Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dead of Winter

Life in Kickapoo Center at the Turn of the Century

I've been writing for 37 years. In college I was determined to write my life's story. In an unused 2nd floor bedroom of a rented house in Oshkosh, I set up my writing chamber. My memoirs never got past the first page. One of the reasons, perhaps,is at that point I had no life to write about.

In 1971 I commuted between Milwaukee and Oostburg. It was 45 miles long and over an hour's drive. It was a simultaneously boring and dangerous. The first leg of the journey was either a narrow two lane County KW- or a stretch of highway 141, notorious for the deaths of teenagers. Highway 141 in 1964 was a three lane highway with a curb. The middle lane was a passing lane. In '64 there were counties on the outskirts of Milwaukee that were beer friendly. If you were 18 you could legally drink. Add music, friendly young ladies and inspired farmers who turned old outbuildings into bars, you have a recipe for disaster. They called them "teen bars". Between 11 and bar close, the sheriff could wait to pick off drunken teenagers on the highways. Those who didn't get picked off by the constabulary, got their picture in the morning paper. The picture was a late-at- night flash camera whiteout . The scene was a twisted wreck that once was an automobile.

I drove $100 specials. Cars I picked up from relatives. One was a 1960 Pontiac Catalina on its last legs. It suffered through years of abuse at my hands while I was in high school. By 1971, the exhaust system was failing and the engine- iffy. I'd drive with one hand and jot notes about anything and everything. Then, I'd put together these notes into a mimeographed booklet complete with hand copied tracing from books and magazines. I still have those "gems" in a scrapbook on a bookshelf in my current office. One example was called, The Life and Times of Amelia Earhardt. I think the stretched link between myself and Amelia was my mother and Milwaukee. I'm afraid to go back and read it. You don't want me to go there.
The imagery and wisdom in those writings are as dubious as this tree.

Who in their right mind would put a face on a tree in their front yard?

I caught myself the other day. On the side of the road was a dirty, pink-plush teddy bear. It looked like something a really good marksman would win at the state fair. My mind went into high gear. I started to create a whole scenario about the bear. Wait a minute, get a hold on yourself, I told myself. In the movies this would be a time warp.

...On my way home from another day as an inner city teacher, I've got the radio on in the old Pontiac. It's tuned to the devotional hour. "Hail Mary Full of Grace the Lord is with Thee..." A congregation in the background mumbles and murmurs . On the side of the highway is a black woman with a child and suitcase. She's thumbing a ride. I drive dumbly past the them. My mind is numb from the day's assault on a young, inexperience teacher. I don't react. Then, "Oh shit!. I should have stopped. Well, maybe not. I don't want to get involved." Thirty minutes of self loathing follow.

Prior to this blog,I shared many of my written experiences via e-mail with a friend. She will attest to my penchant for straying off topic. Remember, this is about living in a small, rural community in 2008-a little past the turn of the century. So, to keep the imagery clear, look at it this way.

I'm on the throne. I read in the bathroom. Seed catalogs are the best, since they require little follow-up. I'm reading about the Don Juan of radishes. It's a radish that will cross pollinate readily with any species. I want to write about Don Juan-the radish. Uncle Bob leaves the bathroom with the end of the toilet paper roll attached to the heel of his shoe. Uncle Bob goes to the basement and forgets why.

This is the front of my Christmas card for 2008. The inside reads, Happy Holidays. There's no place like Gnome for Christmas.. Hiding behind two Stein Garden Center artificial trees is a gnome. He's flanked by two skiing snowmen on Popsicle stick skis. At right is a child dressed in a snow-suit riding a snowball. A rabbit with antlers is pulling the child along. I'd guess the snow child belonged to my Grandmother. It's worth something as an antique. If you didn't send me a card this year, you won't get a paper copy. Be happy with this. You can also be glad I didn't write about a number of things; i.e. the title.

My wife says three people have died recently at the retirement home. She hopes that's the end of it. Dogg tells me a relative in Alaska retired after years of work making big bucks on the pipeline. He died, too.

All the cashiers at Wal-Mart on my last visit are bundled up in coats, scarves, hats and gloves. One cashier tells me about the latest remodel, the new doors ( all of which she says,"
We paid for.") and the inability of Wal-Mart to reconfigure the front doors so that 15 mph winds and temperatures of -3 do not waltz in merrily in the 30 minutes it takes for the automatic doors to close.

I also didn't do a piece about the Pooch, his litter pan and the bag of cat litter next to it. In my musing I think about putting something new for him to read next to the box. I will leave you with one last image.

In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. I'm at the part where Bill tells about his lack luster performance in kindergarten.

I always did everything wrong. I forgot to bring back official forms on time. I forgot to bring cookies for class parties, and Christmas cards and valentines on the appropriate festive days. I always turned up empty handed for show-and-tell. I remember once in kindergarten, in a kind of desperation, I just showed my fingers.

I saved you, too, from any discussion about the sun not rising this morning ;It not getting light until 7:20 am and lazy birds . Wait one minute. There's someone at the door. It's Yarb Firdman.

"What's up Yarb?" I ask.

"There's a for sale sign on your Norway Pine tree in the east forty, " he says.

"For sale?"

"Yup, fer sail."

"Why those no good scoundrels, I reply. "They can't sell my tree!"

"Past tense, Bubba. Sold, says Yarb."

I ignore the "Bubba" remark. "Who bought the tree?"
Yarb says that the four gnomes the Pooch and I met down by the river put 40 cents down with a balance of thirteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine dollars at 12% interest. It seems that a dime is all the cash a gnome can physically carry at any given time.

"Wait till I get my hands on the broker," I retort.

"Broker's a polecat who left town," Yarb tells me. " You don't want to get near that sachet kitty."

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