Enjoyable times in the barber shop

Monday, March 1, 2010

In thinking back over a period of many years I realize that I've spent a good bit of time in the barber chair, with many barbers -- enjoyable times that I fear I've pretty much taken for granted, and I'm sorry for that. So here's my belated salute to a few out of that grand group of fellows (and for most of my life the barbers were indeed males).

Over the ages the profession of barbering has gone through many changes. In ancient times barbers were medicine men, the most prestigious members of the tribe -- the fellows who were believed to be able to drive evil spirits from a person by cutting that person's hair. Later, in the Dark Ages, barbers were the surgeons of the day, who "cured" diseases by opening the veins in a man's arm and bleeding the fellow until he fainted. The barber's pole, with its distinctive red and white stripes, signifies the fresh bandages (white) and the bandages which soaked up the blood (red).

On some barber poles the color blue (signifying veins) is represented either by another (blue) stripe, or a blue cap on the pole. Until very recent years every barber shop displayed a barber's pole out front, as an advertising gimmick.

When one goes to a barber there are other reasons, besides a good haircut, that keeps one going back. In Japan, my haircut was followed by a good five minutes of massage of my neck and shoulders -- very relaxing.

One barber had been a World War II flyer and had good stories about his time in the South Pacific. He even took me for a flight in his Piper Cub. One fellow was a walking encyclopedia on Cornhusker football. Another was steeped in history, and loved to orate on heavy subjects. I think he knew his history OK, but had some trouble with names -- as the time he proclaimed, grandly, that World War II could have been averted if only that damn Wilt Chamberlin had not backed down from Hitler. (Wilt Chamberlin, the great Lakers' basketball center -- Neville Chamberlin, the British Prime Minister in 1938.) No one in the shop that day had the heart to correct him. He did make our sessions interesting.

When I was growing up in Plainview, Neb., the barbers in town played a big part in my life. I remember the first time that I was deemed big enough that the barber did not have to get out the board for me to sit on while he cut my hair -- big deal! It was a rite of passage. I felt really grown up.

In Korea, our houseboy was an apprentice barber. He was very skillful with a straight-edged razor. He taught me how to shave with that scary weapon, and how to take care of it. Before I left Korea for home, he presented me with my very own straight-edged razor. I used it for a time, but never was very good at it. I finally decided that the nicks I was getting and the extra time spent were not worth the satisfaction perceived, especially after they came out with those long-lasting stainless steel blades.

In the very early days, before King Gillette revolutionized the shaving business with his disposable razors and the Gillette Blue Blade ("with the sharpest edges ever honed"), "shaves" were still a big part of the barber's business, though the practice of keeping a customer's personal shaving mug and brush on the barber's shelf was gone by the time I came along.

Plainview's two barber shops did, however, still have public showers (25-50 cents), which were used by some of the fellows in town, especially on Saturdays.

Both Plainview's Barber Shops were quite spacious -- at least once the Citizen's Party held its caucus in one of them. Besides the barbering business they served as a sort of social center, for MEN only, a congregating place for loafers, who told tall tales (one disgruntled wife referred to the barber shop as "the Boars' Nest"). It was here that the price of grain was lamented, odds on Friday night's football game were set, and the merits of the new Chevy vs. Ford were hotly debated. No subject seemed to be off limits, though they generally observed the rule of barbers that made conversations about sex, religion, and politics taboo. (OK, politics in season was fair game.)

In the evening, Bill, the night marshal regularly sat in the front chair of one or the other barber shop to watch the traffic on Main Street (also to get out of the cold, and catch a short nap). The other fellow who had a key to a barbershop at night was the son of a prominent family who did his best to drink up his inheritance.

Instead of going home, most nights the fellow seemed to prefer to sleep in the barber chair. Needless to say, he was the shop's first customer for his daily shave. I'm sure he was also the reason the shop kept its public shower going for years after most shops had abandoned that part of the barber business -- so that he could be presentable when he went up the street to the café for his breakfast.

"Scraper" (for his baseball prowess, not his shaving practice) had been a standout athlete at PHS, and a probable professional baseball player, till World War II came along and he spent his best years with the Marine Corps in the South Pacific. He did play one or two seasons with the McCook Cats before returning to Plainview and the barbershop.

Sports was the topic of choice at his shop, team sports and fishing-hunting -- Scraper's first love. Till the end of his days he served as a valued mentor for aspiring Plainview athletes -- including helping long-time McCook High coach, Dale Lortz with his baseball career.

An unusual conversation opener at his shop was an unusual hook bone from the sexual anatomy of a coon, which Scraper used as the pull for the overhead light.

Ozzie and his wife had side-by-side beauty and barber shops. Ozzie was very laid back, and unlike most barbers, he did not talk much. In the silence, to the snip snip of the scissors, I tended to drop off to sleep while I was getting a haircut. I was really startled one time when I woke from a little nap and saw Ozzie in the mirror. He was poised over me, with his comb and scissors, like a vulture ready to pounce -- fast asleep on his feet. I then realized why it took so long for a haircut -- with both of us sleeping peacefully.

Paul was a real jokester. He always had a new story, and could put a different spin on things that were going on in the community. Once he nearly gave me a heart attack with one of his little pranks. From somewhere, somebody in our social group had come across a really awful painting. It was huge, about 3 feet by 4 feet and ugly. I don't know much about art, but even I think I can tell when a painting is really bad.

For a year or so, to play a really good joke (we thought), every time someone in our group had an anniversary or birthday he was sure to get this painting to mark the occasion. Jean and I were the "lucky" recipients a couple of times, and each time we dutifully passed it on. Suddenly it was gone. No one seemed to know where it was -- maybe it was discarded into the junk heap. We really didn't miss it that much.

Then, one day we opened the Plainview News, and on the front page was a picture of Paul, with a distinguished looking man, the "Director" of an Art Museum in Omaha, and that awful painting -- with the caption that the framed picture was a long lost painting by some Master Painter. The story read that Paul had graciously waived an offer of $100,000 for the painting and, instead, was donating it to the museum, as his contribution to art.

Naturally, all of us who had received the painting and passed it on were sick to think how close we had been to a fortune, and had just let that fortune slip away. And Paul -- he let the story go on for a week or so, and then confessed that the story had been a hoax.

The "Museum Director" was a friend of his from Omaha who was happy to go along with the gag. The painting was indeed, worthless. How he had gotten the story onto the front page of the Plainview News I never knew.

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