The sturdy, manly smell of tonics and aftershave greets us as we open the door. The buzzing of hair trimmers fills the air, punctuated by the occasional laugh and a stereo playing hip hop and rap music in the background.  Not far from the tri-color barber pole is a sign laying out the Barbershop Rules: "What happens in the Barbershop stays in the Barbershop."

I am in Headliners, a Lee Avenue, Hampton, South Carolina establishment, and I have brought my sons along for our back-to-school haircuts. I am a 47-year-old rural Southerner and my Momma has been cutting my hair for every one of those years - until today. You aren’t truly Southern unless Momma cuts your hair, as you sip sweet tea and gossip on the front porch,  but I recently discovered that the same trimmers she uses on me have also been used on her pet goat, "Goat Dog," so it’s time to make a change.

I am also as Caucasian as they come, and this is an African American-owned and operated barbershop, with an almost all-black clientele. But that didn’t matter to me if it didn’t matter to the barber.

"Hair is hair," laughed Sylvester "Vet" Hicks, Master Barber, as he removes the tools of his trade from a black bag. He goes to work with skilled precision on my oldest boy, while his son, Thaddeus "T.K." Shaw, gets my youngest in the chair nearby. My 7-year-old is already in love with this place because it has a snack bar.

"I have been cutting hair since I was 10," says Hicks. "My mom used to cut my hair. Then I started cutting on myself, messing myself up, until I learned. Then my cousins and my neighbors let me practice on them and I got good, and then it just took off from there."

Hicks has more than just barber skills. He is also a top-notch dog handler and coon hunter, and I wrote about him several years ago in an article entitled "The Cult of the Coon Dog," in South Carolina Wildlife Magazine. (http://scwaterlaw.sc.gov/magazine/articles/janfeb2014/coondog.html)

Hard-earned respect

I chose this barbershop for a reason: I like and respect this man. Sure, we have a lot in common - we played football together and we are both outdoorsmen - but that’s not all of it. We are both men with a less-than-perfect past, men who have started down roads of self destruction but eventually found the right path, because we are also men of dreams and hard work. We have learned from our mistakes and fought to rise above, because we yearned for something more.

I won’t speak of any mistakes here but my own. There was a time when alcohol, drugs and bad decisions were a big part of my life. When you find yourself lying on your back in a county jail cell, where do you go from there? That is the measure of a man. Do you remain at rock bottom or do you rise up to become something better?

Changing your ways and becoming a better person aren’t easy tasks to accomplish, but I am here to testify, brothers and sisters, that it can be done. I became a writer, author and newspaper editor. Mr. Hicks became a businessman and has owned his own barbershop since he was 21. He is also a certified barber instructor and spends a good deal of time teaching others. I respect that a great deal. Role models like Hicks are hard to find, and a lot of troubled young people could learn from his example.

A proud tradition

The tri-color barber pole harkens back to a day when the barber was also the local dentist, pharmacist and even the doctor. The red in the pole symbolizes blood, the blue is for veins and the white for bandages. The barber is also a therapist of sorts.

"You know guys want to vent," says Hicks, his hand moving a razor ever so gently along the boy’s head. "My wife did this, so-and-so did that. Maybe they want to talk about the big buck they killed or the fish they caught or the big game. Guys come here to relieve stress."

Men of all ages often come here to blow off steam or seek some wise life advice. Who wiser to give it than a barber who has learned so much about life?

But this place isn’t just for men. Ethel Davis, one of the barbers here, waits in a nearby chair. I took a seat in her chair for a trim and a shave.

Beside me, my sons are almost done. You can already tell the difference in posture that a haircut gives a fellow – a new look and a new attitude. The little one sat just a little taller and prouder in the chair. The oldest was already strutting in front of a mirror.

"Going to the barber shop is a self-esteem booster," Hicks agrees. "When you leave the barber, you are looking good, smelling good, feeling good."

Comb-overs and comfort zones

We paid our barbers, visited the snack bar and went our way, but I promised to return. Not that it’s important, but it is noteworthy that this was the first time that any of us had ever received a haircut from someone of another race. Why is that? I asked myself. Every day, we rub elbows and go to work and school with people of different races and ethnicities. Yet too often we feel most comfortable in churches, clubs and establishments where we look around and all we see are people who look just like us.

Every now and then, perhaps we should escape our comfort zones and spend time with people who may appear different on the outside. We just might find that we have a lot more in common with them than we think. We might even find something that deserves a lot of respect. Like a new haircut, a change in comfort zones may change your entire attitude.

Wherever you are reading this, I highly suggest that you find a new barber shop in your town and plop down in a chair. Don’t be afraid to talk of fishing or sports or even seek marital advice. That’s all okay, because what happens in the barbershop, stays in the barbershop.

Michael M. DeWitt Jr. is the managing editor of The Hampton County Guardian newspaper in South Carolina. He is an award-winning humorist, journalist and outdoor writer and the author of two books.