I’m mercurial when it comes to my hair, mostly because the length of my hair used to matter a lot. I like it short, really short. I like it long, really long. What I don’t like is maintaining a particular look. it’s tedious and boring, and just not a part of my character.
But it didn’t used to be this way. When I was a kid, my dad gave me a buzz cut every couple of weeks. He was a flattop man himself. He wore that style from the time he attended high school until he turned forty. Being a conservative, even reactionary sort, he believed that men with long hair were effeminate. Homosexuals, drug pushers, and communists wore their hair long. God-fearing Americans kept their hair short, and a buzz cut was the most American of all.
All through grade school, I remember aching to grow my hair long—not down to the shoulders or anything more radical than to the ears. The other boys at school got wear longer hair, and some of them even parted their hair in the middle!
Sitting down to a haircut traumatized me. Dad took the electric shaver and raked the plastic tines—a piece that fit on the trimmer to regulate the length of hair—from the back of my head over the top. The pain was excruciating. Then, I fidgeted and jerked around a lot, and he constantly told me in a loud voice to “Sit still!” Then came the trimming around the edges with a razor blade.
Relief only came with the inevitable bath after the shave. My head felt raw and the nerve endings tingled into the next day. Shame and self-loathing followed me to school the next day. The other boys called me “baldy” and “bullethead.”
The one time my dad took me to his barbershop, the barber gave me a flattop, complete with hair wax. My dad thought he did his son a favor and stopped at Parkview Drugs to get me my own can of wax. I was to use it religiously.
The shame that I felt the next day at school shattered me. At recess, the other boys stood in a circle around me laughing. I was just about the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
Fortunately, my dad only kept me in the flattop for only about a month. It had grown shaggy. The wax stood my hair up like a rooster. Not wanting to pay for a real haircut, he returned to the shaver.
This lasted until I was fourteen, when, in a weak moment, my dad skipped the biweekly shearing. I was going to high school, my mother had argued. I ought to have a haircut that fit the times. After that, my hair was almost my own. I let it grow past the ears. My dad made me go get a haircut about every couple of months. The pressure was intense. When it got a little over the collar, he bid me to the barber’s. When I resisted, he cursed. He accused me of being godless. He wondered if there were communists among the Christian Brothers at my high school.
For some reason, age, maybe, or a cooling of his zeal, he didn’t protest when, at the age of 17, my hair grew down over the collar. I ran with a group of brothers and their friends whose major occupation when not in school or at work was drinking. Among them was an older couple, a guy with long hair and a woman who was tens of cousins of the brothers. She was a stylist. My dad insisted I get a haircut and act respectable. I went to the stylist. She did some hair magic and I walked out with a do like I never thought possible.
She had parted my hair down the middle, a big step for me. The brothers and I spent the rest of that summer afternoon downing Coors and smoking cigarettes. When I got home, I was ready for my dad. What the hell, he said. I didn’t raise a goddamn hippie.
Well, I said, I spent twenty bucks and this is how it’s going to stay.
My dad lifted his beer and mumbled under his breath. That was the end of it.
So, hair’s a funny thing with me. I think I gave up caring about what my hair looked like somewhere back in the late-1980s. I had other things on my mind. My major concerns were women, liquor, and keeping a job. I made sure it was clean. Every now and then, I went to the Supercuts or whatever discount hair place was at hand. I kept a mullet. Business in front, party in the back. I’m not proud of it but it was the style of the 1980s.
When I walked to Montana in 1995, I kept a neat haircut. Hair, regardless of what people might think, gives people something to judge. An invisible haircut, one that looks like every other, doesn’t stand in the way of anything. Rural types can be a little more judgmental than most. Every morning in park bathrooms or in the houses where people had invited me for the night—many times in mountain streams—I washed my hair and had a shave. No one wants to stop for someone who needs help but plenty will stop and offer a ride to someone who doesn’t look like they need one. In the two and half months it took me to walk to Helena, I stopped for haircuts in small town barbershops three times.
When I went into the shop in Beatrice, Nebraska, I learned that a traveler looking for a haircut starts a lot of conversation. The men in the place put aside their magazines and basically interrogated me, but in a friendly way. They were curious why someone would leave a perfectly good home to walk across the United States.
I liked the experience so much, I stopped for haircuts, though I didn’t really need them, two more times. When I got to the river for a canoe trip on the Missouri back to Kansas City, I gave up on hair completely, keeping it clean just to make me happy. I let my beard grow. No one was around to judge anyway. Those people I met on the river expected that a river nut would be shaggy and tanned, and I was both.
Then, in 2000, I got a corporate job. I kept a do that would pass at the office. Still, I kept it wash-and-wear. The last thing I wanted to worry about was my hair. Wash, dry, shake. I might take a comb to it when it got a little long..
Then, quit that job and have never had another—at least not one where hair mattered. I let it grow, sometimes for years without even a trim. One time I let it go for four and a half years. Then, one day, I shaved it all off on a whim, all the way, down to the skull with a shaver just like my dad used to have. These days, I let it grow until it’s no longer wash-and-shake, and I cut it all off again. It drives my wife crazy.
The length is a day-to-day thing. I get up in the morning and decide whether I will cut my hair or not. I haven’t given myself a haircut since August 2014. My wife tells me to get a haircut. She’s said it before and will again. Who knows how long it will get? I may grow to my waist like I did once before.
Or not. We’ll see. Tomorrow maybe. Either way, it doesn’t matter.