The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence. ~Roy T. Bennett
With the sale of the family Summer Estate in Central Wisconsin in March of 2018, the second to last vestige of my childhood goes the way of the final Dodo bird clubbed over the head by a sailor for food. Death. Extinction. The last vestige is my childhood home, a red brick bungalow still housing my Mother. It is the saving grace connecting me to my personal history. A place I can visit and feel connected to a youth characterized by reckless stupidity, a youth experiencing more joy than any one person deserves.
This travel blog will be different than most I have written. It is an amalgamation of experiences occurring in chunks as small as one day up through a maximum of two weeks occurring over 45 years compressed into a single offering. It is the story of yesteryear, a memory filled yesteryear with my last memory painted a few yesterdays ago. I am trekking deep down memory lane living mostly in the time before mobile phone, the land before internet, the world before nearly every human was connected by six degrees of separation.
This blog is longer than most and possibly too long to keep the average person’s attention. I am ok with that. I wrote it for myself as both a celebration of 45 years and a cathartic experience to release my pain into the collective consciousness so to begin the healing process.
I had a rudimentary plan for the farewell blog one that saw me deep dive into a sea of memories, study all the offerings, then surface with those carrying the weight of ages for sharing. It did not work out that way. I fell into labyrinthian memory corridors without Ariadne to guide me back stumbling my way through a memory fog bumping into remembrances I had completely forgotten existed, people whose faces I hadn’t thought about in decades who may no longer be breathing.
The vignettes contained herein are those that allowed me to see them giving me comfort during a challenging time. They chose me. Each is both an anchor grounding me in my youth and a springboard into my unknown future. The two may appear to be conflicting, anchoring and springing, but they are harmonious dualities, complementary. This duality is not good balanced with evil as in the Western tradition but the harmony of Mother and Father, yin and yang. To maintain the harmony of my subconscious, I laid them out in the same sequence they spoke to my soul.
Many remembrances echoed from the depths of forgotten time during the drive from my home in Chicago the Friday before my last ever visit. I foresee no reason to ever return. Long solo drives are enjoyable. I set the cruise control a nickel over the posted speed, slide into the right lane, settle into a mantra of sunflower seed, preferably David & Sons brand, eating…pop a handful into my mouth, crack individual shells and eat the seed, spit the saliva drenched shells into an empty soda bottle. Repeat.
It is a meditative process where my mind wanders only interrupted when a thought I want to explore further is spoken into Siri for a note. Most of the time, the notes are garbled, sometimes too much to be of later use. Or a song reaches through the speaker and grabs my attention but I always fall back into my sunflower seed rhythm where my mind, uncluttered, senses the echoes before they become full-fledged remembrances.
The drive is 250 miles and takes four hours, three and a half if you push it, four and a half when taken leisurely. My dad had the ability to stretch it into a solid eight hours. Granted, the speed limit was 55 in those days, a number he held tightly. Eight hours inside a van full of camping gear, six restless kids, a dog or two, and not a lick of air conditioning to abate the August heat.
We always left just before dawn. The first stop was a mile away for coffee and donuts. The next stop 90 miles later for a restaurant breakfast at the Clock Tower in Rockford followed by another 120 miles and lunch in the horror show known as the Wisconsin Dells. Then 25 miles up highway 13 to friendship for yet another cup of coffee, at which time the passengers were ready to stage a violent revolution, before the final 19 miles to the land.
Some events echoed clear as the day they happened and I was able to write with assuredness as if I was taking notes from a film reel playing in real-time. Others were apparitions, shadows steeped in thick fog allowing near blind glimpses leaving a trail of unresolved emotion I tripped over skinning my soul.
I am not sure if any vignette is my singular experience, a fusion of various experiences, or recitations of other’s experiences that sublimated into my mind taking up residence as my own first-person stories. My understanding of reality rises and falls with the color of the sun, waxes and wanes with the phases of the dark moon, fluctuates with the intonation of the voices carried in the wind. Their essence remains if not the exact facts. Facts don’t speak whole truths anyway. Statistics are facts and most of them are used to support damn lies. There are still other incidents so hidden by the mists of time, if I don’t receive the help of others to clear the clouds, they may never again illuminate my personal history. I weep for those losses.
And so it goes…
The End is Nigh
At 4:41 pm CST on Sunday, 04 March 2018, the siblings, siblings-in-law, and the grandchildren received a group text telling us the sale closing on the cottage was imminent and our help was needed to ready the house for the buyer. My first tear fell the next day during a flurry of texts planning a final visit to clear out the home, gut the fish and leave it for dead, slip a thin, sharp knife in the soft underbelly of my youth ripping forty-five years from stem to stern scraping the vitality of youth to be tossed in a pile of decomposing offal. I am officially old.
When Mom informed us last Fall it was being sold, I was indifferent. I had not been there for five years and that last time was only for one night on the way back from a mountain biking trip a couple hours further North. I did not want to drive the remaining four hours home to Chicago and I was with a hot lass. Drive home in the dark or spend the night in a wooded forest cabin with the hot babe? It was an easy decision. It was a decision that made itself. As for future trips, well, none were anywhere on my horizon. I have come to enjoy international travel and prefer to spend my leisure time immersed in unfamiliar cultures that bombarded the senses and obliterate my understanding of reality.
The Summer Estate had become the dying limb on a tree, a drain on the financial health of my mother. Better to sever the limb than allow it to siphon off resources needed elsewhere. Since my dad passed, it had become too much for her to maintain. She valiantly held on to it for 10 years thanks in large part to my brother-in-law who helped her open and close it year after year. Looking back, I have to say he is somewhat a hero.
We dubbed the upcoming event a reunion, a euphemism keeping the pain at bay for as long as possible. The first stage of grief is denial. The euphemism helped me deny the coming loss for a couple of weeks. The actual reunion/cleaning day was filled with stories, multiple trips to the dump, laughter, photographs, and a tribute. It is amazing how pain can be dissipated when it is countered with love.
Herstory/History/Gender Fluidstory/Gender Neutralstory
The land, a small heavily wooded pine and oak copse within scent range of the freshwater lake, was purchased in the Winter of 1973. It was young and vibrant then but, like us, it aged not so gracefully. Today, there are fewer trees in the area. A blight took many of the oaks. Pine trees were removed to build the house and by others purchasing lots on either side of ours. What felt like a forest now feels closer to a suburban subdivision.
It was bought at the behest of my dad’s best friend, Bob, who had his own plot a short traipse through the tick-infested woods. I didn’t know it at the time but Bob, the consummate outdoorsman and storyteller, was destined to become a second father figure to me. After my father died, Bob’s stories unwound from the reel of his mind while we fished the Canadian wilderness brought my dad back to life. He repeated the same stories endlessly yet I never grew tired of hearing the tales.
I grew to love Bob, was distraught when his children didn’t tell us he passed in 2017 until months after he was laid to rest and then it felt like an afterthought. I would surely have made the 500-mile round trip to pay my last respects and immerse in communal grief which disperses the pain so no one person has to carry the entire burden. Instead, I cried alone, bore the loss alone. One only gets so many fathers in life, for some the count is none. I was lucky to have had two.
I was 12 when the land was purchased, immersed in little league baseball as were my brothers. The Vietnam conflict was still littering bodies of both sides over the lush jungle landscape pockmarked by unrelenting bombs dropped from heaven. I can’t recall if my father and I had already had the disagreement we never resolved about the moral corruptness characterizing America’s role in the fiasco. We existed at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Even in my 50s, when most people seem to have long ago navigated toward conservatism, I have not budged an inch toward the center. To be so would make me feel complicit with the evil perpetrated by our lying government. The war never directly influenced our lives. We kids were simply excited to know we would vacation in Wisconsin where we could fish and swim.
In the beginning, we tented. We built a compound, the Olson compound. Three tents set up in u-shape, a sleeping tent on the left with eight double bunked cots and thick cotton, brown sleeping bags. The storage tent lived in the center with the portapotty. The final tent, the screen tent for eating insect free to the right. A canopy connected all three tents ensuring we could walk between them and keep dry during the rains. One just had to avoid the rivulets falling between the gaps. Every night before bedtime, the tent was sprayed with Raid to kill off the creepy crawlies.
One late night, we heard scraping at the cooler in the food tent. We peeked out with a flashlight and saw a skunk trying but failing to pry open the cooler. We immediately turned off our light and quieted into to bed for fear of startling the skunk and suffering uplifted tail umbrage. Another time, a brother who will remain nameless…for now, jumped up on a cooler and screamed when a tiny mouse ran through the screen tent.
The worst tent vacation ever occurred the year it rained every day for the entirety of our two-week vacation only clearing up after we broke camp and started driving home. During sunny weather, the sleeping bags were hung to dry every day on lines stretched between the trees. Sleeping bags absorb body moisture. Two weeks of rain meant the bags never dried. We were forced to sleep in increasing dampness the entire vacation. The lodge, too far for us city folk to walk, had 25¢ showers along with ice cream, soda pop, a pool table where quarters near the slot reserved the next game, and pinball machines on the lower level. It was a nice place to hang out during the rains.
I love tenting. In the old days, they were massive canvas beasts. Heavy. They required many aluminum poles fitted together, anchor ropes without which the structure would collapse, were cumbersome and required multiple people to erect. Consequently, we only enjoyed ‘The Land’ for a couple of weeks each year with those two weeks squeezed between the end of baseball season and the beginning of football season. Then came the luxury of the camper. The camper rolled in during the Spring, was taken away to storage, per the property owners association rules, in the Fall. The relative ease of a camper increased our time spent at the land.
The ultimate abode was a small, prefab house was brought in two halves on flatbed trucks and slapped together. The back half was two bedrooms and a bathroom, the front half a combination kitchen and living room. Ever the builder, my dad soon added a deck. Years later he removed the deck and built a new one with a large screened in porch. I loved the porch. It allowed me to sit outside on those nights too rainy for the campfire. The patter of rain while reading is comforting. Also with the house came TV. It always felt blasphemous to have the contraption spoiling the wilderness.
Having a house meant visits increased significantly for all of us. Being older with our own vehicles to travel as did the allure of the lower than Illinois drinking age. Wisconsin allowed 18-year-olds to purchase alcohol, the same age as military service. I always thought it hypocritical that one is believed adult enough at 18 to die for the country in a war but too immature to consume alcohol. I should not be too surprised. 18-year-olds drinking can’t put nearly as much money into the silk-lined jock straps of politicians as does the kickbacks they get from the war machine.
There were many party weekends in Wisconsin where the music played from early morning until well into the night. Somewhere there is a music video we created with dancing. People were on the porch and on the roof. I would love to see it again. The music continued for years…until some people wheeled in their own camper next door and complained that we were too loud for their younguns. It did not matter to them that their kids were running around screaming while many of us tried to sleep in the morning.
Ironically, as the years wore on, I slept in the house less and less often. It was too crowded, too noisy. And I enjoyed sleeping outdoors. Instead of the house, I popped up a tent with the opening directly looking toward the fire pit. My tents were the much lighter nylon versions, stand-alone with a screen roof for ventilation that could be set up by a single person in less than ten minutes and in the dark. My preferred bed was a comfortable Thermarest mattress and a down-filled sleeping bag. I slept well in the cool of those nights.
The Memory Vignettes
I wish I had chronicled the decades bounded by ownership of ‘The Land’ become ‘Summer Estate’ allowing me to read back and relive the many life-enhancing, some life-defining moments experienced on that 1/2 acre. Alas, my drive to write had not yet kindled into the raging fire it is today which sees me scribbling every morning. There are some moments that emoted into my mind leading up to the weekend and while we, as a family, emptied the house. They surfaced like bubbles when my mind was fixated on the road heading home forcing me to stop before the memory dissipated or call out to Siri to capture fragments. A few times tears rolled down my cheek. Still, I catch myself tearing up for memories lost.
He knew that forgetfulness was the most painful death. ~Jaume Cabré
The Sacred Bonfire
The indigenous peoples (is it right to call them Native Americans being they thrived on these lands long before they were dubbed America by European invaders?) made/make use a sweat lodge in purification ceremonies to prepare for divine intervention and God’s blessings. It is one of the seven sacred rituals of the Lakota people, a spiritual experience reconnecting participants with their oneness, with the universe, with nature.
Similarly, we had nightly bonfires…weather permitting. The quest to build a raging pyre with a single match was a skill a few of us mastered. It meant spending significant time with the hatchet splitting pine logs into slender, tender splinters. These are set in the middle on top of a loosely crumbled wad of dry newspaper. Next, a slightly larger, mini-teepee of thicker pine slices is built around the flimsy strips forming a chimney which, when the fire starts, pulls in oxygen from below to feed the flame. When the fire is strong enough larger, quartered pine logs are added and finally, the dense oak logs which burn hotter and longer ensuring an outstanding fire for many hours requiring minimal care and feeding. The other methods, a blow torch, a cup of white gas, were easier but much less satisfying.
We shared hours upon hours, hours galore in a lodge made of smoke, smoke keeping the raging mosquitoes at bay, buzzing vampires, seeking to hold a rave with our blood as the centerpiece of the revelry. Our blood, their sacred communion. We shared hours drinking under legal age, shooting the shit frequently until sunrise. The faces changed repeatedly over the years. Some visiting once, others regularly featured. A few now flash before my eyes, most are obscured by the mists of time. My soul weeps for those I have forgotten.
Bonfires were a time, a rare time in my life where I felt an intimate connection with people. I never wanted the nights to end and would hold on tightly to those moments fending off sleep as long as possible. I think I feared the isolation I would inevitably return to with the dousing of the flames. Dark of night, shadow descending upon my soul. I would stay awake with the anyone not ready for bed. Stayed awake until the sun rose and the birds burst into a conflagration of song, a chorus of mostly sopranos with some altos, the occasional tenor, the rare croaking baritone of a heron seeking an early breakfast, a cacophonous symphony lasting less than an hour then finally to bed once the sun shot its orange wad over the horizon.
I realize, now, the bonfire time evolved into a sacred ritual, a spiritual experience connecting me with the universe, with nature, with people. If I could reside in any one moment of my Wisconsin history, it would be fire time. Better yet, string them all together into one long film reel where I could jump in and live them over and over again.
Oh, what have they done to my song, ma?
The end of night ritual was for the boys to drain the weasel one final time directly into the fire. The logic was we were dousing it so it would not spread while we slept and start a forest fire. As Yogi says, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” The reality. We enjoyed the sound made when our streaming piss hit the white-hot embers.
On this trip, my son and my brother stayed at the house the Friday before the cleaning, braved the cold and slept in the cottage. Had I not already paid for a non-refundable hotel, I would have joined them. They built a fire which burned deep into the night and through our reunion time the following day. Our final act before climbing into our vehicles and driving away was to douse the flame…with snow. It made the same sound as pissing the flame into submission.
The Pissing Tree
When you are male, the world is not only your oyster, it is also your bathroom. Every tree, every nook, every cranny, every dying fire is a potential place to discreetly, if possible, obvious if necessary, let the dachshund out for a walk. We have the anatomy to take advantage of zipper fly clothing allowing the one-eyed snake to stick it’s head out and spit anywhere and everywhere without exposing the rest of the anatomy to prying eyes or, worse, biting insects. The more talented are able to write their name in the snow. My willy was once attacked by a mosquito. Shaft sting, not head probing. It was painful, mainly itchy requiring lots of hand time in the pants to relieve the irritation. There is an unwritten rule with men. Shaking it more than three times means you’re playing with it. There was a party in my pants. It’s not an experience I want to repeat.
When you live in tents and there are eight of you and half are little girls there tends to be a line for the portapotty. Worse, the portapotty is not tied to plumbing so must be manually emptied when full. It is a stinky job so it is advantageous to drain the vein in places other than the portapotty. What better place than the outdoors?
Outside the tents, a few yards into the woods, there was a natural clearing and a small tree, perhaps it was a deer bed during the fifty weeks we were not at the land. There was enough bramble ensuring we could not be seen from the road during the brightest part of the day nor from the screen windows in the tents. It was not too far that it was scary to walk into the woods at night for that final piss before crawling into the sleeping bag.
We all, the three boys and our dad, migrated to the exact same spot multiple times each day. It wasn’t planned more evolution along a common path. At the end of two weeks, The piss smell became daunting. The grasses had yellowed and the tree was wilting. It, the oak, never recovered and we returned to a standing cadaver the following year. On the plus side, it was fuel to feed our nightly bonfires.
Before the house years, showers were only available at the lodge. If you were male a shower came in at $0.25. For the womenfolk, it was upwards of $5. The showers operated on a timer with incremental time added per quarter. Us dudes could get two showers in for that twenty-five cents while the girls carried in a bucket full of quarters.
But the lodge closed around 5 pm necessitating a shower before dinner or going to bed nasty sweaty. And as we aged and our bodies physically matured, a day of playing hard in the heat, we worked up enough sweat to fill that quarter bucket to overflowing. We boys were as rank as a half-eaten deer on the side of the road a week after it had been run over by a vehicle. The insect riddled, decaying deer smelled like perfume compared to teenagers.
What to do?
Take advantage of the freshwater lake, obviously. After dark, we would run down to the lake, out onto the small pier, disrobe and skinny dip in the pitch of night, skinny dip with a bar of biodegradable Ivory soap to clean ourselves without upsetting the fishies we would be catching the next days. An added benefit to Ivory soap is it floats so we could throw it to the next body and without fear of losing it in the depths.
In the early years, the only light was thirty yards away, a back porch light attached to the lucky sods who owned the house butting right up to the water. The light was just bright enough to see what we were doing but not so bright that our birthrights were readily visible. Then the house was sold, the new owner put a streetlamp style light right at the water’s edge. It was bright, a sun on a giant corn stalk. Glaringly white. Intrusive. Still, we swam at night so as not to stink and for potential viewing pleasure.
Our skinny dipping, sometimes, was co-ed, so the new light promised advantages for a boy with raging hormones. This was pre-internet so porn was not ubiquitously available on the yet to be invented mobile phones. The only time we saw hooters was when one of our friends happened upon an old Playboy or Penthouse and were kind enough to share.
My sisters had some hot teenage girlfriends. Even the not so hot friends had shapely girl parts. So, I was hoping, we boys were hoping while swimming sans clothing our eyes would enjoy a flesh feast. This was in the pre-pube shaving days so it was unlikely we would have seen much more than a black beaver patch glistening in the moonlight. Still, we played tricks like throwing the soap just out of reach and a little high so a girl might get caught up in the moment and reach exposing some forbidden skin. Perhaps, one would climb out of the lake ‘Birth of Venus’ like and their long hair would slip exposing boobage. Nothing. Not a once. The girls were much to smart for the boys. Girls are much smarter than boys.
To my teenage frustration, I never did see side boob or a perky nipple or, the holy grail, the furry little kitty. God knows I tried. The only clams I fondled were of the non-bearded variety laying just beneath the sand filtering small organisms and algae from the water. Those I threw along the surface of the water watching them skip with the aplomb of a smooth rock.
Losing The V-Card
The romantic in me would love to say I lost my virginity on a Wisconsin beach by the light of a full moon with an incredibly hot babe as we lay legs immersed in the gently rolling waves, that I busted-a-nut in a wild country girl with the leg strength to crush a mechanical bull in one of those honky-tonk saloons and emerged from my boyhood chrysalis into a fully fledged man. But it would not stand up in a court of truth. Fantasy? Yes. Reality? Not even close. Well, I did come close once and only once. Sigh. Double sigh.
She was either a year-round local or a Summer girl spending the months between the end and start of school at her parent’s lake home. I forget which. Their multi-story home was built on a lot with direct access to water. We had to walk a couple of blocks from our place to see the lake. My mom had a dread fear of people drowning so wanted ample distance to ensure safety. Little did she know we frequented the lake unsupervised many a time.
Her family had motorcycles that we rode, illegally, in a large depression across highway 13. She and I were on the same bike. Me pretending to be in control despite rarely being on a motorcycle while she sat behind with arms around my waist, a setup causing me to tingle in the loins. These were the days I was still immortal. Helmets were not mandatory riding attire as they became when I eventually purchased my own street bike decades later. We went down once. The rear time slid sideways in the loose sand on a decline and we eased down our legs still wrapped around the bike.
The depression in which we were riding was clear-cut in the forest that was in the process of being dredged later to be filled with river water eventually becoming the bottom of Lake Arrowhead where decades later I took my son fishing for the ubiquitous bluegill. The lake homes surrounding Arrowhead tend to be larger than those built around our Lake Camelot, also a manmade lake, with the whole area feeling more upscale. But those homes came much later.
Her name was Karen. My friends, Bob’s kids, year-round residents, referred to her as Karen QF. The QF standing for Quick Fuck which, I was told, meant she was quick to fuck not too fucking quick to catch for a fuck nor having jackhammer hips making the act of fucking literally quick. She may truly have been quick to fuck but I wasn’t quick enough to fuck…her. I waited one day too long to make my move only to be thwarted by nature’s cycles. My little man didn’t take a dip into the pink.
She was a brunette, a long-haired brunette with brown eyes. Perhaps the frustration with not hitting a home run is why I am still attracted to brunettes tending toward raven black above all other hair colors. Though, the blues and purples and pinks are alluring. It may be that I never recovered from the strikeout and am still trying to make up for the one that got away by knocking as many as possible out of the park (hitting for sixes for cricket fans). Or, maybe the adage blonds have more fun is poppycock and it is the ravens that are ‘funner’ to play with. Whatever the case…I struck out….yet again.
One Is The Loneliest Number
As deep as I can see into the sootied waters of my past, I see a person more comfortable being alone or with a one or two others than in a group. A person craving human connection but keeping everyone at arm’s length for reasons I still don’t fully fathom. This was definitely a truth in my twenties. It may reach back further but time has yellowed many of those movies either from the effects of an aging brain or my soul protecting itself from needless pain.
These days, I get great satisfaction from alone time and seek it out with increasing hunger. Back in the day, it seems to be the natural outcome of me not being particularly socially adept or a foundational arrogance preventing me from seeing my own faults digging moats none dare cross. Perhaps, I did not realize I needed to change my ways to make connections or there are some reasons not yet dredged from my psyche. Most likely, a combination of many.
I was in my late twenties, a gorgeous evening. Of course, there was a fire with lots of drinking and talking and drinking. Family friends outnumbered family members which was often the case. I was mostly listening to conversations waiting for an opening to shine my brilliance before retreating back into my head. Or I was mesmerized by the ghosts floating up from the dancing flames becoming lost in my own thoughts, ensconced in a world no one, not even my then wife, was able to penetrate to any meaningful depth. Again the dichotomy…wanting to know and be fully known yet walling off anyone seeking understanding.
Years later I was dating a woman who shone a light on this same predilection. We were having a conversation over dinner and I remarked that I was pretty much an open book for the world to see. She stopped midmovement from putting a fork full of kimchee into her mouth and said, “Seriously? Almost all I know about you is surface. You never let me inside.” I stared back trying to hide my grinding teeth, my tell in times of stress. It wasn’t long after she decided seeing me was not worth her time. This tiger was unable to change its spots. I have since wondered if I subconsciously kept her at bay or there was simply nothing below the surface worth knowing. Was as shallow as the Platte River, a mile wide but only an inch deep?
Some of us went for a late night swim. Afterward, all but one returned to the house and the bonfire. The one being me.
I stretched out on the wooden pier listening to the night voices, insects, the purr of waves against the shore, watching the waning Moon against a blanket of stars. Millions of stars and solitary Moon, a celestial body without the ability to generate light so cursed to reflect the essence of Sun, a satellite revolving around Earth yet never touching her. A being in isolation.
My guard dropped allowing a crack for emotion to enter and implode. I felt the pain of isolation. Loneliness gnawed with the ferocity of the walleye beneath the black water clamping sharp teeth into unwitting prey sucked into a gullet where acids attacked and slowly dissolved the body. I pulled out my pocket knife. I always carried a knife. I carved the letters O-N-E into the pier weeping all the while. It was my code for one is the loneliest number I will ever be. A cry for help? Maybe.
Eventually, I went back to the house. I had been there for at least an hour and I don’t think anyone noticed. Did anyone even care? I can’t say. That is a question requiring vulnerability. I lacked the courage to be vulnerable. So, I grabbed a drink, never being a beer drinker it was probably a whiskey and seven-up, and pulled up a chair by the fire. I watched everyone, talking, laughing. I remember wondering if I was cursed to be Moon forever isolated from the stars and Earth.
Buried Kegs, Panty Hats, & Stinkweeds
The big Summer weekend at the land was Frolic Weekend in August. We usually planned an event spanning the weekend plus a day or so at either end. Driving home to Chicago on a Sunday evening meant heavy traffic especially at the toll booths which were still insatiable mouths feeding on quarters. The lodge hosted a party with music, beer, more beer, brats, beer, grilled corn, volleyball tournaments, ski shows, and beer. They had a penchant for selling alcohol to minors then washing their hands when those same minors were ticketed by the PoPo resulting in a return trip for a court date with parents. I always thought the two were in collusion. Money to the lodge from beer sales. Money to the city in fines.
A few of us guys went up early. The WAGS (wives and girlfriends) followed a couple of days later. My brother and a brother-in-law bought a keg and buried it in the sand to keep it cold. Only the tapper stuck above ground. There was cold beer at the fire, cold beer at lunch, cold beer at breakfast. The beer was cold until the keg was tapped out a day or so later. So, I’m told. It was likely they purchased a second but I don’t clearly recall. If I was betting man, I would wager on yes.
The second night, the girls came up well after dark. When they arrived, we were seated around the fire drinking, cooked halfway to roasted by the flames and toasted by the alcohol. The brother and BIL were wearing women’s underwear, their women’s underwear on their heads. This was a day or two into their stinkweed contest so what greeted their girls was two stinky dudes wearing panty hats. Funny and repulsive at the same time.
Why stinky? The two of them, for some reason I will never grasp, decided they would have a contest to see who could go the most days without a shower or swimming or washing of any type. Day one, not a big deal. Day two, erm, they were given more than their normal share of personal space. By the third or fourth day, we couldn’t get near either of them and, I imagine, their ripeness offended their own nostrils. My brother caved at the behest of his girlfriend. The BIL won. He was officially the stinkiest of the stinkweeds.
Fishing & Other Animal Stories
Wisconsin stories would not be complete without animal stories. Animals, primarily scaly fish, were a huge (yuge) reason we boys were excited to visit The Land. For me the priority was fishing followed by swimming, I think. If not in the early years then soon thereafter as I grew increasingly fishing obsessed.
Hook, Line, & Sinker
Fishing. Ahh, fishing. We are a fishing family because of my dad’s friend Bob. The same Bob who talked my dad into buying the plot in Wisconsin. The same Bob who felt like a second father. Bob taught my dad to fish when he invited him on annual trips to Boulder Junction for Muskie and the Boundary Waters for monster pike. The love of fishing has moved through the generations. We are all connected by a proverbial stringer.
I remember hot days standing in the shallows casting toward a sunken tree for bass while everyone else splashed around. I remember setting overnight lines and running to the pier in the morning to see if we caught bullhead and, if so, were they still alive since they typically swallowed the hook deep into their stomachs. I remember fighting mosquitoes in the night while we fished for bullhead and were surprised by the rare walleye sometimes big enough to legally eat. I remember the sheer joy of catching tiny bluegill after tiny bluegill for hours on end. I remember fishing in the sticks with my brothers, a place near the start of the lake where the feeding river flooded a woodland drowning the trees leaving them naked carcasses and prime habitat for bass. It felt like we had traveled into pre-history. We became spooked when a few large Blue Heron took to air from dead branches looking like Pterodactyls on the wing hunting meat. I remember standing in the water fishing by the upper spillway later emerging with leeches on my legs that I scraped off with the knife always in my pocket. There are three fishing memories larger than all the others combined. They involve Pumpkinseeds, a Largemouth Bass, and a shit load of crappie.
Nine Inch Pumpkinseeds
My daughters were probably three and four when this memory was created. I had taken the two of them for a long weekend in Wisconsin for some Daddy-Daughter time. I was recently divorced and wanted to make sure they had ample daddy time now that I was not seeing them on a daily basis. The weekend necessarily included fishing time. I bought them each identical Orca reel fishing poles from Sportmart which were very easy for little ones to manage and inexpensive.
The weekend was overcast with intermittent rains meaning most of the time we were stuck in the house. We took advantage of a lull in the weather and walked down to the lake. Each of the girls wanted to carry the tub of worms. Rather than have a battle, I gave each their own worm to carry, a worm they petted as they walk. As was her norm, the younger said her knees hurt and she wanted to be carried.
I was already carrying the fishing poles, the worms, and a Mountain Dew so there was no space for her plus I wanted her to kick the habit of always whining until someone caved and picked her up. At the time, she was frustrated because her hair was not very long. It was then I dreamed up a solution to both problems. I told her the more she walked the longer and faster her hair would grow. Her eyes lit up. And, by corollary, I told her if she walked backward it would get shorter. The plot worked and anytime she asked to be carried, I reminded her of walking and hair length. Carrying her soon ceased to be an issue.
They each caught a few small bluegills, the first fish of their young lives. Every fish caught inched the smile on their faces wider. Then we hit a slow patch and the girls began to lose interest. Suddenly, Sammy’s bobber was pulled deep, unlike the tittering from the smaller fish nibbled at the bait, and the pole was ripped out of her hands and pulled under water. I saw it flashing in the weeds and thrust my hand in to pull it out. I let her reel it in and she landed a Pumpkinseed. They are an aggressive member of the bluegill family with a shiny orange belly patch showing like a bursting sunrise. It measured nine inches from lips to tail. While dehooking and measuring, Stephanie also had a strong hit. She had a tighter grip on the fishing pole so there wasn’t a repeat of a pole in the water. She, too, landed a nine-inch Pumpkinseed.
The rain started so we packed up and headed back to the house. I carried everything to hurry them along in case the drizzle became a downpour. They walked with their faces up, mouths open catching raindrops while laughing hysterically.
A Not So Lucky Largemouth Bass
A few years later, I was fishing with all three kids. The girls and I were on the same pier they caught the Pumpkinseeds but Brian decided he would fish from the pier on our beachhead. He was highly coordinated so was already able to cast with ease and accuracy. It was difficult trying to manage all of them at once and attend to the inevitable snags, hook baiting, and removal of hooks set deep in the fish internals.
He called saying he was snagged and needed help. I looked over and saw the fishing tip bouncing with ferocity and immediately knew he had a substantially larger fish than the bluebill and perch we were landing. I ran over to the pier by which time he had walked off the pier and was standing on the shore. The monofilament, a 10-pound test, was stretched across the pier and the fish was still dancing. How the wood slats did not cut the line I will never know. I took him back onto the pier and helped him land his first Largemouth Bass. I would normally throw the fish back into the water for future growth. But, it was the legal length and the kids wanted to eat it so I cleaned it and cooked it for a dinner.
If I was to hazard a guess at the same time he landed the fish, fishing set its hook deep into his soul. He has been an avid angler since that day.
A Shit Load of Crappie
Fast forward a decade. My son and I are fishing at the spillway. The spillway is a concrete structure funneling water from the upper to the lower lake. There is a constant flow of aerated water through the deep channel spilling into the lake. The depth varies from ten feet in the channel and becomes shallows once outside the concrete walls and the direct influence of the water flow. Thus the area has a variety of environments attracting many types of fish. It is a prime fishing spot.
Over a couple of nights, crappie were actively hitting on white plastic tubes. Other colors attracted a few but white was the primary color triggering their attack instinct. Once we mastered the proper technique, waiting until the second hit in a short sequence to set the hook, we would pull in one every few casts.
One evening, we headed out before dusk loaded up with bug dope to keep the skeeters off so we could fish in peace and carried an ample supply of sunflower seeds. We had a small tackle box of plastics with extra whites knowing white was the color of the day but included other colors just in case. Fish can be finicky and it pays to be prepared. I don’t know if there was some magic in the way the stars aligned or we just lucked into an aggressive school of hungry crappie. They hit like psychos for at least two hours. We were catching fish on most every cast. By the time the frenzy quelled, we had caught over 180 between the two of us. It was the most insane fishing experience of my life.
There were White-Tailed Deer galore which we loved seeing…mostly. We were fishermen, not hunters, though big game hunting in Africa was a parttime fantasy of my youth along with being Tarzan swinging through the trees. We never participated in the annual Deer Hunt, the religion most common in Central Wisconsin. If you don’t hunt, the high priests will not allow you to be a congregant of the Most Holy Church of the White-Tailed Deer. Although, the will serve you venison communion hoping to make you a convert.
When I was older and driving on my own from the Dells to the house just after sunset, I counted 40 deer over a 40 mile stretch in the ditches along the road. And those were just the ones I saw. I can’t imagine how many were lurking just beyond the reach of the high beams. Each was a potential weapon of mass destruction if it was spooked and took flight across the road at precisely the moment I was cruising by. Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma’am. Wham…car slams into the animal. Bam…extensive damage and likely totaling the vehicle. Thank You, Ma’am, for crashing through my window and crushing me into the seat so I didn’t fly through the window.
It was a party weekend. We were in our twenties, upper for me. ‘Back when I was in Nam‘ Steve who was younger than me and never a pincushion for bullets fired by the Viet Cong from Soviet weapons but liked to use the tag was bored as was blonde Andrea, pronounced On Drea who had an unusually high voice and was not afraid of insects. It was a sunny morning, too late to still be snoozing in a tent heated by the sun, too early to be two-fisting beers around the campfire. What to do before the action begins?
Wisconsin is home to a plethora of insect life the worst being the vicious mosquitoes swarming in any bit of shade to butterflies flitting between flowers on the sloping side of the earthen damn separating Lake Camelot from Lake Sherwood. Steve was watching some ants he found and placed in the dished underside of a white frisbee. This intrigued Andrea and they watched together.
One of them thought it would be interesting to add other insects to the mix. The two of them found another ant species and placed them in the same frisbee. The two species each threatened by their other’s pheromones and emboldened by their own fought to the death. It was a microcosm of almost every self-important politician’s wet dream sending youth to die in a senseless war.
Turtling in Lake Sherwood
Lake Sherwood, the lower lake from ours was continually filled by the spillway. Think of a spillway as a drain in a sink where excess water falls into the pipes and those pipes emptied into a lower lake on the other side of an earthen damn. The waters were lower in elevation, protected from the wind by thick stands of pine trees and walls of land descending from the road beyond the trees to the lake level. These waters were shielded from the wind, tended to be placid, conditions conducive to rafts of weeds forming along the shore. A semi-secure haven for small fish, frogs, and turtles.
We saw the turtles while fishing. Sometimes they were sunning on a dead tree branch. If you cast near them, hey would quickly slide into the lake with nary a splash. Mostly, we saw tiny turtle heads, black with yellow lines, poking above the water their shell a shadow hovering just below the surface intimating a chimerical flying saucer. Something you think you see but are never quite sure it’s real or it’s size. They were too far from shore to reach with our short nets.
On a sunny afternoon, some of us boys dragged a boat over the dam and launched it into Lake Sherwood with the idea of catching a few. What to do with them after? Young boys tend not to think that far into the future.
Our tactic was to row toward a head and, if it didn’t dive outside our reach, throw the net over the top. It was a tactic catching naught but weeds, weeds we had to clean out of the net. Mostly, the turtle dove well before we were within reach.
Through trial and error, we learned if you looked straight at the turtle it dove early. If they did not see you staring at them, they lingered until we were closer. We revised our strategy to approach at an angle and to monitor them from the corner of our eyes. The better proximity allowed us to realize when threatened the turtles did not dive forward in the direction they were facing but moved backward, quickly turn around and swam down toward the bottom for safety.
But they were still too far to catch. We fastened the net to a pole. We then thrust the net into the water targeting behind and below the turtles. Using this final stratagem, we pulled a good dozen from the lake. We brought them back to our tent compound where they were kept in a large bin with enough water to cover them but not enough they could escape. A day or two later, we released them back into the lake.
I only ever remember turtling the one time. I don’t know why we never went again. Maybe because dragging a rowboat up the damn was difficult requiring a few of us to push and pull. I guess, the difficulty outweighed the fun.
There was a season in my life, I was into all things feathered including bird watching. I had binoculars, a spotting scope, and a recording of a screech owl. I would take early jaunts around sunrise when every bird ever born seemed to be singing in a grand chorus and sunset when they stopped hunting and went to roost until dawn. Each new bird spotted sent tingles down my spine and a tick mark in my birding book.
I used the screech owl recording a few times. I set up a tape recorder near a tree on the land and hit play. I would describe the sound as a staccato burst or a trill or a tremolo. Each segment lasted a few seconds. Had I not known who was making the call, I would not be able to identify if it was from a bird, insects, or some animal hidden from my view.
When you are prey, it behooves you to know when a predator is lurking. If not, talons are much more likely to pierce your body and your final vision is a hooked beak tearing at your innards. The birds knew the call meant danger. The forest sentinels, Blue Jays and others, flew in to spot the owl and attempt to shoo it into another territory. They ignored me and I was able to add a couple new entries to my growing list.
Being a bird fan, I collected feathers. My preference is to see a plume flutter from the sky and catch it before it touches Earth. But that has yet to happen. I found them occasionally and only rarely could identify the species. I still kept them for their delicate beauty. A couple of times, I found the plucked remains scattered after a predator feasted. This was how I collected the yellow-tipped tail feathers of a cedar waxwing discovered near it’s bloodied skull.
The surest way to find feathers is to monitor the sides of higher speed roads for those losing their lives to cars and trucks. I once found a deceased Turkey Vulture and took the entire wing. Driving North on Highway 13 with my daughter, I found the intact remains of a Grey Catbird. It was on the other side of the road forcing me to make a U-turn. It was freshly dead without stench or oozing liquids, not even blood marred the otherwise splendid grey body. I wanted a few feathers but my daughter wanted to bring it home and keep it as a pet. So, it made the trip back to Chicago with us sometimes in her young hands, other times in a plastic Ziploc bag. A couple of days later, body fluids were oozing into the bag and it received a proper burial behind the garage.
Fishing at night near our pier, we carried flashlights so we could bait the hooks and remove the bullhead without having their spiny fins stick us. Those fins were as sharp as needles requiring care when grabbing them or a towel in which to wrap them. The towels grew to stink like hell and were eventually trashed. They were strong fish and wiggling bodies could stick a spine deep.
With the flashlights, we discovered crawdads scouring beneath the pier and near the shore for morsels to fill their bellies. Crawdads also known as crayfish or crawfish, look like miniature freshwater lobsters down to the segmented tail used for explosive backward movement and pincer claws to grab food and feed themselves. They easily fit into the palm of our hands. Of course, we deemed them a must to catch them. Why? The same reason people take arduous hikes in the desert or climb mountains. Because they’re there.
The pincers can cut human skin so catching them requires care. The technique we devised was to slowly move the hand into the water behind the critter, place the index finger onto the carapace and press it into the sand. It seems their eyesight was very poor and they may react more to changes in water pressure than seeing our hands. Thus immobilized, thumb and middle finger picked it up. We were safe from the pincers which, limited by the exoskeleton, could not reach us. It didn’t stop them from trying and their claws flailed in the air. We tossed them into a bucket with their brethren. Once they were cooked and eaten with butter. I wasn’t there that time.
Other Notables & Wish To Have Seen
For a short while, there was a herd of captive Bison near the intersection of Hwy 13 and Hwy 73. I stopped to marvel whenever I drove by. They are massive animals, an anchor to the American past, the sacred beast of the plains Indians. Once almost hunted to extinction, they are making a comeback in pockets across the plains. I have long longed for a Buffalo blanket for cold nights in bed or lying in front of a fireplace. I never did find out if the owner of this small herd sold them.
In recent years, wolves and black bears made their way into Central Wisconsin. The one verified Wolf sighting I know of involved a collision between a Harley rider and a wolf on a country road late at night. Neither survived. Kind of ironic that a one percenter killed another one percenter. Black Bear are spotted North of Wisconsin Rapids usually by garbage dumps. One man’s trash another’s treasure. We never saw any down our way. Just knowing both large predators existed a stone’s throw from our vacation lot excited me.
On my final trip to the land, I saw a couple of early migration, sandhill cranes sporting russet caps reminding me that I was and will always be a ginger no matter if my hair blooms white. They were standing on the side of the road, perhaps a mating pair. Quite a few Hawks were perched in trees and on the wing. Seven to ten deer were in various states of decay in the ditches along the road. Wisconsin DNR no longer collects the deer when killed by vehicles. They scrape them from the road and toss them into the ditch where Nature will perform final absolution and let her many children purify the bones. It’s the same process I wish for my bones to be liberated from my body, my soul forgiven for the untold sins of humanity committed against Earth. The dead deer felt apropos to the theme of our final weekend.
No history of the land would be complete without the Jaws story. Jaws the movie came out in the summer of 1975. Quite frankly, it was terrifying to all of us but none more so than middle brother. As was our tradition, we were at ‘The Land’ in August so the movie was very fresh in our minds. We were playing in a rubber raft near the pier. Every so often, we would purposely tip the raft causing us to fall into the water then start yelling Jaws, Jaws. The fearful brother swam to shore with the speed, if not the flair, of seven gold medal winner Mark Spitz. We tormented him with ‘Jaws’ for most of the trip.
The Final Curtain – So long, Farewell, Goodbye
When all was said and done, the mementos spared the fire or excused a trip to the dump were stuffed into cars along with a lot of sentimental junk that will either gather dust in attics or be given to charity. I took nothing, wanted nothing. Not even one of my dad’s earliest fishing reels and the poles bearing the scars of fish fins and the hard edges of boats. The only mementos I hold sacred are the memories.
We all gathered around the fire pit for pictures, dad was present in a large photo and in our hearts. We sat on the benches we made from the scraps when the first deck was ripped out for the newer, grander, porch. There was the Dan/Diane love seat and the two larger benches we angled in the middle to ensure proximity to the fire from every seat. The three benches are at least twenty years old and still solid as the day we made them despite never cozying up indoors during the cold and wet seasons. I expect the next owner, not knowing their history, will either burn or consign to the trash heap. Come to think of it, those are the souvenirs I would have liked to bring home. I would like to have replicated the sacred bonfire in my backyard using a cast iron fire pit.
I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then. ~Lewis Carroll
Mom brought some of my father’s ashes in a vial for a closing ceremony. She spread some on the land itself in close proximity to the deck stairs. We then walked en masse to the beach, four generations interconnected by blood or marriage, with the photo of my dad held high. The pier where I carved the word ‘one’ is no longer there having been removed by the bureaucrats from the property owners association for some bullshit, legalistic reason.
The rest of the ashes were scattered in the lake with mom almost falling into the water. We laughed some more. Took a bunch of group photos then headed back to our cars and the drive home. I expected pain during the ashes ceremonies, the resurrected pain of loss but it never came. I don’t handle people leaving my life very well. Being there with family dissipated the pain in a jovial atmosphere.
They say catharsis with the rapid release of negative emotions is liberating. Not for me, not this time. I drove back to Chicago feeling bound and ball gagged by my internal dominatrix lashing my soul with a leather strop.
Memories can warm you up from the inside. But they can also tear you apart.~Haruki Murakami
If any of you out there in reader-land were among the hundreds that visited the Olson Summer Estate, I would love to hear your reminisces in the comments section…
Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds
Hey, hey, hey, hey
Won’t you come see about me?
I’ll be alone, dancing you know it baby
Tell me your troubles and doubts
Giving me everything inside and out and
Love’s strange so real in the dark
Think of the tender things that we were working on
Slow change may pull us apart
When the light gets into your heart, baby
Don’t you, forget about me
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t
Don’t you, forget about me
Will you stand above me?
Look my way, never love me
Rain keeps falling, rain keeps falling
Down, down, down
Will you recognize me?
Call my name or walk on by
Rain keeps falling, rain keeps falling
Down, down, down, down
Hey, hey, hey, hey
Don’t you try and pretend
It’s my feeling we’ll win in the end
I won’t harm you or touch your defenses
Vanity and security
Don’t you forget about me
I’ll be alone, dancing you know it baby
Going to take you apart
I’ll put us back together at heart, baby
Don’t you, forget about me
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t
Don’t you, forget about me
As you walk on by
Will you call my name?
As you walk on by
Will you call my name?
When you walk away
Or will you walk away?
Will you walk on by?
Come on, call my name
Will you call my name?
(Lala la la lala la la)
Will you call my name?
As you walk on by