Wednesday, February 8, 2017

One Last Haircut: World War II Vet Shares a Story After Forty Years

Elias King learned to cut hair while serving as a gunner’s mate on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II.  When I met him in 1982, he was planning to retire and sell his barbershop.  After getting my hair cut a couple of times in his shop, I could not believe Elias would ever retire. In the days before talk radio, he was the local source for the true conservatives that were the core clientele of his shop. 

He was loud and funny and had opinions that the John Birch Society might think were too far right.  He did not think women should work outside the home unless they were widows and their families abandoned them.  For Elias, the Soviet Union was the enemy, forever. America needed to stop them everywhere. 

I got a hair cut there once a month just before my Army Reserve weekends.  I was close to thirty years old at the time, and by age, any of the customers and barbers could have been my Dad.  Elias liked me because I served during the Vietnam War, then Cold War West Germany and was a tank commander in the Army Reserve. “Too many young cowards won’t serve the country anymore,” he said.

King was against divorce and sex outside marriage in any way.  He was against welfare, government programs, government regulations, and he knew the federal income tax would destroy the country.  But he was also self-deprecating and funny when he stepped off his conservative soapbox. 

In May 1984, I came in for a haircut just before the shop closed.  I told Elias it would be my last haircut for a while because I was leaving the Army Reserve.  I did not tell him I was going to grow a beard and let my hair grow out. He was about to close up, which he did promptly at six because, “Mother (his wife) has dinner ready.” But he stayed to give me the haircut.

He told the other barber he could go. It was just Elias and me. Before he started cutting my hair he turned the barber chair so it faced away from the mirror instead of toward it. He was talking, but I could not see his face. He had never talked about the war before, but today he started talking about fighting off air attacks at Leyte Gulf and what it was like when his ship got hit.  But then he abruptly switched to talking about a long Pacific cruise to visit liberated allied ports just after the end of the war.

“I do believe the things I say about marriage,” he said. “But that cruise was the best days of my life.”

He said they stopped at Singapore and “Mamasan was waiting at the bottom of the gangway. She had a baby on her back and would suck your dick for four bits (50 cents).” He described wild sex with women across Asia. “I love the wife, but even when she was young, she was not…” he stopped talking. The scissors stopped.  “I never strayed once, young fella,” he said.  “Near forty years, I still think about that cruise.”

After he finished my haircut he started sweeping up. I took out my wallet. He waved me off. I thanked him. It was years before I saw him again. He was retired. I saw him outside the shop. I stopped and said hello, but am not quite sure he recognized me.  I liked Elias King.  He died a few years ago. There was a big obituary about him in his local paper. It mentioned his war service and the victory cruise after the war. “…the best days of my life,” said the young gunner’s mate who learned how to cut hair.

[Elias King is a pseudonym]

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