For thirty years, the candy-cane colored barber pole turned outside Paddy’s Tonsorial Emporium. Paddy loved the name and claimed it was a great conversation starter with new customers.
Like pigeons flocking to our courthouse roof, the menfolk gathered at Paddy’s every Saturday morning. Amongst them, I learned their ways, revered their stories, and abandoned my childhood.
I sat on my perch on the shoeshine stool, scanning the smoke-filled room for a prospect. In 1967 almost everyone wore leather shoes or boots, so business was good.
I’d taken the job of shining shoes eight weeks earlier when my older brother, Perk, gave up the position. After he signed up for the military, I begged Paddy to hire me even though I was only thirteen years old.
Perk had planned to wait for the draft, but his buddy, Billy Branch, convinced him to join the Marines. They’d been friends since Cub Scouts.
I liked Billy too. In earlier years, when he visited my brother, he was kind to me. He even taught me how to play poker. My card-playing mistakes irritated Perk, but Billy just laughed.
Through the glass store-front, passing gawkers in 1967 saw patrons sitting in brown vinyl chairs with chrome handles enjoying their wait. Paddy called the waiting area the liar’s section. A plaque on the wall announced ONLY ONE LIE AND TWO FIBS PER CUSTOMER PLEASE.
Rarely did men enter expecting express service. Skipping the conversation would be akin to gulping Champagne rather than sipping it. In fact, Paddy ushered the infrequent mother with a shaggy boy in tow to the front of the line without a single complaint. Had the youngster been with his father, he’d have steeped a while in the tobacco smoke to witness the testosterone ritual.
The shop had two barbers but three chairs. One seat had been unoccupied since the long-hair fad known as the British invasion had come to our shore. Talkative college students no longer arrived in packs interrupting the old men’s conversations, and the high school boys stalled between trims if their parents didn’t notice. But the town elders and businessmen still frequented their favorite Saturday morning hangout. The coaches and ballplayers wore flat tops or crew cuts, which required regular maintenance too.
The owner of the establishment was Patrick Rardin, but everyone called him Paddy. He was the son of Irish immigrants named O’Rardin, who “Americanized” their name at Ellis Island. He was small in stature but had quite a presence. The barber compensated for his short height with over-sized hand gestures and a booming voice. His effervescent inclination was contagious, and he’d often invite a customer to his chair with a low dramatic bow and an exaggerated old English accent.
“Come, ye vagabond, and sit on the throne whilst I relieve you of your heavy burden.”
Once seated, he’d wave the smock like a matador agitating a bull, then allow the satin to settle on his entertained male. He treated everyone as if they were the reason he opened his shop in the morning.
Paddy seldom needed instructions because he knew most scalps, nor did he style hair. Styling was for women, he insisted. At the barbershop, a whiskery man may ask for a shave, something not available in a beauty parlor. Those patrons reclined while Paddy pressed a piping-hot towel over the stubbles. While the facial bristles swelled and softened, Paddy, with abundant flair, sharpened the straight razor on a black leather strap that hung from his chair. He’d dance for our amusement to the rhythm of the slapping blade. Once the relaxed client was lobster-red, Paddy whipped the shaving cream with a badger brush. After years of experience, he could foam a face without splashing soap in an eye. Then with smooth strokes, his skilled, unfaltering hand removed the lather. A stinging slap of aftershave announced the barber’s completion.
When a patron exited, I’d drop from my shoeshine stand, which faced Paddy’s stool and sweep the floor. It allowed him a moment to draw on his ever-smoldering cigarette. I was eager to please my new boss.
At noon, Paddy would shout, “Shiner, lunch.” It was my signal to run across the street to Snappy Fast where they served hamburgers, fries, and cokes. Since I was a shoeshine boy, it was apparent why Paddy gave me the nickname. The men picked up on it too. Soon, all the patrons called me Shiner, and occasionally, now years later, I answer to it.
Patrons at Snappy Fast observed the fry-cook preparing paper-thin burgers on a buttered, toasted bun. The place was small—a narrow room with a door at one end. A dozen red stools along a speckled, white counter provided the limited seating while takeout customers stood behind the diners. Two women ran the dive with the smooth efficiency of a Singer sewing machine. While one lady cooked, the other handled the customers. Once handed my white bag, I held it in the air to slip through the waiting crowd.
When I returned to the shop, the smell of onions couldn’t dominate the smoky odor. Since the barbers and most customers smoked cigarettes or cigars, the barbershop was smokier than our town during the leaf-burning season. The occasional sweet fragrance of a pipe added a floral scent to the tobacco cloud.
One and all talked and laughed, paying no attention to the smog. The men discussed sports, complained about employers, or debated politics. But the most common conversation was Vietnam, where a thousand American soldiers died each month.
The bell clanged, and the conversations ceased when my six-foot-tall brother entered wearing his uniform. A patriotic man stood and saluted Perk, who straightened and returned the gesture. Then they shook hands, and the surrounding conversation started again.
Everyone knew Perk, so there were lots of smiles and back-patting. Not only had he shined shoes at Paddy’s for several years, but he’d been the center on the high school football team. He was a hard act for me to follow since I didn’t have his stout physical build or athletic abilities. I wouldn’t admit it, but I was secretly glad he was leaving.
I’d been under his shadow all my life, and I was ready for sunshine. In our city, it was common for male high school graduates to go to the military. It was his turn, and unlike my mother, I wasn’t shedding any tears.
With his basic training complete, Perk was home on leave. Next week he’d be on his way to Vietnam. I watched him from my stool, but my brother didn’t talk to me.
Jerk, I thought.
His visit was short at Paddy’s as it was a quick stop on his farewell tour. After he departed, the conversation returned to the war. Mack Justice, who served in Europe in the Second World War, squashed his cigarette and reached for another. “If Ike were in charge, the fighting would be over by now.”
Willard Tinsman, whose service was in the Pacific, stomped his cowboy boots on the black-and-white tile floor. “We need a brilliant general like MacArthur. He chased the Japs out of the palm trees.”
World War II had ended twenty-two years prior, but memories remained garden-fresh, and opinions hadn’t mellowed. Most of the men were veterans of overseas conflicts. Paddy had been a soldier in the North Africa campaign against Rommel’s Panzer tanks.
The other barber was as tall as Paddy was short, so his friends nicknamed him Stretch. He had battled in the Philippines in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Stretch harbored profound, bitter emotions, and he didn’t mind expressing his views. “We fought them in the jungles and beat them.”
Stretch had been a sniper. He said he preferred to kill adversaries who slipped away to relieve themselves in private. While they squatted a short distance from their platoon, the marksman took cool-headed aim and squeezed the trigger. Once he delivered the fatal blow, his unsuspecting victim slumped over dead with his pants around his ankles. Then, he’d remove the timepiece from the wrist of the cooling soldier before disappearing into the jungle. Once, I challenged him.
“You’re making that up, Stretch.”
Although he didn’t respond, the next Saturday, he called out my name as I entered. “Shiner.”
“What?” I asked.
“Look in my drawer,” Stretch said.
Nosey rubberneckers in the liars’ section took it in while I pulled the knob.
Stretch pointed. “Pull out that velvet bag with the gold drawstrings.”
I obeyed, but Stretch refused to accept the sack as I attempted to hand it to him.
“Open it,” he said.
I loosened the drawstring and widened the opening. Dozens of wristwatches lay tangled inside the pouch. Dumbstruck, I gazed up into Stretch’s intense eyes.
“I earned each one,” Stretch said.
Breaking from his piercing stare, I again investigated the contents. It was eerie to think Stretch had removed them from dead soldiers—and he had killed them.
Stretch placed the bag back inside the drawer and slammed it closed. “Those Vietcong are the same. We need to shoot, stab, or burn them until they’re wiped out. Those animals aren’t human.”
It disturbed me to listen to such talk because I had Japanese classmates whose fathers taught at the university, and they were good kids. Though our country’s former enemies were now on agreeable terms, many an ex-soldier still harbored an intense hatred.
Provoked by Stretch’s tirade, a young man with long curls and a beard looked up from the magazine he wasn’t reading. He seemed unable to hold his tongue any longer. “It’s not the same.”
Stretched turned. “What?”
“Vietnam isn’t the Philippines—it’s not an island. The North Vietnamese run into Laos, and President Johnson won’t let the American soldiers follow them.”
“So?” Stretch asked.
The young man tossed down the periodical. “So, it’s another reason it’s a dumb war.”
Angry eyes focused on the argumentative man while a few heads dropped lower into their reading material to avoid the oncoming conflict. Until he resumed, I could have heard a pin drop. The young man brushed his long hair out of his eyes. “This war is stupid.”
Stretch pointed his scissors with sniper accuracy at the heretic. A hippy had infiltrated this sanctuary of unanimous opinion. “You’re just afraid to fight for your country. You’re chicken like Cassius Clay.”
The young man said, “Well, I’m like Mohammed Ali in one manner. I’m not antiwar, just anti-this-war. It’s unwinnable the way they’re fighting it.”
Stretch stepped toward the young man. “Bull, you can’t choose your wars. When America calls, you answer.”
Paddy intervened and touched Stretch’s shoulder. “We don’t argue with customers.”
Stretch returned to his haircut and continued with a less quarrelsome tone. “We’ll win in Vietnam.”
The young man tilted his head back and looked down his nose. “Like we did in Korea?”
A crimson glow crept up Stretch’s neck and face as he stepped away from his client, again. Glad I had a good seat for the bout, I awaited the barber’s retort. “We’ll win in Vietnam,”
The young man pulled on his beard, appearing circumspect before responding to Stretch’s claim. “Stretch, do you read the Bible?”
“Yes. Well, sometimes.”
The young man said, “There’s a passage in First Kings. It says, ‘Don’t brag while putting on your armor like a man who is removing his.’”
I didn’t understand, and from Stretch’s furrowed brow, he didn’t either. The long-haired man rose and headed toward the exit without a haircut. But then he turned. “It means, brag after you win. Everything else is just trash talk.”
After the hippy slipped out, Stretch returned to an unclipped sideburn. There was a lack of conversation for an introspective moment.
Stretch said, “I’ll admit, it’s a heck of a way to fight a war. If you go to battle, go to win.”
Mr. Lannon, a man my father’s age, jumped from his seat and hustled toward me.
He said, “We can agree on that.”
I dropped from my perch atop my shoeshine chair, and Mr. Lannon climbed up to take my place. He wore brown cowboy boots and asked me to shine them every Saturday. “Son, use black polish, and they’ll turn black in time.”
I rolled up the cuffs and applied the shoe cream as he settled on my stool. Though I polished and buffed the leather, it never changed color.
Mr. Lannon had fought the Germans at Normandy in World War II, where he left a lung and two feet of the small intestine. He claimed he saw the smoke puff from the rifle that shot him. When the bullet ripped through his jacket, it ignited a glove. The fire cauterized the wound and may have saved his life.
Mr. Lannon raised his clenched fist. He said, “Hedgerows.”
I tried to shine his moving boots. He lit a cigarette and exhaled. “Those blasted trees and dirt banks provided perfect cover for the enemy. The Nazis picked us off as we approached on those narrow lanes.”
Becoming even more animated, he kicked, causing me to smear polish on his pants. “They ambushed us like the Viet Cong in Vietnam.”
His bellowing, stomping, and shifting made both barbers stop shearing. But in a while, he placed his boot back on the stand. “You’ve got to keep pushing because an army can’t win without taking ground. Westmoreland won’t defeat the North Vietnamese by killing more of them than us.”
Several in the audience nodded. Pointing at no one in particular, Mr. Lannon waved the cigarette between two fingers and resumed his rant. His volume increased. “That’s what Patton told his soldiers. ‘When you’re scared, drive forward. Keep going until you grease your tank tracks with their guts,’ and we did. We drove those Jerrys to Berlin.”
When he flung his arms, cigarette ashes fell in my hair. I chased his boots around my stand while trying to brush away hot ash. He threw both arms wide. “You can’t win a war without taking the land.”
Mr. Lannon leaned back and stared at me. “I don’t have all day, boy.”
Once finished, I hoped he wouldn’t notice the smear on his pant leg. A few months later, doctors diagnosed Mr. Lannon with lung cancer. Since he just had one lung, the surgeon didn’t operate. The treatments weren’t successful, and he knew his fate. I visited him in the hospital.
Though he was frail and medicated, he opened his eyes. “Hey, shoeshine boy, what are you doing here?”
I said, “I came to see if those boots are black.”
“Nope, they’re still brown.”
He pointed to the closet. “Look in there; see for yourself.”
As Mr. Lannon raised his head from the pillow, I opened the cabinet door.
I lifted them. “I should have dyed these long ago. Do you mind if I take the boots home and fix them?”
Exhausted, he dropped back onto the pillow. “That’ll be great, son.”
Then he drifted to sleep, and his wife nodded her approval. I applied dye twice, then gave them a spit shine. Before morning, Mr. Lannon died. If not for his battle injury, he may have survived. He was a delayed fatality from the Normandy invasion. They buried him in his black boots.
Back at Paddy’s, the bell above the door rang, and I turned as Toby’s girlfriend rolled his wheelchair into the barbershop. Toby waved. “Hello, everybody.”
Everyone responded in kind, “Hi, Toby.”
Stretch waived. “I’ll be done soon.”
Stretch wiped the clippings from his customer with a powdered brush. Then the man ran his index finger around the inside of his collar.
Stretch said, “Be right with you, Toby.”
Toby nodded. “I’m in no hurry,”.
As the itchy patron paid, he pawed at his neck like a mutt chasing a flea. After he exited, Stretch swept the floor and pointed to a spot beside his chair. “You’re next, Toby.”
Nobody complained when Stretch didn’t make Toby wait. The former soldier had earned their respect. Stretch had been trimming Toby since his return from Vietnam. Keeping his military haircut required regular appointments. On earlier visits, Toby sat in his wheelchair while Stretch bent to shorten his hair.
Toby said, “Not this time.”
His childhood sweetheart pushed the wheelchair forward, and Toby locked the wheels. “I’ll sit in the barber chair. I’ve got new legs, and I need to practice walking.”
Stretch’s eyes bugged. Toby took two steps, then wrestled, stepped, and twisted into the seat. His brunette fiancé’s, cloud-nine smile lit the room.
Paddy slapped his palms together. “Wonderful.”
Stretch placed his hands on his hips. “That’s amazing. How long have you had those?”
“Just three weeks. I’ve practiced until my stubs are sore, but I wanted to get back on two feet—even if they are plastic.”
Stretch removed the scissors from his pocket. “Good for you.”
After his future bride pulled the wheelchair back, she sat in it. They smiled at each other with a lover’s gaze. I remember how cheery she looked in her sleeveless summer dress. The yellow flowers on white cotton seemed to express her sunny optimism.
Toby said, “I’ll be standing at our wedding.”
“Great,” said Stretch. “When?”
“Soon, real soon. Marsha and I don’t want to wait.”
Stretch patted his friend on the shoulder as he pumped the seat higher.
Paddy snuffed his cigarette. “Next victim, please.”
A distinguished gentleman extinguished his cigar in a heavy chrome ashtray, and with both hands on his cane, pushed himself erect. The eminent citizen wore a handsome suit with a fresh red carnation in the lapel. He removed the jacket and hung it on a hook beside his fancy fedora. As he shuffled toward Paddy, I noticed his brilliant white shirt. Though it was summer, he had long sleeves. Gold cufflinks with ebony stones adorned his starched and pressed French cuffs.
Once seated, Paddy wrapped the dark cape over the silver-haired businessman’s shoulders. “How are you today, Doc?”
“I’m doing just fine, thank you.”
Though not a real doctor, he had been a medic in World War One. So, the troops called him Doc, and it stuck. In my youth, many men went by a rank they earned in the war. A former Sergeant was Sarge. Chief was a name for a Chief Petty Officer, and Gunny had been a Gunnery Sergeant. If someone achieved the title of Colonel, he was Colonel the rest of his life.
Doc owned the funeral home in our town. Though his boys ran the business after he retired, he stopped by the office every morning for an hour or two. The crisp crease in his pants appeared sharp enough to cut steel. On a typical day, Doc was quiet, but on that Saturday, he spoke uncoerced. “I received terrible news today, Paddy.”
The buzzing of multiple chitchats ceased. The mortician had buried a relative for most people there, so he was familiar with sad news or even shocking news. But terrible news made heads turn.
Doc said, “The army called.”
He paused for dramatic effect; I suppose. “Billy Branch died in Vietnam. They’re shipping his body home.”
Disbelief hung thicker than the cigarette smoke.
“What did he say?” someone whispered.
“Billy Branch died?” another asked.
Silence interrupted conversations as we tried to absorb the news. Old men shook their heads, and young adults appeared unable to move as they stared into nothingness. Billy was the first Vietnam war fatality from our little town, and most people knew him. He’d been a basketball star in high school and held several records.
Paddy lowered his eyes and seemed too shocked to continue. Scissors drooped from inactive fingers. In a while, the older barber broke the silence. “Tell me it’s not so. Billy was such a nice boy from an upstanding family. I’ve known him since he was a baby. I gave him his first haircut while his father took pictures, and his mother entertained him. He only cried a little…”
Doc interrupted the barber. “The army is sending an escort with his body.”
“That’s good,” Stretch said.
Paddy lifted the ten-pound scissors and struggled to trim above Doc’s collar. “How?”
“Don’t know,” Doc replied. “But we can open the casket.”
“Well, that’s a consolation—I mean, for his mother’s sake,” Paddy said.
The mortician nodded, raised his silver eyebrows, and sighed. “It helps a mother to see her boy and say goodbye.”
A man wearing a VFW hat asked, “Does the family want a military service?”
“I’ll tell the members, so they can prepare.”
The veteran lit a cigarette. What else could he do? He inhaled, then exhaled the smoke, adding to the ever-present haze.
“We’ll give him a fine send off—an honor guard. We won’t be short of volunteers, that’s for sure. The VFW and the American Legion will be there.”
Toby shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows. “Marsha, and I’ll be there.”
“Gosh, I hope he didn’t suffer,” someone said.
For a while, the only sound was scissors. As clippings settled onto the satin capes, waiting customers stared at magazines without turning pages. No need, they weren’t reading. I suppose some men remembered Billy on the basketball court, while others stared into the battlefields of their memories, wondering why boys such as Billy died, and they came home.
I allowed my memory to take me to the evening when Billy taught me to play poker. I recalled his patience and kindness… and laughter. How could he be gone? My vision blurred, and I hurried to wipe the tears from my eyes. I didn’t want the men to see my weakness, my youth.
When I looked up, Toby was staring at me from the barber’s chair. I felt ashamed until I saw tears dripping from his chiseled chin. He didn’t wipe them away or hide them. I sat taller.
Paddy changed the topic. “How’s the foot, Doc?”
Doc glanced toward his shoe. “Worse than usual. I think we’re in for a change in the weather. But those missing toes are throbbing.”
“Toes?” Paddy asked. “I don’t remember how you lost them. You’d better tell me again,”
Maybe Doc had told the story many times, but I think Paddy wanted someone to stop the painful silence.
“It happened in the war,” Doc said.
He projected his voice so the willing spectators could listen to his repeat performance. His introduction, for the adults, was akin to “once upon a time” in my childhood fairy tales.
“I spent 1917 and 1918 in a freezing, wet trench in France. The Germans were dug-in fifty yards from us; we could see them. For months we were in those ditches, shooting and being shot.”
Doc directed his attention toward me. From atop my perch on my shoeshine stool, I listened.
“On a fateful winter morning in early 1918, word came to attack. On signal, we crawled out and ran toward the enemy. Since I was a medic, I had a satchel of medical supplies instead of a rifle. I’d gone ten yards when the first man fell, so I wrapped gauze around his head. It stopped the bleeding, and an aide helped him back to our line. The fighting was brutal but lasted just a short time. The assault was a failure, as usual. Our troops retreated, but I stayed behind to treat the injured.”
Paddy spun Doc toward the mirror for approval, then turned him around to face me.
He continued. “The enemy didn’t shoot our medics, and we avoided shooting theirs. But I was carrying a wounded soldier, and a bullet ripped into my leg. Before I fell, another went through the soldier, then into my shoulder. I dropped into a shallow trough and tried not to scream. Once over the initial shock, I reached for morphine. The injection gave me minor relief, so I pushed a bandage into the hole in my shoulder before wrapping my bleeding calf. There was nothing I could do for my unconscious patient except plug his wound.”
The librarian at story hour didn’t have a quieter crowd.
“I didn’t move for fear a German might finish me.”
“How long did you lie there?” I blurted.
“A day and a full-moon night, and the next day, too. It was frigid on the battlefield, and I nestled against my patient, so we could share body heat. We faced nose to nose on the frozen ground. He was a young lieutenant with dark hair and brown eyes. As he exhaled, his breath fogged in the winter air. During the second afternoon, his breathing slowed. He died before sunset.”
Doc looked at the ceiling and recollected the scene. “A few hours later, we got stormy weather, and the clouds covered the moon. It was darker than dark, so I hoped to move. I gave myself more morphine and lifted myself from the ditch. Through snow and mud, with excruciating pain, I pulled with my good arm and pushed with my uninjured leg. Though weak, I made it to our side, and someone yanked me to safety. I don’t remember being carried to a field hospital, but by the time we arrived, I’d regained consciousness. The foot on my injured leg was black from poor circulation and frostbite. When the orderlies removed my boot, three toes fell off, but I didn’t feel it.”
Paddy brushed Doc’s neck and pulled off the cape. The undertaker leaned forward and directed his next comment to me.
“I left those toes in France, young man, but my head thinks they’re still on my foot. The pain is a reminder of my patient, whose body-heat kept me alive. When severe weather approaches, my foot throbs. In my dreams, the phantom digits ache, and the dead lieutenant visits me. Even though it’s been fifty years, I can’t forget him. I suppose I never will.”
Silence followed the undertaker who limped toward the door. Doc retrieved his suit jacket from a hook, but before buttoning it, he removed a cigar. He held our attention as he lit it, then put on his hat. As he pulled on the doorknob, he turned and scanned his mesmerized audience. “Won’t be any frostbite in Vietnam. But it’ll be hell.”
The bell tinkled as he departed. Stretch finished Toby’s haircut, then the old men gawked as Toby maneuvered into his wheelchair. His girlfriend pushed him, and an entering patron held the door open.
“Thanks,” Toby said.
It was the last time I saw his girlfriend. From then on, he entered alone, walking with a cane. Their marriage didn’t last long. She told her friends Toby came home from Vietnam a different person, and she wished they’d waited to marry.
Toby passed the new arrival, who turned to survey the room. The newcomer wrinkled his eyebrows. “This place is quiet, did somebody die?”
The somber crowd ignored his question, a common quip. Paddy jumped in the air and clicked his heels, resembling a leprechaun. “Who amongst you with ten toes wants a haircut?”
His next victim hustled from his seat and hurried forward.
Paddy asked, “Are you a Cubs fan or a Cardinal?”
As he placed the apron around his patron’s neck, I slumped on my stool and pondered the gravity of war. On previous Saturdays, I’d listened to veterans recount their stories of valor. But now Billy was dead, Toby had no legs, and it was real. I realized then, atop my shoeshine stool, not everyone returned home with exciting tales. Soon my brother would be headed to the other side of the world to Vietnam, and for the first time, I feared I’d never see him whole, or worse, alive again.
I tried to shake off my right-of-passage moment, but I never regained my blissful innocence. Mom placed long-ignored cap-rifles and plastic army-helmets in the attic. She tossed them one spring-cleaning morning while I was at the post office enrolling in the selective service.
The evening after my high school graduation, Toby did what the Vietcong couldn’t do. He killed himself. I still don’t understand why. My brother was a pallbearer, and after the graveside ceremony, Perk and I walked to Billy’s grave. He saluted his buried friend, and then we hugged for a long time. He didn’t seem so big as he slumped on my shoulder.
Before I started college in the fall, on a Saturday, I strolled to the barbershop. From atop the stand, I eavesdropped on the veterans while pretending to watch the teen buff my shoes. As I sat on my draft card, I wondered if the boy had yet gleaned what I’d learned five summers ago. If not, he’d find the damaged men who recounted their war stories weren’t bragging. They were sharing. It was therapy offered nine-to-five at Paddy’s Tonsorial Emporium.