Near the end of May 1965, with just a week of final exams left in my sophomore year of college, I spent a Saturday afternoon bleaching my hair.
I had help—my roommate and another fraternity brother who claimed he knew just how much hydrogen peroxide would make us blond. After a few beers, I believed him.
My brown hair had grown past my collar, a length that drew suspicion even on campus. My roommate’s light-brown hair was clipped short; the other guy still slicked his black hair back like Elvis.
The three of us soaked our hair and, satisfied that we were about to be transformed, we went outside to lie in the sun, drink beer, and wait for blondness to arrive. We checked every half hour, looking in the bathroom’s mirrors. In between visits, we evaluated the color of the hair we could see and shared assessments. By the end of the afternoon, my roommate was solidly blond.
I was blond with streaks of orange. The other guy’s hair turned an unsettling, alien shade of orange.
I took my finals as a blond and spent the first afternoon at home at a picnic with my parents and the family of one of my mother’s brothers, who had promised me, during spring break, that he would get me a summer job at Heinz.
He was white-collar, a manager and, according to my mother, “a bigwig.” Before I’d finished my first hamburger, he told me, “You have to get a haircut or I can’t speak for you.”
His older daughter chimed in. “I think it’s cute. He looks like one of the Beach Boys. Like a surfer.”
My uncle frowned. “We don’t need surfers at Heinz.”
The next afternoon I cut the grass, my father welcoming me home for that particular job. My blond hair stuck to my neck and shoulders. I was shirtless, sweat forming quickly. Our neighbor Mr. Ratliff nodded my way as he stood smoking on his back porch. It wasn’t a friendly nod. It was the sort of nod that might ID a criminal in a lineup. He was a union man, a teamster. His son, a year younger than me, was in Vietnam, volunteering for the Navy fresh out of high school.
My mother was waiting in the kitchen when I came inside. “Your father will be happy you went straight out and took care of the grass,” she said.
“I’ve been doing it for years,” I said, but she placed a hand on my arm as if she needed my attention. “Your father won’t say it, but he’s worried that you’ll let your hair make you miss your chance.”
“Chance at what?”
“Real work,” she said, drawing her hand away. “Being useful.”
“Somebody he can be proud of,” I said, letting bitterness seep into my voice.
“Yes,” she said, but she looked stricken, her lips pressing together as if she’d revealed too much of a long-held secret. She opened her left hand, the one that she’d kept at her side, and showed me a five dollar bill. “If there’s change,” she said, “you can keep it. Just do what needs to be done.”
I took that tiny bribe and knew she’d call her brother before I got home. All I had to do was endure the barber’s jokes. He’d cut my hair since elementary school, half of those years just trimming down my flat top and selling me occasional tubes of gunk that kept it stiff. “I bet your old man told you to get in this chair pronto,” he said right off, but what he settled on discussing was the shade of my hair.
“You do a bleach job on yourself?” he said, and when I nodded, he added, “You looking to stay blond? You want a dye job?”
A man my father’s age, reading a Life magazine, laughed, which seemed to inspire the barber. “Bleaching your hair like that makes you go bald faster,” he said. “I bet you that makes you think twice about keeping yourself blond.” More laughter from behind the Life. A few minutes later, I used the change to buy two slices of pepperoni and anchovy pizza.
After I arrived home and washed the grease from my hands, my mother told me I already had an interview at 9:00 am sharp two days from then.
By 9:15 I had filled out an application and handed it to a secretary, who passed it along to a man in a suit and tie. I was wearing a similar outfit, sport coat and tie, but when he called me into his office, the interview seemed so routine that when he reached the phrase “We’ll contact you if anything opens up,” I felt like Samson wishing for my hair back.
I waited to hear if there was anything else that might signal opportunity, and then, just as I resigned myself to standing, my uncle appeared. “Glen,” he said, extending his hand, “I see you’ve already met my nephew.”
This time, when I reached home, my mother told me that Heinz had called. I was to report for work Monday morning at 7:45. I needed to be there at 7:30 so I could get my uniform and punch in before 7:45. The rest I’d find out. “See?” she said. “See how just a little bit of compromise goes a long way?”
Sunday night I went to a series of high school graduation parties with RuthAnn McIntyre, a girl I’d been going out with during breaks from college. My mother dropped me off at the apartment where the first party was happening. “Why does she have to be Catholic?” was her only anxiety. “We sent you to a Lutheran college.” I had to find my own ride home.
RuthAnn said she loved my blond hair, but why was it so streaked? “I didn’t know what I was doing” was my quick explanation. “I probably didn’t soak my head evenly or something.”
“You know what I heard about how the Romans used to do that way back when?”
“No idea,” I said. I wanted to get my hands on one of the bottles of beer soaking in a tub of ice.
“Who told you that?”
“I go to an all girls’ school,” she said. “Hair is a big deal.” And then she forgot about my hair, and we settled into having a few beers before somebody gave us a ride to a house with a large, finished basement that featured an enormous stereo. The first thing I heard there, besides The Supremes, was some high school kid observing that the only people he knew who bleached their hair were girls and queers.
It was just after 3:00 am when that same boy dropped me off, but not before he spent seven miles of the eight-mile trip bragging about how well he could drive drunk. I didn’t argue his sociology or his driving skill. By that hour of the morning, my mother’s 6:15 wake-up call was as threatening as a funnel cloud.
At 6:30, as promised, she served me eggs I could barely finish. I nibbled at toast to settle my stomach and grimaced at the orange juice. She drove me into Pittsburgh and dropped me off at the entrance at 7:25. “You’re on your own now,” she said. “All grown up.”
The equipment man had my name. He handed me a pair of pin-striped blue and white pants, a couple of white t-shirts and several paper hats. I punched in at 7:43 and found my way to where unlabeled institution-sized cans were entering a room on three conveyor belts, each of them with a man clearing them onto metal trays that were eight deep and raised to be filled, one by one, by lever. The work was simple. All it took was the ability not to be distracted by dreams of the day ending.
A half hour in, as if someone had just realized I needed to pass a physical before something happened and the company was liable, I was hustled to the medical center. A nurse ran me through a cursory exam. She told me I needed a tuberculosis test and punctured my upper left arm. Nothing to it, except when I stood, I fainted and fell onto her, dragging her to the floor. Her screams quickly snapped me back. I crawled off as the doctor appeared.
“You stay out late last night and barely eat this morning?” he asked. When I nodded, he began to regale me with stories of his own college days full of hangovers. I was happy to sit through them. He was more entertaining than a line of identical, unlabeled cans.
4:30 arrived. I was cursed in chorus at the time clock because I didn’t have my card ready when I reached the front of the line. I stored that prompt for the next sixty days of exits.
I had to ride the bus home. Our family had one car, and now we had three members working. I could handle a few bus rides, couldn’t I?
When I got on, I heard “Hi, Gary” from a mid-bus seat. “What are you doing on here?” Roseanne Ratliff said. She was a year older than me and a lot friendlier than her father. A secretary now. Used to riding back and forth. “My Dad said you looked like something the cat dragged in. I guess you got a haircut since he saw you.”
“I had to. The job,” I said.
“But you’re so blond. That’s cool. And anyway, my Dad is probably jealous; him and his chrome dome since I can remember. I bet my little brother doesn’t stand a chance.”
“He didn’t look jealous. He looked like he wanted to come over and slap me.”
Roseanne smiled. “You want to know a secret?” she said. “My Dad said you didn’t look like anybody who was worth a good god damn.”
I managed a week with the cans, keeping up with the line in a way that got the foreman to relax. I traded in my pants and shirts on Friday and got a new supply. On Saturday, I went out shirtless to cut grass again and right away noticed several cars parked along the street in front of our neighbor’s house. Roseanne was nowhere to be seen. More cars arrived before I finished.
Inside, my mother stopped me before I unplugged the radio to carry outside. “Tommy Ratliff has been killed,” my mother said. “The word has been getting around all morning.”
Instead of lying out in the sun with the radio, I took a shower. Tommy had joined the Navy, seemingly out of danger. I didn’t know anybody who’d been killed in Vietnam. I could barely find it on a map. The casualty counts were like the numbers for exotic faraway diseases like elephantiasis or yaws. A few dozen per week, sometimes less. It occurred to me that Tommy Ratliff might have been the only Navy casualty in the entire month of June.
It seemed more dangerous to ride in cars with my friends. Speed was mandatory. Drinking was too. Nobody wore a seat belt. And maximum AM rock radio volume. Last weekend I’d screamed along with a friend to “Wooly Bully” and cranked up “Satisfaction,” absorbing every perfect note. I was still blond, hoping to turn some female heads.
I turned on the news and listened to a report on the battle of Dong Xoai; the number of dead Americans was tentative, but it seemed as if nineteen US soldiers had been killed there in the past four days. Hundreds of Viet Cong were announced dead. Wasn’t that a major victory? Somehow it didn’t sound that way, and now General Westmoreland was asking for a big run up of additional troops.
I went out with RuthAnn. We played mini‑golf, a game I’d loved ten years earlier. We watched a movie on her parents’ television and didn’t touch each other until she followed me to the car I was able to borrow on a Saturday night because no one in my family worked then. “You don’t have to worry,” she said. “You’re in college. Two years from now this will all be over.”
She was right, I thought. The Cold War was the big deal. The space race. The United States had Gemini 4 in space orbiting over and over. One of the astronauts had even gone outside the ship.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had aimed a rocket at the moon—Luna 6—and everybody had acted as if we’d suffered another science defeat until it missed the moon by 99,000 miles and became a joke.
On Monday, I was working in another department—sterilizing. The shift was 3:15 to midnight. Somebody would have to pick me up at 12:15 because the bus didn’t run that late.
I’d walked through the sterilizing room on my way to lunch one day the week before. Huge pressure cookers, row upon row of cans shelved and installed in rounded boxcars that ran along tracks and were guided into the sterilizers by three or four men at a time because of the weight. “Sterilizing?” my uncle said when he saw me in church on Sunday. “You’ll find out what work is, that’s for sure.”
I came home sober. I was ready on time for church the following morning.
Afterward, still wearing a sport coat and tie, I walked to our mailbox to retrieve the Sunday paper. I hoped Mr. Ratliff saw that my hair was cut, that Roseanne had told him I was doing full-time blue collar work and, after thirty days, I’d be a dues paying member of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of America. A union man like he was. Somebody worth a good god damn.
Gary Fincke is the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.