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"Addicted to Haircuts"
My Dad Gambling Horribly on the Sly
Although the ‘60s were nearly over by 1969, they hadn’t yet arrived at my modest working-class home on the eastside of Indianapolis. My mom actually cheered when she heard that students were shot and killed at Kent State. My biological dad - we just called him Sam, his name –told me in hushed tones that “Hippies are bad” without providing any supporting detail. Mind you, at this time both of my parents were in their mid-to-late twenties, the same age as the Beatles were then. But unlike John, Paul, George or Ringo, we ate liver and onions for dinner and sported crew cuts. We listened to Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Tom Jones. The counterculture never quite made it to my house.
My dad may have had little use for the social changes occurring around him, but he still harbored one overwhelming passion; he loved to gamble. He savored it the way that Gordon Ramsey feels about preparing a great meal. Come to think of it, Sam savored booze, cigarettes, fried foods and a lack of commitment pretty deeply too. But he really loved gambling. A sheet metal worker by trade with three young kids and a faltering marriage, gambling was his special place. Better than booze, pornography, or even sheet metal.
The most bizarre thing about that was that he never won on any of his wagers. Ever. College football, little league baseball, presidential elections, it didn’t matter. When Sam bet, he lost, end of story. Underdogs failed to overachieve when he backed them and favorites never failed to either lose outright or, equally impoverishing, not cover the all-important point spread. Although none of this dampened Sam's enthusiasm or appetite for gambling. I can only cringe when imagining if he had visited Monaco, Las Vegas, or Churchill Downs – anyplace where gambling was legal. He would have lost his shirt – and our house – in no time flat. Thank God gambling was illegal in Indiana in 1969. That at least made Sam work harder to lose his money.
My pops was far too blue collar for Monaco or even Vegas, in any event. He drank Pabst Blue Ribbon from the old school steel can. He chain smoked non-filtered Lucky Strikes and actually enjoyed going to union meetings and Catholic mass. But gambling topped all other hedonistic pursuits and his favored gambling haunts were equally blue collar: bowling alleys, the union hall, and most unfortunately, our barber shop. Phil, who was Sam’s favored conduit to gambling - his bookie - used cutting hair as his legitimate cover. While styling hair wasn’t a big priority to Phil, or Sam for that matter, football betting cards were. Phil’s vocabulary was peppered with such strange phrases as “cover the spread,” “burn cards” and “points given.” I had no idea what any of that meant but I knew what it dealt with. Sam was way too happy for it to possibly be anything else.
My biological dad was old school in most facets of his life, thus sartorial splendor was not a subject to which he gave much thought. Remember, this was the late 1960s: the era of flower power, acid rock, bell bottoms, dope, Jimi Hendrix. Sam didn’t give a shit about any of that. He drank Pabst and smoked Luckies, for God’s sake. It might as well have been 1959 as far as he was concerned. No Beatles, no bell bottoms, no groovy threads or far out looks. And he was about as likely to drop acid as he was to grow his flat top out to shoulder length. Wasn’t happening.
It was bad enough that my dad’s idea of a smart appearance was a buzzed flat top, but adding insult to injury was the glop of pasty Butch Wax that Phil raked across our sensitive heads after each scalping. My brother and I got buzzed like clockwork every Saturday morning. Instead of watching Scooby Doo or The Archies, our heads were turned into tennis balls by a bookie masquerading as a barber. It was sheer agony, pardon the pun. Following the buzz and the Butch Wax, we moped out of the barbershop every Saturday like defeated sheep after an undeserved shearing. Pops was in hog heaven though. He sported a freshly coiffed flat top and had his gambling fix satisfied for the coming week.
I remember one evening when my mom chucked an ashtray across the kitchen at Sam, narrowly missing him. She’d apparently found evidence of his continued wagering which ran counter to actually paying bills, upsetting ma to no end. They screamed. Accusations flew. Then the ashtray flew and shattered into many tiny pieces. This kind of event was nothing new and I found it somewhat enjoyable, like seeing live theater from the front row. Sam sulked after the incident. He really liked that ashtray.
Finally, one Saturday, I’d had enough and mustered up all my pent-up pre-school rage. As I was being shepherded into Sam’s ragged blue 1956 Ford with my 9-year-old brother I wailed, “Please don’t make us get another haircut! My head still hurts from last week. We won’t tell mom about the gambling! We promise.” Picture Homer Simpson enraged and chasing Bart around a car and you have a pretty accurate idea of what next transpired.
“Who do you think you are?” my dad asked. Though hardly clandestine, he had always believed that the barbershop charade had kept us in the dark as to his true Saturday morning motives. We were hauled once again down to the buzz shop that day, but that was the final time.
A month later, the Super Bowl arrived. The last game I would ever watch with Sam; the final gamble. Going through a divorce with my mom (can’t imagine why), he no longer lived with us but returned to the home front to watch the big game. Heavily favored, the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL were to face the Kansas City Chiefs from the upstart AFL. Sam had bet the ranch on Minnesota to win and cover a 9-point spread. I smiled knowingly, and tried mightily to convince him to reverse his wager.
“It’s a sure thing,” he said.
The Chiefs won Super Bowl IV 23-7 and I never had had a buzz cut, or liver and onions again.