Sean Doyle showed up for Induction Day at the Naval Academy yesterday with his hair in 4-inch cornrows decorated with navy and gold beads; a $50 hairdo that landed quickly on the floor of the makeshift barber shop in the basement of Alumni Hall.
"Well, I hate to see his $50 hair style fall to the floor," said barber Sidney Hastey as he switched on his clippers. "But it's got to go. Welcome to the Navy."
Mr. Doyle, an 18-year-old from Columbia, was among 1,175 plebes who began lining up at 6 a.m. for the daylong transition from recent high school graduate to plebe, lowest of the low.
They said a temporary good-bye to their parents at the door, then marched inside where they followed a trail of paper arrows to stations where someone drew their blood for tests or measured them for uniforms, then finally to the barber shop, where the men would have their heads shaved and the women's hair would be cut to chin length.
The 19 barbers had rendered most of the members of the class of 1999 bald when word of Mr. Doyle and his corn-rows filtered in. They couldn't wait to get their clippers on him.
"We'll fight over this one," joked Woody Landes, who has been cutting hair at the academy for 10 years.
Officers and midshipmen crowded into the windowless room next to the loading dock, waiting for the 18-year-old. They cheered when he arrived and pressed closer. Mr. Doyle settled into the chair a little nervously and eyed Mr. Hastey as he turned on his clippers.
With a few strokes, the braids fell to the floor, revealing a sunburned scalp.
"These braids were a pain when I was in the Bahamas," said Mr. Doyle as he ran his hand over the stubble on his head. "I couldn't get the sand out.
"Yes, this feels really different."
They all run their hands over their scalps, the barbers say. It's instinctive.
"I tell the blonds to put some sun screen on their head when they go out," said Edwina Voelcker. "I guess it's the mother in me. I have five kids of my own. We are not supposed to mother them, but I do.
"I have seen some blonds get the worst sunburns."
When Susan Feher of Santa Ana, Calif., sat down in Florence Jackson's chair, her sun-streaked blond hair fell to the middle of her back.
"I didn't cut it before because I was kind of looking forward to the big induction day change," she said. "It took me six years to grow it this long."
About 20 minutes later she got up from the chair with chin-length hair.
"I guess shorter is more practical," she said.
Ms. Jackson and her co-workers, who collectively have more than 50 years of experience cutting midshipmen's hair, say almost every induction day is about the same.
The plebes crack the same jokes: "Just a trim. A little off the sides and front," they say. The barbers laugh and nod. "Sure," they answer. "You're going to look beautiful." A few minutes later, the plebes walk out of the shop, all with the same haircut.
Barber Paula Clarke said the plebes tend to regard them like dentists.
L "They walk in, sit in the chair and look nervous," she said.
Usually, the barbers cut the hair of about 30 midshipmen a day. But on Induction day, they average about 100 plebes each. It puts them in a "skin mode," they say.
"This is a fun day," Mr. Landes said. "The long days are the ones right after holidays and just before an inspection. That's when they need a real haircut.
"This isn't a real haircut. This is just shaving."