The Hair­cut

New England Review - - Recolllections - Larry I. Palmer

It was a Wed­nes­day around 8:30 p.m., a week be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, 1958, when I strolled down the third floor cor­ri­dor of Ban­croft Hall to­wards Ted Bed­ford's fac­ulty apart­ment. He was on duty that night—thus the open door. Jef, one of my fel­low preps (what ninth graders were called at Phillips Ex­eter Academy), had in­vited me and his room­mate, Brink, to spend the hol­i­day break with his fam­ily in Salem, Mas­sachusetts. It was the first time I had vis­ited Bed­ford's fac­ulty of­fice, a space sealed off in the back foyer of his fam­ily liv­ing quar­ters by a ma­hogany door ex­actly like the one I lin­gered just out­side of now, in the dorm hall­way, an un­signed per­mis­sion slip from the Dean of Stu­dents in hand.

Bed­ford sat at his desk, fac­ing away from the hall and por­ing over some pa­pers as I waited for him to no­tice me. He turned his head to­wards me with a glance that asked, “What's up?,” his eye­brows be­com­ing ques­tion marks as he peered over his glasses. I handed him the slip and asked him to sign it be­cause my ad­viser was out of town. Bed­ford pushed his chair away from his desk and spun to face me, his smile so wide it seemed to touch his side­burns. “Well, I got a deal for you. Be­fore I'll sign, you must get a hair­cut.”

Get a hair­cut? There was noth­ing in the Ex­eter rule­book about the length of stu­dents' hair, only that coats and ties were re­quired at all classes, chapel, church, and meals. I fig­ured I had left be­hind this kind of con­cern about what Mom re­ferred to as my nappy hair when I left St. Louis three months be­fore. Was Ted Bed­ford, a young history teacher and the ju­nior fac­ulty mem­ber in the dorm, mak­ing up his own rules? I looked around dis­tract­edly for a mo­ment, and con­sid­ered whether I should bring up the rule­book. I no­ticed that on the right edge of Bed­ford's desk, the only space un­clut­tered by stacks of pa­pers and books, sat a framed pic­ture of his preschool boys—hair neatly trimmed, parted on the side.

I de­cided it wasn't smart to chal­lenge him on the rules. He had my per­mis­sion slip in his hand and gave no in­di­ca­tion he was go­ing to give it back to me. I knew from pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions with Bed­ford that he was at once the most in­tim­i­dat­ing, gre­gar­i­ous, and ar­gu­men­ta­tive adult among the three fac­ulty mem­bers liv­ing in Ban­croft. With­out much ef­fort, he could have played the role of a lawyer in a movie. I re­gret­ted that I hadn't been able to get the sig­na­ture I needed from my ad­viser, a bach­e­lor who taught French and barely spoke to me (or any­one else) other than to say “good morn­ing,” and who would have signed the slip with­out ques­tion. In­stead I was caught won­der­ing how I could ex­plain

Larry I. Palmer

to Bed­ford why my hair was so long; how I could tell him that I was acutely aware of the fact that all the adults at Ex­eter—from the jan­i­tors to the prin­ci­pal to the academy bar­ber to this grin­ning, twenty-eight-year-old, pre­ma­turely bald­ing guy sit­ting in front of me—were white. How se­ri­ously I doubted any of them could pos­si­bly un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties of my Ne­gro hair. In my four­teen years I had never been to a bar­ber­shop. Start­ing when I was about four, ev­ery two weeks or so Dad would or­der me to take a seat in a chair in the kitchen or find a spot in the shade of the backyard, drape one of his old shirts back­wards over me like a large bib, and take out his hand-op­er­ated clip­pers from a can­vas bag. “Hold still!” he'd bark, grab­bing the top of my head with his left hand. With his right he'd place the clip­pers against the side of my head and squeeze the shiny me­tal han­dles, com­press­ing the heavy spring sep­a­rat­ing them, caus­ing the teeth of the top blade to ratchet back and forth across the sta­tion­ary teeth of the bot­tom. The reg­u­lar rhythm of those mov­ing blades was like the clip-clop, clip-clop of the rag­man's horse on the as­phalt pave­ment I al­ways heard just be­fore he turned his wagon—loaded with pots, pans, bro­ken house­hold ap­pli­ances, and cloth­ing—into the al­ley­way along­side our house. Any in­ter­rup­tion of the flat stac­cato of these clip­pers made my neck stiffen, since it usu­ally meant the blades had be­come en­tan­gled in some knot of tight curls that Dad called kinks. “Hold still, this is go­ing to pinch,” he'd grum­ble qui­etly, un­tan­gling my hair from the blades. He used the thicker of his two combs—the thin bar­ber's comb was re­served for my younger brother, Barry—to pull out as many kinks as pos­si­ble be­fore restart­ing with the trim­mer and fin­ish­ing up the sides. He al­ways paused to un­screw the wing nut hold­ing the cover over the blades to clean them out be­fore pro­ceed­ing to the hair on top, his “hold still!” the only in­ter­rup­tion of the word­less clip-clop of the rit­ual as he'd fin­ish cut­ting off all but an inch of my hair.

For two weeks af­ter ev­ery one of these cuts, I'd ap­ply Vi­talis or some type of grease to my sculpted kinks, at­tempt­ing to comb and brush them into straight­ness. They wound up grow­ing back prob­lem­atic as ever. A week be­fore I boarded the train for Ex­eter on a full schol­ar­ship, a few months af­ter my four­teenth birth­day, Dad sat me down in his backyard shop for the last time. It didn't oc­cur to me to ask what to do about hair­cuts once I left for school, and Dad vol­un­teered no part­ing ad­vice. Stand­ing there in Ted Bed­ford's foyer be­neath a half dozen un­cropped inches, try­ing to avoid his gaze, I raised my left hand and fid­geted with the dou­ble knot of my tie be­fore of­fer­ing him a ver­sion of the truth. “I don't look bad with long hair,” I be­gan. “I brush it ev­ery morn­ing”—bed­ford burst into laugh­ter be­fore

I could fin­ish—“and af­ter sports.” I couldn't tell if he thought my com­ment was ridicu­lous, or if he was laugh­ing be­cause he had no hair­style at all. But then, no longer smil­ing, Bed­ford pinched his eye­brows to­gether, the way I imag­ined he might when sin­gling out one of his stu­dents in class, and looked at me. “Come on, Palmer, what's your real story? You're about to spend Thanks­giv­ing with Jef's par­ents, peo­ple you have never met, look­ing the way you do? You and I both know your par­ents would be em­bar­rassed if you showed up look­ing like this!”

My par­ents had al­ways made sure I was ap­pro­pri­ately dressed and groomed when­ever I ven­tured into the world be­yond our house, even if it was only to take the bus down­town to meet Dad af­ter work to shop for a new pair of shoes. But why did Ted Bed­ford care about the im­pres­sion I might make on the par­ents of one of my dorm mates? Bed­ford ges­tured with his left hand for me to sit in the chair at the side of his desk, so I sat down ten­ta­tively and waited for him to re­sume his ques­tions. But he didn't.

I broke the si­lence. “It's not re­ally prac­ti­cal for me to get a hair­cut be­fore I go home for Christ­mas.” Bed­ford's stare said, “why not?”

“Last month, I went down­town to see if I could find a Ne­gro bar­ber,” I said. “I asked a Ne­gro air­man I saw on Main Street if he knew where I could find one. He told me no Ne­groes lived in Ex­eter. The only Ne­gro bar­ber he knew was near his base in Portsmouth. You know that's about fif­teen miles away, so I gave up on get­ting a hair­cut.” Bed­ford still didn't seem con­vinced, so I tried another an­gle.

“Just a few weeks ago, I looked through the win­dow of the first bar­ber­shop on Main Street at a bar­ber giv­ing a stu­dent a crew cut with elec­tric clip­pers. Those clip­pers won't work on my hair.” He looked at me quizzi­cally. “At the sec­ond shop,” I went on, “I saw a bar­ber giv­ing a long­haired Exie a trim with scis­sors and a comb. That comb would snap into pieces try­ing to un­tan­gle my hair!”

I paused in my mono­logue, looked down at my hands folded in my lap, and mum­bled, “And I've seen enough ‘ We Re­serve the Right to Refuse Ser­vice to Any­one' signs in busi­nesses back home that I didn't even bother to go in­side.”

I didn't de­tect any skep­ti­cism on Bed­ford's face as he pushed back in his chair, glid­ing closer to his desk. As he leaned back fur­ther and waited with a side­ways glance for more of my mono­logue, I plunged ahead, point­ing out how I thought none of the white men or boys at Ex­eter would no­tice my shaggy locks. I pleaded that none of the other boys in the dorms, ad­mir­ing the sideswept el­e­gance of their own Cary Grant styles or crit­i­ciz­ing each other's crew cuts, had ever said a word about my hair.

Set­ting aside his usual rapid-fire method of talk­ing to fi­nally end his own si­lence, Bed­ford said, sim­ply, “The Academy bar­ber can­not refuse to cut your hair.” Glanc­ing at the pic­ture on his desk, he con­tin­ued: “You are go­ing to teach him, or one of the bar­bers down­town, how to do it. I'm hold­ing your per­mis­sion slip un­til you come back with a hair­cut.” And he put my per­mis­sion

Larry I. Palmer

slip in his desk drawer where it couldn't get lost in the clut­ter.

Dumb­founded by this un­ex­pected “as­sign­ment,” I stood up and turned around to leave the of­fice, al­ready fig­ur­ing that Ex­eter's bar­ber would be my safest way to com­plete it. But as I wan­dered back to my room, I found my­self mulling over all the things I hadn't felt com­fort­able com­mu­ni­cat­ing to Bed­ford dur­ing our talk. I didn't tell Bed­ford how that neatly pack­aged air­man I'd run into down­town re­minded me of my brother Mac, who was also in the Air Force. Or how when Mac grad­u­ated from Charles Sum­ner High back in St. Louis, six years be­fore, he'd won a schol­ar­ship to at­tend a his­tor­i­cally black col­lege—a schol­ar­ship he turned down with the in­ten­tion of bor­row­ing money to at­tend a lo­cal col­lege of phar­macy that ac­cepted blacks and whites. When Dad had re­fused to sign the loan pa­pers—the age of ma­jor­ity was twenty-one—mac stormed out of the house and joined up.

Mac, the Boy Scout with a sash full of merit badges. Mac, the hus­tler with a part-time job mak­ing bi­cy­cle de­liv­er­ies from a nearby drug­store. Mac, the snazzy dresser with a mock­ing tongue that he di­rected at me when he was not ig­nor­ing me al­to­gether. One day, af­ter my sis­ter Lela in­sisted that he lis­ten to me read the words on a milk con­tainer, Mac re­luc­tantly agreed to help her con­vince our mother to en­roll me in kinder­garten a half year early, but the few times I saw Mac af­ter he left home he con­tin­ued to snub me. Still, I eaves­dropped ea­gerly on his con­ver­sa­tions with oth­ers and so learned he had tested “off the charts” on an IQ test early in his mil­i­tary ser­vice, that he'd been sta­tioned in places like Guam and Alaska, and that what he was do­ing was “clas­si­fied.” I know it was some ghostly ver­sion of Mac, well-dressed and well-trimmed whether he was in uni­form or not, who made me re­al­ize that the black air­man I ran into on that Oc­to­ber side­walk was okay to ap­proach about my own groom­ing dilemma.

I won­dered what Bed­ford would think if he knew how my mom and dad had ar­gued for months about whether I should be al­lowed to ap­ply to Ex­eter. Mom saw a bright ed­u­ca­tional fu­ture for me, but Dad wor­ried about my tiny body—i was not yet five feet and weighed less than a hun­dred pounds—in a white boys' board­ing school over a thou­sand miles from home.

Dad had re­fused to at­tend a meet­ing with Ex­eter's prin­ci­pal when he vis­ited St. Louis to meet prospec­tive stu­dents and their par­ents, so Al, my old­est brother, went to the par­ents' meet­ing in his place. Wil­lie, my sec­ond old­est brother and a public school teacher him­self, stayed on the side­lines of the Ex­eter squab­ble. But, un­like Mac, he was con­stantly teach­ing me some­thing: how to read a light me­ter and change a cam­era's set­tings; how trees fos­silized in the Painted Desert in Ari­zona thou­sands of years ago; how to de­liver a good speech (Wil­lie had won a prize for public speak­ing while in high school).

When I tested high enough on an IQ test to earn a place in a gifted and

tal­ented class in 1955 as part of the de­seg­re­ga­tion of the public schools, Wil­lie was en­thu­si­as­tic and in­formed my mom that Ge­orge Hyram, who was to be my teacher, was the smartest per­son who ever at­tended Stowe Teach­ers Col­lege, the seg­re­gated public teach­ers col­lege named in honor of Har­riet Beecher Stowe, where both Wil­lie and Hyram had earned their cre­den­tials. When Dad ques­tioned some of Hyram's meth­ods, Wil­lie leapt to his de­fense. It was Hyram— who shep­herded me though sixth, sev­enth, and eighth grades—who in­tro­duced Ex­eter and its schol­ar­ship pro­gram to my mom in Fe­bru­ary 1957. I don't know what Wil­lie told my par­ents once he heard about the Ex­eter pos­si­bil­ity, but I as­sumed that he be­lieved any­thing Hyram rec­om­mended was good for me.

The ar­gu­ments be­tween my par­ents con­tin­ued even af­ter Ex­eter ac­cepted me and of­fered me a full schol­ar­ship in early 1958. But some­thing hap­pened be­fore the sum­mer of that year—i don't know what—to bring about a truce. Per­haps it was Mom's de­ter­mi­na­tion to find a job clean­ing houses to pro­vide me with spend­ing money. Or it might have been the school's gen­er­ous of­fer to pro­vide me with a cloth­ing al­lowance the first year—for those jack­ets and ties I would need—and to pay for my trans­porta­tion. What­ever hap­pened, Dad fi­nally re­lented. The Sun­day in 1958 when I left St. Louis, I sat in my coach seat in Union Sta­tion quite a while, go­ing over my par­ents' in­struc­tions in my mind. I was to change trains in Cleve­land that night and take another train to Bos­ton. Once in Bos­ton (early the next morn­ing) I was to take a taxi to North Sta­tion where I would board a third train north, to a small New Hamp­shire town that I, my par­ents, and my nine sib­lings had never seen.

I don't re­mem­ber how my one suit­case—a large trunk had been shipped ear­lier—ended up on the over­head rack. I glanced up at it and at my new busi­ness­man's hat—a fe­dora—tucked in be­side it. The hat had been my par­ents' spe­cial pur­chase for my en­try into a world of wear­ing coats and ties on a daily ba­sis. I fid­dled with my tie to make sure it was straight and glanced down at my white shirt, my gray slacks, and my check­ered sports jacket with hand­ker­chief tucked in the breast pocket. I re­mem­bered Mom's gen­eral ad­mo­ni­tion about my ap­pear­ance when­ever I went any­where: “clothes make the man.” I fi­nally un­der­stood why the clothes and the hat were so im­por­tant to my par­ents as I sat there, about to set out on a life among strangers.

As the train pulled slowly out of the sta­tion into the dark­ness of a tun­nel, I wasn't con­scious of the fact there had not been any spe­cial good­byes to Al, Wil­lie, or any of my other broth­ers or sis­ters. As the en­gine sped up and we emerged once more into the bright Septem­ber morn­ing, I could see the bridge over the Mis­sis­sippi River into Illi­nois. I tried to imag­ine the new world I was about to en­ter, and, as the train hung there above the cur­rent, tears be­gan to flow down my cheeks. I looked back at the smoke­stacks of St. Louis's fac­to­ries,

Larry I. Palmer

reached for my hand­ker­chief, and buried my face in it against the win­dow so that none of the peo­ple around me would no­tice how the con­fi­dent smile I'd worn dur­ing Mom and Dad's farewells had dis­ap­peared.

The far­thest east I had ever been was about fif­teen miles past East St. Louis, to the Cako­hia Mounds State His­toric Site—the re­mains of an an­cient Mis­sis­sip­pian city. Dad, for­merly a school­teacher in his na­tive Arkansas, once took my youngest brother Barry and me to visit the large grassy mounds. Even the East Side, with its race­track and night­clubs where Miles Davis had got­ten his start, seemed like a myth­i­cal place and was off lim­its to the youngest mem­bers of the Palmer clan. My other for­ays out­side of St. Louis con­sisted of two trips to Arkansas; a day trip on the train to Hannibal, Mis­souri—mark Twain's home—that I had won by selling sub­scrip­tions on my pa­per route; and a fam­ily camp­ing trip in the Mis­souri Ozark Moun­tains. I was taken aback by the vast­ness and flat­ness of the Illi­nois corn­fields stretch­ing to the hori­zon. Nei­ther my neigh­bor­hood—turn of the cen­tury houses, early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury apart­ments, and com­mer­cial es­tab­lish­ments along wide boule­vards—nor For­est Park, a mile from our house, pro­vided the wide vis­tas I faced through the train win­dow. In­di­ana be­came a string of names—terre Haute, Green­cas­tle, In­di­anapo­lis, An­der­son, Mun­cie—shouted out by the con­duc­tor mov­ing through the aisle.

The St. Louis Post-dis­patch and a book I'd brought along to read drew me out of my­self. Read­ing seized the space in my mind that might have longed for the gray cityscape of my neigh­bor­hood or the pur­ple wis­te­ria bloom­ing along our backyard fence. As the train rocked and swayed closer to the coun­try's eastern shore, I erased the re­cently fa­mil­iar—dad us­ing his steel hand-shears to trim the grass borders around the white­washed trunks of our two maple trees; Wil­lie in­struct­ing me on how to cap­ture the beauty of a flower in the Mis­souri Botan­i­cal Gar­den with his 35 mm cam­era—to make space for new sur­round­ings, panora­mas, and peo­ple. My fickle teenage heart had al­ready com­mit­ted it­self to a place where the books I used in my cour­ses would be pur­chased by the schol­ar­ship of­fice, where I would have my own room for the first time in my life, where I would be able to play a sport nearly ev­ery day, where all my teach­ers would be men like Hyram, and where Mom and Dad would not ar­gue about my fu­ture in my pres­ence as if I were not in the room.

The trans­fer in Cleve­land, at about 9 p.m., went well; again some­one helped me with my suit­case. I took my as­signed seat and fell into a rock­ing sleep. When I awoke the next morn­ing, a dif­fer­ent con­duc­tor ex­plained that I should get off at Back Bay Sta­tion in Bos­ton rather than South Sta­tion, which is the last Bos­ton stop. He told me it was an eas­ier taxi ride to North Sta­tion, my ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion, from Back Bay. I thanked him as he helped me re­trieve my things from the com­part­ment over­head.

My con­fi­dence re­stored af­ter a good night's sleep, I started down the aisle, drag­ging my suit­case be­hind me as the train slowed to a stop at Back Bay. It was at this mo­ment I no­ticed him—my im­age of the prep school boy com­ing down the aisle of the ad­ja­cent car to­wards me. He was a tall white teenager in a

blue blazer, blue but­ton-down shirt, striped tie, and tan rain­coat, and he had his own suit­case in his hand. As we ap­proached each other at the exit door, I said, “Hello,” remembering my Dad's ad­mo­ni­tion never to say hi, “Could you tell me how to get to North Sta­tion?”

“Sure, I'm go­ing there too,” the prep school boy replied. “Would you like to share a cab?”

He in­tro­duced him­self by name and as a se­nior at Phillips Academy at An­dover, another New Eng­land board­ing school and Ex­eter's archri­val. He spoke easily and as­suredly. His ques­tions were all friendly, let's-get-to-knoweach-other type ques­tions: Where are you from? What school are you go­ing to? What year are you? So I asked him the same type of ques­tions as we boarded the same Bos­ton & Maine train. I no­ticed this older teenager of the prep school world did not wear a hat. I made an en­try in my men­tal notebook: leave new hat in closet at school.

I said good­bye to him when he dis­em­barked at the sta­tion for An­dover and was left to com­plete the last thirty min­utes of my jour­ney alone once more, gaz­ing out the win­dow. The smoke­stacks of the red brick fac­tory build­ings in Lawrence and Haver­hill re­minded me of the shoe fac­to­ries near down­town St. Louis, but, as we crossed into New Hamp­shire, horses and cows and barns with their si­los dot­ted the land­scape. At the Ex­eter stop, I dragged my suit­case off the train with­out notic­ing if any other boys climbed down with me. I got into a taxi (af­ter the driver put my suit­case in the trunk) and said, “Take me to Ban­croft Hall, please,” amazed at how one twenty-four-hour-plus train trip could change so many things. “You must be Palmer,” a smil­ing, sparkling-eyed man said, in a fa­mil­iar Mid­west­ern ac­cent, as I en­tered the dor­mi­tory. “I'm Ted Seabrooke,” he con­tin­ued, as he ex­tended his hand. “I saw you get out of your taxi from my of­fice win­dow. Welcome to Ban­croft Hall!” I shook his hand hop­ing my own face re­flected his in­fec­tious smile. He told me that he knew St. Louis well. Be­fore com­ing to Ex­eter, he'd coached wrestling at a high school in Gran­ite City, Illi­nois, just across the Mis­sis­sippi River. The ever-present voices of my par­ents or older sib­lings that usu­ally whis­pered to me what I should do or say when I en­coun­tered a stranger dis­ap­peared from my con­scious­ness. My four­teen-yearold gut told me: lis­ten to Seabrooke.

I man­aged to trans­port my suit­case and my­self to my room on the fourth floor by tak­ing an el­e­va­tor that the jan­i­tor un­locked for me. I un­packed and min­gled with the other new stu­dents. Most of us were preps. There were a few tenth graders, known only as “low­ers,” and a few eleventh grade “up­pers,” and twelfth grade “se­niors.” As we in­tro­duced our­selves to each other, the first ques­tion af­ter “where are you from?” was “are you a schol­ar­ship boy?” The dorm re­ver­ber­ated with con­ver­sa­tion all morn­ing, right up to lunchtime: What

Larry I. Palmer

sport are you go­ing to play? Who do you have for math? Who’s your ad­viser?

We were do­ing more than mak­ing con­ver­sa­tion. We were siz­ing up each other's ver­bal skills in an­tic­i­pa­tion of our fu­ture com­pe­ti­tions in the class­room. The ver­bal joust­ing con­tin­ued as I sat down with six other preps for my first meal. I had al­ready met three of them while re­con­noi­ter­ing the dorm. Jon, like me, was a schol­ar­ship boy from Salem, Mas­sachusetts. Jef (for Joseph E. Fel­lows III), whose fa­ther had gone to Ex­eter, was also from Salem. His room­mate, Brink (for Van Wyck Brinker­hoff IV), whose fa­ther also had gone to Ex­eter, was from San An­to­nio, Texas. Brink, Jef, and I were the small­est of our group; we must have looked like lit­tle boys play­ing dress-up in our jack­ets and ties. Jon, with his straw­berry blond crew cut, was the tallest and from afar no doubt looked like a se­nior eat­ing with the preps. Dick, Bill, and Ben, other preps at the ta­ble, all in­tro­duced them­selves and vol­un­teered where they were from.

Sud­denly, in the midst of all the an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tions around the ta­ble, Brink said to some­one on his right, “You, Nig­ger!”

Just as sud­denly, a deep New Eng­land si­lence ab­sorbed ev­ery deci­bel of prep chat­ter. All eyes fo­cused on me, the only Ne­gro in the din­ing room. I looked past Brink's brown crew cut and no­ticed Seabrooke smil­ing at his two teenage daugh­ters at the fac­ulty ta­ble in the cor­ner be­fore cen­ter­ing my gaze on Brink's. Speak­ing with­out think­ing, I said, “Don't use that word.” Then con­tin­ued in an even softer voice, say­ing, “It hurts my feel­ings.” Brink mum­bled a fum­bling apol­ogy, and the preps' chat­ter re­sumed within min­utes, al­beit at a more sub­dued level.

Brink's re­sponse—the fact that he ex­pressed gen­uine em­bar­rass­ment and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, rather than at­tempt­ing some el­e­gant ver­bal twist to re­move the so­cial sting of what had just oc­curred—ac­tu­ally drew me to him. At that mo­ment, re­spond­ing to Brink, I had to bury my fa­ther's fears about this world I had cho­sen to in­habit. I made an un­spo­ken vow never to tell any­one in my fam­ily about this in­ci­dent. I also vowed never to tell Seabrooke or any­one else at Ex­eter about Brink's use of the word “nig­ger” to den­i­grate a white boy in my pres­ence, hop­ing to pre­serve the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a fu­ture friend­ship un­com­pli­cated by racial sus­pi­cion.

Ex­eter seemed a world away from the rest of the coun­try's racial ten­sions and con­flicts: Em­mett Till's mur­der in 1955; armed troops es­cort­ing nine Ne­gro teenagers into Cen­tral High School in Lit­tle Rock in 1957; the bill en­acted by the Arkansas leg­is­la­ture in 1958 op­pos­ing de­seg­re­ga­tion of Lit­tle Rock Schools. The fact that my par­ents and all of my older sib­lings had been born in Arkansas made such events reg­u­lar top­ics of Palmer fam­ily con­ver­sa­tions. To­wards the end of these dis­cus­sions, a par­ent or older sib­ling would in­evitably ex­tract some moral from a par­tic­u­lar news story that young Barry and I should take to heart, laps­ing into a sing-song cen­tral Arkansas drawl to ex­plain how to deal with whites in gen­eral or how to dis­tin­guish “okay” white peo­ple from those who might try to harm or in­sult us.

I hadn't heard a sin­gle ref­er­ence to race at Ex­eter since that first day in Septem­ber. But here it was, Novem­ber, and I found my­self on the ragged edge of a con­ver­sa­tion with this white teacher about my Ne­gro hair, try­ing to con­vince him of the im­por­tance of my visit to Jef's home with Brink with­out hav­ing to break those prom­ises I'd made un­der my breath or to ex­plain how much it meant to me that Brink and I had be­come friends in the first place. I guess if it was a hair­cut that he wanted, a hair­cut he would get. When I got up my nerve the next day to go to the bar­ber­shop in the base­ment of one of the main aca­demic build­ings, my con­fi­dence was briefly shaken by the age of the bar­ber. The white-haired be­spec­ta­cled man looked like a re­tired bar­ber at best. Maybe I should have gone down­town to find a younger man with stead­ier hands. I pon­dered this as he smiled kindly, and then he star­tled me with a ques­tion: “How do you want your hair cut?”

My dad had never asked me what I wanted my hair to look like. Star­ing into this bar­ber's mir­ror, I imag­ined my­self trans­formed into a movie star like Harry Be­la­fonte. But my im­me­di­ate prob­lem brought me back down to earth in a hurry. “Have you ever cut a Ne­gro's hair?” I asked the old man ten­ta­tively. “No,” he replied gen­tly, fo­cus­ing his pale eyes on my re­flec­tion in the mir­ror. “What do you think would be the best way for me to be­gin? Clip­pers or comb and scis­sors?” “Clip­pers,” I replied, a bit more con­fi­dent, “but let me comb it out first.” I took out the sturdy Her­cules comb I had brought with me, worked out all the kinks I could, and told the bar­ber to leave about three inches on the top and make the sides a bit shorter.

I could see his re­flec­tion as he ex­am­ined var­i­ous comb-like at­tach­ments on the shelf be­hind him and when he picked up one of them and at­tached it to his elec­tric clip­pers. (Dad did not have any at­tach­ments for his hand-helds.) In a mo­ment of truth, the bar­ber flipped them on. I could barely see the teeth of the rapidly mov­ing blades or how they worked, but I imag­ined the mo­tor re­plac­ing Dad's heavy hands. Its noise and the singing of those fast-mov­ing blades re­minded me of June bugs—the fly­ing bee­tles Barry and I used to catch and put into jars back in St. Louis. The buzz of these elec­tric blades was noth­ing like the slow clip-clop of Dad's clip­pers.

I scru­ti­nized the bar­ber's ev­ery move in his large mir­ror, more as­ton­ished than fright­ened. He used var­i­ous plas­tic at­tach­ments to cut my sides, stop­ping oc­ca­sion­ally to ask if he had taken off enough. I could never ac­tu­ally see what Dad was do­ing when sit­ting bibbed for a trim back home. I no­ticed my neck was re­laxed be­cause, some­how, I knew there was lit­tle chance these elec­tric shears would clog in my hair. The bar­ber found the top more of a chal­lenge. Even though he used sev­eral dif­fer­ent guards, he had some trou­ble cut­ting the hair

Larry I. Palmer

evenly. There were no gap­ing holes, only lit­tle val­leys dip­ping here and there that I could prob­a­bly ob­scure through vig­or­ous comb­ing, brush­ing, and hefty amounts of Vi­talis. Later that night, af­ter din­ner, I knocked on Bed­ford's of­fice door, try­ing to an­tic­i­pate what he would say about my hair­cut. “Come in!” he shouted through the closed, but un­locked door. “Palmer,” he be­gan in his usual im­pas­sioned man­ner as I walked to­wards his desk, “did you see this morn­ing's Bos­ton Globe?” Bed­ford was a walk­ing and talk­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia on what was chang­ing in the world, gleaned from his ab­sorp­tion of both the Bos­ton Globe and the New York Times ev­ery day. Be­fore I could an­swer, he went on to tell me about another French colony gain­ing its in­de­pen­dence from France. I as­sured him I would read the Globe but be­gan to won­der if he un­der­stood why I was there. He pushed his chair back from the desk, ex­tracted my per­mis­sion slip, and with­out so much as a word about my hair, signed it and laid it in my up­turned palm.

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