Friday, January 2, 2009


Life in Kickapoo Center at the Turn of the Century

"Hey, how about another cold one?" He's old. He has a haystack of long white hair and a beard blown about from strong winds. It's Old Man Winter. "Thanks, but I'll have a soda instead." In the picture at left, he looks more like a wolf .
Sick of reorganizing everything. To remove the kitchen cabinets, I must remove all the dishes, bowls, pans,an electric juicer, bean pots with no lids, an ancient brown-ware slow cooker without a cord and three dozen mismatched coffee mugs. The eclectic collection of dishware will replace my pig collection over the entertainment center and the buffet. I vow to put a stop to junk , but how? Dawn won't give up the rose colored plastic Tupperware cup. "We can use it when our granddaughter stays with us," she says. I can't sell the pig collection. Who would buy it? In a moment of whimsy, I imagine opening a folk art museum. See flying pigs, pigs on bicycles, mating pigs, pigs made from gemstones, pigs on a swing, a pig piloting a plastic helicopter, the barker standing outside the store front calls out.

Dawn and I go to the kitchen cabinets. Listen closely, you'll hear a laugh. "Gotcha." the cabinet says. It's empty. We have to train ourselves to look for dishes in the living room. For the next few days there'll be a constant stream of guffaws and
gotchas. Fixing breakfast, I hear a clatter. It sounds like it's on the roof. It could also be coming from underneath the addition we call the studio. Wait a minute. Could it be coming from under the deck? It's the only spot in ten miles which isn't buried under snow. The black and white feral cat and the Pooch are having a standoff. I imagine Pucci coming in bloody with a torn ear. "Hey Pooch," I call out the deck door. It's below zero. The storm door freezes up quickly. At 8 am I've already re-stoked the wood furnace. "Com'ere Pooch, " I yell. No response. This calls for treats. I know from past experience that Pucci gets so riled when he encounters another cat, he's almost catatonic. Oh God, I didn't mean to do that. I sort through the foil bags of treats looking for one most tempting with the loudest rattle. The Pooch jumps up on the deck, slips under the storm door and enters the house with a cat grunt. He's not hurt or bleeding.

Later there's another
thwack when a bird hits the side of the house. During all the commotion, I'm upstairs, then in the basement, in the studio trying to locate the source of the noise. I listen outside a closet for noise of mice scurrying to get out of the cold. I thought owning a cat thwarted the annual mice invasions. No traps snapping in the middle of the night or drawers with cello wrapped crackers partially eaten. Every so often I find a peanut butter baited trap in locations I forgotten about-like behind the cast iron pans in the lazy Susan. Old Man Winter's gift of another cold one makes me stiff with arthritis. Because I cut the propane furnace back to 60 degrees at night, I sleep under flannel sheets, a comforter and a thermal blanket. The heavy layers of protection causes aching wrists and ankles from sleeping in weirdly contorted positions. I'd rather be in my office dreaming up another adventure for the blog.
More questions. Why the pair of rubber boots on the cover? At first, I imagine the man with the silly hat to be Napoleon. The hooked beak nose and the fact that this is a book of English etymology requires that he be an English admiral. There's no entry for
foreboding. My dictionary says foreboding is a premonition of misfortune. I'd hoped to find a curious entry for the word. Fore: before, Bode-abode, bodega-wine shop, yet bode merely means to announce. I laugh when I glance at definitions of bob. It reminds me of a time I'm driving down Broadway in Tucson. The radio is tuned to the local NPR station coming from the university. A man is singing in a monotone. I hate my name. My name is Bob... Bob- a bunch, a knob, a knot, pummel, buffet, rap. Now I'm further distracted by boche German army slang for hard skull. Oh please forgive the sidetracks.

I have previously described my stellar entry in Catholic school. A nun on each arm and leg. I wonder if there's more than one St. Anthony because my grade school is named after the one from Padua. Considering my age at the time, my memories are commendable. Fridays we'd gather in the wood floor gymnasium. Father Joe would give all the children a candy bar. I got a Giant bar. We watched a movie. Then there's the time one of my classmates threw up over me. The combination of milk and elbow macaroni in a red sauce still makes me gag. The Principal, Sister Sixtus was to be feared. My third grade teacher was a kindly Chinese nun. There were two playgrounds. One behind the tan brick school and another between the rectory and the old wooden church. I'd sit in the classroom fondly gazing out at boys and girls playing behind the school. The younger children went out first. There was also a swing set and other playground apparatus. Some of it was in a small area behind the church between a low wooden structure called
The Barracks. In the barracks the local Brownie and Girl Scout troops met. We'd steal wax paper for the metal slide. It made the run down the cold metal faster. In summer when school was out, the larger gravel playground was our baseball field. There was a fence along Stevenson Street. One year I became the Eddie Matthews of playground baseball, hitting numerous hard balls over the fence.

Third grade in 1954 was the end of my Catholic school career. My real mother-the one who came to visit weekly-took me to a red brick building on the east side of Milwaukee. There, a white haired man administered a few tests. I want to imagine that I scored in the genius range on these tests. My school career from then on was less than spectacular. I entered a co-educational private school-one of three in Milwaukee. At first, I was driven to school with a man who taught at the school. He lived in Wauwatosa and drove me across town. I have no idea how my mother arranged the transportation. My driver was an Olympic runner. I remember him to be friendly and kind. I must have been scared shitless due to the change in schools because I remember him going to lengths to make me laugh. Years of training as an Olympic runner caused him back trouble. My ride disappeared either at the end of the school year and his teaching position or because of his frequent visits to Columbia hospital.

I'm in fifth grade. I live on the far west side of Milwaukee. It's 1955. In 1952, Las Vegas has only one stop light. Bluemound Road (Highway 18) was the road out of town. By the time drivers reached 77th Street, their speed increased. My stepmother referred to them as paper devils. My real mother and I watch from the safety of Gilles Drive-In Custard Stand on 76th Street. A man loses control of his car, or perhaps, the brakes fail. He steers the car into the Pate gas station and smashes into several cars. Beyond 84th street is a new subdivision. From approximately 96th street to Highway 100, also named Lovers Lane Road, a stretch of Barnekow's Woods is to become to future site of the Milwaukee County Zoo. On 76th and Stevenson, I catch a short bus which takes me to my
streetcar connection . At one time Milwaukee had an Interurban train that ran to Waukesha. The streetcars follow the old path of the Interurban. There's a turnaround in West Allis for the return trip to downtown. I remember cane seats, the backs of which could be flipped for the return ride. Often I'd see sand in the rails. The streetcars released sand to increase traction for braking. On the short bus I'd see the same people every day. The only person who stands out in my memory is the gum chewer.

The ride on the streetcar is etched in my memory 50 years later. Before we passed the baseball stadium, I'd see a green lawn filled with white crosses. Then the streetcar crosses a wooden viaduct across the Menominee River Valley and the Miller Brewery. There are old white houses and factories a thousand feet below me. The houses are a part of Milwaukee called Pigsville. For years I have nightmares about walking across the viaduct on the streetcar tracks. Each and every ride was filled with foreboding: today would be the day when my streetcar would crash through the 6X6 wooden railing and plunge to the floor of the cavernous canyon below.

I'd get off the streetcar at Wells Street to catch a Number 30 bus to Hartford and Downer. The route for the number 30 ran through downtown, making endless stops on Wisconsin Avenue, ran along the Lakefront to the East side. Downtown, a man with a thousand boils over his face and neck would get on the bus. It's where men without legs-a torso on a plywood platform with casters- would sell pencils for a living. It was a free, freak show. After three years of this daily grind with frightening images inside and out the windows, I vowed never to set forth on a bus. It wasn't until 1980 something that I would venture on public transportation. You know, never say never. I rode the bus on New Year's Eve. It was free, but not without haunting images of the past.

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