The hot foam on the back of my neck felt great, but when the old man picked up that glistening straightedge, my eyes locked on his brown-splotched hand—checking for even the slightest tremor. I could always change my mind.
When I first started going to Austin’s Sportsman’s Barber Shop back in the 1980s, the senior barber was Sidney C. Frost. In deference to his age, everyone called him Mr. Frost. Born in 1909 and semiretired, he had been taking a little off the top and sides since 1927.
Mr. Frost had started out downtown in the Littlefield Building at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue, back when the Capital City was still small enough for that location to be convenient for the entire community. In the 1960s, he followed his customers to the suburbs, and about the time he reached traditional retirement age, he sold out to a younger barber named Jim Field. Field started Sportsman’s, filling its walls with mounted game heads and trophy fish.
Tall and thin, Mr. Frost knew his trade well. But as surely as hair grows, it also thins and turns gray, and he had trimmed his workload to part time, coming in only when he wanted to.
Back in the day, Mr. Frost had been the barber for the legendary Capt. Frank Hamer, the storied Texas Ranger who, in 1934, had tracked down and killed the outlaw couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Knowing I had written some books on the history of the Rangers, Field said I ought to talk to Mr. Frost if I ever found him in the shop.
As it happened, the next time I showed up needing a haircut, Field had a customer, with another one waiting. However, Mr. Frost was sitting in his chair reading the newspaper. Could he work me in, I asked, being polite. I told him I was headed out of town and definitely needed a haircut before I hit the road. He looked up from his newspaper long enough to assess the length of my salt-and-pepper locks and said sure, slowly getting up.
Necessity aside, I liked the idea of being able to tell my grandkids that I’d gotten a haircut from the same man who used to cut the hair of the Ranger who relentlessly pursued—and finally killed— two of Texas’ most violent criminals.
“How you want it?” Mr. Frost asked. “Above the collar?”
Just a regular haircut, I said, and, sure, nothing over the collar.
Settled into the chair, I planned a slow buildup to the one story I wanted most to start, which was, “So, tell me about Captain Hamer … ” That in mind, I started by asking Mr. Frost how long he’d been cutting hair. Soon I had him reminiscing about the good old days, snipping away as he recalled his younger years.
He said that early in his career under the revolving red, blue and white pole, most men got their hair cut weekly. That was a good thing, because even in the wildly inflationary days before the stock market crash in 1929, Mr. Frost earned only 40 cents a haircut. “After the market crashed,” he recalled, clip-clip-clip, “we had to lower the price to 35 cents.”
A lot of men also depended on Mr. Frost for their daily shave. One well-groomed customer came in twice a day, first thing in the morning and then again in the afternoon to get his five o’clock shadow taken care of. His hand still steady after more than six decades as a barber, Mr. Frost remembered the past in short snips as he continued with my haircut, other customers listening in.
Finally, I took aim at Hamer—at least in the interrogatory sense. Mr. Frost said he didn’t remember much of what they had talked about back in the late ’20s and early ’30s, when Hamer had his headquarters in Austin—probably just typical barber-customer banter. But one thing did stand out in his memory.
“The captain never got a shave and a haircut at the same time,” he said. “Guess he didn’t have that much time, or that much money.”
A shave cost a quarter before the crash, so the whole shebang would have set the 6-foot-plus lawman back all of 65 cents. State employees have never been overpaid, so Hamer might have opted for an economy of scale when it came to his tonsorial needs.
And then Mr. Frost recalled another of the late captain’s eccentricities.
“When he did get a shave, he never let me completely cover his face with a hot towel,” my barber revealed. “He said too many people wanted to kill him for him to let his guard down.”
Given that Mr. Frost likely would have been standing close enough to catch a stray round or two if any shots had been fired at the captain as he sat in the barber chair, he didn’t mind Hamer’s cautious approach.
By the time I warmed Mr. Frost’s chair, barbers no longer did much shaving of faces. But when he asked if I’d like the back of my neck shaved, I said yes. If the ever-viligant Hamer trusted Mr. Frost to be steady with a razor, so did I. Well, sort of.
“Just don’t cover my face,” I laughed, sneaking one last look at his hand. Was that a slight shake?
Nick free, when I stood up after Mr. Frost removed the cover he’d draped over my lap, I looked in the mirror. Perhaps overly preoccupied with talking about the old days, Frank Hamer’s barber had removed almost all my hair! Mr. Frost’s “regular” was the shortest haircut I’d ever had this side of a burr.
Maybe the longtime barber’s ample scissor work explained why most photographs of Hamer show him wearing a Stetson and a frown.
Mike Cox, frequent contributor