The other night, I was watching VH1’s Best Of series, and they were reviewing the year of 1976. I was pretty young back then but we did have a TV and I was a voracious viewer at that age. So when they showcased the Captain and Tenille Variety Show, you can bet that I have a few episodes of that piece of Americana tucked back in the recesses of my cluttered mind. It also dislodged an old memory of mine.
I simply loved the Captain and Tenille show, but more so, I was mesmerized by how beautiful I thought Tenille was. She was everything a woman needed to be in a nice, neat, homogenized package. Blonde, big eyed, dazzling teeth, not-to-curvy body, complete with a microphone permanently welded to her right hand. And that voice! She clearly was a superstar in my tiny, impressionable eyes. By second grade, I am pretty sure I aspired to be just like her. I say “pretty sure” only because I aspired to be a lot of things during that year, like a flying monkey, Princess Leia, and a World Overlord, to name but a few. I was a very indecisive child when it came to what I wanted to be when I grew up.
When I was seven, my parents split up and my father was banished to live in my grandparent’s attic. We would see him on weekends over at my grandparents house, which we often enjoyed, for their house was a bit of a Funplex for us. There was a manmade creek behind their house, stocked (not purposely, I’m sure) full of tadpoles just begging to be caught in old jars, a breezeway on the second floor that we often tied sheets to the railing and swung off of, a la Tarzan, and my grandma’s lamp made of a gumball machine, with real gumballs inside it. My father’s attic room was a place of wonder, with its steeply angled, raw ceiling, bare lightbulb and dark wooden paneled walls, it screamed “secret hideout” to us kids, and was a favorite place of ours to cuddle up to read stories with him (we slept in the guest room downstairs). Despite my anxiety over my parents’ split, I really enjoyed visiting on the weekends.
One Sunday, before we were shuttled back home, my father was in the bathroom fiddling with his hair. He pulled out a pair of scissors and did a quick trim on himself. My father prided himself on the fact that he could cut and style his own hair, perfecting the “windblown feather” cut to a T. I watched him with great interest until he was satisfied with his trim. He looked over to me.
“What do you think?” he asked. Since his hair was only transformed by a mere centimeter, it looked almost the same as before, but I told him it looked good.
Then a thought occurred to me: if my daddy can cut hair, maybe he could cut my hair too. Maybe…just like… TENILLE.
“Daddy, can you cut my hair too?” I asked him. He thought a second and smiled.
“Of course I can! How would you like it?”
“Like Tenille,” I gushed. He furrowed his brow, no doubt reviewing the database of faces in his mind.
“How is her hair, Jules?” he asked me. I was incredulous. How could he not know? Everyone knows Tenille. My dad was a musician, a rock musician at that, didn’t he know her?
“Like this” I pantomimed around my head a rough estimate of a longish bowlcut with feathered bangs. His brows remained furrowed as he watched me. I suspect my voguing routine made no sense to him, and in hindsight, he should have chosen that moment to back out, but my dad was an adventurer, and more so, wanted to please his darling children in any way he could. He shook his head.
“Round in the back,” I said. He nodded. I happily went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet while my dad draped a towel around me. He carefully combed out my very long, straight, almond hued hair with his little black utilitarian comb, snipped a couple practice snips in the air, then began to work on my transformation from average second grader to Diva.
Although he was to my back, I could tell he was getting frustrated with his work. He’d snip a few times, pause then grunt in apparent disapproval before snipping again. I noticed my head was feeling lighter and lighter, and with a little trepidation I noticed the sound of the shears getting closer and closer to my ears.
“It’s just not even,” I heard my dad grumbling to himself.
“Is it looking good, Daddy?” I asked, hesitation hovering in my squeaky voice.
“It will, Jules. I just have to fix some things,” he replied. Snip snip.
“Okay,” he said, stepping back, “I think we’ve got it. Want to see your new ‘do, Miss Tenille?”
I clapped my hands together, excited. He dusted off my neck – hey, how come I feel air on my neck? – and helped me off the toilet. I looked down and froze.
There was a haphazard pile of hair on the floor, enough to make a wig. I was puzzled, and then put my hand to my head and noticed that I could barely grab a handful in my tiny fist. Panic gripped me before I even had a chance to look into the mirror. I had well-oiled waterworks and already my brain was calling in the troops to kick-start my tear ducts into full throttle. I finally made myself look at my reflection.
I could see my dad standing behind me, a weak, worried smile on his face, eyebrows lifted practically up to his hairline. Directly below him stood one of Fagin’s street urchins, a little boy in a yellow shirt, hair chopped in a variety of lengths, the longest of which was maybe two inches. It looked as if a lawnmower attacked my cranium. I took a big, deep breath and screeched.
“I DON’T LOOK LIKE TENILLE! I LOOK HORRIBLE! DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO?” A deep, primal wail rolled up my windpipe and I began to weep. I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore, and even if I tried, my vision was obscured by large tears forming and splattering down my face.
“I did what you asked me to,” my dad said, “you don’t like it?”
“I – asked – you – to – round – the - baaaaackk,” I sobbed, “not – cut – it – all – offffff!”
“I’m sorry honey, I misunderstood,” my dad apologized. Even now I find his apology lame. How could he NOT realize he had royally screwed up? Why didn’t he put down those scissors when he first sensed this was way over his head? Was it pride? Or retardedness?
For the first time, I demanded I go home that very instant. My dad meekly complied and piled us kids into the car. I did not let up on my howling, so many tears escaped my eyes I’m sure I must have dehydrated myself in the process. I remember one point looking up, my eye peeking through my fingers, to see my little sister staring back at me, her mouth partly open, silent and looking thoroughly stunned. Her eyes said it all: Holy Crap, what happened to my big sister’s head?
I think the reality of the measure of his screw up came when my mother opened the door, heard my crying and looked down at me.
“Oh my God, David, what did you do to her?” my mom was incredulous.
“She asked me to cut her hair, so I did,” said my dad.
“Not like this! I wanted hair like Tenille,” I interjected.
“David, she’s seven years old and you’re the adult,” my mom snapped at him. “I don’t think anyone would want this kind of haircut, you butchered her hair! What were you thinking?”
My dad sheepishly responded, “I thought I could do it, I’m really good with hair.”
“David, just because you cut your hair in one kind of style doesn’t mean you’re a qualified hair dresser. It’s one thing to trim her bangs but Jesus, this is unreal. Just promise me you never ever touch a hair on her head, at least without talking to me!”
And with that, my mom ushered us in, grabbed our overnight bags, and slammed the door. My dad was in deep doodoo.
“You can’t go to school like this tomorrow, I gotta think,” my mom said more to herself than me. The thought of going to school like this, a school in which I already was on the brink of being a social pariah, set me into another wave of sobbing. My mom grabbed the phone and started making phone calls. She called her friend Penny, a hairdresser, and begged her to please see me after hours that evening, it was an emergency.
“David tried to cut her hair,” I heard my mom explain, ”and I think a blind man with epilepsy could have done a better job. You will not believe this.”
Penny agreed, and I was whisked off to her hair studio. Penny took one look and stifled a laugh, covered her mouth, inspected my head, shook her curly mane slowly back and forth.
“Wow,” was all she said.
“Can you fix it?” my mom asked. Penny thought for a minute.
“There are so many lengths on her head, it’s going to be a challenge. It almost would be easier to shave her down and start over, but we can’t do that, can we?” she kneeled down to me and smiled. “I’ll take care of you honey, don’t worry. We’ll fix this all up.”
Penny worked on me for over an hour. She managed to get my hair into a sort of feathered-boy-pixie-cut thing – way before Meg Ryan’s famous shag – and told my mom to both never let my dad cut his children’s hair, and for her to bring me back in each month so she could continue grooming my hair. It took over six months to work it into a short bob with bangs.
I only had one picture taken of me in second grade, and that was my class picture. I hate that picture, I had that terrible short haircut and coupled with my Goodwill welfare getup, I truly looked pathetic. Thankfully the kids never teased me about it – even they could tell that something tragic occurred to my once-beautiful long tresses, and there’s only so much bullying a child can take, the haircut was punishment enough. I never forgave my dad for that episode, and we chose never to discuss the matter ever again, although Penny took joy in ribbing my father over his hair cutting skills for many years afterwards. My dad got the hint and his scissors never snip snipped another head ever again.