About once a month I enjoy getting my hair cut. Most probably because I have so little, so the barber, an attractive lady, Arlene, with magnificent eyes, spends a lot of time fussing over my white strands; otherwise she would be finished in a few minutes and the quality of woman she is, she wouldn’t want to charge me the full price, which is inconsiderable in the first place. That’s the way it is in Pikeville, county seat of Bledsoe County.
The city, about fifteen-hundred personalities, is situated in the northern half of a valley; a deep fertile valley that presents itself as a large rupture in the southern Cumberland Plateau. The terraced, highly fracture, brown sandstone walls of the plateau rise prominently to the east and west, respectively; eagles and red winged hawks soar its updrafts. A meandering river passes through the eastern section of the two square miles of the county seat. I have driven the valley's length hundreds and hundreds of times, and I always marvel at its natural pastoral beauty. Huge rolls of hay interspersed on its shaven rolling hills; their placement like the calculated positioning of pieces on a chess board. Forests of deciduous trees and coniferous pine line the streams and fill some of the homestead’s back acreage. Pastures filled with grass greener than any in the ol’ sod, and where star dust swirls and dances at night amongst the hay rolls.
The barber shop, with its stack of magazines, hair supplements, comfortable chairs, and wonderfully framed posters, is a wife and husband establishment, with Arlene working the beginning three days of the week and Bob, the husband, the last three. They double up on Saturdays as that is the most popular day for men around here to get their haircut. They also have a Laundromat and a “touch less” car wash attached to their shop; a nice addition for this small community. They work hard to keep their business clean, efficient, and price competitive.
A couple of days ago I parked my 89 Supra in front of their place; Bob was clipping as it was Thursday. Now Bob, you should know, is a hardy fellow well met; tall, thin and as is a want of his trade ... gregarious. He also possesses a Wikipedia of local knowledge.
There was a customer in the chair, a young fellow just back from Afghanistan. He had been in the military for ten years, enlisting when he was eighteen. I sat down to wait my turn and picked up the local newspaper, the Bledsonian and was greeted with what appeared to be a crime wave in our normally peaceable and beautiful county. A little ol’ lady stood accused of doing away with two elderly sisters. The young man in the barber’s chair avowed that he knew the defendant and could not believe that sweet lady capable of anything more illegal than double parking. We all shook our head in unison. The other “crime spree” story was of another meth lab being broken up and the cook taken into custody. Bob allowed how there would be a special place in hell for the folks that trafficked in that horrendous drug. Again, with our heads shaking in unison.
The fellow in the chair was finished. He tipped Bob nicely, looked in the mirror and seemed satisfied. I got up and replaced him in the seat. I took off my glasses and hung them from the collar of my shirt, and Bob drew the sheet up to my neck. I looked around the nicely decorated shop and suddenly saw “It” hanging from the wall to my left. “It” was about four feet by six feet and framed with heavy oak. It had a brass plaque titled Happy Camper and was an oil painting, on wood, of a Texas Longhorn bull; dense shiny black torso, short legs, a massive chest and neck, probably weighing in at least seventeen hundred, and possessing large brown eyes. I recognized the singular brush strokes and pallet of my neighbor, Alice, down the road a ways from my place. She is a gifted artist, self taught, and she and her husband Harold, are wonderful friends. She painted the portrait in lieu of having the animal stuffed and mounted.
Bob, very sadly, said that Happy Camper had passed away from old age; he was twenty, and the pet of the family. Bob recalled how he had flown to Texas to bid on the animal at an auction, won, and had Happy Camper hauled all the way to Tennessee. As an adult, his massive curved horns measured 100 inches from tip to tip, and the gap between the tips was eighty-seven inches.
Neither Bob nor I lived down in the valley, but up on the “mountain”. I recalled when I drove by their place, on my way to Wal-Mart, seeing the ol’ fellow, Happy Camper, standing by the fence, like royalty; solitary, placid and self-possessed; enjoying the spot in the shade of the old unpainted barn in the hot afternoons. In the winter the sagging barn also served as a bulwark against the cold winds. I always marveled at the noble way the fellow held his head high with all that weight and encumbrance of the Nordic crown … that spread of his magnificent horns.
Even today, Bledsoe County is a hunter’s paradise and most everyone goes out to put food on the table; wild boar, wild turkey, deer, possum, etc. There are a lot of trophies and taxidermy is a profitable niche business. Bob said the painting was a substitute for having Happy Camper’s head mounted, not to mention the $2k the mounting would have cost. Additionally, his wife Arlene said, without saying, that there was no way he would get that into their home or shop. Bob did have the horns braced in brass and attached to a wooden commemoration and placed in his large barn, a discreet distance from the main house ... so that Happy Camper lives on in Bob’s eyes.
As I sat in the barber’s chair, I offered up to Bob what I hoped to be the appropriate sentiments for a Texas Longhorn bull that had passed; an unknown protocol to me. He thanked me and went on to tell that he had seventy more of the critters, raised and bred for roping contests and not to be butchered. Further, each of the seventy critters had a name that he had thought up; adding proudly – “by myself”. Jokingly, I asked if he could, like “the woman who lived in the shoe with so many children she didn’t know what to do” remember their names. Well he did, and I received the complete roster … cow by cow, bull by bull … over the drone of the clippers. With the last name, he whipped the sheet off. I got down from the chair and as I paid him, I saw there was a little moisture in his eyes. I quickly averted my gaze, as one man doesn’t want another man to see his sentiments that way. I indicated I didn’t need change and walked out to my car, a little subdued.
I started the car and pulled out onto the main street. I looked into the rear view mirror, smiled and then said out loud, “You just gotta think well of a man that can tear up over some bull.”