Published 9:09 am Wednesday, September 7, 2011

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

It’s after supper (our evening meal); it’s dark outside. People stay in after dark unless they have a good reason to go out.

There’s a good reason tonight. My father picks up the kerosene lantern, checks the fuel and walks to the back porch door with me in tow. He lights the lantern and we bravely step off into the dark.

We’re going to Mr. Newsoms’ house, about 1½ miles up the road. I love lanterns and flashlights and light making devices of any sort. This is an adventure, a break in the routine of farm life.

We walk within the lantern’s light circle and stare into the dark beyond. There are few outside electric lights; most points in the dark are dim glows from house windows.

The sky is clear; the air is cool. We walk mostly in silence. My father is a man of few words with me. A few vehicles pass from both directions, their headlights dimmed by black paint that covers the top half the lenses. That keeps the beams pointed down so as not to become a target for some enemy.

I don’t fully understand what that is all about. We move past the big house, past Mr. Council’s house and Mrs. Wade’s path, left turn at the crossroads, where the Rose house sits behind hedges. About a quarter mile later is the Newsoms’. We turn up the long path to a lighted porch.

Mr. Newsoms is a family friend who owns a pair of manual hair clippers. They are silver colored and have curved handles, with appendages, and a complex of teeth on a box-like shape at one end.

Mr. Newsoms has a stool and a cloth wrap and all. I climb up on the stool and am instructed to “stay still.”

The clippers do their work slowly. The clippers also pull my hair on several occasions. The hair pullin’ seems to be followed by an admonition to “stay still.”

I don’t know if this is a normal haircut experience or a punishment. For now, it is what it is. I also don’t know if money is exchanged or if it just neighbor helping neighbor. A lot of that goes on in this community.

After visiting some more, my father and I depart into the darkness and our circle of lantern light. The night air is a welcome treat for me. I do not get to travel much after dark; our trek home is disturbed even less by passing vehicles.

It’s a year or so later, and my father assigns me the right seat of the pickup truck. We have one now. Makes things a lot easier.

Today is a big day. We’re going to Courtland to visit Mr. Ellis, the barber. A real barber, with a real barber’s chair and electric clippers.

I’m excited; it’s my first store bought haircut. Mr. Ellis is well known in the area. His shop is almost directly across the street from the church where, I’m told, he teaches Sunday school.

Mr. Ellis’ waiting chairs are full, and we wait our turn. There’s much discussion floating around the room about rain and crops and fishing and local happenings. Most seem to know one another, or they pretend to. The atmosphere is friendly and light.

My turn comes, and I am in heaven. Mr. Ellis has a board that he places across the seat to make me a little bit taller. The low buzzing of the shears is comforting to my spirit.

I’m in the company of adults, getting an adult haircut. I’m almost lulled to sleep by the clippers. No one tells me to “be still” or “hold your head up” or any of those things.

I lean in an appropriate direction to Mr. Ellis’s pressures without difficulty. When finished, Mr. Ellis brushes off loose hair with a brush and powder, and puts on some kind of hair tonic.

I don’t know what it is, but the smell stays with me for hours. It’s a sign that I’ve been to the barber. Wow. The drive home is a celebration.

There are few things that can take the place of a professional haircut, in terms of lifting the spirit, and improving one’s perspective of life. It is a renewal ritual. Every time I pass through Courtland, my eyes are drawn to that corner building where Mr. Ellis, with a gentle soul and a pair of clippers, practiced his art and renewed countless spirits.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High school. He can be reached at