I was seven years old the first time I got my hair cut at Red’s Barber Shop. Up till that point, my mom had been cutting my hair on the back porch or in the kitchen. She figured there wasn’t much point to spending hard-earned money on a barber when most of the time I did my best to look disheveled anyway.
She changed her mind after the second time she nicked my ear. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your ear cut with a pair of scissors, but let me tell you, a tiny little cut on one of them suckers’ll bleed just like you had your whole ear cut off. My mom was a tough woman, and usually the sight of blood didn’t bother her much. She could chop the head off a chicken and watch it spurt blood all over the ground without any trouble. But the sight of blood running down my neck made her feel faint. I guess she cared more about me than the chickens.
Anyway, being woozy didn’t stop her from getting mad! “Jacob Wendell Boden! How many times do I need to tell you to sit still when I cut your hair? Now look at you!”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I said. She had told me plenty of times not to move.
“Here.” She handed me a rag. “Put this on your ear and keep it there until it stops bleeding.”
After she sat a while, she got her nerve back and finished the job, but she must have told me ten times that day that she was not going to cut my hair again. From then on, I would have to go to Red’s with my daddy.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t too upset about that. I had wanted to go to Red’s ever since hearing about the place from my friend Isaac. According to Isaac, Red was a real, live Indian. He even wore beads and feathers sometimes. He was also a war hero who fought all the way over in Japan during World War II. Isaac said Red had all kinds of pictures and other neat stuff on the walls of his shop.
So, the next time Dad went to get a trim, I was eager to tag along with him. My mom said it was the most excited she’d ever seen me to get my hair cut, which, as she put it, was a “pleasant change”.
When we got to the shop and I saw Red, I became less enthusiastic. He was a giant of a man, much bigger than my dad. His skin was brown and tough-looking. Hanging from his belt was a big knife.
My dad said, “Mornin’, Red.”
Red greeted him in a deep, loud voice, “Morning, Body!” (I hadn’t ever heard anyone call my dad Body before.) “And who’s this strapping young man?”
“This is my son, Jake. Say hello to Mr. Bernard, Jake.”
I looked at my dad, confused. “I thought his name was Red,” I whispered.
At this, Red walked over to me and crouched down so we were almost eye-to-eye. I could smell the tobacco on his breath. His face looked even bigger when it was up close. “When you get to be a man, like your dad here, you can call me Red. But until then, you address me as Mr. Bernard, or Sir.”
He did not smile or move at all but looked me right in the eye until I muttered, “Yes, Sir.”
He then held out his huge hand for me to shake and said with all seriousness, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jake Boden. Welcome to my shop.”
I reached out my hand and felt his close around it. He squeezed it firmly, shook it once, and then jumped up way more quickly than I expected him to. “Now!” he bellowed. “What can I do for you, Mr. and Mr. Boden?”
“Well, as you might have guessed, we’re here for haircuts,” said my dad with a wink at me. “But this one here, he’s got a problem with sitting still. His mama just about cut his ear off twice ‘cause of his squirmin’ in the chair. She won’t cut his hair anymore. Said I better take him here with me and maybe you could straighten him out, you bein’ the expert and all.”
“Well, she most certainly made the right decision, Body. I’ve had many a squirmy young boy walk into this shop, and every single one of them learned to sit still.” Then he turned to me. “Sit up in that chair, young man.”
I quickly went to the chair and climbed into it. Red walked around behind me and stepped on a little lever a few times to raise me up into the air. He tied an old sheet around my neck to keep the hair off me, then walked back around front to look at me.
“Now, in the olden days, Jake, an Apache barber like myself did not use scissors. He used a knife.” Red drew the knife out of his belt and casually turned it as he spoke. I quickly looked back at my dad, but the window was behind him, and I couldn’t see the expression on his face.
Red continued. “I got this knife when I served in the Marines, but I still keep it sharp enough to cut hair. You can imagine what kind of damage might happen if a boy wiggled too much around a knife like this.” (My eyes got about ten times bigger when he said that.) “Back then, most boys knew to be still, but if one came along who hadn’t learned properly, it was up to the barber to teach him. That barber would begin with a polite but firm request. ‘Young blood,’ he would say. ‘Please stop moving this very instant, or I cannot be responsible for the wounds you will receive.’”
I nodded gravely, still staring at Red’s knife. “As you may know, Jake, we Apaches pride ourselves on our long hair. A barber’s job was simply to make it nice and even, never to cut it short. But in some cases, with those young boys who could not sit still, the barber would take his knife and shave every hair from the boy’s head, like this.” Red held out his arm and scraped the blade of his knife over his skin. The hair fell away, leaving a thin strip of bald skin.
“The top of his head would be as smooth as his cheeks, which was very embarrassing. Those boys would be teased relentlessly by other children. Almost always this would be enough that by the time their hair grew long enough to be cut again, they had learned their lesson.”
Red paused to look at my father. I turned to look at my Dad too, who nodded to Red. Then Red crouched down in front of me, as he had when he greeted me. Once more I marveled at the size of his face.
“The sad thing is, Jake, some boys never learn. Even after losing their hair and being teased by other children, some foolish boys still would not control their wiggling. In that case, the barber was left with only one choice, to take the boy’s scalp, so no one would ever have to cut the boy’s hair again.” Red held his knife up to me so I could see its edge. “Fortunately, it’s been a long time since I’ve had to scalp anyone.”
Tears started to well up, and I was just about to cry for my daddy to save me, when Red smiled and said in a loud, friendly voice, “But not you, right Jake?” He put his knife back in its sheath and stood up. “If you are smart like your father, I know I can count on you to sit still. Do I speak the truth?”
I couldn’t even answer, on account of my mouth being so dry. I tried to swallow, but it got stuck halfway, so I just nodded my head as vigorously as I could. And you better believe I didn’t move a muscle all through that haircut until the chair was lowered and Red gave me the go-ahead to jump out and switch places with my dad.
On his way to the chair, my dad winked at me again, patted my head and said, “I believe you’re cured, Jakey. Good job.”Like this? Click to subscribe!