Like many mornings, I was in a hurry today. My son needed a ride to school instead of walking, and I had to get my younger son to daycare so that I could hurry and get a haircut before work. But I was against the clock there as well. I couldn’t be late; I had a conference call right at 9am. Now my ex-wife was a soldier, so I became quite accustomed to military life, and one of the many things I learned was that military barber shops are very efficient and fast. So especially when I am in a rush, I stop by the barber shop at my local military base to get my haircut.
I was in luck. I walked into the barber shop at 8:20, and there was no one else waiting. The chairs were full though with a mix of soldiers and retirees getting their haircuts from the mainly Korean women who seem to be the frequent hair cutters in this establishment. Getting a haircut from these Korean women is kind of like playing Russian roulette. I tell them how I want my hair cut, they nod politely and proceed to cut it whatever way they feel like that day. It isn’t that they don’t understand me; they speak English fine when they want to. Rather, I think it is that they are just convinced that they know how I should get my hair cut better than I do. I don’t mind deferring to their expertise; it always looks pretty good, and it’s FAST. I have had a hair cut in less than five minutes at the hands of one of their clippers.
Just as I sat down to wait for an open barber, a visibly agitated soldier got up and walked toward the front of the shop. As he walked by me, he kind of mumbled to me and said, “You’re up, good luck.” Good luck? What does that mean? Why do I need good luck getting my haircut? This can’t be good. Quickly it was apparent what the soldier meant. The open barber chair didn’t have one of those efficient Korean ladies behind it. No, there was an older man there. At first glance he looked like he must have been 70-80 years old. He looked rather frail and like he didn’t move really quickly these days. “Great,” I thought. “I don’t have time for this,” ran through my mind as I sat down in the chair. 8:25am.
“How do you want it done?” the barber asked in a deep, kind of raspy voice. I turned to look at him and told him my usual hair cut standard. I noticed his name tag had “Pitts” on it. I’m not sure if that was a nickname or maybe his last name. Most of the other employees had normal every day names like Helen or Kim or Ed. Pitts went to work on my hair. His hands shook while he held the clippers and sometimes he used his left hand to steady his right. He moved slowly around the barber chair with determination. I admit that I started to get annoyed as I watched other patrons around me sit down and then get up to leave before my haircut was even half way done. 8:37am.
Pitts wasn’t talkative like many barbers. He seemed to need every bit of conscious effort to focus on the task at hand. I’m not sure how exactly it happened, but in the middle of my frustration, I went through a transformation. Left alone to my own hurried thoughts, I began to take note of Pitts in more detail as he walked around the chair. He wore an American flag pin on his collar and another pin on the front of his shirt that indicated he was a veteran of the Korean War. A quiet sadness came over me as I watched him struggle to keep his hands steady. A part of me desired to ask him about his service, but the part of me stuck in reverent silence won out. Here was a man who had served and sacrificed for our nation. Here he was, now in his 70’s, still serving the hundreds of servicemen and women that walked through the doors every day.
Pitts put the finishing touches on my haircut and meticulously removed the few stray hairs that remained on my neck when he took off the cutting cape. It was apparent to me that it took him the time to do one haircut in the time his counterparts did two or three. I felt a bit awkward as I went to pay him when all I could seem to say was, “Thank you for all you’ve done. Have a great holiday.” It must have seemed a strange thing to say after receiving a haircut. I hope that in my genuine thank you that he understood my gratitude for his sacrifice he made years ago and that he still was making today. He looked up at me a bit surprised as I left a big tip in his hand and turned to walk away. 8:51am. He yelled a “Thank you sir!” as I walked out in a hurry to make it to work on time.
As I drove to the office, I looked in the rearview mirror at my hair. It was flawless. I am a bit ashamed that in my rush I almost missed out on the opportunity to appreciate one of the many people that I owe my freedom to today. If you didn’t get the opportunity to show your gratitude to a veteran this past week, I encourage you not to miss the chance. Did I make it to work on time? I did. 8:58am. Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter as much anymore, though. Many of this nation’s heroes are all around us every day. I hope I don’t ever lose sight of that again.
Dave Baldwin is a businessman, musician, and divorced father of two boys. They live together in El Paso, TX.