The barber shop that gives you a tip

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
  • Air Force District of Washington Public Affairs
U.S. Air Force Honor Guardsmen drop into their barbershop within the Honor Guard dorm for free haircuts and often leave with words of wisdom, courtesy of Master Barber John Harling. He and the two barbers who haunt the shop and keep guardsmen high and tight have become a fixture in a place where Airmen, officers and commanders come and go.

Since opening in 2007, the Barber Shop servicing the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard has given 35,000 haircuts to Airmen who border scruffy after neglecting their scalp for only three days. A heavy day sees approximately 100 Airmen cycle through the shop, according to the log books.

Some, like Senior Airman Adam Workman, arrive in casual civilian attire. On Oct. 20 Airman Workman came in with an arm velcroed to a black sling. Master Barber John Harling wasted no time mining into the details of the injury, looking for indications of wayward behavior that could have led to the malady.

"I do feel really comfortable in here, but I don't try and come in and unload all my problems or anything," says Airman Workman. Mr. Harling shoots a knowing glance. Airman Workman continues, "Some guys do that, but it's not for me." At this, the barber chuckles.

The shop is clean and welcoming after a long day of drilling outdoors. Background noise in the small shop is supplied by a 13 inch television. The theme to Matlock can be heard in the morning, while sports scores and highlight reels flicker from the tube in the afternoon. The only window yields a vista of a recreation room, complete with table tennis and a large screen television. Chemical sanitizers and light cologne mingle with the fresh fabric scents of a nearby laundry room.

"Most guardsmen are trimmed every two-to-three days," said Mr. Harling. This is accommodated with a five-day barber shop schedule running from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with later hours on Sunday. The two chairs are operated by three contracted barbers who rotate in and out for the six-day schedule. "We build up a really solid understanding of their problems, their worries and try to relate our experiences to theirs. We keep a memory that the newer guys don't have."

Mr. Harling went into the trade in 1998 following a stint as a Metropolitan Police officer in the District of Columbia. He now manages an establishment that keeps the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard looking their best, while gaining unparalleled insight into the psyche of today's young Airman.

Regulations for men and women are spelled out in Air Force Instructions, which the Honor Guard has further modified. Men's hair must be no more than one-and-a-quarter inches on the top, with skin showing on the sides. This helps dress caps sit correctly on the scalp. Even within the regulations, there is room for style and taste.

"Some Airmen prefer a fast taper from the top to the bottom, and some like it gradual," said Tech. Sgt. Whitfield Jack, non-commissioned officer in charge of daily operations. For the 20 or so Airmen constantly rotating through the honor guard technical school, scalp must be showing at all times. "With graduation comes the privilege of a taper, and they do look forward to it," said Sergeant Whitfield.

Another rite of passage for guardsmen is the barber shop identification card, complete with name, rank and an up-to-date picture. Issued to trainees and commanders alike, the card ensures that only members of the United States Air Force Honor Guard can walk in for a cut and a chat.

Guidelines for Honor Guard females require daily care and maintenance. "We've got to have our hair pulled tight, usually into a sock bun," said Staff Sgt. Krystie Martinez of standards and evaluations. Most women add some gel or stabilizer to prevent "fly-aways," or stray strands. Over time, the constrained hair can lead to brittle strands and some damage, according to the guardsmen. Many women choose to patronize local salons and beauty parlors.

Despite this, the Airmen insist that there is one place they can let their hair down within the honor guard compound, and that is in one of the two chairs that Mr. Harling wipes down after every client.

In many ways, the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard barber shop resembles a civilian shop. Regardless of rank or social status, everyone's hair grows. "I see so many people come in during the week that rank really doesn't matter," said Mr. Harling. "There is a lot of respect between everybody here, and they really do talk about problems that come up in the open. It's like a forum, but I always have the last word with them."