Ursus arctos horribilis

There was a funny thing about old Arroyo Grande, it had two barber shops. Strangely enough they were almost right beside each other. George had one and Buzz and old man Kelly the other. Used to be men had their hair cut every two weeks and if you were sartorially serious, once a week. Nobody seemed to mind waiting, there were lots of chairs and the gossip and story telling did everything to supplement the local paper, the Herald Recorder. Men could and did flesh out stories they read with pertinent details from personal experience or just from a desire to add some spice to small town life.

We went to Buzz’s place, the one with the old lighted barber pole slowly spinning its red, white and blue. As a youngster the narrow little space had an exotic appeal. Both of the long walls sported large mirrors set so that when you were up in the chair you had an infinite view of yourself, reflected again and again into the forever. Above the mirrors were a legion of stuffed birds and small animals, surely a taxidermists paradise from the days when all wild things were fair game. In the back was a doorway that led to Buzz’s wifes beauty parlor. A pink plasticized curtain shielded the women inside from prying eyes. The whole place was redolent of pomades, Butch Wax, Wild Root Hair Tonic and the pleasant oily smell of the different kinds of electric clippers in use.

There was a sort of hierarchy to the place if you were a kid. Toddlers sat in the chair that was shaped like a pony, when they grew some they graduated to the big chair with its handles a foot peddles where a box was added for your fanny. Grow a little more and you finally sat in the man’s chair. All of it a rite of passage.

The two barbers were as different as night and day too. With Buzz it was quick, zip, zip, a brush on the back of the neck and “Next.” Buzz was a family nickname one he’d had since childhood but couldn’t have been more perfect.

The other barber, Kelly was the artist, much preferred by teenage boys. With Kelly the process was king. The drape placed just so, carefully tucked in around the paper collar to keep clippings from going down the neck. Electric clippers next, carefully applied to avoid nicks and cuts, a flourish of scissors delicately applied, the scalp massage, fingertips relaxing the neck and then application of the pomade or hair oil as required. The perfect Ducktail, a’glimmering spectacle in the fluorescent light. Paper collar tossed in the trash bucket, the drape whisked away with a flourish and the neck lightly dusted with talc and brushed. A choreographed little drama played out to the glances and murmurs of the men waiting.

Those boys who wore them, Johnny Hopkins, Larry Hill, David Askins, Sean St Denis and Charley Silva, champions of the Ducktail. Don Pace with the Ducktail and the carefully coifed Jelly Roll on top or Charley Pino wearing the last vestiges of the Pompadour. They were much admired by blond boys with fine hair like me whose cowlick could never be tamed and whose hair ,no matter how greased with Butch Wax would never stand up.

Men went to the same barber all of their lives. It was as if once you chose you were stuck for life and it couldn’t change. That happened to my dad. He pulled to the curb in his pickup, jumped out and looked into buzz’s where every chair in the place was filled and because he was in a hurry he went next door to George’s place. When he came out to get in the truck, The door to Buzz’s place opened and Buzz himself came out and buttonholed my father and said, “George you’ve been getting your hair cut in my place for thirty years, What are you doing?” Dad said he felt like he’d committed a crime.

Boys mostly sat and listened to the men talk while they waited. You didn’t hear any real profanity. Guys in those days were more circumspect than they are now even though it was completely a mans world. There was lots of story telling though.

Many writers through history have begun their careers in barber shops. Great stories and a lot to learn if you listened carefully. A story told would be polished and refined by the barbers until it was a masterwork of oral presentation.

I was in there once and Kelly asked the guy next to me, “Hey McGoo, I tell you what I heard yesterday?” McGoo said he didn’t so Kelly started in.

“So, you know that Gal that lives out by the Finks, I believe her name is Linda. Well she supposed to be some kind of topnotch animal tracker, world famous is what I hear.” Kelly went on, “She just came back from a trip up north working for some government commission studying Grizzly bears, trackin’ ‘em around, trying to learn where they go and such. According to what I heard she went up to Alaska on an emergency mission to find some guys who were lost in the Tongass Forest. Thats the place where Buzz got that moose head he has mounted down there by Vereen’s Beauty parlor, see, its right up there.”

Kelly used his comb to point it out as if there was any doubt there was a moose head on the wall, like it’s hard to miss with the mirrors reflecting the image everywhere

He went on, “It seems a couple of animal experts from eastern Europe, a guy from Russia and another from Czechoslovakia wanted to study bear habits. The thinking was that they might reintroduce bears back into that part of the world. They wanted to study them, you see, like in the wild.”

Kelly went on, gettin’ his teeth into the story so to speak. He says, ”They helicoptered them in, faster’n the roads, thats real rough country you know, nobody out there for hundreds of miles. The idea was they’d find some likely bears and follow them around, studyin’ their habits like. Check in by radio at regular times so’s the park service’d know where they was. So, looks like they’d been up there about a week and every things fine, radioed in right on time, all good until their radio went dead. Couldn’t raise them at all.”

Kelly finished up his customer, took the cash and rang up the sale on the old brass register and said “Next.” He did his little dance with the collar and drape and continued. “I talked to old man Sullivan and he said that girl Linda told him that she got a call to fly up to Vancouver because the forest service was a little concerned about the two guys, said the were a couple days overdue at the pickup point and the Mounties and the Forest Service Rangers were putting together a search party to go in and get them out.”
They flew Linda up to Juneau and then took one of them puddle jumper planes to the Windfall Lake trailhead.

The whole party loaded up and took off down a road that had seen much better days. The trees were so close that they banged their branches again the cab and the grass in the ruts was tall enough to make a hissing sound as they passed above it. I took roughly three hours to get where they were going but finally after miles of bucking and bouncing they pulled to a stop. An old and badly battered Ford pickup was parked off next to the wall of trees that circled the clearing. The truck could have once been green but that would be just a guess. One front fender was completely gone and the other was mostly rust. If you looked closely you could tell that it had been yellow. Still hitched was an old wooden, obviously homemade horse trailer with four horses waiting patiently inside. Sitting on the tailgate was a man dressed in western clothes and when he stood and walked over it was pretty clear that he was an Indian. He walked with the particular sliding gait that Indian people used, slipping his boot along the ground, not walking heel first as white men do. He was a little pigeon toed, wore blue jeans and an old Pendleton shirt with a large silk bandana looped around his neck. His high crown no-droop brim Stetson shaded his face but as he approached the roman nose and obsidian eyes, creased from being out in the sun hinted at his ancestor’s. He put out his hand for Linda to shake, that soft almost feminine grip almost always used by Native Americans meant to show acceptance and respect. With the soft touch of the hand still fresh he introduced himself, saying, “Inae Zuzeca,” but you can call me snake.” His sibilant speech marked him as one who spoke one of the Siouxan languages. “Means snake who makes safe.” he translated.

“Trail is very hard to see,” he said, “Two weeks with a lot of rain will make it hard to follow.” Snake and Linda walked to the break in the tree line where the Scientists had gone and spoke a few words to each other and then returned to the two rangers. “I will saddle the horses,” Snake said, “You pack up what you need and we’ll get on the trail.”

“Early in the afternoon the headed out and that gal and Snake, why they just followed their trail like it was nothin’. Darned if she couldn’t see the tiniest trace they left. Must be some Indian in her too you know?”

Any way after a couple days they come upon the base camp the Europeans made. They saw it was all torn up, tents ripped to pieces, gear scattered everywhere and no one in sight. The Indian guide with them pointed out a blood trail goin’ off into the trees. Somethin’ bad had happened, it was easy to tell. They all got together and made a little plan about what they were gonna do and then checked all their gear and especially checked their rifles, made sure they were loaded full. With the indian and the gal in the lead they moved off into the trees, steppin’ as soft as Dan’l Boone in Kentucky cause they didn’t know what was up ahead. “She said they walked a couple hours through the trees and brush, followin’ the trail until, finally they come to a edge of a little clearing. They could hear some noise, some rustling and snorts out there. Something big was scuffling around. So they all very quietly checked their loads while Snake and Linda slithered forward, moving real quiet like. After a minute she motioned for the rangers to come up and get a look. They raised their heads to see what she saw. Sure enough there was a big female Griz feeding on the carcass of a man and just over by the other side of the clearing a monster male was sharpening his claws on a Fraser pine.

The Rangers very quietly consulted by just a look and the whispered to Linda and Snake, “We have to take them, they’ve killed a man.” With a nod Snake carefully sighted on the female and, quick as a wink he put four big 44-40 slugs in her. She softly grunted, looked up in their direction and then slowly laid down on the dead man. She gave a little chuff and died.

Across the clearing the male stood up, looked for the placed the shots came from, spotted the woman and the Indian, glared at them and then, shaking his enormous head, he bolted into the trees. Linda and the Indian crept carefully out of hiding, listening to the male racing off through the forest, the crackle of broken branches and his enraged roars at the fate of his female fading into the distance.

Across the clearing the male stood up, looked for the place the shots came from, spotted the woman and the Indian, glared at them and then, shaking his enormous head, he bolted into the trees. Linda and the Indian crept carefully out of hiding, listening to the male racing off through the forest, the crackle of broken branches and his enraged roars at the fate of his female fading into the distance.

They carefully approached the dead sow, knelt down and looked for signs of life in the scientist but there were none. Neither of them knew him but a quick search turned up his wallet. The Indian opened it and pulled out the deadman’s identification. “Him name of Nikita Oleg Bulganin,” He said, “Is Russian.”

Linda stood up and looked all around the clearing. “There’s no sign of the other guy and we didn’t see him coming in, I wonder where he is?”

The Indian guide thought a second and replied, “Czechs in the male.”

Note: No bears were actually harmed in writing this story.

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