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Midcourse Correction: Chapter 2 by Lee


As we got in the car and drove to our first errand of the morning, I was silent. I was trying to process what had just happened—my hair was a function I had "self-assumed" a year prior and yet it appeared I had moved backward for reasons I couldn’t understand.

My dad looked over at me a couple of times and sighed. "Well, you look super sharp even if you’re not excited about the change."

"I look like an idiot. No one in my school has their hair cut like this."

"Look, I never should have let you start choosing your haircut last year," he explained. "You weren’t ready. Even if your friends are choosing how they wear their hair, at your age that should be my prerogative, not yours. Your brothers all had to wait until they were 16 to grow out their hair, and even then I set limits on length. I should have done the same thing with you, but I let your mom talk me out of it. I was sorry as soon as I said yes. I don’t like long hair on you. It doesn’t represent the values I want you to reflect and live by. You were way too distracted and enamored with your long hair. It’s my job to teach you and enforce the values I want you to have until you’re an adult. I want you focused on more important things, so from now on you won’t have to think about your hair at all—that’s my job again.

"And before you even say anything, I want to be really clear. This is non-negotiable from now on. Even with your mom. We’re not going to discuss any changes to your hairstyle. If I decide something different in the future, I will let you know. In the meantime, if you ask me about growing it out or argue about getting it cut, we’re going to go with Andy’s shorter version with whitewalls. If I find out you’ve been lobbying mom, you get the whitewalls. I want that deck crisp, straight, and waxed every day. If I catch you not maintaining it or trying to push it down, even when you’re away from home, we go with the whitewalls. I’m not having another conversation about your hair in our household, or you won’t have any hair left to discuss.

"I will talk to your mom about this when she gets back. If she asks you if you’re okay with this cut, you are to tell her that your hairstyle is up to dad, not you. Now, let’s get on with our day. There are more important aspects of our relationship that hair. It’s time we focused on those things instead."

"I’m glad we’ll have time to talk about other things, since you’ll be the only friend I’ll have!" I blurted out. "No one is going to even talk to me if I’m walking around with this buzzed head." Then I turned away and stared out my window. My gut was twirling, my arms were shaking, and my eyes were welling up with tears. But I pushed down my anger and hurt because I didn’t want to give my dad any satisfaction. I could say whatever he told me to, but there was no way mom was going to let this become a regular thing.

"If someone stops being your friend because you got a haircut, they’re not your friend," he replied. "Someone might yang your chain about this for a minute, but in 5 minutes it won’t matter to anyone else as much as this seems to matter to you. But like I said, it’s out of your hands. Tell them your dad is a jerk who thinks long hair is for girls. I don’t care what they think of me. From now on, you’ve got a flattop. Get used to it."

When we got home, I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I needed to get a look at this cut to figure out how bad it really was. My image in the mirror hadn’t changed from my last glance as we had left the barbershop hours before. You had to hand one thing to this style—it held its shape amazingly well. I kept trying to push down my waxed up spikes, only to see them return pretty much to their original position. The Lucky Tiger was doing its thing. I tried wetting it down, but my hair largely repelled the water, again because of the Lucky Tiger. Still mad, but fully trusting my dad to deliver on his promise, I pulled the new hand brush out of its package and returned my deck to perfection with a couple of strokes before I left the bathroom. I figured I would try again after my shower in the morning.

When I got up and looked in the mirror on Sunday morning, my normally impressive bedhead was replaced by a very unimpressive, slightly askew deck. Out of curiosity, I grabbed the hand brush and saw I could put the flattop back into pretty decent shape within a few strokes. In the shower, I discovered I needed to shampoo twice to get enough of the Lucky Tiger out for my hair to squeak again. I came out of the shower and towel dried my bristly top, now that it was free of the Lucky Tiger. Wiping the steam off the mirror, I took a fresh look at the cut. The wet hair sagged, but the basic shape was still there. I added water from the sink and found that my hair had to be soaked before it finally laid down enough for me to see my more round-headed self in the mirror. There you are, I thought. If mom can fix this, maybe it won’t take until September for your hair to calm down and lay forward again. A couple of rubs of the towel, however, and my hair started springing up again and squaring off almost immediately. And once I opened my own can of Lucky Tiger and reluctantly rubbed some of the balm into my hair, the top started spiking up into place. Again, a few strokes of the brush and the perfect box was back. The precision of the cut really was amazing. At least dad won’t give me crap at breakfast, I thought. Whatever happened eventually, I was determined not to give him a reason to have Andy shave the sizes and back of my head down to the skin.

In the days before Mom returned, my neighborhood friends got the first glance at my flattop, usually by yanking off my baseball cap after noticing a definite lack of hair showing on the sides and back. To a one, they were horrified and fascinated. Most of them kept touching it and rubbing it against the grain whenever they could until I’d smack their hands away in annoyance.

"Should we go see Andy and get you fixed up?" I’d say. They’d howl and say "yeah right, no thanks" even as they went in for another rub.

But honestly, my dad was right. After the initial shock, they all had more interesting things to talk about and do. It made me think maybe school wouldn’t be as bad as I expected it to be—although there was definitely a tendency for strangers (especially other kids) to stare when I was in public. In 1976, a 12-year old with a tight flattop was not something people saw very often.

When Mom got back, she was—not surprisingly—a little surprised at my new appearance. She gave me a hug and stroked my hair, then leaned back and said I looked handsome. And that was it. Nothing else was said, at least in front of me. I suddenly realized my dad must have already had a conversation with her about this—either before she left or maybe while she was gone. I knew I couldn’t ask her about my hair or I’d be losing even more the next time I saw Andy, and she seemed ready to move on with the assumption I would be keeping this ridiculous hairstyle indefinitely. My last chance to reverse this decision slipped away in front of me, and for the first time I really faced the prospect of moving forward without a say in how my own hair was cut.

My new daily Lucky Tiger routine made sure I left the bathroom with every bristle in place, and at the 2-week mark, I though the cut still looked crisp. Maybe I could at least reduce the frequency of these cuts moving forward. But sadly, my dad came in and woke me up two Saturdays after my first cut to remind me we needed to see Andy for a clean-up.

"Do you think I need it? It still seems the same as when he cut it," I dared ask.

"Every two weeks. That was the deal," he responded. I didn’t push it further.

This time as we arrived at the barbershop, my dad asked me if I remembered what Andy had told me to ask for. When I nodded, he said I needed to own this style, so he wanted me to tell Andy how to cut it from now on. At the time it seemed like just another point of humiliation, but I think my dad was working hard to "normalize" this in my mind—perhaps moving it eventually from his directive to something that was routine for me.

Andy seemed legitimately happy to see me, perhaps surprised that my dad was really going to follow through with this strict haircut decision for his son. My dad typically went four weeks between cuts, so this time it was only me in the chair. When Andy asked my dad what we were doing today, my dad pointed to me.

"Ask him, he’ll tell you."

"Uh, same as last time," I stammered, again feeling my face flush out of the frustration of personally ordering my own dorky haircut. "1 up on the sides with a three-quarter inch deck."

"Great, coming right up." Andy said cheerfully. "This won’t take as long as last time. I see you’ve been using the Lucky Tiger—that’s good. Keep doing that every day. I bet by the end of July your hair’s going to be trained well enough that I can start freehanding the top—that’ll really speed things up."

After a few brush strokes to make sure he had my hair where he wanted it, the clippers came on and Andy went to work. This time, all I saw were tufts of light fuzz and occasional individual bristles of hair flutter onto the cape. This is so stupid, I thought—I’m going to sit here for 20 minutes and you won’t be able to tell the difference.

At the end, Andy unclipped the cape and flicked the small pile of accumulated blond fuzz to the floor.
"A little different than last time, eh?" he asked.

What amazed me as he showed me this cut in the mirror, though, was that in spite of the small amount of hair he removed, you COULD tell the difference. I looked tighter. Cleaner. More precise. Better? I mentally pushed the thought away as I left (but again rubbed my freshly clippered nape up and down—hey, may as well enjoy what you can, right?).

By the end of July I was getting my fourth flattop. Andy commented about how "well trained" my deck was, and in fact did much of his clipping that day freehand instead of relying so strictly on his comb. His comment wasn’t really surprising to me, as by mid-July I couldn’t find my side part any more if I fanned through the top left "corner" of my hair. And even soaking wet and free of Lucky Tiger, I would clear the mirror after my shower only to see my bristles fighting to stand up erect. I was becoming one of those 1970s Troll dolls with hair that grew straight up out of its follicles, and I was quickly forgetting how I had even looked with long hair. The worst (strangest? alarming?) part, though, was that I caught myself noticing (and maybe wanting to correct?) imperfections in my flattop in the days just prior to a clean-up with Andy. I couldn’t help it—just as my dad had hoped, the flattop was starting to impact my self-perceptions. And there was still almost a month before I had to walk back into the middle school and start 7th grade with a very different personal look than I had when I left the building in June.

My dad managed to squeeze two more haircuts in for me before I started school—of course, the last one was executed the day before classes started, guaranteeing I was perfectly squared off and completely different from every other 7th grade boy walking through those doors. For the last cut, he dropped me at Andy’s door and came back to pick me up after the cut. He said he had some errands to run, but I think he wanted me to start independently managing my own flattop. It’s one thing to place your order with your father sitting in front of the chair. It’s another thing to enter a barbershop full of older men and "voluntarily" direct the barber to clipper you down to exact specifications. I still didn’t want whitewalls, so I did exactly what my father wanted. That school year went better than I expected, and after awhile an occasional dig ("Okay, Butch" or "Buzzhead" or "Sarge") from a non-friend started to matter less. I’d be lying to say the girls liked my new hairstyle like they fawned over my long blond side bangs, but some girls couldn’t resist an occasional nape rub any more than my friends, so I still got some attention from the opposite sex in spite of my fears.

By the end of 8th grade, my dad largely left me in charge of maintaining the cut he required. I was ordering "the usual" in the chair whether he was with me or not, and actually relaxed as the now familiar, warm clippers hummed up the back and sides of my head. As dad had once demanded of me, I had stopped worrying about my hair because it was an aspect of my life I had no right to control. And Andy and that other customer were right, too. There was a preciseness in that cut that I had somehow absorbed. I left middle school as an organized student with exacting personal standards. I even maintained a fairly neat bedroom, because my mind seemed to fight slop and chaos. I couldn’t help it. Things, like my hair, needed to always stay in place.

But as I was about to start high school, my dad had a different idea.




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