In 1965, Greenland was exclusively owned by Denmark. America leased an Air Force base there at Sondrestrom, where I reported in January to begin a tour of duty as the manager of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Station (AFRTS).
When I arrived, all of the barbers were white men from Denmark. Shortly thereafter, Airman Mays arrived. He was a black man from Savannah, Georgia. His Air Force occupation was that of fireman. He also packed in his duffle bag his barber tools. Pretty soon every black airman and those white airmen who wanted special cuts congregated in Mays’ room. When the First Sergeant noticed Mays’ popularity, he dedicated a special room in a barrack as an alternate barber shop. That arrangement didn’t upset the Danish barbers, who were there as contractors, and were handsomely paid regardless of how many hairs they cut. As Mays blossomed, it was obvious that he needed help.
I had met his potential relief on the night of my arrival in Greenland. As I entered my new room in the barrack and began to unpack, I had not yet closed the door when I heard someone say “Howdy,” with an unmistakable Southern twang. He entered my room; introduced himself as Joe Davis, and as we began to talk he saw a jar of pickled pig’s feet and asked for one. The jar belonged to the roommate that I had not yet met, but I passed the jar to Joe. He began eating and slurping in a manner that further identified his origins. I asked of my new acquaintance, a white sergeant, “Joe, where are you from?” He answered, “From a little town down South that you probably never heard of — Homerville Georgia.” I promptly said, “You folks in Clinch County sure know how to gobble down a pig’s foot. And, there’s also a good chance you entered the Air Force in neighboring Lowndes County and my home in Valdosta.” We just grabbed each other and almost cried; two ole boys from the Deep South, coming together at midnight – to eat pickled pig’s feet — at the top of the world. So, a few months later when Mays’ problem got base-wide concern, Joe offered to me a proposal: “I’m also a barber, but I can’t cut black hair. If I could learn to cut black hair I could give Mays some relief.” Joe’s comment also expressed some ethnic and social truths. First, it recognized the difference in the texture of black and white hair. Next, it recognized that for Mays to be proficient cutting white hair, some white boys had to let him practice. Finally, and most obvious, Joe was proposing that I help him recruit black volunteers to let him practice. When I presented the subject to a few black airmen they universally endorsed the idea and suggested that, since I was the messenger, I should be the first black volunteer. I stepped forward to “take one for the team.”
I’ve heard it said that there is nothing so bad with a haircut that two weeks won’t cure. Joe gave me a haircut that set a new standard. It was the worst haircut of my 14 years of active duty, and possibly during my lifetime. For the next month I wore a hat. On a small base with fewer than a thousand troops there are no secrets. One day the Base Commander visited the station. Even as he entered he tried to hide his smile, as he blurted out, “Oh, gosh, Sergeant Alexander is wearing his hat inside the building.” I looked at him and said, “Sir, don’t even go there.” He then turned to an airman and asked if he had seen “the haircut” and what it looked like. The airman replied, “Colonel, you really don’t want to see it. It looks like someone tried to shear a sheep with a hand-push lawn mower.” That was just too funny. Our laughter drowned out the music, and when I removed my hat the roar could be heard a block away. The Commander and others left wiping their eyes.
Mays offered to try and reshape some of the patches of hair but I refused. Joe started the project and I wanted him finish it. Finally, after about five weeks, things changed. I entered the mess hall without my hat; the colonel and others stopped laughing; Joe became very busy; Mays was relieved, and I demanded that Joe give me free haircuts for the remainder of my tour in Greenland, or for the rest of my life if I know his whereabouts.