It flashed out of my hand and bounced across the locker room terrazzo floor with a metallic tang.
I was issued one badge when I was hired by my hometown police department. It was shaped like a star and was referred to as such. Regulations required us to wear it on our outer garment when we were working. I moved it from my shirt to my jacket or coat whenever it was cold out, and back to my shirt when it was warm. I was making that switch when it fell.
It landed on two of its points, causing it to bend just enough to crack the rigid chrome plating on them and weaken the weld that held the pin on its back. Still new on the job and proud of that shiny new star, I was sore at myself for screwing it up.
I worked hard for that badge. I had gone through a rigorous testing process, spent months at the Chicago Police Academy where my department sent its recruits, and months riding with a field training officer. It was a symbol of the authority I carried at work and of the responsibility I shouldered.
Over the next few days, the cracked plating separated from the damaged points and peeled off. The underlying metal was still shiny, just not chrome-shiny. I looked into getting it repaired, but there was no fix for the plating issue. If I wanted my star to look like new, I’d have to buy another one.
They were expensive, and not what someone starting a new job with a new house and a new baby should be spending money on. Besides, it was the star I was handed when I was sworn in. That made it special. It had been with me from the very beginning. A replacement star would be akin to a replacement of a lost wedding ring – good, but not quite the real deal. I had a bond with that piece of metal. With just over a year on the job, I was still one of the “new guys.” Even so, that star witnessed a lot of changes the job had already made in me.
The old-timers at work thought it looked better now than it did before. Battle-scarred. That tipped the scale in my mind toward keeping it as it was.
I continued to wear it, but the weakened weld that held the pin on the back eventually failed and the pin fell off, rendering it useless. We can’t work without a badge, so I told my Lieutenant what had happened. “You need to go upstairs and see Captain Williams.” Captain Williams headed the support services division. One of the responsibilities of that division was issuing equipment. His office was on the dreaded second floor.
We had been warned about the second floor. That’s where the administrative offices were. Often, when one of us was summoned to the second floor, it was because we had screwed up. Out of sight, out of mind seemed to be the wise philosophy the senior officers had regarding those lofty heights. Not knowing what to expect, I trudged up the stairs to the second floor and knocked on the open doorway of Captain Williams’ office. He looked up and motioned for me to come in.
I didn’t know what to expect. He was a Captain, after all. He was so high up the chain of command that I felt intimidated, but he was friendly and put me at ease as I showed him my damaged star. He took one look at it, now in two pieces, and said, “You need to see Skeets.”
“You’ve never heard of Skeets?” He made me feel like I had really missed out on something in life.
No. Who the heck is Skeets? I wondered as I shot him a quizzical look.
“Skeets Hoglund. He has a jewelry repair business up on Broadway near the Cumberland Circle. He can fix it.”
He gave me detailed directions to Skeets’ place and handed a loaner star to me to wear while mine was in the shop, telling me with a half-smile, “Don’t drop this one.”
I hit the street and headed for Broadway. Skeets didn’t have a storefront. His business occupied a small room partitioned off from the back of another small business that did.
To find it, I had to drive into the little parking lot behind the strip of single-story businesses that lined the block-long street, then walk around garbage dumpsters and a stack of pallets to a non-descript steel door with a doorbell.
I rang the bell and stood there wondering what kind of place this was.
When the door opened, Skeets took one look at my uniform and welcomed me inside. He was an older man. He had thinning gray hair, and wore a flannel shirt and gray work pants. Above all, he was friendly.
“Are you Skeets?
I stepped into his workshop, and my mind went on overload as my eyes darted about, trying to take everything in. It was small, but made even smaller by the hand-made wooden workbenches and shelves that lined the walls and hogged floor space. Shrinking the room even more were shelves that sat atop the workbenches and dusty cardboard boxes that were stacked under them and in the aisles. The only window was painted over and covered with steel bars, denying entry to both burglars and natural light.
Fluorescent fixtures hung from the ceiling, and antique goose-neck lamps provided extra illumination where he needed it. There was little available space on the workbenches. They were covered with stacks of cigar boxes, hand-made wooden trays, and old metal coffee cans repurposed to hold the things he needed and some that he probably didn’t. The surfaces I could see were worn and gouged from decades of use. It looked like confusion to me, but I’d have bet a day’s pay that he knew where everything in that room was.
I recognized ring sizers and some of the tools – all old with iron or worn wooden handles. There were tools I didn’t recognize. Shipping labels on the dusty cardboard boxes appeared to have been printed in the 1930’s or 1940’s. Everything, including Skeets’s hands, seemed covered with a layer of dark gray grime that I would later realize was polishing compound that he used with a buffing wheel.
Everything in that room was old – except me. I felt newborn in the face of it all.
We chatted a bit, and I learned that all the area jewelry shops sent their jewelry for repair or resizing to him. I asked him about a strange looking machine that sat on a second workbench behind him. It was surrounded by shiny, metal, bone-shaped tags. They caught my eye because they were the only shiny thing that I saw.
“That’s where I engrave dog tags.”
He explained that he had a contract with the Milk Bone Company. When people sent their proofs of purchase in along with shipping and handling, they wound up with him. He used the machine to engrave the customer’s information on the tags before sending them out. I was surprised that such a large company would do business with a small one like this.
I explained who had sent me and why, and handed him my badge. He looked it over for a minute and affirmed that the plating issue wasn’t repairable, but that he could reattach the pin. He told me to come back on Thursday.
I went back a couple of days later to pick up my repaired star. We shared more small talk, and I had another chance to take in the aura of his one-of-a-kind workplace. He handed my star back to me with the pin securely soldered in place. When I asked him what I owed him for the repair, he wouldn’t take a cent. I thanked him profusely before I went back to work.
I saw Skeets once in a while after that in the downtown area where he was picking up or dropping off work at local jewelry shops or doing his banking. I’d honk and we’d exchange waves, but I never chatted with him again, something I now regret. He eventually faded in my memory but remained hidden there. Forty years later while I was looking at that star, he suddenly peeked out and inspired me to write this story.
I wondered about him and wanted to learn more about him. I didn’t have his first name or know how to spell his last, but an obituary search for the name “Skeets” brought it up on my screen. His name was Evert, and he lived in Mount Prospect. When he died in 1998, he left a son, two daughters, and five grandkids. It described him as a self-employed goldsmith. I didn’t think that description was sufficient.
I don’t know any more about Skeets – whether he had a happy life or what his beliefs were. Looking back at the short time I spent with him, I realize now that I was standing in a magical place. It was a place that he built with his hard work, one that provided the income to fund his family’s life.
He’s long gone now, and so is his business. When I look at the shadowbox frame that holds the star of each rank I achieved, I see the Patrol Officer’s star that I was issued in 1978. When I look closely, I can see where the chrome plating is missing from two of its points and where one of them has a slight bend.
It reminds me that it was touched by a true craftsman from another generation, a craftsman whose repair on the back pin still holds firm. It’s a repair made in what is now the old days made by a man whom I thought was from the old days back then. I look back now and know I was privileged to meet him. He lives on in my memory.
And I wonder how many people still treasure heirlooms that were touched by Skeets’ hard-working hands without their knowledge. In a little back room, in a little office building, on a block long street named Broadway, in my home town.