Back in the late 1960’s, I attended a large high school that not only offered academic subjects, but vocational and technical ones as well. There was everything from auto mechanics to industrial arts, electronics to welding, cosmetology to child care, beautician to wig making. There was even a course called Ikebana, which meant Japanese floral arrangement, believe or not! My courses were all academic, history, English, French, geography, etc. With one notable exception: In my last high school year of 1969-70, when I was 17, I decided to take Home Economics to round out my curriculum. My mother taught me how to cook at a young age, and I figured I should keep myself up to date on the new ways. Besides, if I was going to get married and have a family, why not? Keep in mind this was expected of all the girls back then. Our course teacher was an American lady in about her mid-20’s named Miss Barbara Peterson. She was at least six feet tall, slim, blue-eyed, sort of homely looking, wore no makeup and was positively bubbly. One thing I immediately noticed about Miss Peterson was her hair. It was medium brown and she wore it up in what could aptly be described as a “Bee Hive” style, and it parted in the middle. Judging from the amount of hair on her head, it must have been quite long. And she never changed it once, always wearing it up the entire school year. We never saw her in a different style. Right away I thought, “I think I like this lady, we both have long hair.” My hair was long, auburn and oily. So long I could actually sit on it, reaching just past my bum! I always wore it in a ponytail, down my back. Compared to Miss Peterson, however, I was a midget at only five feet one. In fact, we were quite opposite in a few ways. She was tall, I was short. She was slim, I was chubby. She had green eyes, I had brown eyes. She wore her hair up, I wore my hair down. She parted her hair in the middle, I parted mine on the right. Miss Peterson wrote her name on the blackboard, turned around and introduced herself. She told us she was 24 years old, had a college degree in Psychology, with a minor in Home Management. She asked each one of us our names and where we came from. When it was my turn I said “Diane Bellemare, from LaSalle Heights.” Miss Peterson smiled at me and said “Well Diane, it looks like you and I have one thing in common.” I replied “What’s that?” She answered “We both love wearing our hair long.” (I was the only student in my class with long hair) When I told her I hadn’t had my hair cut since I was ten, Miss Peterson winked at me and said “Keep it long, sweetie.” Then she firmly declared to everyone “Okay people, let’s get on with the show!”
Her class was a joy to attend. Miss Peterson’s easy-going manner was a refreshing departure from the normally strict, disciplinarian approach favoured by most teachers. She was, how would I say, more “Human”, not putting up a front. When you think about it, she was only seven years older than all of us in the class. Miss Peterson told us one day that she had attended the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in her native New York State, in August of that year. Three days of peace, love and music, and she was there for all three. We were asking her what it was like, and she happily described her experience. When one student asked her if she wore her hair up, we all laughed. “No,” she said with a smile. “I wore it in a pigtail. With all the rain and mud, when I got home I had to wash it twice!” I raised my hand to ask her why she always wore her hair up. She replied to me “I don’t want it to be a distraction. When I started teaching, I wore it down in a braid or a ponytail. All of my students would stare at it, causing them to be diverted from their work. The boys and the girls alike. That’s why.” There was more classroom laughter. This made me wonder just how long WAS her hair? I was going to ask her, but the bell rang, marking the end of the period. As I was walking down the hall to my next class, some big guy behind me grabbed my ponytail, yanked it hard and made a snipping motion with his fingers through my hair and hollered “Get a haircut, you fat hippie!” I screamed “Ooowww!” in pain and started crying. Unbeknownst to both of us, the rangy Miss Peterson was standing nearby. She called him out on it and sent him right to the Principal’s office. She asked me if I was alright and then she comforted me. It was at that moment that I started to develop a fond and friendly relationship with Miss Barbara Peterson. Near the end of the school year, I was passing all of my courses and looked like a shoe-in to graduate. I was always proficient in school, being near the Honour Roll with a 78% average in primary and high school combined. I scored 80% in my last year, finally making the Honour Roll! My 86% in Home Ec. had put me over the top. I graduated and had my picture taken in my white robe, with my diploma and my long hair. Only this time, my hair was loose and in front, I was showing it off. I went back to thank Miss Peterson profusely for the wonderful year we had together, and told her what a great teacher she was. She said “You’re welcome, and I hope you have a great life.” Then she hit me with a bombshell out of nowhere. Miss Peterson told me this was her last year of teaching. She explained that she would be joining the U.S. Army just after school was out. She wanted to put her training in psychology to good use, helping others. She was leaving for the U.S. in mid-July to be inducted.
Obviously, this meant Miss Peterson had to have her hair cut short, and she wasn’t about to let the recruiting office do it, knowing how unceremonious and undignified they were about it. So it was arranged that her haircut would take place at the school, in one of the beauty classrooms. Because of limited space, she invited just a few of her friends, some teachers she had known well (Including the Principal) and a select group of her Home Ec. students. I had made the cut, so to speak. There were 30 people in all attending the big happening. There was very little room to sit, so the majority were standing. I was lucky enough to be in the front row, because I was short. (I know what you’re thinking, another pun) A graduate beautician student had been selected to do the honours of shearing Miss Peterson’s hair. She was a little taller than I was, about five feet three and her hair was very short. Needless to say, she was quite nervous about her first ever assignment. She had also been in Miss Peterson’s Home Ec. class that year, the one who asked about how she wore her hair at Woodstock. After about a twenty minute wait, Miss Peterson appeared to the sound of light applause. She took the time to greet everyone who had come and saved me for last, giving me a big hug and a kiss. Then she affectionately tugged at my hair, which was in it’s usual state, and said once again “Keep it long, sweetie.” I noticed that Miss Peterson’s hair was also in it’s usual state, up in a huge beehive, like she always had it. And I was thinking to myself that today, the mystery was about to be solved.
Miss Peterson had an anxious look on her face as she slowly walked up behind the chair, turning her back towards the small crowd. She was wearing all white. Shorts, socks, tee shirt and shoes. Before sitting in the chair, she leaned over and whispered something to the young, soon-to-be hair stylist. Whatever Miss Peterson told her, she nodded to her in agreement. She got out all of her equipment and was set to begin. The expectant stylist then proceeded to take down Miss Peterson’s hair. Being only five feet three and Miss Peterson being six feet, she had to reach up to remove the bobby pins holding her hair up. What happened next was truly amazing. Miss Peterson’s long, chestnut brown hair tumbled down her back, past her waist, below her bum, beyond her knees and it did not stop until it was just above her ankles! Her hair was so beautiful! As it cascaded down, the small crowd let out a collective “Ooooohhh” in stunned astonishment. I had never in my life seen hair that long! That probably went for everyone in the room. All of a sudden, she was not homely looking anymore, but absolutely radiant. Miss Peterson pulled her ultra long hair to her left side and held it up as she sat in the chair, then she tossed it back in a sweeping motion. (I was sure some of the men were getting aroused over this scene. I know I was, I could feel the sensation all over me. Imagine having my hair that long?) Sitting in the chair, Miss Peterson’s hair almost touched the floor. She was caped and ready. To avoid any tangling, the novice stylist had to brush her hair. It was so long that she had to brush it in two stages. First, she took her hair at the middle, lifted it up and brushed it very slowly. Then she reached up and brushed Miss Peterson’s hair from the top of her head to half way down, again doing it ever so slow. She even went so far as to brush Miss Peterson’s hair from the top of her head, all the way down to the end, having to reach up, then bend over every time she did. When she was finished, she took out an elastic and proceeded to make Miss Peterson’s extra long hair into a ponytail. This took quite a while, as her hair was indeed extremely long. After a half dozen twirls, the stylist slid the elastic down to her neck. She took out her scissors and looked apprehensively at Miss Peterson, who nodded her head yes. She gripped the ponytail in her hand, held it out slightly and placed her scissors above the elastic. As she did, Miss Peterson clenched her eyes shut and held on to the arms of the chair. When she started cutting, Miss Peterson opened her eyes and started to cry softly. The stylist was slowly, gingerly and cautiously snipping off her uber long hair. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, it was all over. (It had actually taken almost five minutes, because the would-be hair stylist was constantly shifting the position of her scissors. Plus, she was also being very slow) Miss Peterson let out a sigh of relief as tears were streaming down her cheeks, while looking forlornly in the mirror. She got out of the chair and thanked the aspiring hairdresser, who gave Miss Peterson her ultra long ponytail. What she did next was a sweet gesture, giving it back and donating it to the school wig making class. She got back in the chair and after a little trimming, Miss Peterson got up and said a fond goodbye to all the people in the room. Again she saved me for last, giving me a heartfelt farewell in Dutch, “Afscheid.” She kissed me goodbye and walked out of the room. I never saw her again.
For almost two years, Miss Peterson and I corresponded via mail. (There was no internet in 1970) I would write her every two weeks or less and she would reciprocate whenever she had the chance. Once, she sent me a colour picture of herself in her snappy U.S. Army uniform, a newly commissioned second lieutenant. Her hair was significantly shorter than the day she left us. (She was right about induction, the barber was an absolute sadist!) Miss, I mean, Lieutenant Peterson was sent to South Vietnam after basic training, her headquarters being just outside of Saigon. She worked as a combat psychologist, a few miles back of the action. She told me some pretty terrifying stories about what was going on down there. She also told me about what she wanted to do when her three-year hitch was up. Lieutenant Peterson wanted to return home and continue teaching, but not Home Ec. She wanted to teach psychology, being not only a BA, but now she was experiencing human behavior first hand. She wrote that she wanted to grow her hair back to it’s previous length. She explained to me that it had taken her over 14 years to grow her hair down to her ankles. She always had short hair as a child, and started letting it grow at ten years of age. That meant Lieutenant Peterson would leave the Army at 27 and by the age of 41, her dream would come true. She also wrote to tell me a true story about what her and her boyfriend would sometimes do when they made love together. (Of course, they were wearing nothing but smiles) To quote: “Every so often, my beau and I played a game we called ‘Beauty Parlour’. He would make love in my hair, then he would wash and dry it for me. Afterwards, we would both drink a glass of wine before we went to sleep. As my hair grew longer, it became even more enjoyable. When it got past my knees, we did it like this: First, he unbraided or undid my hair and brushed it for an extended time. After that, I would sit on the bed facing the mirror and tilt my head back. He would kneel down behind me, gather my hair around his mickey and do himself in my hair, starting off very unhurriedly. After a while he did it a little faster. He was pulling my hair at the same time, causing my head to snap back and forth over and over again. It didn’t hurt, in fact it felt sensational, like a cavewoman! It got to the point where my hair was so long, he was a yard away from me, yet still able to screw my hair! Oh my, it was such a wonderfully erotic experience! And yes Diane, we faced the mirror every time we did it. Try it out one time, I’m sure you’ll love it.” You can imagine the impact this had on an impressionable teenager like myself.
I wrote my last letter to Lieutenant Barbara Peterson when I was in junior college on May 26th, 1972, which was coincidentally her 27th birthday. Although I had not been receiving anything from her for over the last two months, I kept on writing. In one of my letters, I told her that I met my first real boyfriend at the beginning of the college year. His name was Roger Dalton and he was very nice. What made me attracted to him was that he said he liked me just the way I was. He was the first guy ever to say that to me. Thankfully he wasn’t much taller than I, five feet six to be exact, which made it easier for kissing! (And a whole lot of other things) I wrote to her that we had even played her game of “Beauty Parlour” when we made love. Of course I had to wait until my parents were out for the day, or else! And yes, it was a wonderful experience. By this time, I had let my long auburn hair grow all the way down to my knees, remembering Miss Peterson’s encouragement. (“Keep it long, sweetie.”) In early June of 1972, I found out why I was not getting any return correspondence from my friend and mentor. I had received a small parcel-sized envelope in the mail one day, postmarked Newburgh, New York. Odd, I thought, since I knew of no one from that part of the U.S. I opened it to find the last half dozen letters I had written to her, (They were unopened) along with a hand written letter from her parents. It read: “Dear Miss Bellemare, we regret to inform you that our daughter, and your close friend, Lieutenant Barbara Ann Peterson has died. She was killed in a Viet Cong ambush, while performing her duties in the field. She passed away on March 15th of this year. Barbara died a hero and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. She was cremated and is interred at Woodlawn cemetery, here in Newburgh. We know this is a great loss for you, and we would like to express our heartfelt condolences. She talked to us about you often, telling us what a great student you were, and also a good person. We are returning your letters to her, as they were received after she had died. We are also giving you her decoration, knowing that you will cherish it as a memory of your friendship with her. We really don’t want it, because we truly believe it is a symbol of this dastardly war being none of America’s business in the first place. We both came from Holland in order to escape war, fleeing from the Nazis during World War II. We had lost many family and friends in the Holocaust. It will only be a grim reminder for us. But for you, Miss Bellemare, we want you to accept it with our sympathies and your understanding, knowing of your closeness to her. Sincerely, Loek and Nora Peterson.” I couldn’t help but think to myself: “Beware, the Ides of March”. I cried for almost an hour before I could compose myself. After I did, I put the letters and her medal in our family safe. This chapter of my life was officially over.
After junior college, Roger and I got together and shared a large apartment in Verdun, in which we still reside today. On February 20th, 1978, I gave birth to a beautiful baby daughter, her name (With Roger’s approval) being Barbara Ann Dalton. We raised her in the most loving and enlightened way. She grew up to be a most attractive, statuesque and intelligent young lady. In fact, she grew up to be taller than the both of us, at just over five feet nine inches tall! Barbara went on to be an RN at the local hospital. We were so proud of her. Roger and I have been living with each other for 49 years. I worked at a local book store and Roger worked in an airplane factory, until we both retired at about the same time. Now my hair is grey, but it’s still oily and down to my knees, and I still wear it in my trademark ponytail. I am never, EVER cutting it again. (Save for the split ends) I want to keep my hair super long, in honour of my friend Barbara Ann Peterson. Unfortunately, Roger’s hair is mostly gone, and what’s left of it is the the same colour as mine. I am now 69 and Roger is 68. And oh yes, we still play “Beauty Parlour” every once in a while. Our daughter is now 43 and she has classic length auburn hair, like her mother once had. Like I said, mine’s grey. Barbara had always worn her hair short, but with a little of my motherly encouragement, decided to let it grow ten years ago. She was very pleased at the result. The other day, Barbara told me something that I thought was very sad. Many of her friends and co-workers were repeatedly asking her when she was getting her hair cut. She didn’t want to do it, but this peer pressure was getting to her. I took her in my arms and hugged her. Then I looked at her, affectionately pulled her long ponytail and uttered these four words I first heard over 50 years ago: “Keep it long, sweetie.”