Living among future engineers and doctors for eight years of college, the son of a construction worker and a stay-at-home mom can only absorb so much “book learnin’”. For the middle years at the U of I, Saturday mornings I merged with the Amazing Dick Bass at Ye Old Donut shop to graze on run-of-the-mill pastries and drink pond-water in a porcelain diner mug.
While nutrition may not have served the four food groups, the wisdom of the “regulars” was well worth $3.50, plus tip. A fifteen minute diatribe on politics, gas prices or the erosion of family values from a retired black top foreman and a pipe fitter perched on red plastic stool at a dingy white counter felt like gospel. It would put a guy right back home at mom’s dinner table with Dad and neighbor Bob.
Our Saturday morning summits concluded by 7:30 sharp. Dick was months away from defending his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, which is enough to put most folks six feet under. Yet in keeping with his moniker, Dick Bass would ride his beach-cruiser Schwinn to a job site where he spent the weekend wiring and hanging light fixtures in Habitat for Humanity homes. He said it made his head hurt to squint over zener diodes all week in the lab; made him feel useful working with some big “wors” and helping folks out.
A tradition he had started back home in Georgia when Jimmy Carter started the program.
I would hoof it eight blocks south to the large animal ward at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. There I cleaned box stalls for wild-eyed Arabian horses. Referred by their regular DVMs rather than treating them in the field; they were more inclined to kick your head from your shoulders than be grateful for dry bedding. There was a six-month-old Hereford steer who would pin me to the concrete wall given a chance. As bottle calves, it’s cute to wrestle. The game changes dramatically when they outweigh half the U of I offensive line.
Every six weeks or so, I’d ask my boss if I could be a half hour late the following Saturday. Surprised that student help ever showed up on time, let alone ask permission to take a “spa day”, he would grin and grunt.
The hours for King’s Barber Shop were etched, clear and permanent, in the glass at the bottom of the door:
8:00 to 5:00 Monday-Thursday
Open ‘til 6:00 on Fridays, noon on Saturdays
Closed on Tuesday
It was less than five minutes from the donut shop to the barber. On nice days I’d sit on the bench and read the “Daily Illini” under the 2ft barber pole. Feeling the neighborhood come to life, occasionally I’d drop the paper and ask permission to pet the dog walking his owner past.
I’d keep the paper in front of my head as the screen door fell shut on the little clap-board home next to the shop. You’d first hear the porch steps creak, then the wooden heels of Wes’ wingtips grow louder as he quick-stepped down the sidewalk. I sensed the squint behind the temple piece of his wire-rims.
“Morning, Duroc,” he’d greet me.
“Morning, Mr. Gillespie,” I’d shake the paper.
In the time it took me to read the scouting report for the Illini vs Northwestern road game, he stowed the sandwich he carried in a brown paper sack and hung the jacket that had been draped over his forearm, trading it for a freshly dry-cleaned light blue smock. He would pull the zipper to his chin, flatten the collar and face the mirror to ensure his tie was straight. He would select just the right comb and scissor from a jar of disinfectant, dry them on a fresh white towel and tuck them in his left breast pocket.
Brushing his hands as he strolled to the window, he turned the sign to “Open”. Looking to ensure I was first in his chair and not exhaust the good graces of my boss, at the sound of the wood bumping the picture window, I’d rock forward off the bench.
Paper stowed in my armpit, I turned the knob and pushed the oak door past the spot where it scuffed the hardwood floor in a 6-inch arc. The tinkling brass bell announced the first customer of the day and the cast-iron closer pulled the door back to the sticky spot. I waited and hunched it the rest of the way.
Just past the door stood a hat rack polished by generations who had come before. Arranged neatly on a glass end table were wrinkled copies of “In Fisherman”, “Outdoor Life”, “The National Geographic”, “Time” and "Hoard's Dairyman". The reading material nicely bracketed the shop’s demographic, but served as little more than props for the patrons who were there as much for the enlightenment as to get their “ears lowered”.
Pants creased crisp like Frank Sinatra, with surgical precision he deftly clipped, shaved and pontificated. When Wes and his customer faced the full-length mirror they would talk in hushed tones about wives, girlfriends and kids. When he turned his chair and cleared his voice, the periodicals would drop. The topic of the day could be farming, foreign policy or fishing. Wes knew of what he spoke, either gleaned from one of the magazines on a slow morning, or one of the many professors he coifed.
Wes was the kind of guy you were proud to know, and even prouder if you could impart some wisdom on. Just above the doorway to the restroom hung a 5lb largemouth bass. A handmade barn-wood “Gone Fishin’” sign on the far wall left no reason to ask about “closed on Tuesdays”. I would always try and talk to my dad the Friday night before a haircut.
“You know Wes, Dad caught a nice mess-a-crappie just off the point in Sand Creek last Saturday,” I’d relay.
Short of my mother’s arms, I can recall no place more comfortable than Wes Gillespie’s red leather barber chair. As I approached he’d turn it towards me. I'd settle in, planting my boots on the shiny angled foot rest, tempted to hunker low so the little man didn’t have to reach. Pulling a wooden stool over, he waved the barber’s cape like a matador, settling it over my shoulders as he snapped it gently around my neck, placing a finger ensuring proper fit.
“Tight on the sides, flat on top,” he’d say. “Yes sir,” I would respond, as if he had to ask.
If he didn’t sense a big morning rush, he’d find the middle of my temples. With his thumbs he would press firmly, giving way to radiating circles. Eventually he’d stroke my scalp with all ten fingers from my brow to the base of my skull. For 90 seconds mid-terms and lab reports were of no concern.
I’d snap back to conscious at the sound of the cool lube spray and the clippers snapping to life.
There were no guards or guides. The Andis pro-model clippers growled through my sideburns like a Sears & Roebuck riding mower. Hard as it may be to believe now, I once had a head of hair that Rosina Butler referred to as “chef salad”. It may have been her awkward 8th grade attempt at flirting, but I was not amused. I heaved my sack lunch at her, promptly landing me in the hallway explaining myself to the assistant principal who had been standing right behind me.
The mop was not dissimilar in color and texture to the ill-mannered porcine I tended at the Swine Research Center. A fact Wes had deduced either by keen sense of smell, or grooming one of the graduate students I worked for, and how he came to call me “Duroc”. (*for those who have never worked at the Swine Research Center, a duroc is a breed of pig, red in color)
Wes’ clientele trended toward, but was in no way limited to, the “utilitarian” sector of a progressive university town. He tamed the manes of Ag students and faculty, ROTC members, and Asian graduate students. As skilled as Wes was as a barber, his true talent was his ability to weave his clientele together as one. In the space of three questions he could find someone you both knew. You only sat next to a stranger once, and usually only for a moment.
A function of artistic license (and an extension of human nature) is to take an event observed once and assign it as a character trait. Wes was repeatable to the point that King's Barber Shop was a regular stop when friends came to town for football games and campus tours.
A card carrying member of “The Greatest Generation,” Wes had only one story when asked about the flag on his lapel, and it was not of his own bravery or service. Having landed in Southern France, he crawled between the tracks of a tank as Allied Forces advanced on Yellow Beach. Dodging German fire, a young soldier dove under the tank with Private Gillespie. As the tank paused between explosions, Wes strained to see the name badge and introduce himself to Audie L. Murphy.
If you stayed on the same page of Hoard’s long enough, he cued up the story of his first job after WWII. Having grown up on a dairy farm, Wes was one of the first generation artificial insemination technicians. Long before technology allowed us to extend and store semen in liquid nitrogen, bulls would be collected in the morning and their semen chilled and filled in penny balloons.
With an extremely limited “shelf-life,” distribution was by way of open cockpit airplanes. A dozen units of “Brutus’ Best” would be dropped by parachute attached to a Thermos jug to inseminators waiting on the ground. To this day, I feel marketing gurus missed a prime opportunity.
With their viability waning by the minute, Wes was charged with the responsibility of getting the sperm to a recently ovulated cow. In the late 40s and 50s, facilities were not what they are today. There were days when dodging Nazi fire seemed a decent option when a herd bull was not keen on having his virility undermined and his girls violated by a perfect stranger.
Finally Wes would roll the cape off my lap and deposit the clippings on the floor. I’d drop my chin as he folded my shirt under and applied hot Barbasol to the back of my neck. Pulling the straight razor from the towel and across the leather strop that hung from the left side of his chair, he placed his thumb as a guide under one ear and shaved the stubble baby butt-smooth under my collar.
With head still as a mannequin, I’d scan for anyone who might benefit from the answer to the question he had answered a hundred times...
"So Wes, when you gonna hang it up and fish full time?"
“Ah, I don’t reckon anytime soon; who remembers an old retired barber?”