Monday, June 29, 2009

The Menominee River (Part One)

                         Rowing on the Menominee (photos by VAL)

Dear George,

My maternal grandfather Guy Cramer retired and moved to Menominee from Omaha in the late 1930’s.  He lived down the street from us, but in 1941 he built a summer cottage on the Menominee River, about a mile outside the city limits and a half-mile from the cemetery and the city dump.  Our family, probably for financial reasons, moved to the river house in 1946 when my dad came back from the Pacific after the war.  I was 9, Steven was 5, Peter was 1, and Vicki was in the works but yet to be born.  We were the first people to live on Riverside Boulevard (a two-lane gravel road which, in fact, had no resemblance to a boulevard).

Our front yard was right on the banks of the Menominee River, one of the major rivers of northern Michigan.  The Menominee, which makes up a big chunk of the state boundary line between the U.P. and northeastern Wisconsin, begins at the junction of the Brule and Michigamme Rivers near Iron Mountain and flows 118 miles to empty into Green Bay at the twin cities of Menominee and Marinette, Wisconsin.  “Menominee” in Algonquian means “in the place of wild rice”, and both the river and our hometown are named after the Menominee Indian tribe who lived in the area and subsisted on wild rice.

Our house was about 3.5 miles west of the river’s mouth and was located on a bend at the river’s widest point. I’d guess the channel there was about two-tenths of a mile wide, about the same as the Mississippi as it flows past New Orleans or the Ohio River at Cincinnati.  The view from our property was striking.  The river view extended a long way to the east, the water was deep blue, and the land was thickly forested in every direction.  From our front lawn we could see Riverside Cemetery in the distance.  Directly across from us was Pig Island, named by my parents after the wild pigs which we would see grazing on its banks.  At the eastern tip of Pig Island was a deteriorated log structure which had been used in the logging industry at the turn of the last century, and nearby out in the middle of the river was a man-made island and cabin likewise used by loggers.  Menominee was the world’s largest lumber port in the 1890’s and early 1900’s, and the Menominee River was the conduit by which logs were floated from many miles away to the sawmills in town.

River House Under Construction (1941)

Swimming was our major summer avocation.  Though we lived on the river, many of our family friends had homes on the shores of Green Bay.  There was a long-running, tongue-in-check debate among the kids about the relative merits of the river and the bay.   We called ourselves “The River Rats” and labeled our compatriots “The Bay Mice”.  Green Bay had good beaches, a perfect sandy bottom, and occasional white-capped waves, but, as an offshoot of Lake Michigan, it was much cooler and sufficiently shallow that you had to walk a long way out to get to reach an adequate swimming depth.  The river’s best feature was the warmth of the water.  Green Bay raised goose pimples on one’s body and required a certain fearlessness on entry, especially as the water approached one’s swimsuit, but the river felt more like a lukewarm bath.  Unfortunately, the river bottom was squishy, sprouted fields of underwater weeds, and had many broken sticks on its bed that required that careful walking.

Swimming and partying on the shore played a big part in our family’s social life.  The O’Haras and their kids – Terry, Michael Dennis, Kevin, and Sean – came over regularly, as did many other family friends.  The adults sat on the bank and drank whiskey while we swam around the raft, played tag in the water, tossed a tennis ball, or tipped the rowboat upside down to hide underneath and breathe from its air bubble.  My mother always sat on the lawn and watched with an eagle eye while we were swimming.  We had to wait until an hour after eating, have life preservers available on the shore, and swim with at least one partner.  Though we fantasized when swimming in Green Bay about being attacked by giant muskies or sturgeons, there were real-life creatures lurking around in the river.  In particular, we would often see turtles swimming about, their noses poking up just above the water’s surface.  We decided that these probably included giant snapping turtles and that we might be at risk of losing a toe or two.  One day Steven shot a large turtle with his bow and arrow and tugged it ashore where he wound up disposing of it with the family .22 rifle. 

Crayfish and minnows populated the water’s edge, and we would capture them in mason jars or collect the detached claws which lay on the sand.  The river bed at the shoreline contained a heavy reddish clay, which we would dig up and use to make bowls or sculpted objects.  Dragonflies skimmed across the surface of the water, and speedy waterbugs zigged and zagged every which way.  On the river’s bank cicada-like insects would completely shed their outer skins each August, we would collect their ghost-like shells.  The least attractive of the river’s inhabitants were the bloodsuckers.  When we finished swimming for the day, we would often find a black slimy bloodsucker on an ankle or lodged between our toes.  If they’d been there long enough, they would have penetrated our skin and become bloated with ingested blood.  We checked ourselves carefully when leaving the water, and we pulled off and threw the wriggling bloodsuckers into the nearby weeds.

We had a finely crafted green wooden rowboat with a one horsepower motor which we used for expeditions.  The motor only worked when my dad had taken it to Herb Beyersdorf for tuning up, so we more often relied on rowing.  We would travel east along the river shore, past our neighbors, the Orths and the Meads.  We’d search the lagoon for artifacts that might have floated down the river, then make a stop at Brewery Park, a private park built for employees of the M&M beer factory.  West of our property, Mr. Shaver had built a summer cottage.  Steve and I told “the babes”, Peter and Vicki, that there was a pool of quicksand on the river bottom between our house and Shaver’s and that we would be sucked under the water if we stepped in it.  I doubt that Peter or Vicki ever believed this, but we all got a little nervous when we walked in the water toward Mr. Shaver’s, even Steve and myself.

My dad took us on rowboat trips to the Channel, which flowed between Pig Island and its neighboring island to the west.  The channel was hidden from the civilized world and full of mystery. It usually had no wind and was the most silent place I’d ever been.  Water lilies covered the surface, dragonflies were plentiful, and there were deadheads everywhere below the water, which made rowing difficult and operating our motor prohibitive.  If we were lucky, we would see Great Blue Herons in the channel, as well as a variety of other water birds.  Sometimes a pair of elderly men would be fishing for perch and bass in their rowboat.

At least once each summer, my mom would pack a picnic lunch, and my parents would take us on a boating expedition to Indian Island, about a half-mile up the river.  This was a small island west of Lou Reed’s house.  We called it Indian Island for no reason that I can recall.  The island was about thirty yards in diameter, and one side had a steep sandy bank which we would scamper up and down.  Ice fisherman stored their fishing shanties on Indian Island in the off-season.  Peter, Vicki, Steve, and I would go in and out of them, pretending that we were pirates storing our booty and that Indian Island was our treasure cove.

Our family life during these years revolved around the river, and it offered a rich arena for adventure, fun, and the complicated process of growing up.  I have some more to say about this, but I’m going to save it for another occasion.




Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mikey Gets Laser Therapy

Dear George,


We had a bad scare a while back.  Katja came home and started to feed the dogs.  Mikey was sitting in his usual spot in the living room chair, and he didn’t get up when she called him to come and eat.  She went in to get him, but he still wouldn’t move.  After some prodding, he did make it slowly to the kitchen, but he just lay down on the floor and didn’t respond to his food bowl.  Katja called me down, saying he had never acted like this before.  I tried lifting Mike up, with my hands curled around his stomach, and he shrieked in obvious pain.  Then he lay back down.  It was about 6:30 p.m.  Katja called the animal hospital, which closes around that time.  They said to bring him right over.  I fed Mike some food by hand, and he did eat a bit.  Then I lifted him up again, which resulted in some pain though not as extreme as the first time.


Tennessee Avenue Animal Hospital is 10 minutes away.  I helped Mikey into the building while Katja parked the car.  They showed us to an examining room, where Mike plopped down on the floor.  A staff member came in and got some information, followed by Dr. Schmogrow several minutes later.  They put a muzzle on Mike’s nose, and we told her what had happened.  Katja asked if one of the staples from Mike’s recent cyst surgery might be hurting.  Dr. Schmogrow shook her head and said it was more likely something neurological.  She tried moving Mike’s head and neck back and forth, and he had no difficulty. When she tried to move his rear end, though, he screamed again.  Dr. Schmogrow said they would need to put him out in the morning and X-ray him.  I asked if she had any hunches.  She said it might be a displaced hip or a disk problem.  Privately fearing the worst, I asked if there were any treatment possible.  Dr. Schmogrow said yes, sometimes through medication, sometimes by surgery.  We breathed a sigh of relief.  Two staff members came in with a small stretcher, and, after some maneuvering, they were able to get Mike up onto it. We gave Mike a last pet and said goodbye.


The evening was full of gloom and doom.  When Mike and Duffy had gone to obedience school as one-year-olds, the teacher warned us that one of the dogs would likely have serious hip problems and that we shouldn’t become too attached to it.  She based her judgment on their very different walking styles – Duffy plodding forward and Mike wiggling his hips – but she wasn’t familiar enough with sheepdogs to know which dog was normal and which wasn’t.  We had the dogs X-rayed, and Duffy’s hips looked relatively good, but Mike had almost no sockets to hold his leg bones in place.


Dr. Schmogrow called the next afternoon.  She said that Mike had severe hip dysplasia, substantial arthritis, and luxating knees.  We went to pick Mike up at the end of the day, and Dr. Schmogrow shook her head sadly.  He is in rough shape.  She outlined various treatment options, e.g., surgery, laser therapy, aqua therapy, acupuncture.  She also prescribed a strong painkiller, a steroid, and a drug to increase cartilage growth.  After discussing the options, we settled on laser therapy.  When we met the therapist, Shawn, we learned that she had grown up in Clifton and that her grandfather was Wes Allinsmith, the Psychology department head who had hired me at UC.  Over the past two months Mike has completed a series of eight treatment sessions with Shawn, combined with homework exercises to work out his muscles and strengthen his legs.  He’ll go back for an evaluation in mid-July.  Shawn was very good with Mike, and he clearly looked forward to his visits with her, finding his own way back to her treatment room.  Mike has clearly improved, though it’s hard to tell what’s due to what.  We discontinued the steroid and the painkiller weeks ago.  Much to the doctor’s surprise, we continue to go on three or four mile walks a couple of times a week, and Mike keeps up with the pack.  So far, so good.  We’ve got our fingers crossed. 





Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Washington School Days: 3. Beauty and Love Lost

                                        Fourth Grade

Dear George,


Betty Lou Bergstrom* was the first girl I ever had a crush on.  She was six inches taller than me.  She had brown hair and brown eyes and a loud, uninhibited laugh.  She almost  always won the fourth grade spelling bees.  I also was a good speller – probably the best of the boys – and I used to memorize pages of the dictionary at night to try to beat Betty Lou.  In Miss Hunnefeld’s spelling bees, all the kids would stand at the blackboard until they were eliminated, one by one, and had to take their seats.  Most times it came down to just Betty Lou and me at the blackboard, but then I would falter on some word (e.g., “calliope” or “peculiar”), and everybody would clap for Betty Lou when she won.


One day I told Skipper Burke how I felt about Betty Lou.  How beautiful and smart she was and how I might marry her when we grew up.  Skipper agreed that she was an excellent speller, but he disagreed about her beauty.  I was taken aback.  Because our parents were friends, I’d known Skipper for a long time.  He was eight months older than me and already several years more worldly.  That afternoon he took me to his house after school.  We went to his parents’ bedroom, and he got out one of his mother’s issues of Ladies Home Journal.  He found a full page advertisement for hair coloring that featured maybe 50 or 60 models with every shade of hair from platinum blonde to jet black.  He asked me if I thought the women in the ads were beautiful.  I wasn’t altogether certain, but I nodded “yes”.  Skipper told me to look them over very carefully and find one that looked like Betty Lou.  I looked at each picture. I couldn’t find a single one that had even the slightest resemblance to Betty Lou.  I was bewildered.  Skipper explained that this was because all the women in the photos were beautiful models and that Betty Lou was not beautiful.  Then he told me that Allison Magnuson, another of our classmates, was beautiful.  Allison Magnuson?  She was a nice girl, but she wasn’t any good at spelling, and I’d never even noticed her.  I looked over the pictures again.  Allison did look more like the women in the ad.


When I saw Betty Lou in class the next day, she no longer was the same person at all.  She was not only very tall, but she had a long neck with a protruding Adam’s apple.  Her teeth were big, and she had a long nose. She also had bushy eyebrows.  And her hair looked funny.  I was astonished.  She looked exactly the same way she’d always looked, yet she was totally different.  Then I looked at Allison Magnuson.  She was just a kid, but she could have stepped right out of a Ladies’ Home Journal advertisement.  Crestfallen, I switched my affection right on the spot.  I began sneaking looks at Allison during class and imagining that I might kiss her one day.  I still liked Betty Lou and I still recognized that she was the best spelling bee competitor, but she’d lost her spot at the center of my daydreams.  I felt (and still feel) a little sad and confused about this.  But I guess I owe a debt to Skipper Burke for straightening me out and helping to ground me in the ways of the world.





*Pseudonyms used in this story.




Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Local Characters: Marge Schott

Dear George,


All cities have their share of eccentrics, oddballs, and crackpots.  Probably the best-known local character in our times is former Cincinnati Reds owner, Marge Schott.   I thought I would write about her because she is an interesting, significant figure in our community’s history and hence in our lives.


Margaret Unnewehr was born in Cincinnati on August 18, 1928, the second of five daughters of lumber baron Edward and classical pianist Charlotte Unnewehr.  Her schoolmates teased her by calling her Unda-wear.  She said of her father: “My poor father, he kept trying to have a son, and he kept getting girls."  Her father called her “Butch”, and he brought her into the family lumber business at a young age.  Schott met wealthy Cincinnati businessman Charles J. Schott while she was a student at the University of Cincinnati, and they married in 1952.  Schott was hostess to elegant society affairs and charity events at their 70-acre Indian Hills estate.  When her husband died in 1968 of a heart attack at age 42, Schott inherited an automobile dealership, as well as a brick factory, a concrete factory, an insurance firm, and a shopping center.  The auto dealership, Schott Buick, had done poorly for years, and she decided to try to turn it around.  Despite GM’s reluctance to give a franchise to a woman, her striking success in boosting sales altered GM’s stance.  In 1980, she opened a second GM franchise, Marge’s Chevrolet.


Schott was a lifelong Reds fan, and she bought a share in the team in 1981.  When the Reds’ general partners decided to sell the team in 1984, she bought the controlling interest for $13 million “as a Christmas present to the city.”  She was the first woman in history to have purchased a major league team.  In 1985 she became president and CEO. While Schott had a public reputation as a cheapskate, down to the nitty-gritty level of counting pencils and pens used in the front office, fans applauded her decisions to keep ticket prices low and hot dogs at a dollar.  Schott sat in a regular box seat at the stadium, participated in the Wave, chatted with fans, signed endless autographs, and, before the game, allowed any child in the stadium to run out to deep center field and back.  The Reds did experience success during her tenure, most notably by defeating the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in four straight games in the 1990 World Series.


Marge Schott loved kids and animals, and her St. Bernards, Schotzie and later Schotzie 02, were fixtures at Reds games and events.  She paraded 170-lb. Schotzie around the field, greeting players and rubbing the Reds’ manager with dog fur for good luck.  She considered replacing the stadium’s Astroturf with a grass field so Schotzie would have a more inviting place to poop.  Pete Rose recounted that, when he visited Marge Schott at her home and complained about Schotzie drooling on him, Schott said, “The dog lives here, Pete. You're just visiting.” 

Schott’s notoriety, of course, resulted from her propensity to make obnoxious, prejudicial remarks about a wide range of minorities.  She was a real-life version of Archie Bunker, though her bigotry was more threatening than Archie’s working class version because of her position of wealth and power.  Controversy erupted in 1992 when a former Reds employee stated that he’d heard Schott refer to Reds outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker as her “million-dollar n*****s”.  Schott said she didn’t understand why the ethnic slur “Jap” was offensive and commented that she didn’t like Asian-American youth “outdoing our kids” in high school.  Another former Reds employee reported that she kept a Nazi swastika armband at her home and that he overheard her say that “sneaky goddamn Jews are all alike.”  On several occasions she defended Adolf Hitler: “Everybody knows he was good at the beginning but he just went too far.”  Justifying the Reds’ policy of banning players from wearing earrings, Schott said, “Only fruits wear earrings.”  When asked if she were a feminist, Schott replied: “What's that? You mean a 'Mez'?  I get mail addressed to me as 'Mez,' I throw it in the wastebasket.”  Confronted with the storm that her comments had raised, Schott denied that she was a racist and admitted, “I don't always express myself well.”

At the opening day game in. 1996, the home plate umpire collapsed on the field and was pronounced dead at University Hospital an hour later.  When the game was postponed, Schott was quoted as saying, “Snow this morning and now this.  I don’t believe it.  I feel cheated.”  When Schott repeated her statements about Hitler a month later, Major League Baseball banned her from day-to-day operations for three years.  In April 1999, Schott sold the team for $67 million to a group led by Cincinnati billionaire Carl Lindner.  Lindner commented that Schott was “tough but fair…What was on her heart was on her tongue.”   

Though less well known than her racial and ethnic blunders, Marge Schott was a major philanthropist in Cincinnati.  She contributed millions of dollars to the Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the Zoo, Saint Ursula Academy, the Boy Scouts, the University of Cincinnati, and a host of other area charities.  When gossips insinuated that her donations were an effort to restore her good name, Schott replied, “Let them talk…You feel good, honey, making people happy.” 

Schott, a long-term drinker and smoker, began developing health problems in 2001 and was hospitalized several times for breathing problems.  She died in March 2004 at age 75.  Mayor Charlie Luken commented, “Marge was a paradox.  While there is no excusing some of the indelicate things she said, there was a kindness to Marge that made her a woman of the people.”  I tend to think of Marge Schott as like a crazy old aunt – awful on occasion but still part of the family.  She said and did things that seemed like disgusting leftovers from some other era.  Without question, she was an embarrassment to herself, the city, the Reds, the fans, major league baseball, her upper class peers, even to the society as a whole which spawned her.  She was an embarrassment, though, because she overtly expressed sentiments which are widely held, but deemed taboo and denied in the larger community.  She lacked any aptitude for political correctness.  In one sense, her bigotry performed a useful function.  When prejudices are driven underground, they vanish from social consciousness.  Schott’s virulent sentiments were snapped up by the media and thus became objects for public commentary and repudiation.  We are able to act like better people by dissociating ourselves from Marge Schott.  Mayor Luken wrapped it all up by saying there was a Good Marge and a Bad Marge.  I’m inclined to agree.




Sources (via Google search): Wikipedia, USA Today, Cincinnati Enquirer, Spiritus Temporis,, Sports Illustrated.




Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day 2009: My Dad

                                  Vic Reading to David & Steven

Dear George,


Vic was never much into holidays, and we never paid the slightest attention to Father’s Day in my youth.  Now it’s more on my mind.  I tried recalling what my dad was like in our childhood.  Initially I drew a blank. Then memories started emerging.  The first were of rewarding things.  My Uncle Kent ran the Menominee drugstore, which had a full-scale soda fountain.  Every couple of months, my dad would take our family there after hours and let the kids loose behind the fountain.  The rule was that we could make any ice cream dish of any size that we wanted, as long as we could eat it the whole thing. We loved ice cream.  Steven and I would bring bananas from home to construct banana splits.  We would use seven or eight different scoops of ice cream, multiple toppings – chocolate, butterscotch, strawberry, pineapple, etc. – and top it all off with whipped cream, peanuts, and a cherry.  We never had difficulty eating it all.  It still makes my mouth water.


My dad inherited my grandfather’s Marinette drug store, an unintentionally low-profit firm, and he put all his children to work there when they reached 14.  It was a less a matter of child labor, more a matter of exposing his kids to the world of work.  My starting salary was 25 cents an hour which was sufficient for my early adolescent expenses.  This was the era of the cold war, and one of my dad’s projects was to build and stock an atomic bomb shelter in the basement of the drugstore.  People in Menominee were convinced that the town looked nearly identical to the Soo Locks from the air and that the Russians might bomb us by accident.  My Uncle Ralph managed the drugstore, and Vic tried to talk him into eliminating tobacco sales for public health reasons, but Ralph insisted that the business would go under if they were to do this.  Later, when Katja and I visited Menominee, my dad invited us to go to the drugstore and pick out any merchandise that we wanted.  Katja spent a lot of her time in the makeup department.  We didn’t know it then, but Vic charged our haul to his own bill.  


My dad was a man of many interests.  He was an excellent photographer and we still have his wonderful albums that documented our childhood.  He and Doris toured Menominee County, digging up wildflowers on the roadside, so that Vic could paint watercolor renderings of them.  He did many oil paintings of scenes in the twin cities, and later he worked in stained glass.  Vic was an excellent writer, publishing columns in the local newspaper, writing stories which he used in advertisements for the family drugstore, and, in our adulthood, producing a family newsletter of events of the day.  He loved music and would come home at the end of the workday, put on his earphones, and listen to classical music on the state of Wisconsin FM station.   He encouraged all of his children to pursue artistic ventures of various sorts, and his grandchildren have done so as well.


When I turned 12, my dad volunteered to be a boy scout leader. Our troop had a bunch of tough kids from St. John’s school that Vic thought needed discipline.  He recruited an ex-Marine sergeant who had been a drill instructor, and we practiced military marching drills each week in preparation for the Memorial Day parade.  The kids were much less enthusiastic than my dad was.  Later Vic helped found the first Menominee unit of the Air Scouts, a teenage version of the Boy Scouts.  The high point came when our troop spent a week at O’Hare Air Force Base in Chicago.  We slept in tents at the end of the runways, and, years later, my dad recounted how he took a valium to go to sleep, though he had no water to wash it down.  He thought he would choke to death as the pill, stuck in his throat, slowly dissolved.  On the last day of the trip we spent several hours at the Maxwell Street flea market in Chicago.  A prostitute approached my dad and offered to do the whole troop for fifty dollars.  He declined. 


My parents had a rich social life in Menominee and Marinette with many friends – the O’Haras, Worths, Jacobsens, Caleys, St. Peters, Sargents, Steffkes, Sawyers, Burkes, Mars, Smiths, and many others.  Pre-TV and lacking the distractions of the big city, these folks generated their own entertainment in their social life, and it was much richer than anything I’ve ever seen since.  They performed community theater at the Menominee Opera House.  My dad was instrumental in generating a Great Books Discussion Group program in the city and inaugurating a summer music festival on the bay.  My parents held wonderful parties for their friends at our home, with themes centered upon art projects, poetry, jazz (with imported musicians), costumes, or theatrical performances. One annual summer highlight occurred each July 4th when dads and sons drove over to Peshtigo and stocked up on fireworks, returning to the Caley’s home at Northwood Cove on Green Bay and ending the evening with a fantastic aerial display on the beach.


My dad delighted in playing with standard English, replacing it with a language of his own.  Some of it was faux French, e.g., cottage cheese became “Chez du la Coutage.”  When tired, he would utter “Oh my po’ gungas, my po’ queagaterla’s.”   My dad was an excellent conversationalist, shy by nature but outgoing by deliberate choice, and he and his friends delighted in debating the many issues of the day.  Vic had great intellectual curiosity.  He was an avid reader and a board member of the public library.  He subscribed to numerous magazines, e.g., the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly. W (to keep abreast with the fashion world), the Smithsonian, and many others.  When I was in high school he bought us the World Book Encyclopedia and asked questions each day so we could look up the answers.


Vic was not all fun and games.  As a second generation American, his Swedish heritage was evident in his often serious and sometimes stern manner.  We heard a lot of “Jump when I say jump” or “You’ll do it because I say so.”  He and Doris would frequently instruct the children to “straighten up and fly right.”  Probably the most lasting lesson my dad taught me was the oft-repeated maxim, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”  He put great emphasis on school achievement and scrutinized report cards.  He was such a perfectionist that Vicki came to always preface performances of any sort with “This isn’t my best.”   In my teen years my Dad would now and then invite me to take a walk out on the road.  This always made me anxious, because it was inevitably the time and place to address some dereliction on my part.  While his criticism was always called for, I knew that going for a walk on the road meant I was in trouble.


My dad was a lawyer in Menominee and served as a judge and as Prosecuting Attorney.  His personal rule was never to discuss work at home, so we knew next to nothing of his professional life.  In our young adult years he became a member of the board of directors of a local chemical company, and this opened up new worlds to my dad, particularly in terms of international travel.  Katja and I were the direct beneficiaries of this when he met us on the French Riveria and hosted us for a week at a fancy hotel in Roquebrune.  Another legendary family trip occurred years earlier when Vic took me down to Miami Beach to drive my grandfather back to Menominee.  We spent three days on the road, and my dad claimed that the three generations of male Swedes in our family never spoke a word to one another.


When I came of age, my dad took me to hunting camp at Jean Worth’s camp in Cedar River, along with other fathers and sons, including Skipper Burke, Billy Caley, and Frankie St. Peter.  The men drank beer or whiskey, while Jean told the teenagers wonderful stories about Cedar River characters.  When they’d drunk enough, the adult males would go out and write their names in the snow with pee.  We’d get up at 6 a.m. and use flashlights to go out to our posts in the freezing woods in the dark.  I never saw a deer on these trips, and, to my knowledge, nobody in this group ever shot one.


In the 1970s my folks began restoring an old farm in Birch Creek, and they became completely engaged in that project.  My father’s life dreams became tied up in that property and its 240 acres.  He created a flag to symbolize our family empire at Farm (“The Sun Never Sets on L***”) and minted coins in our family name at a local foundry.  He and Doris hosted annual family reunions there for many years, and J and my adult nieces and nephews still retain strong emotional connections to Farm.  My siblings and I have commented from time to time that Vic proved to be a better grandfather than he was a father.  His generation’s maxim was that child rearing was women’s work, and, like his cohort, he alleged that children were of the lower orders.  Steven joked that the family photo of Vic reading to him and myself must have been some sort of one-time promotional stunt.  Times change, and years later Vic was a much more mellow, affectionate grandfather.


While my mother did most of our actual parenting, my dad had a lot of influence on how we grew up and who we became -- we all were attentive to his ideals for us and eager for his approval.  In my view, my father embraced four main life values involving: (a) the law, his chosen profession; (b) education, reflected in his involvement in the Menominee school system and the Marinette UW branch campus; (c) finance, where he served on the boards of local businesses and loved investing in the stock market; and (d) the arts, reflecting his nonconventional bohemianism and his many artistic pursuits.  Interestingly, I, as his firstborn son, became an academic.  His second born son, Steven, chose law.  Peter, his third born, had a successful career in finance.  And Vicki, his fourth born child and only daughter, embraced the counterculture of the 1970’s and followed hippie/bohemian culture to Santa Cruz.  While we chose very distinct life paths, we collectively acted out and realized my dad’s major dreams and aspirations.


My mother died in 1986, and Vic began showing signs of senility several years later.  Eventually he moved to Cincinnati to the Alois Alzheimer Center, where I spent a lot of meaningful time with him.  He remarked, “I used to be the father, but now I’m the son.”  A few weeks after he moved there, the Center held a big event for families.  As the show was ready to start, Vic just walked up onto the vacant stage and began the proceedings as emcee.  The organizers didn’t know what to do, so they just let him go ahead and conduct the whole program, using the schedule available on the podium.  That’s my dad.  Never at a loss for words.  Vic hung in there at the Alzheimer Center as best as he could, and the staff often voiced that he made it a more positive and rewarding place.  He invited everyone he met to come to visit him at Farm when he returned home.  He died on November 8, 1993, a couple of days after his 85th birthday.  I miss him.






Friday, June 19, 2009

The Fitness Center

Dear George,

When our friend Donna invited me in January to try out the Fitness Center as her guest, I was dubious but went along as a lark. Years ago Katja bought me a one-year gym membership for my birthday. The whole thing made me nervous. I didn’t want to go by myself, and I put it off until the year finally came to an end. All I got for her $200 expenditure was a T-shirt with a fitness logo. Going there with somebody was much easier. Donna showed me the various machines for an hour or so. It was fun and I decided on the spot to sign up. Partly I have lots of time on my hands and am looking for ways to fill it up. Also I’m a few decades older than the first time around and am necessarily more concerned about good health. Plus I liked the fact that everybody there was so busy working on their own individual machines that you don’t have to talk to anybody. I can do this, I thought to myself.

The Fitness Center is a big fancy place. It’s associated with a big hospital on the west side of town and is housed in its own large building on the hospital grounds. The first floor has a lobby, warm water pool, lap pool, whirlpool, sauna, locker rooms, and offices. The second floor has a main workout room with roughly sixty cardio and strength machines, a spinning room, rooms for group classes, separate physical therapy and cardio rehab units, and other meeting rooms. The big fitness room is about 35 yards by 50 yards. There are recumbent and upright bikes at the front; then treadmills, ellipticals, and arc trainers; upper and lower body strength machines; and a free weight lifting area. This is where I spend my time.

I had an initial diagnostic meeting with one of the trainers, Ellen, a friendly blond woman in her late twenties. Ellen remarked that she had expected from my application to meet a shrunken gray-haired man, but I looked pretty well-preserved for my age. She interviewed me and had me do some physical tasks. I had judged myself to be in excellent shape until she scored my results and reported that my body age is roughly a decade older than my chronological age (about my father’s age when he died). That got my attention. I told myself later that they do this to motivate new members by scaring the wits out of them. Whether true or not, Ellen’s input was successful. She scheduled me for back-to-back meetings with Rocky, another trainer and former football player, who set me up on six strength machines the first week and added four more in the second week. These machines are state of the art, very solid, and completely smooth in their operation (thus minimizing the likelihood of injury).

The fitness center has a diverse clientele. Because it’s hospital-associated, there are a lot of older people, some number of whom have graduated from the cardio or physical therapy units and are continuing in the fitness center. These folks tend to be in fragile physical condition, using wheelchairs or walkers or canes. They are people I admire the most, given their strenuous effort in dealing with major health or disability problems. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, there are young people in their twenties who are exceedingly fit and have clearly been using the gym for a good while. There are lots of overweight men and women, sweating off pounds and inches on the treadmill. Some of the gym regulars look like former professional football players, barrel-chested with arms like tree trunks. They concentrate on weight-lifting. Others are completely wiry without an ounce of body fat – they’re labeled “sticks” in the fitness world jargon, and they work out on treadmills or ellipticals at a frightening pace. There are similar numbers of women and men. Standard apparel is T-shirt and workout shorts, though you also see people in jeans, plaid shirts, and cowboy boots. I initially bought a couple of warmup shorts at Wal-Mart, but then discovered that Goodwill has a lot of gym apparel, apparently donated by overly enthusiastic persons who purchased their Nike outfits but never got around to using them. Given my obsessiveness about collecting, I now have a very well-stocked thrift shop wardrobe, along with a Menominee Maroons gym bag in which to carry my gear.

An appealing part of the fitness center is that many of the machines (particularly the strength machines) are hooked up to a computerized system which records details of your performance in a cumulative data base, enabling tracking of the your workouts over time. This provides accurate data about pounds lifted, cardio time, and calories burned, as well as offering comparisons with 700 local and 100,000 world-wide users. Calories are represented by “Apples”, and weight lifted is calculated by Elephants. I lifted 43 Elephants in May. Needless to say, this cumulative, quantitative feature has high appeal to me. Donna claims that I like to look at my points on the computer more than doing the actual workouts which generate them.

Right now the Fitness Center occupies an important part of my existential universe. For the first couple of months I approached it with feverish intensity, going to the gym five or six days a week and spending two to three hours each time. Now I’ve leveled off to three to five days a week for an hour or two. This venture has taken on a lot of personal meaning, mostly centered around diffuse anxieties about death and efforts to conquer the threat of old age. I realize nobody is ultimately successful in this venture, but a good workout helps for the time being.



Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sheepdog Standup Comedy Routine

Dear George,


As you know, I’ve floundered a bit as I’ve tried to figure out what to do with this retirement thing.  I have big blocks of empty time, and you can only make so many trips to the grocery store per day.  My happiest retired friends have actually created new vocations for themselves, e.g., sculptor, photographer, racetrack tout.  For myself, I’ve decided to realize a dream that I have entertained since my early teens, namely, to be a standup comic.  I have been working on my routine, and I’d like to try it out on you.  It’s based, of course, on real-life stories about our Old English Sheepdogs.  It goes something like this:


Hey guys, thanks for coming out.  I know a lot of you from the neighborhood, and you probably recognize me as the Clifton sheepdog guy.  I’m really happy to have a chance to fill you in on our boys, Mike and Duffy.  My wife Katja bought our doggies in Fairfield eight years ago.  She did this on her own, and, when I first saw them from a distance in the kitchen door, I thought they were baby raccoons.  Though I’d sworn to never own another dog, it took only a few minutes to fall in love with these darling puppies.  A few months later our friend Donna bought their younger sister, a female sheepdog who she named Sophie.  The three siblings get together a lot.  Duffy’s the alpha dog and can be aggressive when he doesn’t get his way.  Mikey is more gentle and laid back, and Sophie has all the personality.  She likes Mikey the best and is a little wary of Duffy (rightfully so).  The three dogs have had many adventures. 


You probably know that Old English Sheepdogs are known for their keen  intelligence.  How intelligent, I found out last week.  I got home earlier than usual, and Mike and Duffy didn’t know I was there.  I was astonished to overhear them in the living room speaking to one another in perfect English.  I’d always known they could understand what we were saying, but I had no idea they could actually speak themselves.  I was pretty excited about this, so I put Duffy on his leash and took him down the street to Keller’s IGA.  I said to the manager, “Will you give us a bag of free dog food if I show you that my sheepdog can talk.”  He was sort of amused so he said, “Sure, go ahead.”  So I said to Duffy, “What goes on the top of a house to protect it?”  Duffy replied, “Roof.”  Then I asked him, “And what is the opposite of smooth?”  Duffy said, “Rough.”  Finally I asked, “Who was the greatest baseball player of all times.”  Duffy said something like, “Ruth.”  I turned to the manager, ready to get our free dog food, but he just frowned and escorted us politely to the door.  We sat down on the stoop.  Duffy looked up at me disappointedly and asked, “Do you think I should have said Pete Rose?”


Once I had learned about the dogs’ amazing abilities, I took Mike to see the vet at Tennessee Avenue Clinic.  She said, "So tell me about your dog.  What’s his problem."  I said, “Well, his name is Mikey.  He’s a Jewish dog, and he can speak.”  The vet looked at me skeptically.  "He can speak in English?"  “Sure,” I said, “watch this.” I looked Mikey in the eye and commanded in my firmest voice: “Mikey, Fetch!"  Mikey began to walk toward the door, but then he turned around and said, "So why are you talking to me like that? You always order me around like I'm nothing. And you only call me when you want something.
 And then you make me sleep on the floor, with my arthritis. You give me this fahkahkta food with all the salt and fat, and you tell me it's a special diet. It tastes like dreck! YOU should eat it yourself! And do you ever take me for a decent walk? NO, it's out of the house, a short pish, and right back home. Maybe if I could stretch out a little, the sciatica wouldn't kill me so much! I should roll over and play dead for real for all you care!"  The vet was astonished. "This is incredible! What in the world is the dog’s  problem?"  I explained: "He’s hearing impaired. I said 'Fetch', not 'Kvetch'!”


Now that they think that they’re practically human beings, the dogs have started doing more stuff on their own.  Last week Duffy went down the street to Graeter’s ice cream parlor and ordered a banana split.  The clerk was Kathy Graeter herself  She was quite surprised to hear a sheepdog speak, but she brought the banana split anyway.  Duffy slurped it up in a matter of seconds and handed Kathy a ten dollar bill.  She  didn’t think a sheepdog could know anything about money, so she only gave him  back fifty cents in change.  “Hope you enjoyed the banana split,” she said.  “We don’t get very many sheepdogs coming in here.”  “At $9.50 a sundae,” Duffy said, “It’s no wonder.”


My neighbor thinks that the sheepdogs are pretty rambunctious, maybe even too rambunctious.  She took Mikey aside one day and told him that she had taken her Weimaraner to obedience school and it was a great experience for him.  Mikey was  unimpressed.  She asked him why he and Duffy hadn’t gone to obedience school.  Mikey said, “We don’t need to go to obedience school.  Our humans obey us just fine.”


The truth is the dogs probably could use some obedience training.  You just never know what they’re going to be up to next.  The other night Katja took an Ambien to go to sleep.  About an hour later she wandered down to the kitchen.  When she opened the refrigerator door, she found Duffy sleeping on the top shelf.  “What is a sheepdog doing in our refrigerator?” she exclaimed.  “Isn’t this a Westinghouse?” Duffy asked.  “Yes,” said Katja.  “Well,” Duffy explained, “I’m Westing.” 


Mike’s the more sociable of the two dogs, and he decided the other day to get in touch with his German Shepherd cousin Parker in New York City.  He went down to the Western Union office, picked up a blank form, and wrote, "Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof."  The clerk read the message and politely told him: "There are only nine words here. You can add another Woof for the same price."  "But," Mikey replied, "that would totally ruin the punch line."


Sophie comes over to visit a lot, and she is without question the cutest of the sheepdogs.  She wears her hair in two little ponytails, wiggles her butt when she walks, and is as flirtatious as an OES can be.  I took her for a walk down Ludlow Avenue one day when three handsome male Dalmatians came along – a big Dalmation, a medium-sized Dalmation, and a small Dalmation.  They were lovestruck with Sophie and crowded around her.  She looked them over and said, “Whichever one of you can say liver and cheese in an intelligent sentence can go on a date with me.”  The big Dalmation immediately responded, “I love liver and cheese.”  Sophie, unimpressed, shook her head with disapproval.  So the medium-sized Dalmation said, “I could whip you up a liver and cheese sandwich.”  Sophie shook her head even more negatively.  Finally, the small Dalmation – the runt of the pack -- gave Sophie a wink and turned to his brothers:  “Liver alone.  Cheese mine.”


So that’s our life these days.  Thanks for your attention, sheepdog lovers.  You are definitely the best audience I’ve ever had.   (Applause sign lights up)







Monday, June 15, 2009

Washington School Days: 2. Miss Hunnefeld's Army

                                             Skipper Burke

Dear George,


Fourth grade at Washington School was a memorable year.  We’d been little kids up till then.  But now we were in the upper tier of grades, and we felt we had entered the ranks of the big kids.  Our teacher was Miss Helen Hunnefeld*.  She was a squarish  woman in her late forties with steel-rimmed glasses and an old-fashioned hairdo.  She lived in a big yellow house on Stephenson Avenue, and sometimes we’d see her father driving her to work in their fancy black Buick.  He was a very short man who wore a bowler hat and could barely see over the dashboard.  Miss Hunnefeld sat alone in the back seat.


The war had ended the year before, but Miss Hunnefeld had been organizing her classroom as an army unit for some time, and she decided to continue doing so with us.  This basically consisted in her presenting the children with a set of opportunities to progress through the ranks of a classroom military hierarchy.  All the fourth graders started the year as buck privates. As we accumulated merit points, we would then become a blue star corporal, a green star sergeant, a red star captain, and so forth – potentially all the way up to the ultimate pinnacle: the “GOLD STAR GENERAL”!  This was introduced as such a major life accomplishment that it would clearly require at least the  entire year.  Miss Hunnefeld posted everybody’s current rank on a chart on the west wall of the classroom, and she updated it weekly.  Few people, Miss Hunnefeld intimated, were talented and hard-working enough to rise to the top.  We fourth graders vowed to one another – especially Skipper Burke and I – that we would be Gold Star Generals by year’s end.


Miss Hunnefeld gave points for almost everything.  For getting A’s on schoolwork tasks, for doing extra non-required assignments, and especially for doing stuff outside of school that Miss Hunnefeld deemed worthy.  Children got points for going to church, playing on the sports teams, joining the D.A.R. Boys’ Club or the cub scouts, listening to Dr. I.Q. on the radio, going to Lions’ Club concerts, for all sorts of things.  There was some grumbling on the playground that Miss Hunnefeld was controlling a lot of our non-school lives, but we were so obsessed with accumulating points that no one worried too much. 

By midyear the girls started to rebel.  They complained to Miss Hunnefeld that the boys had more things to get points for and so they were advancing more rapidly through the ranks.  The girls had a legitimate gripe, e.g., they weren’t allowed in the D.A.R. Boys’ Club; they didn’t have any sports teams to join.  Miss Hunnefeld recognized that this was an unfortunate flaw of the system, and she promised to correct it by finding more options for girls.  But she also observed that the girls were growing up in a mans’ world and that they needed to learn about such differences.  Nobody voiced it, but her system also pretty much insured that kids from middle class families would gain higher status than kids from poorer families.  Increasingly, our classroom social structure came to resemble the larger community and society in which it was embedded.  Most children, of course, did make progress by year’s end, though the final standings contained major inequalities.  Skipper Burke wound up the year as the only Gold Star General in the class.  We all admired him and/or envied him.   Skipper was the real deal.  Miss Hunnefeld never did make good on her promise to make things fairer for the girls.  Everybody wound up with some interesting lessons about life from Miss Hunnefeld’s class.  They weren’t necessarily the lessons that she set out to teach.






*Pseudonym used.