The Ballad of Pancho and Kenny

Gimme head with hair

Long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming,

Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there hair

Shoulder length or longer

Here baby, there mama

Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair….

Hair, Broadway production of Hair

In 1968, America was in the throes of social anarchy as legions of bearded beatniks advocated making “love not war”, recreational use of drugs and “stick it to the man” rock and roll.

In this time of clashing values and political unrest, a suburban nuclear family could gratefully distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. The anarchists fit a certain profile: they wore head bands, John Lennon glasses, Birkenstocks sandals, and jacket vests with stitched patches of peace signs, marijuana leaves and phrases like “hell no, we won’t go”.  Yet, the simplest of litmus of tests for identifying a potential  sh*t-stirrer was – –  the length of his hair.

I was taught to fear hippies – although there were very few of them in my neighborhood.  Some of the older kids in our town had started to wear their hair long – really long – over their ears and down past their shoulders.  They looked like girls from the back and seemed to act like them – eschewing sports and always talking about not wanting to fight. If China ever invaded the US, they would probably run away or be too “high on drugs” to even here the tanks coming. They would congregate next to the Shell station or sit on the playground wall after school, smoking cigarettes and shaking their heads as if they were debating how to best blow up City Hall.

The best defense against these social parasites was to unfurl one’s own flag to the world.  As an ex-military man who now pledged his allegiance to the economic and corporate vitality of America, my father felt it was important that his young boys conveyed his values to the world and served as a living example of a home that had kept proper priorities.  His gesture of solidarity to the conservative values of Richard Nixon came in the form of a buzz hair cut.

Once a month on a Saturday morning, my brothers and I would be spirited from our beds to Kenny and Poncho’s local barber shop –  a nexus of conservatism and a great source of personal reaffirmation for my father who often felt besieged after a workweek spent in the chaos of a world tilting on its axis.  As he paraded his four young sons into the four chair, microscopic closet reeking of cologne and talcum powder, a crowd of elderly patriots would momentarily lower their newspapers and nod in approval as my father’s young recruits were declared fit for duty and processed for the future of America.

The door opened with the tinkling of a bell that was hooked above the unstable glass door.  Heavy set Kenny would glance in our direction as he shaped a perfect line the neck of a guy that could have been a stunt double for Jack Webb.  He would look down at us and shake his head with feigned irritation, “You’re late Marines.”  I am not sure Kenny had actually ever served in the military.  From the smell of him, the only action he ever saw was on Friday nights at the local High Brow Lounge. He sported a white barber’s smock that seemed incongruous with his slicked back Elvis pompadour.  You would never catch this oiled manatee without a Lucky Strike cigarette dangling from his wry, Southern mouth.

To Kenny and my father, long hair was the enemy.  It was a sign of unrest and confusion. Long hairs were like small Asian countries that if allowed to develop unmanaged would blossom into havens of communism, disease and corruption. Having short hair was a sign of a man’s willingness to subordinate himself to a higher purpose. The disintegration of the Army started with a private’s hair, soon bled into personal hygiene and ultimately tore down the very fabric of society – setting us back to the Stone Age, a dark, godless time of venal pursuits, hand to hand survival and no Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

The actual buzz cut took very little time to administer but garrulous Kenny would prolong the experience – asking you questions intended to embarrass you and make the old men chuckle.  “So you got a girlfriend, sport?” I could see his reflection in the mirror as he looked over my shoulder and winked at a man facing me in the bullpen.  “Well, – – sort of.” I stammered. I lied, not wanting to invite further ridicule.  “Sort of?“ Kenny exaggerated his reaction.  He poked his comb in my direction, “Either you do or you don’t!” My father laughed as Kenny’s brother, Poncho urged him to sit still ‘lest he cut his throat with the straight razor.  My father sighed as Poncho covered his face in hot towels and slapped Club Man Lemon Lime cologne on his cheeks.

The finale of our shearing ritual included having your neck and face wiped with a brush covered in suffocating talcum powder.  The clean up rarely liberated all the severed hairs as they invariably fell down the back of your shirt and clung to your neck causing you to itch until your next shower. I would sit and watch Kenny repeating his rite of passage on three other brothers – their hair tumbling down to the ground like Communists mowed down by a machine gun.

My father would linger at his barber shop man cave – talking politics leavened with rich, blue swear words to underscore his contempt for the state of Congress and the state of the nation.  My older brother would ease drop on the heated conversation as if somehow he might pick up vital intelligence that would help him better conform as the first child in this house fashioned out of rigid political timber.  We would roll out of the barber shop like four freshly minted tennis balls, unconsciously feeling our heads and neck where the peach fuzz of our adolescent hair remained as a silent reminder to our lifetime commitment to this man’s military.

Yet, this was a time of profound change and it became inevitable that shifting social mores and restless adolescence would invade the prehistoric oasis of Kenny and Pancho’s barber shop.  It was a normal autumn Saturday with football in the air.  My father was facing a day of sidelines, yard work, and a briefcase bulging with office work.  I had once again volunteered to be the first to be sheared and had sat down to the October edition of Sports Illustrated when I distinctly heard my older brother give Kenny instructions on how to cut his hair.  I was certain I had just heard him say, “Just leave the side burns”.

There was a moment of palpable tension as several older men lowered their newspapers.  Perhaps Poncho might have even nicked my dad’s throat with the straight razor – – a miscue as rare as Southern California snow. Kenny looked confused. He hesitated and looked over at my father who had started to rise in his chair.  He looked at my brother who simply stared ahead – aware of the consequences he was now setting into motion.

“Since when did you start telling Kenny how to cut your hair?” my father growled.  “Since today.  It’s my hair, you know.” It was like watching a car wreck.  I could not peal my eyes away.  The entire wall of men and boys was now fixated on the barber, the crew cut father and his eldest son.  My father made the next move. “Just the usual, Kenny. Right son?” He leaned back slowly closing his eyes as if the issue had been nipped in the bud. My brother burst with a second countermanding command, “That’s fine, Kenny, but please leave a little more on top and keep the side burns.”

I could have given him the Congressional Medal of Honor that day. He always had it the toughest as the eldest of four boys.  He would spend twenty years breaking in my father and mother to the ways of a world that was counter-cultural to their stiff upper lip, depression era childhoods.  At this precise moment, as a lanky adolescent, banana republic teenager, he was declaring his independence from the tyranny of our Saturday morning buzz haircuts.  It was a beautiful moment.

As with all initial brave acts of independence, his “hair” rebellion was ruthlessly suffocated.  Kenny administered a number 4 razor trim and my brother walked into the autumn morning as clean as a cue ball unable to fit in with a growing subculture of friends whose parents had consented to shoulder length hair. However, the damage was now done.  Within months, my brother was getting his hair cut at a “stylist” – a compromise tendered by my mother to prevent more social unrest.  My father had little use for “stylists” and for any haircut that cost more than $5.

That Independence day was the first fracture in our family unit and perhaps portended the changes that would ultimately consume Pancho and Kenny.  As the 70’s washed over all of us, kids let their hair grow free and the faithful knot of conservative barbershop warriors died, drifted or disappeared.  Kenny and Pancho’s closed and was replaced by, of all places, a hair salon called “The Gates of Spain.”.

Today, my father’s hair is still cut like an Augusta fairway.  He remains a handsome and confident character, a successful retiree who is delighted to see short hair make its comeback.  He smiles as he takes his daily walk at the beach and sees the hundreds of shorn young men looking as if they just completed officer’s candidate school.

Deep down, he knows the majority of them are “slackers” who would not know a hard days work if it were to kick them in the rear end.  Yet, perhaps the short haircuts are a harbinger of a return to simpler things and better times.  Perhaps, we are on the edge of a new epoch when a person’s value is measured not by his poison rhetoric or critical condemnation of his country but by the content of his character and whether or not he creates something of value – – like a good old fashioned buzz cut.

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