HUDSON — Three weeks before leaving for U.S. Navy boot camp, 18-year-old Kayla Tooker threw the old Kayla's last bash.
Two days later, the new Kayla emerged.
It wasn't her decision to enlist in the Navy that made the difference. Kayla had known for a year that she would join the reserve.
The difference was what she had to give up to meet Navy standards: More than 12 inches of fine, dirty blond hair.
• • •
Kayla, who graduated from Hudson High School in early June, asked "everybody who is anybody" at Hudson to spend last weekend with her in Clearwater. Kayla wore her hair straight down her back, almost brushing her waist, with a pale pink hibiscus pinned above her right ear. The girls smiled for the camera at the beach.
Like most of her friends, Kayla would be going away in just a few weeks.
But the others would be flying to other states for college. One is going to West Virginia, another to Michigan.
The only girl to enlist in the Navy from Hudson this year, Kayla is scheduled to report for boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois on Aug. 11.
It is something she has looked forward to for a year, ever since she watched her older sister Shannon, 21, graduate from Coast Guard training.
Military service runs in the family: Kayla and Shannon were both born while their mother, Bonnie Tooker, was serving in the Army. And their uncle served in the Navy.
Shannon was forced to dump her suitcase full of clothes and makeup — carefully packed by Bonnie — when she arrived at boot camp. So Kayla knew what she would be giving up at boot camp. No more jaunts to the beach. No more private showers. No more makeup, and no more hair curler or blow dryer.
But the Coast Guard, unlike the Navy, allows female recruits to keep their hair in a bun. The Army allows buns, too, though Bonnie Tooker cut her hair off for practical reasons in 1975.
So Kayla didn't count on having to sacrifice her hair.
• • •
As everyone in the Tooker family knows, Kayla's hair hasn't been shorter than shoulder-length since second grade.
Long, flaxen ringlets and bangs frame her baby face in one early photo. Her hair reached her armpits when she was a freshman in high school, and it took her four years to grow it out to touch her stomach. At her graduation from Hudson, she curled it so that long ropes of hair hung down her red robe.
Another Navy recruit who had recently had her head shorn broke the news to Kayla this summer: If she didn't cut it herself, boot camp barbers would clip it so that not one strand of hair touched her collar. Most likely, she would receive a standard bowl cut.
"We don't require them to cut their hair beforehand," said Richard Dodd, the boot camp's command master chief, explaining that the Navy enforces the grooming standard for hygiene and safety reasons. "They probably told (Kayla) what the haircut would look like after our barbers cut it."
Besides, Dodd added, there is no time at boot camp for styling hair.
So Kayla enlisted Maxine Campbell, her uncle's ex-wife. Campbell has cut Kayla's hair throughout high school and styled it for homecoming and prom.
She and her hair had their last hurrah together in Clearwater.
• • •
On Monday evening, Campbell took a pink elastic band, stretched it between her fingers and began twisting it around Kayla's ponytail.
"You're willing to give this up, right?"
"My hair?" Kayla's voice was unsteady.
"Your ponytail holder."
"Oh — yeah."
She squeezed her eyes shut, her nose wrinkling. Her lips wobbled in excitement and panic.
"I can hear her chopping it!"
With one slow snip of the shears, Kayla's ponytail parted company with her head.
Campbell handed Kayla the 12-inch ponytail, still bound by its pink elastic. Because hair can grow moldy, Campbell said she would have to let it dry before mailing it to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that uses human hair to create wigs for people under 21 who have medical reasons for hair loss.
But Kayla was barely paying attention. She couldn't stop touching the long blond strands she had been growing for more than 11 years.
"Oh my God!" she said, holding the ponytail up, stroking it. A few golden hairs drifted to the tile floor. "Mom! Mom, look!"
She got up, ran to the mirror, shook her chin-length bob.
"You look very stylish," Bonnie Tooker said.
"Oh my God!" Shannon chimed in. "Are you sad, Kayla?"
"Me too. But you look cute."
"I look like a little girl."
"Yeah, you do," Shannon said, laughing a little. "You are, you are."