Markers Along the Way

By JIM NICHOLS

If one tends toward a somewhat cynical view, transitions in life do not seem so significant as they do to others. Graduations, proms, weddings, and even funerals can be described as simply human concoctions that are trivial in their true importance. There is work to be done, decisions to be made, and thoughts to be considered—let us get on with it. 

However, I believe that though we might not want to admit it, each of us has sitting in our heart memories of some scene or trauma or comment that has never left us. It may not have been all that important as some key movement in our lives, but we still remember it. A few years ago, I debarked from a New York subway and encountered the facade of Yankee Stadium for the first time; that sight is stuck in my brain. As opposed to being a cynic about transitions, I tend to relish them. Sometimes the transitions even have a physical texture to them.

We called it “oil cloth” when I was a boy. At that time, plastics were just beginning to be mass produced and would soon replace other materials (such as oil cloth) used for the same protective purposes. Oil cloth was waterproof, somewhat like vinyl which was also just becoming popular. Oil cloth layers covered luggage, wooden trunks, and anything else that might get wet. My father had tacked a layer of oil cloth over padding in the seats and backs of our kitchen chairs. The kitchen table itself was covered by a brightly printed oil cloth; these tablecloths made wiping up spills easy and, when replaced with another colored pattern, changed the image of the kitchen a lot. The oil cloth was somewhat stiff, especially at first use, and the tablecloth tickled my legs.

Iconic barber pole

I do not know whether it was my mother or my father who took me to the barber shop for the first time. My hunch is that it was dad since a barber shop seemed to be a totally male habitation in those days. I cannot ever remember seeing a girl in a barber shop when I was growing up. Having a female cut my hair today is, frankly, something that I have had to grow into as an adult; I am not proud of that—just reporting an emotion.

I was fascinated by barber shops, however, partly because of the closed nature of them; it seemed only males went there (unless their mothers brought them) and the atmosphere was unique, especially for a young boy. Plus, there was this fascinating red, blue, and white pole on the front of the shop. They were closed on Sundays and Mondays which I thought was novel.

As I entered for the first time, I noticed that the floor was constructed of small black and white tiles in repeated patterns. Most of the space was occupied by four large barber chairs like I had seen in pictures; to a four- or five-year-old they looked gigantic. They were covered with brown oil cloth. On the wall behind the chairs were multiple mirrors, as well as the wall facing the chairs. Every direction you looked, it seemed your own image and that of everyone else came back to you. Again, to young eyes, it was almost startling. There were several small tables along the front wall as well as chairs in which to sit while waiting your turn; the tables had old, mostly torn, magazines on them.

When my turn came, I walked toward the chair and realized it was so large it might swallow me. The barber sensed the situation and quickly pulled out a plank that he placed balanced on the two arms of the barber chair; the plank was padded and covered with brown oil cloth. He picked me up and sat me on it. I remember feeling embarrassed that I was the only one in the shop who needed a booster seat, but I gradually got used to it on subsequent visits.

As a few years went by, I gradually became comfortable in the shop and rather looked forward to going. Then, one day when my turn came, the barber pulled out the plank and said, “I don’t believe you need this anymore; sit right here in the chair.” My brain heard, “You are not a little boy anymore; welcome to the real barber chair.”

It was a small transition, but an important one. 

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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