Every life ever lived has a pivotal moment, a single instant in time, that turns upon something said or not said, on something done or not done, which haunts that life until the end of history.
My moment came in the living room of my childhood home in Saint Paul, Minnesota on June 5, 1961 at precisely 5:05:25 PM.
Allow me to paint the scene.
As the CBS Evening News fades to a commercial, a much younger version of myself reaches for the dial. My father who is seated to my left, rises to get a glass of lemonade.
That was my pivotal moment. It does not seem like much – but most critical moments are like that, seemingly inconsequential but the impact is profound. If I could alter that moment, I would still do exactly what I did, which was to attempt to change the channel, but I would do it an instant earlier.
You see… at precisely 5:05:26 PM on that fateful evening, as my hand hovered inches from the dial, a frantic TV pitchman burst onto the screen, shrieking, “Never pay for haircuts again!”
For my father, a man with eleven children, the phrase “Never pay for” held almost mystical powers. “Don’t touch that dial!” he growled.
At the refrigerator door, he stood transfixed, lemonade in one hand and an empty glass in the other, as three smiling boys were led across the television screen toward a chair in the middle of a mock kitchen.
“With Magic Razor Comb, you can give FREE professional haircuts!!” the pitchman cried as he ran a comb across the head of the first boy, rendering him delightfully shorn.
From the other room I could hear the gears in my father’s head clicking as he went through the math.
‘Uh…. Let’s see… Five sons at a buck fifty a head every two weeks equals seven and a half bucks. Do that twice a month and it’s fifteen bucks. Take that times twelve months and Holy Moly, you got enough for a new Remington 1100 self-loading shotgun…’
Even at the tender age of ten, I knew that reality was held in position by the frailest of pins, once they popped free, we all slid toward tragedy and the pitchman was jerking on them as hard as he could. In desperation I countered the pitch with the only line capable of deflecting the “Never pay for” come-on.
“Dad,” I asked calmly, “what the catch?”
My father stopped in his tracks.
The only thing that gave him the fortitude to resist a marketing hook – was the fear that the hook was barbed and he would be swindled out of his hard-earned cash.
“Hmmmmm,” he said. Again the gears clicked and whirled.
But the pitchman was one step ahead of me. “If within two week time,” he barked, “you are not completely satisfied with the Magic Razor Comb – just send it back for a full refund and we will pay the shipping.”
That sealed the deal.
The old man snatched up a notepad and scrawled down the order information.
Three weeks later, a small manila envelope plopped into our mailbox. It contain an unimpressive black plastic comb – with a razor embedded at the base of the teeth.
My father immediately lined his sons up in the kitchen.
The older brothers, wisely fearing anything new, had offered up the youngest first and to be fair, the comb worked well on them. Brother Five got a nifty haircut. Brother Four was pleased and dad beamed as tufts of hair swirled on to the linoleum floor.
Halfway through Brother Three’s haircut, he cried, “Ouch!” but no one paid him any mind, being a middle brother, he cried ouch a lot.
When my turn came and dad took a swipe at the back of my head, it felt as if he used an implement better suited to carpentry than grooming.
“Ouch!” I cried.
The protest made him comb harder.
My continuing protestations made him bare down even harder, ripping great swaths of hair out by the roots. Apparently there was the catch, as the razor dulled, it did not so much cut as it ripped the follicles apart.
“Send it back,” I pleaded, “We are not satisfied!!”
But he could not send it back. The fine print clearly stated that the “two week trial period” began on the day of his order – three weeks ago, so he had been snookered, something he would never admit – which only made him more determined to get his money’s worth.
So every other week thereafter for a year, my father hacked, ripped and rasped at our hair until he saved enough money to buy his Remington 1100 self-loading shotgun – then we were mercifully led back to the barber.
If there is any solace in this story, it is that we were not alone.
Back in our neighborhood during the 1960’s, the majority of families had at least ten kids and everywhere we went, whether it was to the baseball diamond, theater or playground – we ran into scrapped up, bleeding kids whose scalps sported the same red badges of courage.
But here’s the catch: a decade later – every one of those kids grew their hair long and shaggy.
You see, historians has it all wrong. The counter-culture had nothing to do with music or Vietnam. Instead, it had everything to do with a TV pitchman and the painful memories of a little black magic comb.