Barber recounts 4 decades of German, US partnership

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The year was 1972.

Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather" debuted on the big screen, Atari launched the arcade game PONG and the last U.S. ground forces withdrew from Vietnam.

This was also the year Heinz Willems began cutting hair at the barber shop here.

German students attend vocational schools to learn a trade during or after they graduate from high school. Willems finished his haircutting apprenticeship in 1971 and began his job search.

Willems' father worked as a civil engineer at Spangdahlem and noticed the barracks barbershop needed another barber. He encouraged his son to apply, and the shop hired Willems Jan. 15, 1972.

"I knew 'yes, no' and 'OK,'" he said. "Those were the three words I knew in English. The rest I learned on the chair talking with my customers."

In the '70s, haircutting wages here were based on a monthly rate, meaning the barbers received the same amount of money regardless of how many customers they serviced. This led to a more intimate haircutting experience.

"You could spend as much time as you wanted to with the customer," Willems said. "You could talk, laugh and really get to know whose hair you were cutting."

His reputation grew by word of mouth and customers would wait for Willems' chair to open. He made friends, he lost friends.

Decades passed.

Hair styles, military demeanor and income changed. Customers asked for less pomade. Flat-top haircuts pushed their way into style and left with the same rugged aggression. The education gap between the enlisted and officer career paths lessened. Barbers earned money by customer number instead of a set salary, and the Euro replaced the Deutsche Mark.

Through it all, Willems focused on taking care of his customers.

"I've always loved cutting hair," he said. "When I first started working here, I knew I wanted to stay for as long as I could. It's already been 40 years, and I have seven more before I can retire."

Willems said he has cut thousands of service members' hair in those 40 years, but some memories stand out among the others.

One in particular was early in Willems' career. Then Bitburg Air Base had a boxing club, and one of the locally-renowned boxers would come into the barber shop before every bout for a complete head shave. The other barbers in the shop knew the boxer for his size, brute strength and a small, easy-to-miss bump on his head.

Newly hired Willems had never shaved this person's head before, and the other barbers busied themselves with their own customers when it was the boxer's turn for a haircut. Willems called him to the seat and began building customer rapport. Upon a cursory inspection, Willems noticed the small bump.

"I thought to myself, 'Do not cut his head. Please, don't cut his head,'" he said of his fear of the boxer's perceived temper. He put one of his fingers on top of the bump and began the shave.

The razor slid across the boxer's head. The blade parted hair from head with ease. With all of the hair gone except for around the bump, Willems removed his finger and looked at the other barbers. They had stopped their work and eagerly watched as he prepared to finish the shave.

"They wanted me to cut him," he said with a laugh. "They thought he was going to punch me or beat me up. It was a big joke to them."

Wiping sweat away, Willems guided the razor toward the bump, up and over. The blade sliced into skin in its descent.

The other barbers gawked at the boxer, who didn't flinch. Nor did he even as Willems staunched the blood flow and applied the after shave.

The boxer stood, turned to Willems and thanked him for one of the better haircuts he had ever had.

The relationship between U.S. military members and German civilians has always been strong, Willems continued. It's only going to get stronger as the partnership continues.

The 52nd Force Support Squadron honored Willems and coworker Guenther Anhuth during a length-of-service ceremony in January this year. Anhuth has worked here since 1969, marking 83 years of combined haircutting service to the Spangdahlem AB and Bitburg Annex community.

"I truly appreciate Guenther and Heinz' dedicated service to Spangdahlem and Bitburg for so many years," said Maj. Cat Logan, 52nd FSS commander. "It is a pleasure to see them each day as I walk into our building. They have touched the lives of so many people, and we estimate they have given approximately 350,000 haircuts.

"We have a great team in the Exchange barbershop," she continued. "In addition to Guenther and Heinz, Heinz Schmitz, Ellen Perttu and Tanja Schmidt have also each served 19-36 years as well. We appreciate them all."