Barton Decker, barber

USS Lenawee (APA-195)
USS Lenawee (APA-195)

This past Friday, I made another assay into the streets of and around Emmaus to find myself a decent barber shop. My first haircut experience in Emmaus, to put it frankly, hurt. I have no idea exactly why that gent had such a need to dig the clippers with such fervor into my neck, but, suffice it to say, once I did my fiduciary duty to the gentleman, I resolved not to darken his establishment’s door again. I’ve had many haircuts in my day, and, despite the ancient connection between barbers and dentists, I believe that association has now been firmly and properly severed. It does not have to hurt. (I won’t mention the establishment’s name, lest I turn away custom from a man who may simply have been having a bad day.)

Thus, when it came time this month for my haircut, I first decided to check out a shop on my usual route home, just outside Emmaus, titled simply “The Barber Shop.” I pulled up in my car and peered inside the window. I saw rows of shampoo bottles on shelves and immediately began to suspect I was in the wrong place. Then I saw a sign with the prices on it and was confirmed in my suspicions. This was not the old-school, small-time barbershop I’d come to trust on sight. This, despite the name, was some sort of “salon.” I did not go in but immediately got back in my car.

I turned back toward Emmaus proper and decided to try a place I’d seen on Chestnut Street not too far past the Emmaus Triangle. (We don’t have a town square. We have a triangle.) Barty’s Barber Shop was small, not very impressive on the outside, and thus, probably just right on the inside. Even the sign emblazoned with the proprietor’s name, Barton Decker, was not awfully visible from the street. There is, however, a barber pole, and that is quite enough. And one cannot go wrong with a name like Barton Decker. It is hard to imagine a more “barberly” name.

As I glanced into the window at Barty’s, I saw walls smothered in photographs, many black and white. Opening the door, there was a faint whiff of pipe smoke. I was in the right place.

Mr. Decker was clipping the hair of a customer in his chair, pipe snugly in the corner of his mouth. The two—barber and, ah, barbed—were jocularly trading mild jibes. I was most definitely in the right place.

Eventually, the gentleman left, satisfied with his haircut, and I took the chair. I removed my clerical collar and unfastened the neck button of my shirt. Mr. Decker and I introduced ourselves to one another. He told me he’d lived in the house which included his barber shop since the 1930s. To let him know what I wanted for my haircut, I told him, “I’d like to keep what I’ve got. Just less of it, please!” My standard line, which always gets a smile out of a good barber. This time was not an exception.

I spied a prominent painting on the wall amidst all the photographs, itself adorned with a few snapshots embedded asymmetrically in the edges of its frame. It was the USS Lenawee, a USN amphibious attack transport used in the Pacific at the tail end of World War II, as well as in the Korean and Vietnam wars. I asked Barton about it. He then regaled me with a fountain of tales of his time in the U.S. Navy. Was he an engineer, gunner, etc.? No, he was a U.S. Navy barber. Never fired a gun. Just clipped sailors’ hair. And he loved it.

He almost single-handedly raised morale aboard the Lenawee, stemming from a conversation he had with the captain. The captain, it seemed, liked to have a little more hair on his head than was the Navy custom in the early ’50s, because his wife liked it that way. But of course the men on board the Lenawee had wives, too. And Decker was the man for the job. He gave them a little something to run a comb through. Not a Hollywood haircut. Just a good, clear haircut. And it was one of the happiest ships in the whole of Uncle Sam’s Navy.

I told Barton about my painful experience at the other barber shop. He didn’t comment directly, but mentioned that he’d been cutting hair in Emmaus for 55 years (as if, perhaps, to suggest that the other fellow was “new” and thus, well, suspect). I asked him if he thought there was a future for him there in Emmaus. He laughed. He said he’d wanted to be a barber since he was in 6th grade. I asked him if it had been a family business. “Nope. I just knew that, ’cause I wasn’t too smart, a barber was a pretty good thing to be!”

By the end of the haircut, he’d done a fine job. (How could he not? He’d been doing this since before my father was born.) I thanked him. We both smiled. I tried to pay him. Nope. He’d have none of it.

9 comments:

  1. That sounds pretty awesome. I too prefer an actual barber shop over anything more upscale–partly because it’s cheaper :-), and partly because it’s homier. I am fortunate to have such a shop just up the street from me (and thus just up the street from your old All Saints, at South Hills). Sadly the older barbers have dropped out from infirmity or even mortality, except for perhaps the oldest of all, but the new guys–veritable whippersnappers–keep up the tradition reasonably well.

    Oh hey, while I’m thinking about it, our common birthday (iirc) just passed this past weekend, so “Many Years!”

  2. Stephen, I’d forgotten that we shared a birthday. A happy one to you, too! (It’s remarkable how many people I know personally who share Aug. 29th. It’s perhaps less remarkable that most of us would prefer not to mention our common association with Michael Jackson.)

    I will never forget, by the way, that you were the first to invite me to an Orthodox church. Thank you.

    Good barbers are gold, real gold. Really. I used to go to the place on Hillsborough Street there in Raleigh, not too far from NCSU. Is it still in business?

  3. Father Andrew:
    I smiled with fond memories reading your “note of beard” and remembered my uncle who was a barber in the coal fields of west virginia. As a small child, we would go (my father, mother and I) to visit “Barber Lacy” in Van, West Virginia in the 50’s. I would watch with amazement as he sharpened his blade on a leather strap. On one particular occasion, a new resident of the community (probably a coal miner) entered the barbershop to get a cut. Upon finishing he ask the price, and my uncle said, “This one is on me.” Apparently every customer’s first visit was “on the house.” Another tradition noted. +++

  4. Barber Decker’s ship, the Lenawee, had a rather storied naval career. It served in the action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in WW2, and was present in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces. So your barber was witness to some rather momentous events.

    Later on, the ship served during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

    There’s a great brief history of the ship here:

    http://www.navsource.org/archives/10/03/03195.htm

    and here:

    http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/l5/lenawee.htm

  5. Just as an update: I went it to see Mr. Decker again this week, and I looked more closely at his painting of the Lenawee. It turns out he’s not a WW2 vet, but rather a veteran from the Korean War. He was on board the ship 1950-1954.

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