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Hangin’ at Ol’ Merle’s Barbershop

I don’t really remember who cut my hair the first time. I’m certain that I cried, because I still do.

My first haircut outside the home was likely at Ol’ Merle Wininger’s barbershop on Iowa Street in my hometown. I’m not sure why I mention Merle’s being on Iowa Street, except that I always marveled that our town was one of the few small towns that didn’t have a Main Street or an Elm.

Instead, all of our streets were named after states. Why the founders chose Iowa Street I’ll never know. The only way to get to Iowa in that direction is through Uzbekistan.

Anyway, Merle’s was one of only two businesses on Iowa Street during my youth. The other was the Poultry Building. It wasn’t unusual for the old-timers to pop into Merle’s for a quick shave with a straight razor while their Leghorns were next door having their throats slit with the same.

The air inside Ol’ Merle’s barbershop was a miasma of wet chicken feathers and witch-hazel. I’m not sure how I can describe the smell to you other than to suggest that it is the same odor that an operating room would have, if it were located inside Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Merle wasn’t very big, even by barber standards. He stood about five feet, six inches tall, and often struggled cutting the hair of taller clients. When 6’6” Gib Barry came in for a haircut, Merle would always greet him with the same salutation.

“How’s the weather up there, Gib?”

Merle was resourceful, though. He kept a little black stool under his work station. He’d pull that stool out, sidle up to the giant leather and porcelain barber’s chair, and start snipping away.

We always figured Merle learned barbering in the Navy. His rolled up sleeves exposed two giant “anchor” tattoos on the tops of each forearm. We guys thought they were pretty neat –– tattoos weren’t often openly displayed in those days. But they weren’t nearly as neat as the scantily clad rendering of the short-haired dancehall girl tattooed on Merle’s upper arm.

Merle called her Sally Mae, and when he articulated the clippers with his fingers, his bicep flexed, making Sally Mae shimmy. The younger boys, you know, the ones not nearly as worldly as myself, would run up to Merle and clamor for him to make Sally dance.

Merle always complied.

The best part about Merle’s was that he owned a subscription to about every comic book that ever existed, even the one’s our parents didn’t dare let us read at home. On a Saturday morning, it was commonplace to see a dozen bicycles piled on the sidewalk outside. A room full of waiting room chairs sat occupied with swinging legs, each with a Choc-ola soft drink in hand, and each with a boy’s nose jammed into the latest edition.

There were rumors from the older boys that Merle kept a few “special” comic books in the back room, but I can’t confirm that. I can confirm, however, that no one left Merle’s without a smile on his face.

Sadly, Merle’s barbershop is no longer on Iowa Street. Merle experienced some serious heart issues, and had to walk away from the shop. His twin brother took over for awhile, but it was never really the same.

Besides, we always wondered how Merle kept the shop open in the first place. It was the 1970s, and the anti-government, rock ’n roll teenagers of the time wore their hair long.

That did lead, however, to one of the best barbershop stories I’ve ever heard.

Dewey Denman and Roger Robinette –– I suppose, in an act of anti-anti-government defiance –– decided that they were going to join the Army after high school. Dewey sported rather stringy, shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, and Roger had really beauti-ful flowing blond hair, which reached well below his belt line in back.

The two popped into Merle’s barbershop to have it all buzzed away for bootcamp after graduation. They stood in the open doorway for more than a moment, perhaps survey-ing the reaction of the men inside.

After a long pause, Merle turned to the pair and said, “You boys here to get a haircut? Or, are you just looking for an estimate?”

John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media