Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Close Shave with Capt. Frank Hamer's Barber

The hot foam he daubed on the back of my neck felt great, but when the old man picked up that glistening straight-edge, my eyes locked on his brown-splotched hand looking for even the slightest tremor. I could always change my mind.

When I first started getting my hair cut at Austin’s Sportsman’s Barber Shop, the senior barber was a gentleman named Sidney C. Frost. In deference to his age, people called him Mr. Frost, not Sid. Born in 1909 and nearing 90, he had been taking a little off the top and sides since 1927, the year “Lucky” Lindbergh made the first trans-Atlantic solo flight.

Mr. Frost had started out downtown in the Littlefield Building at 6th and Congress Ave., moved for a time to a place on West 7th St. and then, as he put it, "went back on the Avenue" and opened his own shop at 918 Congress. In time, he followed the people to the suburbs, selling out to a younger barber named Jim Field. Field started Sportsman’s, filling its walls with mounted game heads and big fish.

Tall and thin, Mr. Frost no doubt knew his trade well. But as surely as hair grows, it also thins and turns gray, and he had trimmed his work load to only part time.

Knowing I handled news media relations for the Department of Public Safety and had written some books on Texas Ranger history, Jim mentioned to me one visit that I sure ought to talk with Mr. Frost if he ever happened to be in the shop when I showed up. Back in the day, he had been Capt. Frank Hamer’s barber.

As it happened, the next time I showed up at Sportsman’s needing a haircut, I found that Jim had a customer in his chair and someone else waiting. However, Mr. Frost was sitting in his chair reading the newspaper. Could he work me in, I asked, being polite. Sure, he said, slowly getting up from his chair.

I was headed out of town on state business and definitely needed a haircut before I hit the road. Necessity aside, I liked the idea of telling my grandkids that I’d gotten a haircut from the same man who had cut the hair of the storied Ranger who in 1934 presided over the sanguinary demise of the outlaw couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

“How you want it?” Mr. Frost asked, sizing up my salt-and-pepper locks. “Above the collar?”

Just a regular haircut, I said, and sure, nothing over the collar.

Settled into the chair, I decided on a slow build up to the one question I wanted to ask most, which was, “So, tell me about Captain Hamer…” That in mind, I started by asking Mr. Frost how long he’d been cutting hair. Soon I had him reminiscing about the good old days.

Early in his time under the revolving red, blue and white pole, most men got their hair cut weekly. That was a good thing, because even in the wildly inflationary days before the stock market crash in 1929, Mr. Frost got paid only 40 cents a haircut.

“After the market crashed," he recalled, clipping away at my hair, "we had to lower the price to 35 cents."

A lot of men also depended on Mr. Frost for their daily shave. One well-groomed customer came in twice a day, first thing in the morning and then again in the afternoon to get his five o'clock shadow taken care of.

Finally, I took aim at Hamer – at least in the interrogatory sense. Mr. Frost said that he didn’t remember much of what they had talked about, probably just typical barber-customer banter. But one thing did stand out in his memory.

"Hamer never would get a shave and a haircut at the same time," he said. "Guess he didn't have that much time, or that much money."

A shave cost a quarter, a haircut went for 40 cents before the crash. In other words, the whole shebang would have set the six-foot-plus lawman back all of 65 cents. Rank-and-file state employees have never been overpaid, so Hamer apparently opted for an economy of scale when it came to his tonsorial needs.

And then Mr. Frost recalled another of the late captain’s eccentricities.

"When he did get a shave, Frank never would let me completely cover his face with a hot towel,” he revealed. “He said he knew of too many people who wanted to kill him and he didn't want to let his guard down."

Given that Mr. Frost likely would have been in a position to catch a stray round or two if any shots had been fired at the captain as he sat in the barber chair, he didn’t mind Hamer’s cautious approach to getting a shave.

By the time I sat warming Mr. Frost’s chair, barbers no longer did much shaving of faces. When he asked if I’d like the back of my neck shaved, I said yes. If the ever-viligant Hamer trusted Mr. Frost to be steady with a razor, so did I.

"Just don't cover my face," I laughed as I snuck one last look at his hand. Was that a slight tremor?

When I stood up after Mr. Frost had shaken all the hair from the cover he’d draped over my lap, I looked in the mirror. Perhaps overly preoccupied with talking about the old days, Frank Hamer’s barber had removed almost all my hair! Mr. Frost’s “regular” was the shortest haircut I’d ever had this side of a burr. Maybe Mr. Frost's scissor work explains why most photographs of Hamer show him wearing a Stetson and a frown.