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In a modest-sized Iowa town of 30,000 (modest by Iowa standards), as a kid of preschool and grade school age in the mid 1970s, the Federal Barber Shop was a pretty cool place.

This was not a salon. Mike the Barber was just that, not a stylist, not a hair care specialist. He was a barber. He was at least sixty when we, Dad and I, started going there. Tall, thin, white-haired, and always upbeat. He wore a white smock that made him look more like a dentist than a barber.

The shop was a modest sized room with a row of waiting chairs along one wall facing the four barber chairs, only one of which was ever in use. Mike almost always worked alone, though I do have vague memories of occasionally seeing a longer-haired, mustached dude cutting hair, but Mike was usually a solo act.

A row of mirrors lined the wall behind the barber chairs. The counters all had combs soaking in jars of blue or green liquid. There was a gumball machine that took pennies, though I don’t think Mike ever made me pay. I had to sit on a plank he laid cross the arms of the barber chair so I’d be tall enough for him to cut my hair. While I didn’t get a “bowl” cut exactly, I got the standard young boy in the seventies straight cut.

While I waited for Dad to get his cut, as they were talking about Mike’s latest trip to Germany, or the Vikings or Packers, I’d dig through the mound of old magazines in one corner to find the old “Archie” comics or, occasionally, a Spiderman.

One time when we went in, there was possible the oldest man in the world sitting in one of the waiting chairs. I’m not sure Mike had another customer in the chair. The old dude in the bib overalls and seed cap seemed to be in no hurry. He was content to sit and Mike, it seems, was content to let him. The guy just sat there singing, “Iowa. Iowa. Land where the tall corn grows.” Over and over.

One mystery that lived among the quaintness of these little trips to get our haircuts, was what lay beyond the back wall of the shop. There was a row of green waiting chairs no one ever used and some more magazines. On the wall above was a very seventies depiction of a desert sunrise on a wicker pull-down curtain. On a sunny day sometimes a large door, like a garage door, would be open on the opposite wall of that room. I could tell there was a room over there and always wondered what was in it. I don’t remember any people. I kind of half remember hearing a motorcycle, but can’t say for sure. It was probably nothing, just, literally, a garage or something. But to a seven-year-old kid with a fertile imagination, it was fascinating. A space port maybe. Or a spy headquarters. It could have been anything.

Alas, the mystery would have to remain a mystery. Eventually, around the time I was ten or so, Mike the Barber decided to hang up his smock. He evidently reached an age where riding his “motor-sickle” was more inviting than touching strangers’ heads eight hours a day.

Can’t say I blame him.

After that, Dad and I started going to a “salon” where we had a “hair stylist”. There was no gumball machine. People magazine instead of comics. The haircuts were good, quite good actually, but the experience was, well, meh.

And haircuts have been that way for me ever since.


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