Melting Diamonds and the Great Blue Bus in the Sky

(Going through some old files tonight and I found this -it’s one of the first things I wrote upon joining the Kenosha Writer’s Guild a few years ago, and one of the few things I wrote back then I can still read now without invoking the gag reflex …)

There used to be an old blue school bus that ran from the parking lot of the A&P grocery store in Ladysmith to the Norco Window factory in Hawkins every day.  I’d walk the four blocks from my apartment on the third floor of the Gerard Hotel to the bus, and for a while, I’d be joined by Jack Anderson, a big burly man of about 6o years old with a scraggly white beard, who worked in the same department at Norco that I worked in.  Jack worked alongside the slightly older and famously cantankerous Conrad Stonkey, one of the great characters I’ve had the pleasure of having known.  Conrad was at the time in his early 60s, a rather short man of medium build, whose thinning hair had turned pure white with age. Every day Conrad wore the same olive green work uniform, work pants and shirts, and had an olive green colored cap that covered the thinning white hair on top of his head.  He also sported a little pure white goatee, that for special occasions he would dye an appropriate color.  To celebrate his Irish ancestry, every year on St. Patrick’s Day he’d show up with this white goatee colored green. On the fourth of July, streaks of red and blue would be added to the natural white for a stirring patriotic salute.  He was ornery and complained about everything, but he also had a sense of humor, and when he laughed, he would clench both of his fists and hold them at his thighs, stand on his tippy toes, and emit a high-pitched “tee-hee-hee” sound.  It never failed, you’d get a laugh out of him and his automatic, reflexive action would be to clench his fists, stand on his tippy toes, and make “tee-hee-hee” sounds.

Conrad and Jack would take panes of glass and stack them on top of the aluminum frames I and my work partner, the 45 year old confirmed bachelor Lew Reed, were responsible for.  Lew would fill the individual aluminum spacers with silicate, I would snap them together into wobbly rectangles and store them in groups of about 30 of the same dimensions in the hot room, where Conrad and Jack would take them and stack them on the tables we had covered and taped with construction paper earlier that morning, inserting the freshly cut and clean pieces of glass that they’d take off of rollers that were fed from outside the room by another member of our crew, Roger Arndt.  Finally the stacks of glass and aluminum spacers that were so carefully prepared by Conrad and Jack would be wheeled to the middle of the room, where their sides would be covered by a fresh coat of “goop”, which was some form of thick adhesive material that the worker, for a period of time my friend Jeff Severson, would whip up from the strange goop-making machine that stood in the center of our small room and apply to the stacks of windows with a cardboard grovel.  When finished, Jeff would wheel the table with the gooped up stacks of glass outside of our temperature controlled room to the larger factory that sat outside, where the goop would dry and someone would later come by with a utility knife and cut through the goop, revealing the separate insulated aluminum spacer bound panes of glass that would be incorporated into wooden sashes to complete the transformation of raw material to window.

We worked in this small room, me and Lew, Conrad and Jack, and Jeff, with Roger popping in between loads to see what size of glass panes to pick up for washing and feeding through to Conrad and Jack next, together for 8 or 9 hours a day,  and during peak times, an additional 5 hours on Saturdays.   So we got to know each other pretty well.  I, being the youngest and by far the most immature of the group, settled easily into the role of clown.   I quickly mastered my job of snapping together the aluminum frames so that I could stay comfortably ahead of my work, leaving my mind free to explore ideas to convince the others, especially grumpy, cantankerous old Conrad, that I was one sandwich short of a picnic.  Amongst my favorite routines were:  1)  getting “angry” at the stored boxes of metal spacers and going a few rounds with them, showing off my boxing skills, quickly throwing left jabs and lethal combinations and punching them until my knuckles literally bled, 2) standing on top of the papered  tables, flapping my arms, and cawing like a crow at the top of my lungs, and 3) with Jeff and a visitor from an outside department starting out with the bass vocals of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” ,  jumping up on top of one of the wheeled tables and singing the high pitched falsetto lead as loudly as I could, all the while using the wheeled table as my surf board,  pretending to ride a big wave.  I’d get puzzled smiles and head shakes from Lew Reed, and when I’d get the involuntary tippy-toed, clenched fisted “tee-hees” from that old mule Conrad Stonkey, I knew I’d accomplished something.  Exactly what, nobody knew, but it was undeniably something.

I’d spent enough time with these guys that I had gotten comfortable – maybe, too comfortable – with them, and wasn’t afraid of showing off for them.  I was living alone, very much alone, at the time, and work provided on many days the only real contact I had with other human beings.

After the misery that was high school, I had no desire to attend college and subject myself to more of the same.  I was eager to experience a life without school, and make money, and buy things.  After graduating high school, I got a job where everyone who couldn’t get a job anywhere else got a job, the C & D Duck Processing plant in Franksville, Wisconsin, where I worked my way up to the illustrious position of lung sucker, and with my handsome $4.33 per hour salary was able to buy my first car, a 1974 A.M.C. Hornet, a green hatchback with yellow racing stripes down the side.  I was also able to make enough money to purchase a stereo system, and get a pretty impressive start to a record album collection.

But it didn’t take long for the job of sucking the lungs out of ducks (to be clear, we sucked them into these big vacuum guns, not our own lungs) to lose its luster, and in mid 1977, a year after starting work at C&D, I grew restless.  I was still living at home, still lonely, still not meeting any girls.  I decided it was time for the next chapter in my life – I decided it was time to go out on my own.  The only choice there was for such an adventure was for me to return to my ancestral homeland of northern Wisconsin.  So it was that I moved into the Gerard Hotel in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, high on the banks of the Flambeau River.

I had lived there, on my own, and worked at Norco, for about a year by the time Jack Anderson came to join our little department, and we hit it off right away.  Whereas Conrad was an ornery old fart who found reason to complain in just about everything, Jack had a much more philosophical view of life.  He was well read and had a fast mind, and he had his own way of viewing things.  He had raised two sons who were older than me and, in 1978, had a young daughter about four or five years old.  At the end of the work day, his wife, who was a bit younger than Jack, probably late 40s, would walk with his young daughter to meet the blue bus that we returned to Ladysmith on, and together the three of them would walk home.  I remember that it never failed, every day, the eyes of both his wife and young daughter would light up when Jack got off that bus, and they’d walk home together, the three of them, Jack walking that distinctive, lumbering walk of his, a picture of domestic bliss that never failed to put a smile on my face.

Jack kind of took me under his wing.  I may have been wearing my plight as a lonely young bachelor on my sleeve a little bit more than I’d like to admit, because I think Jack saw through the façade my clowning around all day tried to project and saw the loneliness underneath.  He’d always take the time to have serious discussions with me, and we’d discuss current events and old movies and philosophy, as I had picked up every now and then some of my brother Mike’s college books and liked to pass myself off as knowing something about the subject.  It turned out Jack had read many of the same books, and was able, in his simple terms, to make me understand for example what Kant’s categorical imperative was all about, on a morning when the blue bus chugged down highway 8 to the Norco plant.

Jack also took enough pity on me to help me out on occasion.  One morning, he handed me two army fatigue jackets that used to belong to his sons plus an old black and white checkered winter coat, saying he had no further use for any of them and would like to see them come to some good.  They were great; I wore them until they fell apart.  I still have one of the army fatigue jackets to this day.  I did find in one of the pockets a letter from Jack’s oldest son to his second son, saying how he was coming home on leave from the army soon, and how he was looking forward to seeing his little brother, and how he knew a guy in Eau Claire they could get some good weed from.  I never showed this letter to Jack.

My favorite memory of Jack Anderson took place on a very dark morning in late November. We had to be on the blue bus by 6:00 A.M.  About an hour earlier it had started to snow, one of the first snowfalls of the season.  It was cold out, no wind to speak of.  It started with a few big snowflakes slowly and silently drifting from the sky, and then it started snowing heavier, still big flakes, silently dropping out of the low ceiling of night and into the halo of the Miner Avenue streetlights like an invasion of miniature white paratroopers.  The ground was just cold enough that the snowflakes started to stick, and they’d lie there on the sidewalks, glittering in the glow of the streetlights.

I had gotten to the bus first that morning, and when Jack joined me a few minutes later, his eyes were wide with excitement.

“Did you see that?” he asked.

“What, the snow?” I replied.

“Did you ever see such a beautiful sight?”

“Yeah, those were big and pretty flakes, weren’t they?”

“They were diamonds, is what they were.  They were diamonds, thousands of them, at my feet, shining.  And they were mine.”

I thought, that’s exactly what they looked like, illuminated in the glow of the street lights.  They glittered and sparkled just like diamonds.

“I was a wealthy man, there, for a while,” he said.  “I was a wealthy man.”

I don’t remember much else about the ride to work that morning, but I remember, a couple of times throughout the day, he’d remind me, “I was a wealthy man, there, this morning, with all of those diamonds shining at my feet.”

Jack was right.  He was a wealthy man that morning.  I understood even then how rare a diamond Jack Anderson himself was.  To see and appreciate the beauty that was there at that moment, on display just for him, as he lumbered his way up Miner Avenue, his lunch box in his hand and his head at his feet, counting the diamonds that were his and his alone.  Conrad Stonkey was roughly the same age, and I can guarantee he wouldn’t have seen the diamonds.  Nor would Jeff Severson or other kids my age.  The question was, and remains, would I see them?

With Jack having shared his poetic vision of the miracle that was present in that moment with me, I liked to think that I would see them, and I’ve at least tried to look for the diamonds at my feet throughout the years, but no doubt I’ve missed most of the miracles that are constantly occurring every day.   I know I have all too frequently worn the blinders of preoccupation as I made my way through the journey of each day, preoccupied with family issues, work issues, or lately, disease and fear.  But through the years, I have revisited that early snowy morning hundreds of times, and heard Jack describe what a wealthy man he was, and each time I think how lucky I was to have been there and been the one he shared his wealth with.

I have no idea whatever became of Jack Anderson.  I have not seen or talked to him since I left Norco on Halloween, 1979, more than thirty years ago.  If he is still alive, he would now be in his 90s.  I’m sure that he has long since forgotten about the goofy 19 year old who he shared a bus seat with for a few months.  I’m sure he has long forgotten about the army fatigue jackets and winter coat and wisdom he shared with me.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ll never forget him and his lumbering walk, and if he has gone on to the great blue bus in the sky, I like to imagine that every year, when the first snowfall hits the early morning street lights of Miner Avenue in Ladysmith, his ghost can be seen lumbering along with his lunch box in his hand, counting the diamonds as they accumulate around his feet.

5 thoughts on “Melting Diamonds and the Great Blue Bus in the Sky

  1. There’s some good stuff in this piece Dave. I especially like these three parts…

    “…his wife, who was a bit younger than Jack, probably late 40s, would walk with his young daughter to meet the blue bus that we returned to Ladysmith on, and together the three of them would walk home. I remember that it never failed, every day, the eyes of both his wife and young daughter would light up when Jack got off that bus, and they’d walk home together.”

    “They were diamonds, is what they were. They were diamonds, thousands of them, at my feet, shining. And they were mine.”

    “…blinders of preoccupation as I made my way through the journey of each day, preoccupied with family issues, work issues, or lately, disease and fear.”

  2. Dave,
    Conrad is my Grandpa. Your description of him is spot on. He is still alive and still colors his goatee green for St Patrick’s Day. He will be 94 this June and still resides in his own home in the Glen Flora/Ingram area. The clenched fists, tip-toed, squealing……makes me laugh just thinking about it. Over the years I have impersonated that exact thing when telling stories about my Grandpa. He is definitely a unique character and I grew to appreciate him more after my Grandmother’s passing in 1996. I really enjoyed reading your story.

    • Hi, Lesley – thanks for your note – I only worked with your grandpa for a couple of years, so I’d be surprised if he remembers me – but I’ll never forget him – he was a true character, and a great guy

  3. It was interesting to read your story especially your funny comments about my father, Conrad Stonkey. FYI Conrad passed away Feb. 21, 2017, he was 97.
    He lived a long good life. And peacefully went to his final resting place. Thanks again for your story.

    • Anna, so sorry to hear about this. Your father was one of the great characters I’ve ever had the privilege to spend time with, and even though it-s been almost 40 years since I last saw him, in my memory he remains as clear as if it was yesterday. I know I will never forget him.

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