Posted 2/15/22

WOODWORKING Bets in the barbershop My B. W. (Beautiful Wife) also serves me as M.B. (My Barber) because I have for years had so little hair with which to deal. Back in Minneapolis I always had what …

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Bets in the barbershop

My B. W. (Beautiful Wife) also serves me as M.B. (My Barber) because I have for years had so little hair with which to deal. Back in Minneapolis I always had what hair I have cut by a great barber located in The Grain Exchange. John was a swell guy and honest, too. Each time I visited for a cut, he charged me a reasonable $10 and presented me with a pint of honey to compensate for the 2 minutes he took to lower my ears. Why the honey? Because Mike was also an A.B. (Amateur Beekeeper).

As B.W. snips away at my “hairspot,” which is much smaller than my baldspot, I dream of the days when I could stride into a shop on the main drag of Whitehall, like most normal people, and had enough hair to give the barber orders on how I wanted it cut. The first barber to cut my hair was a wonderful fellow, with a fantastic barber-chair side manner. His name was Mervin Engen, but everyone called him “Cleve” because of a mistake he made as a youth when he returned from his first trip to Chicago and ordered a “Cleveland Sandwich” and had to be told by the counterman that such a morsel was called a “Denver.”

Cleve put up with his new moniker and even forgave me for my first journey to the chair. “You screamed and bawled like a Banshee when I put you on the board to raise you up.” I took his word for it and continued to patronize his establishment until I was in high school. Before that I dropped by Cleve's shop to show him the brook trout I had just caught up in Irvin Coulee, which only measured six inches, so I had to break its back and stretch it so it measured a legal seven. Cleve didn't expose me, but did manage to let me know that he was onto me, by saying “It looks a little peaked to me, Davey, but congratulations.”

Once I became a snazzy high school student, I had to change barbers. And of course, that meant the fancier shop simply called “Swenson and DeBow,” presided over by young Kenny, who was a star pitcher on the Whitehall Millers baseball team and who knew how to fashion a crewcut (called a “Heinie”), and his older partner “Cooch” DeBow. It was a big place, with a shoeshine stand and all the accoutrements of a fashionable tonsorial parlor. Back issues of the Police Gazette, featuring buxom models and news stories stating that Adolph Hitler had been spotted in Argentina. Tall bottles of pomades, like green Pinol Skintone Lotion, yellow Hess Coconut Oil, Glove's Imperial Sarcoptic Mange Medicine, as well as the scent of talcum powder and sound of razor strops slap- slap- slapping.

It also had a reputation for a certain raciness. Legend had it that Mart Swenson (Kenny's late father) and Cooch had purchased a radio on the q.t. in 1920. It was the town's first such contraption, which Mart and Cooch sequestered in the back room, which they visited frequently to pick up baseball scores, only to return to their chairs to make bets with the lawyers, bankers, and Lutheran Brotherhood salesmen who were wireless in their homes. After months in operation, one customer, banker Charlie Melby, purchased his own “wireless,” began winning some of his bets, uncovered the ruse and the odds were evened.

Oh, and it was so sophisticated. My father remembered the day he turned 16 and was getting a haircut at noon, his back to the assemblage, when he discovered his favorite teacher Thaddeus Cassius Parr, smoked wicked cigarettes. “It was noon and Doc Parr teacher walked in, lit up a Lucky Strike, took several drags and told an absolutely filthy joke, then hurried back to class.”

Fifty years later, Mart and Cooch had passed on to the Great Tonsorial Emporium in the sky. But Mart's son Kenny was still cutting hair as he had had always done since his father died in the 30s and he quit school to lower ears in Whitehall for more than 60 years. And Dad, balder than I, had his weekly trim as usual. “Once in a while,” Dad said, “Ken would get to talking and forget to trim one side of a customer's head. It happened to me once.”

“Gee, Dad, what'd you do?” “What all of us do. We just drive to Blair, go to a young barber and have him finish it off.”

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.