“The Custer”

"Son of the Morning Star," by Evan S. Connell

Happy Presidents Day! I’ve developed a Presidents Day tradition over the last several years. I start to grow out my beard on or around Christmas Day. And then I start to take it away on Presidents Day. I aim towards ending up clean-shaven on my birthday, February 26th. But in that last week or two before it’s all gone, I try to get creative. I started with limiting myself to Presidential facial hair (think, “The Lincoln” or “The Teddy Roosevelt”). But I’ve done all of the mustachioed and bearded Presidents multiple times, at this point. So I’ve started experimenting a little more broadly in recent years.

Last year, for example, I did “The Monkey-tail.” And I could see myself trying different kinds of vertical or horizontal striping at some point. But for this year, I thought I would try “The Custer,” since I’ve recently been reading a book about George Armstrong Custer.

Custer is a complicated figure from American history. Some (mostly from earlier generations) have been inclined to cast him as the hero in the story of the United States of America’s westward expansion. Others (from indigenous peoples and, more recently the broader American population) think of him as a villain. And for whatever it’s worth, I’m personally inclined to think of him as a vainglorious, brash, and bumbling relic from a certain era of American history: not a particularly sympathetic character. But it’s been fascinating to learn more of his story. And despite all his character flaws, his facial hair is an iconic look from the “Wild West” era that seemed worth a try.

Here are a few fun facts that I’ve recently learned about George Armstrong Custer:

  • Custer liked to add a lot of flair and flamboyance to his military uniform. Skin-tight leggings with long leather boots… Wide-brimmed hats with long plumes… Long, golden locks of hair spilling out from under his hat… And, of course, that long mustache with the little “soul patch” underneath his lower lip.
  • Custer regularly employed the services of a fifteen-piece military band, trotting them into battle on fifteen white horses. Even in his campaigns against the Sioux out West! He chose a march titled “Garryowen” as something of a personal theme song for his battlefield soundtrack.
  • Custer was uncommonly good with animals: horses and dogs, especially, but there’s even a crazy story about a pronghorn antelope who became something of a personal companion in the Dakotas. He was also a skilled communicator in the indigenous sign language that allowed different tribes to interact with each other.
  • Custer’s distinguishing leadership characteristic seems to have been his aggressive actions in battle. It earned him admiration, advancement, and glory in the Civil War. But it’s also what ultimately killed him (and many others) in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Honestly, George Armstrong Custer was kind of silly, both in life and in death. I recognize that my rendition of “The Custer” is also kind of silly. But it’s something to keep the dreary winter months a little bit more interesting for me. And the look will only be around for six days.

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