June 15, 2005

School chairs not only ones in which we learn

Tom Savage, my barber, died a year ago this week. Cancer got the better of him.

Tom wasn't my barber for very long, only about a year-and-a-half, but I saw pictures of his cabin ravaged by a summer windstorm and then pictures of it rebuilt. We discussed county politics, exchanged the details of family histories and vacations. It may not sound like much, but my disappointment that he won't cut my hair again is a testament to the unspoken bond that develops between a man and his barber.

Indeed, after I discovered Tom no longer was in business, I procrastinated on getting a haircut for three weeks. My wife finally dragged me into one of those new fast-food hairstylist chains. You know the place, one where the unnatural sharpness of florescent light bears upon you as a girl barely out of her teens (or a middle-aged woman wishing she were in her teens) bounces around with a scissors to the beat of some technopop dance track, a song made with synthesizers instead of actual musical instruments.

The stylists' talk of pregnancy and who is the cutest guy on the soaps wasn't inherently wrong in itself, but for me it was an alien world. I might as well have plopped down on Venus without a spacesuit; the place was suffocating.

For you see, like Samson, a man cannot let just anyone cut his hair.

Part of a boy's education about what it means to be a man comes when sitting in a barber's chair. A wise man knows that through adulthood a part of him always remains a boy; the monthly visit to one's barber is like checking the compass to make sure you're still on course.

• • •

My first barber, Jim, didn't much like me. I was only two and couldn't sit still in the chair. One warm summer night, when the men stepped outside for a reprieve to en-joy the sunset, I remained in the chair, the sheet draped over me pinching tight at the neck.

Growing bored, I began spinning around in the barber's chair as fast as I could just to see how much speed might be built up and to discover how much time would pass before I got dizzy. The men came in while was doing this, and I was scolded thoroughly.

Every visit after that, though, Jim always gave me three or four quick spins around the chair if I sat still while he cut my hair.

When I was six, my parents moved. Like a dog passed on to a new owner, my dad needed a while to take to Herb, our new barber. One month, Dad and I even trekked back to Jim's for a haircut.

But Herb remained my barber for nearly 12 years. And in his shop, as I waited for him to finish the haircuts of my dad and the other men, I first learned of newspapers. Though Herb's magazine stack contained the previous year's issues of outdoors magazines and a tattered copy of "Tom Sawyer," he always had that day's metro paper on hand.

Through that paper, I discovered there was a greater world out there than the small farm and village that was my home. The outside world, I also learned, was one full of deceit and violence. Yet, as I read of astronauts who might die in space, of a president lying to us and of boys not much younger than my father dying in a distant jungle, I always could look up and amid the warmth of Herb's water radiator, the heavy scent of Brylcreem and the men's talk of family and friends feel comforted.

• • •

My next barber, Norb, is my favorite of them all. Perhaps that's because he was my barber during college, those uncertain years when a boy breaks from the tether of his parents. Amid the headiness of new, fantastic opportunities that a boy realizes, accepting the responsibilities of career, wife and family is more frightening yet as essential to his existence than anything he's faced before.

Norb always was fond of telling how he cut the hair of both John F. and Robert Kennedy. While each Kenn-edy ran for president in 1960 and 1968, they stopped in my college town of River Falls, Wis., for a rally. John entered Norb's shop mainly for the photo op. But when Norb was done with him in the chair, John announced it was the best haircut he'd ever received.

When John left the shop, a secret service man told Norb that the senator had never said that before to any barber.

John must have meant it. Eight years later, when Robert was in town, he stopped into Norb's shop and told him his older brother, John, had recommended him for a haircut.

That's quite a tribute to Norb in more ways than one. Norb, you see, was an officer in the county Republican Party.

• • •

Norb also liked to tell allegories. More than once I read between the lines and used his advice. The one time I didn't follow it, though, I broke up with a girl I'd been dating for a year-and-a-half.

After I got my first job, I'd still drive past 30 miles of cornfields once a month just to have Norb cut my hair. And, even though I lived in such far off places as New Mexico, whenever traveling home to visit my parents I'd be sure to block out time to get to River Falls, just to have Norb cut my hair.

Norb is retired these days. Herb died about eight years ago of cancer. Jim passed away from the earth before I'd even entered adulthood. I bid them, and Tom Savage, all adieu.

And in the meantime, like many of Tom's former customers, I'll be letting my hair grow a little longer for awhile.

(originally published June 15, 2003)

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