He Was Always “In the Pink”
He came into his true vocation in mid-life, after he’d suffered a vertebra-snapping accident lifting a motor at the Treatment Plant. He’d had two jobs since returning from Germany in WWII: the U. S. Forest Service where he’d worn his old army fatigues to work like all the other workers in the White River National Forest, then the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
He’d had a life-long habit of lifting his hand whenever any group was asked “Does anyone here have any experience doing this?” (The Great Depression had taught him the technique.) That’s how he became the Water Treatment officer at Anvil Points, Colorado, the great U.S. government Oil-Shale project of the 40’s and 50’s. He was a quick study and was soon turning the muddy Colorado River into a drinkable version. Albeit a little heavy on the chlorine at times.
Lying in the VA hospital, Ben surrounded by men his age still suffering from the physical and mental wounds of wartime, began to reminisce about his army days. Private First Class Ben B. Harcourt. Truck driver for Patton, cook on a few occasions when he could run down a fat hen or dig a few potatoes along their route. But best of all, his most popular talent…barber. He cut everybody’s hair, even his own. The officers got him barber tools and became his best customers.
Now he had to pick a new way of making a living at 42. The reminiscing had given him a new direction. His three kids were grown, he and Minnie had married as teenagers and had a family by the time they were 21 years old. So he enrolled in a barber course in a “college” on Denver’s Skid Row, Larimer Street. He said it was located there so they could practice on the ‘bums’.
Ben was born with the gift-of-gab, a pre-requisite for barbering. You got a free laugh with every haircut. Every shop (there were 3) he worked at he soon became the favorite barber. Great haircut and feel-good too. So he took the plunge and opened BARBER BEN’S, in Thornton a northeastern suburb of Denver. He became legend with the dog-racing crowd that frequented the nearby dog track. A grayhound named Barber Ben never won a race.
And when he found that there was an orphanage also nearby he offered free haircuts. He fell in love with each of them. He would make them giggle with his “Texas Haircut” using an old cowboy hat. And he kept treats for them. And sometimes he cried with them.
There so many haircut-stories I could tell you. I will limit myself to one. The bad haircut incident.
A lanky, scruffy cowboy/sheepherder type came into his shop and asked Dad (yep, he was my father), to give him a haircut. He told a sad story of not being able to find a job of any kind. Dad asked him “ are you willing to pump gas, to sweep floors, wash dishes…that kind of labor?” “You bet, anything” he replied.
Dad looked him over and told the guy, “this haircut is on me and then you can go find a job.” “Are ya a magician?” the cowboy asked. Dad winked and threw the cloth over him. Turned the cowboy’s back to the mirror and did a job on him.
He trimmed the hair into neatly parted businessman’s haircut, but that was not the magic part. The cowboy had curly lamb chop sideburns that hid most of his lower face. With quick swipes of the electric razor they were history. The cowboy yelped and jumped out of the chair. He was fighting mad, those fancy sideburns were his pride and joy. Now he looked like some clean-cut city slicker. Dad, who seldom turned away from a good physical dust-up, just stood and smiled. “Now go get a job” was his only comment to the red-faced customer. Barber Ben.
Dad once told me that the best thing he had ever done in his lifetime happened in WWII. When his group liberated a concentration camp in Germany he asked his commanding officer if he could personally open the gate. Permission granted. He took photos, awful frightening photos of what hatred could do and showed them to his ten year old daughter. He wanted me to remember, and I have.
And one last memory: He and Mom were visiting my mother’s native Arkansas where Dad was in a constant state of glee over the backwoodsy lifestyle and their slow, colorful manner of speaking. He sent me a photo. He’d handed the camera to Mom, picked up a stick and touched the sign that read “Toad Suck Ferry”. He was nearly doubled over laughing.