A case of hair today, gone tomorrow

A case of hair today, gone tomorrow

You’ve probably never heard of Grace Bedell, but she was the 11-year-old girl whose 1860 letter to Abraham Lincoln convinced him to grow a beard.

A few weeks later, he was elected.

This was kind of like Brian Epstein deciding the Beatles would look better in matching suits than scruffy leather jackets.

Both ideas changed the world.

Lincoln went on to become our greatest president, and the Beatles endure as the most influential band ever.

So when I decided to shave my beard as I listened to the glorious second side of “Abbey Road” late last Sunday evening, I was indeed in the company of giants, though I didn’t see it at the time.

Only the kind of careful, self-reflective analysis — the sort of critical thinking you’ve come to rely on for these many years — could have resulted in such a stunning bit of synchronicity, but hey, that’s who I am. Besides, it was almost 5 o’clock in the morning, and that’s when I do much of my best work.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

First, a little tonsorial history. I first grew a beard during the bicentennial summer, owing to a can of red paint I accidentally spilled all over me — long hair to beat-up sneakers — while rushing to complete a job while in the employ of my little town’s parks and recreation department.

Everything was being spruced up for the nation’s big birthday bash.

The oil-based paint was insoluble, which meant I needed a haircut.

A friend of mine’s sister stepped into the breach that Friday night.

He and I skulked up the fire escape to her downtown apartment just after dark, not wanting to alarm any citizens who might happen to see me so damaged on Main Street.

She welcomed us warmly but couldn’t stop laughing.

“You look like someone took an axe to your head,” she said, clearly amused at my obvious distress. “You need stitches?”

“Is there any way to save it?” I asked, knowing the answer already.

“Your hair?” she laughed merrily. “Honey, just kiss it goodbye.”

And so it came to pass that in a matter of minutes I was changed.

That crusted, matted, coagulated mess that had only hours before been an essential part of my look, my identity, my very me-ness, was … well, excised, cut off rapidly — if skillfully — just like that.

“You want a mirror?” my friend’s sister asked. “I’m guessing no.”

The three of us sat around her living room for a while, watching the candles burn as we talked into the night, trying to be normal.

But I was worried.

I was 21 that summer, between my junior and senior years at college, and there I was, needing to do something to fix … me.

Instead, I did nothing.

This has always proven a winning strategy for me.

With my head buzz-cut and my face sprouting patches of never-before-grown whiskers, I allowed August to flow along aimlessly. I kept on showing up for work, played ball on the weekends, hung out with my friends in our favorite places and played a lot of music.

Living in my parents’ basement gave me an immense amount of freedom. I could type long letters, host marathon card games, entertain the occasional young lady, make late-night phone calls and tip the pizza guy outside the garage.

No one even knew I was home unless I was in one of my Doors moods. I played the hell out of their live album that last month.

But soon enough, summer was almost gone, and I had to head back to South Bend, knowing I’d have to deal with some reactions to the way I looked. I ran into my old girlfriend on the South Quad one afternoon, and she shrieked when she saw me.

“You look just like Pete Townshend!” she said, breaking away from her coterie of dorm-ettes and rubbing my scruffy beard.

Looking back, I missed a perfect opportunity to zing her good.

“Who are you?” I should have asked, archly, but hey, I was just glad to get it over with, knowing that it was time to hit the books.

I kept the beard for a few more months but got rid of it just in time for one of the coldest winters in South Bend’s chilly history, one that included an unprecedented cancellation of classes when the mercury hit 10 below and the seasonal snowfall passed 120 inches.

To compensate, I didn’t get a haircut until just before graduation, but even then, I looked like a roadie for the Allman Brothers Band, keeping it out of my eyes with a bandana, tying it into a ponytail.

Since then I’ve been on a baseball-oriented shaving schedule, letting my beard grow after the last game of the World Series before removing it when pitchers and catchers report in the spring.

This caused a bit of a problem a few months into my first real job.

“Tell him,” the newspaper’s venerable managing editor said to my boss, pointing a bony finger at me, “to either grow a beard or get a new picture taken. Every time he writes a column, it bothers me.”

We adjourned to a booth across the street.

“I had no idea he knew who I was,” I said. “What should I do?”

The sports editor laughed.

“Just keep on writing the way that you do,” he said, “and grow the beard back. Getting a new picture taken is always the worst.”

So when I decided to shave it off last weekend, I thought it would make my wife happy. Ever since we began dating, back in fall 1987, she’s never really liked my annual change of appearance, much preferring my clean-shaven face, saying things like, “You look so much younger” and “It’s so scratchy.”

But when I’d done my spring cleaning, it took her three full hours to even notice the beard was gone, not that I was timing her.

“There’s something diff — hey, you shaved!” she smiled as she gave me a hug in the garage last Monday morning. “Thank you!”

Marriage isn’t all that difficult.

You just have to know when to cut your losses.

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