Whiffle: The Cool Cut

JACQUES KELLY'S BALTIMORE

June 02, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

Every so often we get an unseasonably stinking-hot afternoon this time of year and what hair I've got left starts to feel a little funny. That sensation makes me crave a haircut.

On days like this one, I'm reminded of my long-gone Greenmount Avenue barber -- one Johnny DeVos -- and his bottle of Lucky Tiger hair tonic.

I'm thinking back to the 1950s, when, come the warm weather, we had special summer haircuts called whiffles. A whiffle by any other name was a crew cut, made with a special plastic attachment on Johnny's buzzing electric clippers.

June was the beginning of whiffle season. July was the high point and August was a partial whiffle month because your hair needed to grow back to normal length for school. Even in those innocent days, I did not want to look too whiffled (and ridiculous) come the day after Labor Day when school blackboards beckoned, ready or not.

But in June, who cared about style? Short hair was cooler. Nine-year-olds didn't worry about which side they parted their hair. Besides, if you went to the beach and got sand in you hair, the practical whiffle made cleanup easier.

Boys with short hair were the opposite of drapes. Drapes wore their greased hair long. They hung out. While drapes might be considered cool today, in my circle back then, they were not.

A friend of mine recently remarked that he knew the terrible 1960s were not far away when, in the late 1950s, some smart alecks started bleaching the front of their whiffles as a way of showing off.

The whiffle cut was speedy -- a relief after what could be a long wait in Johnny DeVos' tonsorial parlor, which had two heat-drawing windows overlooking Greenmount Avenue. Through those windows, one could see the No. 8 streetcars trundling by.

In the shop there were always a lot of men waiting on chairs upholstered in a kind of red plastic meant to imitate marble. There was some reading material; it tended to be very old issues of Elks Club magazines.

For my earliest whiffle sessions, Johnny needed to put the children's seat board atop the arms on his venerable barber's chair, which had chrome feet and headrest attachments. By the time I was 9, he merely had to slide the board atop the seat to raise me up a little.

I felt like an adult the first time he looked me over and decided there was no need at all for the booster board. But I was an adult before my feet could touch the footrests.

Johnny DeVos was a true professor of the haircut. He had a steady hand, he spoke little and kept his eyes trained on his work. His son, Johnny Jr., worked alongside him at the shop's other chair.

There was a rule in my family that only the senior Johnny could cut my hair. His son was competent, but my family remained jTC loyal to the older man. Perhaps it was because Johnny had opened his business just as my people had moved to Guilford Avenue in 1915. In the 50-plus years that Johnny was active, he cut the hair of my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father and his children.

In the 1920s, when some of my aunts decided to have their long, Gibson girl tresses chopped off for the modern bobbed look, they went to Johnny for a fashion update.

I'll never forget one Johnny experience. My grandfather lay in his bed with terminal cancer. He was 79 and had but a few weeks to live. We called Pop's favorite barber and asked him to make a home visit. Could he fix up the most senior member of the family for his last Christmas?

Johnny packed up a small bag and walked the two blocks to our house. His visit perked Pop up and gave him a little more cosmetic dignity during his last weeks. Johnny also posted for Pop's funeral.

Johnny did not talk too much, but he liked baseball and would offer his opinions about the old International League Orioles. One of the few decorations in his shop was a set of framed photographs of the Oriole Park fire, an event that Baltimoreans of that era never stopped remembering.

On the morning of July 4, 1944, Oriole Park burned down, just behind Johnny's shop. Fortunately, the firemen were able to keep the flames from jumping the alley and onto Johnny's back porch.

Johnny's shop was in a rowhouse and he and his wife also lived there. Their living quarters were separated from the shop by a curtain in a hallway. If you arrived late in the afternoon, you knew what meal would be on the DeVos' dinner table that night. The scent of the corned beef overpowered the talcum powder.

I was always pleased when, after the whiffle shearing was over and I had only about a quarter-inch of hair left, Johnny would dust off his work with a brush and powder. Then came a liberal sprinkle of Lucky Tiger. That emerald hair tonic cooled the hottest June day.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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