“Do you remember when you had hair?”

It was awhile ago for most of us. But those were the days. The 1950s. Hey, hey. We were hot. Drapes, as wide at the knee as possible, as tight at the cuff as possible. A chain looping down from our pocket. For awhile, a high waist, like a high, high waist. Like any higher and it was going to be under our armpits. Tailor made. These pants didn’t come off any rack. I had a blue pair and a black pair that had small white checks. Look out baby. This one hundred and fourteen pound teenager was ready to rock your heart.

What I didn’t have was good hair. No good hair, no girls.

Good hair, you don’t know what good hair was? Okay, today, standing in the checkout line behind a grocery cart filled with toilet paper, paper towels, bags of potatoes, there are all these guys with shiny pates, the glare army that could blind the Syrian charging down from the fold. They wouldn’t need to hold up their shields, just all bend over toward the sun and let their shiny scalps blind the enemy. It’s hard to believe but there was a time when some of those guys piling Metamusal, PeptoBismal, and denture glue onto the checkout counter had killer hair.

My hair was so curly, so kinky, so frizzy that even though my father barbered part time when he wasn’t commercial fishing he couldn’t do anything with it. He said, “It’s like mowing a lawn.”

Killer hair was the kind that you could cut short at the sides and leave long on top so it could be swept back over the head. Killer, killer hair was the kind you could pull forward into a big wave just above your forehead, the kind of wave a girl could surf on. The very, very best hair had a big surfer wave and two or three smaller waves behind it. Hair like this walked down the school corridor and you could hear the sweater sets, the barrettes, the pleated skirts, the bobby socks sighing. Some held onto each other so they wouldn’t sink to the floor in ecstasy.

There wasn’t many a three wave head of hair but there was one that played the guitar and by the end of grade twelve four of the sweater sets were pregnant. His hair could have started its own polygamous community. He’d seen a Tony Curtis movie and had got himself a duck’s ass haircut. He parted it on one side, combed the top over the other side, then combed the sides straight back so they met in the middle of the back of the head. Long, golden hair, swept back rakishly, teasingly falling forward in a wave cemented in place. Girls found his Greaser style irresistible. It’s a good thing some irate fathers had a chat with him or his hair would have deflowered the entire school.

·         Buzz it upShare on LinkedinShare via MySpaceshare via RedditShare with StumblersShare on technoratiTumblr itTweet about itBuzz it upSubscribe to the comments on this postCombs were big. We all had combs. You never went anywhere without a comb. There was no point in combing my hair. It was like combing a Brillo pad but I carried a comb anyway. It was a small black comb that fit into my back pocket. The killer hair guys didn’t carry just any comb. They had the kind that folded together then, at the flic of a wrist, snapped open like a switch blade. It took practice. They’d be standing in a circle at the front of the school holding court, reach into their pocket, pull out their comb, snap it open, then run it casually through their hair.

There were fads, of course. There was the flat top. Long, long on the sides, held up by adolescent ears. The top like a brush cut. It didn’t last. Somewhere, in someone’s photo albums there are embarrassing pictures of this haircut.

Even though the crew cuts had disappeared except for ex-service types, neat and tidy was in. We’d all been militarized during the 40s. At school, we lined up, held our left arm out to the shoulder of the person next to us then, on command, turned left and marched into the school. Up the stairs, into the classrooms. When the war ended, there were a lot of disappointed teachers. The schools functioned much more smoothly when it was all hup hup, eyes right, stand when spoken to, we’re getting you ready to become cannon fodder on the front lines. If the war had lasted much longer, they’d have had us saluting the teachers. There were some of us the teachers hoped would become cannon fodder. Us being guys with bad hair.

 Good hair was sleek. Good hair was shiny. Good hair was tidy. Good  hair had Byrlcreem. At noon hours, the radio was boisterous with an ad that sang, “Brylcreem, a little dab with do ya.” Nobody called it a pomade. A pomade was for sissy guys. These guys were tough. Some guys thought more was better. They glistened. Once they got their hair plastered in place with a tube of Brylcreem it was staying in place. I remember wondering if Brylcreem was made with petroleum products and since nearly everyone was smoking—free cigarettes had been given to servicemen, great product advertising, everyone in the movies smoked, there was a campaign to get everyone smoking, there were even practice cigarettes made out of licorce—would one of the guys suddenly have his hair go up in flames when he was lighting up?

Of course, there was the part. Right? Or left? Or, in my case, nowhere at all. A lot of guys experimented with the part. One even tried it down the centre. It looked like he’d been hit by an axe. I was part-disadvantaged. I couldn’t come to school with a part in a different place and excite both interest and comment. Discussions about parts could last all through the noon hour. If a girl talked breathlessly about a guy’s part, he knew she was his.

Maybe it’s the economy but my barber tells me highly styled, slicked back hair is making something of a come back. Too late for me, like most of the pompadours, duck tales, flat tops, my hair has joined the cult of the tonsure, the inherent, genetic drive toward monasticism. When I gather with my friends nowadays, I think of our lost hair and with it the excitement and promise of romance, love, sex, replaced by a group of guys that look like they should be wearing monk’s robes to go with their fringe. If I could, I’d warn the young men of today that all the pomades, all the gels, all the dollars spent on hair artists will shortly go the way of the widow’s peak, the advancing crown, the shiny pate. But it wouldn’t do any good. They’d have to stop looking in the mirror to listen.

Ethnic values

When I was in high school, I was sullen. I’m not sure what I was sullen about. I was the guy in the back of the class in the motorcycle jacket and cap, slouched in his seat, daring anyone to teach him anything.
Maybe it had something to do with my watching too many Marlon Brando and James Dean movies.Maybe it was because I didn’t know who I was and I was trying to create an identity.When my grandfather banned the speaking of Icelandic, German, Polish and Ukrainian in his house and said nothing but English would be spoken, he also banned the cultural roots that formed the basis of who we were.
When I was in downtown Victoria, the other day, I thought I recognized myself. Not because anyone was wearing a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back but because a lot of kids were wearing costumes, just like I’d worn a costume. There were Goths, guys with Iroquois cuts dyed bright red, babes in black leather with so many studs that if they fell into the harbour, they would drown head down.
This is who I am, the costumes said. This is me. This is me wearing surplus army fatigues and every inch of my exposed skin covered in tattoos pushing a baby carriage. This is me, her boyfriend/husband/partner, with my purple, green, orange spiked hair, my torn jeans and chains and black boots. It’s easy to condemn appearance, make all sorts of assumptions, but it wasn’t these people who bundled mortgages that proved to be fraudulent, who invented liar loans, who set up a system of irresponsibility so great that the United States of America still hasn’t recovered. No, the people who did that wore dark suits, silk ties and sported seventy-five dollar haircuts.
As I waited for the transit bus in front of McDonald’s, I thought that if Ronald appeared, he’d fit right in. Everything has a cause and I wondered what our generation’s role was in creating this daily parade.What did it mean, I wondered that there were no Stepford wives on the sidewalk.
In the 1940s and 50s, teenagers were still struggling to speak English without an accent. Parents were changing their foreign-sounding names to English-sounding names. Many of them deliberately didn’t teach their children the language of the country from which they came. No Icelandic, no German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian. No saying “qvail” for whale. No saying “dis” and “dat”.
The problem is that our generation wasn’t just deprived of a second or third language. With the language went ethnic customs and history and with customs and history went social values. In some cases it was no loss. There were beliefs and prejudices that we were all better off without. However, the good went out with the bad.It left me and many like me wondering who we were, without a history, without a set of ethical rules founded on generations of culture.
If society had remained as it was in the 40s and 50s, rural, stable, small town, then once everyone got settled, there might have been a chance to re-introduce what had been disowned but Canada was changing in ways that few people could have imagined. Canada went from being rural to urban and then suburban. Farms and small towns with their ethnic life were abandoned. Television appeared. It was like a tsunami. We all went from listening to Superman on radio to watching real, live famous people. Ed Sullivan entered our lives and brought both the famous and notorious into our living rooms. People quit visiting. TV dinners, a completely preposterous idea only a short time before, became the norm. 
The lost languages comprised not merely words but also a way of thinking, a way of seeing reality and reacting to it. With the loss of language also went a loss of customs and with them guidelines for behaviour. We grew up in a vacuum and when it was our turn to be parents, our values were taken from a society overwhelmed by advertising that promoted materialism. It’s unlikely that many of us read the sagas. We were too busy watching Gunsmoke or I Love Lucy. Even if you knew the sayings in Havamal, it would have been hard to get your kids to listen when they could be watching Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Dressup.
English has largely replaced the languages that immigrants brought with them. But it isn’t English manners and customs that have replaced immigrant culture. Instead, a vacuum was created, a loss of self and what replaced it was the culture of the media—and the major purpose of the media is to sell a product. It’s the advertising that matters. Immigrant culture spoke of proper behaviour, of morals, of religious beliefs. It said this is what it means to be Ukrainian or Russian or Polish or Icelandic. The media sells material, not spiritual or moral values. It doesn’t care about you. It cares about selling that TV, car, BBQ, or sofa. It doesn’t ask where or  how you got the money.
 Remember how exciting Sunday evenings were? How we couldn’t wait for The Rifleman, for Paladin, for Disney, or Perry Como. Remember how easily we accepted the advertising, never thought those ads were replacing our grandparents and parents values, were turning us into a consumer society. How could those old fashioned values compete with ads that told us that if we just bought the product they were selling, we’d be happy?
For a time, it was as if ethnic values, in our case, Icelandic traditions and customs, history, and beliefs would not survive in North America. That which survived did so because of a few stalwarts who held firm, who kept in operation the Icelandic clubs; that special holiday in August, Islindingadagurinn; the newspaper, Logberg-Heimskringla; the Icelandic National League; the Icelandic library and Icelandic department.
I know that my teenage years would have been easier, if I’d been taught about my ethnic background and its values. If my teachers had told us about Halldor Laxness, about the sagas, about Havamal, about the importance of reading and writing to the community, I wouldn’t have needed the black leather jacket with the eagle on the back. I’d have had an identity. I wouldn’t have had to try to make one up from the movies. I might not have bought into the consumer society in which things are more important than people. I think that’s true for a lot of other people.

If there had been no cultural vacuum, I doubt if the young people on Douglas Street would be in the position where they have to reject the business suits and the silk ties, the five hundred dollar shoes by making a statement with their skin, their hair and their worn and torn clothes. We wouldn’t have created a society where people could teach that greed is good, that you just look out for number one no matter what the cost to anyone else. 

As I stood at the bus stop, I realized that all the young people around me had cell phones,I  heard from their conversation that they all used twitter, overheard the girl in the pink tutu over a pair of jeans, the boy in the bright red silk shorts and sweat shirt that said something rude, talking about the need to use the internet to stop banks from the arrogant raising of user fees to cover up mistakes made by their high paid executives. 

It has taken us generations–my grandparents, my parents, me–before big business and its advertisements to be been seen for what they are, and the creation of the new media to make it possible for people to fight back.

It’s always this way. The history of Iceland shows us that people had no way to stop being exploited by both the Danish traders and the rich farmers until English ships started to arrive to take sheep and horses back to Britain. Just because people are exploited doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The Icelanders soon realized that they, too, could leave for England and Scotland even if it meant traveling in the ships’ holds with the animals. From there they could take passage on ships to North America. 

The new media has filled the same role as those ships. Except it isn’t necessary for anyone to travel to a distant continent. The social media can be used to create social justice here. Corporate advertising may have created a set of values, society may have floundered and gone down destructive paths following those values but now the ships of freedom are in the hands of young people who know how to use it. Your life may just become better because of someone with studs, a bunch of tattoos and a wardrobe of which Martha Stewart  would never approve.

The Adolescent in Me

In the 1950s it was Ford Fairlanes, big motors, ducktail haircuts, drapes (pants that were as wide at the knee as possible and as tight at the ankle as your foot would allow), Buddy Holly, and when he died, the hard piano of Little Richard and soon after, Elvis Presley. In those days Elvis still had two names.
We necked with the girls in our high school classes, girls in jeans so tight that only putting them on, then sitting in a bathtub of hot water would shrink them that tight, girls with long, bouncy hair, wearing angora sweaters that showed off their new breasts. We double dated, necking in the front seat, the back seat, turning the cars into passion pits, steaming up the windows on cold winter nights. Gas was cheap, three gallons for a dollar and even though odd jobs didn’t pay much, we could always scrape together enough for a few gallons of gas to cruise the main street, then keep the motor running when we parked at the beach.
There was muscle in those Fords. I hungered for one a co-worker owned that he’d chopped and customized. It was so low to the road, you couldn’t drive it on anything but smooth city roads, but it looked dangerous even when it was parked. I couldn’t afford the seven hundred dollars. Some years later, I bought my first car. All I could afford was a Ford, second hand, maybe fifth hand, its posts welded because it had been rolled and the roof had collapsed. By that time I was going to university and money was tight. On weekends, I and my friends packed into it, three to the front seat, five to the back, no seat belts in those days, and headed home for the weekends. Sixty miles over icy roads, through blowing snow, air so cold it froze your flesh in a minute but we had faith. The miles rolled away as we passed through lonely looking villages, often no more than three or four houses and a store. The windows were squares of light in the darkness. We’d smash through the growing drifts, snow flying over the windshield.
Sometimes, black ice spun us in circles so that we ended up in a snow bank. We shovelled, we pushed, I rocked the car until we were back onto the highway, kicked the snow off our boots, smacked snow off our pants, crammed back into the car and eased into the darkness. The car was heavy, solid, enclosed us against the winter and fear.
As I grew older, like many people, I bought foreign cars. They were the flavour of the day. I didn’t give any thought to what was going to happen to North American companies and North Amerian jobs. It was time to get a new vehicle and since I still make the trip from Victoria to Gimli, Manitoba every year, no matter what the weather—thirty hours of travelling–I bought a Ford Escape.
I drove it to Manitoba in my usual three days. Revelstoke, Swift Current, Gimli –but something about the car, it’s bigness, its ease of driving, its comfort, maybe its reminder of my adolesence seduced me, kept me at the wheel. The Saturday I left, the sky was the colour of faded denim, not a cloud in sight, the highway a roll of black tape leading west, the countryside was turning golden with flashes of red. The towns and cities rolled by. Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Brandon, Regina, Swift Current. It’s easy, when you can see the horizon in every direction, to feel like you’re not moving. I had to keep checking my speedometer. Now and again, a car would pass me like a bullet.
I usually stop in Swift Current but the sky was blue, the air soft, the roads dry. I drove to Medicine Hat, ate at Wendy’s, fell asleep in a Comfort Inn, the next morning, just after dawn turned the sky red, then pink, I ate two boiled eggs, and was back on the highway. I always stop for a tall cappuccino at Starbucks in Calgary. The barista there said, “Good choice. I love making these.” There was a pretty blond in a white dress and cowboy boots sitting on the curb drinking coffee and waiting for her cowboy.
After Calgary, the golden larches began, spectacular yellow trees covering the hills. Banff slid by. The driving was easy, the Ford Escape felt safe, held the highway. I remembered my old Ford, the heft of it, the way it stuck to the road. I nudged the speed limit but cars still went past me so fast that I never saw them come, heard them and felt a blast of air, then they were out of sight. How fast, I wondered, and I thought of my high school friend Robert, the teenage king of the speed with his Fairlane in the 1950s. Fast was never fast enough.
All was good until the BC border but then the rain started. Traffic slowed. The highway to Golden is easy now, improved, made good. The highway from Golden takes care, attention with tight turns and snow tunnels. At Revelstoke, there was gas and more coffee and I thought of staying the night but I could feel the pull of home. The Escape was easy to drive, didn’t threaten to hydroplane on the wet pavement. The rain had eased to a steady drizzle. Then there was the climb out of Kamloops onto the Coquihalla. The Coquihalla is mountain top high. The steady drizzle turned into slashing rain, high, gusting winds, mist. The traffic didn’t slow.Cars ahead of me would suddenly disappear in patches of rain and mist. I prayed that no one would decide to slow down or stop. I kept to the slow lane, cursing drivers who didn’t have their lights on. There was a white van with no lights that kept disappearing and even when I could see it, it was like a ghost.
I’d planned on spending the night at Hope but when I reached the exit, the clock told me that I could still make the last ferry at Tsawwassen. It had started to get dark and the traffic, now that I was back on Hwy 1, was heavy but it moved like a steady river of yellow and red light until I was able to swing off onto Hwy 10. I missed most of the red stop lights but got lost at the intersection on Hwy 99 south and ended up driving toward White Rock. I managed to get turned around and the highway driving, in spite of the rain, was good and I knew, from experience, where the turnoff to Hwy 17 and the ferry terminal would be.
I left Gimli at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning and I reached the ticket booth at the ferry terminal at 8:18 Sunday night. There was still time to buy a dish of chocolate gelati in the ferry terminal. It wasn’t much of a supper but anything is better than ferry food.
I was home at just after 11:00 p.m. The house smelled good, smelled right, everything was as I left it, even the cup of coffee I forgot except now the coffee has dried to a dark stain.
I checked my mail, then my email, I thought I’m okay, I’m fine but then I realized that as I was sitting at the computer, the house felt like it was moving, swaying slightly. I went to bed. I was looking forward to sleeping in, to eating a breakfast of yogurt with ripe figs from my fig tree. Even the rediscovered adolescent inside me looked forward to that.