The Perfect Handlebar Mustache
By Billy Smith
Never have I ever been more proud of my father than when he sported the most thoroughly manicured handlebar mustache that ever graced the “Big Brown” plains of West Texas. Never have I ever been more disappointed with my dad than the day he shaved it off, never to sign his face again.
It’s been decades—I think more than four— since he explained to his family that keeping a perfectly manicured handlebar was a lot of work. Too much work. He might as well have explained why we needed to dispatch the family dog or one of my mouthy great-aunts. It made no sense then, and it makes no sense today.
Even now, as my father takes aim at 85, I still search his face for that blond lock that defined him for so long. For more than a half century, I’ve studied his face for signs of me, but I’ve never found even a wrinkle of myself. Not in this man, whose arrows fire straighter than anyone I know. On my best days, I can only shoot a wobbly facsimile of his quick, dry wit, calm disposition and hopeful eyes. My eyes dart around like a frightened Lesser Prairie Chicken keeping watch for the next fox or coyote lurking in the Big Brown sage. Not my dad’s eyes. And when he was mustachioed, his well-groomed blondness formed a foundation for his perfectly proportioned nose and peaceful blue eyes.
He taught me to work on cars; I left the oil cap off and almost destroyed the engine in my 1971 Chevrolet Laguna.
He tried to teach me to draw cartoons and carve wood into masterful pieces of folk art; I have one piece of framed art that hangs appropriately over our bedroom toilet.
He taught me to box with the fluidity that he had learned fighting for the Army base stables; I spent far too much time staring at the ceiling from the Boys Club ring.
He taught me to play baseball as gracefully as he played in the oilfield leagues of the Permian Basin; my vision was so bad that I couldn’t see a ball well enough to distinguish it from the cotton-ball clouds that hung out in center field.
And while I sport a goatee, the original intent was an equally well-formed Van Dyke—a goatee-like fixture with a handlebar mustache. My effort is in the Epic Fails Hall of Fame.
Mustachioed cowboys were the facial hair exclamation point that still lionize the breed of the Old West. My Dad’s was a perfectly coiffed, blonde, waxed, balmed, trimmed, combined and twisted handlebar whisker set that yielded not even to the extreme winds of that part of Texas. He would have looked flawlessly in place in 1883. It was the oak of mustaches: immovable, consistently in place. Mustache perfection.
The 1973 World Series featured Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson on the Oakland A’s side, while the Mets were led by the never-at-a-loss-for-poorly-constructed-phrase-turns Yogi Berra, crowd favorite Willie Mays and the gentleman Tom Seaver. But it was the champagne-soaked Oakland locker room scenes that caused my 12-year-old heart to flutter when Fingers’ famous mustache wilted under the celebratory spray. It was, in fact, a “Santa’s-not-real” moment for me. Could such a public disaster befall my father? Impossible.
Besides, I had seen the tiny comb my father kept on his vanity that I knew he only used to keep his blond stroke of genius in place. The tube of Clubman next to it assured his under-the-nose offering would always live in perfection. There’s no champagne celebration in the oilfields, but I felt sure it could withstand a dousing of Pearl or PBR.
I assumed, in my 12-year-old thinking, that all of my mustachioed heroes—Wyatt Earp, Bass Reeves, Wild Bill Cody—came pre-coiffed, right out the womb. My dad’s as well, hence the alarm when I stared for the first time at his slick upper lip. Rollie Fingers was a great pitcher, but a facial-hair fraud. My Dad’s was an authentic specimen of a walrus and handlebar mashup. I had no idea these giant, signature mustaches were also testaments to careful, timely and time-consuming warfare with nature’s general tendency to send facial hair in all directions. My Dad’s was tame. Natural mustaches are wild, multi-minded storms of prickly facial revenge to those who believe it necessary to master the mugged signature that would mark them in the history books for my cowboy heroes—or on the baseball field in my dad’s case.
I have but a memory of the perfect handlebar mustache, and it gets better—like my dad—with age and with the telling.