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It's Wednesday, and Howell Horton is holding court from his barber chair during a rare break in a steady stream of customers.

It's his only concession to age. Horton, 82, cuts hair only on Wednesdays. He retired, beat cancer and "found out I wasn't going to die." So he decided to return to work one day a week because he missed his flock.

"Ain't nothing else to do on Wednesdays," Bobby Cowart says. "He's been cutting my hair for 40 years and he never does a good job. I'm embarrassed to let another barber see it."

As for Horton, well, he's embarrassed that he's taking money from customers who have so little hair.

"I've about cut myself out of business," he said, laughing. "My customers are bald, but they still come."

They come to trade zingers with Horton, who knows just about everybody in town of a certain age.

They talk about politics, back and knee pain, colonoscopies, good and bad haircuts, other customers, whether men really did walk on the moon, raising goats, hunting, fishing, girlfriends, wives and the Bahamas. 

All in a Floyd-the-barber-like setting with clippers that look like they're as old as Horton, a true throwback to an era in the '60s when there must have been a half-dozen barber shops within 300 yards of the Culver Kidd drugstore. 

It was a time when GMC cadets got their hair cut every Thursday for Friday inspection. It was a time when Horton charged 75 cents for a regular haircut and $1 for a flat top. It was a time when barbers cut hair in a cloud of cigarette smoke. It was a time when barbers such as Jim Lewis, Richard Burnette, Dan Little, Homer Wooten, Harvey Worsham and Bobby Mercer were purveyors of their own brands of wisdom. 

Back then, I got my hair cut at a place called Katy May's. Was that the name of a person or the barbershop? I don't remember. But I do remember getting a haircut after school on Friday afternoons in the fall before playing in Baldwin High football games. The barbers always had predictions for the game. And I remember my helmet would be loose because I'd just gotten scalped.

Thank goodness Horton is here to help us remember those days when barbers were part of the best show in town. And what a show Horton still puts on, as I found out one recent Wednesday.

RUMOR CENTRAL

There are two things you should know about Horton, who used to share the barbershop on South Wilkinson Street with the late Bob Mercer. He now shares the shop with two barbers from Eatonton named Bubba and Brad.

First, no one escapes his needle -- not even his barber colleagues.

"Those boys won't work, won't stay here, won't have no certain hours," Horton said. "They'd rather be out hunting, so they let me work on Wednesdays. They go crazy over a deer. (The walls of the barbershop are covered in deer taxidermy.) Me? I try to tame every deer I can. I got some that will eat out of my hand. I wouldn't shoot one of them things for a $100 bill."

Second, with Horton, hyperbole is not a lost art.

Everybody who walks through the door, or whose name gets mentioned, is automatically the biggest something or the other. Usually, it's the biggest compost spreader in Baldwin County. You figure it out.

Horton busies himself with cutting a customer's hair.

I mention that Jeff Owens is my stepbrother.

"Jeff Owens is the biggest compost spreader in Baldwin County," Horton says on cue. "I wouldn't even go to church with him." For fear of being struck by lightning, I presume.

Gary Pennington, of tire fame, and Randy Ellis, son of the late police chief, are chatting with Horton when I walk in.

Me: "How long have you known Horton?"

Pennington: "Since 1957. I'll tell you this … "

Horton: "Don't lie."

Pennington: "He's always been friendly and has a very good personality. But I won't let him cut my hair all the time. If I've got something special, I used to let Mercer cut it. I'd go home and my wife would say, 'Horton didn't cut your hair, did he?' I'd say Mercer cut it. He was a better barber that this man."

Horton: "What Gary don't realize is that you got to hold your head still. When he keeps moving his head, the clippers are going to miss."

Pennington and Horton: Uproarious laughter.

I apologize to the man getting his hair cut for distracting Horton.

"Don't worry," Horton says. "I can cut hair and chew gum at the same time."

Randy Ellis joins the conversation. He says Horton and Mercer started cutting his hair when he was growing up in the '60s. 

Horton raises goats -- sometimes his herd is as big as 50 -- at his Baldwin County home. Ellis sometimes goes with him to the goat sales in Jones County. 

"Who would have ever thought that goats are worth what they are today," Horton says. "They'll bring $400 to $500 dollars."

Ellis is part of one of Horton's longest-running jokes. It seems that some of the regulars played a trick on Horton, asking a young lady to come into the barbershop and ask Horton if he shaved women's legs. 

They were rolling in the floor when they saw the look on Horton's face.

Horton doesn't miss a beat before launching into a story about when he used to meet 8 to 10 of the other "biggest compost spreaders in Baldwin County" at 6:30 every morning for breakfast at the southside McDonald's. Pre-pandemic, of course.

It's a group that included Larry Garrett, Bob DuBay, Warren Layfield, Jack McCook and Chester Gunby.

Out of the blue, the McDonald's group decided to start a rumor that a Red Lobster was going to be built across from the Milledgeville Mall. 

"And it ain't stopped yet," Horton said. 

"A woman I didn't even know came up to me and said, 'I'm so tired of you spreading that rumor about the Red Lobster.' I told her I didn't start it. She told me that she knew it was me. She said she was told by somebody who would know, that it was me.

"I couldn't help but laugh."

'HIGH AND TIGHT'

Horton finishes the haircut of the man in the chair. 

"Too short?" Horton asks. "You said high and tight."

The man rises, smiles and shakes his head.

"You want me to trim your beard?" Horton says.

"Nah," he says and smiles again as if imagining his full red beard being reduced to stubble in seconds. "How much I owe you?"

"Twelve dollars," Horton says. "Them other boys charge $15, but I ain't charging that much. That's too darn much for a haircut.

"Next! What kind of haircut you want?"

Another man climbs in the barber chair and says, "I had to either get a haircut or roll my hair. But don't cut mine as short as that last guy."

And so it goes. As soon as Horton finishes one haircut, more customers walk in the door and the clippers start buzzing again.

He says he cut Tony Owen's hair that morning. "He's doing pretty well," he says of Owen, who used to own the building. He talks about how he used to cut the hair of the late attorney Milton Gardner -- "one of the finest fellows I have ever seen in my life."

In 60 years of cutting hair, Horton has touched the lives of so many. 

He's paid a price with his health. 

"My back is killing me," he said. "The lower part of my back, my knees, they're worn out. The nerves in my back are screwed up. It goes down in my legs and my feet don't even feel like they belong.

"I've had it all, I can tell you that, but I've been able to whup it."

And he'll keep coming back to cut hair every Wednesday — “Good Lord willing."

Because, truth be told, Howell Horton is really "the biggest compost speader in Baldwin County."

Like any good barber should be.

 

Reach Rick Millians at rdmillians@aol.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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