written by Hillary Colter | photo by Karl Maasdam
Dad came home in 1983, when I was ten, and said he’d been fired again. We went to Skipper’s and had a family meeting about what he was going to do. We were three: Mom, Dad and me. He’d already had many jobs throughout my short life. Later, I came to understand that his problems with authority came from his time in Vietnam. He was smart and didn’t trust other people to have his best interests in mind.
My mom wanted him to look for another job as a sign hanger—that’s what he had done for a living. He rode in cranes attached to large trucks up into the air and hung signs. One time, when I was seven, he came home from a job in Newport missing half of his index finger. It had been smashed when a rope broke in a windstorm, and he was forty feet up in the air. He didn’t get his finger out of the way in time. We got to go to Hawaii on the settlement. (We were not the kind of family who took vacations.)
One night, over fish sandwiches, he told us he had a dream. He wanted to become a traveling neon sign salesman. He wanted to bring neon to every nook and cranny of Oregon. Twenty-three years later, with Colter Neon, that’s exactly what he did.
Our lives began to revolve around neon. We heard about how the noble gas—neon—comes from the stars. It weighs less than oxygen and helium, but it moves slowly. There’s neon on the moon. To make a neon sign, the glass is heated over a fire and to keep it from collapsing on itself, the glassblower gently blows air into the hot tube. It cools and is pumped with gasses, like neon and argon, which create the different colors that light up the sign.
Every week, he loaded his van full of signs and drove to every corner of Oregon to peddle his wares. Sometimes he’d be gone for weeks: as long as it took to sell all the signs and pay our bills. He’d call home from motels in places like Reedsport or Paisley and update us on what was happening there. One time, he was driving out near Prineville, on a two-lane road, and came upon cowboys on horseback herding cattle. He had to follow them for many miles, with no way to pass. It took hours, but he was exhilarated by getting to see real cowboys.
Sometimes I went with him. One woman said we reminded her of that ’70s film Paper Moon about a father-daughter dynamic traveling duo. I’d get the receipt book and fill out the invoice in my finest penmanship, thrilled by the responsibility. Dad hung the signs that shaped the state he calls home.
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