Three rows of zero-week trainees in the Basic Military Training Processing Center barbershop stare straight ahead at a mirror that reflects the back of a fellow trainee’s head as his hair disappears in the barber’s clipper vacuum. As Lester West finishes the haircut a few minutes later, he makes sure the line moves quickly and smoothly.
“Keep your toe on that black line,” he firmly tells those waiting to replace the trainees standing on the red mark in front of the four barber’s chairs. “Get shoulder-to-shoulder on that line. Fill in, white shirt. Man on the end, let’s go. Come on around, young man.”
For 50 years, West has given basic trainees at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, their first military haircut. Since he chose the barber’s clippers over teaching and mortician’s school at the age of 19, he estimates he’s cut the hair of between 1.3 and 1.5 million trainees.
“That’s a conservative figure,” he said. “It’s the same faces. Everybody’s got that look on their faces, like they want to know what’s next. These kids come from all over the United States, and most of them are here because they want to be here. These kids are here to train. The hair part of it is just a little part of the process. They’re here to get their training and move on.
“I try to talk slow, loud and clear, where they can understand because they’re kind of nervous to begin with. You don’t want to confuse them any more than they already are. It’s not our job to holler at them. It’s our job to get the money collected, get their hair cut and get them ready to go to clothing issue next door.”
The basic trainee haircut cost 65 cents on May 5, 1961, when West joined about six older barbers in the shop. Today, haircuts cost $5.05, which is still 60 percent below the permanent party cost of $8.35 on base. Trainees receive three haircuts in basic training: during their first, fourth and eighth weeks. They pay for all three during zero week with their EZ-pay stored value cards. West and his three fellow barbers, Gary Harris, Melissa Maloch and Clay Dalton, make sure the trainees keep the cards, which are pre-loaded with $400 to cover supplies needed for basic training, while they’re in the shop.
Before the flight enters the shop, the 69-year-old barber, dressed in matching black shirt, pants and shoes, briefs them outside. He instructs the trainees to carry their EZ-pay cards in their right hands and everything else, including the manila envelope with their pay documents, in their left arms.
“Put that card in that envelope, you hear?” he tells them.
“We make sure when they leave here, they have that card put away,” West said. “When they get out of here, we don’t know what happens to it, but we make sure they leave the barbershop with it.”
When a trainee flight enters the barber shop, the first four proceed to the barber chairs and the next four line up behind the red line facing each of the barbers. The rest line up on three rows of black squares behind them. Although the schedule varies, the barbers worked three zero-week flights beginning at 7:30 a.m., followed by four fourth-week flights at 11. They normally get between nine to 12 zero-week male flights a week, far fewer than the number West saw when he began his career in the 1960s.
“In 1961, we’d have eight to 12 flights a day, just with zero-week flights, five days a week,” he said. “At that time, those flights had about 65 people in them.”
The flight sizes decreased in 1966 after a spinal meningitis outbreak at Lackland, which temporarily forced moving basic trainees to Amarillo Air Force Base, West said. The shop then was much smaller than the current one, with trainee hair from six barber’s chairs freely falling on a floor that probably resembled the one in the opening scene in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” Today, little hair lands on the floor because of a vacuum system the shop acquired nearly 10 years ago. Three car wash vacuum motors are mounted in a 55-gallon drum, with a 1-inch hose that runs from the clippers to a 2-inch inlet line that leads directly to the vacuum system.
West grew up in a small community in Stockdale, Texas, about 55 miles southeast of Lackland. He moved to Poth with his wife in 1977 and remained there after she died about three years ago. He continues to make the 45-mile commute to work each day.
As he cuts another trainee’s hair, West continually asks the rest of the flight to check for moles or warts under their hair.
“If you’ve got moles or warts, locate ‘em,” he says. “Let us know.”
“I brief them on moles, warts and hair bumps,” West said. “They tell us where they’ve got them because you know under that long hair you don’t know, and we don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“Check,” he says to the next trainee in his chair. “Do you have your finger on it? Keep it there.”
Every now and then, he’ll have to tell a trainee a second time to keep the line moving.
“Somebody, send him down,” he directs toward one who didn’t respond when it was his turn to move to the red mark in front of West’s chair. “Wake up and pay attention. You’re liable to get left in another place one of these days.”
But trainees aren’t the only ones who have benefitted from West’s guidance through the past five decades. He also freely lends his experience to younger barbers, just as the older barbers did for him early in his career. He watches trainees leave each barber’s chair to make sure each one receives the quality haircut he expects. One of the earliest lessons he makes sure younger barbers learn is the need to keep a hand on the trainee’s head while he’s in the chair.
“If someone comes in and asks them a question and they turn, you’re liable to hit them in the ear with the clipper or something like that,” West said. “You don’t want that to happen. You have to watch, that’s the main thing. It’s the same way now, when we get new people here. People come in and watch us work and think there’s nothing to it, but that hair doesn’t come off like it looks like it comes off. You’ve got to help them out until they get used to it. I make sure we get all their hair cut off of them, clean behind their ears good and treat them with courtesy, kind of like you’d treat your own son.”
As trainees leave the chair, West and the other barbers make sure the line continues to move.
“When you go outside, grab your flashlight and fall in line, you hear,” West says as two trainees leave after their haircuts.
After 50 years, West is asked if he sometimes sees some of those 1.5 million heads again.
“All the time,” he said. “I’ve got guys now who have been retired 15 to 20 years, and they will come back for something on the base and stick their head in the door and say, ‘You still here, West?’
“As long as I’m healthy, I’ll probably work a while longer because I like to be around people.”