One of my favorite things to do as a child was to get a five-dollar bill from one of my parents, get on my bicycle, and ride the three blocks from my house up to Broome’s Barber Shop for a haircut in downtown Waxhaw, NC, where I grew up. There was nothing like the warmth of the shaving cream lathered across the back of my neck, and the whisk of the razor blade as it glided through the cream, slowly turning up and over my ears. A heavy wipe of a damp, cool towel soon gave way to the coolness of the breeze across my freshly trimmed ears and neck, as I stepped down off the wooden board that stooped me up high enough so that the town barber, Wade Broome, could effectively trim every hair. Talking about fire engines with the old barber and hearing the conversations of the old men who vacated the picturesque old barber shop was icing on the cake. It seems I always learned something new with each trip to the barber shop in Waxhaw.
But this warm, early afternoon Summer trip as a young nine-year old would be one I would never forget. Every now and then, if it was open, I would enter through the back door of the barber shop, just to change things up a bit and let people know I was a regular. I decided to do so on this day. Much to my surprise that day, the barber shop stood completely empty and deafly quiet, with the front door standing wide open. This was an unlikely circumstance, particularly given the time of day. Normally, the barber shop would be bustling with business, with a group of old men sitting around shooting the breeze with each other. It was strangely void of any activity, with the front screen door standing wide open. The only sign of life was the box fan circulating air through the room.
Curious, I eased toward the front screen door to see why it was standing open. Just on the other side of the door, I could hear voices slowly beginning to raise with emergence. I figured I needed to let Wade the barber know I was his latest customer. I walked through the front door and right out onto the sidewalk running through the middle of town. It was at that instance my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach, and I realized exactly what I had walked into at that moment.
To my left I saw Wade the barber, standing with his hands raised up just in front of his face. His voice was urgent, yet strangely compassionate and calm. “Freddie, just put down the gun. Everything’s gonna be alright. Let’s just work this out together,” were the words coming from his mouth. As I peered directly to my right, there was a large man walking toward the barber with a shotgun in his hands, pointed, loaded and ready to fire. In that moment, I realized I was the only thing between the gunman and the barber. We were surrounded by a bunch of other older men on the street and sidewalk, who were all saying the same thing, “Freddie, just put down the gun. It’s gonna be alright. We’ll be alright together.”
“Is this really happening!?” I said to myself inside. Yes, it was happening, I had somehow stumbled right into the middle of it. Freddie was from a poor family. He had no money. He wanted food from the corner grocery store just down the street. He decided to rob the store that day. As he came out onto the street that day, he was met by this group of men from the barber shop. I can’t recall with certainty, but I’m fairly certain the Waxhaw Police Force consisted of just two police officers at that time. They shared one car, and only one was on duty at a time. At that time, you had to dial seven digits to get the police or emergency crews. There would be no help coming right away. This was the situation.
The barber looked at me gently and said, “Mark, just go on back in the barber shop and we’ll get you fixed up quick.” The gunman continued to come. I froze. The men continued to talk to Freddie and press in to the situation. That gun could have blown a hole through any of us. I waited for the worst. All of a sudden, Freddie dropped to his knees and handed the gun over the Wade the barber. The other men stepped in and put their arms on his shoulders just to secure the situation. “It’s gonna be alright Freddie. I understand,” said the brave barber. “But you just can’t rob a store.”
Just as Freddie nodded his head, tears flowed, the police car finally arrived. The lone police officer handcuffed Freddie, told him it would be alright, and placed him into the back seat of the car. They drove away. Everyone walked back into the barber shop. Wade the barber pulled out the board, looked at me, and said, “Now hop on up here!” Wanting the gruesome details, I asked him, “What happened?” His only reply was, “Freddie was just having a bad day. People can do some pretty rough things when they get desperate.” That was all that was said. The scissors and clippers began to whap, the shaving cream lathered up, the old men went back to talking.
Freddie, Wade the barber, and all the old men…they had all grown up together, gone to school together, played on the playgrounds together, worked in the farm fields together, the factories together, they all went to church in that town, they went off to fight the same wars together, and they all came back to try and scratch a living in that small town with the water tower at its center.
Strangely, no one pulled any guns that day. No shots were fired. Tempers didn’t even seem to flare. The situation was dire and could have gone another way. The streets could have been filled with blood that day. No one ever said anything about the fact that Freddy was a black man and the barber was a white man. There were no cell phones recording the incident. There were no social media posts. There was no media coverage. There were no politicians sweeping in to give comment. Just small town people, doing what they do, helping each other when one of their own was having one of the worst days of his life. I didn’t even tell my parents what happened until many years later.
As I got on my bicycle to ride home that afternoon, I thanked the Lord I was still alive. I realized that anyone is capable of having a really bad day or moment. I learned that everyone needs a measure of grace and forgiveness. We’re all just a few decisions or circumstances from a desperate situation, and few of us know how we’ll react until we get there. I realized we all need God, and He’s big enough for all our brokenness. I realized that the foot of the cross of Jesus is the only place any measure of rebuilding and reconciliation begins. I realized that life is littered with heroes who seek to do the right thing in the everyday moments of life, and never seek any recognition for it.
For a while, I wondered if that moment I had experienced was just some distant utopia or foreign hope that is far from reality. I wondered if I had imagined it. Maybe it was just some movie scene I dreamed about in a scene from Mayberry. It was only a few short years later that I rode my bike by the old barber shop one Summer afternoon in downtown Waxhaw. There stood old Wade the barber, laughing and talking with Freddie. As the warm breeze swept across my face, I smiled and kept peddling. It really happened that way.