Mr. Willis Owen was the barber for Third District. He farmed part time and ran the barber shop on Friday afternoons, plus all day Saturday. In the 1950’s he worked out of a room in Mr. El Sparrow’s store. I think my earliest haircuts cost a quarter, but I’m not sure. Daddy was paying the bill, so I didn’t worry much about the price. In 1962, Mr. Willis built a new barbershop, just a few steps from his home.
When Mr. Willis was about to use his straight razor, he would tell me that if I would sit still, he would try not to cut my ears off. All the regulars had both ears, so I knew he was teasing.
During the 1950’s and 60’s the men and boys in farm country got haircuts every two weeks. We had flattops, held in place with pink Butch Wax, or neatly combed hair with a straight well-defined part.
Those with hair long enough to comb used Vaseline Hair Tonic. It was a clear oil you could shake into your palm and massage onto your scalp. It would hold your hair securely in place during a category five storm.
Vitalis and Brylcreem later became popular. They would keep your part where it was supposed to be, but were not wind rated as high as Vaseline. With Vitalis, you got the magical powers of V7. With Brylcreem, the ladies loved to run their fingers through your hair. Those ads gave us a little more confidence, a smidgeon of hope.
Friday and Saturday nights at the barbershop were major social events, sometimes lasting until midnight. The room would be full with 20 or more folks, some leaning back on two legs of the straight-back chairs. Four chairs surrounded a small corner table used for checkers or cards.
Setback was the card game the men played. Cousin Wendell Dunaway, Mr. Raymond Nutt, Mr. Bud Cross, and Mr. Lon Fullington were four of the regulars. It was a lot more than a card game. It was the major stage prop for Barbershop Theatre.
Cousin Wendell was the host of the show. He made sure the card playing didn’t interfere with the friendly banter. Mr. Raymond was the lead humorist. He had a big laugh that bounced all over the barbershop walls. Mr. Bud and Mr. Lon added color commentary. They would wait patiently for a good opening, then add some spice to the conversation. It was an unscripted comedy show, each of them seamlessly playing familiar roles. There was a lot of audience participation. Nobody was ever in a rush to get a haircut. The free entertainment made the wait worthwhile.
I think I was in the ninth grade when our class was invited to be servers at the annual Mother-Daughter/Father-Son Banquet. It was a dressy event for the Future Farmers of America and the Future Homemakers of America. My classmate, Patsy Borum, and I were paired as a team. For such a formal occasion, I decided I needed a haircut from a city barber.
I went to see Mr. Tommy J. Brown in downtown Unadilla. He cut many of my friends’ hair and had a great reputation. It would have been fine, except I went on a real slow day. Mr. Tommy had taken too much cough syrup, plus he had just bought a brand-new pair of suction clippers. Those clippers cut and vacuumed with one pass.
Several times Mr. Tommy asked if I saw any hair falling on the floor. We were both amazed at how well those suction clippers worked. When he finally turned the chair around towards the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself. There was nothing left, nothing to comb, nothing to part, nothing between my scalp and the open air. I was a super-skinny, long-legged, bald-headed kid going to my first major banquet. Patsy said I looked fine. I knew she was lying.
It was a long time before I needed another haircut. I told Mr. Willis what happened. I told him that I had learned my lesson. He smiled and said it was okay, that he’d try not to cut my ears off.
Mr. Willis’ son, Greg, converted the barbershop to a pond house. It’s just a rock’s throw from where it originally sat. I stopped by not long ago. Greg and I reminisced for a while. When I close my eyes, I can still see those men playing Setback. And thanks to Mr. Willis, I can still hear each of their voices amid a room full of laughter. Mr. Willis left me with both ears, just like he said he would.