Very few men look good in tight pants
As a five-year-old in World War II, I never realized that we were doing without. This was normality — life’s necessities were rationed. We did a lot of things for the war effort. In retrospect, I realize the civilian activities were aimed more at building home front morale than defeating the Axis powers. We saved string in big balls. We saved tinfoil in big balls. We saved bacon fat in big cans. We planted a Victory Garden to supply the family with fresh vegetables so the troops could enjoy canned and dehydrated vegetables. There were scrap drives, bond drives, us kids bought Postal Savings Stamps at school. When our little books were filled, we got a U.S. bond.
I learned to read from the Alice and Jerry books. They were pre-war, British, and used a peculiar vernacular. Alice and Jerry did double duty in the war effort for first graders, since paper was rationed and, by buying the used books, our school system was supporting our allies. Dooryard. I recall dooryard was what Alice and Jerry (and Baby Sally, even though she had not yet learned to talk for the purposes of the reading primer. Alice and Jerry spoke for her.) called their back yard. The dooryard. Alternately, it was the front yard where beautiful English flowers — hollyhocks and wisteria — bloomed. It was an English yard. We had no dooryards in Wisconsin. Instead of hollyhocks and wisteria, we had lettuce, cabbage and carrots in our Victory Garden.
My mother’s eyes were clouded — with wonder at God’s creation, I thought as a child. Actually she had been nipping at the kitchen vermouth. Science was constantly improving our lives. Television was just over the horizon, but we had yellow margarine in Color-Qwik Bags right now. These bags were a transparent low density polyethylene that arrived on the home front near the war’s end. The government had experimented with the plastic for sealing rations for front line troops. No one died directly from food poisoning, so the bags were deemed acceptable for civilian use. The GIs preferred Spam and dry stuff. We now had wet stuff in a bag. Neat! Mom stirred in coloring in a stoneware crock until the Arrival of The New Plastic. Now it was the kids’ job to pop an orange colored capsule embedded in the wrapper and knead the lardy goo into a presentable condition. While it was more fun than mud pies, kids eventually got bored. This was something we were supposed to do. There were usually orange tiger stripes in the butter dish.
Yellow margarine was forbidden; butter was yellow and butter was rationed. After the war, Wisconsin maintained its ban on yellow margarine to keep up dairy sales. The state police maintained a checkpoint on Highway 41 at the Illinois line to nab violators with a case or two in the trunk of the family car.
Our house had an OPA ration book and an OPA ration wallet for red points (meat) and blue stamps with a little howitzer on them for clothes and shoes. Sugar, meat, clothing, gasoline and shoes were rationed. Family cars were allowed four gallons a week. My pop wangled a “B” sticker that entitled him to extra gas as a war worker. Class B cars were for folks who needed them for work and he was a traveling salesman. He sold twine and leather to the military. We stood in line for everything at the store, so moms brought their kids to hold their places for lavatory breaks. I got the carry the ration wallet — hamburger ran 8 red points per pound. Horsemeat was exempt. The ration boards classified the families and you got sixty-four red points a month for a family of four. You stood in line, and the lines were long and dependent on the commodities available in any given week. You paid the price and handed over the requisite coupons, stamps and points. Rationing ended with the war. My mother sent me to the store with money only — a five-dollar bill. This was a big event for 1946, and I remember it well. Butter had come off rationing and was $1.40 a pound. 1946 dollars those, and we felt lucky just to have the butter. It would be the 1990s before butter achieved the same face value in 1990 dollars, and a dollar-forty meant a whole lot less.
I believe the phrase is eidetic memory — a total recall of images, the ability to paint a scene from memory even after the lapse of decades. Assuming, of course, the ability to paint. All I have are these scattered snapshots. If I had guessed at the times of my childhood that really important things were happening right now, I might have tried harder to remember. But what we have here is a photo album of leftovers: some pictures gray, folded and faded, but something to pass along. I hope I am leaving enough clues. These are all I have; you can tote only so many albums along before you start to lose them. Here is an anecdotal rule of generations of scalawags (and credited to Robert A. Heinlein) — “Never own more than you can carry in both hands at a dead run.” Good advice, albeit bad real estate management. As a kid in Wisconsin I learned that most good stuff came from Someplace Else — a lesson that took many years and many miles to unlearn.
“Mention my name in Sheboygan,
but please don’t tell them where I am.”
— Vaudeville and barbershop quartet favorite
Kaleidoscopy is the art and science of peering through a paper tube stuffed with broken glass, a Christmas confection gone strangely pagan, a twisted barber pole spiral of colored metal foil pasted with stars and crescent moons — reflective mylar purples that shine like the sunglasses of a state trooper. Visions of nouveau delight may be seen here. An eyepiece is installed, screwed to monocular flesh by Frank Lloyd Wright perched atop a Louis Sullivan bank façade in Spring Green or Columbia. Visions of Prairie School architecture gone wilding down embankments into Wisconsin spring torrents. Acolyte and master watch the water slide by and down into a water-gorged freshet. Memory is light and easily managed in unexpected getaways, but fades and changes with time. Memory has a mind of its own, and that’s as sententiously pithy as I’ll get with you this time.
William Hunter, Robert Lawrence Hunter,
Claire, Martha, Aunt Izzy (Isobel). Jenny Hunter photo
There is an old photograph my Bohemian grandmother saved, an old photograph at the bottom of a cardboard shoebox at the back of a closet shelf. It has not been much handled, living at the bottom of a box for many of its 50 years as if waiting for me to see it. That was fifty years ago yet again, and since times and places change, not faces, I will tell you about some of the people in old photos. The Hunters (left 1936) are in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
The Jileks and the Hollys settled farther north in Wisconsin, in Langlade County. My Bohemian grandmother stands on the roof and stares into the camera. She is eighteen years old. These are the first years of the first decade of the twentieth century and she is clearing a homestead. This is hers; here she is the boss. The tall forests stood in the way of the plow. The woman in the picture is good-looking and knows it; she is her own woman and at ease with herself. With a young woman’s call to vanity she chases an escaping wisp of hair as the shutter clicks. Her other hand on a cocked hip, she looks out at me. High-waisted skirt to her shoes and a fresh apron of striped ticking, she is securely sensual.
She stands in grass, on the roof. This is a sod house, long and deep, its pounded earth floor sunk four feet below the ground. The walls of the lumber camp cookhouse and dormitory are piled layers of sod, cut square into large, flat blocks with the grass still on, the roots giving stability. The ridgepole is a single thirty-foot trunk of yellow pine, bark on. The rafters are black locust resistant to rot. The roof where Anna Rose Holly stands has a moderate pitch to roll the rain off; the beams are tree trunks and will hold an immoderate weight of snow.
The eaves were at chin level for the tallest of the men; you ducked down and watched your step to get in the door. There were no windows, just a chimney, a wood plank door and frame dead center, and ventilation slits. Winters blow hard in Wisconsin. I was comforted by the cozy thought of these men sleeping side by side with their bedrolls on the dirt floor while the temperature dropped to 40 below outside the sod walls and kept the little house cool in the blistering summers. Actually, the house looked pretty big to me. Those eighteen men lined up to have their picture taken reminded me of a high school class lineup. None were shy, some fingered beards, the teenagers hitched suspenders, and they brandished a meaningful collection of tools. This was her and her new husband, Joe Jilek’s, lumber camp. The tamarack swamps of the Langlade were being timbered out by homesteaders to make room for farms.
So, this young woman with the high cheekbones of Eastern Europe stands on the roof in an apron and ankle-length dress. Why is she in Wisconsin?
There was a rich old farmer lived in the country nigh
He had one only daughter on her I cast my eye
She was so tall and slender so delicate and so fair
No other girl in the neighborhood with her I could compare.
— The singing of Pearl Borusky of Crandon, Wis. Library of Congress field recordings, 1920s
Czechs, or Bohemians, were the earliest of the Slavic peoples to settle in Wisconsin. Some were would-be revolutionaries fleeing Austrian domination, but most were small farmers caught in the agricultural depression that affected most of Europe. Later arrivals established substantial Czech communities in Price, Taylor, and Langlade Counties, working in the lumber industry and establishing small farms in the cutover. By 1890, there were 12,000 Czechs in Wisconsin.
The ideas of her fellow Americans regarding Eastern Europeans were puzzling to Anna as a child. She had been born in America. Discretion had created a collective amnesia about the “Old Country.” It was only the “Old Country,” and never called by any name. A memory of the Imperial Secret Police? Eastern anarchists were a bugaboo in the popular press and politics of her day even before Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley at the Buffalo Exposition. Furry faces, strange languages and stranger religions meant trouble. Folk with funny names became the currency of cartoons and humorous songs.
In an anarchist’s garret, so lowly and
Smell the pungent odor of nitroglycerine,
For they are making fuses
And filling jars with nails
While all the Slavic children
Sing out with mournful wails.
Oh, it’s sister Jenny’s turn to throw the
The last one did in poor old brother Tom,
For Momsky’s aim is bad
And the copskies all know Dad
So it’s sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.
To the WASP forgers of public opinion the Swedes were Squareheads, Bohemians BoHos and Hungarians Honkeys, the Poles Polacks. The Germans, of course, were Krauts. A number of them had their own very pressing reasons for a hasty departure from the old country, and tended in America never to speak on politics of any stripe.
The Bohemians had rested for a thousand years at the edge of empires, pushed into Europe by first Attila the Hun and then Genghis Khan, they had no written language. The Austro-Hungarians then claimed them as their own and they were made Catholics. Their choice a thousand years ago had been obliteration or blending with the landscape. They blended as serfs of one local count or another. They wrote German, spoke Polish and Hungarian, and were bound to the land. My grandmother, Anna Rose Holly, added English and a native patois from the Oneida, part of the Iroquois League. Now the Bohemians were in America. She spoke and wrote four languages. With the disingenuousness of a teenager, I supposed she spoke Polish and German with the same accent that colored her English: the dese, dem and dose of a non-native speaker over-articulating to be understood in a language less liquid than her first language.
It was a family conceit that the Bohemians really were the gypsies that the natural history of the day supposed them to be, or at least a kindred race. The Jews and Gypsies assimilated too, but kept more of their culture and language. The Bohemians became the Welsh of the Eastern empires, absorbed and faded into obscurity, eaten alive by the gene pool of the Germans. Or Turks, or Moravians, or whatever administrative enclave delivered the mail, repaired the roads and assessed taxes in any particular century.
Salt bread, Old World style was a staple (“Hunger makes the best cook.” — my grandmother’s favorite saying). Draft animals were too valuable to waste on a trip to the store. The nearest gristmill was 40 miles overland in the first few years and the men toted wheat down to Wausau then backpacked it home. Their sweat soaked through a good half of the flour on their backs. Welcome to the Prairies, home of lard-fried bread and extra salt. Salt with no iodine content — men and women of my grandmother’s generation in the tamarack swamps carried the scars of goiter surgeries on their necks.
My grandmother was a babe as a young woman. And she obviously impressed the hell out of me as an old woman. We lived together with my mother and sister for five years and she and I got pretty tight. We dug horseradish with roots bigger than a forearm from the garden, argued, ground and pickled them, argued, tended her pet lilacs and raspberries, fought over religion — I was, after all, in high school — and neither of us changed our opinions. I painted the screens and hung the storms according to the seasons. And argued with my grandmother. I loved her. When I knew her she was strong but bent, her figure gone round with many children. She had a stomach ulcer from farming with its unannounced and lethal accidents and sixty-four years of eating fried bread, fried potatoes and boiled dumplings. Away from the eyes of chic society, one can become careless about style, dress and personal maintenance, but she still had the spirit of the girl on the roof.
And she had no fingerprints! A life of steady work had worn them away. At the time fingerprints were still not universally accepted as evidence in court, and I had been chatting up the wonderment of it all at the dinner table. Grandma believed in fingerprints. Grandma did not believe in the germ theory, but my Mom did. This was an interesting demonstration of how belief systems often skip generations, a fact I had noticed in my studies. My mother believed in GERMS. They were everywhere. Claire was an enlightened flapper, a 20th Century woman. Everything us kids played with or might conceivably play with was boiled. They bought me a dog when I was 4 years old; I was worried for him. Because he had not been boiled, he and I did not play. He found another home. The dog was a springer spaniel named Mike. That year was 1943.
So my mother’s mother did NOT believe in GERMS (“Dirty kids are healthy kids.”), let alone evolution, hated the Capuchin priest who replaced her friendly Jesuit, but ground through the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, Novenas, Mass and confession as a daily trudge through the valley of duty. She knew duty. We received all the magazines the parochial kids sold when out raising funds for the missions — The Ligurian, Junior Catholic Messenger. She cooked on a wood range, fired by kiln-dried maple spoils from a local brush factory. We cooked and warmed the kitchen with wood that we bought for five dollars a truckload. Bulk coal took up the slack in home heating. We heated with coal. Grandma bought the refractory-sized commercial tailings and split the 20-pound lumps into furnace-sized kibble with a sledgehammer she kept in the cellar for the purpose. This maneuver saved us 2 dollars a ton.
While the faithful Prayed For The Conversion of Russia — the permanent billboard in front of St. Mary’s School — there was pride that the Slavs had been first into space. Sputnik went into orbit the year I started as a student teacher at Langlade County Normal School.
I recall my father being tickled at being teased because his mother-in-law was only 48 years old. In the late 50s I no less pleased to get boasting rights because my grandmother had taken off two months and hitchhiked to the west coast through the Dakotas with a pal of hers. Hitchhiking was perhaps more respectable then, particularly with two widow ladies in their 60s. She got her first and only Social Security card (1955) as a widow. It was required to get the dishwashing jobs that kept her and Mrs. Larson in pocket money on their trip through the Rockies to the ocean neither had seen. Mrs. Larson’s son, John Schilleman, had married my Mom’s sister Irene — Aunt Renie. Mrs. Larson and Mrs. Jilek were co-mothers-in-law. It was a passionate marriage and Mrs. Larson and Mrs. Jilek quickly became co-grandmothers together. Mrs. Larson survived three husbands. Her first husband had fathered the Schilleman clan to become third and fourth cousins for my grandchildren.
There were eight kids on the Schilleman farm. The cousins were Joanie, Judy, Jack, Mary Kate, Carrie and Mickey (the twins), sister Mattie and me. Jack, Mickey and I shared a double bed in a room just big enough for us to get in the door. Jack and I snuggled side by side while Mickey, the smallest of our lot, got to go crosswise across the foot. We slept under stacks of quilts, comforters and coverlets with storm windows outside and rugs nailed to the window frame inside to keep away the cold.
Jack now  lives in Rhinelander and owns and operates a fleet of contract school buses; Mickey died in 1985 — a hang gliding mishap in Arizona. Carrie works for the phone company. Cousin Mary Kate was Ninny to all us kids. Ninny was how her name came out through two new baby teeth at age one-something. The unfortunate Ninny stuck with her into young womanhood. She married an army radar operator from the station outside of town and became an army wife. Joanie is “Mrs. Peterson,” a name she treasures from her first and only marriage. “Mrs. Peterson,” the title, flies for the first graders she has taught for the past 45 years. Mr. Peterson departed after less than a year of conjugal bliss. No one talks about him. Judy, a perky blonde (dyed) cheerleader in high school, married Antigo’s star quarterback. Boomer and Judy owned and ran, Mom and Pop style, the Rhinelander supermarket until her death in 2005. Why did the cousins leave Antigo? Damned if I know: greener pastures, real or imagined perhaps. I was first out of the gate and was not there to observe their departures.
In the years following WWII, Uncle Johnny worked his way up to foreman at International Paper’s plant in Rhinelander. The forty cows milked 12 hours apart — twice a day, every day. Johnny was there for both milkings while Aunt Renie taught at the Primrose School, grades 1-8, a one-room country schoolhouse across the road from the farm. Johnny’s eighty-mile round trip in the Schilleman’s bathtub Nash automobile began after the kids were dropped off in Antigo for school. Yes, all of us, even with a school nearby. Renie perceived it bad policy to teach her own kids at the Primrose School, so Carrie and Mickey got packed off to St. Mary’s parochial in Antigo. The rest of us, excepting sister Mattie, were in high school. After firing the stove and maintaining discipline, teaching came in third over the course of a Wisconsin winter education. There would be discipline problems real or imagined, friction with the other parents and her rural school board.
Anna Rose Holly (Jilek) was born in 1884. She died in 1970. Cousin Jimmy Bretl reminisced with my sister and me when I was making the 47th annual Rob Hunter Farewell Tour (1985): “She was so thin. It was the stomach cancer that finally took her away. She was so thin and hollow looking. She kept asking me to bring her a beer.” He never brought her a beer. The doctor did not believe in habit-forming substances for the terminally ill. Doctors safeguarded their licenses with a proprietary ferocity. I flatter myself that I would have brought morphine, whiskey, marijuana, anything within my power. I was being a disc jockey in North Carolina and voluntarily out of touch with the family. I had no power. I didn’t even know she was dying. It would be fifteen more years until I went home to make what amends I could. I screwed up my own courage to struggle with addiction and headed north to mend family fences. Then I heard the story.
My sister, Martha Ann, named after both her grandmothers, was adult retarded. That sounds like she was always an adult, but we were children together. Mattie was five years younger than I am. She had perfect recall of small and strange things that an elephant could envy. A memory for minutiae, she could recite the patterns of wallpapers and the pictures made by ceiling cracks of houses long departed, and yearly poundage from our neighbor’s back yard cherry tree. Our mother made wonderful, tart pies from Mr. Whipp’s discards. Tom Whipp was the town clerk of Wauwautosa, Wisconsin and did not like cherries; we got them all. He (aged 72) chewed tobacco and let me (aged five) hang out with him in his basement workshop that smelled of spilled machine oil, metal filings and the raisin brandy tobacco odors of his spit can. My sister could pull volumes from her memory. She just had trouble using them. Her memory had a mind of its own, too. In 2012 my sister arrived in Maine courtesy of the US Postal Service. Her ashes joined the perennial bed and my bean and lettuce patch.
Grandpa Joe Jilek shot a weasel one summer during WWII. I was summering with my mother and sister on the Angle Road. The weasel had been taking chickens. Joe waited all day on the back steps, smoking his pipe and cradling his rifle across his knees. The chickens were grandmother’s pride and joy. She could calculate their heft under all the pullet feathers and when they were just the size of a wide mouthed canning jar, she would pop their necks, pluck, stew and can them one to a jar, 20 to fifty at a time for wintering over as Sunday dinners for visiting relations. The chickens lined her pantry shelves, canopic jars of departed summer. In the cold months Joe Jilek spent his hours next to the kitchen range, annoying my grandmother by re-lighting his pipe with twists of newspaper. He stamped the burning newspaper out on the kitchen linoleum. The feud between my grandfather and the weasel is a sub-plot in the novel Midwife in the Tire Swing.
“For God’s sake, Joe, I just swept the floor!”
“Okay, okay, I won’t mess up your dirt.”
The ways to say I love you are many and strange. This tickled my dawning six-year-old appreciation of human interactions. They had been having this conversation for fifty years. My grandmother played the game, but was no less aggravated every time her husband stamped a burning twist out on the floor. The weasel’s hide was nailed on the door of a shed where the carcass of a goat had hung to freeze in a winter now long gone.
Marian Polanski was one of the regular relatives who visited my grandmother’s chicken-in-a-jar Sunday suppers. Cousin Marian weighed 450 pounds. She taught 1st grade at the consolidated school and drove a Studebaker sedan. I marveled at the way its leaf springs flattened out as she levered her bulk into the driver’s seat. There was no room for anybody else in her car. She blocked access to the back and positioned herself surrounding the steering column. Fortunately, the shift lever was mounted on the post near the wheel. She was in her early thirties when I knew her. She never lost an ounce, lived twenty more years, and died in her classroom. Marian’s pop, Uncle Leo Polanski, was as thin as a rail and played the fiddle for country-dances — all American stuff. His showpiece was Rubber Dolly:
My mother told me that she would buy me
A rubber dolly if I was good.
But if I told her I had a feller
She would not buy me no rubber dolly.
About dinner. Breakfast happens at 5:30 in the morning, after chores. Lunch happens in late mid-morning. Dinner happens in the mid-afternoon. Supper happens between six and eight in the evening, depending what schedule your cows keep. Generally, the cows keep a schedule that complements the pickup time of the creamery truck. Snacks happen anytime.About dinner. Breakfast happens at 5:30 in the morning, after chores. Lunch happens in late mid-morning. Dinner happens in the mid-afternoon. Supper happens between six and eight in the evening, depending what schedule your cows keep. Generally, the cows keep a schedule that complements the pickup time of the creamery truck. Snacks happen anytime.
About chores. We spent two years (1952-1954) on my Uncle Johnny Schilleman’s dairy farm. My pre-dawn chore was mucking out the barn. I had a wheelbarrow, a shovel and a plank runway to the top of the manure pile. In the spring, we backed up a manure spreader and shoveled the by then composted poop from the pile and tractored it over the fallow fields. The cows ate silage and unsellable potatoes all winter and by May the pile was the size of a two family, two-story duplex. Many wheelbarrowfuls: young muscles strained; pampered city nostrils got educated to the barn. I helped my grandmother deliver a breech birth calf. She reached into the cow up to her elbow feeling for a heartbeat. The calf was dead. She called for a length of hemp rope and a logging hook, attached the rope to the hook, made a loop, and coaxed the dead calf out. She saved the cow. I buried the calf in the manure pile. Through the magic of chemistry, the calf had disappeared by spring.
That spring it fell to me to go to town and buy a house. We had stayed on the farm long enough. [The photograph is from1910. By the 1950s little had changed. The street got blacktopped, the drug store changed owners, the bowler hats went away.] My grandmother joined us a few months later. When she rolled a tractor contour plowing a 40% grade, she jumped clear and decided the farm was no longer for her.
This was my first real responsibility. My mother and her mother had scraped together a war chest with the help of Uncle Julius. Everyone was busy the day the money came, so I was given three thousand dollars in cash and told to “Go to town and buy a house.” I did. I was 15 years old. It always surprised me that everyone — my mother, sister and grandmother — liked, no loved, the house, 835 Hogan Street, where city services and indoor plumbing ended, on the edge of town. The heat was wood and coal with a separate stock of seasoned hardwood for cooking with the kitchen range. Bread, lard and laundry filled the house with their aromas on assigned days of the week. I loved the house. It was tiny and old.
My grandparents built their house together — a stuccoed farm bungalow — in the 19-teens: a real house, not sod and timber. By the 1940s a radio was displayed prominently in the Sunday dining room and an electric light fixture positioned smack in the middle of each ceiling. Every room plus the sun porch had two wall outlets. Rural electrification brought the poles marching out to the Angle Road from Antigo in the 1960s. The little radio’s filaments warmed up after a minute or so and played the morning farm report. The radio and electric lights were for special events, usually company coming. The Jileks had foresight and faith in the future of technology, but everyday lighting was by oil lantern. The radio was a modern convenience, but a luxury. It was switched off at 6:30. The electricity was under strict supervision.
The electric lights and the radio worked well enough. They were powered by a Delco system — a rack of lead/acid batteries charged by a generator or hauled to town once a month for recharging. The Jileks had no generator; their faith in the eventual arrival of mains current was unshakable. The four daughters — Claire (Hunter), Irene (Schilleman), Mary (Bretl), and Inez (Bolle) with big brother Jules studied by kerosene and candles. A favorite cautionary story involved the Christmas when my mother’s hair caught fire from the candles on the tree. Her life, but precious little of her hair, was saved when Claire’s mom rolled her up in a rug to smother the fire.
If you want to be a Badger, just come along with me
By the bright shining light, by the light of the moon…
— University of Wisconsin Fight Song
In all but the hardest winters — 40 to 50 below for a protracted period — a barnful of 600-pound Jersey heifers throws a bounty and a half of steamy, odorous heat — the sweet, pungent barn smell. In the winter, the schema is not to keep the animals warm; large, warm bodies and a loft full of insulating hay do that. In the Wisconsin winters a hundred-watt light bulb keeps the chicken coop warm enough so the drinking water doesn’t freeze. Heat in the cow barn is to keep the vacuum pressure milk lines and the cows’ human attendants from punishing cold. The last step of milking is called “stripping,” coaxing by hand the last drops of milk from distended udders — bare hands, warm is better. Less likelihood of infection if the udders are emptied twice daily.
Julius Jilek ran a modern farm with milking machines and vacuum lines to pull the milk through a buried pipe to his cool room (The Spring House — water-cooled in summer, insulated in winter). Jules used a kerosene floor heater for extra warmth, a gathering place for chilly hands. Cows will NOT give their milk into a chilly hand.
That evening the heater sprang a leak and straw bedding ignited. Uncle Jules came out for his bedtime rounds to check on his cattle. There was a small, but controllable, fire spreading to the gutters. Recalling the gallons of kero in the heater’s bail, he lifted the heavy, burning stove and maneuvered it into the yard. It exploded in his arms. Burning fuel oil soaked him. The manpower that might have saved his barn went into saving him.
Julius mourned his cows and planned to never rebuild the barn. In ten years it eventually became a potato warehouse. Five years after the fire he walked me through the charred concrete footings. He turned over calcified ash with a stick to expose scattered ribs and vertebrae. Jules had a private moment of grief. The grief was his alone; the moment was ours. Julius was generous with his moments but hid his feelings.
My Mom packed to move north for the duration. With a kid’s guile, eavesdropping on the urgent whisperings of the grownups, I doped out that my Uncle Jules was badly burned. There were tearful good-byes from my mother at the Chicago Northwestern depot on Milwaukee’s lakeshore. Claire moved in to help Aunt Katherine with the kids and the farm. 240 miles to the south in Milwaukee, Aunt Flora Hunter moved in at our house to look after sister Mattie and me. This was 1947 or thereabouts. Julius Jilek went through a series of skin grafts and planted potatoes on the land his parents had cleared. The 1940s were a good time for Wisconsin potatoes. What land he could not buy, he leased, and over the next ten years he had leased, rented or bought outright thousands of acres in the Neva Star. Neva, Wisconsin was our postal zone. Some Russians had gotten there before the Czechs.
Uncle Jules built a ½ mile spur from the main line so the Chicago Northwestern would pick up his potatoes. The hundred pound bags read: Railview Brand — J. Jilek & Son — Antigo, Wisc. He quit smoking when he was fifty years old and lived to his late eighties, still working a two-acre vegetable garden just for fun.
My Bohemian great-grandparents arrived from what would come to be called Czechoslovakia. Where my Scottish grandparents came from is called Canada, not Scotland. In the 1920’s a narrow-eyed Scottie crept over from Canada and captured my mother. “I have come to claim my bride!” he roared, and swept back across the border. Actually Claire Rose Jilek met Bob Hunter as a blind date while she was a telephone operator in Milwaukee.
Claire was one of the Bluemound Girls. Being a “Phone Op” was more liberating than becoming a schoolteacher or typist. The girls who replaced male voices for the Wisconsin Telephone Company were, well, flappers. It was a sophisticated place, the Bluemound Exchange; the girls talked to England, France, Fond du Lac and West Allis every day. West Allis was a company town west of Milwaukee (Allis-Chalmers made tractors and tanks there). Fond du Lac is on Lake Winnebago. I was born there in 1938:
I’d love to ramble in Lac du Flambeau,
But don’t take me back to Fond du Lac, Jack.
The phone ops personally answered every call from bewildered subscribers to get through to any location outside of their home exchange. The new-fangled “automatic” telephone exchanges that had replaced ‘Hello, Central’ were local only; everywhere else was long distance and operator-assisted. Movies had not yet begun to talk, there were no radio stations beyond an experimental few, no television, no Internet. Newspapers were the old media and switchboard operators were the new electronic stars. Claire changed her name from Jilek to Gillette. Gillette had an éclat missing from the BoHo farm girl Jilek.
King Gillette was born in Fond du Lac, too. He became a millionaire at the turn (of the 20th) century with his patented double-edged razor blades.
Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp!
To look sharp every time you shave,
To feel sharp and be on the ball,
Just be sharp,
Use Gillette Blue Blades
For the quickest, slickest shave
Blue Blades were good for one shave on each side — two days on one blade, Wow! Grandpa Joe sharpened his blade every day on the inside of a Rath’s Blackhawk dried beef jar. He used two blades a year. Gillette sounded French and Mom thought it was classy.
(Bell rings) Look sharp,
(Bell rings) feel sharp,
(Bell rings) be sharp and listen Mister!
How are you fixed for blades?
And Claire Rose Jilek, Bluemound girl, got fixed up with her young blade.
Old photos, Number 2: my dad, Robert Lawrence Hunter, in his dress regimentals. The year is 1916 and he is wearing a kilt. The plaid is the Black Watch and he is joining a troop ship at Halifax, Nova Scotia to fight for King and Country. This was before his mother got off the train from Ontario and laced into the sergeant major over his stealing her only son who was, after all, only sixteen and not legally competent to enlist. My dad had strong knees as a lad and looked great in the picture. He ruined them in vaudeville doing the kazatsky with Eddie Kaminski’s Russian Dance Troup.
Pop learned to swim when kids from a rival gang threw him into the Detroit River. He ran away to sea and spent a year with the Augusta G. Hilton, a four-masted schooner with a Boston registry and a home port of Savannah, Georgia pulling South American lumber to the States on the Venezuela run. Wind and steam were mixed in those days. However, the Augusta G. was a windjammer with no room for an engine. He was a deck hand, the food had been maggoty for weeks and, when the Augusta G. grounded on a sand bar at West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard, the crew voted with their stomachs. He and some friends jumped ship. A zealous mate fired warning shots as they went over the side. Dad was hit by a .32 caliber bullet. The year was 1923; Bob was 22 years old and had picked up his swimming skills over the edge of a wintry bridge. My father sported a neat entry wound in his lower right back, just above the kidney. The above tale was how he explained its presence to me, his eight-year-old son.
“Air conditioning, Pat...” Pat was my middle name — still is. For Paterson,
my maternal grandmother’s patronymic, pun intended. This, aside from bad
teeth and teeter-tottering between strong drink and the Women’s Christian
Temperance Union, was the curse of ex-pat Scotties everywhere, and a legacy
of Upper Canada he brought along when, at age eighteen, he walked over the
bridge at Windsor, Ontario and started to vote in Michigan. The adult males
of my family had been named Robert Hunter as far back as a pinpoint in the
thither distance. This was how we told each another apart, and presumably
slowed down our oedipal ramblings. The year was 1948 and his business went
tits up; we moved to Florida to sell electric fans. I used to go along and
hold the screws while he installed window units. It was hard work; Bob didn’t
believe in drilling pilot holes. He was 52.
We moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. where weed-clotted streets with streetlights and storm drains crisscrossed the palmetto wastelands: empty housing plats with the water mains already laid on. There was no sewage accommodation for, as with the fan entrepreneurs who rejected mechanical cooling as an option of the rich, foresight was not the strong suit of the city fathers of St. Petersburg.
The Fords, Futvoyes, Patersons, Langs and Hunters too, had packed up lock, stock and barrel in the late 19th Century and left Tayvallich, Scotland for Upper Canada. Daniel Lang had gone ahead and found a land of milk and porridge not unlike the dreams of the Scottish borderers. Things were no easier in Ontario but there was enough. The emigrant Scottish families made landfall at Cruaich Nelly in an Ontario village named Eagle. London, Ontario was a nearby thriving townlet. They were not refugees from the industrial revolution, but rather pilgrims in search of that revolution in a location where it offered a welcome for them to enter in and join it. My grandmother, Martha (Paterson) Hunter, recalled a song they sang as children:
Can ye see the cotton spinners?
Can ye see them gang awa’?
Can ye see the cotton spinners?
Standing on the brim, O La!
Some of them have bread and butter,
Some of them have none of a’
Some of them have got umbrellas
For to keep the rain awa.’
The first I remember noticing there might be something worth remembering about my relatives, ancient and all but forgotten, was a mention of Archibald Paterson. There is one (1) ‘T’ in Paterson. Accept no substitutes. Uncle Archie had gone to the Yukon for the gold rush, the Rush of ’98. Ethridge Hunter, one of the original immigrants from Argyll, also an uncle, had disappeared into the territories, leaving behind a wife and many children. There has been no word from Uncle Ethridge for 103 years as of this writing. Archie came home to become the town drunk, and as broke as when he first came to Cruaich Nelly.
But wait! Comes 2014 and Claude Auger and 2nd cousin Greg Hunter of Vancouver, B.C. make a connection and send a picture of the as it turns out not-so-missing Ontario Hunters. And I found some long-lost relations.
The Hunter siblings. Back row: George, Will (my grandfather), Ed; front row: Lilian, Etheridge, Eveline. Etheridge Hunter [who disappeared to the Klondike gold rush according to my great-aunt Belle Baxter] was found, by the way: he lived his last years, died (1956, age 72) and was buried in Oliver, BC.
My Grandma Mattie recalled the origin of the name Cruaich Nelly and must have told me many times. All I can recall is that it was a touch of home, from Clan Maclaine, a tributary branch of the Campbells. The Church of Scotland had reduced a cruaich, pronounced croch, usually an altar in pagan times, to “a commemorative rockpile.”
Aunt Christie played the hammer dulcimer, a psaltery, as a child she had waited in the rain to see the old queen pass by in her carriage. It was Victoria’s Jubilee. All these aunts and uncles — were my paternal grandparents’ aunts and uncles. Their stories were told me by my Aunt Flora Hunter, the unmarried sister. Aunt Flora went to secretarial school, operated a bookkeeping machine for Lindsay Bros. Farm Equipment and tended to her widowed mother.
Jukeboxes cost a nickel and the big 78-rpm lacquer platters dropped onto the turntable with a splat. Wurlitzer flashing carnival lights intrigued me as I listened to the music, watched the lights, and smelled the red sawdust, salt peanuts and pickled eggs in the bars where I went with my father and watched him consume a weekend breakfast of beer with a raw egg floating in it. Don’t Fence Me In and White Christmas were my favorites. Yes, I was four years old when White Christmas, from a 1942 movie Holiday Inn, was first played on the radio. Again and again and again. My earliest memory is of trimming the Christmas tree with Bob and Claire behind blackout curtains with Bing Crosby crooning from the radio (WTMJ — The Milwaukee Journal station).
I especially remember the blackout curtains as a three-year-old practicing toilet training in the dark. Scary. My pop was a block warden. He had a tin hat, a flashlight and arrest powers over any householder who showed a light during air raid drills. The drills were citywide. Us kids had spotter cards, trading card size flashcards with black silhouettes of potential enemy aircraft. We watched for them, but the Messerschmitts and Junkers never came.
Pat’s favorite place was inside the Philco radio. It was the Art Moderne laminated walnut floor model console with room for a kid to wriggle in from the back. The glow of the dial and the heat from the vacuum tubes above my head made this a cozy corner. The huge dynamic loudspeaker and the blue glow from the rectifier tube made it a great private place, a real hideout. The Lone Ranger, Sky King, The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Hour, Lum ‘n’ Abner, One Man’s Family, Just Plain Bill, The Romance of Helen Trent, Ma Perkins, Easy Aces, and, late at night (after 8) I would sneak halfway down the stairs from bed and sit on the landing, listening with my parents to Mister District Attorney and Gang Busters. This was truly grownup stuff.
In World War One we fought the Hun,
And when ’twas done we fought his son.
On the home fronts, kids were encouraged to join in the official enthusiasm for the grownups’ wars. We, for I was a kid once too, as were my parents, brought our own schoolyard wit to bear. My mother’s brother and sisters told knock-knock jokes:
“Hell mit der Kaiser.”
Disney’s Snow White had come out the year my classmates and I were born. It was a natural for us and our grownups’ war:
Whistle while you work;
Hitler is a jerk.
Mussolini pulled his weenie
Now it doesn't work.
Mom and Pop were Rotary Club Republicans; President Roosevelt was That man when they felt constrained to speak of him at all. Dad was a block warden while active in black market trading of cigarettes and frozen meat. Like I said, sheep stealers: everyone was a black marketeer during WWII. Lucky Strike Green had gone to war as the advertising slogan trumpeted. But Frozen? No one had freezers; all this consumer stuff was yet to come. Clarence Birdseye’s frosted peas were for the deep chest freezers of the A&P; there was room for a couple of boxes, the ice cubes and a pint of ice cream in the old monitor-top fridges. My dad’s partner, Elroy Keller, owned the local drug store. His ice cream freezer was chock full of contraband beef and deer meat, venison poached from the north woods.
Old photos, Number 3: My Aunt Flora with a tall, lean cowboy. She never said why she had extended that trip to Yellowstone for an extra month, but as far as adventures in her life, that was it. The cowboy took her on long safaris with pack mules and could open Coke bottles with his teeth. They had taken the train and then a Model T automobile. The other girls disappeared from the pictures in her album after the first few weeks to be replaced by landscapes, geysers and the cowboy.
Isabel, my dad’s younger sister, was “the beauty” and received singing lessons in the style of Lily Pons and Jeanette Macdonald. She married well.
Very few men look good in tight pants. My mother’s brother-in-law Norm Bretl did, particularly in his U.S. Navy uniform. The blue bell-bottoms with placket button fly promised dexterity in tight situations. He stood on our doorstep one Saturday afternoon in 1945. I answered the door and there he was, tall, slim and apologetic. He had to stay over between trains for his return to Rhinelander and Aunt Mary (Mrs. Norm). Hugs were exchanged all around and he got to sleep on the couch. My cousin Jim Bretl, his son, looks just like his father and still runs a family insurance business in Eagle River. Norm did not look a whole lot like my toy soldiers. They were green and flaky home front composites from the Days Before Plastic. Yes, the only consumer plastic before the Color-Qwik Bags was named Bakelite, and lived its life as handles on kitchen appliances, toasters and electric plugs.
At this point in our conversation, I should be airing the genetic baggage passed down from the Czech and Caledonian branches. Peasant cunning tops the list. Think big, stay right-sized and keep an eye on the main chance. The minuses seem to cancel out one another — from my Pop’s side, bad teeth, red hair and freckles, bad knees and an addictive personality; from my Mom’s side good teeth, physical endurance, great knees, black hair and olive skin, and an addictive personality. We all are chain-smoking alcoholics and overly fond of prescription medications.
My Mom died of emphysema and complications of pneumonia in 1966. My Pop died of a “café coronary” in 1952 — the days before the Heimlich maneuver. We were living in a Homestead Act tract bungalow (Pinellas County, redneck cracker Florida). Pop was broke; U.S. Customs had impounded a shipment of European gold lamé leather that tied up all his free assets. By the time the shipment was released, the gold had turned green. Really, the leather was actually green after two years in a warehouse on the New York docks. So much for women’s fashion pumps and the 1949 season. Bob Hunter’s hustle had gone wrong. The creditors got our house and, with my Grandma Anna and all our leftover possessions, we headed to Florida. This was before the interstate highway system. The trip was quite an adventure — mud, flats, flies and many days.
Old photos, Number 4: That’s me in the corduroy overalls and striped
shirt sitting on my Grandpa Will’s lap. He would die soon. Lean, tall and
craggy, at this writing he blurs over into Aunt Flora’s cowboy, hair turned
snowy white with a hawk-like Scottie nose. My grandfather Will apprenticed
as a ships’ carpenter on the Great Lakes ore carriers — the Minnesota Iron
Range to Lake Michigan’s south shore. When steam replaced sail he trained
as an engineer and worked through the years of coal and oil. He never retired.
Will died at age 73 (when I was 1½ years old), a boiler safety inspector
for a firm of marine underwriters. I have the oddest feeling he would have
liked to be writing this.
an email from cousin Kristen Bothe cleared up some historical fuzziness
on my part. There seemed to be an odd spelling of the names, but Anna’s
parents would be: Charles Holly and Frances Duchon. Joe’s parents
were: Jacob Jilek and Petronila Skolny.
Apropos of the various Jileks, Aunt Inez, her husband Louis Bolle, and my cousins Kenny and Diane are well-remembered. Particularly the time we left Kenny tied to a tree in the Bolle’s backyard and went in for dinner. This would have been in the 1940s after an afternoon playing cowboys and Indians. Alas, the picture of Anna my grandmother was among the things my mother (Claire Rose Jilek) had saved away — you know, behind the guest sheets on a closet shelf — and that time and distance have made unavailable to me. On a tangent, I live in Downeast Maine. On a trip to Aroostook County I passed a mailbox named Jilek and left a note. Nope, no relation. The Maine Mr. Jilek was a devoted genealogist and responded promptly. He sent along a parsing out of the whos and wheres of his family. Seems that Jilek is a common name in today’s Czech Republic.
copyright 2020 Rob Hunter