IT was on a quiet Sunday afternoon, when my wife let out a scream that could have shattered all the glass in the china cupboard. Maybe it did shatter some of it, I didn't check. It was a piercing scream of such quality that I'm sure it matched any from terrified women in 5th-century Rome when the savage Visigoths were climbing over the walls with swords in their teeth. Screams of this nature tend to root me to the spot. My courage is much like eating a Popsicle in July. Unless I attack at once, everything melts into a sticky puddle of inaction.
The sounds were coming from the bedroom, so, with my Popsicle courage I rushed blindly in that direction, hoping that the trouble was nothing more than a murdered body discovered under the bed.
When I arrived, my wife's screams had diminished to gasps and gurgles. She was staring wide-eyed into an open dresser drawer where I could see just the tip of some hairy object. My imagination thumbed rapidly back through horror films I had seen and I visualized some monster emerging from the warm darkness of slips and pantyhose.
I looked madly about for a weapon. At this moment my wife found her trembling voice and said, ``It's all right. It's only my new wig.'' I nearly collapsed from relief.
However, this was only the first of several encounters. A wig in the house was the result of a style experiment by my spouse, but somehow she was always coming upon it by surprise. It was only a day or so later that I heard a loud clatter and scream as she dropped a box of unidentifiable keys upon opening the hall closet. On the shelf crouched the wig, ready to pounce.
There were other encounters, mostly in dark corners, and although the cat-and-mouse relationship between spouse and wig finally evolved into a shaky truce, it was clear that our household was destined to be a wigless one.
The experience was not entirely negative: For the first time it made us aware of wigs in the world around us. The word ``wig,'' I discovered, was a shortened form of ``periwig.'' It was wise to shorten the term, since periwig sounds like some small plant-eating insect that should be sprayed every spring.
No one knows exactly when wigs were invented. They probably go back to prehistoric times, when Neanderthal man began wearing headpieces made of yak hair. Neanderthal man being what he was, the yak hair no doubt looked almost as good on him as it did on the yak, which encouraged further efforts at beautification with hair from a woolly mammoth.
Wigs have been found in archaeological digs in Denmark that place them between 1500 and 800 BC. They were known to be worn by both men and women in ancient Egypt, and have remained an acceptable fashion ever since, mostly as adornment.
Today, the position of the wig in society has shifted quite noticeably. It is still on the head, of course, but it is now more in the realm of cosmetic surgery than pure ornamentation, especially where men are concerned. In the days of the Cavaliers, during the reign of Charles II, no one was supposed to believe that the peruke, with its mountains of swirls and curls, was the man's real hair. Around 1730, soldiers wore a headpiece called a tie-wig, but these were also identifiable as wigs and didn't fool anybody.
In the world of today, although the word wig is used freely by women, with men it has become obsolete. The term is more often hairpiece, or hair replacement, and is a marvel of deception. The wig, or hair replacement, is held in place by two-way tape or invisible clips, and in many cases can be worn in the water. There is the story about the ad for a certain brand of water-resistant hairpiece which claimed that one could swim and dive while wearing it. A man bought one because up until then he had never been able to swim or dive at all.
Wearing a wig apparently does entail certain risks. For instance, the first warning on the instruction sheet that comes with a wig is: ``Do not open the oven door with your wig on!'' It goes on to say that the wig will ``frizz.'' One suspects that the word ``frizz'' is a euphemism for some more horrendous, smoky calamity. It is not practical to make wigs of real hair, so they are made mostly of acrylic or other synthetic fiber that needs more tender care than the hair that is on one's own head.
In ancient Rome, before the days of acrylics, real hair had to be used. This meant raiding Northern Europe for wig-hair and bringing back blondes and redheads, blond and red being the favorite colors. One can readily imagine that this hair-gathering eventually irritated the Germanic tribes to the extent that they went down and conquered Rome to get their hair back. At least it might have been a contributing factor.
The wig, or hair replacement, has found a new kind of acceptance in modern times. It has become more undetectable. It is an art form. However, this new dimension gives television-watching a brand-new zest: In addition to simply watching the news or a feature program, one tries to pick out the real head of hair from the realistic wig or hair replacement. It is a game needing rare skill.
Of course, wigs worn for obvious theatrical effect don't count - like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Dolly Parton, Phyllis Diller, and maybe sometimes Tina Turner. But when one gets into the iffy domain, guessing about Frank Sinatra, Dan Rather, Sam Donaldson, George Hamilton, and the like, he needs the qualities of genius.
Wigs are a lot of fun. They bring new satisfaction to the social and entertainment worlds. But I can't help but wonder if Dolly Parton ever screamed when she came upon her wig unexpectedly in the dark.