The Haircut



Kathryn Lynch



Copyright 2018 by Kathryn Lynch




Photo of a white man getting a shave from a black barber.

We can never forget the contributions that the “greatest generation” of American GI's made to our country. We think first of those who died and gave it their “all.” It is easy to forget the GI's who were mechanics, cooks, supply personnel, intelligence officers, or others who performed support services for the soldiers in the trenches.  This is a story about my Dad, who was a military policeman. His small, enduring contribution to race relations, is one of my fondest memories.  

During the Second World War period, persons in the U.S. who had dark skin were called negroes. For that reason the story uses this term which was the one Dad used and knew.


By the time I reached the age of five, the vast majority of the Dads in our neighborhood had been conscripted into the military for service in World War II. My Dad was one of the ten million men who served in that War for several years, but he was lucky because he was never sent overseas to the Eastern or the Western Front.

Instead, the U.S. Army decided to train him as part of the Military Police force at McClellan Army Base in Anniston, Alabama. Dad was a big man, patient and slow to anger, sympathetic and hard working. Although he would never acknowledge it in later years, he was perfect for the job.

For nearly a year, he and another MP were assigned to aircraft patrol. Sabotage of the planes was a continuing concern, particularly after dark. Every night the pair walked back and forth among the parked planes. Dad held the rifle and grenades, while the other MP who was a canine officer, handled the dog. The dog was a vicious beast who responded to attack training by searching for anyone he could tear to pieces. Dad always felt the gun and grenades would never be needed. And they were never used.

The next phase of duty required an MP to patrol in the community in order to maintain satisfactory relationships between neighborhood residents and military inductees. Young soldiers who had leave time often visited the local bars. If they became too loud, obnoxious, hassled women, got into fights, or got too drunk, it fell to the MP to load them into a military jeep for a ride back to the base. These routines were less stressful than aircraft patrol, often involving checks into relatively peaceful bars, followed by a jeep ride to the next stop. For this reason, one MP did the job.

In 1943, while my Dad was assigned to the Drunk Patrol, he often parked in front of one bar, and walked to the next, in order to spend more time outside in the neighborhoods. Alabama was sweltering hot in the Summer and Dad had never been in the South before. He was young, strong, and curious about his unfamiliar surroundings.

He was born and raised in the small town of Saco, Maine. Not one single “Negro” lived in Saco. When he reported for basic training in Fort Devens Massachusetts, he saw them on the base in the distance, but negroes were separated in their own units away from the caucasian soldiers.

So it was, that as afternoon turned into evening on a particularly humid day, Dad walked through a “negro neighborhood” on his way to the next bar. No one bothered the big soldier as he passed by in full military uniform, wearing a police badge, a large handgun and a billy club.

He came abreast of a revolving red, white and blue pole, the universal (but disappearing) sign of a barber shop. Needing a haircut, he slipped inside where he was greeted by two white-coated, nervous looking negro men who had obviously been too old for the Draft. “Help you, Officer, Sir?”, said the older man.

I need a haircut”, responded my Dad.

Boy, you is in the WRONG PLACE!”

You know how to cut hair, don't you?”

Yeah.”

And with that, Dad walked over to one of the barber chairs and sat down. It was clear that both barbers were sweating, nervous, reluctant to touch this crazy Soldier Boy, who lay back with his eyes closed. It was unlikely that either man had ever rendered services to a white man.

It fell to the older man to do the job, while the younger man ran for towels, tools, razors, soap, and drinks. The service was second to none. They washed and dried Dad's hair before it was cut. They cooled him down by placing rolled towels around his head. Next, they gave him a shave with a straight razor, the cold blade passing back and forth across his neck. Finally, his fingernails were cut and smoothed with emory boards. It was the “Pimp Job Special”, they told him, laughing aloud. “Nothing was too good for a Soldier Boy”.

As the sun began to set, Dad noticed some movement by the store windows. A half dozen negro children had glued their eyes to the glass, watching the barbers work on the “white man”. As time passed, more and more children gathered outside the windows, vying for the best view of the spectacle within. Just as my Dad had limited contact with negroes, these children had experienced limited contact with whites. Now at least thirty sets of eyes watched the barbers they all knew work on the white soldier-policeman.

When they were done, the men indicated that they “would chase those little bastards away”. Dad went to the door of the shop and opened it wide. “Come on in,”, he said, as the children quickly surrounded him. Several picked up handfuls of his hair which had fallen to the floor, examining its texture by rubbing it back and forth between their fingers. A few of the older children ran the palms of their hands over his newly shaven face, leaning in close to examine his skin. He showed them his badge, explaining to them the role of a military policeman. He emphasized the danger of handguns and the proper use of the billy club.

There was no charge. The barbers considered it their part of the war effort.

As Dad left the shop, the children walked with him and behind him, much as the Pied Piper of old. Several did not abandon the jaunt until Dad had reached the bar he was required to check in the course of his duties.

Epilogue: Even though Dad related this story often, he never seemed to see the magnitude of what his efforts may have accomplished that day at the barber shop.

He didn't see it because he was, and he remained, totally without any negative feelings about persons of another race.

I never pass a barber shop without remembering his open and unlimited spirit.


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