I went outside the box for the first time when I was eight years old. Going outside the box is usually not appreciated if it means contradicting norms and traditions of one’s family or community. Thankfully, I was not the first to do so.
There was, for example, my Grandmother Christine’s trip to Europe—alone—as a 21 year-old woman in 1911. Such things were just not done by young women then, and especially within the context of the small, conservative farming town where she lived in southern Indiana. I have a photograph taken at about that time. It shows Christine standing with her mother, father and sister. Each of their expressions and body postures speak volumes to me. Christine’s eyes are looking down and she seems to have an expression of resignation on her face. Her mother appears to be tired and is gazing across at Christine. Her father also looks troubled and is staring at the ground. Only her sister has eyes lifted and she is looking into the distance beyond the situation.
I have no idea of the context in which this photo was taken. Everyone is dressed up so it may have been after church or at some other more formal occasion. Although my conjectures about the picture may be way off the mark, I do sense that Christine’s free-spirited ways at this point in her life perplexed and perhaps irritated her parents. And then there was the matter of the elopement.
On June 16, 1913—a Monday morning—twenty-four year-old Christine Lebline gathered herself in her upstairs bedroom, walked down the hallway, descended the stairs and entered the dining room. There her father, Woodford, and her youngest sister, Ruth, were having breakfast. Christine took a seat at the dining table, which was unusual since she seldom ate breakfast with her family then. After a few moments of silence, she asked her father, “Did you know that John Rapp and I are planning to get married?” Woodford, a slight man with a bushy mustache, replied that he did not.
“When will the wedding be? he asked.
Christine paused and matter-of-factly stated that she and John had planned to be married that next Wednesday, but they had decided it was no use waiting any longer so they were eloping that very morning. Her sister, Ruth, in a letter written to a friend four days later, recalled that after receiving this news, her father “nearly fainted and lost his appetite then and there.” Ruth, herself, was heartbroken and wrote, “Christy and I have always been such chums [and now] there will always be a difference.” To complicate matters further, Christine’s mother, Lucy, was away on the day of the elopement and knew nothing of it until she returned home several days later. I maintain that Lucy’s absence may help explain the timing of Christine and John’s sudden departure. By leaving on that Monday, only Christine’s father and sister were at home, and she may have reasoned that they would resist their intentions much less than her mother would.
At precisely nine o’clock that morning, John Rapp arrived at the home in his Studebaker automobile loaded with a tent and blankets that he and Christine intended to use for camping during their honeymoon. They said good-bye and departed to get their marriage license and to launch their lives together. During the following week, the family received a letter from Christine informing them that she was indeed married, although she gave few details other than that the wedding had taken place in a small village church “covered with vines.” The actual place where they were married was never disclosed. Christine had gone outside the box.
During much of my childhood, I was an inside the box kid within an inside the box family—and I can prove it. A national magazine in 1951 selected my family as the typical American family. That’s about as inside the box as you can get. It was a time before high-speed computers and sophisticated demographics, although the magazine did do some research based on the 1950 census and they learned that Terre Haute, Indiana, was the population center of the U.S. then. Furthermore, my parents fit a number of the statistical norms of the day—they were Caucasian, native-born, Protestant, married, and had two children. My father was a World War II veteran and a college graduate, again typical. He worked at a Terre Haute manufacturing factory for a typical annual salary of $4000 per year. Although my mother had worked as a school teacher during the war, she had since quit and become a typical homemaker. To sum it up, the article simply declared that my family was “a symbol of the heartland of America.”
It’s hard for me to imagine a more self-conscious child than I was in the 1950s. For example, once during a sandlot football game in my junior high school years, the dye in the leather lining of my new football helmet bled into my hair and indelibly colored it orange. When I went to school the following day, I felt like crawling into a hole and never coming out.
I never thought of doing anything that might cause me to be ridiculed or scorned by my peers or disapproved of by my parents and other elders. I learned early that the best way to stay out of harm’s way was to stay inside the box. Like many children, I wanted to be liked and approved, which for me meant not wanting to appear different from others in my age group. At least that was the case until the summer of 1955.
As a Christmas gift in 1954, I received a book from my mother, which began the path that took me outside the box. I still have that book, and when I view it now, I realize that its images and texts are still very familiar. It is a book about North American Indians, and it influenced my impressions of indigenous people more than anything else then. One passage in the book made an especially large impression on me as it described a view of Navajo people towards their craft of weaving. It stated that traditional Navajo weavers deliberately made mistakes in their patterns because they believed that no one should ever be perfect in this life. My own expectations for myself—and my perception of the standards of others—peers, parents or teachers—were very different than that. I was not to make mistakes, and to do so was an indication of failure. The thought that someone might actually make a deliberate error was beyond my comprehension.
Sometime during the spring of 1955, perhaps because of my emerging interest in American Indians that had been spurred by my new book, I asked my mother if I might get a different haircut. Some of the Indians who were portrayed in my book had their heads shaved with just a single strip of hair down the middle, a style then referred to as a “Mohawk.” Although some people in the 1950s wore their hair this way as a symbol of individuality or rebellion, I didn’t know that then. My sole purpose for wanting a Mohawk haircut was to identify with Indians. In fact, I wanted to be an Indian, and in my eight year-old way of reasoning, getting an Indian haircut was the first step. I could have let my hair grow long, I suppose, and put it into braids, which was also how some Indians were portrayed in my book. But that would have taken a long time. If I convinced my mother to let me get a Mohawk haircut, I could have my Indian identity instantly. That my hair was quite blond then, and that no one would ever mistake me for being an Indian—Mohawk haircut or not—didn’t seem to matter.
In June, after the school year was finished, my mother took my brother, Phil, and me for a visit to my Grandmother Christine’s farm near Seymour. My Dad was on a business trip at the time and did not accompany us. During our week’s stay at my grandmother’s, I continued to pester my mother about getting a Mohawk. She finally relented, but knowing that my father would not approve, she informed me that I would have to stay at my grandmother’s farm for the rest of the summer until my hair grew back out. That, for me, was like being sentenced for the summer to a candy store. I readily agreed to the terms.
The next morning, my mother drove me into Seymour and we went to Pearson’s barbershop on Chestnut Street. It was a typical small-town 1950s barbershop—a barber pole stood beside the front door, which led into a narrow room with a line of mirrors on one wall. Opposite the mirrors was an old-fashioned barber chair with a cushioned seat and back, white porcelain arms, and a metal headrest and footrest. The barber, Mr. Pearson, was a young man who had just opened the shop a few years before. After we walked in, my mother told me to inform the barber about what kind of haircut I wanted. I spoke softly but firmly and said, “I want a Mohawk just like Indians have.” Mr. Pearson turned to my mother, smiled, and said to her, “Well, Missus, we don’t get too many requests for Mohawks here. Is it Okay with you?” She nodded.
I sat down in the barber chair and in a short time I had my treasured Mohawk. The barber even shaped the strip of hair at the back of my head into a point. He held up a small mirror for me to admire his work. I smiled, and after he had removed the barber cloth from around my neck, I climbed out of the chair and looked at myself again in the larger mirrors along the wall. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. My mother paid the barber and we walked out of the shop. I had gone outside the box.
A few days later, after my mother had returned to Terre Haute, I received a postcard from her with my grandmother’s mail. It read:
Phil and I met Daddy’s plane…The first thing he said was, “Where’s Steve?” Phil told him you were visiting Grandmother. We told him about your Mohawk and he said he didn’t want to see it!
A day later I received another card, this time from my father. He acknowledged that he had heard about my new haircut, but offered no further comment. I inferred that meant he did not approve, but I was 120 miles away from him and the possibility of there being repercussions from my decision to get the haircut seemed remote. I had no regrets and was pleased with my new appearance.
I don’t recall that my grandmother had any adverse reactions to my Mohawk when she saw it. We went on many errands into town together and to other public places as well. I like to think now that she just might have remembered her own times as a young adult when she went outside the box and risked scorn and ridicule. I wasn’t the least bit self-conscious about my hair, perhaps because I knew few people in Seymour then. I only recall one person ever commenting about my haircut that summer, an older boy at the town swimming pool. However I interpreted his remark as a compliment not a criticism.
Even at eight years old, I knew that getting that Mohawk haircut might subject me to criticism by peers or elders. But for the first time in my life, I didn’t care and I chose to do it anyway. My hair grew back by September, and I came home again to Terre Haute. I went to another barbershop near my house and had my hair trimmed into a crew cut like other boys wore at that time. I went back into the box again—and I remembered.
After returning to Rockford from their honeymoon, Christine and John Rapp farmed his and her family’s land following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. Perhaps their decision to elope was more a statement to their families and community that they intended to live their lives independently than an act of rebellion. Despite their connection to their families’ traditional livelihood as farmers, Christine and John intended to put a distinctive stamp on their lives.
Whatever transpired between Christine and her parents after her elopement, the troubled waters must have calmed fairly quickly. A few weeks after Christine’s return from her honeymoon, her parents sent out a marriage announcement to family and friends. It read:
Mr. and Mrs. Woodford Lebline announce the marriage of their daughter
Christine to Mr. John C. Rapp on Wednesday, the eighteenth of June one
thousand nine hundred and thirteen. At home after the first of August.
The matter of Christine and John’s elopement was never discussed in the family again. When one goes outside the box, it is often what is not said that matters most.
A few years ago, I was visiting Seymour. I was about to leave town after my time there, and I decided to drive along Chestnut Street to see what was left that I might remember. Much of that street had changed from the days of my childhood; few of the stores that existed then in downtown Seymour still remained. But one did—Pearson’s Barber Shop. I had to stop and take a look inside. From the outside, the shop looked as I remembered it. As I opened the door and walked in, I noticed the same black and white linoleum floor tiles, the old waiting bench along one wall and the line of mirrors. The barber chairs are newer, but I felt as if I had gone back in time. There was a young man sweeping the floor at that moment and no customers were in the shop. I introduced myself to the man and explained that I had once come to this shop to get a Mohawk haircut. He chuckled. I told him it was in 1955 and I asked who the barber might have been then. He chuckled again. He said, “That would have been Gene Pearson—and, you know what, he’ll be coming back here from lunch in about ten minutes. He still cuts hair here one day a week.” When I heard this, I wasn’t about to leave!
Right on schedule, Mr. Pearson pulled up in front of the shop in his car. I went outside and met him on the street and introduced myself. He was older, of course, but he was still fit and had a haircut straight out of 1950s. I explained that he had given me a Mohawk when I was a boy fifty years earlier. I joked that it must have been the only Mohawk he cut, so he surely remembered me. He smiled and said that, in fact, he had cut many Mohawks over the years, and unfortunately he didn’t remember mine. He added that he had first opened his shop in 1952 and had “retired” several times, but just kept coming back to cutting hair. I asked if I could take my picture with him to remember the occasion and he agreed. I thanked him, shook his hand, went on my way—and I remembered. When one goes outside the box, it is often what is not said that matters most.
This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011. All rights reserved.