Ground Control to Major Disappointment

By Ben Hamper

I used to make the 18-mile drive from Suttons Bay into Traverse City whenever I needed a haircut. I knew this gal named Michelle who worked at a popular salon on Union Street and she'd clip me for free. She dated my good friend Lou, and it was all part of a friendly courtesy that she'd take care of my hair and I'd take her out to lunch afterwards. This custom continued even after Lou was sent off to jail and Michelle broke off their relationship.

Eventually, I got tired of the trip into The Style's Inn Salon. I wasn't what you would call a salon guy anyway. Hell, I hardly had enough hair to style -- just this clump in the front and some erratic bramble around the back collar. I found it embarrassing when Michelle would swivel me around at the end of the cut and ask me to evaluate my head. It basically looked just the same as when I walked in. She'd pass me a hand-held mirror and I'd feel compelled to utter some kindly approval on the job she'd done.

"Yes, a great improvement," I would say. Nearby, there'd be this group of full-maned dandies waiting their turn for the seat and wondering what the hell had even happened. All they knew was that a baldo had sat down and a baldo had stood back up.

Oh, for the olden days when the name Hamper was synonymous with boodles of skull brush and hippies roamed the curbs like stoned desert stallions and the only wars worth fighting were the ones you fought with your old man at the end of every month when he'd barge into your bead-strewn attic sanctuary and jabber off some manly blarg regarding that as long as you lived under his roof, your head was to be shorn bone-friendly and you'd ask him why and the response would come back in the form of a snipping motion attached to a scowl that drummed home the essence of the bind you were in which was mainly how he was a lot bigger than you and he'd gladly whack you back in your bean bag if you were somehow visually impaired or suicidally bold enough to have skimmed over the fact.

However, my old man wasn't solely reliant on pure paternal brawn when it came to maneuvering me toward a skinch. He simply outfoxed me at times. I clearly recall this one time he sat me down and imparted to me as how I was now mature enough to attend the barbershop on my own. Up until this point, he'd go with me and stand guard against the exit while rooting on the barber with ugly directives to "prune the boy...that's it...more, more!" It felt good to be trusted for once. It felt even better to know I was gonna play my old man for a sucker. Did he really think I'd allow the barber to emasculate my hard-earned stoner panache via any request of my own? What a dupe. Just before I left, my old man asked if he might toss out a suggestion.

"You don't want any short haircut, right?" he asked.

"Of course not, " I told him.

"That's what I figured," he said, seemingly resigned. "OK, then this is what you should do. Make sure to tell the barber that you want a Princeton haircut. He might try to talk you out of it, but stick to your guns. After all, it's your hair."

"Well, exactly what is a Princeton haircut?" I asked.

"What's a Princeton haircut?" my old man laughed. "C'mon, son, I thought you were with it. You know that one band you're always listening to... the ones with that guy with those big lips like a damn woman?"

"The Rolling Stones?""Yea, that's them... Rolling Stones. Anyway, that's what those guys wear. The Rolling Stones all have Princetons."

"But they all have long hair," I noted.

"Sure they do, but they all started somewhere. They all started with Princetons."

I normally didn't trust my old man that much, but it must be said that he wasn't without a certain mid-aged savoir-faire of his own during this period. For instance, he was the only father I knew who sported a Fu Manchu moustache and brandished sideburns that could've been lopped off and converted into men's moccasins. I also recall the time he wore a dark red dicky to my brother's first communion ceremony. Perhaps I imagined it, but I think Sister Ann-Margret winked at the old coot as he dipped the Holy Water on our way out. He ain't heavy, he's my daddy-o.

I followed the old man's advice when I arrived at the barbershop and ordered up a Princeton. The barber, long aware of my hipster-induced hissyfits regarding his customary shearings, just sort've looked at me and shrugged. "A Princeton, eh?" This was a classic case of an offhanded "eh" representing so much more than something a billygoat might mutter on a sunny afternoon while leaning against a barnpole and yearning for death. I didn't pick up on it at the time, but this version of "eh" was one of those five-alarm utterances proffered by an insider who had full grasp of an impending bamboozlement about to go down -- though the enjoyment of same was just too goddamn alluring for him to tip you off.

Maybe midway through the Princeton, it occurred to me that there was a whole lotta shavin' goin' on for a procedure that was supposed to spank me out as a slick tee-ball version of Brian Jones. I looked up from my Baseball Digest to ask if we were just about there yet. The barber assured me he was almost done. Five minutes later I looked up again, consciously aware of an intense draft sensation on the back of my neck. Instead of asking for an update, I pivoted around in the chair to get a glance of what was going on. At that precise moment in history -- at almost the exact moment it was discovered that Brian Jones wasn't exactly Johnny Weissmuller in any remote pool-buoyant sense -- I totally flipped my wig (or what nubbage there was left of it) and let out a death-wail promulgation of filth so thick and so prolonged that, to this day, villagers in the Amazon basin still search it out to scurry beneath during volcanic tremors. No shit... turns out that a Princeton cut was really a crewcut, except for this tiny tuft that dandled high on the forehead like a cricket sleeping on Mt. Rushmore.

I swear Brian Jones got off easy. Drowning wasn't too cool, but it wasn't nearly as gruesome as the reality that you had just self-activated the process of your very own Princeton hair-don't. At least drowning victims weren't forced to attend school the next day and have every student in class guffaw at their skull as if it were some sheeny oblong gourd laminated with photos of one's grandmother gumming an apricot on a porch swing. Where's the cool quota in that?

I raced home to confront my old man. For every house I passed, I thought of a new method to wreak my revenge. I began with a few old standbys -- bike-spoke voodoo, rat poison Mandwich, fan blade noogie -- and worked in some new notions like battery acid facial and announcing that I was gay. It just wasn't fair. This was my head. I had to live in it. If he didn't like it in his house, I would take my head to another place where heads were treated with dignity and lolled about on lawn chairs with other heads and all the heads were free to bloom and thatch and frizz and unravel and no one cared in the least because a hairy head was a happy head and a happy head belonged solely to the head owner and....

I chickened out. As soon as I got inside the house, I ran up to my room and had myself a long hairless cry. At some point, my old man stuck his head inside the door. I was pretty sure why he was there. Guilt had gotten the best of him and he wanted to offer a shameful apology for having hoodwinked his devastated namesake into disfiguring himself. I sat up to face him. Pity wasn't much, but it did seem better than nothing.

My old man peered at my tears and took a seat on the edge of my bed. He sized up my haircut and nodded. As he got up to leave, he turned around.

"Well, looks like Mick Jagger ain't got no satisfaction today," he laughed.

Suffice to say that even today barbershops aren't among my favorite hangouts. My hair has, for the most part, fled from my head and scampered over the hill to wedge itself against a snow fence near Hinton's Cherry Orchard out on County Road 204. Still, a barbershop is where I sit on this winter afternoon, thumbing through an old issue of Field & Stream and trying to appear calm while Jon and his son Chip snip, chatter and rotate the heads in and out of the chairs.

It's the chatter part that bothers me now. I have major problems communicating with other adults. I can sort of bob and weave as long as the topic stays on a terrain I'm familiar with, but it's rare indeed that subject matters like 60's garage bands or Game Show Network listings or the performance level of various benzodiazepines are broached in a barber setting. Here at Jon's, the favored topics range as follows: yesterday's weather, fishing, today's weather, hunting, tomorrow's weather, and how tomorrow's weather might effect fishing and hunting. It's all an innocuous carousel of cautious man-blab, which is to say this ain't really the kind of locale where you might wanna go delving into that time your uncle misbehaved while giving you a sponge bath when your parents were out bowling.

My turn moves up as Chip fastens the barber sheet around the next guy's neck. I return to my magazine, then find myself looking up again. Hmm. I haven't seen this fellow in here before. Nor do I recall ever seeing him anywhere around Suttons Bay. It's a small town and the faces begin to register after a while. What stands out about him is that he's truly a striking individual -- handsome, swarthy, muscular, classy -- not anything like the rest of us. He's movie star hunky where we're all sorta sitcom dumpy. His hair looks like he's recently had it styled just to prepare for this haircut. What could he possibly want with another trim? About the only thing Chip could do is fuck it up.

Besides that, the guy appears to be a glib conversationalist with plenty of wit. I can't make out what he's actually saying but, whatever it is, he's really entertaining Chip, Jon and the guy in the next chair. How on earth does anyone hatch up clever material when limited to the weather and the performance of vertical spin bobbers? I'm beginning to sense a bit of pressure. Barbershop babble is strenuous enough without the additional tension of following up Fabio by way of Will Rogers.

A few nonessential snips later, the stranger hops out of the chair. He doesn't even bother to check out his trim in the mirror. I guess he merely assumes it looks great. Naturally, it does. He pays for his haircut and tosses in a generous tip. I'm waved over as Chip and Jon walk him to the door and share a few last words. It's almost like they don't want him to leave. Meanwhile, I slide into the chair and start rummaging though my rolodex for any old puns relating to weather and/or walleye. As expected, not a single thing comes to mind. Maybe I could just feign laryngitis.

Before Chip and Jon return to their chairs, they pause and stare out the door as the stranger drives away. Now this is getting downright nutty.

It's just like the final scene in every episode of "The Lone Ranger" where the indebted townsfolk congregate next to a horse trough and glance off into the sunset as the Ranger and Tonto gallop over the hill. Right when I think it can't get any nuttier, Chip walks back to his chair, flings the barber sheet across my chest and says, "Well now, there goes a real American hero."

I have no idea what to say. I say nothing. Apparently, this isn't the right reaction because Chip quickly follows up with, "You know who that was, don't you?"

"Well...uh...no," I admit.

"That's Jerry Linenger, the astronaut. Put out that fire on the Mir space

station and logged 50 million miles orbiting earth. Wrote a best seller all about it. He lives right across the Bay. Chose this area to live in from out in space."

Once again, I have no idea what to say. I say nothing. However, I sense exactly what is coming next. This, after all, is a barbershop and this is America and there remains a certain repulsive masculine formality conjoining the two. One that's not entirely dissimilar from the canine ritual of sniffling hind regions for extractable leads or clues or handy advantage. One that leads a total stranger to inquire of another....

"So, what do you do?"

This time, I really have nothing to say. I certainly can't tell the truth.

To try to describe what it is I actually "do" -- especially in the wake of the gaudy credentials of He Who Sat Here Last -- might generate such an abrupt barrage of laughter that a lobe could be lost to an errant snip or, worse yet, an intentional one. At the very least, all on hand might assume I am simply being a wise-ass trying to torpedo their prideful podunk high with a load of untimely farce. I reasoned this was a moment to bask in the fanfare of REAL achievement... not to lob out a fizzling scud that would almost certainly scatter us several layers below Square One.

"So that was Jerry Linenger," I counter. "Thought he looked familiar."

Which was nothing but a vast lie because, up until a minute prior, I had never heard of the guy. I no more knew about his astronaut exploits aboard a fiery space station than I did about the weather or fly-casting or the exact origins of the Princeton haircut. I was a balding middle aged man sitting in a barber chair and all I knew was that I was probably gonna get drunk that night.

And I believe I did just that.

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