Checking the Signs


            A story that stays in my subconscious, that I tell over and over, is like a pillar in my soul. It reminds me of the great blessing of a stable childhood, including the loving presence of a father.

A few years ago I asked my two brothers, “Didn’t you love it when Dad took you to check the signs?”

“When he what?” they asked.

I had assumed that Dad took turns taking us, but this routine was evidently something he just did with me. Perhaps we only went a few times, but those few spoke love to me so powerfully that looking back it seems like we went every night. My favorite story with my father is checking the signs….

By the time I was six, my dad had taught me to whistle and sing the only two songs I ever heard from him: “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” old World War II songs.

Dad owned a neon sign company and he included me in a nightly ritual he called “checking the signs.” After dinner we circled town in his big Buick hunting burned-out bulbs on signs that his crew would repair the next day.

We whistled, we sang, and we honked our way through a tunnel. “I’ll check on this side of the street, and you check over there,” I directed. But invariably he peeked.

For a nightcap we swung on soda fountain stools at the local drugstore and drank nickel Cokes from squatty glasses: his was chocolate; mine was cherry.

Fathers too often waste time and money seeking the spectacular to share with a child. My dad had singled me out to share a simple outing that found him in his element. What was a pleasure for him has become a cherished memory for me, of love amidst everyday life. I have few memories with my father, who was generally to my recollection worried and quiet. But this one is enough. It fills me up.

Now, thanks to some old family photos that have cycled to me, I can give my son Tim a link to my father, his grandfather, who died before Tim was born. As it happens, in a city far from Topeka where my father owned Neon Tube Light Company, Tim works as a sign fabricator.

 In this photo, taken in about 1933, my father, age 22, is pictured fourth from the left. And his father is on the far left. They are delivering their first big sign job to the Tioga Hotel.

These are verifiable facts. Now we veer to backstory that according to my brother, who took over management of the business after my father died, was often told at office Christmas parties after the employees had “had a few.”

It involves how my father became a business owner during the Great Depression at age 20: The sign company was a cover for a bootlegging business that operated “out the back.” One of the two owners was shot dead in the doorway of the business. The other owner came to my father, their only legitimate employee, and begged him to buy the sign business. My father came up with $600, plus another $600 from his father, which is the reason he is in the photograph, no doubt.     

“We carry our ancestors in ways we don’t know or understand,” said James Walsh, a University of Colorado history professor. But without photos or stories–or the stories behind the photos–these connections are lost to us.

For Christmas I had this photo framed and gave it to Tim for his office. But not that I think about it, I should have framed a copy for myself as well, because I hold memories of a father who checked the signs me, and of my son who is living his own (related!) stories.