Bad-Haircut Memories From Way, Way Back

We were having a hamburger one Saturday evening at our local McDonald's, when my attention was snagged by a young father-son team who sat down in the booth in front of us. The boy was about 8 or 9, a neat-looking little chap wearing horizontally striped, baggy pants.

But after a few minutes it was not those loud pants that continued to intrigue me. It was the boy's haircut, only the back of which I could see. It was crisply short, as precise as though the proverbial bowl had been placed on his head and someone had snipped around it. From mid-skull down, there was no hair; it was clean as a whistle - shaven to a T. I had to admire it. A perfect job.

And then it came to me: What I was staring at was the typical Uncle Adam haircut. A typical Uncle Adam scalping! I'd had a haircut just like that when I was his age. And the ignominy of that red-letter evening more than half a century ago returned in a flash.

Always on a Friday night, Uncle Adam, Aunt Cathy, and family came to visit from the city. Even when the kids were grown and had left home, my mother's sister and her husband continued the custom. The four of them played bingo on our round dining-room table. The visits were always one-sided, because only Uncle Adam had a car. A toolmaker, he held his job during the Depression, but it was touch-and-go nonetheless. So corners were cut, and none of my six cousins got near a barbershop or beauty salon until they earned their own money.

Uncle Adam was adept with his barbering tools. He had a complete kit, always ready for action. He even packed a flashy bib to place around the customer's neck, intended to prevent messy clippings from sticking to clothing. He finished off with a shake of baby powder, dusted on the neck with a soft shaving brush. He was generous and persistent, frequently eyeing my bangs growing down over my eyebrows and offering to give me a trim.

His kindness was appreciated, but no, thanks, my mother protested, aware of how I, her independent daughter, felt about his expertise. But one evening the inevitable came to pass. I'd lost the 50 cents entrusted to me that day to go to Armand's for my usual six-week haircut, and she caved in before Uncle Adam's jocular criticism of my "hayseed" coiffure. She mandated me into the old high chair to "take advantage of Adam's kind offer."

With a professional swish of the barbering apron, he went to work on me.

My father stood by, not exactly admiring but helpfully pointing out spots that looked uneven as his brother-in-law, in grim-lipped silence, proceeded. Dad's supervision was getting under Uncle Adam's skin, and I was bearing the brunt of it. His hand shook unexplainably, veteran though he was, and my father's unfunny offer of a cereal bowl didn't help matters.

Mother came into the kitchen to size up things. She gave Dad one of her "quit the comedy" looks, and he slunk off. "Excuse me, Adam," she began haltingly, "but isn't it a bit shorter on the left side? I realize she has sort of a weird growth pattern - all those cowlicks - but you might want to stand back and get a good look." So of course he had to clip the right side to even everything out.

Mother sighed: "Well, as long as it's gone this far, maybe a boyish shingle?" she whispered.

As far as I could remember, I'd worn my dirty-blonde hair in a plain, no-nonsense Dutch bob. Armand knew the ritual: "Just above the tip of the ears, and bangs straight across." By the new sensation of coolness I knew that probably half, rather than the bottom of my ears, were exposed. "Let me look!" I pleaded, trying to get out of the chair.

"In a minute," Uncle Adam said, sweat beading on his upper lip. He turned to Mother: "All right, then, a new-fangled shingle it'll be."

When I finally leapt free of that high seat and got to the mirror over the sink, I let out a horrified yelp and bolted out the door.

I didn't stop running till I was five houses up the street at a place where a private road led off to a small grove of maple trees. I flopped beneath one and shrank into its trunk. It was a young tree, and I was young, and it seemed to sympathize with my anguish.

I wept, crouching miserably on the hard ground till dusk, then darkness, closed over me. I shivered with dread at the thought of facing my peers at school. All the while, I could hear the grownups and my cousins calling me. I never stirred, determined to hide out till my hair grew back to normal - or forever, whichever came first. Eventually, I saw my uncle's crowded Nash go by on the road below, en route to their city home.

My father found me in the moonlight. He didn't scold, didn't laugh. "Never you mind," he consoled, helping me up from my cramped position. "It's nothing to leave home about. You'll just be a bit more careful with money from now on. Adam meant well. He's always been your favorite uncle. He was just a tad nervous for some reason. I was only trying to bolster him. So come on home now. Things'll look better in the morning."

They did, a little. When I went back to school on Monday morning I was actually sort of a hit - the first girl on the block to sport a boyish shingle. I endured, as did that young maple tree. And as my husband and I emptied our trays into the waste bin at McDonald's, I turned to the young sport busily shoveling fries into a ketchupy mouth.

"Nice hair job, man," I said, smiling as we exited.

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