Placing a piece of gum in my mouth, I recognize it is not just any ordinary gum. The wrapper is bright yellow, and the flavor is as vibrant as the wrapper. Once this delightful stick touches my tongue, flavors of banana, pineapple and yes, maybe even a tinge of peach explode in my mouth. Ah, my favorite: Juicy Fruit. Just like that, I turn into a little kid. My mind wanders to a simpler time. A time when I was my Dad’s little man.
“Wanna go to town with me?” Dad asked every Saturday morning, knowing wild horses could not stop me from tagging along with my hero. Dad’s pocket always had a stick of Juicy Fruit gum available for me or any other kid who might need a treat.
Our home, located four miles outside of town, qualified us as official country folk. Whether it was tradition, lack of money, since payday was on Friday, or a combination of both, we did not dare go to town on any day but Saturday. It did not matter to me. Going to town was a treat. Come to think about it, I’m certain it was a treat for Dad also.
I learned at an early age, going to town really was code for, let’s get the heck out of Dodge and go to our Men’s Club, a.k.a. the Barber Shop. I envision men from all corners of the country moseyed into their favorite Barber Shop, for a chance to get out of the house; I mean get a haircut; wink, wink. Wonderful dads taught their sons this important ritual at an early age, even though the sons would not fully understand this rite of passage until much later, as in when they got married. A “haircut” became a necessity, conjuring images of days gone by, spent with their dads.
Like so many of the brave youthful men who served their country protecting our freedoms during WW2, upon returning home from the war, Mr. Charles Burgess faced a decision of what to do with the rest of his life. He decided to use his VA money to attend Barber school. This meant temporarily leaving his family and friends in Hamburg, his hometown, in Southeastern Arkansas.
He lived in a boarding house on Cumberland Street with all the other Barber school guys while attending Eaton Barber and Beauty College in Little Rock, Arkansas. As the saying goes, boys will be boys, even Barber school boys. Those Barber guys learned S.W. Bell phone company, located nearby, had girls working there. Delightful looking girls. Those girls got off their shift at 10 pm. Of course, the girls could not walk home in the dark by themselves. So, since someone must walk them home, the Barber school guys stepped up and offered their services.
She was from Faulkner County. He liked her the best. In fact, he liked her so much, he asked her to marry him. She said YES! They got married on his twenty first birthday, just before he graduated. They moved to Hamburg, Arkansas, where he put his trade to use, working in a shop across the street from the Palace Cafe, until he earned enough money to open his own shop on Lincoln Street, in 1948. He was still cutting hair when he died in 2004, some 56 years later.
I walked into that Men’s Club, er. Barber Shop with Dad as if I was Hoss Cartwright, chest puffed out proudly, strutting like a turkey looking for a mate. Dad did his job well. He made me feel a part of the “Boys,” even though I was clearly a young pup.
The experience began with the familiar red, white, and blue helical stripe barbers pole sign, located just outside the door of the club. Once inside, the shop had two chairs with washing stations on the left. On the right, lined up against the wall were a dozen chairs for the patrons. Behind the Barber chairs was a continuous wall of mirrors, used to pass the final judgment on the quality of the cut. Most surveyed gave the thumbs up, as they ponied up fifty cents for a shave and fifty cents for a cut.
Hunter fans swirled continuously from above, moving the smoke and other things along, such as, shall we say, bs?
Entering the shop on a Saturday presented a continuous array of gentlemen, spending the first dollar of their recently cashed weekly paycheck, prepping for an expected celebratory Saturday evening. Most of these guys were veterans of World War 2, studs full of respect for each other, who playfully bantered and mixed in their account of what the football coach did wrong last night at the game.
“By golly, I’d run the ball more,” says one man, as Mr. Charles applies hair tonic from what looks like a whiskey bottle.
“No way. He should tighten that defense,” says another, with face full of shaving crème, as Mr. Brune Myers, the other Barber, whisks a straight razor across a leather strap just before he eradicates that heavy stubble.
I so looked forward to the day when I could sit in that chair and get a shave. Every day I examined my face to see if I was ready for the inaugural shave from Mr. Charles, with visions of a beard so thick it would make Pluto blush. But alas, my stubble slowly developed more like Wimpy, so I never received the vaulted shave.
Before the Buzz Cut.
“Tell Mr. Charles what kinda cut you want,” Dad said, teaching me to speak up for myself.
“I’ll take a buzz cut all over,” I squeaked shyly.
Mr. Charles placed a white with grey stripe cape over me, tied a piece of tissue paper around my neck and went to town buzzing off my toe-head stubble. Hair fell to the ground.
“Stay still now, Dad said as I wiggled. If you don’t, Mr. Charles might cut off your ear,” as I became still as a statue, not wanting to lose the side of my face!
He concluded by brushing off the loose hair with a rabbit hairbrush, coated with talc powder. Then came the BIG reward. Mr. Charles completed his signature move. He handed me a piece of gum and gave me a hardy smile. Juicy Fruit!
“Man, this is the life,” I uttered to myself.
After the Buzz Cut.
At the end of the shop, nestled somewhat on an island all by itself, was a shoeshine area. The gentleman who ran this was a genuine artist. He could take a pair of worn out shoes, pop that shine rag as he rubbed and rubbed that pungent smelling paste into the leather and voila, it became shiny and new. I tried so many times to make a shine rag pop when I was shining my Sunday shoes. To this day, I still can’t do it.
Today we have a rookie joining us. He is about sixteen months old and this is his first haircut. Mr. Charles uses a booster bench he places across the chair, to bring the child up to the proper height. The rookie wants no part of this, wiggling and reaching for his dad. I roll my eyes, as I am so much more mature than him.
“Just wait, I say to myself. Mr. Charles will make you feel comfortable.”
Mr. Charles lets him touch the cutting device. Then he turns it on so the rookie can hear it. Slowly he cuts his hair. A tear or two still runs down his face.
“Wait for it,” I say, knowing the reward was about to happen.
As Mr. Charles brushes the hair off, he hands the rookie a piece of gum; not just any gum. It was Juicy Fruit. And just like that, the world was all good again.
“That’s my Barber, Mr. Charles. He just won over a new customer.”
Never did one place ever have such a love hate relationship with me. As I got older, the world started changing. My taste in haircuts collided with my Mom’s idea of style. For example, all at once, the cool kids started wearing Beatle haircuts. The Buzz was out, baby.
Stepping up to the Barber chair, I told Mr. Charles I wanted a Beatle haircut. Dad, not caring if I got the Beatle cut, knew he had better not bring me home with that cut or Mom would kill him and me, did some hand signaling with Mr. Charles. My Beatle cut turned into a Beatle Buzz cut. I was uncool at school for another week, but eventually convinced my parents and Mr. Charles to give me the Beatle cut.
Later, as the Beatle cut phase wore off, I wanted my hair styled, as again, I wanted to fit in with the cool kids. Disco was the thing and I was feeling me some Saturday Night Fever hair. Mr. Charles’ definition of style and mine did not jive. But, together we made the transition and soon I was back in with the cool crowd.
The last time I walked out of the Club, my Dad was no longer with me in this world. But his spirit certainly lives on. I was a yearling when he first brought me here. And now, I was a man.
Happy Father’s Day in Heaven, Dad. Thank you SO much for always including me in your Men’s Club activities. I loved being your son. I sure hope I made you proud.
This stick of Juicy Fruit gum is for you!
*Special thanks goes out to Bennie Carol Wade and Jim Wells for contributing to this story. Bennie Carol is the daughter of Mr. Charles. Jim Wells purchased this shop in 1985.