From July of 1977 to November of 1979, I worked at the Norco Windows factory in the tiny town of Hawkins, Wisconsin. It was a big operation at the time. There had to be at least 400 people who worked there, more than the entire population of 338 who called the town of Hawkins home.
I was eighteen years old when I started and twenty one when I left. For most of the time I worked there, my job was to snap together the insulated aluminum spacers into rectangular frames that were the starting point in the process of the creation of double insulated windows.
The frames I snapped together were insulated with silicate by Lew, my work partner, who had two square, three gallon jugs that he’d fill with silicate and then place into a metallic frame someone had designed. They were positioned in the frame cocked at an angle, with the bottom seam of the jug held together with a strip of rubber with holes punched in it. The rubber holes were slits just big enough for Lew to insert the aluminum spacers into. There were about ten holes in each jug, and Lew would insert the spacers into the holes and gravity would force the silica into the spacers. The apparatus that Lew used to fill the spacers was ingenious in its design, as right after Lew would insert the 20th spacer, the first one would be filled, and he’d remove the twenty spacers in the same order he’d inserted them. There were no expensive electronics or hydraulics involved, just a frame someone had welded together, two square three gallon jugs, two rubber strips with holes punched in them, and the endless force of gravity. I imagine that now, forty years later, the whole process has been re-engineered, and that both Lew’s job and mine have long ago been automated.
Which makes me thankful that I got to Norco when I did, else I probably would have missed out on ever meeting Lew, one of the nicest and simplest and sweetest men to ever walk the earth.
Lew was a funny-looking guy, short and squat, with soft features and a baby face that contradicted the fact that he was forty five years old. His skin was blotchy and hung loosely on his frame. Like a lot of the older guys who worked there at the time, he wore a dark green buttoned up work shirt over a white t-shirt and olive green work slacks every day. He wore a fading and floppy yellow fishing cap over his bald head. He was a confirmed bachelor, and still lived at home with his folks.
We’d stand there, side by side, him on his little spacer filling platform and me next to him, snapping spacers together, for the better part of eight hours a day. We’d make small talk, talking about the Packers and the Brewers and the Bucks. We shared a passion for sports, although I quickly learned that Lew didn’t think like others. His brain worked in bizarre but pleasant ways. One day we were talking about the packers and discussing the weekly injury report when I said that one of the players was listed as “probable, meaning that he’ll probably play.”
“That’s not what probable means,” he replied. When I pressed him on it, he said that “it means he’ll probably play or he probably won’t.”
He never said anything negative about anyone, and more often than not, his face expressed a goofy looking toothy grin.
There were things about him that just didn’t make any sense. For example, when I asked him what his favorite move was, he answered “Under the Yum Yum Tree, with Jack Lemmon.” It was always “with Jack Lemmon,” and when I asked him what it was he liked so much about the movie, he’d smile that big goofy grin and reply, “Oh, no, you’re not going to get me like that.” I never had a clue what that meant, or why, in the two plus years I worked with him, every time the subject of movies came up, he’d mention “Under the Yum Yum Tree with Jack Lemmon,” but never give any context as to why.
He was proud of the small town he’d lived in with his parents his entire life, and worked at softball tournaments and parades and fireworks, always volunteering to work the concession stands or to stay behind afterwards and sweep up the town hall or turn off the lights and close up the ball park. Although he never served in the military, he was none the less proudly patriotic of his country.
One non-descript afternoon we were working in silence when I looked over at Lew. All of the sudden a look of panic overcame his face. He set the handful of spacers he held in his hands down and stepped off of his platform.
“Lew,” I started, “is everything okay?”
He gave no indication of having heard me as he stepped away from the corner where he and I worked and out the big doorway of our department into the larger factory. My curiosity aroused, I followed silently a few feet behind him. He had the same panicked expression in his eyes and on his face, as he walked, swiftly and purposefully, as if some voice in his head was ordering him where to go. He got all the way to the other side of the factory, to the big warehouse where they stored hundreds of stacks of windows. I was still about ten feet behind him when he finally stopped, in the middle of the cavernous building. I ducked behind a palette of wooden sashes so he couldn’t see me, but I could see him. He just stopped and looked around and the dread left his face and he was back from wherever he’d gone to, and he walked, silently and casually, back to our station. He stepped back on the platform and grabbed the spacers he’d set down and inserted them into the rubber slits.
“Lew, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he grinned.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“You just got up and walked to the other end of the factory,” I said.
He just laughed and asked what was I talking about. It became evident very quickly that he had no memory of the incident, even though I saw it, I knew that it’d happened, even though it had been only a couple of minutes earlier. It remains one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed.
All I ever knew about his home life were the occasional random and incoherent nuggets. As far as I could tell, he’d always lived at home with his parents and had never been on his own. His father was such a Green Bay Packers fan that, when his only child was born in 1933, he named him after Verne Lewellyn, a Packers great from the 1920s.
As far as I knew, there’d never been any great romance or tragic love of his life. If there had been, it didn’t seem to have had any lasting effect, as he was almost always happy and cheerful.
I got the impression that after living with his parents his entire life, now that they were older, roles had reversed and he was taking care of them. This lead to one of the rare instances of frustration he shared with me.
It was our first day back to work after the Christmas holiday when I asked him how his holiday was.
“Terrible, just terrible,” he said, making no attempt to hide he disgust in his voice. He went onto tell me how he’d gotten his mother a microwave oven. It was 1978 and microwaves were not only new technology, but they were expensive, too. His mom, for reasons that eluded Lew, didn’t like the gift, and returned it.
“Maybe she thought you’d spent too much,” I offered as an explanation. Lew just shrugged his shoulders in disgust, and then muttered something about her saying she was too old to learn new tricks.
Now, almost forty years later, whenever I think about Lew, I think about time, too, about both a snapshot into the past and all the time that’s passed since. I wonder if he’s still alive, and I do the math, and calculate that he’d be in his mid-eighties by now. I think about aluminum spacers and rubber slits and gravity, and I think about microwave ovens, but mostly I think of a floppy yellow fishing cap and the strange episode I witnessed when something took control of Lew. I still don’t know what it was that drove him to the far end of the factory, what it was that momentarily gripped him with fear and panic. Maybe in that moment, Lew walked through a wrinkle in time into the not too distant future and saw a world that no longer has neither the time nor a place for such a pure and lovely small town soul, as beautiful and simple as a floppy yellow fishing cap.