Coleen Patterson gives a free haircut to Marine Corps veteran Tom Ridley of Brewer on Wednesday. Ridley, who served two years active duty in 1971-1973, said that he is more appreciative this year because businesses are already struggling due to  the pandemic. "To give free stuff is lovely," Ridley said. "Giving when it hurts is the ultimate giving." Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The stories that the hairstylists at Main Street Barber & Beauty in Brewer hear from their clients on November 11 each year span the gamut in tone from laughter to tears. That’s because for the past five years, every Veterans Day, owner Coleen Patterson and her staff offer free haircuts to veterans and active military personnel as a way to thank them for their service.

“We’re just trying to give back to them,” Patterson said. “It’s really the least we can do.”

Susan Darling, a stylist, has organized the free haircut event for the past three years. She said that some veteran clients don’t want to talk about their service, while others are happy to regale them with stories — but either way, she’s happy to just be able to offer something as a thank you for their service.

Clockwise from left: Every Veterans Day for the past five years, Main Street Barber & Beauty owner Coleen Patterson and her staff offer free haircuts to veterans and active military personnel as a way to thank them for their service; Patterson gives a haircut to veteran Tom Ridley (right) while hair stylist Natalie Little gives a haircut to veteran Danny Jones; Little gives a free haircut to Jones of Ellsworth on Wednesday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“I can’t imagine being deployed overseas, away from my family. That sacrifice is incredible,” Darling said. “Being able to just do something, even something as simple as a haircut once a year, is just really rewarding. I think it’s even more rewarding for us than it is for them, because they are so appreciative.”

Tom Ridley of Brewer, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, came in for a cut on Wednesday, and said he was appreciative not just for the support of veterans, but also for the fact that the salon was giving back to the community during the pandemic.

“It makes me all the more appreciative, because with this pandemic businesses are already struggling. And then to give free stuff is lovely,” Ridley said. “Giving when it hurts is the ultimate giving.”

Darling said that they get lots of veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam coming in for cuts, as well as a few Korean War vets. Sadly, Darling said her last World War II veteran client died six months ago. The most common cuts given on Main Street Barber & Beauty’s annual free veteran haircuts day are, unsurprisingly, high-and-tights and flat tops, both traditional military cuts.

“I love it when they ask for a flat top,” said stylist Natalie Little, who comes from a long family tradition of military service and currently has a son deployed with the Navy. “When you can sculpt that haircut, boy, that’s satisfying. It takes a special touch to do those kinds of cuts.”

Sometimes, Darling said, veteran clients will attempt to surreptitiously pay them after their cuts, simply because they are so accustomed to serving and don’t want to accept help.

“I’ll start sweeping up after they’ve left, and I’ll suddenly find the money,” Darling said. “They know we won’t accept payment for it, but for them, the idea of not helping someone else out is just not something they would ever dream of. It just speaks to the kind of attitude they have about service. It’s just totally in their nature.”

The relationship between a barber or stylist and a client can be an intimate one built on both trust and comfort. Darling said she finds that haircuts can be a welcome bit of relief for people who may feel isolated — especially during the pandemic, when it is not advised to get close to other people. With the extra pandemic safety precautions in place at salons and barbershops statewide, it’s also one that clients can feel safe having.

“I hear from clients all the time, veterans or not, that their haircut is one of the only times during the pandemic they get to actually have human touch,” Darling said. “I think we take for granted that kind of thing. Or, at least, we used to.”

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.