Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Those Who Gave All

A few years back, my wife and I had a couple of younger friends over for dinner. It was the first time they’d been in our home and they requested a tour. On the upper level hallway of our four-level home, there’s an area we call the Wall of Fame. Pictures of various family members, graduations, weddings, that sort of thing. It’s a big wall and there are a lot of pictures.

Among them are old photos of my dad and my wife’s dad, in their WW2 uniforms. There’s a picture of my Aunt Virginia in her WW2 WAVES uniform. During the big war, Aunt Virginia – one of five sisters – said “we don’t have any men in our family to help win this war, so I’m going, and that’s all there is too it”. There’s a picture of my dad's brother, Uncle John, in his Army uniform. He was a spy during the WW2 era, although back then they just said “he’s attached to OSS”. That stood for “Office of Strategic Services”, which became the CIA. He wouldn’t tell us where he served, but he spoke Japanese, which might have been a clue.

Viewing the pictures, our young friends said “oh, so you come from a military family!” No, not really, we said. Back then, during the big war, just about every family in America had a member who served in the armed forces. We explained that it’s typical for us baby-boomers to have close family members who did their duty and came home from the big war.

For 407 thousand American families, there was a family member who did not come home from the war, a family member who lost their life. 60 million people died in WW2, which was about 3% of the population of our planet at that time.

The photo at the top of this post is from an unknown source; it made its way around the internet yesterday, Memorial Day. I imagine it to be a young woman who lost her husband in one of the wars we have going now. It’s an incredibly sad photo.  She’s holding the folded flag presented to her by a military officer at the funeral, “with the thanks of a grateful nation” while she’s bent over the coffin in grief.

Here’s another photo that got a lot of exposure on the internet yesterday; a photo of a young mother grieving at the grave of her 19-year-old son who was killed in action in Iraq five years ago.

I grew up at a time when probably a third or more of the adult men in my small village had worn the uniform of their nation during the big war. Now, with the all-volunteer army, only a small fraction of one percent of our nation is serving in the military.

Younger people today are disconnected from the wars their national leaders have gotten us involved in. They may know somebody from their high school class who served in Afghanistan or Iraq; odds are strong they don’t know anyone who was killed in action in either of those nations.  Since 2001, about 7 thousand of our soldiers and an equal number of civilian contractors have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So the odds are pretty small that anyone in America actually knew someone who was killed in action since a small band of Saudi Arabians flew airplanes into our buildings.

I think it’s that disconnect – being aware that many of our troops are dying in these seemingly endless wars, but not actually knowing any person who has died in action, or a family which has lost a member – that has allowed our leaders to continue these wars.

Vietnam was the war of my era, a war that claimed the lives of 58-thousand American troops. My kids have been given the “Viet Nam Death Tour” many, many times when they were younger. Every time we’d drive from our home in Madison up to visit my family in the Fox Valley, as we got close to my small hometown of Hortonville, I’d point out the home of one of my high school classmates who was killed in that war. There are four of them. Guys I went to school with who lost their lives in Vietnam.

And that’s not counting my grade school friend Tommy Armitage, who was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and gave his life to save four other Marines by throwing himself onto a Viet Cong hand grenade in February of 1969, while I was drinking beer and talking smart in college.

Having those direct connections to war deaths was one of the main reasons my generation rose up against the war machine and stopped it. We were losing a pointless war and too many of our friends were getting killed in it.

It’s also why I get my Irish up when I see so many posts on social media and hear so many TV folks talk about how Memorial Day is a day to honor “all our brave service men and women”. No, it’s not. That’s Veterans Day. Memorial Day is to honor the men and women who paid the ultimate price. They deserve a day of their own, and I’ll take any bet on whether those serving right now agree with me that their day is Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Day is to honor those who gave all.

God bless all those who gave their lives doing what our nation asked them to do; and thanks to those who volunteered to put on the uniform and go where our nation ordered them to go.

I think if today’s young people had the kind of personal connection to war that my generation and the generation before mine did, things would be different.
Very different.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Iowans Pull Together Following Lake City Twister

My guess is the Class of 2015 at South Central Calhoun High School in Lake City, Iowa, will be known as “the tornado class”. On Sunday evening May 10th around 7:30, an F-1 tornado dropped out of the sky on the far west end of Lake City, tore the roof right off the high school, and then carved a path of destruction across several residential blocks in the western Iowa community.

My good friend and fellow tuba player Tom Plummer is the band director at the high school, and he lives about 6 blocks from the school. In the picture at the top of this post, taken by the Iowa Department of Public Safety the morning after the twister, you can see the damage done to the school. On the left side of the photo, you  can see an SUV hooked to a big white trailer between two of the buildings. The building to the right of the SUV and trailer is Tom’s new band room, which was built just a few years ago.  The twister did no damage to that part of the school.

Above is another shot of some of the damage the twister did.

Tom and I have established a tradition. Each year in June, we pick a weekend that works, and I spend 3 or 4 days as a guest in Tom’s home. We drink a little beer, watch a little baseball, and play a lot of polka music. Lake City is a small community of about 17-hundred folks, very much like my small hometown of Hortonville, Wisconsin – which was also hit by a tornado a year ago. So I’ve got a special affinity for Lake City.

And I’ve got a special affinity for Iowans. My two kids (step-children, if you’re one of those people to whom biology matters) were born in Burlington, Iowa in the mid-80’s. I’ve always thought their Hawkeye heritage helped give them a pragmatic approach to life: sensible, down-to-earth, the harder I work, the luckier I get -you get the idea.

I’ve written before about my June weekends at Tom’s house in Lake City. Last year, I based the entire essay on the wonderful, friendly, helpful Iowans I encountered on my journey from Madison to Lake City. It’s here if you want to read it when you have time.

As usual, I digress.

Back to the Lake City tornado, and how those Iowans dealt with it. Because of my many years in southern California and many more in Wisconsin, I’ve been through earthquakes (4 of them) and tornadoes (about 10, I think). Both are very powerful forces of nature, and both will terrify you if you’re close to either.

Shortly after the tornado hit Lake City Sunday evening, Tom posted on Facebook that he was OK, and he put up some pictures of the wreckage in his neighborhood. I didn’t want to call him or text him; I figured he’d be plenty busy dealing with concerned family, and with his professional responsibilities as a teacher at the high school the tornado had just hit.
The high school is the heart of a small community. At one point or another, just about everybody is directly involved in something at the high school: a graduation, a concert or play; a sporting event; perhaps a civic meeting. The high school’s identity is the town’s identity, because it’s a reflection of the people who live there, pay their taxes there, and send their kids there.

When a small-town high school is rendered unusable by a natural disaster, the entire community is affected. Within a couple days of the disaster, these Iowans – who came together immediately to deal with the pressing problem of having no high school – had the power back on, much of the community cleaned up, and had made difficult decisions about the immediately pressing issues of where to hold classes, how to deal with the disruption of the school calendar right at the end of the school year, and a million other details.
If you have time, the local newspaper wrote a great article about this coming-together and decision-making. The article is linked here.

What these folks did, without arguing about who was in charge, who had jurisdiction, who had authority to do what, was really remarkable: everybody just pitched in and said “how can I help?” If you read the newspaper article, you’ll learn that Lake City’s churches and civic organizations immediately stepped up to volunteer spaces to serve as temporary classrooms.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association volunteered to bring in lunches for the school kids. The school board met, and without a long, drawn-out debate, made decisions about how to deal with the problems dealt them, when to set graduation, where to have it, and what would happen between now and then.

They dealt with bids for the contractor who’d put the new roof on, and decided while they were at it how to most efficiently coordinate the district’s plans for improving wi-fi and air conditioning in the school. They said they might have to put off a parking lot repaving project for a year or so because of the need to deal with the situation the tornado created.
And they did it all in about 72 hours.  In Madison, it probably would have taken four months, three new committees, and thousands of man-hours of debate, arguing, and ox-goring to make half as many decisions.

The whole nation could learn a good lesson from observing how these small-town Iowans faced and dealt with their problems; how so many people and institutions stepped up immediately with that “how can we help” attitude.

Good job, Lake City, in showing the rest of the world how it’s done.  I can’t wait to visit again, in a few weeks, and see how you’re coming along.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Two Brave Women

I spent some of my Monday evening talking with two of the most brave women I’ve ever spoken with. They’re not firefighters or EMT’s; they’re not active members of our military; they are a mother and daughter who are both breast cancer survivors.

I’m doing a story on behalf of the American Cancer Society for one of my part-time gigs, the Wisconsin News Connection (Public News Service), an online news organization which reaches a stunning 45 million people every week. For perspective, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News each reach about 4 million viewers a week.

Mom is a 50-something mother of three who lives in the Milwaukee suburb of St. Francis. Daughter is a 20-something mother of two who lives in Pewaukee. They’ll be participating in the Make Strides Against Breast Cancer event at Veterans Park in Milwaukee Saturday morning. The picture at the top of this post is from last year’s Make Strides event.

I call them brave because they both have absolutely horrifying stories about their bout with breast cancer, and they tell their stories with courage and deep feeling, sometimes pausing a moment when emotion overwhelms them, but quickly moving forward with the absolutely gut-wrenching aspects of what breast cancer did to their lives, and what they did to fight it, conquer it, and move forward with their lives.

There was no way the mom – Jill – could have known in 2008 that what started as an “itchy feeling” in one of her breasts would result in a double mastectomy. And there was no way that she could know that in 2013, her daughter Gina would face a diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer.

There was no history of it in their family. Neither had any of the risk factors. As it turned out, neither Jill nor Gina have the marker for the breast cancer gene. Their stories are different, but the disruption to their lives as mothers was the same – and the same as it is for literally thousands of Wisconsin women (4300 is the ACS estimate) who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Jill’s doctor called her – on Jill’s birthday in 2008 – and said she had good news and bad news. The bad news was, “you have some very bad and suspicious tissue in your right breast”. The good news was “if it is cancer, we think it’s the kind that we can get out surgically, without chemo”. 

Happy birthday, you have cancer.

Jill never did have to go through chemo, but she was suddenly faced with another big decision, and, without hesitation, told the surgeon to remove both her breasts. Jill said to me “I didn’t want to deal with it any more. I did not want to have to look at cancer again. It was just breasts. I still have my life, and that’s more important than any body part.”

That experience – I’ll spare you all the horrifying details – put her daughter, Gina, on high alert. She began doing self-exams every day in the shower. Then, suddenly, one morning in the shower early in 2013, she felt a small lump. She immediately called her doctor, and they got her in to clinic right away.

Gina told me “if I had not been so diligent in doing self-exams, I would probably not be here today, nor would I be able to say today that I am cancer free”. Gina’s odyssey was far different than her mother’s. Even though she’d done self-exams every day, her breast cancer was already at Stage 3, spreading to other parts of her body. She had to undergo 22 rounds of chemotherapy and several bouts under the knife on the operating table.

If you do not know someone who has had chemo, you may not realize what a toll each course of chemo takes on your entire body, your mind, and – if you’re not careful – your outlook on life. It can be brutal. It can be demoralizing. It makes your hair fall out and your bowels go crazy.

When you walk into the lobby at many clinics where breast cancer patients are treated, like the Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center at UW-Madison, you often see photos of women who’ve lost their hair, whose bodies have been ravaged by the chemo, which – in my words – damn near kills you before it cures you – IF it cures you. Those pictures are up there so women –and their families -will have a real perspective on what the treatment is going to do to them.

I don’t know where women like Jill and her daughter Gina come up with the courage to not only undergo the radical cures they had to endure, but to be able to tell somebody like me – a complete stranger – about it. They’ll tell you they do it because maybe just one person will hear their story, and maybe it will help give them the courage to endure the gauntlet of diagnosis, treatment, therapy, surgery, and recovery.

I’ve long said we don’t need more awareness about breast cancer. Every person knows someone whose life has been touched by it. We need a cure, not awareness.

So when Jill and Gina step to the starting line Saturday morning in the sea of pink that will surround them at the Make Strides Walk in Milwaukee, they won’t be walking to bring awareness to the disease. They will be walking – as Jill told me – to raise DOLLARS for the American Cancer Society.

Please remember that.  Dollars, not “awareness”.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

It's Already Too Late

I know, I know – they generated 10 runs last night including a grand slam from the new guy, but there is still no reason to believe the Brewers will not finish in the cellar of the NL Central this season. The signs are all bad.

Just like the Wisconsin spring that just won’t seem to really arrive this year, spring is not a season of hope for the Brew-crew, who are the worst team in baseball in scoring runs and the worst team in baseball in allowing runs. Not good signs.

I won’t throw any more rankings or statistics at you; that’s not my style. I’d rather, like the young folks, talk about my feelings.

Wait, one more technical thing: according to the Fox Sports people, to even have a chance at a Wild Card, the Brewers have to finish the season playing at a .530 pace, which would be a better pace than they’ve played in the past five years – except the 2011 season, when Ryan Braun was gobbling down performance enhancing drugs like crazy.

.530? Not gonna happen.

Braun is not even an average player any more. He followed the classic pattern and did the drugs, got his stats up, got his huge money deal, and now he’s just another player with a huge paycheck and crappy stats. Ramirez is asleep this year., too.

And now we have another one of those BS stories regarding a freak injury. A few years back it was Lucroy making up some story about how his wife knocked a suitcase off a hotel room bed onto his hand, or whatever; now we’ve got the BS story from Gennett about ripping his hand open in the shower.


At least Luc’s injury this time around – the smashed big toe – is one for which we have incontrovertible video evidence.

I love the Brewers. I’m a Brewers fan. I have an old-school glove-and-bat Brewers decal on my huge gas-sucking SUV. But starting the season this way takes so much wind out of my sails. In February, in anticipation of at least a decent Brewers season, my wife and I said “next year again FOR SURE” about spending a week or so in Arizona at Spring Training.

We’ll go to Spring Training again next year, and take in a game or two at the Maryvale Complex, and see the Cubs new facility, and head out west of Phoenix to that great Camelback Ranch facility the Dodgers and White Sox now call home. But it’s a little bit sad to have to look ahead to late February next year, when it’s only late April this year.

What makes matters worse, we can’t even see the Cubs on TV this season, because $$$$$$ rules everything that has to do with pro sports.

When I write my next baseball rant, along about All-Star break, I do hope I’ll regret having given up so soon.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Last Night’s Real Loser: College Basketball Officiating

The photo above, taken by the Wisconsin State Journal’s Michael King, needs no explanation to anyone who watched the NCAA Division 1 Championship Game last night.  For those who didn’t, the photo clearly shows Duke’s Justise Winslow touching the basketball just before it went out of bounds in the closing minutes of last night’s game between the Badgers and the Blue Devils.

After huddling to watch the replay for an interminably and inexcusably long time, the officials decided not to overrule the (incorrect) call that was made on the play, and awarded the ball to Duke.  It probably didn’t change the outcome of the game, and this is not a sour-grapes “the refs robbed us” post.  The fat lady was singing with about five minutes left in the game, and it was because of the way the Badgers played, not because the game was so poorly officiated. There were plenty of officiating mistakes that went both ways.

Maybe the Badgers ran out of gas at the end because of the huge toll the win over Kentucky took on them; maybe it was any one of dozens of other theories given wide circulation on the sports talk shows last night and this morning.

There are more than a few out there in sports talk land who believe this particular missed call was because some guy – or guys – with a lot of money riding on the game in Vegas bought a little "insurance" from one or more of the refs.

Kind of like one of my many favorite scenes in the movie Caddyshack, when at the beginning of the big golf match toward the end of the movie Rodney Dangerfield hands a hundred-dollar-bill to the “official” supervising the match and says “keep it fair”. (You can see that famous24-second movie clip here.)

The thing is, if you were watching the game last night, you saw it just as clearly as I did. The ball was last touched by Winslow just before it went out of bounds. It took the CBS sports TV folks in the production truck only a few seconds to isolate the shot that clearly showed Winslow touching the ball. Yet the officials, watching the same stuff, claimed they didn’t see enough “evidence” to overturn the (incorrect) call made on the floor.

When tens of millions of people can clearly see what happened, via great photography (just like the Michael King photo at the top of this post), and the officials claim to not see it – well, there goes their credibility.

Instant replay is here to stay whether or not the commissioner of any sports league or the rich white guys who own the team like it or not. It’s here because it’s on TV and the fans can see it. No one questions the difficulty of making a split-second call on the baseball field (out or safe, home run or foul ball), and the sport grudgingly adapted to the reality of modern sports TV and said instant replay would help the officials get it right.  The same facts obtain in pro football officiating, where there’s a lot more latitude for officiating judgment than there is in basketball.

The officials throughout the NCAA Tournament made a number of mistakes of omission – not calling a clearly flagrant foul on the Wildcats in the Kentucky-Wisconsin game, letting a Badgers basket count even though it was put up after the shot-clock had expired, and on and on.

But the failure to overturn the call when Winslow touched the ball last was an officiating failure that every man, woman, boy, girl, and dog watching the telecast saw.

It leaves us wondering, doesn’t it?  And that's exactly what instant replay was supposed to eliminate: doubt.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Annual Spring Walleye Run on the Mighty Wolf River - circa 1959

One of the spring rituals for a boy growing up in the small Outagamie County Wisconsin village of Hortonville in the 50’s and 60’s was to go Walleye fishing on the mighty Wolf River, which flowed a couple miles north of the village. The Wolf River originates in deep-spring lakes in northern Wisconsin’s Forest County and meanders 255 miles south, eventually emptying into Lake Winnebago.


The annual Walleye run began around this time of year – late March, early April – when the ice finally yields to the moderating temperatures – and the then-plentiful Walleye began their annual trek downstream to create the next generation of Walleyes. Don’t ask me the difference between the Walleye Pike, the Northern Pike, and Pickerel – there are differences, but that’s for the fish biologists to explain. All I know for sure is the Walleye is so-named because of the milky color of its eyes, which have a special layer or wall in their eye that reflects light.


In Hortonville lingo, which may or may not reflect biological science, the female of the species was called a “spawner” and the male a “milker”. They both swam downstream in the spring to the warmer part of the river; the female laid her eggs (spawn) in rocky areas along the riverbank, and the male followed up, spreading “milk” (sperm) over the eggs to fertilize them.


Apologies to John Amburgy, my Hortonville High biology teacher, if I’ve screwed up these basic facts.


Bear with me here. You need to know a few other things before we get to the meat of the matter. In order to catch some of the then-quite-plentiful Walleye, one needed a fishing license from the DNR; at least one long (10 to 12 feet) bamboo pole (available in hardware and sporting goods stores all over the Fox Valley back then), adequate fishing line (a good 15 feet per pole), a least one “bobber” per pole, and, the famous “Wolf River rig” – a combination of a minnow-like lure, a spinning reflector, and several treble hooks, designed to lure the wily Walleye and then, when he or she chomped down on the fake minnow, it would be duly hooked, and ready to be hauled in with a landing net – also required equipment. Or, as was also common, you would purchase live minnows, and use them on your Wolf River rig instead of the fakey wooden ones that came with the rig. We fished with real minnows.



Oh, and the DNR said the holder of the requisite fishing license could have a maximum of two lines in the water at any time. I am reporting the rule, not necessarily the reality of Walleye fishing in the late 50’s and early 60’s.


Thus equipped, all that remained was to attach the fishing line to the pole, set the bobber on the Wolf River rig so the minnow would be about two or three feet below the surface of the river, and then sit back and watch for the bobber to take a dive, indicating that Mr. or Mrs. Walleye was on the line. Or, as was often the case, that your Wolf River rig had snagged a piece of debris floating down the river.

There were lots of public access places and bridges where one could fish for Walleye during the spring run, but, for the serious sportsman, a “fishing shack” was requisite equipment. This also was a cottage industry for the farmers who owned the land through which the mighty Wolf flowed. They would rent 25 or 30 feet of their land along the riverbank to the intrepid fisher, then rent their services (a tractor and a strong back) to the fisher, to drag in four or five telephone poles (purchased from the utility at a premium) and enough lumber to build a small shack with a big window to view the dock.


It would look something like this, except imagine the little shack sitting on top of four or five telephone poles on the shore, with a dock that stretched out a few feet over the river. You’d bait your rig with a live minnow, attach your (legal limit of) two poles to the dock, cast your lines into the water, sit back, and watch.


It was this “watching” portion that developed character, I’m told. Patience. A virtue with which I was not blessed.


From around 1955 until around 1960 – I can’t be certain of the year – my dad had a tiny two-man fishing shack on the Wolf, which he and the farmer who owned the land, Wally Lenzner, had built. It was about a three-mile drive north of Hortonville off County Trunk S. You parked at Wally’s farm and hiked about a quarter-mile down to the river.  I made that hike with my dad hundreds of times, and we spent hundreds of hours in that tiny shack in the spring, and caught and ate a lot of Walleye.


But along about 1961, we moved into the big leagues of spring Walleye fishing. I was in 6th grade or so. Dad went into partnership with some of his card-playing buddies to lease a piece of land on the banks of the mighty Wolf just a few hundred feet east of the County Trunk M bridge over the Wolf. The land was owned by an extremely colorful character named Mac McKeever. I have no idea what his actual first name was, but he was known as Mac. He owned and operated a tavern next to the Highway M bridge over the Wolf called “Mac’s Landing”.


Mac’s Landing disappeared many years ago, and on its site now is a great bar and restaurant called “Damn Yankees Watering Hole” (pictured above), which is owned and operated by a guy I went to Hortonville High School with. I’ve been there many times since it was built a few years ago and have never had anything but great service and darn good food.


You could buy minnows at Mac’s Landing, and you could buy beer or soda to go. If you chose to sit at the bar and have a beer, Mac would fish an Adler Brau or Chief Oshkosh 12-ounce longnecker out of his vast cooler, crack it open with a church key (bottle opener) that he kept on a leather necklace, then spit on his palm and rub it over the top of the open bottle, and set it on the bar in front of you. Mac followed this procedure invariably, because he “don’t want no lawsuit from some damn Appleton lawyer on account of some city-slicker claims he cut his lip on busted glass at the top of the bottle”.


As usual, I digress.


At that time, my dad was transitioning from being the Guidance Counselor at Hortonville High (he was one of the few teachers who had a master’s degree back then) to his part-time insurance business. Around ’65 or so dad quit his half-time job at the high school and devoted all his efforts to building his very successful insurance business. His partners in this new spring fishing enterprise were, as I mentioned, his card-playing buddies. One was Jim O’Hern, the high school chemistry and physics teacher; another was Joe Keller, who owned and operated his own construction business, and a junior partner (as I understood it back then) was John Quinn, a high school history teacher.


When construction was finished, John Quinn made a painted wooden sign to hang over the door of the joint, dubbing it the “O-KELL-Y Inn”. O for Jim O’Hern, KELL for Joe Keller, Y for Morrissey, and Inn for Quinn. Quinn had no shortage of Irish wit.


My recollection of the actual construction of the “fishing shack” is dim, except that the operation was managed by Joe Keller, whose construction expertise was invaluable in this enterprise. This was no “shack” by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a small home built on top of a wide dock stretching out about 15 feet over the river. It had a pair of bunk beds so four people could rack out and catch some z’s, a kerosene-powered stove with two burners, a large all-purpose table in front of the huge window that allowed a full view of the dock and fishing poles; and – luxury of luxuries – a separate one-holer outhouse.


The only “fishing shack” that could rival my dad and his partners’ was owned by Milford Steffen, and it was close enough to Highway M that he had the power company run a line to his “shack” – I believe the only one so-equipped on the river. Everybody else used kerosene lanterns for light, kerosene stoves for heat, and an ice-chest for refrigeration.  Milford’s “shack” was a few hundred feet west of my dad’s.


For a month or so in the spring, when the ice was going out, one put on a pair of hip boots to slog through the mud and water – which was always high in the spring, as the mighty Wolf would overflow its banks by several feet – carrying your live minnows, ice, kerosene, and something to drink, which most often meant a couple bottles of Pepsi for me, and a six-pack of Chief Oshkosh for dad.


It was a few hundred feet from the public parking area across from Mac’s Landing to the O-Kell-Y Inn, and when the water got deep, my dad would hoist me onto his back and carry me across the deeper spots. He did this until along about 1961, when I was in 8th grade, stood six-foot-two and weighed in at a solid 185 (yes, I was ALWAYS a big kid). In one of the first trips in that spring, with me on his shoulders (dad was 6-foot-three, around 235, solid muscle, a former golden gloves boxer) he took a false step and we both went sprawling into the icy cold water.


We dried out at the Steffen “shack” and the next day, dad took me to the hardware store and bought me my very own pair of hip boots. This was a MAJOR step toward manhood - my own hip boots! It ranks right up there with getting your first rifle or shotgun, or your first car.




For you city-slickers, the photo above shows a man in hip boots.


Back then, the Walleye were so plentiful that you were virtually guaranteed of catching at least one or two at any given time, whether early or late in the season. Often, you’d catch the Walleye – which ran from 24 to 36 inches in length – gut it, fillet it, roll it in flour, put a glob of Crisco into a frying pan, and fry it up and eat it right on the spot.  I ate literally thousands of Walleye that way back in those days.


The law said you could have two poles per fisherman, and the law said you could have as many as five fish per license in your possession at any given time.  So, if you had three licensed fishermen at the shack, you could have no more than 15 Walleye in your possession – five per license. Those fish that were caught and not eaten were hooked onto stringers that were chained to the dock so they would stay alive in the river until it was time to pull the stringer out and take the fish home.


The rules were enforced by DNR wardens, who usually rode two-to-a-boat, and they would patrol the river, checking fishing licenses and number of fish in possession. There was a size limit – I don’t recall what it was – but the men I fished with were all conservation-minded, and they’d throw the little ones they caught back in with an admonition to “grow up and I’ll catch you again next year”.


The wardens quite frequently stopped at the O-Kell-Y Inn to check licenses and possession. And not surprisingly, often during the dinner hour, which always garnered them an invite for some fresh Walleye fillets.


Catching a good-size Walleye was a thrill. You’d watch those bamboo poles – often as many as eight or ten of them sprouting off the end of the dock, depending on how many licensed fishermen were at the shack – and watch and watch. When a good-size Walleye would take a minnow and the treble hooks would set just inside its mouth, it would give that bamboo pole one hell of a pull. There was a well-choreographed ballet when you had a lot of poles out and one of them got a strike.


The person whose pole it was would race to the edge of the dock and take the pole in their hands immediately. A hard hit from a big Walleye could easily pull that pole right out of the holder, and many a fisherman can tell a tale about the whopper that grabbed his line, pulled straight out, and took the pole and all down the river with him.  The DNR wardens frequently encountered bamboo poles floating down the river with a huge Walleye on the other end. They’d retrieve the Walleye, remove the hooks, and set it free again.


As the owner of the pole that had a hit would grab it, the other fishermen would grab their poles and carefully move them away from the one that had the fish on the hook. Lines that get tangled together can mean hours of work trying to untangle them, too often resulting in a resigned sigh followed by simply cutting the fishing line and removing the Wolf River rig, and starting all over again with fresh line.


After the other poles were safely out of the way, one of the other fishermen would grab the landing net and, as the guy with the strike slowly pulled the Walleye in, they’d scoop the big fish into the landing net and move in concert with the guy with the pole to maneuver the fish onto the dock, where it could be removed from the hooks and then either put on the stringer or immediately filleted and consumed.


Another piece of mandatory equipment was the battery-powered transistor radio, which at the time was a fairly new invention. Every weekday evening at 6:30 on WHBY radio out of Appleton a colorful guy named George Kubisiak would come on with the “Let’s Go Fishin’” show. Uncle George, as he called himself, hailed from New London – just upriver from Hortonville – and between 6:30 and 6:45 his Let’s Go Fishin’ show was tuned in on every radio up and down the Wolf River by every Walleye fisherman.


Uncle George would talk about where the Walleye were biting, often do live interviews with fishermen from the downtown bridge in New London, seeking information about how deep successful fishermen were setting their Wolf River rigs (“had ‘er set right at three foot, George, and they were hittin’ so hard that I’d catch one and take it off, put it on the stringer, bait the rig again, trow it in, and another one’d come right up and snap up another minnow”). After his show, the fishermen at every shack and in every boat on the river would debate whether or not Uncle George’s information on the show was believable.  Here’s a link to a fishing story featuring Uncle George from an April 1957 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel.


During those years, like every other pre-teen and teenager, my transistor radio was my constant companion, though I had no clue back then that I’d ever pursue a career in broadcasting.


One of the main questions every spring season on the Wolf was whether “the run” was on or not. You could catch Walleye any time there wasn’t ice on the river, but for a seven to ten day period after the ice went out, droves of Walleye would make the trip downriver at the same time, and this was the window the fisherman longed for – “the run”. When the run was on, you could catch your limit of five Walleye (of appropriate size) in less than an hour. 


At the preliminary stages of “the run”, the fishermen would debate whether the run was on or off. Guys fishing from boats would yell out from the middle of the river “catchin’ any?” and information was exchanged and a tentative determination was made as to whether the run was on or off. “Uncle George said they were hittin’ like crazy just below the New London bridge but he’s full of it – we was up there a hour ago and they ain’t catchin’ squat”.


During the run, with a possession limit of five, you can bet that an awful lot of Walleye went right from the hook to the frying pan. During the run, we’d stay at the shack all night. My dad and his friends would play cards and drink beer, and if everybody had caught their limit and the stringers and our bellies were full, they’d simply unbait the lines and pull the poles back and enjoy each other’s company.  Three of the four partners were teachers, so after catching a short night’s sleep, we’d trudge back to the car, go home and clean up, go to school, and then the minute the final bell rang we’d race home, change into our fishin’ clothes and head back to the shack.


Before and after the run, we’d be more likely to close up shop on the river around 9 o’clock and head home for a good night’s sleep. But when the run was on – every possible minute was spent with two lines in the water on the mighty Wolf River.


As I fondly look back on the spring Walleye seasons of my youth, now more than 50 years ago, I calculate as beyond value the time I spent with my dad. It was during those annual six-or-seven week spring Walleye seasons that I learned the most about what being a man meant. I picked up lifelong values from the conversations my dad and I had during those spring runs.


Often, I was a boy among men, particularly after the O-Kell-Y Inn was built. My dad and his three partners were in their mid-to-late 30’s, all of them had served in The Big War, were established in their careers, and I never felt like I was in their way or a bother to them. Three of the four were teachers, and darn good ones, so by definition they liked kids. I’m sure they moderated their language when I was around, but I was expected to pull my weight – whether it was tending to lines, keeping the kerosene lanterns and kerosene heater going, or helping clean up the kitchen area after meals.


Gender roles were very narrowly defined in small-town Wisconsin in the 50’s and 60’s. Fishin’ and huntin’ were a man’s job, but every spring Walleye season, on a Sunday when the weather was nice, the women-folk were invited to make the slog in to the shack, and see what all this fishing foolishness was about.  It was generally late in the season when the river had subsided so they could walk in wearing rain boots, and polite conversation was made between the women’s observations like “I just don’t see what the appeal is.”


As I got farther along into high school, the annual spring run lost much of its appeal; there were other things – band, sports, girls – that captured my fancy. But I had two younger brothers to uphold the tradition of goin’ fishin’ with dad.


But I wouldn’t trade for anything those formative years when the most important season to me was the spring Walleye run on the mighty Wolf River.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

He Loved His Job

The genesis of this post is an e-mail my wife sent me last week, with a link to an obituary for Dr. George Fischbeck, long-time southern California TV weather man. I was not only saddened to hear of Dr. George’s passing; but shocked that my wife would even know who Dr. George was. Later, she explained to me that when we first met in 1988 – when I’d just moved from Los Angeles to Madison and we were colleagues at a Madison radio station – she recalled the great stories I’d told her (and anyone else in the newsroom at the time) about Dr. George and his famous KABC-TV forecasts.

My favorite memory of watching Dr. George Fischbeck do the weather on KABC-TV 7 in Los Angeles was the time he got all wound up explaining something in the weather that caught his interest – I can’t even remember what it was – but several million other viewers and I were captivated, as usual, by his enthusiasm for whatever it was. Suddenly, he looked away from the camera, paused a second (no doubt the producer of the newscast was talking to him through his earpiece – or, IFB, as the TV folks call it) when he said “oh, darn it, I’m already out of time and I didn’t ever get to the forecast. Oh, they’re going to be mad at me upstairs! Well, this is southern California; the weather’s usually nice, there’s nothing to worry about right now, and the next few days will be just fine”.


It was clear to anyone who watched Dr. George that he loved what he was doing. His enthusiasm was contagious. He would talk about stuff that perhaps only marginally related to the weather forecast for southern California and have you fascinated by it. I remember another time when he started out giving the actual forecast, and said it was going to be foggy the next few mornings because of a deep marine layer.


I had heard the term before; sometimes in southern California they call it the “May Gray” or “June Gloom”, when the mornings are foggy until the sun gets high enough in the sky to evaporate the fog. But on this particular day, Dr. George decided to explain what a marine layer is, how it develops, and how a marine layer doesn’t always mean it’s going to be foggy or cloudy.

That was a long time ago; nearly three decades since I watched him give an explanation of what a marine layer is, but - I still remember it, and could explain it to you if you asked, because Dr. George was a fabulous communicator.

Dr. George went to his eternal reward last week at the age of 92. He retired from KABC-TV shortly after I moved to Madison, but then a few years later did some work with KCBS-TV for a couple years.


He was actually trained as a geologist and archaeologist, and was a teacher – no doubt an excellent teacher – for some time before he became a TV weather man. He always said what he knew about the weather came from his days with the National Guard during the Korean War, which ignited his passion for understanding why the weather does what it does.  Somebody saw him doing a children’s science show on a PBS station and he wound up sharing his passion for weather with the huge audience of KABC-TV.


I have hours of videotape of Dr. George squirrelled away in my huge media archive at home. He worked with a couple people I have always considered the best TV news anchors in the business – the late Jerry Dunphy and Ann Martin. Dunphy was born in Milwaukee and passed away in L A in 2002. His signature opening to the KABC-TV 7 news was the often-quoted “From the desert to the sea to all of southern California, a good evening from KABC-TV News”. You’ve probably seen him on a lot of movies, as a news anchor, and didn’t even realize it.


Ann Martin was the TV news anchor I admired and respected the most, mainly because she spoke in plain language, never ever EVER hyped any story, and had that rare gift of making you think she was actually talking just to you – not to a mass audience of millions of viewers. That’s the concept they teach you in news anchor school – imagine that you are talking to one person – but so few anchors are actually able to pull it off. They communicate AT us, not with us.


Jerry Dunphy was the archetypal old-school news anchor, who delivered with authority and commanding presence; he told you the news in formal tones, speaking as if he were in an auditorium giving a lecture. But he was DAMN good at it. It was the epitome of old-school news anchoring. Ann Miller’s style was vastly different. She was, at the time, a real pioneer in the concept of talking TO people, not AT people. She was like the old friend who’d dropped by your house for a glass of lemonade after a hot day and chatted with you about what was going on.


And Dr. George was like that great professor you had in college, the one with the bow tie and dark-rimmed glasses, who you knew just loved his subject, and couldn’t wait for his chance to tell you exciting things about his particular field of expertise.


As a bonus, during that time, the main sports guy on KABC-TV was Jim Hill – a former Packers player who learned the TV sports business after his playing days at Channel 2 in Green Bay, one of the stations I watched growing up in the Fox Valley.  He was a “homey” from my home-town TV station.


They were my crew. My favorite TV news peeps during my last stint as a southern Californian. That was 27 years ago – and, the scary part is, it seems like only yesterday.