Let’s call it, for now, a story about how we educate our sons.
Southern Illinois’ mines produced soft coal that burns dirtier than western bituminous, so my hometown of Buckhorn grew slowly poorer, decade by decade, after the high-production years during and just after World War I. Back then my grandfather was a sub-district president of the United Mine Workers of America and a state senator. He was the kind of man who intended to buy an entire city block so he could install his four grown children in homes around his own. They’d be a working-class American dynasty, and he would take care of everyone. My mother was the youngest of their four children and was always “Baby” to him. He was always “Daddy” to her, and my earliest notions of manhood were based on his rise to beneficent power from such a rough start.
He managed to get some sort of mail-order diploma from the Miners’ and Mechanics’ Institute, but he sent my mother to Stephens College, where Joan Crawford had briefly enrolled. A couple of Buckhorn’s citizens still remember her as a beautiful young woman in a convertible, breezing in from some new adventure. She had worked as a secretary for Life and taught in Palm Beach. She married twice—three times if you count the short-lived secret marriage to a common foot soldier in WWII, which Daddy got annulled. He also wouldn’t let her join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, so she got her private pilot’s license to spite him. She went back for her master’s, spoke some French, and loved it when Jackie Kennedy asked André Malraux to the White House. When I was very small, she still dressed stylishly around the house and was perfumed with Chanel No. 5.
As you can imagine, she had a complicated relationship with our townsfolk. Many of the miners, shopkeepers, and factory workers didn’t know what to make of her. Her Daddy died in 1948, a victim of cigars and the poisons of the mines he’d started in as a boy. With him gone, the family began to diminish and her own fortunes to fail. No doubt some thought that her earlier privilege had become a superiority complex with no basis in reality. But Southern Illinois was her home, and she knew the people better than they realized. Some she admiringly called “hard bastards.” She took pride in being hard herself when necessary, since she was “both mother and father” to me, and I think a few understood that about her.
The barbershop she took me to was in downtown Buckhorn, in the same building as the Western Union office that was also a toy shop, a candy store, and a Greyhound bus terminal. The owner had been the town’s scoutmaster for so many years that he’d taken boys to see Red Grange play at Illinois, and when their flivver boiled over coming home, he had them run relays down to a creek by the road and scoop water in their hats for the radiator as he kept driving. The building wasn’t air-conditioned, and the old wooden floors creaked when you walked from one business to the other. The giant transom over the shared door was always open, so the toy shop smelled of talc and drowsy warm lather, and the barbershop rang with register bells and phone calls from next door.
There were two barbers. One was short and heavy and greased his hair back flat. The other was thin and bald. I was about five, and I thought of them as old, old men, but they were surely only in their early 50s. My mom asked them if she could leave me to wait my turn while she ran next door to the shoe repair. Other men waited in metal armchairs in the heat. I was almost never around men; my dad was gone, and most of my close relatives were women. I didn’t want her to go but was afraid to cry. The barbers laughed and said sure, they’d take care of me alright and to take her time; I was going to be just fine. My mom told me to be good and to listen to them and walked out.
The thin barber, who rarely spoke—he had a kind, patient grandpa voice, or so I imagined, since all my grandparents were dead —asked me to climb up on a booster seat on the big rotating barber’s chair. As he was tightening the shroud around my neck, one of the loafers reading a magazine said something, and the stocky barber said he’d get his turn, they’d be done with me in two shakes. He stropped a razor on a wide leather belt and went to work on the man in his chair.
“Nice lady,” he said in a strong tenor. “Her father was an important man.”
“Mm-hm,” his partner replied, cutting my hair with scissors.
“And such a big boy. How old are you getting to be now, son? Soon you’ll be all grown up.”
When they saw I was too shy to speak, they started the talk among themselves that they’d interrupted for my mother. I didn’t know what the Tet Offensive was, but it interested me when a customer read things aloud from the paper about Marines dying. I knew about soldiers, from the TV show Combat!. Both the barbers, it turned out, had been Marines in the Pacific, the stocky one at Corregidor, and the thin quiet one, at Bataan. It was the first time I’d heard the phrase “Death March.” They talked about atrocities and the dead they knew or had seen. Someone said life was cheap in Asia and we’d have worse problems in Vietnam soon, the same way it went on all those islands.
“I never thought of the Japanese as anything more than animals,” the stocky barber said. “It was easy to kill ‘em. And I didn’t do this, but I know a guy, one of my friends, who’s still got a jar of Jap ears he pickled in GI gin. He keeps them in the pantry at home. Look just like canned mushrooms.”
“Hope his wife never gets them confused,” a customer chuckled.
The room was silent as my barber held me by the shoulder with his thin strong fingers and scraped a blade down the back of my neck.
The stocky barber spoke up again. “Another Marine I know mailed himself all the parts of a .50 caliber machine gun. He’s still got it oiled up and ready to go in his attic, 25 years later. Scary thing is, he’s not all there. That gun could wipe out a town.”
My mother returned and the shop went silent except for the thin barber, who told her how good I’d been. I held her hand as we walked down the cool shaded sidewalk toward the fabric store she loved but which burned my nose and throat. “Learn anything good?” she said.
Did she know? She smiled.