Sharp haircuts are the hallmark of a disciplined army, I was taught. In training at West Point, in infantry schools, in Ranger training, and even when deployed, an officer was expected to keep his or her hair to exacting standards.
It was with this goal top of mind that I walked into the Turkish barber shop on base shortly after having become a platoon leader downrange. On my right as I walked in were three empty barbershop chairs and on the left, a row of wooden chairs with thatched seats. A couple of barbers stood smoking, while a third swept around his chair. The empty chairs seemed a bad omen, but the men, olive-skinned and extremely thin, all had thick hair and moustaches. If they maintained those whiskers as they did, I thought, they must have some skill with shears. They offered me a chair, and I sat.
Our conversation was light and friendly; their English was good, and the haircut proceeded in fairly typical fashion, some scissors, mostly buzzer work. As the cut came to a close, I felt proud that my hair was high and tight, and reassured that although the base smelled like a dumpster fire, not all things on it were hot garbage. But things changed rapidly when the barber put his meaty, hairy-knuckled palms on my back and shoved forward, bending me over nearly 90 degrees. Am I about to be attacked? My hand moved swiftly toward the knife at my belt. He began pounding hard and rhythmically on my body, taking the knife-blade of his hand and chopping hard at my back and neck. Each blow vibrated down my spine, shaking me and sending waves of pins and needles down the nerves of my arms and legs. I wasn’t being attacked; I was being massaged. My hand kept reaching for the knife for a moment, and then I surrendered to the beating.
A minute or two after the forceful, rhythmic karate chops began, he pulled me upright in the chair. But as soon as I’d breathed a sigh of relief and silently congratulated myself for not openly weeping, the gorilla paws were back, this time firmly encircling my head. He wrenched my head to the right. My poor neck tendons cried out under the assault. He rained four or five karate chops on my left trap, sending shooting pain down my arm. He grabbed my head again and shoved it this time to the left, creating the same stretching agony before punching my right trap. He brought my head upright, but then pushed me forward again and gave me two more mighty blows that made my teeth click together and pushed the air out of my lungs. Then it stopped. I waited, steeling myself for the next attack. Then, I leaned back into the chair, stunned and exhausted.
I took deep breaths, recovering from the beating and wondering about all the mistakes I had made that landed me in this chair. Wanting a sharp haircut had been a very bad choice. Special Forces guys had long hair, right? I was almost a first lieutenant; I could probably get away with some flowing locks. I ran through images of my colleagues on base; they did have long hair, didn’t they? Had I missed a clue?
I thought it was over and started to get up to leave, but the hand was back on my shoulder, pressing me down. The barber walked back around in front of me and pulled a large Q-tip from a glass jar full of them. Before or since, I have never seen a Q-tip quite like it: about three and a half times the length of an ordinary Q-tip and much, much thicker. It had a wooden shaft, unlike the plastic I was accustomed to, which lent it a sense of heft and importance. It looked like a tiny spear with a bit of cloud stuck to the pointy end. I imagined some angry sky-dwarf hurling down Q-tip spears. Funny how the mind can turn a peaceful object into a tool of war. I stared in wonder as he plunged the cottony part of the Q-tip in rubbing alcohol.
Wonder transformed into horror as he pulled a lighter from his pocket. I wasn’t sure of his intentions, but I certainly didn’t like where this was headed. He clicked the lighter to flame and touched the Q-tip. It lit up with a whoosh, briefly illuminating his face and making him appear like a crazed priest ready to light the village witch. He came nearer to me with his Q-tip torch. I opened my mouth to protest but could only manage strange, semi-mewling noises as though I were hypnotized by the flame, or it had sucked all the air out of my lungs. He took my stuttering mumbles as questions, to which he calmly replied, “Burning stray hair, better this way.” He then began to whack all around my ears and the back of my neck with quick blows of the torch. They were rapid, less-than-a-second touches. I could hear the sizzle of singeing and could smell the foul stench of burnt hair, but, thankfully, I didn’t feel very much heat. After about a minute of being flambéed, it was over. Maybe instead of a butter bar I was a crème brûlée bar. I got up and stumbled out of the shop on wobbly legs, beaten and burned, but unbowed. After that, I decided to have my roommate cut my hair.