I shaved Saturday.
I stood before the mirror in a motel a thousand miles from home and I lathered my face. All of my face. And I dragged the rusty travel razor across it until I was clean shaven.
It was the first time since January 3, 1985.
A streak I had expected to continue the rest of my life came to an end just shy of 29 years in. The constant of my adult life, facial hair, is gone.
It’s a metaphor.
It’s a sign.
It was a move I contemplated for about 30 seconds, a rationale I conceived and executed, and now it is done.
On January 3, 1985, I reported for Advanced Individual Training at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana. I had graduated from Basic Training the week before Christmas and after a holiday exodus at my wife’s parents I caught a bus and reported back to duty.
It was in the student barracks, I think it was Bravo Company, and as we loitered through the day expecting the rigors of basic to return at any moment, we new students instead found ourselves in a surprisingly relaxed environment. We were people, and treated like people, and other than something to report to in the morning and something to report to in the evening, and some school in between, our lives were pretty much our own.
Heck, some of the students were wandering around in civilian clothes.
And some of them had mustaches.
And I grabbed the first one of those and asked him exactly what was going on. He told me that the standard was nothing more nor less than the Army regulation and when the cadre finally showed up I asked a genial-looking sergeant what that standard was.
In layman’s terms, it couldn’t extend beyond the corner of the
mouth, and it couldn’t look like Hitler’s. Other than that, you are good.
So I never shaved again.
By the end of the week I had a mustache, and for all the years since I’ve had it or something like it.
When I got out of the Army, I experimented with beards, which have come back since for the occasional deer season. The defining look, however, has been a goatee. About 1990, or a couple of years after, I grew a goatee. When I’d grown up, goatees were for beatniks or guys trying to look like the devil. They were an odd and unseen style.
But they came in, at first with Hispanic guys and black guys, and I grew mine. I was a newspaper columnist then, and I wrote about it, and it was what the young guys were doing.
Over the years, those young guys have aged, I have aged, and the goatee is now the signature of the middle-aged man. They were red or black when they came in, and have mostly grown salt-and-pepper or white since. They are the style of the grandfathers, in a way that DAs or flattops were a generation or two ago.
The mustache went with Burt Reynolds, the goatee has grown long in the tooth, and now the young guys are influenced by Hugh Jackman.
But facial hair for me has not really been about style or look. It has been about manhood, about the fact that if you can you do, and that men have facial hair because men have facial hair. It has also been a connection for me to that distant day when I was a private in the Army.
And my streak has been important to me. Streaks are always important to me. Continuity and familiarity count to me. I crave stability in a world and a life that are innately and inescapably unstable. And I’ve had facial hair because I have facial hair, because it’s just my way. Because since that day long ago when Army regulations gave me the power to choose for myself, I’ve chosen for myself. It’s as much a part of me as where I was raised and how I came to be me.
My daughter the soldier remarked several months ago that she had never seen me clean shaven. None of my children had seen me clean shaven. My wife had not seen me clean shaven. My daughter had suggested some sort of a wager, where the stakes would be my goatee.
The wager didn’t come to pass, but as six of us were sharing a motel room outside Fort Benning this weekend – one of them my son-in-law, just a couple of weeks away from a deployment to Afghanistan – the idea came to me.
Literally, in front of the mirror, taking my turn in the bathroom. It came to me to shave, until he got back, to retire my whiskers as a nod to my daughter and my son-in-law for their service. To satisfy her curiosity, to respect the danger he will face.
As kind of an odd thing that maybe only a man with whiskers could understand. And even then, only the rare man.
I walked out and they shrieked.
My adult daughters said they loved it. But they are gracious and courteous, and they would say that no matter what. My little son Robbie, on the trip with me, said he didn’t notice a difference. My wife is uncertain and my second son, Jack, says he hates it.
I’m reminded that I don’t have any lips, and that I don’t have a very good shaving technique, but other than that I don’t notice or care much about it. I feel sick and sad that I broke my streak, but I’m glad that I did it.
I started growing my whiskers on January 3, 1985, while a private in the Army. I grew them until November 23, 2013. I will shave until my son-in-law comes back from the war.
And then I will give up shaving for a while.