My grandpa was a barber. He wasn’t a hairdresser or hairstylist. He was a barber. If you had called him a cosmetologist, he would have decked you, because he was a good Baptist and wouldn’t have anyone thinking he belonged to some cult.
Grandpa’s barbershop was a Floyd the Barber place like on The Andy Griffith Show. It was filled with men smoking cigarettes and White Owl cigars with plastic tips. A blue cloud always hung in the shop, and someone could get a nicotine addiction just by sitting in the shop too long. My grandpa didn’t smoke, other than second-hand, but I once saw him strike a stick match across the seat of his pants to light a cigar for someone. To a young boy it was like something you’d see in the circus, fire erupting just by rubbing your butt. I was fascinated. It was eclipsed a moment later by the sight of my grandfather scooting his rear across the floor trying to put out his burning britches.
Every couple months or so, my mother would send me down to the barbershop to get my hair cut. There was a big wood table in the corner piled high with magazines and comic books that would be worth about seven gazillion dollars if they were around today. I’d read them until it was my turn for a haircut. Grandpa would put the Baby Board on the barber chair and pat it a couple times.
“Your turn,” he’d say.
I hated the Baby Board. It was a thick, demeaning slab of padded wood Grandpa would put across the arms of the barber chair so I’d be raised up, and he wouldn’t have to bend in two to cut my hair. Every time I sat on the Baby Board a red spotlight of shame would light the chair and dancing clowns would come out of the back room pointing at me chanting “He’s a baby. He’s a baby. He’s a baby,” while a loudspeaker outside on the street would scream to the world, “WE HAVE A LITTLE BABY GETTING HIS HAIR CUT INSIDE. I HOPE HE DOESN’T POOPY HIS PANTS.” Then it would laugh manically (Of course I’m exaggerating for effect. The spotlight was just a plain white one.)
The Baby Board was so humiliating that when my son was old enough for his first haircut, I hauled him the two hundred miles back to South Dakota so he could sit on the same Baby Board and feel as degraded as I did when I was young. Because, by golly, that’s one of the jobs of a father. The picture of the occasion is above this post. Four generations, my grandfather, my father, my son and I all gathered around the barber’s chair with my son sitting on the Baby Board. I’ve looked at the picture numerous times and my wife is the only one who is happy. She took the picture and is not even in it. That Baby Board just sucks the joy out of everyone.
As much as I hated the Baby Board, I loved the stories. The shop was filled with old men. The youngest who had to be about one hundred twenty-three years-old … or fifty, because when you’re little there isn’t a significant difference. They would tell stories, one after the other, about when they were in the army or fantastic fishing tales of paddlefish that wouldn’t fit into a sixteen foot boat and catfish the size of cows. They spun yarns of being stalked by bears and anecdotes of women and wives that made the fish stories sound plausible. Some of the stories the men told were funny, (the ones about the women) some were unbelievable, (the ones about the women) and some were downright wet-my-pants scary (again, the ones about the women.) Occasionally, they would tell a story about when they were young and on a date with a girl. Just as the story got to the part where I thought I might glean some useful information, Grandpa would loudly clear his throat and nod down at me in the chair.
“Little pitchers have big ears,” he’d say.
The old men would get red-faced and a deep silence would cover the room like when a teacher catches little boys playing Betcha-won’t-do-this in the bathroom. After a while they’d start talking about the weather or some other innocuous subject that didn’t interest me.
(At five feet four inches tall, Lee Viau and Dennis Gearin are the smallest players ever to pitch in Major League Baseball. I’ve seen photographs of each of them, and their ear size seems perfectly proportional to the size of their heads, so I’m still not sure what Grandpa was talking about.)
As I grew older, I began to have nagging suspicions that old men lie … especially about women. Now that I’m an official member of the Old Men’s Club, I can tell you with absolute certainty, OLD MEN LIE! (But not about women. All that stuff was absolutely true.)
In my novel The Almond People that is due out this spring, there is a barbershop that is based on my grandfather’s in South Dakota in the 1960s. In certain parts there are a bunch of old men arguing politics and telling stories, some about women.