Guest Columnist

Taking a shine to a man's world

Clippers hang from a counter in a Cedar Rapids barber shop. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Clippers hang from a counter in a Cedar Rapids barber shop. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

I had a dream job. I chose my hours, didn’t do heavy lifting, and earned enough to keep me in movie tickets and popcorn. I was 12 years old.

I loved shining shoes at Bill Sanger’s Ideal Barber Shop in Guthrie Center. My customers climbed into my elevated iron-legged chair or dropped off shoes and boots for later pickup. I made a good living, but the best part was participating in an all-male, adult world with endless talk of the important things in life, like fishing and football.

In this masculine setting of farmers in town for sale day, retired locals, and a few actual customers, I heard endless stories, some quite memorable.

I listened intently as Bill Gallagher, a quarterback on the famed University of Iowa Ironmen of 1939, described Nile Kinnick’s winning touchdown in a 7-6 Hawkeye victory over Notre Dame. I heard that story many times, along with an almost play-by-play account of every game of a season that ended with Iowa ranked ninth in the country.

I never tired of Bill’s football stories. I even fantasized that one day I would move beyond shining shoes and fill those of Nile Kinnick on the Hawkeye gridiron.

Another unforgettable story targeted my young, naive ears. Charlie Nelson, a tall tale regular, recalled in a hushed voice how he fought his way home from country school in a terrible blizzard. His kindergarten sister, three years younger, trailed along behind. But when Charlie reached their farm home Susie wasn’t with him.

“Where’s your little sister?” his alarmed mother asked.

“I dunno. I thought she was right behind me. I couldn’t see in the storm.”

Mother, father, and Charlie, as his story continued, struggled through the raging blizzard with the flickering light of a kerosene lantern searching for the young girl. Finally, nearly frozen to the bone, they found Susie’s shoes.

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“That’s all we found ...,” Charlie related with a pause for dramatic emphasis. “Her feet were still in ‘em. The wolves got her!”

My eyes bulged as I listened intently to Charlie, believing every word. When I gasped, the assembly of overall-clad men howled with knee-slapping laughter.

Being the butt of a joke didn’t bother me. I was living in a man’s world and enjoying every minute of it.

Mr. Sanger bore a resemblance to the cartoon character Popeye and was nicknamed accordingly. A genial, talkative man who told me to call him “Popeye,” filled my young ears with his homespun wisdom. “It doesn’t matter if a man scoops manure for a living,” he told me. “If he’s good at it, he’s worth watching.”

Popeye had two barbers’ chairs, but used only one until the day a man named “Max” showed up and said he was a barber looking for work. He possessed the necessary credentials and became our second barber.

Max was new in town and spoke little of his past. Popeye treated the new employee with his usual good humor, but seemed a bit wary. For my part, the strangest thing I noticed about Max was his daily rush to the beer parlor across the street the moment we closed.

One day Popeye prepared to go to Des Moines on business, leaving Max and me alone in the shop. Before leaving, he took me aside and whispered, “Keep an eye on him. Here’s a key to the shop. I want you to lock up today.”

Mr. Sanger clearly didn’t trust Max and I didn’t know why. Nor did I understand what he meant by “keep an eye on him.”

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In the absence of the lively Popeye, Max went about his usual business until closing time. He then pulled the blind on the shop window and swept up hair clippings. After removing his waist apron, he went to the cabinet next to my shoe shine chair where barber supplies were kept, such as large, colorful bottles of aftershave and hair tonic.

Max grabbed a bottle of Lucky Tiger, removed the lid, and took a couple of big gulps. It seemed a strange way to apply aftershave. Popeye just patted the lotion on the faces of customers. He never offered an option of a drink. Besides, Max hadn’t shaved. I was mystified but thought little of it. After all, Max possessed a barber’s license and must know about such things.

I arrived for work the next morning before Max. “How did it go yesterday,” Popeye asked.

“Fine,” I replied. “But Max sure puts his aftershave on funny. And he didn’t even shave.”

I held Popeye’s attention. “So how does he apply it?” he asked.

“He drinks it.”

When Max arrived, Popeye met him at the door and took him outside for a heated discussion.

Max didn’t come to work that day or any other. I never saw him again.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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