I spent most of my childhood years in a small Swiss-decedent town of Berne, Indiana. Like many small towns, it was full of charms that invoke the "good old days" sentiment, but really, had I stayed there all my life, I know my view of the world would be much different than it has become. For better or worse.
One of the things about being a kid in this little town is that you owned it if you had a bike. Riding my bike within a radius of about 1.5 miles from my home would pretty much cover the entire "town" section of Berne. I loved it. As I became 11 or 12 years old my freedoms increased and my parents granted permission for me to ride across town to the park, to the swimming pool, and even to get my hair cut.
I mention the hair cut because I have specific memories of going to get my "hairs" cut. My dad always took me to McKean's Barbershop. Bill, I think was his first name--though I was never allowed do address him as such--was a "sponsor" of one of my little league baseball teams. I think that meant he paid to have his shop's name mentioned with the team name, i.e., the McKean's Barbershop Rangers, and maybe he paid for the team t-shirts we wore.
Anyway, I have distinct memories of his shop. He was always very friendly to me. I had a booster seat I sat in. His shop had that hair spray-aftershave-shaving cream smell There was always the hair on the floor, AND when kids were done with their hair cut, we were awarded one of those Bazooka Joe bubble gum pieces with "1 cent" printed on the front. There was this ridiculous piece of gum, which lost its flavor after exactly five chews, and a Bazooka Joe comic inside that was never funny.
When I finally came "of age" to ride my bike to his shop by myself, carry the $3.00 he charged for a kids cut with me, and declare I wanted a "tapered" cut--even though I had no idea what that was, I felt I had arrived. I was grown up. I even locked my bike up on his little bike rack he had out in front--like some one would actually try to steal MY five-speed bike.
I went into the shop and waited my turn. I don't remember much of who was there that day, except for one man. I remember him because he was a large man. With a beard. It was probably his motorcycle out front too. He seemed friendly, but he looked mean. And most significantly, to my sheltered mind, he smoked.
I don't mean I thought he smoked because I was close enough to smell it on his clothes or in his breath. I mean he was sitting there in this little room smoking.
Did he know that was bad for him? Did he know it was probably--no--it WAS a sin? Who's gonna tell him he really shouldn't be sucking on that cigarette? I wanted to be offended by the smoke, but it was kinda cool the way it streamed out of his mouth--and nose. It intrigued me that the smoke could come out of his nose as well as his mouth. On TV, I had only seen it come out of people's mouths. This was new information. Could he achieve the "inhale" portion of the cycle by sticking the cigarette in one of his nostrils? I didn't know,
It was my turn to get my hair cut. I sat facing him, at least as long as Mr. McKean pivoted my chair in his direction.
It was building up inside me. I had to say something. He has to be told the truth about his habit. But he's not going to listen to me. A kid. A kid who just rode to get his hair cut on a bicycle. I have to be funny. I have to be direct. But I have to sound convincing, authoritative, and maybe intelligent. Maybe I'll shame him into quitting his habit right here. I'll say something so pithy, I'll put it in such a way that he's never thought of or imagined before thereby prompting him to squash out his smoke stick and vow to never take it up again.
So this was my chance. I thought long and hard about what should be said. So I mustered up the courage. I watched as he sucked in the smoke and exhaled through his nose.
"Has anyone ever told you that you look like a fire-breathing dragon when you do that?"
What followed can hardly be described as a chuckle. Not even a laugh. Maybe more of a guffaw. Not just from him, but from the others waiting for their hair cut.
"No," he said. "I don't think anyone has ever told me that."
I did my duty. Judgment had been handed down. He'll have some things to think about now.