Sunday, January 30, 2011

 While hair was cut, male generations were joined
(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, June 12, 1994, 50 years after D-Day)

"The next generation is coming, and they need to know what happened," D-Day Veteran John Bacon told the Press-Republican. "Guys like me won't be around for the next 50 years to tell about it."

Of all the hundreds of thousands of words about D-Day over the past few weeks, none were more important than those: The next generation needs to know what happened, and there is only so much time left to gather the stories.

My grandfather was old enough to remember the first automobile in Ironwood, Mich., and lived long enough to see mankind walk on the moon, but he didn't tell many stories. He felt only old men did that, old men who bored their children with endless reminiscences of the Good Old Days.

My father has left more behind him, in the form of letters and a journal. And I will, no doubt, leave my children a haystack of published and unpublished memoirs to deal with when I'm gone.

But passing on stories from father to son, or grandfather to grandson, is not the same as passing on a cultural legacy from generation to generation.

For that, you need a marketplace, somewhere for the generations to meet.

Much of what I know about being a man, I learned at the barbershop. Women talk about the stories and lore that were passed on when women quilted, and there is even a play called "Quilters."

Maybe we need a play about men, called "Haircut."

There were two barbers in Star Lake, too many, really, for such a little place, and you had to choose to give your trade to Bob or to Charley, both of whom you knew, both of whom you would see at church, both of whom had children in school with you. Both of them were even school bus drivers.

You had to call them "Mr. Noody" and "Mr. Henry," but you thought of them as Bob and Charley, because that's what all the men at the barbershop called them.

When I was little, we went to Bob Noody, because it was handier for our dad to pick us up on his way home from work. The three of us took the bus there after school, got our hair cut and then sat and waited for our ride, while we looked at Sports Afield and listened to the men talking.

Bob had a picture on his wall of dogs playing poker, and another humorous picture depicting some hunting trip disaster. There were placards of combs and butch wax you could buy, and his barber college certificate hung on the wall. There wasn't much girlie stuff around; Bob's shop was attached to his home, and, anyway, he had more class than to have a lot of junk around the place, what with all of us kids coming in to get our hair cut.

I'm sure the jokes and stories were different when we weren't around, of course, because there were times someone would start to say something and Bob would cough and cock an eyebrow in our direction and then everyone would chuckle and pass on to another topic.

The men talked about hunting and fishing, about baseball and hockey, and about politics. And they talked about the war.

There was more than one war, of course. I was a middle child in my family, so my dad went to World War II. Some of my friends were the oldest in their families; their dads had been in Korea. Some of the older men had been in World War I.

One time, they got to talking about World War II, and Bob stopped cutting hair for a moment to pull up his trouser leg. He had a couple of round scars on his legs, about the size of quarters, from where he got shot while he was parachuting. Later, my dad told me Bob was a Ranger, and that the other guys in the army all knew the Rangers were the toughest guys around. I remember the tone of respect, almost awe, with which he spoke.

That made me look at Bob a little differently. He was kind and he always had a twinkle in his eye when he said hello to you, and he always had something special to say to you, on the bus or in church or whenever he saw you away from the barber shop. He always let you know that he was your friend, and that you were his friend, too. I think he was as pleased as I was, the day I was finally tall enough that I didn't need him to put the padded board across the arms of the barber chair.

I thought guys who jumped out of airplanes and shot people were mean and tough, but Bob wasn't mean at all. But, if he was a Ranger, that meant he was tough. It made me stop and think that maybe being tough isn't the same thing as being mean.

I don't know if there is anything more important for a boy to know than that.

I talked to my mom the other day, and she said Bob saw some of his friends on television, the guys from the 101st Airborne who were going to jump again on D-Day. Bob didn't go back to Normandy, but I'm sure he gave it more than a brief thought.

My dad didn't get to Europe until sometime after D-Day, and his stories from the war had less to do with combat than with hungry, frightened people left in the wake of the Nazi defeat. But I knew something of D-Day because of Bob, and being at Bob's barbershop.

It's ironic that, when my generation's war came along, we stopped going to barbershops. It wasn't a political decision; it was a question of fashion. We had our girlfriends cut our hair, because they knew more about dealing with long hair than the barbers did, back then.

Today, the barbershops are nearly gone. I don't know that either of my boys have ever been in a real barbershop, "real" in the sense of having Sports Afield on the table and pictures on the walls of dogs playing poker. "Real" in the sense that your mother might drop you off, but she wouldn't come in.

"Real" in the sense that a boy got a lot more at a barbershop than just a haircut.

Bob Noody in 2004

Friday, January 21, 2011

Another friend from home

When I wrote about my friend Bill, I mentioned one of the last times we spoke.  "It was a fine conversation, with Bill and our friend Crandall, whose story is worth a whole other post." 

This is that post. That's Crandall, #44, next to Bill. A genuinely good man, but someone who, as a kid, had a steep hill to climb, not because of his own situation, but because of a situation he found himself in. He had strong character, good parents and solid values. But he had the wrong last name.

Here's a column I wrote in 1995 for the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, NY:

When my buddy came to school each September, the teacher always had a welcoming speech ready:  "Sit down and shut up. I don't want any trouble from you."

You see, he had the misfortune to be on the Faculty Mafia's hit-list.

The Faculty Mafia is a lot like the real thing: If you ask, everyone tells you it doesn't exist. It's a myth. There's no such thing.

And that's correct, to this extent: There is no formal organization, there is no recorded hit list, there is no way to trace anything. But the fact remains that every school has a core of teachers who, if you get on the wrong side of one, whether you are a kid, an untenured teacher or even an administrator with a delicate constitution, you might just as well pack up your books and move on down the road.

My friend had cousins and uncles who raised hell, and that was enough. When the family name turned up on the class roster, the old hands would roll their eyes and groan about the awful things to be expected from him, and declare that the only thing to do was to jump right on him before things got out of control.

My dad was constantly confused, because he was both my dad and a school board member, which meant he'd meet my friends in real life and get to know them, and then he'd hear about them at school board meetings and wonder how they had suddenly turned into such monsters.

In this case, he remembered my buddy from Cub Scouts, and from altar boys, and he couldn't understand why the teachers had so much trouble with him. What was confusing him, of course, was that he still thought of my friends as nice kids, so he treated them like nice kids, and so they behaved toward him like nice kids.

Most folks are like that.

Anyway, I remember sitting with my buddy in a diner late one afternoon. He was telling me that he had decided to drop out and take a job in Rochester that, I kept trying to tell him, was never going to get him anywhere.

But the only place he wanted to get was out of town, and I was hard-pressed to explain why he should stay in school. He'd flunked two years and was now only a sophomore to my senior. For me, staying in school meant a few more months; for him it was another two and half years, more if they nailed him again.

And you have to know how that time would be spent: If I were out in the hall without a pass, I'd get yelled at. He'd be put on detention at the very least. It had been that way for years, and I couldn't advise him to stick around where he clearly wasn't wanted.

So he left for Rochester and I finished school and went on to college, and we didn't see each other again for quite a while.

Then I came home for vacation and there he was, in the bar where we all hung out. He limped over, cane in hand, and we embraced in the middle of the floor, two 20-year-olds with a friendship that went back a decade-and-a-half.

We bought each other several beers, and he told me about Vietnam, and about his time rehabbing in stateside hospitals and how he was hopeful of being 100 percent before too much time had gone by.

He wasn't at all bitter. In fact, while he hadn't enjoyed being blown up, he'd had a pretty decent time since he left town, all things considered.

In the space between his words, I heard his story.

Basic training strips you of your identity, and you're only a number to the military.

Well, maybe that's bad, if you've gotten special privileges because of your name.

But he must have found a wonderful liberation at Parris Island, when those screaming, bullying drill instructors saw the name tag on his clothes and didn't even bother to read it.

They treated him like garbage, but he was used to that. What he wasn't used to was that they treated everyone like garbage. Not only that, but it seems his physical strength and mental toughness were seen as positive attributes, not the warning signs of a low-bred, hillbilly troublemaker.

In other words, he started on exactly the same footing as everyone else, and then was judged solely on his own actions and abilities, and he responded by becoming a good Marine.

It's a nice story, but those days are past. With cuts in defense, high-school dropouts can't get into the service anymore, and the only way today's kids could have that experience would be for us to declare war on somebody.

Might I suggest the Faculty Mafia?

Of course, since then we have gotten back into a war, which opens the doors of opportunity once more. I would still prefer that there be other ways for a young person of good character to succeed.