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Sea Stories: The Haircut


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Sea Stories:  The Haircut


When I was Communications Officer of a Guided Missile Cruiser, I enjoyed the company of some excellent sailors across several ratings.  None of my men were better than my Signalmen.  Before their historic rating was disestablished in 2003, Signalmen specialized in visual communications, using signal flag hoists, flashing light, and semaphore.  They were Morse code wizards.  Visual communications are efficient and inherently secure and discreet.  Unless the enemy is there, close enough to visually read the message, they cannot tell it has been sent, or what it says.  Visual communications give no indication of the ship’s presence or location beyond visual range.  Flags don’t require electricity and flashing lights can be battery-powered vice AC- powered.  This can be very useful.

I always enjoyed the historic and traditional aspects of naval service.  I tried to learn about them when time permitted.  My Signalmen appreciated my interest and taught me what they could about their trade.  I learned to read signal hoists and run a flagbag.  I learned semaphore well enough to be able to read and send short messages accurately.  I learned enough flashing light Morse code to recognize a hailing call, my own ship’s call sign, and how to send “AS”, which means “wait” – so when we received a light hail, I could tell the sender to wait…while I fetched a Signalman!  I had a great relationship with these seagoing professionals.

Ships like mine have busy crews.  In our case, the ship had only a very few Ship’s Servicemen (now since 2019 known as “Retail Services Specialists” (pardon my eyeroll).  These men specialize as barbers, laundrymen, cobblers, tailors and store clerks.  And only one of these was a trained barber.  Maintaining uniform regulations is a full-time responsibility, so the line at the ship’s barber shop was always long, and he stayed busy.  A sailor needing a haircut often had difficulty fitting it in to his off-watch time periods.  So my Signalmen decided to find a better way.

One day, I walked into the signal shack high on the O-3 level aft of the bridge.  The “Skivvy Wavers” ( a term of endearment for Signalmen, referring to them waving underwear as semaphore flags in an emergency) were gathered around one Third Class Petty Officer holding a shiny new pair of electric barber clippers.  He had bought them and brought them aboard so that the whole gang could have fresh haircuts when needed, no waiting at the ship’s barber shop required.   Now this kid was hilarious.  An Oklahoma farm boy nicknamed “Okie” of course, he had enjoyed something of a storied local celebrity in junior rodeo back in Oklahoma.  He actually had a grainy home video of himself riding a bull… and being thrown and hooked while in the air.  You could actually see the cringe-worthy detail of the horn tip ripping his kneecap off, and the little bit of Okie flying across the arena. (It was retrieved and reattached, but his rodeo career was over.)

Okie was bragging about how he could cut hair, and looking for a customer.  Good-natured ribbing was flying about the shack.  I walked in and stopped to listen.  Big mistake.  Somehow, a subtle challenge was made: “Come on, Sir!  You look like you could use a haircut…unless you’re scared...”  Etc.  What could I do?  So I said, “Sure!  As a matter of fact, I DO need a haircut.”  And I sat down in the chair as Okie wrapped a bedsheet around me as a cape.

Six sets of eyes watched as Okie turned on the clippers.  He made a tentative pass or two, not yet cutting, just getting his motion down, like a practice golf swing.  And then, his first pass.  Bzzzzzzt.

Six sets of eyes flew open wide and bulged out….and there was a mad dash for the exit door.  Every man fled the scene except Okie and me.   He was definitely nervous.  I could tell that the “trim” was now going to be a bit more extreme than planned.  No worry, we were at sea anyway, and there is an old Navy saying:  “Do you know what the difference is between a good haircut and a bad haircut?  Two weeks.”  I said “No Problem.  Just even it up all over, and we’re good.”

I sported a high and tight buzz cut for the next few weeks.  The Signal Gang took great delight in razzing both of us about it. 




Edited by Gunboat1
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