Tom Reich peeled a lot of heads during Operation Desert Storm. “That’s when military haircuts got popular,” says the Irving Park barber, who specializes in such “high and tights” as the baldy sour, the flattop, the jarhead, and the commando. “Even if they weren’t in the service, they wanted to look like they were. You know, people get that patriotic feel. It’s a compliment to the country, in a sense–that they’re willing to even give up their hair for the country.”
But the first uncertain weeks of Operation Endur-ing Freedom–so busy for flag merchants, gun dealers, and gas-mask manufacturers–have been slow in Tom’s Barber Shop, and he has an idea why. About half of his business comes from reservists and former and current military men–everyone from recruiters to fresh grunts to Navy Seals. A few of his regulars told him they’d been called up to active duty. Others, he says, have disappeared without a word. “I had a 75- to a 100-dollar day normally,” he says. “Now I’m lucky if I get 50 dollars. They’re gone. They didn’t say, ‘I got called up.’ They’re just gone.”
It’s too soon to say whether this president’s drumbeat will mobilize civilian interest in martial coiffure the way his father’s did. In spite of the bluster, Reich doesn’t believe there’s going be a need for many soldiers; this war, such as it is, will be fought with technology. Nevertheless, he says, “whenever there’s a war, there’s always guys who want to fight it.” He understands the allure of a man in uniform during times of crisis.
When Reich was 13, growing up in Roscoe Village, he had a cousin who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. “I looked at that uniform, I said, ‘Boy, I gotta get in the navy–that’s a really nice uniform.'” The war had been over a few months by the time he turned 18, and because he’s color-blind the navy didn’t want him. But the army was happy to give him his first baldy sour in basic training. “We had nothing left,” he recalls. “That was a crime to cut all that hair off. There was guys crying.”
Many of Reich’s memories of this time are recounted with a warm nostalgia for the discomfort, fear, and humiliation he experienced in the army. “It was fun because you wanted to see how much you could take,” he says. “The only bad thing about it is the drill instructors. They purposely get you mad. They wanted to be mean as could be. They would get their nose right up to your face and scream at you like you were some idiot. And they had bad breath most of the time, and they spit when they talked, and they’re right up in your face, and you want to whack them as bad as you could. But you were afraid to do it because they’d kill you. The madder they can get you the better, because you can’t develop a military force with nice guys. They gotta be mean. You gotta develop their aggression, because you can’t fight if you’re nice. You gotta get pissed off to fight. They precondition you to hate. And when you got that hate in your head, you never know when it’s gonna come out. They have a name for that, some kind of deficit disorder–hate deficit disorder. Somebody sparks that memory factor, you want to fight. And that never goes away. You’d be surprised all the guys that were in the service have aggression. They don’t even know it. But if somebody triggers that aggression, they can’t stop themselves because they’re gonna go. It’s necessary. It’s a necessary thing.”
Reich served a year as a mechanic in the army air corps stationed north of Tokyo. After his discharge he grew his hair back and studied to be a friendly neighborhood barber. He bought his own shop and adapted to trends, taking styling classes when men started to grow their hair longer. By the 70s, he and his wife wanted to raise their two kids in the country, so they moved the family to southwestern Missouri. He picked up work in barbershops that catered to personnel from nearby Fort Leonard Wood army base and the National Guard’s Camp Clark. He eventually opened his own place and mastered the cuts favored by each branch of the military.
“There’s the regular army cut–that’s a crew cut,” he explains. “And then also they have the dress haircut, which has a part and is combed, with sideburns, but light, so you can see around the ears and neck, so it’s clean. The crew cut is zero on the bottom and short on top and round. But it’s not peeled. Peeled is like a skinhead or a baldy sour. Then we had the navy cut, which is a flattop–that’s a reference to the aircraft carrier. Then we got the marine cut which is a high and tight with a little patch in the front–that’s a grunt cut. It’s also a marine jarhead cut. Then the commando, which is a high-and-tight-style haircut with a little hair on top. That’s the majority of the cuts.”
But as long as discipline isn’t too tight, there’s room for myriad variations, and Reich will do those too. “I had a guy come in here and say, ‘Give me a marine flattop.’ I said, ‘There’s no such animal–you either want a flattop or you want a marine cut.’ He said, ‘Well, the places I’ve been going to, they gave me a marine flattop.’ I said, ‘Well, he modified your haircut for you. That’s not really a genuine marine haircut.'”
Reich moved back to Chicago in the early 80s, after his kids graduated from high school. He opened his own shop, eventually settling on Elston near Irving, where an armored knight stands guard under his red, white, and blue awning. He doesn’t wear his hair military style, he says, because he can’t find anyone who can cut it correctly. Besides, “My ears are too big. I would have to get an ear job before I got a flattop.” But he favors the look for everyone else. “It’s neat,” he says. “It’s uniform. Everybody wears the same style and it makes them look younger. I think it looks good on people. Makes them taller, more military, sometimes better looking.”
Three weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, Reich says some of his civilian regulars are starting to trickle back in. “Television can scare the living blazes out of people,” he says. “The only thing you have to say is the economy has gone down and people stop buying. They’re preconditioning people not to buy, not to spend money. Stay home. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. People do what they’re told in a sense. People are conditioning themselves to a long war, more expenses.”
Many of Reich’s military customers are still missing in action. With reports that U.S. commandos have entered Afghanistan, he won’t say which branches they’re in. “I wouldn’t want to do that,” he says. “It’s not appropriate to say anything that could be detrimental to our purpose. Whatever they do, it’s gonna be secret, and we won’t know, because they don’t want to telescope their intentions. That’s why they have signals in baseball.”