My father never had facial hair when I knew him, but whenever Dad skipped a day shaving he could raise a pretty good stubble. As a little kid, I liked touching his scratchy whiskers and wondered whether I’d ever be able to grow them myself.
At 15, my upper lip sprouted scattered hairs, and for a few years I’d use an electric razor a few times a month. At 19, after attending Woodstock in August 1969, I got in step with that unkempt era and grew a mediocre mustache.
I got nowhere with sideburns and my cheeks were smooth, but at 20 I shocked myself by producing a solid goatee in only a couple of weeks. When I came home from college for Thanksgiving, my mother cringed. She was horrified when a neighbor said I looked like Charles Manson, and she pleaded with me to get rid of it. I refused, but Eleanor got her wish a few weeks later, after it got so itchy I couldn’t stand it anymore.
In 1981 my future wife, Jean, confessed she didn’t like my mustache, so I reluctantly made it disappear, and for 39 years I was clean-shaven. Then came the pandemic. I’d always hated daily shaving, and finally I stopped. I’d retired six months earlier after 36 years in Newsday’s sports department, so I no longer felt the need to look presentable. Starting in March 2020 I didn’t touch a razor, and I was amazed by the gray growth that would reach almost nine inches. Even better, it didn’t itch.
Neither of my grandfathers had facial hair, but a 1908 photo of my mother’s paternal grandfather, Secundo Garbaccio, a weaver who moved from Northern Italy to New Jersey in 1893, showed a wavy brown beard much more aesthetically pleasing than mine. We also have the same hairline and facial shape. He died seven years before I was born, but Secundo’s DNA lives.
Soon I began to look like a hillbilly from “Duck Dynasty.” I texted photos of Grandpappy Ed in a Davy Crockett coonskin cap to friends and relatives, who didn’t recognize me. One said I looked like Rasputin the Mad Monk; another thought I resembled Gandalf the Wizard from “Lord of the Rings.” A local kid stared and said, “Look, it’s Santa Claus.” I loved the absurdity.
Unfortunately, beards cause collateral damage. The milk from my cereal dripped into it, and occasionally I’d discover a hard, white crust on my chin that had been there for who knows how long. Maybe it was soap I didn’t wash out. It also was impossible to keep peanut butter, blue cheese dressing and ice cream from sticking to it.
The worst was the pain from hairs caught in the zipper of my winter jacket. After one too many yanks of crinkly cuticles, I reached for the scissors. After half an hour of hacking, I looked very different. The mustache and goatee survived, but for the first time in 13 months my neck was visible from the front.
In the past 2½ years my face has had other incarnations, with varying lengths of billy goat whiskers. Last month I chopped them all off, revealing my long-lost chin, and reverted to my late ’70s look, a Fu Manchu mustache, which was black way back in 1977. Too bad that at 73 I can’t regenerate my mop of dark hair and youthful face. Gone yet not forgotten. And hey, I used to be cute. I’ve got pictures.