(c 2003)
"Hey Al," the dispatcher said, "we need a volunteer for this one. Whaddya say?"

I drive a desk for the fire and EMS department of a small city. We just have our headquarters and a one engine company on the north side of town. I started out as a fireman, but had some medical problems. Not enough to disable me, but enough to keep me from passing the physical, so I transferred into the headquarters staff, and have been there for the last fifteen years. It isn't really standard procedure, but once in a while a call comes in that really isn't an emergency, and it isn't worth sending a trained tech or a fire crew out, but somebody needs help. When that's the case, the dispatcher will call over to the admin office and look for a volunteer to head out and do what they can. Sometimes it is something like an old lady locking herself out of her house, one time a cat got stuck in a fence- stuff like that. Gives us office guys a chance to get out and help in some small way, and it is a good break from the paperwork of the department. Somehow, this call has become more special than most I remember- it happened three years ago. I still remember it like yesterday.

"Sure, Ray," I replied, needing to stretch my legs anyway. "I'll be right over. Just need to get a car."

A minute later I walked into the dispatch office, and Ray was smiling. "This one could be interesting. I've never heard of anything like it."

"You're not going to stiff me, are you?" I asked, remembering the time he sent me out to that lunatic's house on the East Side. I'm still getting needled about that one.

"Nah, this is legit, just different. How are you with hair?"
"How are you with hair? This lady at 1225 Broad Street got her hair stuck in an air conditioning unit. Can't get herself untangled. Luckily for her she has a cellular with her."
"Why doesn't she just cut it?"
"I suggested that, and she about took my head off. She says it is too long to cut, too valuable. Why don't you head out there and see what you can do? A little snip-snip, and you can come back to your paperwork."

I was having second thoughts about this. "Can't she call any friends?"
"She's new to the area, only been here three days, and her husband is out of town on business. No dice. Just pay her a visit- no big deal."
"Alright Ray, I'll go. I'm tired of sorting through those reports anyway."
"Great! Her name is Mrs. Newman, she'll be in back of the house. I'll tell her you are coming."
"If you stiff me, Ray... POW!" I faked a roundhouse right to his jaw, we both laughed, and I headed out the door.

On my way out to her house, about ten minutes away, I kept asking myself: "How the hell can somebody get their hair stuck in an air conditioning unit?" I found out when I walked around Mrs. Newman's house and I saw her. First, the protective grate on the outdoor unit was missing, leaving the fan exposed. Second, Mrs. Newman had some real long hair. I showed her my city ID, and combined with my fire department windbreaker, she saw I was legit.

"Thank god you're here," she said, smiling weakly, looking embarrassed, and a little flushed. "I wasn't sure what to do. Finally decided to try the Fire Department.

She was average looking, not quite my cup of tea, but I'm sure plenty of guys would find her attractive. She was in her early thirties, maybe, and was kind of tall, about five-ten. She was dressed comfortably, lucky for her- blue jeans, and a loose fitting white blouse, and white Reeboks.

She was leaning over the unit, bracing herself with her arms, and what looked like a thick cable ran from her head down to the unit. It was her blonde hair, and it was twisted pretty tightly. It looked like it was firmly connected to the fan shaft. She was holding onto her purse, which was also stuck in the fan.

I looked at her purse, and she said, "I threw my purse in there to stop the fan."

"That was quick thinking, Mrs. Newman."
"Call me Barb."
"OK, Barb, let me get the power turned off to this thing, and then we can figure out what's going on."

I walked around her to the electric box I noticed on the house, and hit a disconnect switch. At least this unit had an outside disconnect.

"OK, we can get your purse out of there now- here let me get it."
I put her purse down near her feet. "That really was quick thinking, throwing this in the fan, Mrs...."
"Barb," she interrupted.
"Barb. I'm Al Cipoletti. Anyway, you're lucky you didn't get really hurt. How did this happen?"

"I just got back from the store, and I came back here to get that bucket over there- I'm cleaning up the bathrooms today. This place is a real mess. Anyway, I guess a gust of wind got a hold of my hair, and, here I am. This is pretty embarrassing..." She blushed and looked away.

"Could have happened to anyone," I lied. There was a lot of hair stuck in that unit. "So how do we get you out of this?" I looked at her twisted blonde cable as I asked this.

"I know what you are thinking, Al, but I don't want to cut it. My hair means a lot to me. Could you help me try to save it? Please?" she pleaded.

I really wasn't in the mood to spend a lot of time here, but something in her eyes told me that I was all she had right now, and I couldn't turn my back. She was remarkably calm, considering the circumstances. I imagined my girlfriend stuck like this, though her hair was short. She'd be throwing a screaming fit. Heck, the fan probably would have yanked her scalp off while she panicked.

"Don't you have a friend I could call for you?"
"We just moved in three days ago, and my husband had to leave on business yesterday, he won't be back until Friday night. The only people I've met so far here are a couple of checkout girls and now you."

I looked at her face, then into the unit, and said "OK, I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you..."
"Al. Thank you so much."
"Don't mention it. This is a real mess, and I can't guarantee anything, but we'll give it a shot."

I really had no idea what to do, but figured I would start by trying to remove the fan blade. I went to the car trunk and got the tool kit.

"Maybe if we get the fan off of the shaft, things will come loose," I said. It looked more like I could get the fan away, but the hair was wrapped pretty tightly around the shaft.

I took a pliers to the bolt on the fan and got to work. It took a few minutes, but I finally got the bolt off and lifted the blade off. We both looked inside- it was a real mess of tangled hair- and the outlook wasn't good.

"Oh, man, Barb. This doesn't look good," I said. "I haven't seen much tangled hair, but this, this is pretty nasty."
"Al, I have to try and save my hair. Maybe you don't understand, but I just do. Will you help me?" She looked at me, pleading. She wasn't crying, but she looked desperate.

"Lemme check in at the office," I said. "If they don't mind, I'll stick around for a while." I just couldn't say no to her.

She directed me to the phone in the house, and I talked it over with Ray. "Sure thing, Al. I'll send someone out in an hour or two if I don't hear from you," he said.

I came back out and told her I could stick around for a while. She looked relieved. We got to work trying to extricate her hair from the shaft. She was very careful about it, and I mentioned that it looked like she was no stranger to getting her hair out of jams.

"It gets stuck in everything, and makes me feel pretty clumsy sometimes. Doorways, vacuum cleaners, the refrigerator. Sometimes I feel like I'm pulling it out of a dangerous spot at least once a week." She got quiet. "I really should start braiding this more often. It's foolish of me to think I could walk around with it hanging free!" she whispered. "I put it up at work, but like it hanging unbound otherwise."

She told me she was a teacher, and she and her husband timed the move into town so that she could spend some of the summer moving them in to the new house.

I prompted her to tell me more about her hair as we kept going. We were making progress- not much- but progress. There was two feet now between the unit and her head, but a lot of hair was on the shaft.

Over the next hour she gave me the complete story on her hair. I was kind of surprised at how much she was telling a complete stranger, but it kept her calm, so who was I to doubt her?

She said she has always had long hair, even as a kid. "As soon as I was old enough to refuse to get my hair cut, that's what I did. I loved the idea of having long hair, and made it a goal," she said.

I was working up a bit of a sweat, and once when I stopped to wipe my brow, she looked at me and said "You're not a fireman, are you."

I looked down at my shirt, which was getting stained with sweat, and my rather substantial beer gut.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, looking away from me. "I didn't mean.... I'm glad you're here."

I explained that I was in admin, but occasionally went out on non-emergency calls, and that I was trained as a fireman and paramedic, but had been behind a desk for quite a while.

"I guess fifteen years of beer and pizza can do a job on a guy, but I just can't shake this," I said with a weak grin as I slapped my gut.

We were both quiet for a few minutes as we worked on freeing the next section of hair. It was starting to look like we could do something.

She told me about cutting her hair back after graduation to her shoulder blades. She said it was some bad advice from friends and family as she started a job search. It was a bad mistake, but one that made her value her hair all the more.

By the time she was 24, she had grown it back to the middle of her thighs, fingertip length, she said. She got married a couple of years later, and her husband urged her to grow it longer.

"Tom loves my hair more than I do, I think. I have to shoo him away sometimes so I can have a little privacy, or he would have his hands in it twenty four hours a day!" she said.

It's interesting, but after this episode was finished, I realized that the longer her hair got as she was telling me about it, the more resolved I became to help her save every last strand.

It took us about three hours to get three and a half feet free, at which point we both took a breather. She was able to sit down, and I raided her fridge for some lunch. I also called the station again to check in. I told Ray I wanted to see it through until we were finished, but I couldn't say how long that would be.

We had some laughs after lunch as she started telling me about all of the places she had gotten it stuck. Before this, probably the most unique place was a perfume display at the local department store.

"About eight bottles broke after my hair snagged a rack. Everything smelled like perfume for a couple of weeks afterwards!" she giggled. Of course she said it was a lot easier to laugh now. Then, she was distraught and embarrassed.

I remember just before we finished, I asked her, "Why grow your hair so long? Why put yourself through this?"

"Ask me later and I'll tell you it is just because I like it this long, and that I feel blessed that I can grow it like this," she said. "Right now, I have to wonder. I guess times like this make me realize how much I enjoy it and love it."

The last bit of her hair was the toughest. Boy! was it stuck in there. We switched roles psychologically, I noticed. I became the confident and determined one, she became the doubter. She was talking herself into losing "not too much hair, all things considered," but I became the one saying "we'll get it all, don't worry."

Finally, at about 4:30, we finished, and I'm proud to say only a few strands were left on the shaft. I was exhausted. It was six hours of concentration on that stupid shaft, but we came out on top.

Mrs. Newman was delighted, to say the least. At the time, I wasn't sure why. Her hair looked like crap. It was still kind of tangled up, and it was covered in grease. It hung down in a ratty cable below her knees.

"It'll clean up nicely," she said. "Don't worry about that. How can I repay you?"

"I'll tell you what," I said. "Why don't you stop by the station sometime next week and show me how your hair is supposed to look. I'm real curious, and I guess I have a bit of myself invested in it now."

"Besides," I said, "I may need you to back up my story. I have a feeling that nobody in the office is going to believe me."

Sure enough, on the Wednesday of the next week, Mrs. Newman appeared in my cubicle, with a huge smile on her face, and a plate of cookies in her hand. She looked alot better when she wasn't connected to a fan. I looked for her hair, but it was done up in a large knot in the back of her head. There were a couple of chopsticks too, a very attractive arrangement. I also liked how soft and shiny it looked, a really nice honey blonde.

My five co-workers gathered outside, and we moved into the reception area as she told them her story. I interrupted as they started asking questions- curiosity was getting the better of me. "So how did it all come out?" I asked. "Is your hair OK?"

"Oh, it's better than ever!" she replied. "It took a couple of days to get all the grease out, but once I did, it felt wonderful- better than before because I would have lost it if it weren't for your help. Let me show you."

Then she reached behind her and pulled the chopsticks out, and hair slowly tumbled behind her. She put the chopsticks in her mouth, and shook it all near her scalp. We were all speechless, until Becky, our receptionist, said, "Oh my God, It's beautiful!"

Beautiful it was. One look at Barb Newman's mane turned me into a long hair lover. It was this baby-soft, shiny cape that fell to the bottom of her calves, about six inches above her ankles. It looked perfect. She let me take it in my hands, and it felt smoother and softer than silk, just incredible.

"I can see why you were so protective and caring of your hair, Barb," I said. "It's a real treasure. I'm glad we were able to get it out of that fan."

Now, three years later, Barb Newman is a great friend of the fire department. She brings treats over a couple of times a year, and always brings her third grade class over to learn about firefighting. More importantly, she donates her time to our smoke detector and fire safety awareness program. Every time she comes to the headquarters, she sticks her head in to say hi.

Just recently, she came in with her beautiful hair in a braid that looped to below her waist. I had always seen it up in a knot, except for that first visit. With my recently-found appreciation of long hair piqued, I said, "That's a beautiful braid you have there, Barb. Doing something different with your hair?"

She smiled a thank you, and told me she was resorting to braiding it more often because it was getting too long. "It drags on the floor now if I let it down. Tom is in heaven," she said. "If I braid it, it will stay out of the way a little better. See?"

She pulled out the clip holding her hair up, and her braid swung down to her ankles. She had a small knot of hair at the end of her braid, about two inches above the floor. She picked it up and handed her braid to me.

"That's wonderful, Barb. Sounds like you are enjoying it," I said, admiring her shimmering rope of hair. It was still soft, and smooth as silk.

"Oh, I am," she replied. "I'm so glad you came over that day to help. I gained a greater appreciation and love for my hair after that day. You know, the old 'you don't know how much you love something until you lose it'? I'm not sure I could ever cut it now!"

"After all it's been through," I said, "you better not! I'll fasten you back to that air conditioner again!"

She chuckled and said "No, I think it's going to grow for a while."

She said good-bye, and walked away, her braid dancing just above the floor. I found myself longing for a long-haired woman in my life.

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