Somewhere between the clippers and his scented hair oil, Cool's hands create a bond between the spiritual and the sartorial, between fashion and faith.
Few pass by his barber chair at the Augusta Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers without calling out to him; hardly anyone slips by his windows without a nod or a greeting from Cool.
"How's it going, Cool?" says a man passing in the hallway.
"All right, all right," Cool says, smiling but never lifting his eyes from the head in front of him.
His nickname is so fitting that few know he is really Alphonso Gibbs, 49. Even though Mr. Gibbs has gone by Cool for years, the Rev. Alvin Holsey twists around in the barber chair when he hears it.
"I never heard his real name," the Rev. Holsey said, laughing. "He kept that in the background."
The name Cool is far more descriptive of the man who has been cutting hair for 30 years, 21 of them at the VA and at Fort Gordon. He has a fiercely loyal following that come to him as much for his counsel as for his cuts.
"Sometimes I get a haircut when I don't even need it," Brett DeLeon said, prompting knowing laughs from the other men scattered around the barbershop inside the VA. "I just want to hear Cool talk."
Not that the haircuts aren't important. The men scattered among the chairs on the edge of his shop at the VA - which they call "headquarters" - will have no other.
On Saturdays, when Cool is out at Fort Gordon among other barbers, "I will let others go in front of me to get to his chair," the Rev. Holsey said.
"He's the best-kept secret," Mr. DeLeon said. "Sometimes I tell people about him, but I don't want to tell too many people ..."
"I won't let nobody else cut my hair," chimed in Deacon Larry S. Thompson. "He shaves me three times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so I'll be prepared for church on Sunday. I just thank God for him."
There is something about getting a haircut that seems to set his customers in the right spiritual frame of mind, Cool said.
"It takes a barber to have a special knowing, to be a Christian because you're dealing with so many people's lives that are coming to you," he said from behind his chair, carefully trimming 6-year-old Dezzie DeLeon's hair. "You want to not only give them a good haircut but to enhance their lives in some kind of way spiritually."
Or as the Rev. Holsey put it, "Cleanliness is next to godliness."
The atmosphere around Cool brings to mind the word revival, again in the spiritual and physical sense. And he feeds it and feeds off it.
"The way society is going today, we're searching for a good spiritual person," Cool said, the clippers buzzing in his hand pausing over a head. "Somebody to keep you alive, somebody to keep you up because things are so bad in our society today we need somebody, somewhere to keep us charged."
It's a sentiment the Rev. Holsey and the others can appreciate, even provoking a little call and response.
"'Being a minister, I sometimes need a pickup myself," the Rev. Holsey said.
"All right now," Mr. Thompson called out.
"And I can find that in here," the Rev. Holsey added.
In March, after 22 years, Cool will retire from the VA but will continue to cut hair at Fort Gordon. And he will still be fulfilling his mission, which has as much to do with the soul as with the scalp.
"Being a good barber today, you've got to be on a good spiritual level. You've got to have it right with God," Cool said. "I was able to understand that you cannot do nothing without Jesus Christ in your life, and to be able to share a relationship with somebody else that you think is walking in darkness.
"It's not all about the money. It's about touching people's lives, so many people's lives."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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