1-2-3. That’ll give him a no-maintenance cut for the summer and then you can decide in August what you want to do for the fall."

My eyes shot from the barber to my dad, but he wasn’t having any of it. "No, he loves to play with his hair right now, combing and flicking those bangs all day. He can play with his flattop every morning instead, and I don’t mind bringing him every two weeks if it’s going to teach him some good habits about personal hygiene. Maybe we can get him to be a little less distracted by his beautiful locks."

Andy shrugged and stepped behind me. He combed my hair straight down and forward, eliminating my part. Then I could hear him oiling and brushing his old steel clippers. I remembered the routine from my butch days, but I still jumped and my heart sank further when he clicked them on and approached the side of my head.

"This first time is going take a little while, Bobby, so just relax," he said. "I’ve got to cut a lot of this bulk away before I can start shaping everything correctly." And with that, the clippers approached my sideburn area and started plowing up and away at the top. I could see he had a pretty big guard on them, but the chunks of hair falling into my lap and onto the floor were still pretty shocking. This was NOT going to end well for me, but I took some satisfaction in knowing how mad my mom would be when she got back from Indiana and was still confident this was going to be a one-and done ordeal for me.

Andy quickly worked his way around my head to the other side, and then picked up his flattop comb and made his first pass on top from front to rear. The first top hair to go was my favorite feature—my long front fringe. With the first zip of the clippers across the comb, a giant lock fell into my lap and I could suddenly see my dad’s face clearly, who was watching my transformation with quiet satisfaction. Two more zips, and I knew most of my hair was now on the floor. Four more zips took Andy all the way through to the crown, and I could see my head shape already starting to change in the mirrored wall behind my dad’s chair. I’m going to look like such a dweeb, I thought, and prepared for a summer with a baseball hat glued to my head.

Andy turned off the clippers, used his soft brush to knock some long remnant locks off my sheared head, then quickly unclipped the cape, shook off the mound of hair that had accumulated onto the floor, and just as quickly reclipped it for round 2. I looked at the pile of blond hair that surrounded the chair. I had beautiful hair. I loved the way it shined, and I loved that I had stayed blond long after most of my blond friends had started to darken as they reached puberty. I saw my social life, my confidence, and potential attractiveness down there. And then Andy topped off my dispair with an offhanded comment to my dad.

"He’s going to go more ash blond with this cut, I think, Mike. His kind of hair lightens up as it grows, so keeping it close to his head is going change his look a little bit now that he’s older."

"That’s okay," my dad shot back. "It’ll make him look more mature. Maybe that’ll help him act more mature, too."

I heard Andy changing guards behind me and start on my first sideburn again. I could see from the size of the guard as the clippers came near that the next round was going leave me with nothing more on the side of my head than the length I had lived with for my first 11 years. I just gripped the arms harder and tried not to shake as I could feel the old familiar sensation and warmth of the clipper as it climbed about halfway up the side of my head. Its motor hummed in my ear, crackling slightly with every hair it sheared closely and evenly. Going slower and more carefully now, Andy worked his way around my head, mowing up the back of my head to a point that seemed impossibly high before moving to the next strip. Once he ended on my left sideburn, he changed guards and repeated the loop, this time pulling the clippers away only as he neared the top curve of my head. In the mirror, my head was already looking blocky as he set the clippers down and came back with a spritz bottle.

I’ve since seen other barbers doing flattops on Youtube cranking through a can of hairspray, but Andy simply spritzed my head with water. He then grabbed a stiff bristle brush and started aggressively brushing my top back and up, over and over. I could feel my eyebrows lifting with every stroke near the front, but again, in the mirror, I could see my hair was quickly surrendering to his will. Once he was satisfied with its general direction, the brush went down, the clippers and flattop comb came up, and he again took his first "lift and zip" to set a significantly short deck length than when he roughed in the top initially. By the time his clipper and comb had reach my crown, I was concerned that I could feel the heat and weight of the clipper near my scalp, reassuring me that he had left virtually nothing behind by that point. In the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself. It was horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. The clippers turned off again, the stiff brush came back, and Andy forced what was left of my hair to comply even closer with his demands. Then the clipper and comb came back on the scene to fine-tune edges and any hair (well, let’s be honest, bristles as that point) that dared defy him.

At this point my image reminded me of the Looney Tunes coyote after being hit by an anvil. Could I even push this ridiculous haircut down and forward to save face when I was away from home? Andy wasn’t done, though. He switched guards again—this time to an odd one that was taller on one side than the other. Holding it perfectly straight, he ran it along the left edge of my new deck from front to back, leaving behind a tighter corner. He then turned the clippers sideways and ran them against my right top corner. A quick switch of guards and he was back with one configured the opposite way. Holding the clippers straight, he ran it along the right top edge again, then turned it perpendicular and ran it along my left top edge. In the mirror, my head had become impossibly yet more squared off—and I thought I could see my scalp starting to shine through what little hair was left on top.

When the clippers turned off this time, Andy opened a small cannister and scooped out a finger full of a waxy substance. He rubbed it between his hands to warm it up and loosen it, then started rubbing it in my hair. Wiping his hands on a towel, he grabbed his bristle brush on now gently pushed my top into place and brushed my side and back stubble down (although I’m not sure there was much to brush there).

"This Lucky Tiger will re-train your hair pretty quickly," he explained. "I’ll give you a tin before you go—just work it in like I’m doing every morning and brush everything straight up. By the time school starts, your hair will pretty much grow in this direction and you probably won’t need to use it every day."

"But he will," added my dad, looking me in the eyes.

Staring at my top, Andy then grabbed a small pair of scissors and eliminated a few offending hairs that dared go any direction other than what he commanded. One last brush through and his masterpiece was complete. He spun my chair around so I could see my new look in the closer mirror. He help up a hand mirror behind me so I could see the tightly faded back as well. I didn’t recognize the perfectly clippered, squared-off, and waxed-up boy in the mirror, and I was already wondering how long it would take until I wouldn’t be embarrassed if a friend—and especially a girl—saw me. I looked like a remnant of a different era, like a cover of a 1958 Boy’s Life magazine. My dad on the other hand, was ecstatic.

"Andy, that’s amazing. You gave me my son back. Bobby, thank your barber for his work."

If my face could have gotten redder at this point, it would have. Summoning all of my control, I murmured, "Thank you" to Andy (for ruining my social life, I thought).

Andy jumped in, acting like this had somehow been an idea I was excited about. "Okay, let me tell you what we’ve got here so you can order it yourself from now on. I did a 1-up on the sides with a three-quarter inch deck. Tip your head down a little—do you see that whitish stripe forming toward your crown? That’s your landing strip. When you can’t see that any more, it’s time to come visit me for a clean-up. Like I told your dad, that’s pretty much every two weeks. I know you don’t believe me, but once you’re used to this new cut, if you go longer than that your lack of crispness will actually bother you."

My dad’s next question almost killed me. "Hey Andy, if I had you cut it shorter, what would we order? I’m happy with this for now, but if I decide later I’d rather clean him up a little more?"

Andy gestured at my front. "Well, we could take him down to about a half-inch deck. He’d look really sharp, but the landing strip would definitely be more pronounced—and honestly, to keep it all matched, I’d go to whitewalls on the sides and back blended into the strip in the back."

"Okay," said my dad. "Maybe something to think about next time we come in."

Andy loosened the cape and removed the tissue, clippered any final stray hairs on my neck, and then released me to the floor. My dad paid Andy and I followed him towards the door, rubbing my hand against the stubble on the back of my head where earlier two inches of soft, blond hair once grew. (Whether you love the look or not, there’s still nothing like the feel of petting a clippered nape against the grain, and it had been over a year since I had had that pleasure.)

"See you in two weeks!" my dad promised the barber, then he stopped and turned. "Oh, one last thing. Could we buy one of those hand brushes over there?" I saw a row of mini-plastic handle-less bristle brushes on a hook tree. "He could use one of these to keep himself sharp during the day."

Then he turned to me as he paid Andy for the brush. "Give me that ridiculous comb you carry all the time."

I handed him my comb out of my hip pocket.

"You won’t be needing that any more," he said, and tossed it in the metal trash can in the corner of the shop.

As my heart leapt and my face instantly heated again, all I could hope was that mom would limit this humiliation to a one-time event that would be noticeably faded by the time school started.





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