Picture it: middle Tennessee, the 1980s, three young girls who shared DNA, a bathroom, and a bedroom.
Outside, the skies were blue, and the sun was shining down on a brick, ranch-style house in one of those neighborhoods where you could spit and hit your neighbors, and the chain link fences connected each yard to the one next to it. Outside, it was a beautiful day. Inside, there was terror.
One sister, barring the door with her body, holding the instrument of torture in her hand. The other two sisters, screaming and banging on the door for release. To this day, I flinch when the radiant heat of a curling iron comes near my head. Armed with a pick and the requisite iron, the oldest grinned wickedly at the younger two who were cowering nearby, desperately trying to reach the door or hide from her reach.
When they had warning, there was a safe room. If they could catch the maniacal glint in her eye before it had gone too far, they could reach the room, bolt themselves inside, and wait. If there was time enough, they could take in a can of spray cheese or grab a can of mixed fruit- although if you forgot the can opener, you were screwed. Once inside the safe room, you could wait her out, or at least wait until the mother made it home to provide some sense of safety.
But if not… there was a pick, a curler, and a fully loaded can of Aquanet waiting for you. Tidal wave bangs. Teased hair. Crimped. Curled. Sprayed to within an inch of their lives. Resistance was futile, yet obligatory. Disobedience would result in “accidental” burns from the curling iron.
Choking on the fumes from the bottle of hairspray, tasting it still and trying to blink it out of their eyes, they emerged: teased and tormented to full 80s-hair glory.
For years, no candles were kept in the house. In fact, if the power went out, they’d simply have to suffer in the dark, waiting for it to come back on. One flicker of a lighter’s flame could send them all up in smoke.
Independence Day was particularly fraught with danger. In addition to relatives burning fingers on bottle rockets, hair was in danger of igniting if it came too close to the cheap sparklers that were a staple of the holiday. The smell of smoke in the air was all too reminiscent of yet another instance of torture.
Often the youngest, being smaller and with a far more difficult head of curly hair, could escape, seeking safety in some hiding spot while the elder screamed bloody murder from the back of the house. Crimp, curl, tease, burn, spray. And again. Crimp, curl, tease, burn, spray. Again.
Outside, a summer’s day and the heat of the sun. Inside, the sound of screaming and the toxic fumes of the hairspray filtering out from under the locked door and drifting down the hall where the little one would out-run it, heading to the safe room and hoping the other could join her when she was at last released. A hidden stash of Pop Rocks and AirHeads secreted in a corner of the closet and a copy of BOP or Tiger Beat could pass the time. Headphones and a cassette player could cover the sound of screaming, for a while at any rate. Playing Walk Like an Egyptian over and over was almost enough to forget what was going on outside the room. It was better to forget, until the next time.
The mother would come home, and the eldest would exit the room with a serene smile, denying all knowledge of any torture while the Hamburger Helper was simmering on the stove. The younger would stumble out of the room with the red marks on her forehead carefully concealed by a veritable tidal wave of hair. Her wan face and teased hair would bring to mind the idea that the higher the hair, the closer to God, and the mother would remark on how pretty she looked while she dropped down into a beanbag chair in the living room to watch an episode of Saved By the Bell with a slightly dazed look on her face while the youngest crept out to slip her a mystery-flavored AirHead as a show of support.
It was the 1980s. Big hair was king, and an older sister was always queen. Or at least the one armed with the hairspray. When big hair fazed out, the older sister discovered that the iron could be used for straightening recalcitrant curly hair. If only there was someone she could try it out on…
This has been a mostly true story, with few embellishments. Stay tuned for more adventures from my childhood!