Beginning at about age 12 or 13, when I evidently first began to take notice of signs on things, I have often had a smile planted on my face by a few words that somebody put up where they were hard to miss.
One wintry day in 1944, Pop Johnson, my stepfather, took me to work to help him clean up the wreck of his service station wall caused by a driver whose steering talent failed just as he was turning in. Later, while walking home after three long, cold winter hours spent outside I passed a small diner, which reminded me that I could do with something warm to drink.
In I went, my mind on something hot and liquid. Sitting down on a stool, I looked up at the menu and saw that coffee was only a nickel a cup. That was the first time I had seen it priced below a dime, so I enjoyed two cups of it.
Imagine the smile on my face when I spotted a handwritten sign saying: “PLEASE DO NOT CRITICIZE OUR COFFEE. YOU MAY BE OLD AND WEAK YOURSELF SOME DAY.”
That coffee was nice and hot, but it was admittedly very weak. Were they trying to prove something? Beats me!
In 1948 my brother Frank bought a large refrigerated truck and created a door-to-door sales route selling frozen foods, which were not yet available in stores. That first summer he needed some help, so he recruited me. When I saw two small signs on the back of his large truck, I smiled. They were: “<– PASSING SIDE” and “SUICIDE –>”
And yes, some dummy tried passing us on the right one day, which was illegal on New London’s narrow streets; and he did it just as Frank was making a right turn — with his turn signal on! Scratch one nice red Ford convertible.
In 1951, now in the Air Force, I arrived in a re-opened World War II barracks on Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. Wandering into the old-fashioned latrine with its 6-foot-long, white porcelain lined urinal, and saw a sign penciled above it saying: “STAND CLOSE. THE NEXT MAN MAY BE BAREFOOT.”
One weekend at Otis AFB I went to the tiny town of Falmouth. There, I saw a small shop named The House of Three Wonders. Curious, I went inside, saw crowded shelves, and read:
The House of Three Wonders — YOU WONDER IF I HAVE IT; I WONDER WHERE IT IS; WE BOTH WONDER HOW I FOUND IT!
In 1958, during my first cross-country drive, I had just barely entered California on a curving mountain road when I read a road sign saying: “WARNING! SOFT SHOULDERS AND DANGEROUS CURVES!”
Leave it to California to brag about its women.
In 1959, while in Japan, where my squadron ran the air terminal, I found some things to be a bit ridiculous. For one thing, I almost split a gut the first time I walked into the terminal and saw the signs over 3 restrooms: MEN; WOMEN; OFFICERS.
That’s the closest I ever came to really dying laughing!
For another thing, our squadron commander wouldn’t allow a Lost and Found Baggage room sign. Instead, ours said: “FOUND BAGGAGE.”
The idea was that we never lost baggage; we only found it.
I will admit that it was nice to be perfect.
And I will never forget the sign over the lab supplies window in the hallway of the science department at the first college I attended in 1973/74: “IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO, DON’T DO IT HERE!”