By Audie Foote
In the past I've made statements to the effect that you had to be at least somewhat weird to make neon for a living. This weirdness is even apparent in what we have people call us, namely "benders" and "blowers." Sorry, I personally refuse to call myself that. Nope, not this guy. And I'm not a "gas jockey" either.
But I've found (to my dismay) that it's not so easy to shake an acquired label. Recently my Aunt Helen asked me what I do for a living. "Well," I said smugly, "I'm into 'silicate engineering.'" "Ooooh-h-h," she sighed, sounding duly impressed, "That's wonderful, So tell me, do you like being a 'tubebender'?"
Anyway, I'm telling you this because I've found a profession that makes us "shaft-crafters" look almost normal by comparison. I'm referring to that unenviable group of full-tilt wackos whose lot in life is to INSTALL neon for a living. I know, this sounds a little like the bar drunk who says "I don't have a drinking problem, but you see that guy over there Now HE' s got a drinking problem." I don't mean to say that you have to be out of your mind to install neon, but it helps.
Over the years I have turned my precious tubes over to some real strange people for installation. It's kind of like entrusting your firstborn to some nanny who you hope doesn't turn out to be a member of a satanic cult. Nobody realizes more than I do how an installer can make or (excuse this) break a neon job. God bless the good ones. The others? Well, for example, when Norman Bates wasn't taking care of his mother's motel, he was a part-time installer with his own boom truck. Freddy Krugger, another former installer, was said to have "great hands for glass." You get the idea: some of them are really bizarre people.
What made me suddenly come to this realization? Simple: I WENT OUT ON AN INSTALLATION. I spent three of the worst days of my life at the Honolulu airport climbing up and down a shaky ladder carrying big, wobbly sections of neon through "gentle Hawaiian tradewinds" of up to 60 mph in 90-degree heat, facing sunlight off a white wall that fried my eyes like two eggs. Oh, and did I mention the sonic booms from the F-16 Phantom jet attack exercises nearby?
I was a nervous wreck even before some sadist "inadvertently" pulled the switch while I was touching live wires, thereby sending 12,000 volts boogalooing through my body with enough force to fuse my dental work together at the silver fillings.
And you know what happened then? My fellow installers (this is what makes them wierd, folks) broke up laughing. Two grown men were on the floor howling at my painful misfortune. "You shoulda seen the look on your face, HO-HO." "You shoulda heard what y ou sounded like." (I will admit that I screamed like Roger Rabbit or a victim in a bad werewolf movie.)
But these guys went on to laugh about other near-electrocutions they'd been party to. "Hey, remember when you were on that ladder and you touched that exposed wire with your shoulder and 15,000 volts arced through your knee into the wall?" "Yeah, and m y hair and pants were on fire and it smelled like someone was having a barbecue?"
Hysterical, isn't it?
Dean Blazek, who taught me neon a decade ago, demonstrated what he called "the installer's test" wherein he would drop a student's glass masterpiece onto the worktable from a height of eighteen inches or so. This, we were quick to learn, showed where t he bad bends or welds were, as well as showing us what our friends the installers would be doing to our work in the future.
Then he'd say, "Any questions?" Nope.
But I've never met an installer yet who has broken a single piece of neon - none that he'd admit to anyway. The other day one of my installers, who we'll call Irwin, came in with four broken units:
ME: Four broken pieces? You broke FOUR pieces of my neon?
IRWIN: Not me, I didn't break them. You know I don't break neon.
ME: Well, what happened to it then?
IRWIN: Beats me.
ME: Yeah, I'd like to.
ME: Oh, nothing.
The closest thing to an admission of guilt I've ever gotten was this call:
IRWIN: Boss, can you make another four-foot "B"?
ME: Why? What happened to the one I made?
IRWIN: I think the gas musta leaked out.
ME: Oh, just bring it back then and I'll repump it.
IRWIN: Uh, I don't think that's practical.
ME: Why not? ...Say, exactly how did it lose its gas?
IRWIN: Well, it musta been right at the end of that two-story fall from the roof we was on.
Copyright 1989 THE NEON NEWS
Published by Ted Pirsig & Val Crawford Email: firstname.lastname@example.org