Having Parkinson’s disease has made me an “old man” before my time, I am afraid. [And I really am afraid but that is a topic for another time.] Bradykinesia has slowed my stride, altered my gait, and when Parkinson’s is in full attack, makes it painful for anyone to watch me execute even the most simple of movements. I recall being at a breakfast meeting a few years ago, well before any official (or even unofficial) diagnosis of PD, and I was struggling to locate and pull the tab on a small packet of peanut butter when the person sitting beside me (a colleague and a friend) reached over and said brusquely, “Oh for God’s sake, I can’t stand it, just give it to me. I’ll open it.” And she did. I was not offended as I really wanted the peanut butter and it was increasingly looking like I would not be successful in achieving that goal. Other simple things such as the act of pulling on one’s pants (trying to do that easily without losing your balance) are common challenges for us Parkies. I recall hurrying to pull on my tuxedo pants as we were getting ready for my retirement party, stumbling and pulling a hamstring severely enough to cause bruising. I spent most of the party limping around, trying not to admit that I hurt myself dressing! Strangely, getting one’s pants off does not seem to be an issue for me, for some reason. The old saying that “everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time” is meant to equalize the playing field i.e., we all equal at a basic level – except for Parkies, because we often put our pants on “no legs at a time” or “one leg forever at a time.”
Rolling over in bed is still another matter. Most Parkies have difficulty rolling over in bed. I know I did, and still do, so that is why I train and practice this skill in my sessions with my physiotherapists. I kid you not. Not being able to “skooch over” in bed used to drive me crazy and I would regularly complain to Anne, my wife, that I couldn’t believe I was getting so old that I was not able to roll over to get out of bed. At the time, we didn’t know that I had Parkinson’s and it is testament to her patience and understanding (and, I believe, her love for me) that she never actually threw me out of bed during those years. I have heard of other Parkies using silk sheets in order to make it easier to slide along in bed. Having never tried silk sheets, I am not sure if it works, and every time I raise it, Anne just rolls her eyes and says no. Is there some other connotation that I missing here? In any case, I have noticed that when I wear a t-shirt to bed it is much more difficult to roll over and/or reposition myself. Friction holding me back? Sleeping au naturel seems to be the solution, [OK, maybe that is too much information.]
I think I will dedicate a future post to delineating and elaborating on many of these early indicators of my Parkinson’s … but for now, I will only add that rigidity, inflexibility, and coordination challenges have made me less likely to move smoothly or to bend down gracefully to pick up any object from the floor or ground, and a loss of balance has made me walk more unsteadily than I have in the past. That, plus the indisputable fact that I actually am getting older, is culminating in my new persona of “old man.” Note: I hasten to add that my physiotherapists are working very diligently to delay this onset of “old age” and the progression of Parkinson’s, somewhat successfully I believe. I shall write about their heroic efforts in a later blog but for now suffice to say that “old age” is sometimes more of a title than it is a condition.
To illustrate, one of my daughters told me about 15 years ago that the kids on our street call me “old man Marshall,” bestowing upon me, at the then grand old age of 50, the same moniker that children in our village had bestowed on my own father when he was about 40 years old. Further, his initials were R. B. and he used them always, and specifically, to identify himself in any letter or official document. This struck others as unnecessary or maybe pretentious and so, consistent with the dictates of small town humour, he was equally referred to as “Rubber Boot” to elongate the R.B. to a full extension.
My father passed away a few years ago and among his effects were several straight razors, some barber’s scissors and a razor strap, carefully set aside for me by my sisters on the correct assumption that I would most likely want them more than they did. They had been stored at my sister’s place a few thousand kilometres from where I live. I had considered bringing them home with me when I visited a few years’ ago but figured it was not likely that I would be able to take five straight razors as carry-on baggage at the airport. And of course, I have had a full beard since 1969 so I wasn’t really desperate to put them into immediate use.
But these straight razors triggered a series of memories about shaving from my youth. No, these are not memories of me shaving but memories from long before I hit puberty. These memories include observing my maternal grandfather Bill and my father shave, both using straight razors. It was a fascinating experience for a 4 – or 5-year-old boy. Using a brush with brown and white bristles, grandfather would lather the shaving cream until it stood with stiff peaks like meringue my mother would make. Unfailingly he would plop a big daub on the end of my nose and I would laugh and wipe my nose furiously. Sometimes he would use the brush and apply cream to my soft, fuzzy plump cheeks using the dull side of the razor “to shave” my face. The whole process was both intriguing and spellbinding. Who needed television? … We didn’t have one anyway.
Our father worked for many years as a barber and “faced” a lot of bristles on the heads of many “old men” from our village and the surrounding farming community. And you haven’t lived until you have watched a barber’s scissors deftly enter the nostril of an 80-year-old farmer to trim a 2-inch (no metric in those days) long nose hair that has been waving with each heavy breath through a bulbous nose. By that measure then, I guess I have lived. My father’s fingers spread that nostril wide to ensure clean access to the hair without nipping nostril walls that resembled hillsides of clear-cut stumps. As I was only four or five years old I had the perfect angle from the foot of the barber’s hydraulic chair to see clean up both nostrils. And, thank goodness, the nostrils were usually clean except for one or two long remaining fibres.
Snip – the harvest was complete – and the farmer’s lips formed a pucker reaching almost to the tip of his nose before giving way to the quivering walls of his nostrils and, at the same time, engaging the whole of his throat in a massive, loud, reflexive and reverberating response to the tickle of the withdrawal of the scissors. I learned to always jump back to avoid any wet fallout from this ticklish operation or any inadvertent kick from those manure-caked boots. [Hey look, sometimes they cleaned them, and sometimes they didn’t.]
A similar operation was performed on the ears, consigning any long protruding aerial hairs and accompanying shrubbery to the barber shop floor. The sunburned ears with their red veined road maps echoed those on the nose, and both shone in their newfound cleanliness and exposure. A quick trim of the eyebrows and part one of the Saturday night ritual was completed with a flap of the apron sending a cloud of hair and whiskers flying in every direction, and I scrambled to avoid being covered in icky itchiness.
With the hair, nose and ear jobs complete, my father would reattach the apron tightly around the farmer’s neck with a clip, lather up a brush on a cake of shaving soap in cup of warm water and proceed to cover the nape of the patron’s neck and his face with a thick coat of wet foam, being careful not to put too much under the nose to avoid having it sucked up into that enormous cavern. In retrospect I doubt whether anything white had ever been snorted up that nose … but I digress. I note with interest that the extra-clean feel of a straight razor shave of the nape of the neck is a specific hot selling point in modern-day barbershops, and a straight razor shave of the beard is billed as superior tonsorial sensual splendour.
With lightning and frightening speed my father “stropped” the straight razor to an equally frightening sharpness before carefully pulling the skin to the correct tautness that begged to be shaved. My father gripped the razor in a seemingly awkward manner and proceeded to draw it across the skin on the left side of the farmer’s face, removing both shaving cream and whiskers, producing a distinctive “rasp” sound as the still wiry whiskers were cut as close to being under the skin as was physically possible. This was repeated on the right side of the face but with my father now gripping the razor in such a manner as to use an equally awkward-looking “back-handed” stroke until every square inch of the face and neck was harvested of hairs. The denouement included my father taking the farmer’s fleshy nose firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, squeezing it to close the air passages, and pulling it up into the snooty position deftly pulled the straight razor with his right hand down over the philtrum or infranasal depression – that little hollow leading down from the nose to the lip, risking calamity with each gentle stroke. Amazingly, the crevices and crevasses of the leathery face were now visible, free of any unwanted foliage. A hot, steamy towel was retrieved from a heated chrome and glass container and placed over the face, eliciting a sigh of relief from both the farmer … and my dad. A final splash of after shave was applied and the farmer was fit to return to active duty with his wife and family if he had them, and if not, then to the general two-legged and four-legged public with whom he customarily consorted.
Occasionally, the razor did not navigate the folds of the face and neck so cleanly and a spot of blood would appear after the razor’s pass. The bleeding was quickly staunched with a little rub of yellowish astringent powder kept in a small packet on a ledge underneath the mirror behind the chair. With any kind of luck the astringent was all that was necessary as the cut was not a slice but a “nick” in my father’s words. He was embarrassed when such events happened and it showed on his face especially as he turned the patron around in the chair and held a mirror behind so that the full 360-degree effect of the haircut, shave and ear/nose/eyebrow trimming could be viewed. Any little pieces of tissue stuck to the skin to staunch the flow of blood certainly detracted from the professionalism of the job. I recall this happening only two or three times in all the hours of my childhood watching. Still, I watched this work with the same fascination with which people watch reality TV today – hoping for a major mistake.
At the end of these ablutions, the old farmer fished 75 cents out of his rubber squeeze change purse, gave it to my father and thanked him, before rubbing my head with his strong earthy hands and heading out into the cool summer night air. This transaction was my very first exposure to commerce. The old saw “shave and a haircut, two bits” had already been supplanted by “shave and a haircut, six bits” due to inflation, I guess. Individually, the haircut was 45 cents and the shave was 30 cents. Children could get their haircut for 25 cents. This was my first exposure to commerce; and it was, I believe, also my first exposure to “price fixing.”
Have you ever wondered who cuts the barber’s hair in a one-horse town? The answer is: a barber from another one-horse town, of course. In this case, there were three one-horse towns lined up along Highway 23, each with its own barber. Ralph cut hair in Miami (no, not Florida) ‘Bose was the barber in Somerset (no, not England), and my dad barbered in Altamont (no, not California.) In the early years, and in line with all stereotypes, they each ran poolrooms in conjunction with the barbershop. On several occasions, I went with dad to see Ralph or ‘Bose whereupon they cut each other’s hair. Fair trade. However, on one occasion all three were present. Who cut whose hair I don’t recall, but there was discussion about the fair going rate for haircuts. In the car on the way home I learned that in my father’s shop a haircut had gone up in price from 40 cents to 45 cents and a shave had also risen by 5 cents to 35 cents. I have reason to believe that prices in neighbouring communities also increased accordingly, necessitated by changes in the economy and undoubtedly implemented by the “invisible hand of the market.”
Apparently, “old style” or “traditional” barbershops and the straight razor are making a return. I recently saw a local news report highlighting the delights of the close, clean shave of the straight razor, and the soothing, relaxing pampering of hot towels drawing every last bit of tension from your rediscovered baby bottom smooth cheeks. Of course, the cost to achieve this state of nirvana is much higher these days than it was in the mid-1950s. According to the price list of one establishment, a barber cut costs $22 (more if you have long hair.) If you want the full treatment the price increases exponentially: shampoo $8, traditional shave $37, neck shave $10, for a total cost of $77 plus tip. The rate of inflation in Canada from 1950 to 2015 is approximately 785%, or put more succinctly, an eighty-cent shave and a haircut in 1955 would cost $7.11 in 2015 if one considers the effect of inflation alone. I guess the remaining $70 represents value added improvement in technique, atmosphere and attentiveness – the so called “art and science” of the barbering experience. Price fixing or not, our father could never hope to earn a living barbering in the 1950s and 1960s, even as only one of a host of jobs he was doing simultaneously. He left the profession to pursue a more proletarian life as a stationery engineer in a pulp and paper mill.
My father would sometimes make house calls providing tonsorial services to several older gentlemen and ladies in and around the village. Before I was in school [school for us started only in Grade 1 as there was no such thing as kindergarten and I cannot help but think that I have suffered greatly over the years from that significant disadvantage,] I would sometimes accompany him on these visits usually made on Thursday afternoons when our village shops and businesses came to a halt, closed for a half-day’s rest. In many other communities, closing day was Monday but the merchants and business owners along Highway 23 had reached an agreement that a respite on Thursday afternoon was all that was necessary to ensure quality of life for themselves and their families. Of course, no one was open on Sundays as it was the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day of Prayer, and a day of rest to spend with family. But I digress and I shall post some observations on the historical underpinnings of the decline of the Sabbath in small towns at a future time.
While my father rarely violated the strictures of no work on Sundays except perhaps to work in our extensive vegetable gardens or to putter amongst the flower beds, he did allow that he could break the commercial standard on a Thursday afternoon to make a house call to provide a cooling haircut and/or soothing shave to an ailing gentleman who was no longer mobile enough to make the trek to the shop, or to make a senior lady feel more presentable, if not beautiful, by cutting her hair, providing a style or perhaps even a “perm.”
I enjoyed accompanying my father on these calls because not only did I get to see my father’s skill with the scissors and razor, but I got to see the inside of many houses where I would not otherwise be permitted to enter. I won’t bore you here with details of every visit I ever went on (I reserve the right to do that in a later post) but I will take this occasion to talk about one memorable one.
About one-half mile west of our village there was an abandoned farmhouse, probably one of the original homesteads in the area dating back to the 1890s. It looked like its occupants had either left in a hurry or left without means to take their belongings with them. As children, we would walk a gravel road to the point where we turned to tramp across a wheat field and into what was once a farmyard. The three requisite identifiers of any prairie farmyard were present – an out of control crowd of lilac shrubs, a patch of rhubarb and a row of daylilies (common ditch lilies.) Undoubtedly, it was a good house and home when it was built but now it was ramshackle to say the least and we entered gingerly not knowing what might befall us as we entered or, more precisely, what might fall on us as we entered. It had been a two-storey house but much of the second floor had now unceremoniously sagged and slipped onto the first floor. We poked at the hanging bits that looked most precarious to ascertain their structural integrity. Once a path had been determined, and once we convinced ourselves that there were no critters in residence, we entered into a time warp, into history, into the halcyon hay days of the1920s and then beyond, into the soul destroying dust of the “dirty thirties.” We were in amongst the old horsehair furniture – couches and chaise lounges with the leather now badly worn, torn, flea-eaten and weather-beaten. Successive seasons of sun, rain and snow had done its nasty handiwork and the grand times and comfort in those pieces of furniture had long since fled. We felt no urge to rest upon them.
I suspect that anything of antique value, or heading in that direction, had long since been taken by remaining family members or antique scavengers who saw it as their right to enter any property that appeared abandoned and was not locked, to swiftly and silently carry away pieces as surely as crows or magpies scoop up shiny things never to be found again. In the kitchen we discovered that they had not yet realized the future value of old mason jars and there were many shelves … well many broken shelves, with mason jars of preserves still intact. I recall we often wondered whether said contents were edible, daring each other to have a taste. Thank goodness we all had sufficient brains (and cowardice) to resist such foolhardy taunts and not succumb to deadly bravado.
One summer afternoon, I accompanied my father out that way but we were not interested in this old house, surprisingly. Instead, dad turned the Austin Healy off the road a short distance to the east of it and travelled what I can only describe as a footpath – one that was not all that well travelled suggesting that few footfalls ever reached even this short distance from the highway, and even fewer vehicles left impressions of tire treads in the dirt. We proceeded, the grass brushing against the bottom of the car, until it’s sound sounded unsound – if you know what I mean. I was standing on the seat (no seat belts in those days remember) straining to see our destination as the car slowed to a halt. I peered through the windscreen and the dust (grass pollen, spores, dirt) and insects that our car had set flying and fleeing. It was a warm day, cicadas stinging the air, invisible in the trees. At first, my eyes could not adjust to the sharp contrast between light and shade in the sun’s glare, but my father pointed to a small shack, lurking in the deep shadows of the bush, with its distinctive weathered gray siding and shingles so typical of rural poverty. Its front door … well the only door … opened out of the shrubbery and onto the clearing. That was our destination. But who were we to see and why?
My father fetched a small hard – sided black box from the trunk of the car and I knew that a haircut and possibly a shave were in the offing. A sharp rap on the shack door brought the hairy mountain man out into the open. Without a doubt he had heard us approaching as a dog barked on the other side of the door, but he had chosen not to open the door until we summoned. This was the man that we all knew to be Dick Mussell, and I am certain that he was, indeed, Dick Mussell.
The Mussells were among the first settlers in the area and the first local Post Office was located at Mussellboro or Mussellborough in the very early days. According to “The High Mountain: A History of the Altamont, Manitoba District” written by Ms. Beula Swain, and dated September 1973, Mr. Henry Mussell was appointed postmaster at Mussellborough in 1884 and the Post Office was located in his house. I believe that Mussellborough was situated a mile of so east and about a half mile south of the present town site of Altamont. According to Ms. Swain, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railroad, built in 1889, cut through the hills just to the north of Mussellborough to Altamont where a water tower and a coal shed were built to provide sustenance for the steam locomotives, and a turning wye made it possible for the locomotives to be at the head of the train going each direction. Commerce, no doubt, shifted to Altamont to be close to the railroad, and the rest of Mussellborough went with it. Sadly, I don’t believe there is any marker, plaque or cairn to mark this historic now disappeared village.
The firemen on the steam locomotives quickly learned that their work was cut out for them as they pitched coal and wood into the boilers powering the locomotives up the steady grade from Morris to present day Miami, Manitoba and then up and over the two escarpments known as the Manitoba Escarpment (or Pembina Hills to some), the remnants of the shores of glacial Lake Agassiz. They would achieve the pinnacle, the highest point of land between Morris and Virden, approximately two miles west of Mussellborough, and upon cresting that ridge the trains began an easier downhill run to the western terminus at Virden, Manitoba.
The return trip east to Morris was easier but required great skill from the engineers to keep the cars from spilling their contents in a derailment if speed levels were not controlled. There were a few rail accidents when I was a child and crews would arrive and stay in Altamont, usually in bunk cars parked on the spur lines running past the grain elevators. The section foreman who lived just on the eastern edge of town in a CNR-owned house, would be in charge of the clean up.
I do recall one incident that could have ended very badly, but didn’t. It was, however, an incident that exemplifies the truth that it was all-downhill from there, so to speak. Some empty grain cars were sitting on a spur line near the siding of Deerwood just east of Altamont. The grade from Deerwood east was quite steep through the escarpments and it seems that a howling west wind was responsible for assisting two of these cars to begin journeys independent of any locomotion or human guidance. Perhaps the cars’ brakes were not applied properly through either human error or mechanical failure, and/or the time honoured tradition and requirement that a piece of wood be jammed under the leading edge wheels to prohibit forward movement was ignored, and/or the spur line had inadvertently remained connected to the mainline at the switch. The fact of the matter is that more than one of these possibilities had to be true for the cars to escape custody. [Given present-day rail “accidents”, I sometimes think that while the technology and the magnitude of rail traffic may have changed, not much has really changed in the internal logic of rail movement.] In any case, the two cars, aided by that strong west wind, began a slow creep down the grade. At some point a half-mile or so separated them, doubling the danger quotient of their movement. Slowly they gained momentum passing silently through farmland, before reaching speeds that sent them whistling through level crossings without the required blast of the train whistle, careening perilously around long corners of track snaking through the hills, passing unnoticed through the villages of Miami, Rosebank and Jordan before coasting to a stop somewhere on the other side of Roland, Manitoba.
One can only imagine the consternation of a grain elevator agent discovering that two grain cars had gone AWOL. What to do? Get on the phone, have the telephone operator issue a distress signal (one long continuous ring) on the party lines, calling on everyone to be on the lookout for strange rail cars sailing through their communities. Send a telegram to the CNR to let them know that it would not be wise to deploy any rolling stock on the main line until the rogue cars were back in captivity. Then, proceed along the track, from the uphill side (having learned the principle of gravity from your earliest experiences as a boy trying to pee uphill.) At some point you would catch up.
Today, Twitter, Facebook and other social media would not only have located the cars before the agent had noticed they were missing, but segments of video documenting their ‘hilarious’ ride through the escarpments and a cobbled together compilation would go viral within a few hours. Like storm chasers with cell phones on hands – free, crazy people would monitor sighting reports and speed across the prairie on dusty and rarely travelled back roads hoping to capture that one moment that would make them famous – that moment when they were able to warn someone in imminent danger just in time to save their lives – or, sadly, but maybe better still for fame and notoriety, that moment when several tonnes of rail rolling stock crashes into a busload of corporate sales representatives on a tour organized by a major chemical company showcasing fields treated with 2-4-D or DDT.
In truth, and gladly, the end result was newsworthy only for being uneventful and for the fact that the cars had escaped at all. For me, it was yet further proof of just how sparse the population is across that part of the prairie, and proof that Altamont really was on higher ground. You see, settlers in this area were known to have settled on “The Mountain” and there is documentation that mail was actually addressed to them with that locator. It all seems rather amusing now as, if you know that area of Manitoba, mountains are a creature of “relativity” at best and if you had ever seen the Rockies or even the Laurentians, the idea that there was a mountain anywhere close to Altamont would seem ludicrous. Be that as it may, Altamont was so named because of its location on the mountain.
It is only fitting then that the “high mountain” should have a “mountain man” and Dick Mussell was larger than life to me and seemed to fit that bill. I can only assume that Dick was part of the Mussellborough Mussell lineage and at some point in his life had opted for an alternative lifestyle. On the day dad and I went to visit he sported a long beard with turbulent rivers of gray and white, and the hair on his head was matted like an unshorn sheep. His attire was early coveralls, not the height of fashion.
Dick would venture into town every few weeks on a Saturday to purchase supplies including a sack of flour, some bacon and beans, a few hard candies, and to imbibe some refreshment at the local hotel. It was a men’s only hotel in those days, as women had not yet attained that exalted status of patron of the bar. Without fail a rifle of some sort accompanied Dick. It may have been a .22 calibre but I believe it was often a .30-30 or perhaps a .30 – 06 (thirty ought six as my father would say.) If I proceed with any further descriptions, someone more knowledgeable will cringe and call me to task. Suffice to say that it makes an impression on a small boy when a mountain man complete with a rifle moves into his orbit. I don’t think I had ever seen a rifle before, or a mountain man for that matter.
Even today, I know nothing of guns, as we never had any in our house, although my uncle on the farm had several and knew how to use them. I have personally witnessed the shotgun deaths of several magpies, largely seen as unwanted pests on farms. Other than that, Chuck Connors and The Rifleman is my main frame of reference and, when I was a boy, I could only watch him occasionally on Orville’s TV – the only one in town.
After a few hours in the hotel at the opposite end of town from his shack, Dick would make his way back along the row of stores collecting his purchases along the way. He would then set out on his horse, Queen, who was able to navigate the way back to Dick’s shack no matter the condition of its rider. Things were not always smooth for Dick. Sometimes the older boys would taunt and tease him. He largely ignored them or shot them a frightening caries filled smile. I remember just trying to stay out of the way but also trying to observe everything I possibly could from some safe haven – perhaps from behind the cattle salt blocks in one of the two general stores … we never resisted having a salty lick or two while we were there.
On one Sunday morning, I awoke to an animated conversation between my parents about how there was blood on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant that my parent’s owned. Later I checked and sure enough, there was enough blood to be noticeable but not enough to make anyone overly alarmed. How did it come to be there? And what did it mean? I guess it could have been blood from a kid falling off a bicycle and landing on his/her head precipitating a scalp wound, bleeding “like a stuck pig” as we used to say. But the tenor of the conversation between my parents gave the lie to that notion. Apparently, it was human blood and something nefarious had happened.
When I asked my dad about it, he allowed that there likely had been a botched attempt at robbery. (There were many other robberies in our town in later years and I will deal with them in due course in future posts.) Apparently, one of the teen boys (girls don’t do this stuff,) let’s call him JBG, attempted to bushwhack Dick in highwayman fashion as he was making his way to his shack, believing that Dick was too drunk to defend himself or to know what was happening. I am not sure why JBG thought he could, or should, steal from a mountain man with a gun but for some reason he hadn’t counted on the fact that Dick had a rifle, knew how to use it and use it he did. At a half mile from town, in the late evening, a gunshot would not have registered on anyone’s ears as being trouble.
Late Saturday evening just before closing, JBG showed up at our restaurant asking for a bandage to dress a wound to his lower leg and shin – a wound which JBG claimed was self-inflicted, the result of a screwdriver slipping as he attempted to repair an old car. It was serious enough for blood to form a small puddle on the sidewalk. From the way my father was talking to my mother, it was clear that he did not believe JBG’s story but assisted him with immediate necessary first aid, and advised him to seek further medical treatment. I am not in a position to know if JBG did, or if he didn’t, seek that assistance. As the nearest doctor was 8 miles away and the nearest hospital was 13 miles away, I tend to think he did not.
As for Dick, he had no advantage to be gained from reporting this incident to the police. It is likely he just wanted to keep his solitary existence … well … solitary. I doubt if there was an RCMP investigation (they patrolled rural areas in the province) but how would I know for sure? I was far too young to have been questioned as a suspect and I had witnessed nothing first hand.
For as long as I can remember there was speculation that the old bachelor “gentlemen” in town had thousands of dollars hidden in their shacks – for they all lived in shacks – under the floor boards, in tobacco cans, wrapped in wax paper, buried in dirt cellars, or even sunk into the human excrement under their one- or two-hole outhouses located behind their premises. [The concept of a three-hole outhouse is just hilarious but I have seen a few in my lifetime.] So maybe it is not surprising that Dick became a target.
But let’s return to the particular visit my dad and I made to Dick’s cabin. There had always been lots of rumours about Dick and how he lived. As is often the case there is a kernel of truth in most rumours, but not the whole truth in any of them. There was no well near the shack and no running water save for a small creek flowing a few hundred yards to the downhill side. While the inside of the shack was tidy enough at first glance, the methodology for such tidiness would not have found favour in any book of etiquette or in the Ladies’ Home Journal so popular at the time.
A cast iron skillet, a tin plate and a couple of eating utensils were neatly tucked up on the far side of a small potbellied stove – a perfect spot for the resident dog to lick scraps and grease until the skillet and plate shone ‘clean.’ My father made specific mention of this dishwashing method as we walked back to the car. As I think back on it, the dog did seem to be partial to a spot on the floor where his nose was not too distant from that skillet and plate.
It was rumoured that Dick never bathed. I did not see anything in that one room shack that resembled a bathtub or a place where even a sponge bath could be taken. Now, to be fair, at that time, our own house in town did not have running water but we always had a space where there was a tub that would be filled with water heated on the stove. Dick did not look or smell like he had bathed recently. Perhaps, he washed in the creek? A second part of this particular rumour was that Dick never took off his underwear and that his body hair grew right through the cloth forming a complex knitted interlacing of protection from the severe cold of the winter. It was accepted as fact that once when Dick had to be admitted to hospital for some emergency surgery, his clothes had to be cut from his body for that very reason. But this was early summer. Surely, he would take off his clothes now. But the logic of rumours is often … well … not logical. I had heard others, not just children but adults as well, say that he never ever took off his clothes and made sure that he had his “long John’s” on 24/7 as he believed that “if it keeps the cold out in the winter, it keeps the heat out in the summer.” If one thinks about insulation, one might concede that there could be a kernel of truth in this logic. I am just not sure that the experience of wearing several layers of clothing, all day, every day, such that it became part of your skin, was one that the human psyche could tolerate and resist the natural temptation to rip it off and run free, naked and clean!
Dick did come into town one time wearing full white long john underwear on top of his other clothes. The explanation at the time was that it was hunting season and he didn’t want some city slicker or other idiot (note the logic here: not all idiots were city slickers but all city slickers were idiots) mistaking him for a deer and taking a pot shot at him. He reasoned that white would make him very visible. I know that blaze orange is the current regulatory requirement for hunter camouflage but I am unsure as to whether that was always the case. Perhaps, it used to be white?
Which brings me to another rumour about Dick – that he always was naked inside his shack. Surely this contradicts the first rumour that Dick never took his clothes off! I am not aware of any evidence that the nakedness rumour was… well … the naked truth. Besides, if you can’t be naked inside your own home, where can you be naked? And what is wrong with that? He was most certainly clothed when my father and I visited him but perhaps he was expecting us. In retrospect, there are often untrue rumours about people and situations that are out of the ordinary and Dick clearly had chosen a lifestyle that eschewed the conveniences of modern life, such as it was, in the mid-twentieth century. It may also be the case that the stories were carefully crafted and perpetuated by older generations to illustrate the folly of not following a good, clean, family (if not Christian) life. In other words, ‘bathe and change your underwear or you will end up like Dick Mussel.’ The stories may also have been a way to ensure that we children did not bother the mountain man avoiding any dangers or misunderstandings. The mere thought of seeing a naked Dick in his shack was a fearsome thing and enough to keep us well away. Hmmm … okay, I am taking too many liberties here. I apologize. Suffice to say, there is much sociology already written about the role of rumours in the social construction of reality in everyday life. [Maybe it is time for me to do some serious research and writing on this matter – but not right now.]
In order to properly carry out the required barbering duties, my father suggests that we take a chair outside for better light and asks Dick to heat some water on the stove. There was a small fire going already, making the shack feel a bit like a steamy sauna on an already quite warm early afternoon. Scissors, combs, brushes and razors were revealed upon opening the travel kit. I don’t really remember much about the haircut or the shave, other than a considerable amount of head and facial hair hit the ground revealing the countenance of a hitherto unseen man. There must have been some particular reason for his desire to approach being respectable in appearance but I don’t know what it was. Perhaps, it was merely an annual summer haircut and shave – whether he needed it or not, as my father always said. Funny, but I find myself repeating that saying each time Anne attacks my hair and I trim my beard after an extended period of tonsorial abstinence. Or perhaps there was a funeral to which Dick felt obliged to attend, putting his best face forward.
I have no reason to believe that the Dick Mussell that my father released from the forest of hair was ‘new and improved’ but I am certain that his appearance was drastically changed. Clean and tidy, he probably no longer carried the mysterious aura of a “mountain man.” But for some strange reason, I don’t really remember the details of his clean shaved face and neat haircut at all, nor any of his defining features. I can only surmise that his shorn persona blended into that mass of male respectability that I have known for the majority of my life. In short, while you would think that his new visage would be the one I remember the most vividly, it isn’t. Rather, I remember friendly eyes shining through the shock of hair that extended seamlessly, but wildly, around his head before his hair was cut.
He was supposed to be the mountain man, a frightening example of someone who not only lived an unconventional lifestyle, but one who also personified the words ‘dirty’ and ‘unkempt.’ The word amongst the boys of the village was that everything at Dick’s place smelled like … well … smelled like smells we seldom smelled … the pungency of a wet dog after rolling in fresh manure combined with the eye watering acridity of wood smoke … the appetite repelling stench of meat left too long out of refrigeration … the stomach churning fetor of an abattoir …. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of these smells. Perhaps, Parkinson’s had already seized the olfactory functions of my neurological system? Not likely.
What I do remember is that the furnishings of Dick’s shack were minimalist, rustic, made from available materials, but cosy nonetheless. There was some small talk between Dick and my father but I was focussed on the dog that seemed to be eyeing me warily as I approached. Dick muttered something that was unintelligible to me but caused the dog to settle noticeably as he and I climb on a horsehide throw and several rag quilts that cover what passes for Dick’s bed and living area. It was strangely comforting to be enveloped by the smells of horse, dog, and mountain man and, dare I say, human kindness. It was not an act of human kindness but the smell of human kindness. I am certain that my mother would never understand but in that moment I became less fearful of the fearsome.
Having said all of this, I have to confess that to this day I have little knowledge of the true character of Dick Mussell. What I have told you is as seen through the eyes, heard through the ears, smelled through the nose, and recorded in the brain of a five-year-old child. Dick may well have been a despicable character who deserves condemnation but I have no experience or evidence to suggest that to be true.
I have no recollection of dad ever returning to the shack again to cut Dick’s hair. Somewhat selfishly, I sometimes like to think that the reason for our visit was to impress upon me not to be too quick to judge those with whom I am not familiar; not to let rumour, innuendo and prejudice jaundice my views; to be receptive always to new information and experiences in the formulation of my opinions; and to be charitable in both thought and deed. Have I lived my life by these lessons? No, not always, but it is a good touchstone upon which to ground oneself.
As important as this lesson was, there is another, perhaps even more important practical lesson. Although there was some unintentional bloodletting in the barber chair from the occasional “nick” of the straight razor, I never witnessed anything more serious. But many times in my early childhood my father expounded upon the historical place of barbers in what passed as “medicine” in early days. He would wax on, almost as if he had personal experience, about various medical ‘procedures’ that barbers performed. The red and white barber pole was, after all, symbolic of blood and bandages in a procedure known as “bloodletting” performed by barbers to heal the sick. He often mentioned that barbers used leeches to draw “bad blood” from their clients. I still cringe at the thought of the leeches that used to cling to our legs, arms and torsos when we would swim in the Boyne River or in the pools of the creek at Babcock’s. (Note that leeches are still used in modern medicine to assist in healing wounds.) I wonder if my father didn’t secretly wish he lived in that era so that he could use his barbering implements to full effect. Or perhaps with different opportunities, he would have become a surgeon rather than a barber? Or maybe he would have become a quack doctor … or worse yet, a quack barber? Who knows?
I do know that straight razors are wickedly sharp, lethal, frightening and to be used with extreme caution only by those who are experienced and skilled in the tonsorial arts. I actually have never used one to shave myself nor have I had a straight razor shave of my facial hair. My closest experience is a shave of the nape of my neck that all the old style barbers in the 1970s included in the regular haircut package. Given that I have had a full beard almost continually since about 1970 when I was 21 years old, I have pretty much self-selected myself out of the enjoyment of the adrenalin rush precipitated by a blade so sharp that it shears your whiskers as near to being under the skin as possible such that your skin does not register its passing except as a cooling breeze.
Of course, I am quite certain that any notion that I should take up shaving with a straight razor is now out of the question, and will send ripples of dread up and down the collective spines of those who know me. I can’t think of anything more potentially chillingly calamitous than a Parkie honing a blade to terrifying sharpness with the intent to draw that blade across one’s face and neck just a skin’s width away from one’s jugular. Have no fear; it is not in my plan, straight razor or no, to shave … ever again.