In Basic Training, we were given a set of civilian clothes which had to be worn whenever we weren’t in uniform. It was another uniform to make us all the same, they said.
The barber’s clipper performed the same function. Week One saw new recruits stand in a long line outside the camp barbershop to get our one free haircut from the Army.
The barber was a fat bald man who enjoyed his power over us. He knew he could report us if we said anything funny to him. Sometimes he’d make us call him “Staff” even though he’d never put on a uniform. We resented him for that.
He’d call out, “Next!” as recruit after recruit went in with hair and left with a number-one buzz cut all over. The girls would walk past us giggling. The boys would leave the barbershop looking shocked and vulnerable like they’d just been neutered. The lads in the queue would tell those leaving that it didn’t look so bad because they felt sorry for them and were trying to keep their spirits up—one of the first signs of teamwork.
Some stood in the queue with short haircuts, thinking that would save them. They’d smile thinking they’d be spared, but they’d be shorn like everyone else. Some would laugh at their own hair reflected in the window, knowing it was going to come off soon.
The barber would make the same tired joke to every soldier. “How would you like it?” he’d ask, and as you sat there in the chair with the warm smell of hair around you and a line of soldiers waiting outside the window, you’d kid yourself that he was serious. You’d let yourself imagine that he spoke with genuine kindness, that he was on your side, a friend in this harsh world taking pity on you. He didn’t want you to look a fool. No, not at all—so what style do you want?
You’d ask for a short back and sides. You’d pretend it was an option and that all the previous shearing victims had requested a “number one all over.” So you’d venture a style and the barber would listen and nod as he brushed the last victim’s hair from the clipper. Then you’d hear a click, the buzzing would start, and he’d rest the hungry blades at your forehead. It was a cruel joke.
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