Barbers are natural-born storytellers. I love getting my hair cut because it’s guaranteed entertainment. Today my barber told me all about The Nam.

The conversation began as a discussion of teaching foreign languages in high school. The other barbers, and one of the customers, think it’s a shame that foreign languages aren’t required anymore. I commented that even when I was in school, they weren’t required, and that their presence has faded even more in the last twenty years.

This prompted my barber to mention that all he knows are some phrases in Vietnamese. (Warning: foul language ahead.)

“But my Vietnamese isn’t very good,” he said. “Once over there I found this gook on the side of the road and I pointed my gun at him” — my barber leveled his clippers at his own reflection in the mirror — “and I told him in Vietnamese to put his hands up. But he didn’t understand me. I said it again, and he still didn’t understand me, so I started shouting at him in English. I was scared. ‘You goddman flathead, if you don’t put your fucking hands up, I’m going to kill you.’ Well, apparently the gook’s English was better than my Vietnamese because he flipped me off and shouted back, ‘You fucking pig. I don’t do nothing. You fucking Marine.’ And I would’ve shot him, too.”

“They hated us over there, and they had every right. We Marines were trained to shoot anything that moved. And we did. We didn’t have a choice. I mean I went over there and told myself I wasn’t killing nothing, but all it takes is for those first few bullets to come flying at you, and you change your mind real quick. You kill your first man and it makes you sick. You throw up.” — here he pretended he was vomiting — “You feel terrible. But then after you kill a few more, you get used to it, you even get to kind of like it. You feel powerful. It’s a terrible thing, but it happens. That’s war. It’s how it works. You kill or be killed.”

“The thing is, though, it really fucks you up. When I became a civilian again — this would have been 1970 — I was really messed up. I went to a shrink at the VA and I told him that I was having dreams. I said, ‘Doc, I dream that a bunch of gooks are chasing me. They chase me to the edge of a cliff, and I don’t want them to kill me, so I jump off and fall to the rocks below. But I don’t break up. I bounce. I bounce off the rocks back up to the cliff where the gooks are and I flip them off. And then I jump again, but I bounce right back up. What’s wrong, Doc? I have this dream all the time.’ The shrink just laughed at me. ‘Son, you know what the matter is? You think you’re Superman.’ And you know what? He was right. I did think I was Superman. I had an attitude. I was always getting in fights. I loved it. I lived to mix it up. A good Friday night ended up with a fight at a bar.”

“This one time, when I first set up shop on my own, I pissed some guy off, and he got out of his chair and he was bouncing around with his fists in the air — you know, like in the cartoons — and he said, ‘I’m going to kick your ass.’ ‘We’re going to be here a while then,’ I said. And that just made him madder. ‘I’m going to hit you in the face,’ he said. ‘You’d better do it,’ I told him. ‘You look pretty goddamn silly bouncing around like that. You look like a kid.’ He never did hit me, which was lucky for him.”

“You get some crazy customers sometimes. In barber college, we used to give free cuts to the drunks. I remember one time this drunk came in and I took him in back to give him a shampoo. I’d never given a shampoo before — this was only my second or third haircut — but how hard could it be? I took him in back and lathered him up and began to give him a shampoo but his hair started falling out in clumps. ‘Jesus Christ,’ I said. ‘What’s wrong with your hair?’ The drunk freaked out. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ he said, and he jumped up from the chair — soap still in his hair — and he ran out of the barber college. We had to chase him down and apologize. He came back, but he wouldn’t let me touch his hair.”

I gave the man a $3 tip on a $12 haircut.

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