Dreamed of being the janitor

Burt's Eye View

Other kids wanted to grow up to be firefighters, football players, dinosaur wranglers or things like that. I wanted to be the school janitor.

Mr. Humphrey, the janitor at Monroe Elementary, was a giant of a man — he must have been 7 or 8 feet tall — in a smoky gray work uniform who had the biggest collection of keys I’d ever seen dangling from a massive ring clipped to his belt loop. Mr. Humphrey jangled when he walked.

He wasn’t like that teacher who tried to sneak up and catch us in the act of drawing hilarious portraits of her, complete with fangs, snake hair and nose drippings. You could hear Mr. Humphrey coming while he still was clear at the other end of the hallway.

Since there were at least six times more keys on that ring than there were doors in the entire school, we figured out that Mr. Humphrey really was a secret agent who had a covert laboratory and clandestine garage full of superfast spy cars hidden in a cave beneath the school.

He was cool.

Mr. Humphrey smiled and said hello. He hardly ever yelled. He whispered. When a giant whispers, you tend to stop shooting spitballs across the cafeteria and throwing erasers at the girls. You didn’t hear exactly what he said but you didn’t want to risk finding out.

We never discovered the hidden entrance to the Janitor Cave. But he often ducked into an above-ground secret lair behind a door marked “Boiler Room.”

Once, a teacher sent me in there to hand Mr. Humphrey a message — probably in code. I wound through a maze of iron and metal chambers until I found Mr. Humphrey in a creaky teacher’s chair with one armrest missing. He sat at a big ol’ scratched-up desk that, instead of math and geography books, was scattered with weird tools, greasy rags and broken parts.

I whistled. “Outta sight! Which one’s the laser gun?”

Mr. Humphrey smiled, but he wouldn’t spill. Secret agents aren’t supposed to tell. That’s why they’re called secret. Even so, we knew Mr. Humphrey had access to many exciting and mysterious weapons. We saw him use some of them.

Elementary school students make a habit of throwing up. Mr. Humphrey never seemed to flinch. He slipped into the “Boiler Room,” where he kept his weapons, came back with a bag of sickly sweet-smelling pink stuff that he dumped on top of the pile one of my classmates just dropped, then mopped up the whole mess with tangy-smelling water in a bucket on wheels. Far out!

Later, Mom offered me extensive use of a mop at home. Our bucket was a plastic pail. It didn’t have wheels. The water smelled like lemons and we didn’t have any pink stuff. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t Mr. Humphrey.

Years later, after I’d become a grownup but somehow failed to achieve school janitor status, I had a chance to visit my old elementary building. I spied a small man in gray hunched over a mop bucket on wheels.

“Mr. Humphrey?”

He smiled and whispered a hello.

I rubbed my eyes. “You shrunk.”

“You grew up.”

Then I saw the massive key ring dangling from his belt loop. “Still have the keys to the kingdom, I see.”

He winked. “And to the Janitor Cave.” Then he and the mop bucket slipped inside the “Boiler Room.”

I was never cool enough to become a school janitor.

— Cheer for school janitors at bcole@tribtoday.com or on the Burton W. Cole page on Facebook.