Leon SmithContributing columnist

Cleaning out the house after Mama died, I found some photographs in a old trunk. Among them I found a dandily dressed man, standing proudly beside a ‘31 Chevrolet. Though I had never seen him before, and had barely even heard of him, somehow I knew this was Richard Emory Mills — the rascal who deserted my grandmother, leaving Mama without a daddy, and me without a grandpa.

He looked prosperous in a 1930’s kind of way, and dapper as well, from his suited shoulders to his patent-leather shoes. But above his eyebrows — he bore a bald spot 6 inches wide. It was downright frightening, that male-pattern baldness. Legend states you get your baldness from your grandpa on your mother’s side, and though I still had a head full of bushy black hair, one day I might look like the man in the photograph. I did not want to look like him. I put the photograph back in the trunk and tried to forget it.

But fate did not forget. By the middle ’90s, I gave up on combs, and had begun using a brush to hide my shining dome. One night during inspection, I found that flipping my hair sideways in the opposite direction covered up more territory. So I transmigrated the part in my hair, moving it into a complimentary angle with the former one.

Though the part was right-handed, it sat at an acceptably high angle, so I didn’t think of my flip as an effort to cover up something. Or that anyone could possibly see it as contrived. But when the scalp began to show through again, I scrambled for another cover-up. I remembered the flat top I got when I was 16, made by removing hair off the top; my hair would simply be pre-removed. I spoke to my barber, who told me I did not have enough hair on top for a flat top.

He also said my head was too lumpy to shave it all off like Michael Jordan. Then told me to look at what some other guys had done.

I took Clip-man’s advice. I methodically observed how others hid their baldness, studying the ways they combed their hair, considering how each solution looked from every angle, and how well it would withstand the force of an imaginary wind tunnel. I would grade them on how well they supported the illusion: “I’m not bald.”

I began one step beyond my own reverse part, with a design which I’ll call the Sidewinder. The Sidewinder moves the part just above one ear — preferably the one which provides the more luxurious flow — then sweeps the hair over the dome. The Sidewinder covers the dome well, and the un-parted temple looks full, but to make a part-line above an ear is to emphasize the tacky. In a high wind, the extra hair lying over the normal looking temple would make a vertical launch. C+

The next design, Low-Boy — aka Moe, the Stooge — hides the scalp with hair brushed straight forward from the crown. It is not a permanent solution, however, for as the crown disappears, the Moe-er covers less and less. To sustain the con, additional hair must be brushed from the base of the neck across the crown, and over the dome. Then, the Low-Boy provides remarkable sleight of hair. But the hair remaining below the part reminds you of skinny reeds growing out of a strip of sand. A shirt collar of Elvis’ proportion would be needed to hide that evidence. In addition, a frontal wind would morph this creation into a pirate’s mullet, totally lifting the illusion. C-

Both the Sidewinder and the Low-Boy can be built by the journeyman combster, but the Corkscrew — aka the Jimmy Newtron — requires the skill of a sculptor. In the Corker, one swirls a 20-inch strand of hair as if the head were a mountain road. The coverage is phenomenal, as is the hairspray bill. But the sculpture looks like a cone of soft-serve from every point on the compass, and in the wind tunnel, the Jimmy would blow over like a dead tree stump. D-

At C+, C-, and D-, none of the comb-overs were satisfactory because they gave away the “I’ve got hair” illusion even before the imaginary wind tunnel test.

“I guess you could join a hair club,” Clip-man said. “But it will cost you a thousand dollars a month.”

“Isn’t that just a wig made out of your own hair?”

“Pretty much.”

“I don’t want a wig. Even if woven-in club hair would pass wind tunnel. Even if I liked it. A house payment a month for a wig of my own hair is not an option.”

“Well, maybe you should just go with the hair you’ve got,” Clip-man smiled. “You saw the Moe, maybe you should try the Larry.” He was happily wearing the “Bozo ring.”

“The Bozo ring?” I said, instantly seeing the picture of my absconding grandpa in my mind.

“Yes. My phrase.”

“I don’t think I want the Bozo.

So I kept my entry level comb-over, because I didn’t want to look like Bozo. After all, the dictionary says a Bozo is a fool. Clowns are named Bozo, for crying out loud. Oafs are called Bozos. I could never wear the Bozo ring.

Waiting at the back of a pharmacy line, I could not hear the words the man at the counter was saying, but his tone and his pointer finger suggested he had a head of his own. Then I noticed his hair cut. In the back, the hair was bisected as if for pigtails, but without the tails. I sidled around to see what else he had done.

In the fisheye mirror above us, I saw he had made both left-hand and right-hand parts in his hair, joined to form a u-shape which was connected to the pigtail bisector. To get the picture, imagine a slingshot cut from a piece of floppy paper. Place it on his head with the prongs stretching to the forehead, then pull the handle down from crown to nape. For originality this hair-do merited an A: it also covered the pate, and would resist wind from any direction, but the pigtail bisection ruined that do for me. D-

Finding none of the hair-dos met my requirements, I saw the real source of my problem was me. I had behaved like the man who sent a 40-year-old picture of himself to the paper, deluded that he still looked that way. We all know we look exactly like our high school annual photo. Except we don’t. Accepting the new picture of myself with the Bozo Ring took some doing. As the years passed, my dome coverage just got thinner and thinner.

Finally, I gave up trying to cover my dome with too little hair. Male-pattern baldness was my fate, the Chrome Dome my destination, the Bozo ring my hair-do. It was in the genes I got from that rascal Grandpa Mills, who not only left me without a grandpa, but also left me without hair. Every time I sat in the barber chair I looked in the big mirror and wondered what I would do.

I decided one day, while my new barber, Jason, was cutting my hair.

“Give me the Bozo,” I said.

Jason knew what that meant, having apprenticed with Clip-man.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes. I’m sure.”

He picked up a pair of clippers and cut until the top of my head looked like the business end of a Scud missile. I studied that projectile from several angles in the big mirror. Then came the big surprise: My shining Scud was not that bad. Just as a pig with lipstick is not fooling anybody, neither is a bald guy with a sideways comb-over, a back-door comb over, a corkscrew, or a slingshot. He may feel better about the matter, but everyone, including the perpetrator, knows the truth. And now I faced it.

As I left the barber shop, I felt a little taller, a little braver, and a whole lot more authentic. Out on the street as the wind slid across my scudded scalp, I felt good. Out in the open, I felt honest.

On the way home, I felt free. I also started to see my Grandpa Mills in a different light. That Bozo may have been a rascal, he may have shunned his responsibility to my family, but he still showed some authenticity. Beaming from that tattered photograph, he wore his Bozo ring with pride.

Like my Grandpa before me, I accepted my inner Bozo. And every three weeks, I’ll get my barber to spiff up the Ring that defines my outer one.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.