It was suburban St. Louis in the late 1960’s. I was still in junior high and I had a morning paper route. It was something I was good at and I liked. I would be done before most people were even awake. The part most paper boys didn’t like was collecting. You had to go out at night, try to find people at home, listen to their complaints and frequently go away without a tip. There were usually only a few like that. I had a different view than most of the other guys. For the most part I enjoyed talking to people. I had always related well to adults and was not ever really self conscious or shy about speaking up about most anything. It was a skill that made collecting quite tolerable, enjoyable if the truth be told, and improved tipping considerably.
This was also a time when parents all over the country were fighting with their sons about the length of the boys’ hair. Boys with the Beetle cuts that look so innocent today were considered bomb throwers. You couldn’t find it written down anywhere but boys were “supposed” to wear their hair one and a half to two and a half inches on top, tapering gradually to nothing on the sides and back . Anything that varied much from that was suspect. Some guys found that very repressive. I would have been happy to settle for that. My parents, especially my mom, were major, and outspoken, supporters of short hair for boys. And the shorter the better. They felt just as strongly about saving money. Somehow, years before, it had been decided that paying a barber to cut my hair and that of my two younger brothers was money wasted.
Consequently my Mom bought a haircutting kit complete with clippers and attachments and promptly began to practice on us. When we were very young the results made us look like Marine recruits. In the summer we were sheared to the scalp with the naked clippers. My Dad found the style a little extreme but he was away on business a lot and our scalpings often took place on evenings when he was out of town. I don’t think Mom meant anything by it, she just felt it was quick, it saved money, and was very easy to take care of. Fortunately, as we got older, she let it gradually get longer. First crew cuts with longer attachments and eventually she scissor cut the hair on top to blend with the clipped sides.
The problem was, my Mom never got very good at it. If your hair was parted on the left she would leave the top longest on that side and get gradually shorter as it moved to the right. The result was when the wind blew it looked like you were a guy trying to comb his hair over to cover a bald spot. It also took her a long time and every so often she would try to keep some length on top, get exasperated and buzz the whole thing. The last time she had done it was just before I turned 11. It was terribly humiliating to go to school and listen to all the clever comments, not to mention the fact that everyone, and I mean everyone, felt free to rub their hands over it. I vowed to not give her a chance to repeat that shearing.
It turned out to be more difficult to keep that promise to myself that I had imagined. Twelve year olds didn’t drive, at least not legally, and the nearest barber shop was a long and sometimes perilous bike ride away, along very busy roads that were not designed to be bicycle friendly. Yet, having no choice, I began making the trip to the barber shop. I dreaded making the trip but did so because you never knew when Mom would decide to play barber again.
This whole issue preyed on mind a lot. I did not want to face the prospect of that first day at school after being cropped completely. As the weather got worse so did my problem as bike travel was all the more impractical.
At that time there were about four women on my paper route with whom I normally had a five minute to half hour long chat when I collected. All were fairly young (mid 30’s I guess), nice, friendly, and probably a little amused by someone so young who could converse about politics, sports, science (TIME magazine was my secret weapon.) There was never anything sexual in it but I enjoyed being taken seriously by adults. The whole “parental disapproval/can’t get to the barber” thing began to enter into my conversations. It really was on my mind. Looking back, it all seems so silly but often what seems trivial to an adult can be so important to a kid.
The women were sympathetic to my plight over two months or so but only one appeared to take a interest on the first conversation. Her name was Mrs. Haggerty. She was about 35, a nice figure and really quite pretty. The reason I did not have the predictable crush on her was that she had a very hard edge. She could be sweet and kind at times and at other times seemed to have had a bit too much to drink. All in all, a scary, albeit interesting package for my junior high sensibilities.
The first time we spoke about my hair problem she suggested that I ask my Mom to cut it but ask her to be very careful. She mentioned that she cut hair for her husband, daughter, and son and an amateur could learn to do a good job. Her daughter Betty, about 15, had a style that was relatively short for the time and perhaps too mature for a 15 year old, but stylish. Her son, about 10, had hair of a very acceptable length from my point of view, plenty long enough to comb on top and tapered with clippers in back and on the sides. Now, I don’t think I was hinting around for anyone to cut my hair, I was just worried about it and it felt better to talk to a sympathetic woman about it. For whatever, reason Mrs. Haggerty’s statement that she cut hair made me stop cold. It was plain that I could get a hair cut right now if I only asked for it. Yet I was frozen except for my heart racing. I didn’t quite trust her abilities yet and I was very skeptical of at home haircuts anyway. I just wasn’t ready. Mrs. Haggerty noticed my discomfort and seemed amused by it but just smiled and said nothing. I changed the subject, finished our business and said goodbye.
For days after that I kept thinking about asking Mrs. Haggerty to cut my hair. I had some strong feelings about it and they were contradictory. It gave me some sort of thrill that I really enjoyed. I was too inexperienced to identify it as sexual excitement at the time but it was nice nonetheless. On the other hand, it scared me and made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know if it was fear of a bad haircut or the fact that Mrs. Haggerty could be very direct, opinionated, and sometimes, the tiniest bit hostile in a way that was hard to explain. But then, sometimes she was sweet and could relate to kids well. It had something to do with her drinking but I wasn’t sure what was going on. Very clearly, I was confused.
As the end of the month approached and my hair grew I started to think about it more and more. Due to some snide comments from my Mom, I knew that I’d better get my hair cut soon or take my chances with the in-house specialist. I decided that I should hint around with Mrs. Haggerty, feel her out, take it a little at a time. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say and that only made my nervousness worse as I approached the Haggerty home on the first night I went collecting. Everything started as usual, Betty wasn’t home, the son was downstairs, Mr. Haggerty was nowhere to be seen and not mentioned, and a smiling Mrs. Haggerty answered the door.
We exchanged pleasantries and I began to think how I could hint about a haircut. As I was wrestling with that, she said, “You’re collecting early this month, I’m not ready right now… but it will only take a minute.” I had little time to stand there looking puzzled because Mrs. Haggerty walked into the kitchen, opened a small cabinet above the range hood and pulled out a what looked like a small picnic basket. She put the basket on the kitchen table, pulled out one of the chairs into the middle of the room and said, “Well, get over here. I’m going to cut your hair.” I couldn’t bring myself to leave the foyer. “Get over here. I might as well cut Billy’s hair when I have the stuff out and I want to get started.” There was no anger in her voice but neither was there any doubt that she was going to cut my hair. I immediately walked over to the chair and sat down.
Quietly and almost professionally she opened the kit, put a cape around my neck, and laid out her implements which I noted warily included two sets of clippers and lots of guards. She was giving me little time to protest. She combed out my hair and said, “I know what you want. It will look good.” It required no response and got none. I sat there, terrified, excited, confused and most of all, unable to move or speak. As I watched her pick up the clippers and put on what looked to be a #2 attachment I became even more agitated.
The clippers were switched on, she put her left hand on top of my head and gently but firmly pushed my head down to gain access to my nape. She put the clippers to my neck and began to push them up deliberately. Slowly, carefully, but not tentative at all. I must admit in my heart of hearts that I knew I was about to be clipped to a very short crew cut. I expected the clippers to keep going all the way up and over to my forehead. They didn’t She stopped after trimming up only about two inches or so. She slowly did the rest of the back and then the right side and then the left. She then turned off the clippers and put them down. She then picked up the other clippers, put on a bigger attachment and prepared to repeat the process. The clippers making contact again brought back the same sense of foreboding but this time she only ran them up an inch or so. Some effort was made to blend the hair between the two clipper lengths and she was done. To my relief, Mrs. Haggerty put down the clippers and picked up scissors and a comb.
Just as she began to employ the scissors she paused and said, “Oh, relax already, it’s going to look fine. And not too short.” Suddenly I did begin to relax as she sectioned my hair and trimmed off just enough hair to get Mom off my back. Her technique may not have been perfect but it was well beyond that employed at home. The result of all of it was a great haircut. I loved it It was a length that everyone would be happy and with I was estatic. Mrs. Haggerty took off the cape, ran her hands over my hair and said, “See, I told you I knew what I was doing. I’ll see you next month.” I thanked her profusely and told her that I wouldn’t charge for her paper for the month. She started to object and then said it was a deal.
I left feeling great. This was a load off my mind. Social disaster was averted and my parents were mollified. They didn’t care where I got my hair cut so long as it got cut and they did not have to pay for it.
I could hardly wait for my next haircut. The second cut went fine and we both began to enjoy it. It was apparent that Mrs Haggerty was not close to anyone in her family and enjoyed talking to anyone, even a goofy but amusing adolescent. As the months went on, I learned more about her, she had been a beauty queen, married very young and divorced young. She wanted to start college but she met Betty’s father (I had no idea Betty was her stepdaughter) and she got remarried and then had Billy. She never mentioned her husband and I didn’t ask but it was plain that things were not good.
There were times when I could tell she had been drinking. This usually meant she was angry with someone, in most cases, her step daughter, Betty. Mrs. Haggerty felt Betty was trying to disrupt her marriage. Betty had a reputation for being wild. Though I had no first hand knowledge, she was reputed to have had sex with several guys (I later found “several ” was an underestimate) She managed to get beer on a regular basis and I knew, and her stepmother suspected, that she also smoked marijuana. Betty blamed all her misbehavior on her stepmother, although she never gave a reason why she felt this way. When Mrs. Haggerty got this way it was less pleasant . I worried she may end up taking it out on me in the way of overdoing a haircut. These cuts were probably a bit shorter than on a good day but after the first time I never worried about it again.
Listening to Mrs. Haggerty complain every so often was a small price to pay for getting haircuts that did not make my stomach churn before going out in public. I’ll always remember how relieved I was to not have to worry about getting a buzz cut at any moment. And besides, I enjoyed it. Mrs. Haggerty and I were friends and I had started to anticipate the haircuts with great excitement which only heightened during the cuts. Whatever it was, something really excited me about the whole process. It would have taken a lot to force me to stop the ritual.
One evening in late May, Mrs. Haggerty answered the door and was visibly drunk. It was our practice for me to enter the house and go right to the kitchen for my cut. Her condition set off some alarm bells in my head and I hesitated, suggesting that we could do the cut later if it wasn’t a good time for her. She took my elbow, led me to the kitchen and rather roughly pushed me down into the chair. As always she started with the #2 guard at the nape of neck. For the first time since the initial haircut, I was very worried I would feel the clippers come all the way over the top. She was in a very foul mood and I just had this feeling…. Once again my fears were groundless. As the normal cut progressed it became apparent she was not mad at me but extremely angry and at wits end with Betty. Whatever the argument had been about it was a bad one and she had not seen Betty since early that afternoon.
Mrs. Haggerty was just about done with her initial trimming with the # 2 guard when there was a sharp knock on the door. This had never happened before and I suddenly realized I did not want to have an audience for my haircut nor did I even want anyone to see me in the chair. I made an effort to look away and was relieved when I realized that Mrs. Haggerty had gone out onto the porch to speak to whomever was there. I could not make out what was being said but it was a man ‘s voice. In a moment, the door opened and I heard Mrs. Haggerty thank someone and then, in a completely different tone, say “And you.. get in here right now” . She was speaking to Betty who Mrs. Haggerty almost seemed to be holding up. Piecing together a few brief comments to me and angry ones directed at Betty, I learned that Betty had apparently gotten very drunk, wandered around the neighborhood, and finally passed out about a block away, in someone’s front yard. Obviously, this was considered bad form but truthfully not terribly dangerous. A neighbor had found her, helped her up, and brought her home. Mrs. Haggerty was furious at Betty and at being embarrassed.
She exhibited no gentleness as she pushed the barely mobile Betty past the kitchen and towards her bedroom. Suddenly, Mrs. Haggerty stopped dead and in the living room for just a moment as if she was thinking about something. Suddenly Mrs. Haggerty reversed her path and led Betty into the kitchen. She looked at me and said, “Please get out of the chair”. Although she said it rather politely it was not said in a tone that encouraged hesitation or questions. I stood up, Betty was pushed into the chair, Mrs. Haggerty took the cape from around my neck and put it around Betty’s neck. Betty was feeling no pain, she was conscious but certainly not alert and if she had any idea what was about to happen she gave no indication.
Mrs. Haggerty was obviously out of control as she grabbed the clippers and turned to Betty. “You spoiled brat, I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget!” With that, she flicked on the clippers, grabbed Betty firmly by the neck with her left hand and with the right pushed the clippers quickly down the middle of Betty’s head, from forehead to crown. The resulting 1/4 inch long swath was startling to see but Betty’s expression barely changed. Mrs. Haggerty cut even faster after the first swipe. Four more passes left the top complete stubble which was a weird contrast with the rest of her hair hanging on the sides and back. That hair soon fell too, as Mrs. Haggerty started clipping in front of the right ear and continued around back and finally finished with the last bit of hair in front of Betty’s left ear.
Betty’s eyes were opened but she barely moved and certainly made no effort to escape. When she was done, Mrs. Haggerty put down the clippers and ran her hands over the stubble saying, “There, maybe that will make the boys think twice about getting you drunk.” The anger was just about dissipated now and I was glad. Mrs. Haggerty was reaching to unfasten the cape when out of the blue Betty uttered one word, not loudly but distinctly, “Bitch.” As suddenly as it had disappeared, the anger was back. Mrs. Haggerty started to answer but instead picked the clippers back up, took off the guard, and put the naked clippers to Betty’s forehead.
I certainly will not try to say that Betty’s 1/4 inch cut would not have attracted a lot of attention and jeering. However, the difference in the 1/4 inch cut and the nearly bald swath that was left by the first path of the naked clippers was truly shocking. Mrs. Haggerty clipped the hair away as if she were on a mission and went over the entire head a number of times even though her efforts weren’t doing much as the hair was clipped as close to the scalp as it could get. It was though Mrs. Haggerty wanted to do something worse but settled instead for savoring the clipping as she ran the clippers over Betty’s head, over and over.
Finally it was done. Mrs. Haggerty ran one hand over the top of Betty’s barely visible stubble and said, “Well, if you can’t respect me, at least you well never forget me”. She then asked me to come over and feel it. I think Mrs. Haggerty was proud of what she had done and she was also trying to further humiliate Betty by having me touch the stubble. As always, I did as I was told, quickly, and then stepped away. Mrs. Haggerty then took the cape off Betty and told her to go to bed. By this time Betty was crying softly and feeling her scalp. She simply got up and staggered back to her bedroom. That was the last we heard from her.
How did this whole thing affect me? On one hand, there was the empathy one kid has for another. In a way you feel that anything that happens to another kid could also happen to you so you generally take no joy in something bad happening to a peer. On the other hand, I had a lot of sexual feelings, especially about hair, that were being awakened. Touching Betty’s hair (or what was left of it) gave me an erection almost immediately which I could not figure out at the time. I didn’t understand it and I felt guilty about it, but boy, was it ever there. Now, I understand my excitement a lot better but I probably feel even guiltier about being excited over such a cruel act. I feel a little less guilty when I remind myself that it was the feel of the stubble that I liked, not that she was forced into it.
Well, the erection became a moot point very quickly when, after Betty had gone, Mrs. Haggerty picked up the cape and said, “All right, let’s finish your haircut.” I looked at the small mountain of hair on the floor, thought about Betty’s scalping and didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Haggerty had no trouble understanding my hesitation but surprisingly she did not push me into the chair or snap at me. Instead, she said very gently, “Sit down, there’s nothing to worry about”. I did, she picked up the clippers, put on the guard, and proceeded to finish with the clippers, then blend in the top with the scissors. In other words, it was back to business as usual. Neither one of us said much as she finished. We said goodbye, and I left.
Just because I didn’t say much didn’t mean that my mind wasn’t racing. I could not get over the way Mrs. Haggerty had, without hesitation, clipped her stepdaughter’s hair to the scalp. Mrs. Haggerty had saved me from worrying about such cuts for myself and then she gave the most extreme version to another child, and a girl at that. It was frightening but then I thought about the feeling I got when I touched Betty’s hair. In fact, I still haven’t stopped thinking about the feel of Betty’s hair. I knew that I would go back the next month.
I anticipated the next haircut with more than the usual amount of excitement. When I got there we had a long talk during the cut. Betty’s haircut had changed a lot of things. Her husband was furious with her, they had put the house up for sale, and Betty had gone to live with her mother in another state. She never mentioned if they were getting divorced but it was obvious things weren’t good. Despite all this, she never expressed any regret except one, “I wish I had lathered her and shaved her damn head when I had the chance”. She said that I had better start looking for another barber. I felt sad for a lot of reasons but the haircut was good, as usual.
It was now July and unspeakably hot. The thought of Mrs. Haggerty moving away bothered me a lot more than I would have guessed, and not just because I would have to find someone else to cut my hair. I looked forward to the monthly haircuts, partly out of habit, friendship of a sort, and a difficult to explain sexual attraction. When I sat down later that month in Mrs. Haggerty’s kitchen, the haircut was about the farthest thing from my mind. For once, we talked quite a bit before the haircut. She had been drinking and feeling sorry for herself. It seemed to her that she had tried very hard to make a go of it with her husband and her stepdaughter but they had cast her aside. Her whole life was changing and she didn’t think any of it was fair. Though I was hearing only her side, it certainly seemed she had gotten the short end of the stick I felt quite badly for her. Eventually, she said, “Enough of that. Let’s get this haircut over with. The new people move in the week after next”.
I went over and sat down and began to tell her how much I appreciated all that she had done for me and that I hoped she was going to be happy. And that I would miss her. She listened as she got out the stuff, put the cape around my neck and said that she would miss me too. As usual she put the #2 attachment on the clippers and prepared to trim the nape of my neck She clicked on the clippers, then turned them off and said, “You know, I am moving to Chicago. This will be the last haircut I give you.” She turned the clippers back on and started to trim the nape as I contemplated never seeing Mrs. Haggerty again.
I had not had time to pity myself too long when I realized the clippers were going higher than normal in back. In fact they were being pushed all the way over the crown and down the middle of the top, all the way to the forehead. It was what I had always feared most and it all happened so quickly. A huge pile of hair was dumped in my lap and Mrs. Haggerty turned off the clippers and said, ” I know you will miss me. I want you to remember me”. With that, the rest of my hair was clipped to a 1/4 inch crewcut. I felt for the first time the now familiar sensation of being terrified but sexually excited at the same time. I sat there, making no attempt to move and did not say a word. It was though I was outside watching it but could not do or say anything to change things..
When the shearing was done she turned off the clippers and came around to stand right in front of me. She looked in my eyes and apparently liked what she saw, “No, I don’t think you’ll ever forget me”. With that, she put her hands to the back of my cropped head, pulled me closer and gave me kiss full on the lips. That certainly took away any chance I had at speaking coherently. The cape was taken off, I walked to the door, mumbled goodbye, and that was it.
My parents loved the haircut and I said nothing about the circumstances. My brothers and the other kids teased me unmercifully but at least it was summer and there was no school to contend with. It was embarrassing but life went on.
My hair grew out and it was years before I got another crewcut, under very different circumstances. There have been many many hair adventures since then but Mrs. Haggerty was right. I have never forgotten her.
I am sure I never will.