James “Buster” Mears
James “Buster” Mears was born on May 3, 1932 in Centreville, Maryland. He was a student at the start of the war. He worked with his father in his family’s barber shop, Mears Barber Shop. After the death of his mother in 1944, James, his four sisters, and his father moved in with his grandmother, who lived above the barber shop. He lived in Centreville until he was drafted as a high speed radio operator for the Korean War from 1952 to 1955. He currently lives with his wife, Hazel Mears, in Centreville.
In this interview, James Mears describes spending most of the war in Centreville where he witnessed war drives and bonds at school. He speaks about his uncles who were drafted into the Army and Navy, and cutting hair while serving on boats. He recalls his father managing five victory gardens on various plots of land while continuing to correspond with soldiers overseas.
A Family of Barbers
I started working in the barber shop as a shoe shine boy at the age of probably nine. And then during the war, I helped prepare people to be ready to get their hair cut. We put the barber cloth around them, and it would be just my father is the only one who cut the hair. And there was two other boys besides myself, three of us, that weren’t tall enough to work on the people. We had shotgun shell boxes that we stood up on so we could reach the customers. We would get them ready then my father would cut their hair. Then we would shave their necks, give them their tonics and shampoos. Back in those days, we gave a lot of tonics and shampoos and also shaves. Many people came in for shaves. And finally, we got so we could shave too. Of course, this was straight razors. But my father did the main work. He trained us, and finally some customers would let us do it. They had the option. Some didn’t feel comfortable with us little fellows. But they finally came to the place that did cut hair. But I didn’t really care like that. Worked like my father and the rest of my family. There was four generations of our family that worked on some of the people in town. My great-grandfather was a barber, my grandfather owned the shop and had died by then and then my father and myself. So, actually, there was four generations that worked on some of the people in town. And they would tell us that.
Five little gardens around town. Whoever wouldn’t mind giving space that he could plant the garden, he did. Of course, he’d provide them some food from down at the garden too. Himself, but he lived in town. All around town was dairy farms back then. And they’d come in on weekends. Saturday was a big day all the time because they’d bring in things like eggs and things and swap so they could pay the barber or whatnot.
Living Above the Barber Shop
We eventually did. My mother died in ’44, and then we lived in the house where my mother and father and four sisters then just down the street from the barber shop. And it got so that my father realized that my sister who was two years older than I was couldn’t manage going to school and cooking and everything, and my grandmother invited us to move up with her ’cause her husband died the year before my mother died. So my grandmother at age 68 took in a family of five children. And my father. So we just run upstairs to eat, and we all lived upstairs in a two floor apartment.
Korean War High Speed Radio Operator
When I was going to be drafted, they promised me that—they pulled a few of us aside, and said, “You got high scores, we can guarantee you six months of school.” When we did sign up and agreed to that, we didn’t know there are certain departments in security that some were in language—went to language school—some of us in radio school, and different things in security. And they selected me to go into high speed radio operating, and that’s de-dall, de-dall [mimics Morse Code]—Morse Code. We were in a unit just monitoring. So we would monitor what our army sent out and be sure they didn’t tell how many troops were there and where you’re located. If they gave up any secrets, then they got corrected to not do that anymore. And then also, these units at the time were monitoring the enemy. See that was during the Korean War. We had different people that decoded what we put down. In other words, we’d take down the letters what they sent, but then there was a code that went to another unit. It was delivered daily for their—type it out and whatever the message said.
Transitions After the War
I guess it started shortly after the war. Of course, we went right from World War II—wasn’t too long before the Korean War came in. Actually, they drafted a lot of boys off the farm too, but they did maintain some who got deferred because of the farm, because farming was necessary to help the nation feed the troops because of the war. And that was a big change too ’cause some of the boys in my class, most of ’em were farm boys. The town people was only like 1,800 people, but now, since then, it’s increased a lot. But now a lot of the farm land has been sold, and they put buildings on it.
I was born in town, and the family doctor when I was born, he said “Well he’s a buster!” Weighed nine pounds, and you wouldn’t think so. I lost weight since then, but I’ve always been very small after that. But I actually weighed nine pounds then the doctor remarked, “Well he’s a buster”. And the teachers tried to change my name. They said, “you’re a bit too old, too big. Shouldn’t be called Buster”. But my father had a nickname of Bunny, and they gave me a nickname of Buster. So that’s all that most people in town knew us by. That’s all. Bunny Mears was all they knew in town. And a nurse one day was giving me shots, and he said, “What’s your real name?” I said Buster Bunny. So it was just—I think it was the third grade too. She said “You need to be called James. “No, I like Buster,” and I stuck to it.