By Cal Evans
The origins of the â€œLegend of the Barber Chairâ€ are shrouded in mystery. Some say that the family was on an â€˜antiquing outingâ€™ in the Carolina foothills. Others say it was a trip home from a day at school with Dad. (Gardner Web College for those who are interested in such trivia) What is known is that on this fine day found the family happily traversing the highways of North Carolina in our aging Datson Almost Wagon.
As always, Dad was driving, navigating the byways with the skill of an experienced pilot who had a live snake in the cockpit. As was our tradition, my sister and I were fighting in the backseat. Occasionally, Dad would pivot his head 180 degrees, glower at us and make threatening noises. In later years, after graduation, he found innovative uses for his new class ring. He found that by spinning it so that the stone was on the underside, he could rake his palm across the back seat and raise a whelp on each of our skulls with a single pass (My sister and I not yet being bright enough to duck). But I digress.
Mom was keeping watch out for the next antique store. In those days, long before Starbucks, antique stores occupied every other street corner, which is why it took us so long to get home most days (and explains the fact that Mom canâ€™t pass a Starbucks without stopping, old habits die hard). And so it was, we found ourselves in the dusty gravel parking lot of â€œ Trash or Treasuresâ€ in the wastelands of Generica.
We piled out of the Almost Wagon. My sister was nestled snug Dadâ€™s arms because Mom had leapt from the moving car as we entered the parking lot. By the time we had caught up with her, she had spied several treasures and was now eagerly working to convince the shop owner that she wasnâ€™t really interested in them but might be persuaded otherwise. Mom continued to sleuth treasures from the trash heap as we, the roadies from her personal â€˜Antique Road Showâ€™ wandered aimlessly through the aisles of â€˜tarnished treasuresâ€™ and â€˜hidden values,â€™ or so the sign tried to convince us. From my kneecap level view, it looked more like piles of dust, lots of piles of dust. I kept thinking how much trouble I would be in if I brought something like this into the house.
Suddenly, we heard the victory cry of â€˜Jackie, The Antiquer.â€™ It echoed through the isles like the call of the mighty Viking warrior, striking fear into the hearts of all men carrying wallets.
â€œJerry!â€ The sound hissed from her mouth as she was at once trying to draw my fatherâ€™s attention but not the shop keepers.
â€œJerry, come here quick.â€ I could see my fatherâ€™s shoulders sag slightly as he realized what the call meant.
â€œLook!â€ she stage-whispered and did her best Vanna White imitation. (Quite a feat since â€œWheelâ€ would not begin airing for another 15-20 years!)
The object of my mothers affection was…well…it was moth-eaten. The first thing you noticed when you came near it was the smell of rotting cotton. It was, to put it mildly, pungent. The odor rose, almost visibly, from a turn of the century barber chair. Caked in dust and mold now, if you squinted your eyes you could almost see it shiny and new, the wide porcelain base gleaming white, the red vinyl seat shiny and new with silver piping to match the large chrome pump handle used to raise it. In the right light it was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the â€˜right lightâ€™ burned out 30 years ago and now it was just so must dust and mildew and sharp pointy things, sticking out of the cushions at odd angles.
â€œIsnâ€™t it beautiful?â€ she exclaimed in a low voice. Dad and I looked around to see what she was talking about as she stood there pointing. Finally, it dawned on us that she was talking about the chair. We stood dumbfound, which she took as agreement.
â€œI could fix this up and put it in Calâ€™s room.â€ she said.
Now we had never been a wealthy family, as our string of chalk-yellow vehicles will attest to, but up till this time, when I did get new furniture, it was usually new. Once in a while it was hand-me-down, but it had never been junk! I stood in shocked silence, which she took for glee.
â€œWe could paint it, and stuff it, and re-chrome the metal. I could sew a new cushion (I almost giggled knowing that my mother cooked far better than she sewed.) and then put it in your room for a reading chair. I said the first thing that came into my mind (which in my case is NEVER a good thing to do).
Proving once again that justice in the Evans family was swift if not fair Dad promptly applied the palm of his hand to the back of my head as one would to a handball in a championship match. I stood there rubbing the back of head tenderly, while Dad tried to think of some reason, any reason that would dissuade her from this course of action. I like to think that Dad was looking out for me. That he realized that there were many ways a child of six could get hurt on this reject from hellâ€™s amusement park. But I have come to realize that Dad, in that flash of an instant, saw briefly into the future. He saw himself trying to fit it into the car. And so he faltered, which mom took as acquiescence.
Dad had not even fired a shot before realizing that he had lost the war. He lowered his eyes and turned slowly towards the car. He opened the hatchback and began rearranging the other treasures found that day including a kerosene heater. It was this heater that taught us the chemistry lesson later that same day. The smell of kerosene, spilt onto plastic car mats, will integrate itself into the very metal of the car and will linger for years to come. I wrote a chemistry paper on it years later in high school.
Laying the backseat down to reveal the wagon part of the Almost Wagon, he began working the chair that the owner, smiling more than he should have, had just rolled out to us on a furniture dolly. He and Dad grunted and groaned but finally it was in and as secure as a ball of twine could make it. My sister and I were then shoe-horned into the remaining spaces around it for our ride home. (She still insists that we were used as padding but I like to give them the benefit of the doubt.) Since the seat was laid down, we were not afforded the safety of a lap belt. Therefore we held onto pieces of the twine tied to the bumper and the bottom of the hatchback. And so we rode, passing the rest of the â€˜Starbuckâ€™s placeholdersâ€™ by because Rules of Antique Acquisition states that when the car is full, the shopping is done. And we are nothing without the Rules of Antique Acquisition.
The Almost Wagon struggled valiantly up the 40 degree incline that was our driveway and into the back yard. We piled out and Mom took my sister into the house. Obviously what was about to happen was â€˜manâ€™sâ€™ work, but I stayed anyhow.
Dad backed the car up to the back of the house. There was a small 3 foot wide strip of grass that ran between the house and the sidewalk, along the back of the house. It was onto this fertile ground that my father, for the first time known to man, planted a barber chair. The porcelain base hit the ground with a thud I could feel through the soles of my Keds. It was as if it knew, this was its final resting place. The chair knew it was home, the rest of us were living a charade in pretending otherwise.
Dad parked the car and discovered the truth about Kerosene as Mom exited the house, tea in her left hand for Dad, hair in a kerchief in a look that all mothers make beautiful and a toolbox dangling from her right. She handed Dad his tea and kissed his face, which was darkened with anger by this time over the kerosene. Then she headed over to her prize. I watched as she circled it, inspecting her new project. A diamond cutter takes no fewer precautions before cleaving a new stone as my mother did with this chair. Round and round she went, examining it from each angle, sizing up her line of attack.
Soon it became apparent that she was unsure where to start. It was only as Dad was about to enter the house, to wash the kerosene off his hands that she found her inspiration.
â€œJerry!â€ she said with a loving forcefulness in her voice, and for the second time that day, I saw resignation in my fatherâ€™s eyes.
â€œCome help me take this apart,â€ cleverly disguising her meaning of â€œCome take this apart for meâ€ in a word â€˜help.â€™ Dad obediently sat down and began attacking the first screw he saw. Mom began to dust it off as Dad struggled. The more she cleaned, the more we could clearly see it. The dust veneer served the important function of protecting the rust from the elements.
Dad grunted and groaned. He sprayed liberal amounts of canned lubricant on each thread and slowly and purposefully, he dismantled the beast. With each piece, a small part of his anger and frustration came off. By the end he was actually whistling, sitting there covered in dust, rust and kerosene fumes, he resembled several of the treasures Mom passed over in the store.
Finally the last piece was removed and laid aside. The screws were all secured in a baby food jar and placed on a shelf and Mom began making plans for rust removal, re-chroming and reupholster.
Summer turned to fall, which was followed by winter. Winter turned into spring and was quickly followed by summer again. We passed one full rotation around the sun. On a bright summer day, a friend from church was over visiting. As we walked out of the house, he glanced over at restoration turned horticulture project and asked the question I had now answered 100 times.
â€œItâ€™s a barber chair.â€ And I left it at that.
Four more revolutions around the sun and it was time for us to move. In the contract to sell the house was a most peculiar clause requiring the new owners to take possession and responsibility for one barber chair… dis-assembled.