Tonight I got my hair cut and it triggered a rush of memories and good feelings. Perhaps it had never occurred to me before that triggers can be good as well as bad. The sound of the clippers and the feel of that tool against my head always sends me back to my childhood sitting in the barber chair with that white barbershop cape wrapped around my neck. When I was a boy there were two barbershops in town–Harry’s and Del’s. My family went to Harry’s, probably because he was older and there was already an established loyalty to him. Loyalty meant a lot to my mother when it came to where she shopped or did business. She liked Del–he was a nice man–but we had always gone to Harry’s, likely before Del even opened up shop, and that was where we would continue to go.
On haircut days I was always there early. There were dozens of comic books laying around that any boy could pick up and read. I can still smell the colored ink and see the amazing artwork of the Superman and Batman comics, as well as my favorite–the Elongated Man. Maybe because there was only one person in my class shorter than me the Elongated Man appealed to me in the way he could stretch his arms and legs out and become bigger than anyone else and use that to help save the world. As I sat there paging through those comics and dreaming about sea monkeys and spy glasses and all sorts of wondrous gadgets advertised in the back pages there would always be several men sitting in chairs and talking while awaiting their turn, or sometimes long after they had gotten their haircuts.
Besides the bars, which were reserved for the evening and night hours unless you were one of the town drunks, the barbershops and gas stations were the places where men could go to be around other men in that town. It was where they met to talk about sports, hunting and fishing, cars, and probably women, though they didn’t have in-depth discussions about women when young boys were around. Their conversations were always intriguing to me. Growing up without a father I didn’t understand much of anything about the things they talked about, but I took it all in as well as I could. I listened to their stories, even though I didn’t hunt or fish or know anything about cars and it would be years before I would teach myself about sports. Their conversations seemed like a foreign language to me, but I could tell that it all had deep meaning to them.
Harry was a good guy. It turned out that he was the grandfather of one of my best friends, Robbie. When I sat in his chair I felt like one of the men. He would find things that he and I could talk about while he worked. Sometimes he would talk about those manly things that he and the other men talked about, but in a way that a kid without a father or a lot of male influence in his life would understand. It felt like I was being introduced to a new world, like something from a story in a book at the school library. As he worked he would gently turn my head, snip away at my hair with his lightning quick scissors, and ask questions and ask me how it looked when he was done. It always felt like he really cared about me and what I thought.
His son and Robbie’s dad, Earl, was also a really good guy. At my house we had one small toolbox with my dad’s name stenciled on it and inside were a handful of tools, most of which seemed alien to me. I didn’t know what most tools were or how they were used, except maybe for a hammer and saw, and even then I didn’t know how to use them properly. Earl had tools. Lots of tools. The garage had pegboards on the walls with countless tools and I couldn’t even imagine what their possible uses might be. Robbie and I would often watch him work on one project or another. We would go down to the other side of town at night and watch Earl and his friend, Jerry, work on welding metal on stock cars or we would watch Earl work on his 1950s Ford Thunderbird. Getting a ride in that beautiful blue car was always a thrill.
One year when Robbie was sick Earl invited me to go with him to the annual father/son dinner up at the Methodist Church and all the men there welcomed me as if I were really a part of Earl’s family. Another year when I was a little older Earl and his wife, Dorothy, one of the most influential women in my life, allowed Robbie to invite me to go camping with the family. His sister got to invite a friend, too, and it was one of the most memorable times of my youth. We went several hundred miles up north in Wisconsin. We talked, sang, and played travel games all the way there and it was the first time in my life I had ever gone camping and I loved it. We went to state parks and I think that trip was where I really developed my love for nature and being in the wild. We went swimming in Lake Namekagon and dove off a tree that had fallen into Lake Owen, a natural diving board created by mother nature. We ate camp food and listened to the sounds of animals in the forest at night. We took a boat out onto the water and I fished with Earl and Robbie, something I didn’t like all that much but which somehow connected me with that fraternity of men who shared their stories at the barbershop. After that trip I knew that if any of those old men tried to bring me into the conversation I would now have stories to tell.