Article - Spring 2020

My Hairy Past

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Shoulder length or longer, my mane was about my looks, yes, but also about the need for justice

By David Owen | March 2, 2020
The author (left) and his pal John Ruth on their way to summer camp in 1964. The boys aspired to, but had not yet achieved, Beatles mop tops. (Courtesy of the Author)
The author (left) and his pal John Ruth on their way to summer camp in 1964. The boys aspired to, but had not yet achieved, Beatles mop tops. (Courtesy of the Author)

When the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, in 1964, I was about to turn nine and knew nothing about them, although my parents and my six-year-old sister, Anne, somehow did. So did my best friend, John Ruth, who explained that the round things on their guitars—which I had guessed were decorative moons—were control knobs. My ignorance wasn’t permanent. When A Hard Day’s Night came to Kansas City, where we lived, John Ruth and I went to see it more than once, and we watched it the way we watched Dr. No and Goldfinger, by going to the theater without checking the starting times, and staying in our seats until the movie had come back around to where it had been when we sat down. Then, if we had nothing else to do, we let it go around again.

We studied the (tiny) selection of electric guitars in the Sears mail-order catalog and debated about which of them each of us would play in the “singing group” that would make us famous, too. The only friend of ours who ever actually got an electric guitar was Ralph Lewis, whose house was catty-corner to John Ruth’s. One afternoon, Ralph, John, another friend, and I loaded Ralph’s guitar and amplifier into my old Radio Flyer red wagon, rolled everything down the street to my house, and plugged the amplifier into an outlet to the left of our front door. I was wearing jeans and a shiny dark-blue windbreaker, which to me looked like a leather jacket, even though it had a hood. I made my hair seem as long as I could by using my palm to smooth it onto my forehead, then rang the bell, and when my mother opened the door, I gazed (through sunglasses) into her astonished eyes while loudly, tunelessly strumming. This was how we had planned to persuade her that I, too, should have an electric guitar, but the tactic didn’t work.

When I was in kindergarten, my friend Freddy Bartlett used his mother’s electric clippers—with which she gave haircuts to him and his older brother—to shave a parking space on his head for one of his Matchbox cars. Most of the boys I knew in 1964 had haircuts like his (minus the parking space). The closest my friends and I could come to Beatles hair were some beehive-shaped molded-plastic “play wigs”—one blond, one brunette, one redhead—that belonged to Anne and were unpleasant to wear, especially around the ears. Yet even though our real hair was short, we probably looked somewhat more like Beatles when we were not wearing the wigs. My parents occasionally employed a high-school-age babysitter from our neighborhood who preferred the Dave Clark Five, and she said that if you looked closely at any picture of any Beatle, you could tell that his hair wasn’t real. I privately examined my Beatles trading cards, and although I told her she was wrong, there were cards that gave me pause.

In a photograph of John Ruth and me taken shortly before we boarded the bus for YMCA summer camp that same year, John looks like a miniature army inductee: his head is shaved everywhere except for a small, round clump in front. My own hair by then was slightly longer—partly because of the Beatles, perhaps, but mainly because of Robert Vaughn, who played Napoleon Solo on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The front portion of Vaughn’s hair formed an adze-like overhang, and I wanted one of those (and also his cleft chin). My father told me that if I regularly combed and parted my hair, as he did, I would eventually “train” it to remain in position. But my hair lacked structural integrity, and it never stayed put. Another problem—this was the era before daily showering—was that while I slept, my hair knotted itself in spiky clumps, mainly on the right side of my head, and I could never get everything flat again before school. I coveted my grandmother’s hairnet, and I once tried sleeping with a tight-fitting plastic mesh bag pulled down to my ears. But doing that made things worse—a foretaste of difficulties to come.

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