The firsts in a boy’s life are important to get right; because they are the ones he will usually remember his whole life. They are just as important for girls too, of course, but someone of that gender will have to tackle those firsts. A boy’s first bicycle comes to mind, as does his first car, and of course, that first girlfriend. One of the more important firsts for a boy however, comes long before thoughts about girls, or transportation. It is that first haircut.
Like a lot of boys who grew up on the east side of Sedalia, I got my first haircut, without a bowl on my head from “Slim” Palmer’s shop on South Engineer. I don’t recall all the details, but judging by the little boys I have watched get their first haircuts through the years, it couldn’t have been pretty. A good barber knows how to handle a reluctant child, and the smart ones know if it goes well, it will turn into a permanent job. Slim Palmer must have done it right, because he was my barber throughout my childhood. I didn’t go to Slim’s shop just because he was a good barber. Like a lot of other people, I went to hear the stories he told too. I can still hear that distinctive twang in his voice that sounded almost like he was humming the words along with the electric clippers. I can see his smile, and knowing wink, as he told a story, that he wanted to make sure I knew was just for fun, and not to be taken seriously.
Like most successful barbers, Slim had three things besides the ability to cut hair, that I made him the kind of barber, men and boys kept coming back to: They were the ability to spin a yarn, better than any fisherman, the attention span of a bartender, and the patience of Job. That last part would be especially necessary for the children, who crawled into the barber chair for their first haircut.
The shop where Slim cut hair all those years ago is still there on Engineer, but now it is called Walter’s. The new owner, if you can call him new after 30 plus years, is Wiley Walters. Wiley graciously allowed me to look around the shop, and helped me remember the way it had been all those years ago. There were a lot of changes. The hard wooden bench I remembered as uncomfortable as a church pew, has been replaced by modern more comfortable chairs. The impressive mirror that took up nearly the entire wall behind the barber chairs has been replaced by one half its size. Wiley liked the old mirror so much he put in his family room. The barber chairs themselves, are newer versions of the ones I sat in too. The only thing I could see, that was probably unchanged from the days of my youth, was the flue, where the old heating stove stood back then. I knew however, even if the shop had looked the same as I had remembered, it would not feel the same without Slim.
I talked to Charles Palmer, who is Slim Palmer’s son, to firm up some of the things I either did not know, or my memory had let slip away during the last decades.
One of the things I never knew was Slim’s first name, everyone called him Slim whether they were seven or 70. I think he preferred that, to Mr. Palmer. Charles Palmer, the son, informed me, that His father’s name was also Charles. He also told me his father, was born on July 22, 1888, and had passed away, December 22, 1968, at the age of 80.
I spent more than an hour at Charles’ kitchen table, reminiscing about the old days, and even though he was 16 years older than me, we connected on a lot of people, and places we both knew from our past. As I listened to him talk, I could hear a little of Slim Palmer’s tone in his voice, and I think if he had turned on a pair of clippers, I could have easily imagined it was five decades earlier, and I was about to get a haircut from his dad. Later, as we shook hands at the door, I told him something, that might be hard for people to believe, if they had never been to Slim’s barber shop. I was never unhappy when there were people ahead of me waiting for a haircut. That meant I could sit there longer, and listen to more of Slim’s stories.
A shop like Slim’s might not make it today. A lot of people are in too much of a hurry for a barber who tells stories, and would rather go to a quiet, no-nonsense shop, that would get them in and out quickly. I am glad I grew up when I did, and Silm Palmer and his slower paced barber shop are two of the reasons.
Jack Miller is a longtime Sedalia resident whose column runs in the Weekend edition of the Democrat.