On Wisconsin

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without

Loose Lips Sailor

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 tease memory. These are all I have; you can carry along only so much stuff before you start to lose it. Here is an anecdotal rule of generations of conmen and scalawags (credited to Robert A. Heinlein) — “Never own more than you can carry in both hands at a dead run.” Good advice, albeit bad management. As a kid in Wisconsin I learned that most good stuff came from Somewhere Else — a lesson that took many years and many miles to unlearn.

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 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; the kids bought Postal Savings Stamps at school. When our little books were filled, we got a U.S. bond.

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 Jimmy, his son, looks just like his father and still runs the family insurance business in Eagle River. Norm did not look a whole lot like my toy soldiers. They were green home front composites from the Days before Plastic.

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.

The Color-Qwik Bag

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! My mother’s eyes grew large — clouded with wonder at God’s creation, I thought as a child. Actually she had been nipping at the kitchen vermouth. Mom had 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. The only consumer plastic before Color-Qwik Bags was named Bakelite, and lived its life as handles on kitchen appliances, toasters and electric plugs. The new plastics discovered in the 1930s were monopolized by the military during World War II.

Yellow margarine was forbidden in Wisconsin; 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 actually 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 (the Office of Price Administration) 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 while they took 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. Then 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, but we felt lucky just to have the butter. It would be the 1990s before butter achieved the same face value in 1990 dollars, when a dollar-forty meant a whole lot less.

Wisconsin Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscopy is the art and science of peering through a paper tube stuffed with broken glass. A Christmas confection gone strangely pagan, visions of nouveau delight may be seen here. An eyepiece is installed, screwed to monocular flesh by Frank Lloyd Wright and perched atop a Louis Sullivan bank façade in Spring Green or Columbia. Visions of Prairie School architecture: Taliesin’s rainfall gone wilding down embankments into Wisconsin spring torrents. Acolyte and master watch the water tumble by and down into a water-gorged freshet.

“Mention my name in Sheboygan…
…but please don’t tell them where I am.”
— Vaudeville and barbershop quartet favorite

Memory is light and easily managed in unexpected getaways, but fades and changes with time. An old photograph my grandmother saved 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 were in Sheboygan. 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. Those eighteen men lined up at ground level to have their picture taken with her reminded me of a high school class portrait. None were shy, some fingered beards, the teenagers hitched suspenders, and they brandished a meaningful collection of tools. 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. 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.

— From 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 mean,
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 bomb,
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.

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.

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.

It was a family conceit that the Bohemians were really 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.

Grandmother did not subscribe to the germ theory

Salt bread, Old World style was a staple. “Hunger makes the best cook” was 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 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. Their salt had no iodine content — men and women of my grandmother’s generation carried the scars of goiter surgeries on their necks.

My grandmother was attractive as a young woman. And she 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 polite 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 family. 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 slog through the valley of duty. She knew duty. We received the magazines the parochial school 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 that we bought for five dollars a truckload. We heated with coal. Bulk coal took up the slack in home heating. Grandma bought the refractory sized large coal 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 was 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 before. Mrs. Larson’s son, John Schilleman, had married my Mom’s sister Irene. There were eight kids on the Schilleman farm. The cousins were Joanie, Judy, Jack, Mary Kate, Carrie and Mickey (the twins), my sister Mattie and me. Jack, Mickey and I shared a bedroom just big enough for us to get in the door. A double bed took up the remaining available space. Jack and I snuggled side by side while Mickey, the smallest of us, got to go crosswise at 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.

In the years following WWII Uncle Johnny worked his way up to foreman at International Paper’s plant in Rhinelander. The forty cows were milked 12 hours apart — twice a day, every day. Johnny was there for both milkings while Aunt Irene taught at the Primrose School, grades 1-8, a one-room country schoolhouse across the road from the farm. After firing the stove and keeping the kids in line, teaching came in third over the course of a Wisconsin winter education. There would be discipline problems real or imagined, friction with parents and her rural school board. 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. Irene felt it was 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.

Anna Rose Holly (Jilek) was born in 1884. She died in 1970. Cousin Jimmy Bretl reminisced with my sister and me while I was on 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 at the time 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. It was then I heard the story.

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 Ontario 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 on a blind date while she was a telephone operator in Milwaukee.

Claire was one of the Bluemound Girls, cheery female answerers at Wisconsin Telephone (these days Area Code 414 Central Office). 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 subscribers trying to get through to a location outside of their home exchange. The new-fangled automatic telephone exchanges that 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 media stars. Claire changed her name from Jilek to Gillette. Gillette had éclat for a BoHo farm girl. Gillette sounded French and Mom thought it was classy.

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.

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 of all.

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.

Anna and Joe on the Angle Road

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. 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 electricity was under strict supervision. Rural electrification brought the poles marching out to the Angle Road from Antigo in the 1960s. The electric lights and the radio worked well enough. The little radio’s filaments warmed up after a minute or so and played the morning farm report. Until electrification 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 kerosene lantern. The radio was a modern convenience, but a luxury. It was switched off at 6:30. The four daughters — Claire (Hunter), Irene (Schilleman), Mary (Bretl), and Inez (Bolle) with big brother Julius 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.

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 floor.

“For God’s sake, Joe, I just swept!”

“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 the human condition. 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 kitchen linoleum. 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.


copyright 2020 Rob Hunter

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