Hair is a many splendored thing!
Bev and I lived in Oakland, California in the early 1960’s. I was taking a year of residency in general surgery at Kaiser hospital. My wife was teaching general science at an often-rowdy mostly black high school. Her careful methods worked well. At the end of the final semester with everyone saying goodbye, a dozen giggling black female students came up to her. The spokeswoman burst out with a big smile, “Mrs. Dawkins, would you be able to let us feel your hair?” “Of course!” she answered. Both the students and Bev had pure black hair, but Bev’s was much finer, more bouncy and touchy. They took their time and were simply in wonder. It was a very moving moment for Bev, not just about the hair, but also about an inspiring and adored teacher from a different generation and culture. Thrilled, Bev couldn’t wait to get home to tell me about it. She later went through the same thing with a Japanese professor who stayed in our house for a month.
*A note on the era: at this time in Oakland and elsewhere, mixing of race and culture was uncommon, especially in the schools.
Maasai Warriors and Bev’s hair
My wife and I went on a nine-month odyssey with our three children; Bill age fifteen, Lynne age 13 and John age ten. It was centered on South Africa where we spent six months. We traveled through Europe for six weeks on the way there, and on the way back, South and Central America. It was a trip none of us will ever forget.
We entered Africa with a flight from Athens to Nairobi. I remember loving the in-flight movie, “The Sting” shortly after it had been released.
As a surgeon, one of my patients was an eccentric zoology professor at our hometown University Of California Davis. He had spent years off and on in Kenya and gave me all of the detailed instructions needed to take an exciting pop-top Jeep adventure all the way from inland Nairobi to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.
The rental Jeep people tried to tell us it couldn’t be done. As my professor patient had required, I found out that there had been no recent known washouts on the mostly dirt highway and loaded up on Kenyan dollars. In the interior, that was the only money recognized, and we would need it to buy gasoline from whomever, in areas without official gas stations. The gas stations that existed were all very good at auto repair and parts.
The brave five of us started out Rooty-Toot-Toot! We marveled at the sight of bands of giraffe, elephant and monkey on the road but didn’t get our first shock until about five hours out, stopping at a small village where there was some kind of bazaar going on. Everyone was excited to see we pale-faces from The United States. Then a huge “BOOM!” a cherry bomb firecracker went off. It was our son Bill, who had somehow snuck a dozen through customs.
The crowd of about three hundred went wild in ecstasy! Bill could have traded them for any man woman or child in the group. He agreed to let one of the men shouting and leaping at his feet have a go in turn for a fancy blow-gun and dart quiver (when we arrived home in San Francisco over five months later we had twenty two pieces of luggage, including two gallons of carried water so as to not get sick with water change at every destination).
The foregoing is just an introduction to our Kenya story where we ended up in the Indian Ocean throwing giant gobs of beached jellyfish at each other.
Back to Bev’s hair. There were two Maasai Warriors standing in the middle of the road in their bold eye-catching robes. We were over half way through our multi-day Kenyan trip. Each warrior had his left hand up, palm forward, and the right hand down, holding a long spear. They had colorful ear and hair adornments with their handsome robes, smoke and fire impregnated, giving a subdued color of mostly orange. Their faces were inscrutable but there was a careful grace in their acceptance of our hospitality as we agreeably stopped and I stepped out.
After a short period of getting acquainted through gestures we understood that they wanted a ride. “OK, let’s go!” as I waved them into the back seat behind my wife, the kids jammed in fore and aft, turning away from their smoke-grease smell.
It was eerie riding along mile after mile without ever seeing traffic along our deserted dirt road, in silence until my wife whispered, “They’re playing with my hair!” I stopped the car to figure out what to do when Bev, jumping out, came to the rescue. She smiled at them and, with a flourish, released her hair band allowing her hair to shake free. It was glorious, animated by a gentle breeze on a comfortable non-humid day of sun and wispy clouds. She made a motion that they could touch her hair, which they did. At first it was gingerly, then more boldly. After about twenty seconds Bev put her palm up, signaling, “Stop!” She then motioned to ask them to touch their hair, just as raven-black as hers but coarse and greasy. We drove off rapidly, not knowing the Maasais’ full intentions, Bev wiping her greasy hands on a small towel and the Maasai talking softly to each other. It was another twenty miles before they signaled that they wanted off.
On departure they gestured again toward Bev’s hair. She stood stoically to receive a gentle hand sweep of her wind-dancing hair toward their noses. Touch and smell now satisfied, acknowledged by their impish grins. I noticed a slight coordinated knee flex and immediate straightening just before they turned and walked away with great dignity. I imagine that barely noticeable knee action was their form of a “thank you” bow to Bev for sharing her beautiful hair.
There’s one more story including my wife’s beautiful hair, of tender pathos. Find it at the end of the full version of “Pain of the Pearl,” which you can find in my upcoming book, Reckless But Lucky (2018).