One-armed barber working toward state certification

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comFebruary 12, 2013 

Chris Bunn leans in close to his client, his face tense with concentration, the hum of the clippers like the drone of a dragonfly. Slowly and carefully, Bunn guides the sharp blades around the contour of Justin Brooks' ear as he finishes a fade.

And, voila, this one-armed barber has completed another hairstyle.

Bunn, 27, who lost his left arm in a motorcycle wreck, is hoping to become a certified Kentucky barber in March. It's a first for Jennifer Bailey of Bailey's Barber College in Lexington. And it might be a first for the state, which is working to modify the required-skills test to accommodate Bunn's injury. Bailey's dad, Roger, has been in the business for 55 years and has never heard of a one-armed barber.

Bunn's journey to barber school started four years ago.

Burning off steam after an argument with his girlfriend, Bunn had his 650 Ninja Kawasaki Sport up to 109 mph when he tried to pass a line of five cars on a rural road in Breathitt County.

He was on his way to meet his parents at his father's church, Hampton United Methodist.

"I got on the bike, I was just gunning it and I was just taking my aggression out on my crotch rocket because you know, that's what they are designed to do," he said with a bad-boy grin.

They are not, however, designed to overtake a string of vehicles on a curvy rural road.

Bunn knows how fast he was going then because after he passed four cars, he was hit by a truck, and his speedometer locked on 109.

His mother, Karen, had always worried about his need for speed. But he seemed drawn to drama, working as a firefighter and a sheriff's deputy after high school.

It never occurred to her that the body she saw lying in the ditch as she came upon the crash on her way home that day was her son. The motorcycle had been launched out of sight by the impact.

"I actually thought it was someone who had been walking and got hit," she said.

Her husband, John, who'd been following in a car behind her, got out of his car to see if he could help. Stopped in the middle of the street by a neighbor, he turned back to face his wife. "Karen," he said, "It's Chris."

"Lord have mercy," Karen Bunn said. "Those three words just change your life."

Karen, John and Chris' twin sister, Allison Bunn Manning, prayed for 31/2 weeks while Chris was in a coma. He'd rally, seem to get better, then end up in intensive care again.

When he came to, a tough decision had to be made.

"My arm was mangled," he said. "It just kept drawing up and drawing up."

He made the decision to amputate. "I could hardly stand to look at it," he said.

Still, it was sobering when a doctor marked his left arm on a spot below the elbow to show where it would be severed. Chris, who has always had a quirky sense of humor, jokes about it now.

"I had to lose some dead weight, literally," he said.

The amputation turned out to be the biggest challenge, but Karen Bunn said that immediately after the accident, the family faced coping with a serious brain injury.

The force of the accident slammed her son's brain into his skull, she said, requiring him to relearn almost everything necessary for everyday living, including walking.

Fortunately, her daredevil child was wearing a helmet, or he wouldn't have survived. "Thank God," she said.

Chris Bunn completed physical rehab weeks ahead of schedule, walking out of the hospital on his own. But even after several surgeries, one that implanted nerves from his leg into his arm, he could neither bend his elbow nor move his arm from the shoulder down.

It was hard on a young man used to action and speed.

"I didn't know if I was going to have to live on disability for the rest of my life," he said. "I had no idea."

He tried surveying school and welding school and was casting about for something that could be a career. It was a casual conversation with his barber that led him to Lexington and Bailey's Barber College.

Roger Bailey is mostly retired but works a few days a week at Bailey's Barber College, which he purchased in 1967. He was in the small shop on North Limestone the day Chris Bunn came in. It was near Thanksgiving 2011.

Bailey told him, "If you can learn to weld with one arm, you can learn to cut hair," Chris Bunn said.

Bailey called his daughter, Jennifer, who now runs the place.

She said her first thought was, "'Oh. ... Uh, how is that going to work?' I had been teaching for about 25 years, and I had never had a major challenge like that."

"My dad came in here about every day that first month," she said. "He had never faced this issue, and he's been cutting hair 54, 55 years."

Because Bunn had trouble cutting with scissors because he couldn't comb, a Flowbee — of infomercial fame — was rigged to hold the hair in place with suction.

When he struggled to store and clean his instruments, Roger Bailey created a holder anchored to his station that turned two-handed work into a one-handed job. Chris Bunn rose to every challenge, Jennifer Bailey said.

"It was pretty crazy. He adapted to everything," she said.

The only real hurdle, she said, is making sure that Bunn does the work himself when things get hard. Jennifer Bailey admitted that she and Bunn's classmates are sometimes too eager to help. Roger Bailey, she said, has been good about administering tough love.

His one-handed work comes as a surprise to some costumers. Bunn said sometimes people will be halfway through a haircut when they realize he has only one hand.

Justin Brooks, who recently took a seat in Bunn's chair for a fade and a shave, said he didn't have any doubts that his one-armed barber could do the job. Bunn works slower than some, but Brooks was pleased with the results.

"It looks good, man; it looks good," Brooks said.

Bunn is preparing to take the state certification test in March. Jennifer Bailey knows he'll be ready.

"There has never been a doubt," she said. "I think sometimes Chris has had some doubts."

If he does, he doesn't show it. As far as the state certification test, Bunn thinks he's good to go. He even has a job lined up. And he has a baby on the way with his fiancée.

Being a father will make him slow down, he said, and temper the wild ways that led to his accident. He still drives a motorcycle, but it's a three-wheeled one.

Bunn gives the impression that he thinks he could still beat that truck.

Once he masters being a one-armed barber, he's thinking of joining the motorcycle racing circuit.

"A one-armed racer," he said. "That would be something."

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog:

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