The Beauty of War, Barber Chairs, and Missing Buster

I remember riding my old bike down the main street sidewalk as fast as my legs could pedal.  My Little League baseball glove was swinging back and forth from the handlebar in rhythm with my pedaling like the pendulum on a clock.  Tick, tock, tick, tock. Down the curb, up the block, swerve to miss the couple leaving the bakery. The air hitting my face made my eyes water, but I couldn’t slow down.  I had been playing ball at the park and completely forgot about it.  I hoped I could make it there on time.

I finally approached my destination out of breath, my legs and lungs burning.  I snuck a look at the upcoming windows to see if the place was still open, then I slammed on my brake, finally there.  I didn’t have time to come to a stop before I abandoned the bicycle, my feet hit the sidewalk and I ran for the steps of the glass store front.  As I heard the falling bike scrape the sidewalk behind me, I bound up the steps to the giant wood framed glass door and gave it a good push.  The door didn’t budge.  As I looked up from the step, I saw a hand grab the sign on the other side of the glass, which by then was eye level and two inches from my nose, and flip it from “open” to “closed.”  There I stood trying to catch my breath, staring at the sign.

As I took a step back on the stoop, feeling defeated, sweaty and staring at the red letters through the glass, the hand that still held the sign then flipped it back over from closed to open.  Still gasping, I looked up from the sign to see what had become a familiar smile. 

As he unlocked the door and opened it, I blurted out something like, “I need a haircut, Buster!” Still smiling, he welcomed me in and assured me he had time for just one more.

**

To walk into Buster’s barbershop was quite a treat.  I’d been there many times with Dad, but this was my first solo cut, and I was excited.  Thick woodwork, a floor with just enough creakiness in it to make it cool, and mirror for miles on each side wall. There was always this special scent about the place that was a mixture of talc and aftershave.  It wasn’t overpowering; in fact, I remember it being perfect.  Like if I could pick out one kind of cologne, after shave, air freshener and fabric softener for the rest of my life, it would be that scent.  Often, an old television set on a stand would be on by the front door.  Along one side wall sat a few coffee tables full of magazines divided by a mix of chairs and benches that faced the barber chairs.  To top it all off, there were the old-style barber chairs.

This particular shop had two chairs, although the one closest to the window was the only chair I ever remember being in use.  The other was for over flow, I think, when the place was full, as it often was. Both of these chairs were porcelain, metal and leather works of art.  White and leather chairs designed and crafted, most likely, by God himself.  These chairs were the most comfortable chairs in the history of the planet, as far as I was concerned.  Head rest, foot rest, arm rest, hydraulic lift.  Swivel.  Style and grace. The perfect chair.

I remember asking Buster that day about the Marine flag that hung on the wall near the back of the shop.  He told me that he had joined during wartime, maybe 1942 or 1943.  Although I assumed when I was young that he was a G.I. Joe-type soldier, I never asked him what he did during the war, and he never really offered that information.  As his scissors clicked away and hair fell around my shoulders and down the apron, he shared about his service in the most unique way.  As he spoke, I was taken on a world tour, first to basic training and then on to the South Pacific.   He talked of the people and the beauty of the places and the traveling to and from as it were a wonderful thing to have been able to do.  He recalled how different it was half way around the world in climate and sights and sounds.  He described trees in colors and shapes and textures.  Experiences with the food and drink, even candies.  Islands, rocks and sands of a million different colors. Bodies of water hundreds of feet deep so crystal clear one could see bottom. Most striking, still today, was that he painted such a rich, beautiful picture of his experience, without complaint.  Wartime in the South Pacific.  Beautiful.  And while I realize the possibility that he could have been talking heaven instead of hell for the sake of the kid in his chair, I think there was much more to Buster, and to his barber shop.  

I’m positive there are a lot of people, spanning quite a few generations in my hometown, who have a story or memory of the little barbershop in the middle of main street.  Dads took sons there, and sons grew up to take their sons. I guess it would be that way with any place that was open for almost 60 years. 

Buster’s shop served as a melting pot in our community, as much of a melting pot as one can have in a Wisconsin town of under 2,000 people, anyway.  And it was authentic.  Genuine.  A stop at the barber shop at any time would offer a good sample of the people who made up the community.  The banker would sit next to the farmer, who sat next to the business owner, who sat next to the truck driver.  The doctor’s kid sat next to the factory worker’s kid as they waited for their turn in the most awesome chairs in the history of sitting.

The door would be open on most nice weather days, and people walking by would exchange greetings with people inside, Buster being usually the first to wave or smile. 

There was always chatter, at the very least.  No one ever seemed to sit silently there. Over the years I learned that no topic was off limits. Everything from the weather to the Cold War.  From taxes to religion to politics to popular TV shows and movies.  All sorts of sports were discussed.  From time to time, rumors and gossip were explored.  Fishing and hunting stories got bigger as the years went by.  From the neighborhood to the continents, I would bet it was all placed on the agenda of the day for discussion at one time or another.

But the magic of the barbershop was that while there were at times passionate discussions and debates, they never fell into arguments.  I don’t remember name calling at the barbershop.  I don’t remember seeing or hearing about anyone ever storming out of there.  People with completely different views and backgrounds poured each other cups of coffee from the pot on the counter.  The mayor held the door open for the out of town stranger. I don’t remember anyone telling someone else to shut up or anything of the sort. I think Buster was a kind of gentle tie breaker sometimes when two or more were discussing taxes or fishing or foreign policy. It was a job he did well… and often, always in a way that was fair and where both sides felt like they had gained something.  In the end, there was a respect and a common drive to reach an understanding, and not to win an argument or to prove someone else wrong.  After all, back then the farmer needed the banker, who needed the business owner, who needed the truck driver.  We were all connected. We were all “we,” and it was a neat time to be we.

**

Many years have passed since that particular time of my youth.  Although Buster passed away a few years ago and the barbershop as I knew it back then is now a memory, I keep the place and the echoes of the stories and lessons from there.  In a world that often seems to be train wreck after train wreck, I miss being met at the giant door with a smile and a friendly greeting. I miss the subtle creaking of the old floor as I walked across it on the way to sit in the most amazing chairs ever crafted. I miss the positivity in the gentle old Marine who spoke of the wonderful beauty in things, rather than the ugliness, and who always seemed to have time for just one more. I miss the welcoming, unforgettably perfect smell of the after shave and talc.  I miss witnessing the process of difficult problems being solved, and not being made worse.  I miss the sound of one person talking at a time, and not so much everyone demanding to be heard at once.  Buster and his barber shop left a deep and lasting impression on me, and I often think about how neat it would be if that old sign could flip just one more time.

In memory of Leland “Buster” Chase

Standing on the Shoulders of the Littlest Giant

It seemed as though he had been on the edge of that board forever. During that forever, he had changed from shivering to vibrating and his lips had turned the shade of purple that we had all become accustomed to seeing during that change. The breeze that day was cool, and considering his lack of any body fat of any kind, it may as well have been January. During the occasional day like that at the pool, sometimes the rest of us would offer up our towels for him to use as blankets so he could warm up and so his lips could inevitably return to their natural color. But this day was different. This was a day of reckoning….that is, as much as a ten year old boy would probably dream there was to reckon.

He stood there looking down at the water, which was exactly one meter below the toes he had curled over the edge of the big, old diving board. It just looks so much higher the first time you get up there and stand on the edge. Surrounding the water he was staring into was six or seven of the older kids who had been treading water since before he had inched his way out to the end of the board, and who were patiently trying to reassure him that, despite being terrified and half frozen, he was about to do the single greatest thing in his life thus far. And those of us who had already leapt from the death-defying one meter mountain top knew exactly the pure joy that awaited our friend whenever he finally got tired of vibrating.

Years ago, the swimming pool in town was the place to be on a summer day, any summer day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There was a time when a kid would actually have to plan to get there early to claim a spot big enough for a beach towel on the huge cement landscape that surrounded that beautiful, crystal clear oasis. And the sounds… The radio that sat in the check in/lifeguard/clothes storage booth window that could be heard across the lake in town as it played one of the local radio stations during open hours. The smacking sound a lifeguard’s flip flops would make as they walked on the cement. The old diving board could be heard clear on the other side of town, too, with its familiar, “ka-klunk, ka-klunk,” which signaled that another kid had just been launched into the air and would soon be splashing down in ten feet of perfect, chemically-balanced paradise. The pool was an ideal, coconut oil-scented melting pot of sorts, and it was a daily fifty cent adventure we were always excited to take at that age. Big kids, little kids, young adults, old adults, boys and girls, and with each neighborhood in town represented and recognized. This melting pot was pretty efficiently managed by sun glasses-wearing, whistle string-spinning, sun screen-nosed lifeguards. They were, more often than not, pretty lenient with most of our adventures, and usually pretty forgiving of our pranks.

Back on the board, lips ever purple and his whole being still vibrating, our friend was listening to one of the bigger kids who was in the circle of water treaders. He was trying to convince our friend how safe it actually was to step off the board and toward the water, surrounded by strong swimmers who cared about him, as well as the handful of others of us who were either standing on the pool’s edge or resting on the side in the water. His toes relaxed and his arms came unwrapped. Then, in a flash, his arms jerked back up around each other and his toes re-curled around the edge of the board. This went on for what seemed like days, and I am sure it seemed a lot longer than that for our friend.

Our friend was smaller than most of us were at the time, and I guess it had always been that way. Smart, funny as the day was long, and adventurous as any of us were, even at the age when it seemed we were always exploring something. But he always had the heart of a lion. He always pushed through things that could have been made more difficult due to his size, things that the rest of us made look easy or took for granted. I guess the board thing was no exception.

But he had passed his test, along with the rest of us. The test, which consisted of swimming across the pool and back without touching the bottom and then treading water for a minute, was easy for him. He swam effortlessly and could hold his breath like no one else I’d ever seen, which was weird considering he was asthmatic. In fact, I’m sure that he took the test more than once, while helping and guiding other aspiring big kids to achieve their own utopias. Almost every little kid dreamed of a few seconds of weightlessness thanks to the spring of the board, and the following entry into the world below the water’s surface. We idolized the big kids and their flips and spins and defiance of gravity. This is why we took the test, after all, so we could leave the shallow water behind and plant our flags on the diving board like big kids. It was our destiny, and it was Destiny Day.

“What if I don’t come up?,” I remember him asking.

“That’s not possible, I bet your head won’t even get wet,” one of the big kids replied, still calmly and patiently treading water with the others, while the rest of us continued to watch on around him. All this after what seemed like three or four days of watching our frozen friend ever so slightly bob up and down on the end of the board while fighting off a rare case of mid-July hypothermia.

A line had begun to form behind our friend by the steps of the board by this time, but no one said anything or acted like they were in much of a hurry. In fact, it seemed that at that time, the only thing the entire pool was interested in was whether or not another little kid would graduate to big kid status. The excitement was genuine due to the fact that if it were to happen, it would surely be a case of one of the smaller little kids becoming what would have been the littlest big kid in the history of the whole diving board area.

And then it happened. For those who were at the pool that day all those years ago, they will probably tell you that it happened in slow motion. First, the unfolding of the arms and the one after another uncurling of toes. A slight bend the knees. A deep breath, deep enough where he could have spent three hours at the bottom of the pool and still not run out of air. Purple lips pressed tightly together, and for a second or two, the vibrating and teeth chattering stopped. Pause, and then he did it. He stepped off the board.

He hung in the air for what seemed like a lifetime. All of the big kids in the circle reached up in unison like some precursor to synchronized swimming. As our friend fell closer to the water, they were reaching up to the sky to meet him. He finally splashed down and things sped back up to real time. As I remember, his head barely went under water and then he popped immediately back up to the surface, both under his own half-frozen, destiny-driven, adrenaline-fueled power and from help with the big kids who were making sure he was safe, just as they had promised they would.

As the last water drops returned to the pool from the splash heard ’round the world, a chorus of whistling, clapping and cheering broke out at the pool, only to be drowned out by our friend’s flopping and splashing wildly as the big kids , still surrounding him, tried help him stay afloat in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Why all the distress after such an amazing accomplishment? He was trying to swim as fast as he could to the ladder so he could get out of the pool…….So he could do it all again.

***************

A thousand lifetimes and millions of miles have passed since the day that Arni Anderson made his jump. I could have shared instead the story of how he contracted chicken pox and I didn’t, and went through it smiling the whole way. Or when one of the bigger kids in the old neighborhood helped him ride the big red two-wheeled bike that all the other little kids were scared of. Or the day he climbed the huge pine tree across the street from my house until he was so high we could hardly see him.

Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The idea that we are farther along because of those who have come before us goes back to the time when people first recorded history. Those who made an impact on us in some way, although they are no longer here, can also serve as the shoulders we stand on.

I could have also shared a long story of his passing at such an early age, and how the town literally shut down the day of his funeral. School was closed and businesses stopped. His church was packed full, shoulder to shoulder, front to back. Upstairs, downstairs, hallways, stairways, aisles. Or that his friends and the community as a whole was rocked by his loss, for sure, but that we will never know the depths of loss his family felt. Or that no one really knew at that point how to move on. We just did. Sadly, that was more years ago than I care to remember but his memory always remains close within me.

Sometimes I go through the park when I’m back home to visit. I’ll stop by the pool and watch for a minute or two. It never takes long to be transported back to the old sounds and smells, and to the day that some forty years earlier, the littlest giant let me begin to stand on his shoulders.

In memory of a dear childhood friend,

Arnold “Arni” Anderson