“What Color Is the Sky?” Friend, May 1993, 18
“What color was the sky today, Benjy?”
Benjy picked up his pewter supper plate and took it into the dark little bedroom where his twin sister, Betsy, lay ill. She and their mother had eaten earlier, but she liked to have Benjy sit near as he ate.
“Why, uh, blue, I guess. Isn’t the sky always blue?”
“Oh, no, Benjy! It can be almost white, or nearly black or gray. And there are so many different blues. Was it blue-blue all over, or sort of white-blue, like it can be when there are lots and lots of high thin clouds? Or was it an angry blue—very dark, as though a storm might be coming? What color was it, Benjy?”
Benjy hadn’t left the glassworks, where he had been apprenticed to Mr. Gibson for all of his three years in Boston, until almost dusk. He had made deliveries along the way—one square pane of glass to Mr. Edmund Litton, and two roundels for Mr. Alexander Greene. But Benjy had had his mind on not breaking the precious glass and had not noticed the sky.
“I’m sorry, Betsy,” he said. “When I went on errands today, I guess I had my mind on other things. Did you know that Mr. Trenton will return in two weeks? That means there will be another month or two of school. I was so pleased to hear that news that I guess I just didn’t notice the sky.”
Benjy hated to disappoint her. Sometimes he forgot how long the days were for a twelve-year-old who had to spend most of them in bed. Dr. Bryant said that the weakness in her heart came as a result of the high fever she had last winter. He hoped that with plenty of good food and rest, the time would come when she could again run and play as other children did, without pain or shortness of breath.
The heavy piece of waxed paper in the cabin window made the bedroom dark, even at midday. Someway, somehow, Benjy had to get a pane of glass for Betsy’s window.
Mother did fine sewing for ladies who lived in the big houses high up on King’s Row. She worked hard but made only enough for food and other necessities for the three of them. She heard Betsy’s question now and came to Benjy’s aid. “The sky was blue-blue, Betsy—just like your very own eyes, not greenish-blue, like Benjy’s. And the sunlight? It was every bit as warm as your smile. Today was what your father used to call a ‘Betsy Day’ because it was just like you. Remember?”
Betsy laughed, delighted. “A Betsy Day! I haven’t heard those words in so long, not since Papa …” She stopped and her face clouded, remembering that great storm at sea three years before, after which neither her father nor his boat had been found.
A good friend to the family, Mr. Gibson had taken Benjy on right away as an apprentice. “You are a bit lacking in years, lad, and ordinarily I wouldn’t have one so young around the molten glass. But I have confidence in you, and if you mind instruction, we should get along. Now find your tongue, lad. Be you willing to do what is to be done, rather than what you might be wanting to do?”
“Oh, yes! Yes, indeed, Mr. Gibson! Then, when I have a trade, I will be able to help my mother—”
Mr. Gibson had interrupted. “Now, understand from the first, lad. There is no pay until you have finished your apprenticeship. That won’t be the day after tomorrow. Seven years it is, lad. But you’ll be getting an early start, and after those seven years, well, we’ll have a place for you in the Gibson Glassworks. Or, who knows, perhaps you’ll set up your own business. Glass is here to stay, and people will always be wanting to have windows in their houses. So it’s a good chance I’m offering you, lad—but best know from the beginning that it won’t be easy.”
Mr. Gibson had been right. It had not been easy. Benjy began by working next to the great brick oven in the center of the furnace room, sweeping up the fine white sand and lime and soda ash that spilled from the shovels. Later he began shoveling the ingredients into the big pot himself. And later yet, Mr. Gibson entrusted him to deliver some of the smaller panes to the buyers.
But Benjy was still anxiously awaiting the day when Mr. Gibson would think him ready to blow the glass himself—to dip the end of the long blowpipe into a glowing, orange-red mass and see the magic of the expanding glass as he blew.
Benjy felt confident that he could do it. He had seen his master and Rolf, who also worked with him, do it many times. So though he had kept his promise to Mr. Gibson, his eagerness grew to try his hand at blowing the glass. He wanted to make a windowpane for Betsy, although he didn’t know how he could pay for it. If only he were making a very small salary! If only he had time to take another job.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t grateful—Mr. Gibson even gave him time off for school, allowing him to work before and after class to make up for the time. Few apprentices had that privilege! But Mr. Gibson had told him, “You must learn to read and cipher, lad, if you are ever to have your own business. It is important that you be present when the schoolmaster is in town.”
Other than this, however, Mr. Gibson made it clear that the boy’s time belonged to him. There were always ashes to be removed, cleaning to be done, and deliveries to be made, and the master insisted that his apprentice be there, working.
Benjy appreciated the schooling, and not just for himself. With their mother’s help, he taught his lessons to Betsy. She would draw the lamp closer to her bed in her dark little room, and she soon was reading better than Benjy. It pleased her to find that on occasion she could help him.
“The Bible is so big. It has so many words,” he complained once in his struggle to read it.
“I know, Benjy. But it is a blessing to be able to read the words of God. And once you can read the Bible, think how well you will be able to read other books when we get them.”
He was kept so busy at the glassworks that it gave him a feeling of guilt to return at night and realize that all day long he had given little thought to Betsy. On stormy days the closed shutters made the room darker than ever.
It was on just such a day that he arrived home and Betsy asked again, “Benjy, what color was the sky?”
This time Benjy knew. “It was bright blue this morning, Betsy. Then about noon, when I took a pane of glass over to the church, the clouds were coming in and it was more gray than blue. Tonight as I was walking home, at sundown, the clouds were quite black, but rimmed with gold at the sundowning. I wish you had seen it, Betsy. …”
He stopped, knowing only too well how very much she wanted to. If only he could get the glass! Through the little window to the west she could see the sundowns herself.
On his thirteenth birthday, it happened! Mr. Gibson said, “This is the day, Benjy. You are beginning to be a man, and you are beginning to be a glassblower. You have watched Rolf and me often enough. On this day you shall try it for yourself.”
As much as he had wanted this moment to come, Benjy’s hands were shaking as he picked up the blowpipe. Stepping up to the big pot that held the red bubbling mass, he dipped the rod in carefully, lifted the glowing ball, and began to blow. As Mr. Gibson had instructed him, he blew gently, then more gently as the bubble grew and began to thin and expand into a long tube.
When the tube started to cool and harden, Mr. Gibson helped Benjy take it off the blowpipe, cut off its ends, and slit it lengthwise. Then Benjy reheated it enough to bend it flat and smooth it out.
Both Rolf and Mr. Gibson applauded. “There you are!” shouted Mr. Gibson. “You see what we have here, Rolf? No longer just a boy apprentice, but a real glassblower!”
Rolf grinned. “This gives us one more man in the shop. We will be able to make more glass than we have ever made!”
Mr. Gibson nodded, and said to Benjy, “This pane is not quite perfect, but it is wonderfully done for a first one, and you will learn to make them better in time. We’ll hang it on the wall, lad, and then, as you improve with experience, you can compare your panes with this first one.”
Benjy’s heart was pounding harder than when he first dipped the blowpipe into the glass. “You mean you’re not going to melt it down again? You’re just going to hang it on the wall? Here?”
“Why, yes, lad. We could throw it back in, melt it down, and try again, but I thought that you might like to keep your first piece. Do you not wish to see it on the wall?”
“Oh, yes!” Benjy exclaimed. “But if you’re not going to sell it, could you … could I … well, could I put it in Betsy’s window at home?”
When he showed the pane of glass to Betsy, Benjy thought her eyes were the bluest blue he had ever seen.
“Oh, Benjy! How can I ever thank you? I know I’ll be better soon now! I just know it!”
Upon his return from work the following day, it was Benjy who asked, “Betsy, what color is the sky?”
“Blue, Benjy! So very blue!” She looked up at him and grinned. “Aren’t skies always blue?”