Monday, July 10, 2017

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The summer of 1967, 50 years ago, holds special meaning for the Colonel.

He had just completed the fifth grade at Barrow Elementary School in Columbus, Mississippi.  It was the sixth different school he had attended in six years.  He would attend two more the next year in a different state, and six more before he graduated high school in a different country.

Mind you, the Colonel isn't complaining about his itinerant educational experience.  He's just stating facts.  His Air Force NCO father had little control over the frequency at which Uncle Sam moved the family.  

In 1961, the Colonel's dad got orders to Ben Guerir Air Force Base in Morocco.  (For the geographically challenged Bama grads reading this post, Morocco is just a little to the east of Auburn.)  Dad went ahead of the family, and the Colonel, his Mom, and little brother waited for a few months in Columbus (the folks' hometown) until family quarters became available in Morocco.  The Colonel started kindergarten in Columbus while they waited.

The Colonel finished kindergarten, and the first grade, in Morocco.  Then, the king of Morocco decided he no longer wanted the American armed forces' presence in his kingdom and the Colonel next found himself in an elementary school in Jacksonville, Arkansas, the home of Little Rock Air Force Base.  Three years and two schools later, the Colonel's dad received orders for Nha Trang Air Force Base.  

Vietnam.  

There was a war on and families weren't invited.

So, in the summer of 1966, the Colonel's family moved from Arkansas back to Mississippi.  

Dad headed for Vietnam. 

It was a long year.  

At the time, the Colonel's understanding of what was going on in Vietnam was a little fuzzy.  He wasn't alone in that lack of comprehension.  Most of what was understood about the U.S. effort in Southeast Asia in 1966 was gleaned from a few minutes of sonorous-voiced reporting on the evening television news broadcast and positive, carefully crafted columns in local newspapers.  Troop levels had doubled from the year before, but the sense was that the U.S. military would make quick work of the communist insurgency.

As 1966 waned and 1967 waxed, and the casualty reporting took on a far more ominous tone, the Colonel began to have the first sense of the real danger his dad might be in.  Dad was due home in early summer, and the countdown to his return became an increasingly urgent ritual.

The Colonel remembers sitting in the tiny apartment kitchen when the phone rang and his mother answered to hear her husband's voice telling her he was safely back in California and would be home in a day or so.  It was an electric moment.  And, the shocks would keep coming.

Dad had already told his family that his next assignment was England Air Force Base in Alexandria, Louisiana, and the Colonel had consulted the atlas and fingered the center of the state, telling little brother, "Here's where we're going next."  The Colonel didn't know much about Louisiana, but on the map it was nestled next to the two last places they'd lived, so it couldn't be all that different.

Riiight...

But, that culture shock wouldn't be the first..., nor the last.

However, the more immediate systemic shock would involve the re-integration of Dad into the tight-knit family dynamic that had developed in his absence.  The Colonel's dad wasn't domineering by any means, but while he had been gone the Colonel's mom had loosened up on a few things...

Like haircuts.  

When the Colonel's dad left for Vietnam, the Colonel wore a closely-cropped crew cut.  When Dad got home, the Colonel was sporting a considerably longer hairstyle.

The Colonel realizes at this juncture that those of you who have known him for most of, or any portion of, his adult life, know that "hair" and "the Colonel" are mutually exclusive concepts.   But, there was a time when one of the Colonel's most prized possessions, second only to his pocket knife, was his pocket comb...  

While Dad had been gone, the Colonel had..., ahem, fallen in love with his hair.  The blossoming love affair with his locks would last only another six or seven years, but it was a torrid affair, nonetheless.

 A memory of the look on Dad's face when he saw his formerly crew-cut, now mop-topped, sons for the first time no longer resides in an accessible portion of the Colonel's grey matter.  The Colonel is not even sure that the appearance of his two sons made much of an impression at that point -- in retrospect, it occurs to the Colonel that Dad was probably far more interested in the appearance of the love of his life.    

A day or so later, however, Dad seemed to take a closer notice of his progeny.

"You two get in the car."

"Where we goin' Daddy?"

"For a ride."

When the Colonel's parents took their children somewhere "sorta" fun, the destination was normally plainly announced.  When they took the Colonel and little brother somewhere either really fun or really dreaded, the destination was always cloaked in "for a ride."

Daddy wasn't bringing fishing poles and Mom hadn't packed swim wear, so the destination wasn't looking too promising on the 11 year-old excitement scale.  

When they parked in front of the shop sporting a barber pole in front, the Colonel checked his dad's hair.  Nope, Dad didn't need a haircut...

"Crew cuts," Dad told the barber.

"Daddy, noooo!," wailed the Colonel.

"Alright," Dad relented, "just get it out of his eyes off his ears."

The barber complied.  The Colonel sulked.  But, that summer was going to be a whole lot better than the last.

Dad was home.  

         
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