Hair! and a mystery no more 

The Observer posed a puzzler in our pre-Christmas column, opening the floor to any old Central High alums who might know the purpose of the round, domed objects — which we called "bells," due to their resemblance to the old fire-bells in our own rinky-dink high school — which are under nearly every seat we saw during a recent visit to the big auditorium at Central. As we figured, some among our smart readers knew the answer. Turns out, as we were informed by several folks, those "bells" are actually part of the old heating system, once tied into steam boilers in the basement to help keep tushies warm in the days before central heat and air.

One of the most knowledgeable about these items was architect Terry Rasco of the firm Witsell, Evans & Rasco, P.A., who sent along the following detailed description:

"The 'mystery bells' are part of the original ventilation system at Central High School auditorium. The 'bells' were noted as 8-inch Knowles mushroom ventilators on the original plans and there are 300 in the balcony floor, and 600 in the main floor. They were part of the ventilation system operating at low volume to avoid excessive air noise, and provide even distribution throughout the auditorium. The building was designed in 1926 by an association of five local architects: George Mann & Eugene J. Stern, John Parks Almand, George H. Wittenberg & Lawson L. Delony. It was extensively remodeled over a period of six years from 2000-2006 by Witsell, Evans & Rasco, P.A.

"To the best of my knowledge, the original ventilation system is no longer used because the auditorium was air-conditioned many years ago, but of course the 'bells' remain."  

Reader Rasco was even able to dig up a digital copy of a 1915 issue of "Heating and Ventilation" magazine, which shows the Knowles Mushroom Ventilator in cross section, as well as the surprising news that — like grand ol' Central High — the Knowles Co. has survived through tough times into this modern age. The company is located in Philadelphia. That's good news, in case the Little Rock School District is looking for replacement parts.

The other day, The Observer's pal, Max Brantley, posted a photo of himself from 1973: a black and white snap of the young reporter — fresh off the boat from Lake Charles, La. — poring over the paper in the sunlit newsroom of the old Gazette building. The thing that caught our eye (other than the abject lack of computers on the desks ... how DID they do it back in The Old Days?) was Max's hair: a wavy, perfect mane falling all the way to his shoulders. The hair of Zeus!

Max's photo got me thinking about hair and youth. Up until The Observer started here at the Times a little over 10 years ago, I actually hadn't cut my hair — other than split-end trims — since I was in high school. At one point, I had my then-girlfriend-now-Spouse braid it up, and the plait worked out to be over 20 inches long and nearly as thick as her wrist at the nape of my neck. That's a lot of hair, as our shower drain could attest in those days.

Once I edged into semi-respectable fatherhood, though, The Observer's lengthy locks started to seem a bit goofy. One day, a toddler-age Junior ran past the chair Dear Ol' Dad was sitting in, latched onto my ponytail and swung like Tarzan, a yank that almost toppled me over and left my neck aching for a week. That — and my pending job interview with a no-longer godlike but still imposing Mr. Brantley — sealed the deal, and I tromped on off to a salon in the mall for my first haircut of adulthood.

I settled into the chair of a young man with a pair of scissors in his belt, and for the next five minutes, he tried mightily to talk me out of it, fanning my tresses out over my shoulders, calling over other hairstylists to marvel at how it had never been touched by dyes or chemicals or any of the other noxious goodies women subject their pelts to.

Looking at myself in the mirror, with my reddish hair arrayed about me, I wavered, but proceeded. Still protesting, the young admirer banded it off, whispered again what a shame it was, then started to cut. I, meanwhile, closed my eyes. When I opened them again 10 minutes later, my scalp was freezing, and I was on my way to looking like everybody else in the world.

Sometimes, dear reader, that's what's best: Close your eyes and make a clean break with the past — or, in this case, a clean cut. Worked for me, anyway.


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