He had been asked to write down his life’s story to provide some insight on what he was doing, what he had done and what was waiting for him down the road. To write down one’s history was a bit presumptuous as the story was no different from anyone else’s. We all have our moments but Barber thought that he had some interesting experiences however nothing heroic or despicable enough to warrant preserving things for posterity’s sake.
Barber just lived his life without a significant amount of introspection due to two main facts: it wasn’t worth reliving the past and because dwelling on stories long gone was a lot like wallowing in the grief of the ways things might have been. Nevertheless, this changed recently when he met a fellow at his place of business that insisted he make an honest attempt at write his story down and because of many drinks capped off with a sincere promise, decided to try it. Since Barber didn’t write much different that he talked, he kept apologizing for grammatical issues up front: especially in the areas of tense, run-on sentences and fragments. He said it drove his high school teachers crazy but continued to have high confidence that his ability to annoy others would attract others dumb enough to read his story.
He was born Barber James Hipps in Galveston, Texas in 1948. His first name was always a peculiar one and while he suffered some verbal abuse from a few buddies early in his life, the name was not as big of an issue as one would think. He never asked anyone in the family why they named Barber James Hipps because the first name was only used in rare occasions. His family always called him “Jimmy” and except for the high school diploma, service record and a few licensing situations, the first name was not brought out too much. Out of High School, he enlisted in the US Army and although it was smack in the middle of Vietnam, he felt is was a good time to learn a skill because killing an occasional Viet Cong was not enough of a long term career move to bank one’s future on.
Once completing basic training, he was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps and became a private in procurement. Hipps learned early in the Army that if you had something someone wanted, deals are easy to consummate and it seemed that he was always seeking something for somebody. The career was going along nicely and he received an informal education in supply side economics during his early years by regularly bartering goods, especially scarce goods, with all branches of the service under the watchful tutelage of commanding officer, Colonel Kenneth Runge. Runge was a resourceful and powerful officer whose own career about five years before World War Two. He learned that human condition was a perfect breeding ground for basic economics; he bought low and sold obscenely high and by the time each war broke out, he kept getting promoted and was relied on more and more by his needy supervisors for a wide variety of products and services.
Runge quickly learned that each war brought significantly more opportunities and men, money and material rolled in as fast as someone could grab it. The war machine could be relied on, with absolutely no doubt, to continue to crank out supplies of all kinds every hour of everyday and the people who got it first was the quartermaster corps. Runge assembled groups of loyal disciples, all devotees of free market trade, and took control of the entire West Coast points of embarkation. Not many people knew Runge but the ones that did, understood that nothing was moved without his approval. Warehouses full of government issue machinery, medicine, blankets, autoclaves, barrels of grease, boots, parachutes, ice cream machines, tanks, helmets and most importantly, cigarettes. His rule was that the fighting men got whatever they needed right away but the brass would have to pay dearly for anything that wasn’t government issue or a legitimate priority. All forward units would see their Red Cross packages supplemented with cases of liquor, cigarettes and any other tributes that he could find. This was a noble effort but the sheer tonnage of officer perquisites kept him from doing all he could to help the poor bastards that found themselves in country.
By the time Vietnam rolled around, he controlled all shipments to Pearl Harbor, all the senior officers endured numerous unstated taxes on their vanity shipments and Runge would take his profits and re-invest in trades with other countries’ counterparts and enjoy still more profit. This is where the heroics of Barber James Hipps came into Runge’s awareness. Hipps was a newly promoted corporal in charge of large shipments of goods out of Newport Beach and as he endured service life stationed behind a large, steel desk, he knew he was onto something very special. He contacted Runge directly, as all of the now-Lieutenant Colonel’s men were instructed to do. They met face to face, as Runge discouraged paperwork, to discuss Hipps’ issue in greater detail.
“Thank you for meeting me, Sir,” said Hipps as he saluted for the third time in six months.
“No problem, Hipps. And, stop with the saluting. I am just a shipper and a receiver, my rank can be ignored. And call me Ken.”
“Okay, Ken. I have an opportunity for you. Or, for us if you wish.”
“What is it?”said Ken. He had heard that tone of voice only several times in his career and they all were the precursor to great opportunity.
“When the war started going bad, I learned that all the Vietnamese consulates went into overdrive with their worldwide shipments. I just received the manifests for the three embassies in Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. These are supposedly going to cold storage until the war ends.”
Hipps handed the thick foot-high pile of manifests, full of detail listing furniture, personal effects, artwork and one separate ream that was marked “Miscellaneous.”
“I suggest you read the one marked as ‘Miscellaneous.’”
Runge quickly scanned all the manifests; his trained eye was looking for the interesting inventory as he wondered what made this Corporal call him but he learned to always read everything, even if someone told about some specific documented gem buried within a large report. He finally finished the first pile, somewhat impressed with the non-miscellaneous inventory but when he started read the Miscellaneous listing, he had to sit down. This kid had found the mother lode and it had all the makings of a win/win proposition for both of them.
Within the entire miscellaneous manifest were hidden tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of cases of liquor: premium stuff ranging from Cuban rums, top quality scotch, Russian and Polish vodkas and French wines and champagnes. It was obvious that some Vietnamese diplomats had plans for their retirement and only the ongoing annoyance of the war kept him and his cronies from making about a hundred million dollars. All the inventory was painfully and cryptically listed as office supplies but Barber James' keen eyes focused on the case lot sizes and weights and noticed that almost all of the cases were for twelve units; far too small and light for office supplies so the thought of all that liquor got him thinking. Now engaged and intrigued, he went down to the outlying warehouse that housed the inventory and with a bribe of a case of Bushmill’s and a wave of his identification card, he was allowed into the deep recesses of the warehouse to do some face-to-face investigation.
He walked over to one of the hundreds of secure areas and used a crowbar to open up a case. He was not surprised to find twelve bottles of Dom Perignon champagne, vintage 1959. He knew that the case was worth at least five thousand bucks and the only guy that knew about it was sitting in Saigon, crying in his sake or whatever the ARVN drank when they cried. He didn't know that much about vintage champagne but it was abundantly clear that some group or someone had plans to enjoy their post-war retirement. Barber was no fool so he contacted Runge immediately.
After telling the back story, Runge told Barber to come with him and they took his jeep to the warehouse complex so he could see for himself. No one, absolutely no one, ever slowed down Runge and they soon found themselves in the same warehouse but at the opposite end when Runge pulled up next to mountainous pile of wooden crates. Runge expertly cracked open the first case and found himself staring at twelve obedient bottles of ultra-rare Kentucky bourbon. He quickly ran the numbers and stepped off the inventory and realized that the kid just created at least twenty million dollars out of nothing.
Hipps quickly was promoted to Sergeant and worked with Runge through the war years. One problem that even Runge could not make disappear was the constant orders that continually kept coming through to send Barber James Hipps to barber school. Barber never requested the training and no one could ever determine the origin of the orders nor get them rescinded; one thing that you could not ignore were signed documents and after six months of dodging and buying off company clerks, Barber ironically found himself in Barber school. Runge had pulled enough strings to keep Barber in his command but every day for three months, Barber trudged off to school to learn a trade that eventually became useful once his enlistment was over. Every day after class, Barber would show up in Runge’s office for an hour or two of real work and they would discuss the opportunities in front of them.
The Vietnamese booze was distributed immediately with the scotch going to his friends in the forward units of the Pacific (for past favors), Runge took all the whiskey and Barber got all the rum for his part in the scheme and the miscellaeous liquors (champagne, vodkas, etc) were used as active, engaged currency. The liquor never existed anywhere on paper so there was nothing to steal; discarded and irregular office supplies replaced the original liquor inventory so no loss existed on paper or on the ground. Barber always wondered what happened to the South Vietnamese generals, diplomats or senior staff after the fall of Saigon but never asked. He would have liked to have seen the variety of faces that opened up crates marked "Office Supplies" only to find office supplies. Once the fall formally happened, the warehouse was emptied and the office supplies were sent back to places unknown as the country as we knew it, ceased to exist. No one brought up the incident, or any of the other scams that were pulled and exactly one year after the last helicopter lifted off from the embassy, Master Sergeant Barber James Hipps was mustered out with an honorable discharge, a barber’s license recognized in all the states and at least eight million dollars in premium rum and various other treasures.
Barber sold most of the rum through Runge’s domestic partners, receiving both cash and property for the liquor. One particularly large shipment was traded for a fifty-acre track of land in Louisiana, right on the gulf. The land had several buildings, including an old officer’s club that had housed a PX, barbershop and an old quartermaster’s office area. The land was serviceable but after the war, the service branches were flush with properties, men and equipment and peacetime was a great time to run a fire sale. Eventually, Barber attended college; thanks to the GI bill, and received a degree in Economics, writing his senior paper on the power of the free market.
He decided to move back to this property and set up his new businesses. As a licensed barber, he thought opening up his own shop, where the old barbershop stood was an easy decision. A few of the out buildings easily held his remaining thirty thousand plus cases of rum and he decided that a bar would have a nice compliment to his barbershop. Once he arrived on the scene, he was pleased with his purchase and as he began cleaning up the area, he met a rather large and friendly reptile and quickly named her Rosalina. Rosalina was the name of a girl that he knew in Newport Beach and her facial expressions and eye movement was similar, so he named her as such. Rosalina was a friendly creature, not easily spooked, and she became a fixture in the building. He never tried to run her off and only fed her when he wished but Rosalina was always nearby and came like a dog when called. She learned tricks easily and in a matter of days, he taught her how to roll over, play dead and yawn.
Barber never advertised his services because he didn’t want the responsibility. Eventually, folks dropped on by for haircuts and to play with Rosalina. He always had a few bottles of rum around and he invited folks to have a drink or two. A liquor license would bring scrutiny and other complications; Runge was taught him to keep things simple and a do-it-yourself bar was just simpler. People would tip him handsomely after several drinks but he didn’t ask for anything. After a few months, he would leave a few bottles in the old PX and people would leave money. Every night before he went home, he would seal the bottles, take the cash and place it in accounts that he had stashed all over the south. Runge taught him to very fluid with his capital and the less reliance on others, the better. There were some days when it appeared that some folks too advantage of his good nature but there were many more nights that he came out well ahead.
He kept in touch with Colonel Kenneth Runge (ret.) and appreciated his support as both a mentor and a friend. Runge liquidated his entire liquor inventory as well as his other products and was a multi-millionaire when being a millionaire still meant something. He invested well, within a few years, had completely severed his old military gains, and replaced them with bona fide investments, real estate and securities. Runge continued to speculate in investments but Barber was content with his set-up. Barber married and had several children that enjoyed their upbringing but none had any interest in following in their father’s footsteps as an entrepreneur.
His wife died early in life and Barber, distraught by the unfairness of it, decided remarrying would not be in the cards. He taught his children independence as well as dual book accounting and when they left for other parts of the country, he spent more and more of his time at the shop. By this time, he took on an unofficial partner, Henry Bayles, and they spent most of their days cutting hair, insulting customers and playing with Rosalina. People would show up at the building in a wide manner of methods: some were lost and once armed with directions, left quickly. Others were local folks than needed a clubhouse to pass the time and yfet others were people with agendas. This last group were easily handled and dispatched with a fair amount of energy.
Days always seemed to run together; life was good so Barber enjoyed going to work to see what adventures would occur. There was no inner fire; no compulsion to accomplish new things as much as there was a gentle, redundant pleasure in the present moments. It was lot like watching your favorite movie over and over again: you knew all the words but the story was so pleasing that you didn’t care much about the need for newness.
The money kept coming in: some of the land was sold for an outrageous profit while his non-existent watering hole was doing very well. He had eventually allowed some formal offerings for the customers but never went past simple food and dispensed drinks. The rum was always around but never sold or documented; the regulars knew where to reach around to grab it and the few clueless tourists never knew what to ask. The person would pay their bill and slip Barber the liquor money separately. Over the years, he would bring home large wads of cash and for a while, just threw it into a trunk. This money was the icing on top of the icing of the cake because he was being paid in cash, at retail rates, for goods that cost him nothing in the first place. The profit margin was bordering infinity and people were happy so the best course of events was to just keep cutting hair and enjoying the parade of folks that landed on his doorstep.
One day, Henry said, “How much rum do you have left?”
Barber wasn’t sure; he would ordinarily stop by one of out buildings and take out three bottles each day on his walk into the building. The rum was not your common bar pour: it was Barbancourt, Barceló, Brugal, Old Havana, Bermudez and Mount Gay variations either Extra Old or Eclipse and occasionally he would stumble onto cases of Sugar Cane Brandy or Cockspur and bring it along in the winter months. The stuff was very old and he would hear comments from rum aficionados on how he was offering premium booze and how much they appreciated it. He would smile and motion slightly towards the mayonnaise jar to suggest they put their money where their mouth was going.
“I really have no idea; there is a real big pile in front of the door and two mountains behind it. I figure it will take a year or two, at five to ten bottles a day, to clear a path towards the other two mountains.”
Barber also kept busy finding things to do with all the crates. Evidentially, before the science of cost-effective supply chains, liquor was shipped in wooden boxes. These hardwood boxes provided him with ample firewood, when needed, as well as thousands of wooden rectangles to be used in a myriad of fix-up projects. He patched his roof several times, repaired Rosalina’s reptile garden fences and still have hundreds left over to whittle and build replica models of famous but obscure buildings.
Several years passed by before a total stranger came in and commented that the building model by the front door was a spitting image of the St. Petersburg Opera House. The two barbers smiled at each other and decided on their next project by throwing open a world atlas and plunking down their finger on their next inspiration.
When times quieted a bit, he would think back to the ARVN general or South Vietnamese diplomat, if even alive, who was still scratching his head about the disappearing liquor. Now, that was funny.
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