By: Jim Bates
I’m a third generation Neon sign repairman. I live in southwestern Minnesota near the town of Wells in a singlewide trailer on land my great grandfather farmed. I live with my son Conner and I’m teaching him the trade. My wife? Don’t bother asking. She’s long gone.
My grandfather loved neon signs and taught himself all about neon gas and how to make a glass tubes and how to repair leaks and how to add more neon to a completely sealed tube if there was tiny leak. He taught my dad all there was to know and my dad taught me. Now, I’m teaching my son
Here’s thing. My family, the Lehtonen’s, have been slowly but surely ostracized from our little farming community over the last thirty years. In a tightly knit community, that’s not a good thing. It got so bad after my grandparents passed away a few years ago that my mom and dad moved off family farm down to Iowa City where he now works for a hardware store. Mom’s a cashier at a grocery. My brother and two sisters also moved down there with them.
So, now it’s just Conner and me. I run the farm as well as I can by renting out most of the three-hundred and twenty acres to a farmer from a couple of townships north who grows soybeans. We’ve got a big garden for vegetables and I keep a few chickens for eggs. We’ve also got a couple of horses named Slick and Danny Boy for Conner and me to ride. That’s about it. The old farmhouse was torn down long ago. Our trailer works for us, though. It’s easy to take care of.
The trouble all started back when I was a kid in junior high school. People started shying away from us when the rumor started that I had neon in my veins. That’s right, neon. Like what Grandpa used to put into those leaky neon sign tubes. I don’t know how it started, but my guess is a bunch of kids saw the blue veins on my arms in gym class and figured they’d make a joke about it. Not too funny from my point of view. Nor my family’s.
Things went downhill from there. Grandpa had Dad working with him at the time. They were the premier neon sign repairmen in the whole of southwestern Minnesota and had more business than they could handle. Sometimes they went to Sioux Falls and were gone for two or three days. Sometime Grandpa went on one job up north near Granite Falls and Dad would head east to Rochester.
When the rumor started, they lost just a little local business, but as the years went by more and more people turned their backs on Grandpa and Dad. People in rural Minnesota weren’t crazy of anything remotely considered different. A family with a kid having neon in his veins? Well, that didn’t fly with the red-blooded salt of the earth folks in our part of the country. During the years I was growing up and beginning to help out, Dad and Grandpa lost a lot of business. Then Grandma died and Grandpa soon after and mom and dad decided to move on.
“You should come with,” Dad told me when he and mom and my siblings started talking about leaving. “Nothing much here anymore.”
Well, there was for me. I liked the land. I liked my little piece of the world, and I loved my young son who was only five at the time. There was enough neon sign work for us to scrape by on.
“Thanks, Dad, but, sorry. I’m going to stay. Me and Conner.”
For a minute I though he and Mom might stay too. But no, the suspicion toward our family was too much for my mom to bear. Especially since we’d done nothing to warrant it.
“Okay, then,” he told me that last day. “Do what you think is best.”
“I will,” I told him. “I am.”
Conner and I waved them good-bye and stood side by side watching the pickup head down the dusty driveway to the county road that would eventually take them to Iowa. I thought of that scene in the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath with the overloaded truck and the worn-out family hitting the road to a better life, and I vowed right then and there to make the best of things.
I have, too. In the years since my folks left, I’ve slowly but surely begun to bring back some business. Conner turned eleven last month. He’s getting bigger and stronger and is a good worker, too. Just yesterday he and I repaired the movie marque sign over in Willow Creek. We’re the only ones in three states that can do that kind of work. In fact, we’ve got more work this month that last so I’m hopeful.
Plus, my son and I love what we do, and there is no discounting the joy of working at a job you love and doing the work right and, in the case of neon signs, making an old sign come alive again with blue, red or green gas. It’s like an eye full of poetry as far as I’m concerned. Conner and I are making a go of it and that’s all that matters.
Oh, and that thing about neon in our veins? It’s funny. Connor has big blue veins just like mine. Sometimes at night when the conditions are right, we walk out in the field behind the barn and stand in the moonlight and look at the stars. We look at our arms, too. It’s like magic. Our veins stand out and glow a soft pulsating blue, just like neon. I have no idea how it works or why, but for us, it’s very special. It makes us different, something only he and I share. You know what? That’s just fine with us.