-- from "The Three Little Pigs"
Time was that an oath made on a man's beard was as binding as blood. The beard, or its lack, denoted a man's position in society and his standing in the eye of God. According to Allan Peterkin's One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair, an insult to one's whiskers, such as that perpetrated by the Ammonite King Hanum on the Hebrew ambassadors of King David, could incite nations to war. Among the ever fashionable, ever fastidious nobility of Egypt, not even the faintest wisp of body hair was tolerated, yet their beards were legendary; Egyptian kings and queens alike adorned themselves with ceremonial chin pieces dusted with gold, braided in plaits, and perfumed with oils. The Assyrians wore their beards layered in flowing curls, while the Persians preferred short, pointy beards, which they dyed red and threaded with gold, a style some defended to the death when the Tartars insisted upon a sudden change. The Greeks swore by their beards and held contests for coiffing. The Romans, while insisting their style was not as fussy or effeminate as the Greeks', introduced barbershops, where men gathered en masse to discuss gladiator scores and facial hair fashion tips. When Julius Caesar conquered the barbarians (a word meaning "bearded ones"), his first act of subjugation was a widespread shearing. In Europe, beards, mustaches, and sideburns went in and out of fashion with the fickle tide of politics, a dizzying reality that might have prompted the trend of 1350s Spain, in which owning fake beards of various colors became all the rage. It wasn't until the 20th century that the style and cut of facial hair ceased to be a mere act of fealty to church, lineage, or liege, and became something altogether different.
"My parents hate beards," jokes Jürgen Draheim, a full-time teacher who sports an expertly manicured, walnut-hued beard and mustache, along with collar-length hair, a feathered hat, a sword, and a blue velvet tunic with a white satin crest. If there was any doubt as to whether he styled his hair to match his outfit or chose this outfit to complement his beard, he carries a small stuffed bear with the same configuration of facial hair, a mode known to barbers as the "Musketeer."
"We all have the bears," says Draheim in a thick German accent. "I made them."
Karl-Heinz Hille, a stately gentleman in a powder-gray flannel suit with a gray top hat and satin ascot, smiles and waggles his own bear to underscore his dear friend's point. Like Hille, the bear is adorned with a white mustache that fades into long whiskers growing out of the cheeks and styled upward toward the ears, like the haughty, imposing wings of a swan; the stuffed animal's chin is bare. The "Imperial," as such a beard is known, is indeed so.
"[Hille] says women will ask how he can sleep with such a beard," translates Draheim, who is also vice president of the First Berlin Beard Club of Germany. "He says, 'Any way they want him to.'"
Hille grins. Draheim grins. All around me, German men with unrealistic facial hair and complementary outfits waggle their little bears and grin. I stop for a moment and look for a rabbit hole, but find only more beards and a ring of snow-capped mountains. I have not crashed through the looking glass but arrived in Carson City, Nev., just in time to watch competitors in the World Beard and Moustache Championships march in the Nevada Day Parade. As if to punctuate the point, two military jets rip through the icy blue firmament overhead; the beards and mustaches, some of them more than 3 feet from tip to tip, turn skyward and track the planes' progress like a surrealist sculpture garden reaching for twin suns.
When I first read about the WBMC, one name sprang to mind: $teven Ra$pa. Ra$pa is a grand character belonging to a short list of grand San Francisco characters that includes the likes of Emperor Norton, Big Alma, and the Red Man, people whose carriage and lifestyle became pure expressions of their internal world. Ra$pa's world seems equal parts Dr. Seuss, Salvador Dali, Henry Darger, and Mervyn Peake. Ridiculous in intention but elegant in execution, he adorns himself in capes, platform boots, bunny ears, top hats, fishnets, stilts, tuxedos, potted plants, feathery frocks, fish, and classroom globes with equal aplomb, and manages to make a regal entrance, even when it's only a conversation or someone's field of vision that he's entering. And yet there is an easy warmth and generosity of spirit about him that makes even the most pedantic brute feel right at home. Hugs and homemade cookies are bestowed upon new acquaintances and old friends alike, and words such as "wonderful," "splendid," and "miraculous" double their syllable count as they fall from his lips and stretch across the world like rose-colored gossamer. Still, it's the beard that most people remember. Two waist-length tendrils wrapped in wire coil and around one another like embracing serpents, ending in an adornment of his choosing (sometimes smiley faces, sometimes rubber turds, but most often daisies). The tendrils, one thick, the other willowy, are called Prepostero and Imaginaria, respectively, and are generally regarded by Ra$pa as their own entities. The entire beard he describes as a candy-coated treat, "soft and hairy on the inside, hard and wiry on the outside, and only recommended for those with an iron deficiency."
Of course, this was the beard that had to represent San Francisco.
I e-mailed him immediately. Unbeknownst to me, dozens of friends and admirers from all over the country had done the same. Sadly, Ra$pa had already committed as producer and presenter of the Headlands Center for the Arts annual fund-raising ball, a large event, months in the planning. But the seeds had been plaited; the campaign to get $teven Ra$pa to Carson City was under way.