Turning west from Prescott Road onto Snyder Avenue on Wednesday morning, a driver pauses her pickup and lowers the window. She calls out to Bob Luna, asking him how he takes his coffee.
“In a cup,” he says back, not missing a beat. His joking reply is lost in the din of traffic at the intersection, and the brief exchange continues, ending with a promise by the woman to bring him a hot mocha the next morning.
Luna, 84, is a fixture at the intersection. For about 14 years, he’s worked as a crossing guard for Stanislaus Union School District, helping ensure the safety of students and parents making their way to and from Mary Lou Dieterich Elementary.
He’s used to the offers of hot coffee on cold mornings, but says he appreciates each and every one. Over the years, Luna’s also been given candy and restaurant gift cards from families and regular passers-by who appreciate the work he does there.
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The gifts come in other forms, too. The kids who sprayed him with “silly string” from a school bus window. The woman who from her vehicle sang to him, “Stop in the name of love, before you break my heart.”
“I can’t tell my wife about that one,” he kids.
Wednesday morning was a quiet one for Luna, who crossed only three people in his hour-plus shift. On such cold, windy, wet mornings, parents tend to drive their kids to school, he says, adding that afternoon likely would be busier if the rain held off.
He holds his stop sign and leans his weight against the traffic-signal post. Over his jeans, he wears a brace on his left knee. He’s had knee replacements on both legs.
Luna is such a presence at the intersection that when he’s had to take time off to recover from surgeries, “we were bombarded with calls,” says Christine Ross, office manager at Dieterich. “’Is Mr. Luna OK?’ I think they were afraid to ask.”
Principal Sarah Gillum adds, “He’s just the sweetest guy, and always out there earlier than he needs to be.” He’ll hold up his stop sign to assist anyone who’s crossing, not just kids, she says. She recalls waiting at the red light one morning and seeing another older man out walking his dog. Luna didn’t have to, but he went over and provided an escort through the crosswalk.
Luna hates to miss work, and rarely does, Ross says. When he has a doctor appointment, he’s so apologetic. “He really takes his job seriously,” she says, “and he gets so frustrated when drivers don’t obey the laws and respect him” as a crossing guard.
There was none of that Wednesday. Countless drivers stopped at lights or pausing during right-hand turns smile and wave. A woman rolls down her window and shouts, “Have a beautiful day!” A few who can’t stop because they have the green light give a friendly horn honk to catch his attention.
On getting all the waves, he quips, “I’m like the ocean.”
He has a penchant for greeting people in colorful ways, from “Top o’ the morning” in an Irish lilt to saying “good morning” in several tongues, including “konnichiwa,” “guten morgen” and “buongiorno.” He fondly recalls saying the latter to a woman one morning, only to have her respond in rapid Italian that left him holding out his palms and admitting, “No, no, I don’t really speak Italian.”
It’s a shame that the vast majority of these folks have only a few seconds at a red light or a brief escort through a crosswalk in which to know Luna. A talker, he has stories, observations and jokes to last, oh, 50 crossings.
He talks about his career as a mechanical technician and welder, working for Lockheed, Ford and Standard Oil, among other employers. About his time in the Army, 1954-57, serving in Germany in the 63rd Tank Battalion assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, famously known as the Big Red 1. About Virginia, his wife of 61 years, and their four children, including a daughter lost to cancer.
Luna was born in Tulare County. His dad, a prizefighter, died when Bob was just 2. The boy’s mom wasn’t part of his life, he says, and he went into foster care.
Growing up, his dad’s trainer/manager stayed in his life and urged him to follow in the fighter’s footsteps. Out at the intersection Wednesday, Luna affects a punch-drunk mumble and a stagger as he explains he had no intention of taking all the head blows that come with getting in the ring.
He talks briefly about ministering to inmates as a chaplain in correctional facilities. About not having a personal computer or cell phone. “I do smoke signals,” he jests.
Humorous observations and jokes spill from him rat-a-tat-tat. Here’s an abbreviated version of one:
A woman newly arrived in heaven is given the job of testing people seeking entry through the pearly gates. It’s a simple test: They simply must spell the word “love.”
For decades it goes on. “Spell ‘love.’” “L-O-V-E.” Entry granted.
Until one day, the woman’s philandering husband dies and turns up at the gates.
She tells him he needs to take the spelling test and he says, “OK, what’s the word?”
(He’s performing daily, folks.)
But seriously, Luna gives no hint of hanging up his stop sign.
The money keeps him in coffee and doughnuts, he says, but really he does it to, well, have something to do. No way he’s going to sit around the house and turn into a toadstool.
He used to work as a playground supervisor for the district, too, says Ross, who’s been with Stanislaus Union for 16 years. But crossing guard better suits his nature, because he’s not the disciplinarian one must be to control the recess crowd, she adds. “He’s everybody’s best friend.”
And though he no longer does yard duty, he’s a frequent visitor to Dieterich, talking with staff and ultimately finding his way to the snacks he knows he’ll find in the teachers lounge. “He’s a sweet guy, for sure, with an extreme sweet tooth,” Ross says. “Over the holidays, he came in a lot more frequently because he knew we’d have treats back there.”
Teased about having a hankering for goodies, whether in a break room or handed to him from a car window, Luna just says, “You better believe it.”