Amazing Journey: 6.1

Arno's 7 Words He Could Say At Koos


Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living

~ The Who

Traditionally, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September. My inaugural Labor Day was the second Monday in June in the year 1975. It was four short days after I had graduated from Tremper High School.

This was my first official grown-up job. I had worked at Howard Johnson’s and Burger King while I was in school, but those were high school jobs. This was a real job.

Thanks to my folk’s good friend, Nina Babic, I had a job as a laborer at the infamous Koos Inc. fertilizer plant. She worked in the office and told me to stop in if I wanted a job. She told me to ask for the plant manager, Francis Niebling.

So that’s what I did. On my last day of school my buddy, Keith Panasewicz, and me jumped in my yellow ’70 Rebel and took off in search of Koos Inc. I had no idea where this place was, just an address on the north side of Kenosha.

After driving around for about 45 minutes we finally stumbled upon the fertilizer plant. It was located just a few blocks south of the Big Star drive-in, a local hamburger joint that emitted delicious odors that filled the air for blocks in all directions.

Unfortunately the appetizing smell was interrupted by an odoriferous stench that grew in intensity the closer we got to the Koos plant. To say it was unpleasant would be a gross understatement.

When I pulled up to the small office adjacent to large dilapidated plant, I asked Keith if he wanted to come in with me. With his t-shirt pulled up over his nose, he grunted, “Hell no.” and added, “Roll your window up.” I muttered a less than enthusiastic thanks and quickly made my way into the brick building.

When I approached the chest-high counter, a short white-haired man greeted me. I told him that I was looking for Francis Niebling. The pleasant man grinned and replied, “That’s me, but please call me Frank. Nina said you were coming.”

As I nervously filled out the application, Frank treated me to a continuous diet of corny jokes. When I finished, he took the papers, shook my hand and told me to be there at 7:00 the next morning.

Whoa! I quickly informed him that tomorrow was my graduation day. He paused for a second and said, “Okay, be here Friday morning.”

Not sure of what I was getting into, I negotiated a starting date of the following Monday, June 9, 1975 and would be my first Labor Day.

This was a bonafide, real-life job where I went to work each morning five days a week and received a paycheck for $91.18 each and every Friday afternoon. The amount of $91.18 was after taxes were taken out. My gross pay was $120.00 for forty hours. Insert your own joke here.

Hey, I said it was a real-life job, I didn’t say it paid a lot. For my $3.00 an hour I got to lift 40-pound bags of fertilizer in a hot, sloppy plant with slippery mud covered floors.

In the winter we were treated to 50-pound bags of ice melter in a building that had no heat whatsoever. Although we were freezing, at least the floors weren’t muddy. Now they were covered with a toxic dust that you inhaled all day long.

Did I mention that Koos did not feature running water? Most guys simply stepped to the nearest open dock door to relieve themselves. Otherwise, if you wanted to use an actual restroom, you had to maneuver through the entire plant, walk down a long flight of stairs and go across the yard to the “Jap Shack.”

The “Jap Shack” was nothing more than an old storage shed with a few beat-up lockers, a couple of picnic tables, a number of rats and a toilet with a sink. This venerable structure received its colorful name because it allegedly imprisoned Japanese war prisoners during World War II. Don’t ask me, I just worked there.

And so did a multitude of fascinating characters. People like Virgil Tucker, Dead Man, Bone Head, Ryan Babic, Munk Ekern, Tyrone Walker and “Ziggy” Gutowski. Each one of these individuals possessed unique characteristics. They obviously had to, with monikers like those. They all left lasting impressions on yours truly. Maybe “scars” would be more accurate.

But none like the legendary Arno Schubert. The stories about Arno are endless. His exploits were legendary. This ornery “old” German was well known in every drinking establishment between Kenosha and Paddock Lake. I say old because he was about 36 and I was only eighteen years old at the time.

The only difficulty with sharing stories about Arno is how long it takes to clean up the language. With Arno, cursing was an art form. He made Dice Clay, Earl Weaver and other high-profile foul mouths look like choirboys.

Let me give you an example. Because of his propensity for filthy phraseology, he was often asked to watch his mouth. One classic moment is when a burnout nicknamed Lanny challenged Arno that he couldn’t go the whole day without cursing. What was Arno’s response?

Those of you who are faint of heart, cover your ears. “Fuck you, you stupid ass motherfuckin’ cocksucker” was his reply. Sorry mom.

That was one of the things that I learned on my first Labor Day. How not to talk! Koos Inc. made me realize why my sainted parents, Emil and Milly Vagnoni, had been drilling that social graces stuff into my head throughout my childhood. Now I was experiencing why first-hand in my first real-life job.

On that first Labor Day, I honestly considered making a run for it during first break. I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had. Do I regret not quitting on my first Labor Day? It doesn’t really matter because I ended up working there over seventeen years.

However, I have to believe things would have definitely been different. Maybe better, perhaps not. Who knows? One thing that I am sure of, by staying at Koos, my life that was definitely a long strange trip was morphing into an amazing journey.