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Shedding 2020 baggage a liberating and overdue experience

After a 14-month delay, Angie Stout finally cut my hair.

By Bryan Stevens

I recently had my locks shorn. Until the world’s sudden dive into the abyss of a global pandemic, I’d never grown my hair long. When I think of locks, I think of a certain biblical strong man or perhaps Prince Valiant and other fairytale royalty. I never set out to grow locks, but then I imagine many other people have gained some new experiences in the past year.

For instance, I never envisioned myself sitting in line in my car on the tracks at Bristol Motor Speedway waiting for shots of COVID-19 vaccine. In combination, my wait extended to 5 1/2 hours: a relatively quick wait of 60 minutes for the first shot and a much more lengthy 4 1/2 hour wait for the second jab. I’ve already digressed from the simple tale of my first haircut in 14 months. I’m afraid I need to digress farther to explain why I waited 14 months. I had good intentions a year ago this month. Already overdue for a trim, I intended to pay a visit to Angie’s Hair and Tanning in Unicoi during East Tennessee State University’s 2020 spring break.

That’s another shift since last year. In 2020, I still worked as an adjunct faculty member of the department of literature and language at ETSU. Since Feb. 3 of this year, I’ve been managing editor for The Erwin Record. Like many of the traditional events last year, ETSU’s spring break never quite happened. The university did dismiss classes for the break, but students never returned to the brick-and-mortar classrooms after the break ended. Even before classes dismissed, faculty, students and staff realized they would probably not be returning to a traditional classroom setting. It was a year ago that the entire world sort of slid slowly into an episode of the Twilight Zone and, heeding the scientists and their science, I began my year of social distancing.

Ironically, if I had known then what I know now, I would have gotten my hair cut before the summer, fall and winter brought their virus surges that pushed healthcare systems across the nation to the brink of collapse. Simply put, it was safer last spring in Northeast Tennessee than any time since. Instead I spent my spring break trying to figure out how I would suddenly teach a freshman composition course and an early American literature class through the magical workings of the internet. We, my students and myself, pulled it off using phones, email, Zoom, and the steadfast D2L, or Desire to Learn — a prophetic term, to say the least. For anyone who hasn’t been a student in the past decade, D2L is a cloud-based software suite used by schools, institutes of higher education and businesses for online and blended classroom learning. My students, more power to them, did desire to learn and almost everyone, including myself, went the extra mile to make it happen.

I used to teach a cheerless but educational essay by Barbara Tuchman titled “This is the End of the World” to my freshman composition students. Her essay deals with the Black Death, a pandemic that ravaged the world, particularly Europe, in the 1300s. During discussion of the essay, we would also talk about scary viruses such as Zika and Ebola. Since I usually had many students training for the health fields, I’d always ask them if they thought the United States was prepared to combat a plague such as the Black Death or even an updated mutation of the Spanish flu. Invariably, the students expressed optimism that we could weather such a storm. I do wonder if I’d get the same answer today after we’ve seen the often bumbling response to the COVID-19 virus from both government and the public. That’s something I’ve thought about this past year.

In the meantime, my hair continued to grow. It grew past 1960s hippie-length by summer. For my sanity, I took daily walks during the year of the shut-down when the weather cooperated. Hot, muggy days and long hair, however, are not a good mix. By autumn, my hair crossed into the territory occupied by some of country music’s rabble-rousing, mane-growing greats like Ricky Skaggs. I never contemplated Willie Nelson braids, but if I’d had to wait much longer there’s no telling. Head wraps?

Even in my not-so-wild youth, I only dabbled at using my hair as a fashion statement. As a college freshman, I asked my hair stylist about the potential of growing a rat’s tail. One of my favorite pop musicians at the time had one. I think my feeble attempt never even quite achieved a length that a chipmunk would find respectable, let alone a long-tailed rat.

By winter, I wanted a cave for hibernation. Perhaps I would emerge to a world back to normal. Perhaps I would get frozen for a few millennium and be discovered by humanity’s descendants who would marvel at a prehistoric relic the way we look at the stereotypical cavemen.

Fast-forward to spring 2021. Spring is a season for renewal and reemergence, perhaps never more so than this year. The vaccines, two at first, kept coming. I think we have three vaccines now, with possibly still more on the way. Light began to glimmer at the end of the tunnel. Armed with my two COVID-19 shots, I began to emerge like the timid groundhog does every Feb. 2.

I enjoyed meeting with Angie Stout at her salon. I hadn’t seen her since January of 2020 at a time when only a few people in the world had even heard whisperings of a strange, new virus. She told me about the challenges she faced with her business, including a five-week shutdown as health experts and politicians tried to figure out what to do with occupations that require close contact when the only way to effectively avoid the disease was to social distance. Angie, like a lot of us, emerged into a world of masks, frequent use of hand sanitizers, antiseptic wipes and so much more.

The world kept going. We adjusted. I picked up groceries and other essentials curbside at Wal-Mart and Food City. I only used the drive-thru windows at pharmacies and restaurants. During the year of COVID-19, I only stepped inside a few medical offices when driving my mother to necessary appointments. I adjusted because it was the sane, smart and socially respectable thing to do. Now I find myself hoping that enough people will get the vaccinations to make a difference and let us get a handle on the virus.

I’ve graced the inside of a few stores in recent weeks, but I still wear the mask. I’m still avoiding restaurants, which I have greatly missed. Even an introvert like myself finds that he can miss simple socializing at a table of food with friends and acquaintances. Takeout food still tastes the same, but it’s not a comparable experience to dining at home as the household’s hungry cats circle.

As Angie cut, trimmed, and hacked away at 14 months of hair growth, I couldn’t help but think of some Samson and Delilah allusions. Of course, Angie’s no Delilah and I’m certainly no Samson. The only connection to be made to one of my favorite Sunday School stories was the shorn locks that fell to the salon’s floor. Some friends on Facebook, better focused than me, wondered why I didn’t gather up all that hair and offer it at outdoor stations for the spring’s nesting birds. The songbirds could certainly line many nests with all the hair Angie removed from my head.

I sort of miss those locks. Then I remind myself that these briskly cold March mornings will eventually give way to the heat of summer. I won’t miss the long hair then. Yet those locks served a mental purpose as I processed my thoughts about life in a pandemic. They were a defiant badge. From the start, I intended to outlast and outdistance the virus. With a knock on wood and a tossed handful of salt, perhaps I did.