History of My Hair

Hair. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, it was about all you had. All the consumerism and conspicuous consumption— Ronald Reagan and his always perfect conservative hair—were decades in the future.You were a kid, you wanted to be cool, you had a comb and a little grease and you made the best of it. There were no designer names, few brand names and, especially if you attended a parochial school, everyone looked the same. Except for their hair.You could be as cool, as way-out as your hair. It was a democracy of sorts for youth—an equal opportunity for radicalization on the smallest scale. But to buck the “I like Ike” society, its lack of hair and imagination—its Robert B. Hall and J.C. Penney simple suit view of the world—was difficult to do. Hair was, as it always has been, a source of vanity, but it was then the one possible way to be yourself, be “with it,” and it was the way to be.

It was 1955, and my first day in a new school a kid comes up to me before class and says over his shoulder to a friend, “I wonder what this new kid looks like when he cries.” I barely had a second for his salami-breath and crooked nose to register before he sucker-punched me in the stomach. As I was doubling over, I noticed his hair—-just a kid and he had it combed like some hot rodder in one of those early teen-hoodlum movies; it was wiry and obviously held in place by Butch Wax, an application so thick that it glistened like lard as the sun struck the side of his head. The top was combed straight forward, tight wings flared back along the sides and the front worked to a small spit curl in the center of his forehead—a wave working from each side to meet and crash in the middle. G.G. Colson was a “tough,” as I immediately learned from his right upper cut and from the fact that he dared the nuns with a hair style that was basically forbidden.

The kid who called him off after one punch and who later became my friend, Tuck Schneider, also risked a similar waterfall effect and flat-combed top a little later in fifth grade. By then, we had all the examples we were ever gong to need, every one our parents wished we’d never had. Freddy Cannon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian and Eddie Cochran appeared in movies and on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” with their huge jelly-rolls, a wave in the front at least 3 inches high. Elvis had arrived on TV’s “Ed Sullivan Show” and taken it a step further than that big wave in the front rolling back in grease—he’d combed the sides back until they met in the back of his head. This was called a Duck Tail; this was going too far for the parents and the self-appointed moral guardians of the society then. On that first Ed Sullivan show the censors had directed the cameras to cut Elvis off at the waist and so avoid his wiggling hips and knees—they had to show the hair! We didn’t know much—fashion was not infused into every inch of the media, into the middle and lower-middle class as it is now. Just pick up any of the calendars or photo books on Elvis and look at the clothes he was wearing in the ‘50s and ‘60s—awful stuff—but so were everyone else’s, and no one was looking at the clothes. As kids, we knew uniforms, suits and blue jeans, with jeans not being allowed at school, restaurants, church, etc. Otherwise, we didn’t take much notice. Everyone seemed to have roughly the same gear. There were only two or three brands of tennis shoes, all black high tops and they all cost about $2. But if you maneuvered your hair into a Duck Tail as Tuck Schneider’s older brother Joe did, you got noticed. Noticed enough to get suspended from Santa Barbara Public High School, a place those of us in Catholic school saw as a bastion of liberal thinking. After three days Joe recombed his hair so the wings on the side of his head did not flare up too much and so they did not meet in the back of his head and returned to school and some modest celebrity. One day after school at Tuck’s house, with no one home, we both stood in front of the tall mirror in his brother’s room and tried to comb our hair into Duck Tails; Tuck’s did not work as he had slightly curly hair, but mine worked perfectly as I already had the wave in front and my hair was straight. Tuck encouraged me to leave it like that, but I didn’t have near the nerve. We saw Joe as a minor hero—his hair, just a shade lighter, was exactly like Elvis’. And of course the first thing he did after school, as soon as the first foot touched the public sidewalk on Anapamu or Milpas Street, was to pull out his comb and put the doo-wap back in the wings and rolls there—the Brylcreem, Butch Wax or Wild Root Cream Oil more than adequate to accommodate the more radical remodeled coif as he stepped out into the world on his own.

One day at the end of lunch period, Schneider, Colson, Fisher, Knapp and Sozzi and I were all in front of the mirrors in the washroom, and we decided, no doubt at Colson’s instigation, to comb our hair like rock ‘n’ roll stars. Colson combed the side wings of his springy hair forward with a Duck Tail in the back, something no one had ever done (or would want to do?) so far as we knew. A few went for the water fall-spit-curl and forward-combed the top. Sozzi and I tried for the Jimmy Dean style with the jelly-roll wave and high sides winging back—hard to tell from Elvis’ really. In we went when the bell rang thinking we were “really gone” and drawing lots of looks from our classmates. Right out we went as soon as Mrs. Hansen saw us. We would go back to the washroom and comb our hair “properly” or she’d call in the principal, Sr. Vincent de Paul.VDP we knew would suspend us. Lucky for us, Mrs. Hansen was a lay-person, as we called them then. Oh, we realized we’d gone too far, but we thought we were somebody for three or four minutes.

For some reason the small move teens made toward independence with a few hair styles was viewed as downright immoral—as was the music in general of course—the hair guilty as emblem and by association. We returned to Mrs. Hansen’s history class with our hair parted properly on the side and modest waves in the front like every Junior Chamber of Commerce man and his son, and sat there quietly waiting for our graduation when we thought we’d be able to wear our hair however we wanted. We’d seen some movies, some posters or clips on TV, seen James Dean or Elvis or Fabian just stop in the middle of what they were doing, spread their feet apart for balance, reach to their back pocket for their comb as smoothly as some gun-fighter in a Western reaching for his gun, and recomb and shape their hair before continuing. There was flare to the move—the comb was whisked out and two or three full strokes front to back applied; a small shake of the shoulders and adjustment of the shirt sleeves, then an almost existential (if we’d known that word then) gaze in the eyes was also required. We mimicked this in no time, but only those at the top of the social pecking order could get away with it; those further down or with less flagrant styles were razzed when they tried the same moves.

After the summer, a couple of our friends came to school with Flat Tops—the newest thing and a style that skirted the taboos as it was essentially a crew cut, the hair cut down to a half-inch evenly on the top, but it left the sides and back long enough to comb back into “fenders.” High schoolers and hot rodders left the very front of the Flat Top long so they could comb it toward the middle of their foreheads into a dangling spit curl. Younger kids had the front only slightly longer than the buzzed top and just had it stick straight up and spiky. Lots of the Flat-Toppers carried a little bottle of Butch Wax that came with a comb which you replaced in the bottle after using, but its popularity didn’t last long. As the lid didn’t stay closed, carrying around the bottle was a messy proposition. My father absolutely forbid me a Flat Top and in the summers my mother always argued for a crew cut, the universal buzz.

Only when your parents weren’t paying attention, which wasn’t often, could you comb your hair in the current fashion and thereby be somebody to yourself and your peers. My father was always after me to comb my hair like his:  straight back, no grease. He would only barely sanction the average middle-American part on the side. I should—and someday he just knew I’d have the sense to—wear my hair straight back—somehow, that was the only acceptable and moral style. It was serious business then, how you wore your hair—people cared, noticed. Each morning I rubbed enough Wild Root Cream Oil into my hair that it would hold whatever shape I refigured it to once at school. I then went mainly for the wings along the side and a large Fabian-tall wave in front. I had lots of hair and enough hair oil to be at the top of the fashion in my school group.

But in no time the ‘50s, which had hung on into the early ‘60s, were gone. Sure Elvis was still Elvis, but surfing had arrived. It was popular in movies, music and dances, and, for some, as an actual sport. But popular culture soon had Elvis and Fabian with their shiny hair completely in place riding 20-foot waves at Sunset Beach, Hawaii, or shooting the pier at Huntington Beach. I’d learned to surf and had been out on some big waves—it didn’t take much experience to know how phony those Elvis surf films were with him standing in the middle of a board, feet parallel like a rank beginner, a studio fan blowing in his face and perhaps only two or three strands of his Duck Tail out of place. No real surfers ever went to those films. And then there were the “ho-daddies” (ho-dads for short)—guys with greasy hair who drove around with boards in or on their cars to parties, or to the surf spots, guys who never went out into the surf.

Right then, what you wanted for the surfer look was dry, shaggy hair and by all means blond. That left me out on most counts. And for the first year or so I was surfing, ages 13 and 14, I was in a boys boarding school where you still had to have a short cut and pass inspection for dinner—suit and tie, shoes shined, hair slicked into place. I’d quit theVO 5 and thicker greases that were still fairly popular in the early ‘60s. I’d gone over to Vitalis, a more watery application which, after it dried, left your hair stiff and certainly in place. One friend at that school, Joe Lubin, (a liberal user of VO 5) invited me home to his house in Beverly Hills for a weekend. There was a party with a number of his friends, and he had a date for me—a really cute girl, he said. So we showed up in sport coats, ties and slacks (the Beatles and the rest of the early “British Invasion” of rock ‘n’ rollers would still dress that way in the years right ahead) and met our dates. I could see that Joe was there to meet his girlfriend and they went off immediately to the dance floor and glued themselves together. My date was indeed as attractive as promised, but she wanted nothing to do with me. I thought perhaps it was because I wasn’t from her school. But later in the evening, I heard from Joe that the problem was my hair! He had promised her a date with a surfer and, although she herself did not surf, she knew that “surfers” did not have black hair like mine. We were introduced and that was basically the last I saw of her. I sat by myself for a while, knowing no one there except Joe, who was still leaning into his date on the dance floor. Finally, one of the cheerleaders came over and asked me to dance; she hung around and talked a while as well. Obviously a more mature woman, she still appreciated the hair styles and look of the ‘50s.

But I could see something had to be done. Here I was, a real surfer with an appropriately beat-up Yater surfboard and surf knots on my knees, but I did not look the part. That summer I tried the lemon routine. A surfing friend told me that another guy we knew, Don Bullock, had actually gotten his dark hair to turn blond by putting lemon on it and staying in the sun for a few hours. We saw Don at one of the beaches and he had this slim streak of light red in the front, miles from blond. Nevertheless, I tried it, but the lemon thing never worked. Lots of kids were trying the peroxide route, which I never did. You could always tell those who had; their hair had a very artificial orange tint. I just went for the surfing and forgot about my hair for a while; besides, my friend and the best surfer in the area, Harry Fowler, had coal-black hair—so, so what?

Grease was gone and if you surfed, you just combed your hair once in a while and let it be as dry and floppy as possible. There were unofficial dress codes in high school although there were no uniforms. The Beatles hit in 1963-64 and I can remember thinking how radically long their hair was in that picture on the cover of their first album. Look at that now and John Paul George and Ringo look as if they have very respectable cuts. Of course the late ‘60s and ‘70s came with truly long hair for everyone, but then just a touch over the ears with bangs in the front was radical rock ‘n’ roll communist-hippie-dom. My friend Francis Orsua—who to this day has a thick mop of hair—and I skipped a few haircuts and headed for the Beatle look. Orsua even got his picture taken and put in the local Santa Barbara News Press—he was just walking down State Street and a newspaper photographer, out to capture a newsworthy fringe element loose on our streets, took a photo of Orsua with his hair over his collar. Mine was not so long, but without any hair oil, that huge wave a couple years previously now fell across my forehead, and I had bangs easily as long as Paul McCartney’s, or so some girls I knew had told me. On a Friday after school, the disciplinarian, Fr. Bernard, called Orsua and me over from our lockers and without argument or complaint, told us to be sure and see a barber at the weekend or not bother coming to school Monday. What could we do? We got it cut and lost what little notoriety we’d achieved.

For the girls then, length of hair was not such a critical factor—long or short, any style was acceptable. Many wore a variation on the page-boy, shoulder-length hair with bangs. However, when there was a dance, they had to spend hours torturing their hair up into a Beehive, a style that made the top of their heads look like a funnel of cotton candy. Lacquered and sprayed into form, they predated the Coneheads by many years; it was brittle and hard at the same time, but for formal occasions, it was the style. Some girls back-combed or “ratted” their hair to make it poof up and stay poofed, to accommodate the Beehive look beyond the parameters of a dance. There was Gilda Bedola who always had the biggest blond hair at school, and though she was an inveterate “ratter” she was plenty attractive. She only dated boys from the public high school though, and whenever we saw her someone always brought up the story of the girl who never took down her ratted Beehive and who was finally killed by black widows that built a nest in there. Surely an apocryphal story since people at so many different schools knew it. But it says something about the senselessness of style in the first place—what we will put up with or aspire to judging one look better than another.

I went off to college in Northern California and within a year or so Orsua went into the Marines, and that was the end of hair considerations for us both. Orsua just wasn’t allowed to have any, full stop, and I had too many things to worry about as a freshman in St. Mary’s College in Moraga. Ours was the last freshman class to be “hazed”— systematically humiliated and tortured by older students. In the past, many freshmen had their heads shaved and painted, but in our class that only happened to one or two. We spent time sneaking around trying not to be apprehended by the upperclassmen. There were studies, sports, work on weekends and just too many people and pressures to worry about hair style then; I just got it cut once in a while in the campus barber shop and didn’t think much about it. Didn’t think much that is, until our senior year, 1968-69, and some serious opposition to the Vietnam War started to arise nationwide. At our conservative, middle-class college, with a student body of about 900, there were only 14 or 15 students openly opposed to the war, and only one student in a class below us had long hair—that was it, one guy in the whole school had some outward symbol of protest. I grew a mustache that year, but upon visiting my mother and stepfather on spring break had to shave it off; my mother insisted that my stepfather would not stand for it—after all, he had been good enough to pick up the bills for college tuition after my father bailed out on the entire project. I shaved the mustache that night. How much was hair finally worth?

But the ‘70s were right around the corner. I took a teaching position at a Catholic school, grades seven and eight, right out of college. I had decided some time ago to teach, and I also hoped that I would receive a teaching deferment from the war. At Nativity Catholic School in Torrance, I met Doug Salem, the other new hire for seventh and eighth grades, someone who would become a wonderful and important friend to me until he died at age 32 in a car accident. On that first day of meetings before class we became instant friends. He had normal length hair, but also had long sideburns. As the year wore on and we both became involved in opposition to the war, saving the environment and the next Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album, his hair became long and he wore striped Levis and looked the part of the counterculture. But he was brilliant, and his ideas on social justice and morality had a great effect on me. A few years later, still with his long hair, he would be appointed dean of a law school at the age of 31. I decided to also grow my hair long then, though in truth it was nothing approaching the shoulder-length hair style that would become common in only another year or so. The length of our hair became a problem; parents at Nativity (Torrance was home of the largest Armed Forces Day Parade in the U.S.) were calling meetings, calling Doug and me communists (I had played a Bob Dylan record in class!). By the end of the year neither of us wanted to return.

Doug headed for law school and I took a job teaching the same grades at a Catholic School in Santa Barbara—Mt. Carmel, the same school where G.G. Colson had stood there in his hot rod hair and punched me out 15 years before. When I went to see the principal— who really wanted a male teacher for the upper grades, for discipline and for coaching sports—she said the job was mine but I would have to cut my hair; after all, the students were not allowed to have long hair. I pointed out that I was not a student and had just had it cut the day before the interview. Either way, I needed a job and would have to keep it short. When I called a few weeks later about books, contracts, etc., I was told that I no longer had the job. The other teacher who had agreed to teach the seventh and eighth-grade math in trade for the fifth and sixth-grade English (I could not teach any math) had backed out of the deal. I suggested that maybe she should lose her job since she had broken our contract, but was told that she lived with another woman who taught at the school and if one were fired the other had threatened to quit. So, goodbye.

I had one month s rent money left and had to find a job pronto. The only thing available to me at the last minute was to go back to the grocery store chain for which I worked in high school and during summers in college. I saw the personnel manager, said nothing about my teaching experience and little about my education and was told I could have a position at just about the lowest level, but first I needed to look at this chart she pulled out from the desk showing allowable grooming for employees, including those who were going to make only $2.50 an hour. If I had a haircut, I could report to my old store on Milpas Street on Monday morning and start mopping and carrying out groceries. I went to see my friend Billy Bonilla who was now a barber and paid him what would be close to three hours grocery wages to cut my hair.

Of course in the ‘70s, long hair became the norm. TV news anchors, sports announcers, politicians and preachers—everyone and anyone had longer hair. I couldn’t see how some baseball players kept their uniform caps on, and many didn’t as soon as they moved to make a play. Coast to coast, we had the stage production “Hair” and when something was very difficult or terrifying it was described as “hairy;” if an act required a lot of courage, the idiom had it that “it took a lot of hair” to do it. Go figure. Take out some photos from the ‘70s, and, if you can get past that truly bizarre Pirates of the Caribbean garb we all wore then, look at our hair. Long, stringy, stacked, frizzy, chunky, you name it. It was there in abundance. I went back to graduate school at San Diego State University and after that at University of California Irvine. While taking my degrees, I managed to make money in the summers teaching tennis; there was no need for me not to have my hair long, truly long. I wore head bands, I fit in; I went more or less unnoticed through the times. While staying at my father’s house those summers in school, I could see that he was undergoing a hair transplant. Each evening he’d have to retire to the bedroom and put on this shower cap to cover an application of salves and medicines that went over these pencil point plugs of hair that had been cut into his scalp. What a pain, I thought, figuring I’d never have to worry about that—my hair still thick then and long in my late 20s.

I taught part time at a number of places after graduating from Irvine, longish hair not a problem to get the job. When Proposition 13 passed in California, colleges and community colleges had to cut their part-time teachers and my stint as a freeway faculty between three of them in the area came to an end. I moved to Fresno where it seemed I could pick up some adjunct English classes at the university, and I taught there for two years. In the middle of that time my class at St. Mary’s College was holding a 10-year reunion. I decided to attend. I was hitting 30 and thought it a good time to have a good professional cut, a bit shorter than I’d had it for the last number of years. This especially hit home when a student in one of my composition classes at Fresno State called to me after class—a good kid with a sense of humor, and somehow I knew he didn’t want to know more about the comma splice. He caught up to me and said, “Hey, Mr. Buckley, you’ve got wavy hair.” My hair has always been straight, and so I asked him what he meant, and he didn’t miss a beat and replied, “It’s wavin’ goodbye!”

I went to a barber not far from my house, a shop I’d passed by a number of times. In back of the two chairs the shelves were full of gadgets, a microscope-type machine to examine your hair and hair roots, special massagers, charts etc. The news was not good; my hair was starting to weaken and thin. I should keep it cut shorter, he said, and avail myself of several potions and processes which he offered. About all I did was pay for the cut and get out, but I could see that I needed now to have a shorter style as it was thinning out in the usual places—something I never thought would happen to me as my hair had always been so thick. Thirty years old and body betrayal had begun—and that was pretty much the end of any consideration about hair for me. Keep it short and neat and maybe no one will notice how much light was beginning to reflect off the old cranium. I certainly was not going to be one of those guys with a part just above the ear and strands stretching pathetically over the top toward the other side. Nor was I about to go through the cost and ignominy of transplants, though my father’s had worked well enough. His hair had gone all white and the transplanted spots on top and in front were OK. However, they were not near as full as the sides which he had combed into vast swan-like wings, TV-evangelist style. His hair in his 60s was much longer than mine in my 30s, and he probably had more of it. What could I do about that?

What does any of it finally mean? I own more hats than I ever have—I think of skin cancer whereas I never did before. Rogaine can now be had over the counter, and last Christmas a friend—half out of concern and half as a joke—gave me a four-month supply of the generic brand she’d picked up mismarked at a discount store. It’seasy to apply, just topical—like a little alcohol—but three months later I can’t see a strand of difference. But I don’t know, another month of continued applications and it may stop the rapid retreat to the rear? Either way, I pass no moral judgments. By this time, I’m either content with who I am or I am not; it’s a question of character finally. And health. A lot of hair like Jim Carrey or Andy Garcia have can’t change things, won’t make you feel any better about yourself—will it?

About the Author

Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is the author of fourteen books of poetry and editor of several anthologies. He has published two books of creative nonfiction, most recently Sleep Walk (Eastern Washington University Press, 2006).

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