My Tactless Family

“My Tactless Family and the Night the Lights Went Out in Sidman“

Uncle Pete was a bachelor. I loved the man. His heart was made of gold and he treated his nieces and nephews as if they were his own children. Unfortunately, tact was not one of his attributes.

“Been eating too many tomatoes, Dave?” he asked me one time during a visit to his place.  At the bursting-with-self-confidence age of 14, and experiencing an acne breakout on my cheeks that resembled the chicken pox, I never did quite forget his inquiry or its impact on my self-perception.  

To quote Bill Cosby in one of his old skits, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.”

The semester break my senior year in college was combined with the Christmas break.  I was home almost a month and even with constant reminders from my mom, I failed to schedule an appointment for a haircut.  The crisis, however, was that this was no ordinary college break. I would be returning in two days to do my student teaching, the last and most important element of my four years of college.  

I was scheduled to drive back Sunday evening, so Saturday morning Mom called Peg Turgeon, a family friend who also happened to cut hair part time in town.  Peg was happy to accommodate my request and told my mom that I should come down later in the day, after 5:30.  (Please keep in mind, in mid-January it gets dark very quickly.)

I was barely seated and covered with the barber cape when the power suddenly went out. Never blinking an eye, nor suggesting we wait till the next day, Peg lit a candle and grabbed her scissors. A new and inexpressible feeling went up my spine and back down to my extremities. It was similar to having surgery by candlelight without anesthesia – and since I’ve never experienced that, either, I’m at a loss for a better description.

I do remember how fast Peg kept cutting. The fact that there was little light didn’t slow her down a bit, nor did it do much to improve my anxiety.
Still in the dark, I paid the bill and gave Peg a nice tip, too, as instructed by Mom.  

During the half-mile trek back home, the power returned and I entered the brightly lit kitchen where my mom was talking on the phone.

Now, most families would try to handle such situations with caution and tact, but not mine. Mom was incapable of speech. She did manage to snort, drop the phone, and grab herself to keep from spontaneously peeing. Then she roared out loud in laughter. Her first verbal comment was made to the person on the phone. 

“Sorry, I have to go.  Dave just got back and I have to grab a tissue, blow my nose, and talk to him.  He got a haircut and it didn’t turn out like any of us planned.”

After a few more roars, snorts, and grabs, she looked at me and quickly queried, “What happened?!” 

To be honest, our efforts of combing, brushing, washing, and blow-drying did little to rectify the calamity. I was sure my student teaching supervisor (as well as the governor) would classify this catastrophe as a state disaster. I didn’t even want to guess what my students would think of me on Monday morning. Mom tried to even the cuts out, but it only made the hair look even shorter and sparser. 

I drove east to Shippensburg the next evening, but my self-confidence headed further south as I entered my apartment.  One of my roommates, Steve Laird, happened to also be on the phone with his fiancée, Rosalie.

“Hold on! Po just walked in the door with the shortest haircut I’ve ever seen,” he exclaimed while laughing uncontrollably.  He then asked me the same question my mom had asked, “What happened?!”

Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night. And the next day, I knew the kids were trying to be kind as they wondered why this college guy had shorter hair than my supervisor, my cooperating teacher, any other male teacher in the school, or any student. What a fine start it was to my teaching career!

Lou Holtz, former football coach at Notre Dame, frequently spoke to his players about misfortunes such as this.  “We learn from adversity,” the veteran mentor often repeated.

Apparently then, I’m the world’s slowest learner. For some reason, years later, after failing again to schedule another haircut, I tried trimming my own hair using one of those razorblade contraptions advertized on TV. 

While holding a small mirror in one hand and combining a two-way view with a larger mirror in the bathroom, I managed to dig deeply into the hair on the back of my head with that razor.  I’m positive my assault on my hair was even quicker than Peg Turgeon’s.

Two other recollections stand out in my mind. One, I remember using the device while my hair was still wet, after washing.  And two, I recall reading afterwards in the directions, “Do not use razor on wet hair.”

The fiasco said little for me as a teacher. I should have practiced what I preached and “read the instructions ahead of time.”  

Local hairdresser and former student Kim Grimes came to the rescue that day with a variety of tools, the greatest of which was a brown eyebrow pencil.  She did an exceptional job with her skills, but I made the mistake of showing Mom and my siblings my mangy mangled mess in the back of my head.  

That display occurred at no other place than the viewing and funeral for one of my aunts.  Let’s just say that my family’s reaction to my debacle made their grieving process more tolerable, but did little once again for my confidence and self-assurance.

The learning from adversity in this story can be summed up in three phrases. One, if you need some self-confidence boosting, and you expect things to be handled tactfully, please stay away from all members of my family.  Two, bring a gasoline-powered electric generator with you any time you intend to get your hair cut, especially in Sidman.  And three, if you get the urge to cut your own hair, I suggest you cut your fingers off instead. You can always keep your hands in your pockets when out in public.   


My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA