Box Top, Quarter Inch
My father’s version of too-long hair was anything he could grab. He’d always been a bit old fashioned, partly because he was already thirty-five when my elder brother was born, pushing forty when I was born. In the Seventies, that was the age of most of the grandparents my friends had. Dad was from a time when Opie and Andy got their crewcuts trimmed every second episode. My brother was the rebellious son who was allergic to hair clippers and wanted to look like one of the Sweathogs from Welcome Back Kotter. Our trips to the barbershop were always torturous, with Kevin protesting the entire time, and Dad gripping his belt buckle in a silent threat, one that often came to fruition. I never understood why Kevin fought with him. It always ended the same way- Kevin in a shaved haircut, squirming to sit for the next week. I’d leave in the same closely-scraped cut, but with no lashes to my ass to make me sit for it.
My brother hated me for it, always accusing me of being a kiss-up to Dad. Truth was, I liked having my hair cut short. If I was going to fight with our father and risk being on the wrong end of his belt, I was going to do it over how much time I spent playing video games, or for sneaking candy that I wasn’t supposed to eat. I sometimes found myself feeling jealous, because my brother was always the centre of attention, even if it was for the wrong reasons. Our parents were always focused on him, because he was always doing something wrong. I could have been on fire and they wouldn’t notice unless Kevin wasn’t home.
There were times when Dad didn’t have time to get us to the barber’s and still wanted our hair to be trimmed. He’d bust out the trusty Wahls, and if Kevin was being miserable, Dad would strap him to the chair with his belt, and take it to his backside when he was finished shaving. A few times, he ‘accidentally’ lost the blade guard and Kevin ended up scraped clean as a lesson as to what happened when he complained and pouted. Dad’s cuts were never stylish, they were utilitarian at best. At least at a barber shop, we got a nice cut, even if it was extremely short. Dad’s favourite haircut for me came by accident one day when he’d dragged us to the barbershop on a busy Saturday. My brother was in rare form that day. Knowing that he’d have to give him some leather encouragement, Dad excused himself, taking Kevin to the bathroom with him. It wasn’t our usual barber, so Dad told him to get started with my cut. “I like him in a buzzcut. Quarter inch on top, tapered at the neck and ears,” he said as Gunter picked up a cape and shook out the folds before wrapping it around my shoulders.
Dad had always taught us not to talk back to others, and as Gunter fired up his clippers and started shaving, I noticed he was holding a comb above my head and the shape was decidedly boxy. Square. I knew I needed to say something, but didn’t want to be slapped for being disrespectful. I’d never been slapped in public and I didn’t want to be, but I could already hear the squarehead jokes at school, the teasing. Kevin would need another beating before he’d allow that cut to be inflicted upon him.
“There you go. Box top, quarter inch,” Gunter announced proudly, as he passed a comb through my strands to ensure all the cuttings had fallen. Oh boy. “Um, I think my father meant a buzzcut,” I squeaked. “He said, box top, quarter inch?” Gunter was less sure of himself now. Well. Now I was making the guy feel bad for speaking a different language, too. “I can fix, but your cut will be much shorter.” I didn’t think that was possible. I knew the lawnmower jokes, I was used to those. That still beat a squarehead taunt. “Okay,” I nodded and closed my eyes. Gunter put down the comb he’d been using and shaved again, this time going freehand across the top. The quarter inch was tapered to an eighth and the back and sides blended tighter at the nape. When he used a towel to wipe off the cuttings, I felt the loops of the cotton scrape clean skin at the neck.
“You like?” Gunter asked me. “Much better?” Anything was better than a boxtop. I smiled and said yes, thanked him. Just then, Dad and Kevin emerged from the bathroom. Kevin was livid with me. All he heard was his suck up little brother thanking a barber for scalping him. “Wow, Andrew,” Dad was thrilled. “What a great haircut,” he added to Gunter. “I think I have a new favourite style for you, son.” Gunter admitted that he’d gotten it wrong and had to cut my hair shorter to repair it. “Will grow back, but grows very quickly here,” a rub to my clean cut nape. “So, I cut shorter to help it look less like football field.”
My father was thrilled. My brother was furious. And I kind of liked the supershort cut. I’d liked the feel of blades across my skin as the hair was being shaved. “What length is this?” Dad asked Gunter, passing his fingertips over my soft stubble. “One eight on top, one sixteen at back. No guard at nape.”
I knew that my father was asking so he knew what to do when he tried to replicate it himself at home. My brother’s expression told me he was planning to murder me in my sleep. “Take it one blade shorter all around,” Dad suggested. Kevin froze. If Gunter took me to a sixteenth of an inch on top and one thirty-two at the sides, there would be more than just a bit of clean cut at the nape. It was a test of not just my brother, but of me. Dad wanted to know if I would argue, if I would simply do as I was told without the threat of his belt. It was an easy decision, and as Gunter passed the blades closer and closer to my head, I watched the cuttings fly down and hit the cape like dustmotes. Each time Gunter titled my head forward so he could pass his tools over my nape, or had me tilt sideways so he could clean cut the sides, I sensed my father’s eyes on me, his respect that I could take such a short haircut without a tantrum. I knew he was testing me somehow, I just wasn’t sure how or why.
When Gunter finished, I could feel the plastic teeth of the comb as he dragged it across my head, not a strand of hair catching in the comb. He dipped his fingertip into some hair gel and distributed that across his palms, the tiniest amount of product needed to hold my hair in place, but preventing it from looking like astroturf. Dad then had him give Kevin a haircut, and asked for an allover buzzcut, a quarter inch long. I tried not to be pissed off. I’d accepted my haircut without a fight. What the hell? Kevin grinned at me, like it was worth it to have his ass whipped because he was about to enjoy a longer haircut. I said nothing, because I figured Dad was simply trying to keep peace with Kevin. But I was a bit insulted- I had been obedient, I had done as I was told, and I would be teased mercilessly at school and by my brother over this haircut. Kevin’s hair at a quarter inch seemed miles longer than mine. But Kevin wouldn’t be able to run his hands over the shorn bits and feel soft hair give way beneath his fingers. He wouldn’t feel that clean cut skin at the nape, or sides of his head. (‘Whitewalls!’ Kevin taunted me when we left the shop.)
When we got home, Dad ordered Kevin straight to his room and loosened his belt before he even got halfway up the stairs. The bathroom lickin had just been enough to get him to sit still, but now Dad was merciless. He barked at Kevin that he would not be shamed like that in future, and whacked him repeatedly. I heard the drawer in the bathroom cabinet open, the sound of clippers being removed and plugged into the wall, of Kevin being shaved again. Dad shaved him clean to the skin, all over. “I’ll show you whitewalls!” he declared, as he passed the clippers over the top of Kevin’s head. The second belting had put Kevin into enough of a placid state that Dad’s shaving was quick and efficient, inflicted without further argument.
Then Dad called the barbershop. “Gunter? I forgot to ask: how long before Andrew’s new haircut needs a trim?” he asked. After Gunter responded, Dad booked an appointment for me, for three Saturdays later. “No, just Andrew,” he replied to Gunter’s likely question did he need two appointments. “I’ll be cutting Kevin’s hair until he can accept a proper haircut.” Ah. So I at least got to have a professional cut, while my brother would be shaved clean until he could do as he was told.
Kevin did hate me for it, and even the kids at school stopped teasing me long before he did. But, every three weeks, when Dad brought me to see Gunter, I also got his undivided attention for the entire drive to the barbershop, the entire time Gunter shaved and shaped, and the entire drive home. To this day I keep my hair short (there is much less on top and it’s pretty much my only option these days anyway.) I love the feel of clippers against the side of my head, the kiss of oxygen at my nape.
The only thing that pissed me off was the other parents. You all remember that kid- the one who never broke rules, kept his hair clipped short, was always polite, made his bed without being told to, did his homework- that was me. I had been hit with my father’s belt exactly once in my life. I don’t even remember what it was for. I just remember being sent to my room and waiting for what felt like hours while he calmed down (and let me sweat it out,) before Dad came into my room and ordered me to take off my clothes and lay facedown on my bed. I remember every whack of his belt against my back, my ass, the backs of my legs. I couldn’t believe my brother endured this every few weeks. I wanted nothing to do with that punishment ever again, so I was that kid that every other kid hates. I was the kid that other parents always complimented as a way to shame their own kids, not realizing that every time they did so, their kids had no desire to be like me, they just hated me more. Our family had one friend who always shamed his kids by pointing out to them any time I did anything noteworthy. “Look how polite Andrew is, Bryce. You could learn from him.” It never motivated me to do anything good in his presence.
But I did look forward to my appointments with Gunter. Being in my father’s good books meant something to me and it wasn’t just my fear of being beaten. It was a point of pride for me that I never flinched when Gunter fired up those jet-engine clippers and ran them quickly across my head. I never moved while he scraped my nape with a straight razor, I held perfectly still as he shaved away around my ears, leaving nothing but clean skin behind. No matter how busy he was with work, my father always found the time to take me to Gunter for trims, and if we were late by a week, the length (or lack thereof) of the cut allowed me a bit of leeway. By then, I would have walked to the shop myself for a little scrape, the feeling of hair touching my ears would be driving me crazy.
Box Top, Quarter Inch