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A Bad Hair Day

April 13, 2009

Bob Martin, a local barber, had a suggestion for me. “Tell the men in your congregation that if they would get a decent haircut, they wouldn’t have to sit on the very back pew.”

Albert Einstein and other eccentrics notwithstanding, most people can’t tolerate a bad hair day. Yet, even the most elegant coiffure can suffer a blustery windblown flyaway or a steamy hot weather meltdown. 

The remarkable varieties of hairstyles that have adorned the human head provide an interesting view of history.

In ancient Egypt, the custom among men and women was to keep their heads permanently shaved. While wigs were worn in public for formal occasions, the shorn look provided comfort in the heat and prevented head lice infestation.

In ancient Greece, ancient India, and ancient Rome men and women sported hairdos that differed from each other. Women wore their hair long and pulled back into a chignon. Many dyed their hair red with henna and sprinkled it with gold powder, often adorning it with fresh flowers. Men generally wore their hair short.

The haircut has often played a significant cultural and social role. Masai warriors in Africa tie their front hair into sections of tiny braids, while the back hair is allowed to grow long. Tribes in Namibia dye their hair with grease and red earth.

  1. Despite the general trend among Europeans for women to have longer hair than men, such has not always been the case. In the 17th century it was the norm in Western culture for men to have long hair. The hair was tied back into a ponytail. Notable men with long hair were René Descartes, Giacomo Casanova, Oliver Cromwell, and several American patriots, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. During his younger years Napoleon Bonaparte had a long flowing hair.            

Before 1914 men generally had longer hair and beards.  Lice and flea infestations have been a problem for centuries. During World War I exposure to these parasites prompted the order for soldiers in the trenches to keep their hair cut short. The effort to control the ubiquitous pests established a norm that has persisted. Short hair, a symbol of obedience and discipline, has become a requirement for those serving in the military and law enforcement..

A contrast was presented in the rock musical Hair. The production represented the hippie counter culture of the 1960s. Several songs from Hair became anthems of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement. Many who saw the musical would argue that the cast was having a bad hair day.     

Hairstyle can be an indicator of group membership. Metal heads wear long hair for head banging. The Beatles and their fans wore pudding-bowl haircuts. Self-defined punks sport spiked haircuts. Skinheads are named for their extreme haircuts. Dreadlocks are the signature hairstyle of Rastafarians.

The barbershop where I get my haircut and the beauty salon where Clare has her hair styled, are one in the same. The telephone rings constantly. Making appointments, changing appointments, doing whatever must be done to accommodate the clientele is the nature of the business.

            Jeff and Pam use an answering machine to take the calls.

            One October day in 1997, Pam returned a phone call. One of her regulars wanted to make an appointment, but this time it was not for herself.

            “Pam, former President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush are in Spartanburg. Could you do Barbara Bush’s hair tomorrow?”

            Pam agreed. After the call, she blurted out to everyone in the shop, “Y’all, I’m doing Barbara Bush’s hair tomorrow!”

            For the rest of the day, the shop was buzzing. Everyone who came in had a comment about the former First Lady.

            “I just loved her book about her dog, Millie’s Book.”

            “You know, she’s a grandmother. In fact, she’s everybody’s grandmother.”

            “The thing I like about her is she speaks her mind. She’s just a plain person like all of us.”

And then, there was the pastor in Jeff’s chair getting his hair cut at the behest of his nagging wife, “If I were you, Pam, I wouldn’t talk to Mrs. Bush at all. Moses talked to a bush one day, and he had to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years!”

            Later in the day, the telephone rang. Pam heard the same voice again. This time she answered immediately.

            “Pam, since you’re coming to fix Barbara Bush’s hair, would you have time to give the former President a trim, too?”

            No chance that Pam would be speechless!  “Oh my gosh! I would be honored!”

            When Pam arrived at the Milliken Guest House, she was nervous. The Secret Service Agents didn’t easy her discomfort.

            Pam had on a new outfit. Barbara Bush wore a terrycloth bathrobe.  As Pam styled Mrs. Bush’s beautiful white hair, they talked about their children, just as any two mothers would do.

            Pam had almost completed Barbara’s hairdo when the former President came to the door wearing a matching white terrycloth robe.

Pam said the former president put her at ease. “As I cut his hair, I remember thinking, these are just ordinary people.  There was no air of superiority about them.”

George Bush offered to pay Pam. Pam declined, saying it was her honor. The former President insisted, paying the usual fee for both Barbara’s styling and for his haircut.

Nobody wants to have a bad hair day.


Kirk H. Neely
© April 2009

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