I had just survived an encounter with a grease fire in my house which had burned off parts of my hair and beard, as well as most of the paint on my door. My friend Dan was with me, and after we both cleaned spilled oil off the floor he waited patiently while I went upstairs to wash up. I took care to avoid the burned area on the tip of my nose and those on the right side of my lips, all while trying to think of how I could salvage my beard. The parts that weren’t burned looked like they had received a bad perm, my normally dark hair suddenly blond, dry, and curled up against my face. The more I looked at it, the less hope I had of saving this magnificent specimen of scruff I had cultivated for months through careful trimming and willpower.
I started with a setting of ‘two’ on my clippers, but there were still burned areas showing. Down to a ‘one,’ but no dice. I went to a ‘zero,’ mowing across my face as if I were obliterating the last rainforest on the earth.
Dan shouted “Oh my God, you look so different!” hammering this destruction home. And even though I had nearly burned my house down, even though the burns on my hands and face radiated pain, I had to laugh as I realized he had never seen me without a beard.
For much of my life I have been preoccupied, and some might say obsessed, with facial hair. Exotic styles of whiskers have especially fascinated me, from Salvador Dali’s moustache to the fantastic beard sculpting of Elmar Weisser, whose famous windmill styled beard defeated one hundred and sixty opponents in the World Beard and Moustache Championship. Yes, that exists. Beyond the exciting and extravagant face hair forms, however, I have just as much respect and admiration for simpler styles for the common man. Whether it’s a chinstrap, a goatee, a Van Dyke, admiral, or just a full beard, scruff of any kind is a way to make a statement and even start a conversation, which I have always been eager to initiate. I’ve found that every beard has a story, especially large or exotic ones. A simple question like “How long have you been growing your beard?” will usually result in an immediate smile as the man being questioned fondly strokes his beard. Some of them can say “three years” or even more, while others will tell you “Well, this is beard number four, the first was really patchy, and so was the second, and I had to shave those for both my brothers’ weddings, and the third was great, but I got a job that wouldn’t let me keep it, and…” and they will go on for some time like that. If you yourself have a beard they will want to know just as much about yours. If I had known about this facial hair camaraderie as a child, I may have wanted a beard even more desperately, but I’m not sure that’s possible.
Growing up, I found the idea that men could grow beards magical, and the knowledge that some men chose not to was almost laughable to me. Whenever I went to a carnival, I would sheepishly tell the cute older girls doing face paint, who usually painted boys like lions and girls like butterflies, that I wanted a big moustache. “No, bigger,” I would say, pointing on my pudgy cheeks where the moustache had to reach to. “And it has to be curly.” After my transformation, I would strut away and look down on all the lions and spider-men who had foolishly not gotten a moustache like mine. Sometimes I was brave enough to walk back and ask for a monocle too. I wasn’t misled, however, about the reality of having a beard. I was told frequently of the horrors and pains of shaving every day, usually right after I complained about my insufficient facial pores. My response, however, was that I didn’t plan on shaving. Simple, right? The one thing that no one told me is that it doesn’t all come in at once. Consequently, the word patchy became a curse once I entered high school. Every night I would stare into the bathroom mirror, commanding my pores to produce copious amounts of hair, and every morning I would wake up and inspect myself in the mirror, hoping some transformation had occurred in the night.
After this pining, and soon after the onset of whiskers, I encountered a veritable army of enemies who wished to stop me in my quest for facial hair. The first obstacle, of course, was my own patchy inefficiency in maintaining and growing the beard to begin with; my own genome fighting and resisting my will. Beyond that, girls, teachers, parents, and friends all tried in vain to tell me what is now obvious, that I simply couldn’t grow a beard yet and shouldn’t try. Looking around at my peers, however, I could see that I wasn’t the only one yearning for a beard. Soon enough, as if all the pleading to bearded deities had finally convinced them of my worthiness, my facial hair began to grow in more uniformly.
Upon my entry into the world of the whisker-endowed I set upon a quest to try as many styles as I could manage. I went simple at first, with just a pair of sideburns. It’s enough facial hair that you can claim to have something, without having the effect of turning off every girl while you experiment with scruff around the lips and chin. Unfortunately, the latter options are also the most fun.
After that I stuck with a goatee, that ubiquitous facial hair that adds an edge to just about any look, although most people simply said that I looked like a stoner or Shaggy from Scooby-Doo (basically the same thing). It became a problem, however, when my drug-dealing roommate thought that I looked more scummy than he did.
Eventually I tried a chinstrap, which has the effect of making the wearer look Amish (if the beard is long or the person generally smells of manure), or like one in a sea of jerks experimenting with facial hair (usually sporty types or Wolverine impersonators). I say that, of course, knowing that I was one of those jerks.
I was told by my friend Dave, when discussing the duality of these styles of facial hair, that beards simply enhance the persona of the wearer. In essence, my beard wasn’t douche-baggy because I’m not a douche-bag, it would seem. This idea was incredibly interesting to me, because it was, although I didn’t realize it, completely different from the way I had perceived beards. To me they were statements, something that a man wore if he wanted to say something about himself. To a certain degree, this is true, as almost everyone has seen a beard that either doesn’t look right on someone or is in conflict with their personality. That might sound ridiculous at first, but try to imagine mutton chops and a handlebar moustache on someone who is generally timid or shy. In this way beards can say something about the wearer that they consciously intend* (handlebar moustaches for creativity or dastardliness, mutton chops for virility), but viewers can also see when that presentation is false. That last part led me to believe in Dave’s words, that a beard was nothing more than an extension of personality, and would therefore take on the characteristics of its wearer.
As I stared at myself in the mirror, beardless for the first time in my friend Dan’s eyes, what did that say about me? If Dave was right, could a shaven face show just as much as a beard? Did it somehow reinforce the fact that I was an idiot for leaving the burner on for too long, or for not preparing better for a fire? Was my lack of beard somehow justice for my misuse of fire, the tool of the gods? My mind raced as I beheld my new, bare visage. In a primitive society, say cavemen, where beards showed genetic superiority, the loss of it would clearly have shown me to be a poor suitor, unable even to defend his mane of facial hair, let alone a cave-family. Who was I now that this part of myself had been stripped away?
One of the first great waves of popularity for a shaven face came with the formation of Alexander the Great’s army, with the idea being that if an enemy pulled on your beard you would be easily distracted and slain. Contrary to our hereditary instinct, the shearing of a beard to Alexander’s army was their ridding themselves of a weakness.
I shaved my beard, which was the longest it had ever gotten, the week after my high school sweetheart and I broke up. So why did I shave? If Dave was right, my beard should have reflected my hollowness, my fractured reality, just as well as a freshly shorn face could.
And yet, a week after his two-year relationship ended, my friend Oliver got a Mohawk.
The same day he left his girlfriend because he had the strength to see they were holding each other back, my friend Kevin shaved his beard.
The stories and cycles continue. Are we, like the soldiers of Alexander’s unconquerable army, ridding ourselves of something as well? I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to believe that we can shave away our mistakes and failures, but more than that I don’t think that’s what we are aiming to do. So the question becomes, if it’s not our past, is it or our very selves that we seek to annihilate?
The warriors of Alexander were fierce and trained, deadly to all who opposed them.
I couldn’t rouse myself from my bed and escape every little thought that told me I was worthless.
They rid themselves of all weakness, even what once made man proud and showed his ancient bride who was a suitable mate.
I walked with my head down, scratched my beard, and heard her voice ringing in my head, “Any other girl would have dumped you by now.”
Billy, one of my oldest friends, died at twenty. He was a giant to us, his friends, just as much as Alexander the Great, who needs no exposition. It doesn’t seem right to say something like “It was surprising/shocking/unexpected” or “We were sad/broken/grief-stricken.” Somehow it was just supernaturally unfair. As a mutual friend pointed out, it shouldn’t have been him. He was finally on the way to getting everything he had ever wanted: a good job, a loving girlfriend, he was looking to get his own place, and had even lost forty pounds over the past year. As humans do, we scattered about and found joy in maddening places and in what would otherwise be morbid facts. He and Alyssa, his girlfriend, had died together. They had died fast, a semi-truck colliding with their car. Somehow he hadn’t broken a single bone, but his spinal cord had snapped instantly. Finally, at the wake he not only wore his usual flannel, but also had kept his beard. True, for most of our lives he had been clean-shaven, but the man in the casket before me was undoubtedly my friend, and I and the rest of my friends had to admire his facial hair even then.
We looked at his beard rather than his pale lips, at the dirt still under his nails rather than the rosary stitched to his hands. Maybe it’s just something we do. We run, we shave, our eyes flit around rather than facing the fact that our friend is dead. Someone was gone that was here before, and memories were all we had. So we drank. We drank until we resembled heathens in some ancient cave, shouting and displaying our possessions across the dirt floor, muttering over bones and legends. And what legends Billy left us. Our knuckles scraped the floor as we lurched about in our drunken stupor, laughing too desperately, shouting and telling tales of “Big Bill.” Even when he was young, he towered over teachers and students alike, a tower of Babel that crashed down after only twenty years. In sixth grade he and I ran at each other for a chest-bump which sent me flying through the air and sliding halfway across our newly waxed gym floor, only to look up and see Billy smiling that goofy smile he wore constantly.
In that cave, nothing needs to be explained. We knew why his beard was good, why he needed to have kept it, but past the shrieking and drunken fires it’s harder to explain. It’s ridiculous to look at someone in a casket and say “Damn, doesn’t he look good! What a beard, man!” After all, he’s dead, he should be looking worse than anyone else in the room. And if anything his transformation, his change from living to not, was more complete and total than the loss of a girlfriend, so why was his beard comforting to us?
We missed him, I guess. His beard was recent, but I had seen it on his living cheeks. I had complemented him on it, and he had beamed with pride, his masculinity raw and completely out of touch with the Alexandrian ideal of honing oneself into a weapon. He was fond of saying “It is what it is,” and his beard seemed to echo those words. The car crash and the coroner hadn’t taken that from him. In the way that we shaved ours off to find someone new in ourselves, we found Bill again in his beard.
“Oh God, you look so different!” Dan had said, but I don’t really believe him.
Carleton Whaley is a third-year English major at the University of Connecticut. He discovered sarcasm when he was eight, and soon after this nearly got his father arrested by telling a Canadian border guard that he had been kidnapped. In order to fully experience the world he has pursued interests in hiking, chemistry, comics, and cooking, all with different degrees of success and close encounters with death. He enjoys a nice pipe-full of tobacco, a healthy sense of danger, and twenty-four hour diners.