Bernie And Me
Reflection is a wonderful thing. The Bible tells us not to look back, but sometimes in order to know where we are going we have to see where we have been. Once we know the direction we want to go it helps if we have a compass to keep us on course. But what happens if we don't have a compass to show us the right direction? If that happens I believe God sends us a compass when we need it most.
Teenage years can be tough, especially growing up in the 1960s. Vietnam, hippies, a Presidential assassination, and everything else that went along with being a teenage boy were very confusing times for me. My biological father left when I was four and my step-father had a temper that made it extremely difficult to approach him about anything. Yes, he was the best provider he knew how to be, but the man wasn't compass material. Yet, as I look back at my teenage years, I seemed to have made the right decisions when they needed to me made. But who was my compass during those years? Who gave me direction when I needed it the most?
Just as I would eventually be called to serve God as a minister, Bernie Heroux was also called to a vocation where he was able to help others; Bernie was the downtown barber. Along with providing haircuts, this man was the E. F. Hutton of the downtown neighborhood... when Bernie talked, people listened.
Although small in stature, Bernie had a heart the size of New York. During a time when everyone had an opinion about everything that was going on in the world (and freely shared those opinions whether asked or not) Bernie's ability to listen was what I remember most about him.
As a high school freshman at Keveny Memorial Academy in Cohoes, New York, the move from grammar school to high school was an intimidating transition. Going from a familiar eighth grade class of 24 to a new freshman class of 150 was a bit unnerving. But Bernie assured me he knew many of the students at Keveny and they were good kids. He said I now had an opportunity to make a number of new friends... which I did.
Girls would eventually become part of our haircut conversations. As dances, dating and proms became part of my social life, Bernie listened with an opened ear and advised wisely.
Four years of high school would eventually lead to graduation and the challenge of college life. Once again, I would share my thoughts of the future with Bernie; and he was always there with words of encouragement.
After college I would have one last visit to Bernie's Barber Shop. The Vietnam War was raging in Southeast Asia and I had enlisted into the military and was leaving in less than one week. Even though I would soon be having my head shaved for basic training, I needed one last visit with my mentor and moral compass. I remember Bernie had served during World War II and I just needed a little reassurance that everything would be all right.
Unlike the visits and advice of the previous years, this trip to Bernie's Barber Shop was different. He said he was proud of the man I had become and I would be fine in the military... just don't do anything stupid. As I rose from the barber chair, Bernie did something he had never done before; he shook my hand. It was then I realized that our life journey together was complete. My teenage years were behind me and my adult life was ahead of me. Bernie was no longer my mentor, he was now my friend.
Although this would be a good place to close my story, it doesn't really end here.
Nearly forty years after the last time I saw Bernie I visited my family in the Albany, New York area and took a walk through downtown Cohoes. What was once an active center of the city was now only a sad shadow of its former self. Churches were closed, banks were closed, department stores were closed, the movie theater was closed, all replaced with vacant buildings with for rent signs in the front windows. All were closed with the exception of one small barber shop, Bernie's Barber Shop.
As I walked into the barber shop, there was Bernie, looking like his former self, now wearing gray hair as his only sign of aging.
He must have thought I was crazy as I greeted him with a huge smile and a very firm and vigorous handshake. I never realized how much I had missed seeing Bernie until I found myself standing there like a little kid suddenly seeing his childhood hero again after a four decade absence. Even though I didn't need a haircut, I sat down in his barber's chair and said, "I'll have the usual."
Bernie shared with me how downtown Cohoes had steadily declined over the last twenty years. Yet, because of his faithful patrons, he was able to keep his shop open while everyone around him had closed.
That visit with Bernie brought back many, many memories of my teenage years. I told Bernie that during a time when most teens were wearing long hair, I was probably one of the few teenagers with short hair... and I had the pictures to prove it.
The following year I brought my wife, Methyl, with me as I visited Bernie for what would become my annual haircut. She took our photo and that photograph continues to hang in my office as I write this story. We would continue our annual visits for another three years.
Although he had struggled with cancer toward the end of his life, Bernie continued to serve the downtown community for over sixty years. For those many years of service to the City of Cohoes, Bernie was recognized with honors bestowed by city and state members of the political community.
Bernie's Barber Shop closed during the spring of 2010. Bernie died Christmas day of that same year.
Although my friend is now gone, I continue to write to and receive email from Bernie's wife. She is a strong, independent woman who shared a home and family with one of the finest men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. We both miss Bernie, but know his suffering is behind him and he is enjoying an eternal reward only God can provide. I don't know how many lives he touched during his "missionary" years as a barber, but speaking for myself, without Bernie Heroux in my life, I would never have become the man I am today. And for that I am truly thankful.
--- Copyright © 2013 Raymond C. Nolan
Rev. Raymond C. Nolan is Assistant Pastor of Daybreak, UMC in Miflin, Alabama. His positive outlook on life has served as an inspiration to all who know him. Rev. Nolan and his wife Methyl have been married for forty years.
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Read some of Ray's other writings too:
The Birthday Cake Rematch
Blessings In Disguise
Rank Does Have Its Privileges
Missing The Obvious
We're Never Too Old To Teach
Out Of The Mouths Of Babes
Does God Have A Sense Of Humor?
Becoming Too Available