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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 11:23 am

The name game

Things get hairy until justice is served

Untitled Document One upon a time when honesty was prized and a man was defined by his work, Mort the Barber stopped cutting hair. As far as anyone knew Mort had been cutting hair in our small town since hair was called fur — but no more! The town had slandered him, publicly accused him of cheating, and Mort would cut no hair until justice was served, until not a hint of impropriety remained. Mort the Barber was the only hair game in town. No Mort, no perfect burr cuts for boys, no perfectly trimmed regular haircuts for men. Bad home-cut hair would rule the day, and, as everyone could plainly see by watching the Army-McCarthy hearings on those just-recently-available-to-small-towns TV sets, Communists had bad haircuts! The yet-unresolved question: Did bad haircuts cause Communism, or was it the other way around? The Mort problem: The town’s formerly successful Start of Summer Carnival had lost money the last two years; folks were glued to their new TVs, staying home and watching everything from wrestling to test patterns instead of venturing out for entertainment — such as going to the carnival. Because Joe Welch once walked by London’s very successful Piccadilly Circus during World War II, the carnival committee asked his opinion. Joe suggested a name-guessing game with decent donated prizes.
A new carnival booth joined the traditional booths that year, and people were invited to see who could come closest to guessing the last names of Jim the Plumber, Hank of Hank’s Bar and Grill, and Mort the Barber Nobody guessed Mort’s, but his wife was only two letters off. The committee, however, disqualified her, claiming that she had “inside” information. Mort, insisting that he’d never in a million years cheat, issued an ultimatum: There would be no more haircuts until his honor was restored.
(To be honest, there was also the matter of money. Reasonably sure that his wife would win, Mort donated a year’s worth of free haircuts as prize to the winner. Because no woman dared try a barbershop haircut in 1954, Mort knew that his wife would give him the prize. In the small print of his haircut donation, thinking himself quite clever indeed, Mort had stipulated that if the winner were to give the prize to another, the given-away haircuts would be charged full price. At a buck a haircut for 52 weeks, Mort was expecting a $52 windfall from himself. ) A month passed. Hair grew, with no resolution in sight. Then Sammy “Nails” Brewster, catcher and cleanup hitter for the town’s only Little League team, showed up at practice sprouting what looked like a ponytail! Coach Knuckles Kloof was pounding on Mort’s front door 10 minutes later.
“Mort, I think you understand the magnitude here. I can’t have no catcher with a ponytail — maybe in an emergency, a rightfielder, but never a catcher! You, my harebrained friend, must start cuttin’, now!”
Mort: Can’t be done. It’s a matter of honor and justice.
Knuckles: I’ll have the mayor apologize publicly for the entire town. Mort: Won’t do. I thought it out. It’s gotta be another but different contest that resolves the matter — a square deal, of course, everyone with an equal chance to win, but I ain’t cuttin’ again — unless I win! Knuckles puzzled for a moment, then asked, “What’s your wife’s name?”
Mort: Mort the Barber’s wife. Knuckles: Her first name, you ignorant headhunter!
Mort: Mabel. “Perfect,” said the Knuck. “We do it this way: You ain’t using your shop, so we’ll have Mabel use it to open up a joint called Mabel the Manicurist. As part of the grand opening, she gives a year’s worth of free haircuts to the one comin’ closest to peggin’ her last moniker. Nobody in this town is stupid enough to pay another person to gnaw back their fingernails, so no one will come in — but you. As the only contestant, you can’t lose. “Mort?”
Mort: What? Knuckles: I have reason to believe Joe Welch is a communist. A week later Mort the Barber was back cuttin’ hair. Even though no one else entered Mabel’s contest, Mort only finished second. He knew her last name as well as he knew his own, but he badly misspelled it, so, in all fairness, Mabel couldn’t give him first prize. At Knuckles’ urging, though, she agreed to award Mort second place. Here’s the lucky part: Second prize was six months of free haircuts — and because Mort hadn’t worked for a while, he was forced to temporarily double his haircut price to $2. The six-month prize at $2 per head was equal to his original $52 loss.
It all added up in a small town in 1954 — once upon a time, long ago, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the century, near the end of innocence.
Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net.
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