“Don’t Worry, It’ll Grow Back”
“Don’t Worry, It’ll Grow Back”
Wendell Whitney Thorne
This is a work of non-fiction. All people, places and events depicted herein occurred nearly exactly as they are written. The timing of some events may have been changed in order to provide continuity, however any factual errors due to faulty memory are entirely the responsibility of the author, and he is sorry. The portion of “The Greatest Generation” dealing with my parents’ meeting and courtship is an elaboration from facts known to me, and my father’s assault of Omaha Beach is pieced together from historical documents, interviews with D-Day survivors and other sources.
Also By Wendell Whitney Thorne:
An Elephant In The Living Room – Is It Too Late To ‘Kill All The Lawyers’?”
“Don’t Worry, It’ll Grow Back”
©2010 Wendell WhitneyThorne All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author.
Printed in the United States of America
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
Cover Artwork and Layout: Alex Rodriguez (Honest to God) www.cardtoonland.com
The author wishes to extend his heartfelt gratitude to the clients who’ve made His Place Barber & Grooming Shop (and Don’s Barbershop before it) a great place to work, to share ideas, and to just be gentlemen; you make it easy to come in every day. Thanks also to my children, Alexa, Caroline, Lennon, and Cooper, who have given my life particular purpose; I’m grateful for their mother as well. Thanks also go to my editor, Steve Peake, who’s able to render a decent pan gravy from my charred remains. I wish to express my deep gratitude to Mr. William “David” Bass, Phil Hicks, Lee Strumski, Don & Terry Cowfer, Alex Rodriguez for his great cover, the guys from Luray, all the professionals who’ve been a part of this little barbershop over the years, the men and women of The Greatest Generation, the people mentioned in this book that have given a grand color to my life, and Jessica, my Jessica.
For My Father,
Charles Franklin Thorne, Jr.
The Greatest Generation 13
If The Glove Doesn’t Fit
You Have To Quit 55
The Ghost Grins 83
Rock Fever 97
Two Jerks 121
“Nice To Mole You” 145
Is She Worth Saving? 163
Don’t Worry, It’ll Grow Back 181
In our community, I’m known as “Bradenton’s Favorite Barber.” And, by “in our community” I mean: “in my mind.” I like to think of myself as a master barber with myriad clients who wait hours for me to cut their hair. In truth, I am the most fortunate man I know.
In my humble estimation, I have about 400 regular clients who’ve been duped into thinking I know what I’m doing with clippers and shears, who enjoy my never-ending stories and “in your face” demeanor, and who pay me every couple of weeks for the enjoyment of fifteen minutes of cigar breath and my pithy analysis of The State of The World.
But I am definitely comfortable here. All my life I just knew there was a place for me. The juxtaposition of my boisterous personality and a healthy respect for tradition has found a home in the barbershop.
There was a time in American history when the local barbershop was something more than a place to get a trim and a close shave. Gentlemen—from the mayor to the tobacco farmer—drifted leisurely in and out of the shop on an almost-daily basis, greeting one another and staying in touch. Like the British publick houses (the “pubs”), the American barbershop—in communities like Hollowell, Maine and Lenoir, North Carolina and Dyersville, Iowa—was the best place to get up to speed on the local goings-on.
Hard-working men living uncomplicated lives possessed the uncanny ability to chisel complex issues down to their least common denominator. American life was lived upon a foundation of solid truths, which were never questioned. And although the barbershop was a marketplace of ideas and critical analysis, such engagement was entered into by all participants under an unspoken agreement to do so within the framework of a common value system. This is not to say that discomforting or even far-fetched topics were not broached—reasoned progress demanded it. But imagination was always tempered by primeval understandings that had been silently passed from generation to generation.
These storefront shops were rich with heart-of-pine flooring, mahogany wainscoting and cabinetry, decorative pendant lighting, and large, well-polished mirrors. Beneath each mirror was a smooth porcelain pedestal sink before a solidly-built barber chair with polished chrome and deep forest-green or burgundy leather. Patrons were met with the aroma of oak smoldering in a pot-belly stove, mixed with masculine fragrances like Clubman aftershave, Wildroot hair cream and ten-cent cigars. An array of fedoras and Stetsons adorned the brass coat rack.
In one corner, a couple of guys played checkers while a businessman in a three-piece suit waited his turn with the morning paper. In one reclined barber chair, a customer swathed in a red-striped haircloth had his face wrapped in a steaming white linen towel while at another, a barber dressed in white coat and bow tie blended the perfect taper, shears over comb.
The radio played Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and, later in the afternoon, the Cubs game live from Wrigley Field. Men forecast the weather and spoke of distant places with funny names like Okinawa and Ardennes, but also of Main Street and the heretically-proposed traffic signal—and the special tax assessment to pay for it. Livestock and real estate were transferred with a handshake. Newborn babies were communally celebrated and old friends were laid to rest with respect.
Like water through the wheel at the gristmill, a community’s life passed through the barbershop.
In the year 2010 I am caretaker of such a shop, the 2010 version anyway. I do not say “owner” or even “operator” because the shop has a life of its own that was here long before I arrived and will thrive long after I’m gone. Hopefully. The differences between old and new are typical and expected: technological advances in the world and unfathomable challenges within the family. Air conditioning, electric clippers and MP3s. On the coat rack, the fedoras are gone, replaced by baseball caps—John Deere, Dale Earnhardt, The Tampa Bay Rays. Conversation is interrupted by an orchestra of ring tones. And women customers. A few, anyway.
Death no longer waits for the elderly; motorcycle accidents, drug overdoses and cancer swipe the young from us. A make-believe world visually emanating from clusters of ever-larger electronic flat-screens exploits our emotions and distracts our attention from the real, the substantial, the true. A cacophony of talk—not music—vomits from the radio. Mike Gallagher, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Laura Ingraham—all of whom practice somewhat right of center, madly in love with the sound of their own voices—they talk. And talk. And talk. And the people, God love ‘em, they listen, convinced that these guys and gals are something more than entertainers; bards or pundits or poets, even.
Some things, however, have not changed. The issues facing mankind may be different, more complex, but the conversation flowing from the mouth of the ideologue and the naïve and sage continues towards its ultimate goal: Simplify.
One anomaly I can’t explain is the matter of time. Time—the keeping of it, the knowledge of it—has not changed since, well, it’s beginning. A minute is still a minute, an hour an hour. What has changed is how we use time. Technology has given us countless toys and inventions to “save time,” yet we seem to have less and less free time at our disposal. Computers calculate and bind us one to another across the globe. We have an insatiable and impatient hunger to know.
In the several years I have been in my position, it has occurred to me that there are stories here. Stories from the mouths of patrons. Stories from the mouths of barbers. And stories long ago relegated to a worm hole in my head just waiting for somebody to recite the magic word that releases them from my brain. They are true stories that define, for me, the essence of life; or, perhaps better stated, the essence of our humanity.
It is past time for us as a human society to remind ourselves of that humanity. I believe there are important ingredients missing in the day-to-day existence of life, preventing us from receiving all that such life has to offer. Like a pinch of nutmeg added to some of the Italian dishes we prepare, there are sprinkles and dashes we omit from our daily “recipes” that could make all the difference. Often, those missing ingredients are found at the barbershop.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, regardless of what I tell my children. I only know what I know and what I glean everyday from a cadre of personalities as distinct as their hair. They are the catalyst for my thought process and creativity; I owe them a lot. Every day, my clients give me the opportunity to practice my craft. More importantly, they give me the chance to make a difference in their lives. Many have become my friends.
This is a book of stories inspired by them. It is a portrait of successes and failures, of poor judgment and lucky breaks. It is written to remind you—and me—to take this complex thing called life and extract from it the act of living.
It also makes an excellent coaster.
The Greatest Generation
At the risk of sounding like Paul Harvey, I believe “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Some things, anyway. The barbershop I now own and operate will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2010. When I purchased it in November of 2002, I felt as though I was being entrusted with a piece of history, an heirloom of sorts. I take that responsibility very seriously. My barber chairs are over seventy years old, and they’ll be here in another seventy. I like that. I drive a Mercedes-Benz automobile—25 years old. Why? Because they don’t make ‘em like they used to. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I remember vividly the moment I knew I was ordained to be the next keeper of this icon. I had been working in a full-service total family barbershop for a couple of years, years in which I’d begun to get a grasp on my hair technique and, more importantly, the importance of building relationships with my customers and colleagues. After these two years or so, I thought it was time for me to “move on” to the next level. Although I had developed my skills in a variety of hair care for men, women and children, I had a passion for men’s grooming.
“No, this shop’s not for sale,” said Bob, the owner of Village Barbershop in West Bradenton. I’d gone by there because there was a “For Sale” sign in the window of the adjacent hair salon, and I thought maybe the two were going as a unit.
“But,” he continued as he opened a drawer at one of the stations, “If you’re looking for a barbershop, this one’s for sale.” He handed me a newspaper ad he’d cut out of the local fish wrapper. I looked at the paper and copied down the information.
When I got home, I called the number. A woman answered.
“It’s my husband’s shop and he’s retiring,” she told me. She was not at liberty to divulge the price or any other vital information, like the monthly rent, but said her husband would call me later.
That afternoon the phone rang. An older man’s voice told me that he’d arranged with the landlord to allow the new owner to keep the same rent, which he told me was ‘very reasonable’ but still wouldn’t say how much, nor would he tell me his asking price for the business.
“Why don’t you just meet me out at the shop tomorrow night to take a look at it for yourself and then we’ll talk.” His tone was neutral. I agreed.
The next evening, I saw the shop up close for the first time. I realized I’d driven past it on occasion, but it wasn’t in an area that I frequented. I’d never given it more than a passing glance. Situated in a strip mall with five other businesses, the shop was indistinctive though not unappealing.
Walking through the front door, I was greeted by a tall, distinguished-looking man about eighty years old, with soft blue eyes, a friendly smile, and a headful of wavy silvery-white hair. He extended his hand.
“I’m Don Cowfer,” he began, “and this is my wife, Terry.” She was obviously somewhat younger than her husband, with beautifully-set blonde hair and porcelain skin. Like the older man, she smiled broadly. With my hand still in Don’s grasp, I allowed my eyes to take a quick glance of the shop, and I knew.
He gave me the nickel tour as we exchanged niceties. The backbar and its built-in picture-window mirrors was all 1960s, pressed wood and Formica. It had built-in overhead lighting with old shampoo sinks integrated into the entire structure. I was disappointed to see that his three chairs were not barber chairs but salon chairs. I’d made a commitment to myself when I began barbering to offer full-service face shaving to my customers, a lost art that I felt was integral to men’s grooming. The lack of reclining chairs was a drawback, but I’d purchased a budget model barber chair that reclined and was using it in the other shop already.
The floor was old linoleum tiling and the walls were aging. Cheap paneling covered some of them. One wall was filled with 4×6 black and white photographs of little boys getting their haircut. Don noticed me looking. “I always took photos of their first haircuts,” he smiled, pointing to the pictures.
The tiny back room was cluttered and needed cleaning. The waiting chairs were old but usable, and the bathroom worked. The shop needed a lift here and a tuck there, but it had good bones. Don showed me his books and made his optimistic case for future success of the shop under my guidance. All of that was relatively unnecessary. I’d done something I don’t usually do: I’d allowed my gut feeling to just about make the deal. Still, I had some fear.
“I like this idea,” I told Don, “but I’m not sure I’m ready for this—“
“Yes you are,” he leveled his eyes at me. “You’re ready.”
And at that moment, I knew. We ironed out the particulars and Don offered to take back the financing and it was just easy.
Don Cowfer, I’d learn later, won two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star in the Battle of The Bulge, the six-week long German offensive fought during the deep winter of 1944-45 in which 80,987 American soldiers died (how many in Iraq, in nine years?). Don is a gentleman in every way. Business-like in business matters, he told me that there were many times when a customer was having troubles or was just depressed, and he would stop cutting hair and just have a word of prayer with that person. I liked that.
Don and his history brought to mind another soldier, and I marveled at how two men from the same generation could end up so differently.
Charles Franklin Thorne, Jr. was 17 years old with a ninth grade education, no discernable manners, soft brown eyes and a toothy, salesman’s smile. He nearly dropped his coffee mug when Carolyn Whitney, then 14, walked into the Hilltop Grill in Augusta, Maine with her older cousin, Hazel, in October of 1940. Hazel—being older and, theoretically, wiser—established herself as Caroline’s protector, her road block. She bristled at Charlie’s reaction to her younger cousin—bright blonde hair, clear skin, an hourglass-shaped early-onset figure—and made strong attempts to intercept Charlie’s advances, to no avail. Deciding that Charlie looked an awful lot like Benny Goodman, Carolyn was also smitten. When she weighed the dozen years held captive by her aging grandparents (and being harbored in a virtual closet by her well-meaning cousin) against freedom in the arms of anyone, there was no contest. But there was something else about this guy, this Charlie Thorne. He was warm, with a good sense of humor. She didn’t know if he had plans or dreams, and she didn’t care.
“He looked at my eyes,” she said to Hazel on the walk home from the diner.
“What?” She said it as if the “h” came first.
“He didn’t stare at these,” she said, waggling her index finger from one ample breast to the other. “He looked me in the eye.” Carolyn couldn’t remember a boy who’d done that before.
To his credit, Charlie allowed the girl to grow up a bit and, in March of 1942, he proposed with a ring bearing the tiniest of diamonds. They should have been married within the year.
But Charlie got drafted.
He kissed his fiancé, promised her he’d be back, and boarded a bus for Texas.
After basic training, Private First Class Charles F. Thorne, Jr. was assigned to the First Infantry Division, the “Fighting First,” or the “Big Red One,” so-called because of the red uniform patch with the large number “1” in the middle. 16th Regiment. 3rd Battalion. Lima Company. His commanding officer was Captain Dan C. Albergetti, of Taunton, Massachusetts, and Charlie didn’t like him, not one bit. In fact, he’d boasted—though not to the man himself—how he would someday fatten the lip of the ‘loud-mouthed guinea.’ Charlie didn’t really like the Army, either, if he told the truth, but to say so aloud might be construed as treason. So he kept his mouth shut, which, as anyone who had ever known PFC Thorne could tell you, was no small feat.
When Captain Albergetti, the ‘friggin’ wop,’ ordered him to exit the landing craft first, alongside him, on the sixth of June, 1944, ‘to save the frogs’ worthless asses,’ Charlie only glared at him. His expression was anger. In fact, he was scared to death.
When the ramp was lowered from the amphib—stuck in a sandbar 200 yards from the damn beach—Armellino, along with Charlie and two others, slid down the ramp and into the cold English Channel as automatic rifle fire from German strongholds high above the beach wizzed all around them. Under the weight of his gear and his M1 Garand wrapped in plastic, the hydrophobic and sea-sickened Charlie’s Mae West was insufficient to keep his head above water. In panic, he kicked and pushed against the legs of his fellow soldiers, but could not gain the surface. Great, he thought, the Krauts won’t get me, but I’ll drown!
Right before he gave up the fight, one in his company behind him off the launch, maybe DuFresne, pulled him up by his knapsack. He spit and coughed and found his feet on the sandbar while the bullets kept whizzing and whining past his head like a swarm of bees on speed.
Insanely making way for the beach against such fire, Charlie quickly scanned for a sign of his Captain and the two others in his squad. When he couldn’t find them, he thought: How long was I under the water? It would be two full days before Charlie learned that the trio had been swiftly cut down by rifle fire before their feet had even left the ramp. He felt only a twinge of remorse for his prior feelings about the Captain, but was moved to private tears at the news of the other two, friends he’d made in boot camp even though they were probably Jews: Virgil and Isaac, from New York.
The war ended and PFC Thorne came home to marry his sweetheart. In her haste to extricate herself from her family, Carolyn Whitney failed to observe that the wonderful fire she’d seen that day at the Hilltop six years earlier had vanished from her new husband’s eyes, stolen by an unseen intruder and left to die on a cold beach in France.
Charlie Thorne sired four children, and I am his third. He never spoke to me or my siblings about whatever happened “over there,” so as I grew up and matured, I had no reason to believe it was nothing more than a smidgeon of his long-ago past, a wide place in the road of life.
I’m pretty sure I’m quite wrong about that now.
Because the older I get, the more I can see how the experiences of my younger years have real impact on how I live my life now; the decisions I make, the manner in which I triage difficulties and problems are funneled through the lessons from those years.
Which is to say that I’ve come to an understanding of the reasons for the distance between my father and me as I grew up. Something—lots of somethings, I suppose—happened over there. The horror of battle and its brutal devaluation of life, all life, sucked some primordial and existential fiber from my father, and the millions of other fathers, and, to my way of thinking, was forever lost.
Dad and I had our first real conversation—ever—in my apartment in Knoxville while I was in law school. He was seventy-five years old. We both spoke and listened. It was cathartic and sad at the same time. He made an admission to me that came as close to being selfless as was possible for him.
“I should have been around more when you were growing up,” he told me in a somber and weary voice. Seated across from me on the sofa, his posture conveyed defeat. Dad worked a lot when I was young, ostensibly to make damn sure that his four kids were provided for. However, being programmed a lot like him, I know his reasons for staying away so much weren’t all altruistic; he was escaping.
He continued. “I know that I felt like I needed to make sure you and your brother and sisters had what you needed, but I now know that you needed something else. You needed me. You needed me to be emotionally there for you.” This was my father talking, the one who never used the word “emotionally” before, at least in my presence. “If you ever have a family, don’t make the same mistake I did. Be there for your children.” I’d heard about fatherly advice, but I couldn’t remember receiving any. It was refreshing and, as I said, cathartic.
After he spoke these words, I looked deeply into his eyes, and that’s when I saw it.
I saw that it wasn’t me he felt badly about, it was him! He was saddened because of all that he’d missed out on as we grew. Because the raising of children, while sacrificial and fraught with setbacks and heartache, is, to me, the most joy-filled and satisfying experience in the human journey. Dad came to that realization too late, but I’m glad I took his advice.
But I had seen those eyes once before.
I was playing baseball, Babe Ruth league and, although I’d been a good pitcher in Little League, the mound was a lot further away now and I was just starting out in Babe Ruth so I wasn’t pitching yet. But I could run, and so they put me in left field. Second string.
My friend Brian Geroux was up to bat for the other team, and I’d been watching him all game from the bench, pounding deep drives over the head of the center-fielder. Two or three times in this game already. When I finally made it into the game, I was ready.
When Brian began his swing, I turned and ran like the wind towards deep center. Sure enough, Brian smacked it out there. I tracked the fly ball over my shoulder as I ran and, miraculously, as I extended my glove the ball found it. It truly was a great catch.
At the end of the inning, I ran in to the bench, where Dad was just arriving to pick me up. When he got to the dugout area, fifteen people mobbed him.
“Oh my God, you missed it! Your son just made the most amazing catch I’ve ever seen,” was what they were saying. I looked at Dad. Those eyes. Yep. He’d missed it and, yep, he felt like crap. For him.
Well, that’s what I saw that day in my apartment in Knoxville. He’d missed it. All of it. And he was sad.
What I took from that is a large part of why I gave up practicing law in favor of barbering. Truth be told, I enjoyed practicing law. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I started making real good money again, and I liked having the knowledge to help people out of jams.
What I didn’t like was how the constant state of being adversarial made me behave. Always on the defensive, always ready to fight, always suspicious of the motive of others, I tended to see the world in a most cynical way. Which is fine if one can turn it off and leave it behind. Well, lawyers cannot, most likely due to the fact that the vast majority of their day is involved at some level in the practice of law. It was that way with me. Sixteen, seventeen hours a day. No, not always in the office or the courthouse, but on the phone, the computer, putting out “fires” for my clients. And thinking. A lot. Did I cross that ‘t’, did I dot that ‘i’? Did I miss a filing? Did I do all I could do for that client? The questions plagued me, and the time just flew.
Later in life, when I began to have children of my own, I didn’t want to be that kind of father. But I now can see why my father did, at least to a point. He was a good provider. He knew how to do that. It just never occurred to him that by missing out on his kids’ growing years he was actually missing his own life. But he taught me that lesson, in his own unknowing and unknown way.
They call his the “Greatest Generation,” and for good reason. People then didn’t get bogged down in a lot of meaningless conversation, and they didn’t obsess about “finding” themselves or see themselves as highly important individuals. They had families to do that. The men and women of The Greatest Generation looked at life in a decidedly different way from those of us who are their legacy. They knew that their collective ambition and strength could stand against any foe, and that the United States and her way of life had proven to be things that were quite worth defending. I often say that were we to be called upon to fight the Second World War today, we wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d like to be wrong about that.
Now, when a customer about my Dad’s age comes in the shop, I think about the Greatest Generation. One of my customers is a decorated Vet of the Big Red One. Bullet-holed, shrapnel-laden and proud, he tells me of the battle for Sicily or the push north into mainland Italy. He said he was not transferred to England for D-Day, because he was “too experienced.” Like so many of his comrades, next year I may not see him anymore.
The last time I saw Dad, I gave him a trim—including his bushy eyebrows—and shaved around his ears and neckline. We didn’t say much, but we didn’t need to. In March of 2002, a Saturday, I got the same call I’d been getting for thirty years. Dad was again in the hospital—he really might not come out this time—and I gave it my nonchalant ‘okay.’ Sunday, around noon, my brother called to say that our Dad had lost the battle this time. I wish I could say I was shocked, but the only thing I felt was relief.
He’d wanted to die for so long, and now it was over.
Fathers and sons, one generation to the next, are a perpetuation of life giving life giving life that molds and shapes our very existence, and links each of us humans to one another. I used to wonder if there would ever be another Greatest Generation. I’m not pretending that doesn’t sound a bit odd; after all, how can there be more than one “Greatest?” What would Muhammad Ali say?
But I’m serious here. Like so many elements to life on this planet, perhaps the elevation of a certain generation—maybe even united as one with a common goal—is cyclical. Perhaps every fifty or seventy or a hundred years, an alignment of stars or a cold winter or some other phenomenon produces a clarity within the populace that results in a stunning group of children who grow faithfully into adults, who lock arms and go un-gently into the good night for the security or redemption of mankind.
Or, perhaps more plausible, after fifty or seventy or a hundred years of generation after generation hammering away at each other like cosmic dueling banjos, one generation of parents ‘gets it,’ and decides to instigate a systematic upheaval of the clutter—societal spring cleaning—and faces the tough task of raising tomorrow’s leaders with a vigor and tenacity and sense of sacrifice that produces a million heroes.
If it’s true, then we’re definitely overdue.
My grandfather—my father’s father—enjoyed a reputation within his immediate family as a firm but loving caregiver, and a hard working family man. I’m told that during the Depression Charles Franklin Thorne, Sr. would sometimes disappear for two weeks at a time, to “look for work.”
I doubt it. I doubt it because I knew his son—my father—pretty well. And I know his son pretty well, too.
We’re awesome in emergencies. We’ll be the first—and most level-headed—guys on an accident scene. Crisis? No problem, we’ll run in. Charge a well-defended beach-head, fly an attack jet into Kuwait through layer after layer of deadly triple-A? Easy.
Family stress? Well, we suck at that. We’re men and we want to fix things and people can’t be fixed. . So, we do the next best thing; we escape. We get out of there pronto, and hope the touchy-feely issues solve themselves or at the very least get neatly swept under the rug. I’m inclined to believe that Grandpa Thorne, while strong and provisionary, was adept at identifying the situations within his family that elicited the hereditary response.
I was more than acutely aware of this legacy when an amazing thing happened: My wife became pregnant.
This was no “Jesus’ face in the grilled cheese” miracle: Two months after we were married, Tracy had had surgery that removed half of her reproductive system.
“I’d have taken out the other side, too,” the good doctor informed us in recovery, “but we hadn’t discussed it beforehand. It’s a mess.”
He went on. “I just want to let you know that you’ll never have children naturally.” That was the wrong thing to say, and the wrong time. I led him by the elbow out the door and explained in no uncertain terms what a dickhead he was for saying that to her now. He assumed a position of repose and meekly conveyed his apology. He understood.
We saw two fertility specialists. The first one said “no way.” The second one said, “Sure, there’s a chance you could have children naturally; and your chance is ten million to one. That’s a quote. He recommended In Vitro Fertilization (that he, of course, routinely performed—at $12,000 a pop). I could see that Tracy was considering it when, after we discussed the entire procedure a bit more, I realized I could have none of it. Why? “Selective Reduction.”
Briefly stated, the doctor would place living embryos—made up of my sperm and Tracy’s egg—into her uterus. But he wouldn’t put just one or two; he was talking five and six. That many, in case some didn’t “take.”
“Well,” I asked, “what do we do if they all take?” I thought: Raising Arizona.
That’s when he said it: “Selective Reduction.”
Now, I’m a lawyer and I’m used to euphemism to the extent that my antennae are on guard for anything that sounds too pretty. My antennae went on full alert.
“Explain that, Doc,” I said.
After he danced around a definition for a minute or so, I realized what he was saying: Abortion.
And that clinched it. After that, we did nothing to enhance our chances of having a child. Which made for quite a surprise when, fourteen months later (and I’m not going to go into the roller-coaster ride of that year-plus), Tracy told me that she was pregnant.
I doubted that.
But it was true and in October of 2000, Sweet Caroline emerged into the world, pure, perfect and totally natural. My miracle baby. I wrote a song.
But that’s nothing.
Sixteen months after that, Tracy had some more news. Yep.
I really doubted that. Even so, I was simply unprepared for the results of the first sonogram, in April of 2002.
Doctor Clyde Skene is a well-worn obstetrician who’s probably delivered something like 30,000 babies. An easy-going man with scruffy white hair and mustache, Dr. Skene’s a soft-spoken professional with a hint of Florida cracker. Truthfully, I can’t tell you if Dr. Skene has encountered legal problems involving his assistance with pregnant moms, but certainly none that could justify $4,000 per week for malpractice insurance. His is a lonesome specialty around my community. The largest OB clinic in our county went out of business a few years ago. Still, Dr. Skene continues to labor on (couldn’t resist, sorry), and he was Tracy’s doctor with all of her Florida pregnancies.
Doctor Skene was about to perform the sonogram when I reminded him of something:
“We don’t want to know the gender of the baby.” I told him that if he saw something on the screen that might give away the gender to please move the probe. He said he would.
Old Doc puts the probe on her belly, all smeared up with contact gel, stares at the screen and makes one pass.
Abruptly, he replaced the probe in its holder, picked up a chair next to him, and brought it over to me.
“You better sit down, Dad.”
It was at that moment that my brain began to analyze the split-second image I thought I’d seen on the screen: Two heads. I rationalized—for a moment—that the sonogram had “echoed” or some such anomaly. Then a dread fell over me when I thought: The baby has two heads. Curiously, I never once considered the obvious reason I saw two heads on the screen. Twins.
Anyway, as soon as we confirmed that Tracy was carrying two babies, I became very uneasy. Ironically, the source of my anxiety was found in two different yet related issues. First, I prayed they weren’t boys. I honestly prayed to God that they weren’t boys. And second, I worried that, if they were boys, they would be stained by the legacy. Tracy said something I’ll never forget, because she, too, was aware of the Thorne Male Legacy.
“It can stop now. You can stop it now.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
And so, like my father before me, I have two sons. Twins. Now they are eight years old and now I get it. And they, along with their sisters, have produced in my mind a clarity and understanding that every generation has the potential to be a Greatest Generation. Every child is born with a precise DNA and Collective Unconscious to be able to create, invent, build, dream and lead. Why so many are indifferent and selfish, hate, hurt, kill and self-destruct has less to do with them and so much to do with us, and our parents and grandparents.
So I have hope, an American ideal that never seems to go out of style. Hope for tomorrow and hope for today, despite the multi-layered issues and myriad difficulties faced by a mixed bag of people in a complex world. And I have a searing knowledge of my responsibility as father to these four children; that if they are to become part of the next Greatest Generation then I have a tremendous responsibility to build within them a proper and strong foundation. And that means being around them, being present, giving them something more than a roof over their heads and three squares. Having my own barbershop gives me the kind of flexibility to achieve that objective.
A fellow about 35 years old came into the shop a few days ago for a High-and-Tight. He sat in the old faded-chrome and green-leathered Kochs barber chair and, as I draped him he asked, “Whatever happened to them pictures they used to have on that wall over there,” indicating the far corner.
I smiled; it’s a question I get once in a while.
“Well,” I started, “I hear they’re in storage somewhere…”
His eyes moistened and he smiled wide. “My picture was up there,” he said, matter-of-factly. He exhibited pure pride as he touched a familiar past, and I immediately experienced a most satisfying warmth.
Maybe some things they do make like they used to.
Because I live in South Florida, I meet a lot of people from all over the country and the world. They come to South Florida—either temporarily or permanently—for the sun. Naturally, of late the sun is the only reason to retire to Florida; the economic downturn has hit my state harder than most.
I’ve lived in a lot of different places up and down the East Coast, and I can often share experiences with my clients. And the places I haven’t been, like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Detroit? Well, I feel like I’ve been there, too. I can relate.
Pittsburgh has the Steelers who, even if they hadn’t won the “Stupid” Bowl last year would still find their way into any conversation with a fan. Six frickin’ rings! Bradshaw, Harris, frickin’ Steel Curtain. Also, Pittsburgh has Primanti Brothers, and any place that makes a colossal sandwich with the fries and slaw right there between the bread must have read my mind.
I know that there is some kind of road race in Indianapolis and basketball (a topic we simply do not allow to be discussed in the barbershop) is pretty popular there. A lot of my snowbird customers do not live in Indianapolis. About twenty miles north of Indianapolis or some other proximate location is where they live.
Detroit? Well, I know a couple of barbers who went to the Detroit Barber College which was, even back then, situated in what has to be worst section of Detroit (which is like saying the bad side of Hell). I’ve observed that Detroit’s sports fans display their appreciation for the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup victory by burning the city down and looting the local businesses. I don’t want to be around when they lose. None of my clients is from there, either. North of there. Between Detroit and Flint.
Naturally there are other places called “home” for my retirees and Snowbird customers; I’ve lived in some of them.
For a period of time, I lived in Northern Virginia. Springfield, to be exact. I’m sure there was a time when Springfield was a sleepy place from whence government workers commuted to our nation’s capitol, but when I lived there it was a very busy place from whence government workers commuted. I did not commute to Washington. I worked for a local utility company, which eventually brought me into the company of one Mr. Phil Hicks.
A likeable, easy-going man about my age, Phil is easy to warm up to. He has a happy face with laughing eyes, his weight seems to ping-pong a bit, and he is never in anything resembling hurry. Two fists full of vitamins requiring lots of liquid flow down his gullet every morning, and if you ask him his occupation, he’ll tell you he’s a banker. To him, however, work is secondary. He lives.
Phil is in no way a musician, yet is without question the foremost authority on Eric Clapton I have ever met (my friend Kelli Arrowsmith is right up there with him, by the way. I say this now because it is true and because she will kill me if I don’t acknowledge her undying devotion to the world’s greatest guitarist; she would literally kill me). Phil and I would sometimes just sit in his basement listening to EC and, from time to time during one of the master’s solos I’d see Phil’s fingers on the arm of the chair moving right along with Slowhand’s. Should have thrust a guitar into his hands back then.
Phil is my best friend. That I am likely not his is a credit to the scores of people who find themselves naturally gravitating to his persona. But he is one of perhaps two or three men on earth with whom I am completely comfortable in the knowledge that what he says, he means. That any criticism he has is delivered out of brotherly love with absolutely no axe to grind. That if I need him, he is there, and vice versa. He has a singular understanding of the length and breadth of life and accepts his place in it, knowing that it doesn’t last forever and that he will not squander any of his precious time in fret or worry. If you met Phil, you’d feel the same way.
Back in those years in Northern Virginia, Phil and I, along with our mutual friend, Dan Lynch, began an unintended ritual that lasted about eight years. Every Saturday morning, the three of us would arrive before dawn at the Burke Lake Municipal Golf Course in Burke, Virginia for a round of golf.
I am well aware that there are a number of people in the world who do not play golf. And, for those who do play, there are many who do not play well. Statistics indicate that nearly 90 per cent of all golfers will never achieve an eighteen-hole score under 100. What that means is that there are an awful lot of golfers who either have no natural ability or talent for the game, or play the game for something other than to play it well. I am in this latter category.
To me, the game of golf is much like taking a four-hour vacation from the rest of the world. Lush and scenic, the courses themselves make me feel like I’m just out for a leisurely stroll on the world’s largest lawn. The mechanics of the game—well a part of me now—allow me to get some exercise in the fresh air. And, although I play an awful lot by myself (and in the process garner astonishingly low scores), I greatly enjoy the camaraderie of being in the presence of my friends.
The executive par-3 track at the Burke Lake Municipal Golf Course is simply beautiful. With rolling, tree-lined fairways and well-manicured greens, it is a challenging short course replete with hazards. We even named some of them: A large overhanging oak limb (right in the trajectory of the prefect approach shot to number 4 was named “The Craw.” The large pond that often collected our tee shots on 2 was “Houston,” as in “Houston, we have splashdown.” The treed area with the ever-present ground-covering leaves on 16 was “Downtown,” and the knoll I always seemed to land on at 17 was “Thorne Hill.” Still is, if you ask me.
Phil, Dan and I nearly always teed off into pitch-black darkness, often prior to the course attendants’ arrival, and paid at the turn (between holes nine and ten). On occasion, when the weather was inhospitable for any golfers (or the course crew), we dropped our clubs over the rail and played anyway. I remember one January morning wearing three pairs of pants.
Those mornings were magical. It was almost as if some musky fragrance hung in that pre-dawn air that just seemed to lift us out of our mundane world, erasing a week’s worth of clutter from our brains.
Often the Canada geese would come in on approach at “Houston,” and it was a sight to behold. The lead goose would split off from the flock and turn downwind and then final, while the rest of the squadron circled. If he made it down without incident, the rest would follow as daylight peeked over the tree line. Other times, the darkness would come alive with an array of shooting stars. Always, however, greeting the new day brought optimism and new birth.
When the time came for me to transfer, I bade farewell to my friends and moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Unfortunately, and mostly due to me dropping the ball, we fell out of touch.
Flash forward fifteen years. I’m a barber (I know you already know this), working in a shop in Bradenton, Florida. It was a nice, full-service family-oriented shop. In fact, it was the very shop where I used to get my hair cut, where Candy works, the one who talked me into becoming a barber in the first place. It’s not her shop, though. Belongs to a lady named Jody—used to be Campbell, then it was Bowes, then it was Campbell again, and now it’s something else. She’s a fantastic barber and a nice lady who gave me a chance, so I refuse to be goaded into retelling any of the ugly rumors that float around Bradenton about her. I’m pretty much convinced they’re all false anyway.
So I’m in the shop clipping a client’s taper while Candy was behind me working on a woman’s hair, and I overheard this:
“I just moved here from Northern Virginia.” I quieted myself. Listened. Clipped.
She said, “I just retired from the electric company—,” and I listened closer. “—I was in the Alexandria office…” I had to say something.
I said, “I worked in that office years ago,” and she looked at me in the mirror.
“Well, I worked there for a while and then transferred to the Springfield office,” is what she said.
I stopped now, looked at her. Didn’t recognize her. “I opened that office,” I told her.
Her face said You gotta be kidding me. “Well, who do you know from there?” she asked, and before I could answer she began listing names.
Finally, I piped up. “Do you know Phil Hicks?”
Here, she stopped talking, looked at me and smiled. “Phil Hicks is my best friend.” Amazing. Her name was Noel.
I got his email address from Noel and sent out a message after I got home that day. He replied. We phoned. Not long after, in the mail I received a souvenir golf ball and score card: Burke Lake Golf Course.
That Summer Phil came to Florida with his wife, Jo. Although I hadn’t aged a bit, Phil had grown older. We played golf. No time had passed.
The following spring, Phil sent me an email regarding a perennial golf outing he and a bunch of guys had been at for about fourteen years. It was an offhand invitation to come along, but with me living in Florida, a new career and a burgeoning family, Phil held no hopes for me. He was just “taking my temperature,” as he put it. I asked him By what method?
I kept the email, but I’d already decided that a trip like that was out of the question for a lot of reasons. Oh, I did a cursory check of available flights, just for the heck of it. And, well, I had some fun saving a few bucks each week, just to see if I could put together the $250 for the trip. And, hell, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to bone up on my golf a bit, so I did that. I played all the area courses as often as I could; Waterlefe, Imperial Lakes, Stoneybrooke, both county courses, River Run, River Club and Rolling Green.
But, I had assured myself that—although I may be able to plan for next year, this year was simply not an option.
So naturally—one-hundred per-cent powerless against a mystical inertia of which I was barely conscious—I immediately gathered together the required money and made flight reservations. On the Thursday following Memorial Day weekend I found myself at Dulles International with suitcase and golf clubs, waiting at the curb for my old friend to pick me up.
Phil took me on a tour of my old stomping ground and so much had changed I remember thinking: If he dropped me off here, I’d never find my way out.
Later that day, Phil and I stood outside the clubhouse at Burke Lake Golf Course under a pristine sunny sky, waiting for Dan, who arrived at 5 PM, sharp. As a further surprise, my old friend, Derek, showed up. He, too, had aged. And gathered a bit of girth around the middle. When he hugged me, though, I was immediately transported back. Again. The familiarity of his voice and his easy demeanor had me hating time. We teed off. Played 18 holes. Reminisced, a little.
Mostly, though, we caught up. The talk was about today. Kids. Wives. Jobs. Dan was teaching school and his genius daughter had graduated Princeton and was seeking research work with her equally-genius husband. Phil was a bank manager and his sons were doing well, all grown up now. Phil’s great wife, Jo, somehow still mustered the strength or indifference to tolerate him. Derek’s supremely talented daughter was moving from New York to Chicago to join a world-famous dance company.
Dan hit the ball into “Houston.” Phil went “Downtown,” Derek could have cared less and, of course, I landed on “Thorne Hill.” “The Craw” was gone, succumbed to either chain saw or natural causes. Other than that, no time had passed.
Later, over Chinese food, we looked at each other, a bit older; Phil and I somewhat rounder. Gray hair and a few wrinkles now occupied the places where youth once promised a life with no end. We took some pictures. Wordlessly, we affirmed the bond between us, promised to reunite again the following year.
The next morning Phil and I awakened early, loaded Phil’s Malibu and headed for the Town & Country Diner (the official stepping-off place for the Luray Golf Trip) on the way to Luray and our golf weekend.
Devoid of frills, the Town & Country is a warm atmosphere thick with the fine aroma of southern breakfast: bacon, biscuits and sausage gravy, hash browns, grits, eggs. And lots of coffee. The dining room was abuzz with chatter emanating from several tables. The tables themselves were engaged in battle with the guts of middle-aged men in snug golf attire, and I was duly introduced. Most of the guys had at one time been employed by the power company; some still remained. I immediately forgot all their names.
(After my second year at Luray, the Town & Country experienced a significant fire that many speculated began in the cook’s hair, but the specific origin was never officially reported. The rebuilding took longer than expected, and we were forced to relocate our breakfast to another diner in Warrenton. While bursting with diner ambience, the food was horrible. Runny eggs and bacon “chips.” We longed for our beloved Town & Country to the extent that some of the fellows actually wrote letters to the owners, inquiring as to whether there was anything they could do to hasten the renovation and re-opening.)
After breakfast that morning, Phil drove us through the foothills on Highway 211, a scenic reverie of ever-rising green domes dotted with the shadows of passing clouds. Each hillcrest and turn drew us closer to Piney Mountain and its switchback pass, with Phil muttering something about “breaking his record” this time through.
I held on for dear life as Phil negotiated the sharp serpentine turns first up (upon the cushion of a live version of Tulsa Time from a bootleg tape of unknown origin), then down (Layla) the mountain, while some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States whizzed past. It wasn’t until we straightened out that I was able to re-acquaint myself with the splendor of the Shenandoah Valley.
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There was a time in American history when the local barbershop was something more than a place to get a trim and a close shave. Gentlemen—from the mayor to the tobacco farmer — drifted leisurely in and out of the shop on an almost-daily basis, greeting one another and staying in touch. Like the British publick houses (the “pubs”), the American barbershop—in communities like Hallowell, Maine and Lenoir, North Carolina and Dyersville, Iowa—was the best place to get up to speed on the local goings-on. This is a book of true stories inspired by my life as a barber in just such a shop. It is a portrait of successes and failures, of poor judgment and lucky breaks. It is written to remind you—and me—to take this complex thing called life and extract from it the act of living. It also makes an excellent coaster.