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Santa Rosa stylist honors her father by giving veterans free haircuts

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They arrive on Tuesday mornings at the Veterans Building in Santa Rosa, a proud tribe gathering to help their own.

Vet Connect is a one-stop, assistance program for Sonoma County’s 35,000 veterans.

The coffee station at this weekly, 9 a.m.-to-noon popular spot, especially on mornings there are doughnuts. Traffic is brisk at the desk set up by the folks from Disabled American Veterans, who help vets navigate bureaucratic mazes to claim their benefits. Also available to the veterans: legal services, cellphones, sack lunches, sailing lessons and much more.

But the busiest volunteer at Vet Connect is a 72-year-old woman with a direct manner and traces of New York accent. Linda Ralph can be found, with the tools of her hairstylist’s trade, at a table in the northeast corner of the hall, giving veterans free haircuts.

She showed up a few years ago with her brother-in-law, a retired Navy vet who wanted to do his part. After a year or so, he stopped coming. “But I stayed,” said Ralph. “And I’ve been here ever since.”

The daughter of a hairdresser, Ralph grew up just outside Nyack, New York. As an 8-year-old, she once held down her cousin to cut the girl’s hair. By the time she was 18 she was a full-time hairstylist. “I always liked it, I was always happy doing it, and I never got tired of it.”

She is the daughter of Bob Ralph, who lied about his age to enlist in the Marines as a 16-year-old during World War I. As a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II, he suffered injuries – to one eye and one ear -- while working in the boiler room of a ship that was sunk.

Bob Ralph lived to be 95, and was buried in a veterans cemetery in New York state. An honor guard from the nearby West Point Military Academy, scheduled to conduct the interment, was forced to cancel. In its stead, a group of U.S. Marines arrived.

“I said then and I still believe: ‘My father had something to do with this,’” she recalls with a smile.

“My Dad’s probably the reason I’m here,” she added. “I mean, who deserves help more than the veterans? Where would we be without them? Probably speaking a foreign language.”

This line gets a grin from 89-year-old Harold Goldman, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and whose white locks were halfway down to his shoulders when he took a seat in her chair.

“We should get a before and after picture for this one,” Ralph had remarked to the other vets waiting in line. And then, to Goldman: “I say that to all the good-looking ones.”

“I know your type,” he rejoined, a twinkle in his eye.

These guys – and they are mostly guys – aren’t waiting in line for up to two hours just for a haircut. Many of the vets are elderly, some of them lonely. They clearly savor the company and community – at Vet Connect in general and around Ralph’s table in particular.

At times, the conversation turned serious. While trimming the hair and beard of Vietnam vet Brandon Stewart, the subject of homecoming arose. Where servicemen returning from World War II “couldn’t buy a drink in a bar,” Stewart said, Vietnam vets were encouraged to change out of their uniforms and into civilian clothes before leaving their base.

Nodding in sympathy while clipping the halo of hair around Stewart’s bald pate, Ralph recalled that, steadfast a patriot as her father was, “he always believed we shouldn’t have been in that war.”

“People blamed us for being there, rather than blaming the politicians that sent us there,” replied Stewart, who spent 11 months in Vietnam with the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.

His mood brightened upon seeing his reflection in the mirror: “I’m not shaggy anymore!”

Next up was yet another 89-year-old, Al Cox. Ralph made a big fuss over his full head of wavy, white hair.

“After I comb my hair in the morning,” he said, “I have a lot of hairs in the comb.”

“They say you lose 100 hairs a day,” said Ralph, reassuring him. “That’s normal.”

Superb a stylist as Ralph is, she is a better listener, exuding empathy as Cox proceeded to catalog his infirmities.

“I don’t sleep well at all,” he shared. “Squirm all night.”

“Well,” she said, scrambling for a silver lining, “they claim we don’t need as much sleep as we get older.”

Cox wasn’t having it. “Sleep is what I want the most,” he said, glumly.

“Can you get a nap during the day?”

“I can’t nap,” he replied, surprising his daughter, Kristen Kern, who’d driven him to the appointment and who assured bystanders, out of his earshot, “He’s always falling asleep.”

Cox has lately been plagued with anemia, and hasn’t been the same, he confided, since falling off a ladder while changing a light bulb a few months earlier.

“Fell right on top of my head,” he reported. “Concussion and a broken rib. That was a bad one.”

“It sure wasn’t a good one,” agreed Ralph, who finished cutting Cox’s hair before he finished listing his ailments.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” she said, after removing apron, then whisking hair from his neck.

She truly meant it.

Her own father, she reminisced, was still painting houses at the age of 80 when he fell off a ladder. But he didn’t break any bones. “He fell into a bush,” said Linda Ralph, who was thinking of her Dad as she packed her kit, one of the last to leave Vet Connect.

“My father was a true patriot,” she said. “I think he’d be happy to know I’m doing this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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