In Memory of my Uncle Bob...
I have written about my Uncle Bob here at POI through the years, but the post that comes to mind is the one called "Cutting Hair" back in September of 2006. I've cut-and-pasted a much shorter version of that post below in memory of my Uncle Bob.
I’m not a barber, and I don’t stand at busy intersections wearing a sign: “Will cut hair for food.” It’s not something I do as an occupation or out of desperation. In fact, I have only one steady customer… myself. I’ve been cutting my own hair since high school.
I was thinking about it this morning: cutting hair is one of the subtle rhythms of life.
Somewhere in a shoebox at my mother's house there are pictures of my brothers and I crying while Dad, standing behind us in a white T-shirt, is giving us our “first hair cut.” From that time till the time we moved out of the house, the home hair cut was a way of life, a recurring ritual of sorts, for my three brothers and me (and for my Uncle Bob. He and Dad cut each other's hair once a month for many years). About once a month on a Saturday night (so we'd look sharp the next day for church), Dad would set up shop in our knotty-pine basement down by what had been a wet bar until we joined the Baptist church and converted it into a closet.
I remember climbing up on that stool and staring down at the checker-board tile, strewn with fallen brown and blonde tufts from my brothers' sheering. I can still hear the whispering buzz of the electric clippers and their clickity glissade across a comb-full of hair. The little sharp teeth of the blades tickled their way up my neck and around my ears. The steel blades were cold for the first boy in line and hot for the last. As the youngest (until Jim was born in '68), I was usually last. Sometimes the blades got so hot Dad would wrap them in a cold washcloth and sweep the floor while they cooled—then it felt like going first.
We didn’t mind short hair cuts when we were kids. These were the “Father Knows Best”/ “Leave it to Beaver” years, when virtually every male in America wore the same length of hair, a standard held since the dawn of modernity. Don’t believe me? Look in any yearbook or class composite through the mid-Sixties. Some brushed it back; some up; some down; some slicked it with Brylcreem or Score... but it was all pretty much the same length.
Short hair was a cinch—all of our role models had it: movie stars, pop singers, sports heroes, teachers—everyone! Highest on the list was my dad who got a “crew cut” when he joined the Navy and kept it all his life.
What we hated about hair-cut night was not the cutting of our hair but the interruption of our play. Because Dad's clippers didn’t work well with sweaty hair, he'd make us stop playing and “cool down” an hour before haircuts. It was that hour that we hated—the haircut itself was a breeze. In fact, the breeze from running up the steps and out the screen door felt twice as nice after a fresh hair cut.
Part of our home barbering ritual was the fact that my dad and my Uncle Bob (who also sported a crew cut for decades) cut each other's hair. Those two crew cuts kept them connected during the years when life's road widens and siblings tend to lose touch. Every month or so we'd drive to our cousins in Marysville an hour away. (Or they would come to our house.) The rhythm of cutting hair kept our families close through two decades. I have no doubt that was one of the reasons those two brothers kept crew cuts long after hairstyles changed... and oh, brother, did they change.
Some say it was The Beatles who introduced “long hair” to my generation. It's true that the Fab Four were derided as “mop tops,” but if you look at the pictures from their early years—the Ed Sullivan-“I Want to Hold Your Hand” years—the Beatles’ barely had enough hair to shake to the rhythm of “She Loves You Yea, Yea, Yea.” It took several years for longer styles to become common. The Beatles arrived when I was in 2nd Grade—not until I was in junior high, did some of my peers start “growing” their hair, and not until high school (in the Seventies) did the hair length on guys range from “clean cut” (a shrinking minority) to shoulder-length-or-longer / down-to-there hair (usually worn by the “hippie freaks,” “burn-outs,” and heavy metal rockers in my school). That may be unfair, but it was my perception at the time.
This was the peak of the Viet Nam era, and by then long hair had become a political statement, my generation's way of flippin' the bird at previously held values (simply because they had been previously held). In the early years of the hair-length debate, it was a fairly accurate means of “profiling” one’s attitudes. It may sound like Archie Bunker, but the stereotype was pretty consistent: If you were a pot-smokin,’ McGovern-voting, veteran-bashin’ Pinko, you had long hair. If you were still hoping the best for Nixon ,you had shorter hair—not Opie-Taylor short…but you were probably showing plenty of ear.
By the time my oldest brother Paul hit high school, we were contemplating an appeal to Dad. It was my sister Kathy who went to bat for us. “Dad, could you leave a little more hair on the guys? She’d stand there like a supervisor at cosmetology school pulling at our uncut hair telling Dad which parts to leave alone and which parts to "only trim." The look she was after was called “soch” (pronounced like the first syllable of social). To our surprise, Dad agreed to leaving more hair on our heads: "Hey, I don’t mind cutting hair every other month.”
Unfortunately, in Dad’s mind this simply meant giving us haircuts short enough to last two months before his anti-Beatles feelings kicked in and he revved up the sheers. So my brothers and I began secretly cutting each other's hair. By trimming our hair behind closed doors, we could keep Dad's clippers at bay for months. When my brothers went off to college, I simply did it myself with the help of a mirror. That's how this "cutting my own hair" thing started. By 1974, when I went off to college, I had it down pat.
Throughout my college years, I continued cutting my own hair as needed. I'll never forget one Saturday evening when I was walking my girlfriend to her dorm. At the end of the walk, she smiled and said, "You cut your hair today didn't you." "Did I take too much off?" I asked. "No, it looks fine, but there's a big clump of hair in your ear." I reached up and pulled out a wad the size of a GI Joe toupee. It had been there all afternoon and evening. She just wasn't sure how to tell me.
That's the main drawback to cutting your own hair: you have to be sure to clean up the area and yourself afterwards to keep the ladies happy. My wife hates seeing the bathroom sink until I have cleaned up every last strand. I don't blame her. Other than that, the art of the self-haircut is a useful skill. It has saved me roughly more than $6,000 over the years (which has in turn been spent by my wife and daughters on hair cuts). But cutting my own hair is not just about saving money; it's about perpetuating the ol' home hair-cut tradition. It's good to keep some things going.
To this day, I have no regrets for honoring my father during those "short hair" years. The styles eventually came back around, and in looking at my pictures from the high school and college, I'm glad I missed out on the worst "bad hair days" in modern times. As a less fortunate friend of mine once said, "If you remember the Seventies, you didn't experience them." I remember them vividly thanks to my dad, and compared to the crew cuts he and my Uncle Bob wore, I was really styling back in the day! [That is a picture of me in the rear-view-mirror of my 1965 Oldsmobile Delta 88 taken circa 1978.]
I don't want to sound morose, but when my father died in April of 1995, and I stood there at his casket before they closed it... I reached up and stroked his gray crew cut once and then again and again. In our early years of shared life, he had done that often to his young sons, but I had never done it back...touched his hair as if to say "I love you," but in that hour it seemed a very natural thing to do. His hair was upright and perfectly in place as it—and he—had been all my life.... It was soft, very soft against my hand.