combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2003

A Light Trim Can Be A Close Shave

We're all stuck with a genetic mix not of our choosing. Some privileged souls, with naturally handsome features, seemingly take credit for the happy accident of their parentage; and indulge themselves with frivolous adornment and spastic fashions. Most of them act like they've never had a bad-hair day. The rest of us do the best we can not to become embarrassed or excluded.

Fashions change almost spontaneously, depending upon current influences, popular trends, social movements, cultural reforms, and historic resurrections, which are often being revised. Classical music was once characterized as long-haired, until rock'n'roll made the appellation obsolete. Primitive man is usually depicted with hirsute pelage, but we know that the chipped-knife and shell-tweezers were among his first inventions. The career hair-stylist could not have been far behind the technology curve. Different peoples developed distinctive styles ... from the roached Mohawk and the plaited queue to the beaded dreadlocks and the natural fuzzy-wuzzy 'fro. Tugging one's forelock, as with doffing one's cap or touching the peak (ned), was initially a sign of civility or respect, which was eventually corrupted into a gesture of subordination or servitude. Shag evolved into waves, curls into ringlets, coifs into perukes or periwigs, and baldness (converted from white and hoary to shiny and bare) continued to seek a cure or disguise. Bald men claim, with their naked pates unconcealed, that God uncovers the heads that He favors most; which makes a virtue of necessity. There is a new ecological hypothesis regarding global warming and the greenhouse effect which has to do with luminous reflection and heat radiation from the growing population of denuded crowns. Some people never understand the distinction between a superficial person with big hair and a very important big wig!

Hair styles have also been more than fashion and cultural expression. Warriors around the world arranged their hair in unique patterns, from top-knots and plumed tufts to twist-ties and side-braids, in order to signify their status or affiliation. This is one of the reasons why an enemy's hair-piece became a battle trophy. The warrior's distinctive hairdo and unique headdress evolved into armored helms and protective helmets of characteristic design, as both symbol and insignia of occupational affiliation. Muttonchops and side-whiskers became the eponymous sideburns in honor of General Ambrose E. Burnside, who affected the style. The coiffure has also been an expression of political or religious adherence, from cavaliers and roundheads to hippies and skinheads. European courtiers provoked religious pilgrims into outrage with their lovelocks, wherein a long flowing side-curl was combed over one shoulder, while contrasted by shorter hair on the opposite side. The monastic tonsure imitated a halo, but also represented obedience and loyalty to disciplined orders. Like a shibboleth, hair could be an automatic license or an instant denial, depending on the company; and sometimes these summary judgements were cruel as well as unfair.

Having been born a military brat, my structured life was not my own, and neither was my haircut. Being the product of a mother addicted to weekly beauty salon treatments and a father who'd lost most of his hair to jungle-rot on Pacific islands, I eventually became resigned to my refugee appearance. When I got sheared, other children got white-walls, crew-cuts, flat-tops, and Princetons. I particularly envied my Black scouting friends who wore sculpted pompadours with permanent parts along the side! I knew that the myth about no grass growing on the playground, promulgated by chromed-domed polls, wasn't true; and instead I bought the equally fanciful myth of hair as symbolic of virility and potency. I wanted to emulate my camp swimming coach, who had one continuous eyebrow and appeared to be completely dressed by hair-covering in only a bathing suit ... and I knew I never could.

When I enlisted in the military, the boot camp scalping left me unchanged. Once I'd made some rank, I finally had enough hair to comb ... for the first time in my life! I planned for a moustache, and dreamed of someday growing a tidy beard ... with adulthood almost anything was possible. The coming-of-age expressionism was pandemic during the period of fledging baby-boomers. The categorical distinction between woolly freaks and shorn straights, with the external purportedly representative of the internal, was reduced to their groovy grooming and funky fringe. Factions on both sides would find it impossible to encounter more than the superficial uniformity, and they would remain victims of their own mind-sets ... being the ones most easily manipulated by advertising images and propagandistic depictions.

Barbers had always been on the enemy's side. They extracted compliance, if not cooperation, with astringents and potions, with confinement and disorientation, with distraction and coercion, while they removed everyone's Samsonian strength. Itinerant barbers looked like lawyers, carrying their torture utensils together with collected ritual hair and souvenir ears concealed in an innocent case, as they stalked the countryside for callow victims ... leaving a mess in every home. Enterprising barbers offered cologne, hair-tonic, deodorant, and other cosmetics for supplementary sale with their services. Modern barbers charge outrageously, and no longer cut a finished hairline as part of the trimming. Ancient barbers had been the first surgeons, and even today some like to keep the red-stripe on their office pole renewed with fresh blood. If you didn't mind the possibility of appearing like a case of terminal mange, a barber college cut was an economical option for what can't be long avoided.

Because haircuts are conventional, and barbers perform an essential service, not everyone regards the barber shop as a necessary evil. For many, it's a convivial meeting place to converse and read in relative comfort; and therefore competes with the pool hall, the gaming arcade, the bar parlor, and the public library for a certain type of person. It was my earliest exposure to the masculine subculture ... Farm Journal, Sports Afield, Police Gazette, Motor Trend, Playboy, Guns and Ammo, Sports Illustrated, and more. A neat haircut, followed by a five-minute scalp massage, is almost as refreshing as an afternoon nap.

You wouldn't recognize some people without their hat, and others need a cover to hide their coiffure. It takes a certain amount of skill to not only confront the variety of representative hair, being coarse or thin, oily or dry, curly or straight, but also to shape it into a recognizable style. Barbers must cut around the knobs, pits, scars, and patches which comprise the average head. My brother's exaggerated widow's peak is so pronounced that he appears to have a furry monster's claw clinging to his skull! When I invited a barber to prepare me for my wedding, his solution to the dilemma was to create a helmet hairdo with hair-spray lacquering! ... it took hours to wash away the muck so I could look normal for my unsuspecting bride. And the irony is that no matter how bad, we always pay and usually tip for this personal service.

Back in the bad old days, military units owned their own hair cutting implements, and the troops received cut-rate trims before inspection by the hand of one of their own, usually the supply clerk or medic. This was one of the ways the military family took care of its own, and enabled low-pay to stretch each month. My blonde hair turned gray in Viêt Nam, and has since gone white. In retrospect, I sometimes consider this color shift to be another commendation ribbon or wound stripe. The Viêtnamese barbers were unusual, but they weren't to blame ... there were too many other close shaves.

Just as the industrious Viêtnamese businessman would suddenly appear amidst field operations offering to sell everything from cold beer to hot chow, the travelling barber also plied his trade. He was probably a spy, with relatives on both sides of the conflict, but then almost everything in the Indochina campaign was corrupt or compromised. We accepted his services under guard, paid and dismissed him, then wondered if we'd recognize his corpse tomorrow. Viêtnamese barbers cut hair with scissors-and-comb almost as rapidly as electric clippers, and they finished by shaving the entire outline of the hair, including the face, with a straight-razor. The first time a Viêtnamese barber didn't stop outlining at my abbreviated sideburns was very distressing; but one does not make abrupt or rash moves when a razor is poised at the forehead.

Eventually I obtained permission to display cultivated upper-lip growth, and then had to contend with it being more luxuriant than my airborne-ranger burr. Among other less polite cognomens, it was called a cookie duster, and food did seem to fertilize it. When I tried wax as a grooming aid, it felt like the last fondue party had gone a little wild, and all of it had dried on my lip! An off-post barber petrified me when he used a straight-razor to trim my disobedient moustache into line! ... I thought it was the final revenge of the retired top-kick for every stupid and cocky soldier he's ever had to chivy and upbraid. But that pales into nothingness when compared to my wife's dogmatic attempts to correct my haphazard pruning ... traumatic is an understatement! I'd rather walk point on a combat patrol through a minefield than submit to her ministrations, but she insists! Instead of laying the comb or blade against my mouth and cutting evenly in one direction, she ignores pleas and instructions by stabbing and darting after the misaligned hairs with the tips of her scissors! It might not be so terrible if her aim were as accurate as a heron's, but it's truly difficult to put more than one bandage on a single bloody and tattered lip!

Women tend to celebrate momentous events by changing their hair, but men try to distract attention from their stolid faces capped by consistent haircuts with extravagant neckties. When I retired, I took note of the changed fashions, and finally grew my conservative beard. A friend had achieved a WASPfro with the aid of a home permanent, and he looked like a mean Poodle! Long unkempt hair bushing-out, like a defensive zareba, from beneath a precarious cap looked ridiculous ... and I was reminded of the troops who wore wigs off-duty to hopefully meld into the civilian scene. It was true that bald men caught in compromising situations reach for their toupee before reaching for their pants, their wallet, or a weapon. A co-worker, sporting a geometrically sculpted fade, informed my curiosity by telling me that cornrows were washed in-situ without repeated reconstruction. I'm not the type of extroverted individual who wears clips and a do-rag, or to mousse my neon-tinted tresses so as to display the color-coded map tattooed atop my noggin to best advantage. I couldn't do much to improve my looks, and I wouldn't allow my mop to become a spectacle, so I decided to just wear a relaxed mufti version of my tired old self.

One day a co-worker complimented my hair style and asked where I had it cut. With some chagrin, I informed him that my better-half was in-charge of lowering my ears. He asked if she would be willing to cut his hair, and I gave him the gimlet-eye. Although he probably didn't believe me, I told him that I didn't know, and we could ask, BUT her technique is a little unconventional. She always makes me stand naked in the bathtub with a trash-can under my chin. He gave the stare back to me before I could also warn him that, unlike a professional barber, she often gets the clipper-cord tangled around my neck or caught in my mouth, thus making the ordeal somewhat life threatening. Furthermore, she gives unusual commands, like "Flaps down!" and "Stop flinching!". In spite of the seemingly suggestive posture of the victim, she expects a level of purposive formality, and will not tolerate liberties! He has avoided me ever since, and his distant looks betray a man possessed with unwanted knowledge of crazed obsessions.

Lately I've noticed that haircuts are taking longer. Ostensibly not because we're slowing down, enjoying the shearing too much, or because my youthful wish for boundless fleece finally came true; but apparently due to increased difficulty. Even the birds have occasionally ignored the discarded bristle scraps, which were once downy soft, in favor of industriously untying the tow-yarn tethering our vegetables. As the pundits say: you know you're getting old when you've got more hair in your nose and ears than on your head! It's high-time that a painless cure is found for the many agonies inflicted by barber tools. Becoming a perambulating fuzzball may be preferable to having too many close shaves.

by Paul Brubaker
... who is retired from the U.S. Army, has since been a counselor, artisan, and writer, with numerous essays in chapbooks and magazines.