A Little off the Top, and a Lesson to Remember

A Little off the Top, and a Lesson to Remember

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Little off the Top, and a Lesson to Remember

To be able to look back upon one’s past life with satisfaction is to live twice.

Martial

Haircuts are part of military life. In the last 10 years, I plopped myself into that big chair at least 250 times. You might think that getting a haircut would become commonplace, a non-event, each barber blurring into the last. They don’t, however, because of one very special haircut that I got 10 years ago.

In June of 1985, I was preparing to be commissioned as a second lieutenant through ROTC at Northeastern University in Boston. The ceremony was on a Saturday, leaving me just Sunday to make the drive to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I was due to report in first thing Monday morning. On Friday, I headed for the barbershop, having waited until the last minute so that my haircut would still look its sharpest not only on the big day, but on Monday. I was shocked, and momentarily panicked, to find that my regular barber of 15 years had chosen this day to start his long weekend. I knew where there was another shop, although I’d never patronized it. I drove across town and went inside.

There were no other customers. The barber sat in his own chair, reading the paper, but he popped up with a grin when I entered. He was a spry little man, olive-skinned, his own hair mostly absent on top. A thin mustache ran along his upper lip, well into the process of turning from black to gray. “You’re next!” he said loudly, as though I might not have known it otherwise. He slapped his hand hard on the cracking leather seat, which was warm. He’d apparently been reading undisturbed for quite a while, which I took as a bad sign. He shook out the covering sheet with a snap before he draped it over me.

“What’ll it be, my friend?”

“A nice, short taper, please. Keep the back and sides pretty close, but leave a little more on top. Not enough to have to part, though, okay?” I was unhappy, to say the least. My “real” barber wouldn’t have had to ask, and I wouldn’t have had to worry. I was getting the most important haircut of my life, the one I would be wearing when I reported for duty in less than 72 hours, and I was having to explain it to a guy who probably hadn’t cut anyone’s hair this short since the 1960s.

“You got it, no problem,” he said, changing blades on his clippers. “No problem at all. You must be in the Army, or the Marines or something, huh?”

“Army,” I replied curtly. I wasn’t ever going to see this guy again, and I wasn’t worried about making friends. But there was no stopping this happy guy. He acted like that was one question down and 19 more to go.

“You coming off of leave?” No time for me to answer. “You stationed up at Fort Devens, or where?” The clipper blade was warm against the side of my head and I could tell by the way it felt that at least he was taking it down short enough. I could have answered him a couple of ways, or even not answered at all, but not wanting to talk is not the same thing as wanting to be rude.

I said, “Actually I’m not stationed anywhere yet, but by Sunday I’ll be reporting in at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I’m being commissioned tomorrow morning at Faneuil Hall.”

“Oh, ho!” he bellowed, and I was instantly sorry that I’d decided to speak. “Well, what do you know—a shave-tail. Boy, do I remember you guys! Always catching me doing something I wasn’t supposed to. I was in the Army for a few years myself, you know, during World War II. Went through a lot of lieutenants, so I know. There’s nothing worse than a brand new shave-tail, I’ll tell you. No offense.”

I wanted to bolt, right then and there, no matter what my hair looked like. I couldn’t believe what I’d gotten myself into; trapped in the chair by some career-private with an ax to grind against officers. I knew that I was in for at least 10 more minutes of stories about how the trouble was never his fault, and how his officers wouldn’t ever listen, always got lost and generally did everything wrong. I steeled myself for the inevitable.

“So you’re being commissioned tomorrow, what do you know. That’s something. Who’s going to pin on your bars, your folks, right?” I nodded, hoping to keep the grilling as painless as possible. “They got a general or something coming to talk to you, I imagine.”

That caught me off guard, and I answered with more than just a nod. What happened next, because of my answer to that simple question, forever changed the way I look at strangers. It made such an impression on me that I’m seeing it all again as I write this, 10 years later. “As a matter of fact,” I replied, “General Tuck is coming down from Fort Devens to give us a pep talk and hand out commissions.”

“Hey, I know him,” the barber exclaimed, stopping his work. “Sure. General Tuck, he’s a one-star, right? I met him just a couple of weeks ago.”

You did?” The emphasis was on the first word, sounding ruder than I meant it, but I couldn’t possibly imagine why this guy would be meeting a general.

“Yeah, I sure did. I had to go up to Fort Devens. Here, let me show you what I got.” He set the clippers down and pulled open a drawer under the mirror. He pulled out a small blue box, which I had not then the experience to recognize, and thrust it at me. “Here, take a look.”

Bronze Star Medal, read the gold letters on the box. I opened the box, revealing the medal nestled inside. I looked up sharply at the barber, and he handed me a certificate. I read it quickly, feeling smaller and smaller as I did so.

In February 1945, an American rifle platoon was stalled in its attempt to capture a small German town with a long German name. The soldiers were nearly out of ammunition and night was falling. If not resupplied, they would have to withdraw, giving up ground they would have to retake. Corporal Dominic Cerutti volunteered to go back and get more ammunition. Leading two men, he crawled back across the ground that was exposed to enemy fire and hustled to the company’s headquarters. Returning in the darkness through contested territory, he led his party directly to the platoon’s position, bringing with him enough ammunition to hold on through the night. Although the party was fired upon by the enemy, because of Corporal Cerutti’s leadership, no one was injured. For his bravery in performing this duty, Corporal Cerutti was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor.

I looked at Corporal Cerutti, 40 years older. .. Barber Cerutti now, and all I could say was “Wow.” He held the medal in his own hands now, gazing at it with obvious pride, but also, it seemed to me, with pain. “And you’re just getting this now?” I asked softly.

“Yeah, well they told me that I’d got it when I was getting ready to come home, but nobody could find any orders or anything. I wasn’t about to wait around, so I came back without it, and, of course, when I got to the States nobody knew anything about it. I didn’t have time to worry about it then, you know, because I had my wife and a kid to take care of. I had to get some work. And right then, at that time, I probably didn’t care much. Just glad it was all over.”

Forty years later, his son-in-law cared enough to contact the Army and see that the medal was awarded.

Dominic Cerutti hadn’t cared much. He had done his job as best he could, he had come home when it was done, and that was what mattered, not the credit or recognition. I decided right there that this was a good lesson to take with me into active duty.

But there is another lesson here, and fortunately, I learned this one as well. Many of us in the military are quick to judge the people that we meet by the badges and patches on their uniforms, just as in civilian life, we may base our assessments of a stranger’s character on his or her clothes, car or salary. We forget that everyone has talents and achievements in their past that may not be immediately visible in the present. The fact is that people are a lot like icebergs; there’s always so much more under the surface.

I had forgotten this important rule that day, but I have always remembered it since. I had entered the shop of a nameless and faceless barber, only to find myself meeting a genuine hero.

Andy Entwistle

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