by James Bates
Dad stopped working on the combine, took off his cap, wiped his forehead and looked to the north. Grandpa and I stopped working, too, sweat dripping into our eyes, thankful for a break. It was blistering hot for early September, over ninety degrees, and out in the middle of our soybean field there wasn't a bit of shade. We all watched the old pickup spewing a plume of dust as it raced down the county road.
Dad put his cap back on and turned to Grandpa and me with a perplexed look, "That's Lilly. What can possibly be so all fired up important?"
Grandpa and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, neither of us having a clue, but, we did know one thing, if my mom was in a hurry, there must be a good reason.
She turned off the road and raced across edge of the field, the truck going air borne over deep ruts made by farm equipment, then pulled up to us fast, slamming on the brakes and sliding to a stop, dust billowing all around . Mom didn't even bother to get out, just yelled through the open window, "Dad, you've got to get to town quick. Jerry Jorgensen called. They've got an emergency with that big hotel sign of his."
My humble but talented grandfather was the most sought after neon sign repairman in Redwood County. "What's the matter?"
"He didn't say, but there's some fancy pants guy, the governor, I think, and a bunch of his cronies coming to stay. He needs you right now."
Back in the fifties, the Prairie City Hotel, nestled on a picturesque bend of the Little Sioux River, was the premier place to stay in southwestern Minnesota. It was about twenty miles from our farm.
Grandpa looked at my father who shook his head and said, "I can't go with you. Take Jack Junior, instead. I need to get this combine un-jammed."
Grandpa scratched at the prominent blue vein on his neck, a move that caused me to subconsciously reach for the small vein just forming on my own neck. He nodded toward me and looked at mom, "What do you think Lillian?"
My heart leapt to my throat. Grandpa had lived with us for a number of years and had his workshop in an outbuilding back behind the barn. From an early age I had tagged along after him, showing an interest in the work he did with neon signs. He liked my company, I guess, and had already taught me about electricity and shown me how to bend glass to make tubes and how to add neon and lots of other cool stuff that you needed to know for neon sign repair. But I was only eight years old. Usually Dad helped if grandpa need it, but not today. We were in the middle of the soybean harvest and he was too busy getting that troublesome combine up and running.
I watched Mom. It was up to her to make the final decision. She and Grandpa held each other's gaze for a moment while I held my breath. I'd give anything to go along. Finally, she gave him a quick smile and then looked at me. I could see something in her eyes. I was pretty young and the real question was, was I ready? Mom hesitated only a moment before silently nodding, as if to herself, and then said, "Yes, J.J., you can go with Grandpa, but for Pete's sakes, be careful." Inside I silently cheered.
It took us thirty minutes to get to the hotel located on the corner of Main Street and Riverview Avenue. It was imposing three story red brick structure with gleaming white trim that had a wide, twenty step entryway adorned with a beautiful black wrought iron railing. A small crowd had gathered. When we arrived Jerry was waiting for us on the steps, literally wringing his hands. He ran up while the truck was still rolling and said, "Thank god you're here, Bill. The governor is coming soon. The sign's out. Oh, man, this isn't good."
Grandpa got out of the old pickup, put his hand on the distraught man's shoulder and calmly said, "Don't worry, Jerry, my grandson and I'll take care of it." He turned to me, "J.J., let's get going."
We dragged our ladders out of the back of the truck, set them against the side of building and climbed up. Grandpa quickly deduced the problem; a transformer had blown, and he proceeded to fix it while I handed him the tools. We had the repair completed and the sign back in excellent working order in about half an hour; plenty of time before the governor and his entourage showed up.
Later, after the sun had set, Grandpa loaded me in the pickup and we drove back to town. When we got to Main Street, he parked a little ways down from the hotel and we watched the hectic scene on the street. Nearly a hundred townsfolk had gathered and there were three or four different news crews milling around, everyone eager to get a glimpse of the governor. I don't think Grandpa saw any of it. He only had eyes for the hotel's neon sign, Prairie City Motel, illuminated with glowing colors of red and green and blue.
After staring in reverent silence for a moment, he pulled me close and pointed past the front windshield, "See, J.J., look at how pretty the sign looks. The reds and greens are so vibrant, and that blue is my favorite color."
"It reminds me of a castle in Wonderland," I said, thinking about my favorite television show.
"I couldn't agree more," Grandpa grinned. "It's magical." He paused touching the blue vein in his neck and then added, "I'll let you in a little secret. Neon makes me feel alive inside."
Grandpa was as much a poet as he was a skilled craftsman.
I'll never forget that day. For the next twenty-five years I helped grandpa, traveling to the rural towns of southwest Minnesota, repairing neon signs. I loved the work. After he passed away, I stayed with it. This year, I've started bringing my nine year old grandson Johnny along and he loves it as much as I do. There's lots of work for us. They don't make neon signs anymore, everything is LED. That's okay. Nostalgia for the old days is in fashion right now, and there are a lot of old signs out there. We're busy all the time.
We were driving home from a job the other day when Johnny turned to me and asked, "Granddad, do you think we have neon in our veins? You know, like blood?"
I laughed, thinking he was joking, but one look told me he wasn't. He was deadly serious.
I thought for a moment, thinking back over the years to all the signs my grandpa and I, and now Johnny, had repaired. I took my time before finally answering, "You know what? Honestly? You might have a point. I think maybe we do."
He sat back in the seat of my old pickup and looked out the window. It was a warm, sunny afternoon in late fall and fields of golden corn were waiting to be harvested. For the first time I saw a blue vein pulsing in my grandson's neck just like the one in mine. Like my grandpa's. He smiled and nodded his head, as if to himself, and said, "Yeah, I thought so."
About the author
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Mused - The BellaOnline Literary Review, Ariel Chart and Potato Soup Journal. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.