Fathers’ Day

When you read what you wrote a few years ago, it seems written by someone else. I recycle it here. I suggest you also click on the original post, since it has added insight from relatives who knew my father longer than I did.

I loved my father and he was loved by many. He served his country in World War II and by working w/o complaining at a dirty and hard job for more than 30 years. He married a good woman and stayed true to her until death parted them, raised a family and gave his children opportunities he never had. My father was a kind man who did his part to make the world better. Almost a quarter century after his death he is still fondly remembered and the values he taught still light the way for his children and grandchildren.

The measure of a successful life is one that has filled a valued place. My father’s life was success.

Click here to read the original post on Facebook.

I thought it might be a good to complete my parent series and rather than wait until father’s day. Unlike my mother’s case, I did know my father as an adult, so I know rather more, but still not much about the early years. We did not have much contact with his side of the family. Both his parents died before I was born. He and his fraternal brother Joe were the youngest. They were born twenty-two years after their oldest sister, Helen.

My dad with my sister and me.

I was named after my father, so I am technically John Matel, Jr. John Matel Senior was born in Duluth, Minnesota. His father, Anton, had come over from Poland around 1900. His mother, Anastasia, was of Polish ancestry too, but she was born in Buffalo, NY. My father never told me much more than that, although I understand that her family was from Galicia in the Carpathian Mountains. They spoke Polish in the home and that was my father’s first language.

I found out later that my grandfather’s family was from what is now eastern Poland: Suwalki and Mazowsze. I learned this from a cousin called Henrik Matel who found me when I was working at the Consulate in Krakow. Henrik’s father was my grandfather’s brother, so Henrik was my father’s generation, not mine. His father & another brother went to France to work in coalmines. My grandfather made a better choice and went to America. Henrik did not know much else. His father died in a train accident when he was only eleven (his father not Henrik :)). His mother remarried and evidently, his was not very fond of her first husband and kept none of his papers. Henrik unwisely returned to Poland after WWII, believing communist promises that things would be good there. Young men make bad choices and believe more in the promise than the practical.

My father with his brother Joe and Ted. Ted became a priest.

Henrik lamented that the Polish side of the family were a bunch of drunks. Things didn’t change much in America. Now you know as much about my father’s prehistory as I do and I suspect a little more than he did.

My father talked about growing up in the depression. He kept some of the frugal habits from those times. He saved bacon grease to use as butter, for example. And he did not waste food. His childhood home was small and crowded. It was on 4th Street. I went to see it. Things had changed. It was in a gentrified neighborhood and considered a small home for a single couple. My father’s home housed eight. Their toilet was in the basement, which has a dirt floor back then. He told a funny story about his youth. The family went to see “Frankenstein” and it scared my future father. His brothers set up a dummy in the basement and the made it sit up when little Johnny went down to use the toilet. He said he no longer needed to use the toilet.

The freeway has also cut the neighborhood up. My grandparents bought the house because it was only a few blocks their church St Stanislaw. The freeway made it a long walk around a busy street.

My father and his friends, young just before the war.

My father got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was stationed near Superior, WI, where planted trees and cut trails. It gave him a lasting appreciation for forestry, which he passed to me. How else can you explain a city boy so attracted to the woods? Some of it is myth, or just a feeling, but whenever I look at the groves of trees planted by the CCC I think of him, even when they were not planted by the CCC. They are mature forests now, but in the Dust Bowl years, they were pioneers.

After getting out of the CCC, my father got a job at Medusa Cement, where he stayed for the rest of his life, except for the time he was in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was drafted into the Army soon after Pearl Harbor. He never told me much about that part of his life. I know he got seven battle stars, so participated in all the big actions of the war in Europe. He was not really have there for all of them. He told me that he remembers nothing at all about Anzio. But where his unit’s planes went, he officially went too. He landed at Normandy a few days after D-day. The only time he actually got near fighting Germans was during the Battle of the Bulge, closer than he wanted. He got a Purple Heart, which indicates some proximity. He did not go into details, except to claim he was drunk and could not recall.

They had a point system for discharge from the military as the war wound down. My father had a lot of points because of those battle stars & Purple Heart mentioned above, so he was among the first U.S. soldiers discharged and one of the first home He always expressed a special fondness for Chicago, the city of his discharge. Since victory in Europe was still such a fresh memory, people were eager to welcome him home and buy him drinks. It is a once in a lifetime experience and not everyone gets anything like it in his lifetime.

My parents’ wedding.

My father went back to work at Medusa Cement and married my mother in 1946.

Our house in Milwaukee was full of artifacts of my father’s work. He did a lot of work on the house, but never got very good at it. He and my maternal grandfather built the boiler, constructed the steps in the back and built the retaining wall by the alley, for example. All these things worked for the purpose intended, but they were odd and off balance. The boiler threw most of the heat out through the sides. That meant that the basement was very warm – the rest of the house not so much. (On cold days could freeze water by the wall. I know. I did it.) The steps were all unevenly spaced and lopsidedly leveled. The wall leaned artistically and improbably in both directions with drainage holes made from beer cans cut out on both ends. The evident surplus of beer cans explained much of wall’s other oddities.

During my childhood, my father worked most of the time. The Interstate highway system was being finished and that meant lots of overtime. The old man put in twelve-hour days all summer and most of the fall. He was worn out when he came home and his main recreation was drinking beer. He drank a lot of beer, at first Schlitz, later Pabst and then Budweiser, but he never missed a day of work because of that, or for any other reason. I don’t remember him ever taking a sick day.  

Maybe he just denied sickness because he hated doctors. He went to the doctor only once from the time he got his discharge physical out of the army in 1945 until the time he died more than fifty years later. On that occasion, he had a cyst removed from his stomach. The doctor forgot to sew it up. Forgot. After that, he said that the medical profession had their chance and he was not going to give them another. When the doctors finally got their second look at him, the day he died, they could not believe my sister when she told them that he did not take any medication besides Budweiser.

Dad at work.

I really didn’t get to know my father until after my mother died in 1972. As I mentioned, he worked all the time and went to bed early. After my mother died, the old man was grieving too, but he tried to make it easier for my sister and me. He tried to cook, but was not very good at it. Nevertheless, my father was nothing if not stubborn. He ate what he cooked and made us eat it too. I recall watching some bread bake in the toaster oven. The old man asked if I thought it was ready. Just at that point, it burst into flames. We still ate it.

Even funnier was the pork chop incident. My aunt Florence instructed the old man to bake some pork chops and then save the bones. It was likely that they were to be used for soup, but I don’t know. Anyway, my father got the instructions wrong the next day and baked the bones again. Supper was a pile of very black pork chop bones and a baked potato. My sister and I laughed and we would not eat the bones, but he old man would not admit a mistake. He stubbornly gnawed on the bones and claimed to like it.

(Funny the little things you remember. My father had the front room. His roof leaked and when there was rain we would often hear him in there “shit. shit. shit.” But we never managed to fix the roof. Or another time my sister and I were watching TV when we heard a thump followed by “shit. shit. shit.” His bed had collapsed and thrown him to the floor. He was probably more upset that we heard it and thought it was so funny.)

My father dropped out of HS in the tenth grade, claimed that he could not see the blackboard and his family could not afford glasses. But he respected education and made sure my sister and I went to college. To help me with money in college, he helped me get a job at the Medusa cement company, where I got to work those twelve-hour overtime shifts and make the big bucks. Most of the time I loaded cement bags onto pallets. It was a very hard, boring and dirty job and I hated it. The bags weighed as much as 94lbs. Everything hurt at the end of every day. But at one point, the boss assigned me to hopper cars, i.e. railroad cars full of cement. I worked from noon to midnight, which was great. I could sleep late and then meet my friends at the bars at midnight. At the job, I got to lift very heavy tools and smack things with sledge hammers (something young men like) but in between the hard work I got time to just hang around by the river and wait for the cars to empty (something else young men like). Then I got to ride the empty railroad cars to the end of the dock, applying the brakes and jumping off just before the rammed into the car in front.

I told my father that I thought this job was fun; maybe I could take a semester off school and make a little extra money. The next day, he made sure the boss gave me the midnight till noon shift, which did not suit me at all. There was not much time to go out drinking with my friends and staying up all night was hard. The old man explained that the worst thing a young man could get was a job he liked that did not have a future. He promised make sure that I would never like the job too much until I graduated college. He wanted me dislike work enough that I would stay in school in expectation of something better. I did. Thanks Dad.

I also worked hopper cars during Christmas break, BTW, but it was less fun. I remember working at night and looking at the temperature on the Allen Bradley clock tower. It always seemed to be five below zero. I would work as fast as I could out there by the tracks, get the cement moving and then rush into my father’s work-space and sit in front of the heater. My co-worker, LC (Slim) Duckworth, used to sleep in front of his own propane heater very close. He was used to it. I could not stand it because it let out terrible fumes that made me dizzy. Slim had no complaints until he started his pants on fire from sitting too close for too long. We put him out w/o any lasting damage, but he never sat near that heater again. LC was the strongest man I knew, but his ability to sleep almost any time was his most remarkable skill. He could sleep standing up. I learned much of his technique, but never achieved his true master sleeper status.

My father retired when he was only fifty-six. He already had thirty-six years in, since he got credit for his time in army. I can understand why he wanted to quit. The job was noisy, dusty and hard. Nevertheless, the plus side is that he had many friends at work. His job involved loading trucks from the silos above. He ran machines that did it. While he had to stand much of the day, it was not otherwise physically very hard. He had long since graduated from loading bags and unloading hopper cars. He knew all the truck drivers.

It was fun to watch the interactions. You had to learn to understand the “arguments”. All blue collar workplaces would be called “hostile” by today’s standards but it was more fun and you learned lots of uses for the F-word. If you just listened to the words, you would think they hated each other. They were always swearing at each other, calling each other names and making jokes about each other’s’ characteristics. But you soon noticed that the worst insults were reserved for the guys they liked the most. There was often the argument where my father called one of the guys a dumb Pollack, the guy answered back calling my father a stupid Pollack and a third guy telling them they were both right.

Early retirement was a bit of a mistake, IMO. I suppose he thought it was worth it. At first, I think it was. He had time to read and relax. It deteriorated after that. Retirement can be a dangerous profession.  

We drifted apart as parents and children often do, when I moved away. In the FS, you are FAR away. My father had a blind spot when it came to my career. When I told him that I planned to take the FS test, he told me not to waste my time. He said that such careers were “only for rich kids” and that I could never get a job like that. Had I taken his advice, it would have been true. You can’t get what you do not try to get. I cannot blame him. It was just farther than he could see. He was just projecting his experiences.

I didn’t make it back in time when the old man died. My sister called me and I got on the next flight from Poland. But the next flight was the next day and then I got stranded in Cincinnati. When I called to tell my sister that I would be late, my cousin Luke answered and told me that my sister was at the hospital and my father had died. I figure he died as I flew over Canada. I remember looking down at the savage beauty, the forest and the frozen lakes and thinking it was over. I do not know if I REALLY thought that or if I have just created this memory ex-post-facto. The mind works like that.  

My father never made much money but, after my mother died, he spent even less. He never owned a car, never went anywhere for vacation, didn’t waste money on clothes and ate nothing but bean soup, cabbage soup and kielbasa that he made himself. He used to talk about his stash of “cold cash.” We did not think much of it. But when my sister was cleaning out the freezer, she found around $20,000.00 in $100 dollar bills, wrapped in foil like hamburger. The old man hated banks and did not want to have any money that would earn interest that he would have to pay taxes. When dealing with old depression era people, it was a good idea to look around and do not hire stranger to clean up those nooks and crannies. I wonder if subsequent occupants have found money around the house in places we didn’t see.

According to what my sister told me, my father fell down and couldn’t get up. When asked how he was, his last words were, “I can’t complain.” He used that phrase a lot and it was not surprising he would fall back on it, but it seems an appropriate thing to say at the end.

I still miss him. I hope my kids will be as lucky as I was. I can’t complain.


Anniversary of D-Day. Both my father and Chrissy’s father landed at Normandy. Although neither took part in the first assaults, both got purple hearts later in the war.  

My father rarely talked about his war experience and I am sad to say that I did not ask very much. He got seven battle stars, i.e. participated in the major battles in the European theater and got that purple heart at the Battle of the Bulge. I did ask about that, and my father told me that he had just cut himself while drunk and they gave him the purple heart. He always minimized his service.  

The problem is that we do not ask our parents about their lives until it is too late. I think it is because we lack the context to want to know until we get older. When we are young, we just cannot perceive that our parents were ever young like us. It is only when we are old as they were that we appreciate their youth, and by then it is too late.   I probably talked to Chrissy’s father more about his war experience than I did my own. He was more willing to talk. He was a tank driver and mechanic. He got his purple heart when his tank was destroyed and he was hit by debris from it. He was evidently outside the tank when it happened. His colleagues were killed. I do not know more details. My fault. My first picture is my father in his uniform and after that is Chrissy’s. Last is my father on the job at Medusa Cement. People like our fathers risked their lives to save our country and then went on to build it for us.  

If I can share a couple of funny follow ups about my father’s story.   My father had a “Milwaukee accent” the likes of which no longer exist and it must have been even more pronounced when he was young. It was related to the immigrants who had some trouble pronouncing the “th” sound.   As a result, his military records say he lived on “Port Street”. His parents house was on 4th Street. I imagine when he was asked, he told them 4th street, but pronounced it something like “vote” but with a little more f sound at the start. The guy listening thought he said Port and that was the record.   My father was among the first to be discharged at the end of the war. They had some kind of point system, where you got credit for campaigns etc. With his seven battle stars, he was near the top.

They dropped him in Chicago. You can imagine what it must have been like at the end of the war, seeing your first hero come home. Anyway, he got a lot of free drinks, and for the rest of his life thought Chicago was the friendliest town in the world. He told me that all you needed do was show up in bar, talk to people and they would buy you free drinks. That has not been my experience.   One more. My father had no souvenirs of the war, not even his own uniform, which he said he lost in a crap game. That may have been accurate.   My uncles had all sorts of stuff – German helmets, bayonets, all sorts of patches. One of my uncles has an SS hat and even weapons. I saw a Lugar and a rife, I think it was called a Mauser. The Lugar was evidently a big deal. It is amazing how they got all that stuff home and were allowed to bring it.   Mauser was one of the things my father called “good” cats, so I am not sure if I recall correctly.  

Milwaukee ethnics

When you drive through the older parts of Milwaukee, you might notice the large number of churches or former churches. The reason is partly explained by this map, if you understand the underlying culture(s).

Milwaukee, like many Midwestern cities, had lots of foreign born citizens. In those days, nationality was a lot like race is today. Each group felt different and usually superior to those others around them.

Their children and grandchildren would intermarry and forget their nationalities except for some food preferences and t-shirts saying something like “kiss me, I’m …”, but back then, as my father told me, a lone Polish kid could get harassed if he wandered into a group of Serbians and the Polish “gang” would return the favor when the situation was reversed.
Religion was a big part of cultural heritage and so each nationality built its own church, sometimes only a short distance from the others. My grandparents were proudly Polish Catholic. Despite their poverty, they invested in sending my father and his brothers to Catholic school at Saint Stanislaus and made of special point of getting a house within easy walking distance of the church and school.

You cannot tell how close it was if you go there today. They build the I-94 freeway through the old Polish neighborhood, putting a river of concrete between my grandparent’s house and their beloved church.

Freeway construction and urban renewal had the (maybe) unintended outcome of hastening the breakdown of the old ethnicity, the remnants of which we can now see in nice bars and restaurants occupying the extant old buildings.

One of the reasons I still like to visit and walk around my native city is that I can appreciate the layers of history, seeing what is still there and imagining what is gone but still leaves its social and cultural shadow.

My old house

My old house is up for sale. It was a nice place to grow up; it seems to be nicer now. They have exposed hardwood, replaced appliances and updated the bathrooms. I would not mind living there again, if I lived in Milwaukee.

Always like the neighborhood. That also has improved some. There is some gentrification.
Look at the pictures of back yard. On your left is a basswood tree and on the right a silver maple. The basswood is fifty years old. I brought it back from the woods on College Avenue, then just a woods but now Cudahy Forest. It had only two leaves when I brought it home on my bike.

I loved that forest. I spent a lot of time walking around in it. It was a comfort when my mother got sick and died. It was across the street from my cousin Ray’s house, and I would often visit him and Carol, his wife.

Sorry to go off on such a tangent, but it brings back feelings of home and that is a joy to remember it. I am going to indulge myself. I invite readers down the path with me, but will not be surprised or troubled to walk alone.

It is a maple-basswood forest. Just about a half mile nearer Lake Michigan there are beech trees, but this forest is just far enough from the lake’s cloud shadow that beeches do not thrive. I have seen a few beech trees, but they are few and far between. Beech trees are common in Virginia and they range naturally from the Atlantic Ocean, through New York, Ohio and Michigan, but they stop in Wisconsin, with only a sliver hugging Lake Michigan by the time it gets to Milwaukee.

The story I heard about this woods was that it was a virgin forest. That is why and how I found it. The paper reported on a controversy that someone wanted to cut the trees down and make a parking lot for trucks. I wanted to see it for myself. I wrote a letter to the County to protest. I doubt anybody read it, but there were enough others complaining that the County acquired the land and made a park. I think it unlikely that this is a real virgin forest, in that never been cut, but it is a very old growth. Likely somebody used this as a woodland, for wood and hunting. The maple-basswood system is old succession; it took at least 100 years to reach that stage. The trees in it are old and the soil is deep. Maybe it is a virgin forest, at least parts never cleared.

Anyway, returning to the 50 years old tree in the picture. Consider how it still is not really that big. Some basswood trees in the Cudahy forest were much bigger. Imagine how old they must have been.

A few more additions form Memory Lane. Christine Matel Milewski might enjoy. Tony Dunigan, Dorothy Bozich & Barbara Levreault also lived in the house for a while. Our house and the two up hill were built at the same time. Our’s is different because the porch was taken up when my parents built the front room The siding is redwood, but they have painted it over now.

My parents contracted Banner Builder and I recall all the complaining. The foundation is made of cinder block. The first guy they had setting it up was literally moonlighting. He showed up at night and worked by lantern light. It was a crap job. My parents demanded a better job and they got it.

My father had the blue siding put on. He hired a couple of drunks. They did a good job when they were working but they were not working much. My father had a special place in his heart for drunks and kept them on. They finished the job okay and it is still holding up. I am not sure what year they did that, but it was before 1975 (I think).

I am sure that they updated the boiler. My father and grandfather built the old one with scavenged parts. It was very inefficient. It was built to burn coal, but it was converted to natural gas. I do not know how that works. I am sure that my father did not either, so it is good that he did not try to do that work himself. My father was a mechanic in the Army Air Corps during World War II. I always wondered about that, since his mechanical ability seemed something like mine.

My parents bought the house from my grandpa soon after they were married. I don’t know when grandpa bought it. Grandpa lived with my parents until he died, soon after I was born.
Anyway, nice to see the old house. It is 101 years old this year. Somebody in my family owned it for at least half that time.

Memories of the working class

An old picture reminded me of my working days at Medusa Cement on KK Avenue in Milwaukee.

In the original posts I wrote that I did not know who the people in the wedding picture were, beyond my father. I learned a little more. The guy in the picture is Frank Radomski. He was one of my fathers best friends. They knew each other as young men and my father helped Frank get a job at the cement company, where they worked together for three decades.
I got to know Frank when I worked a the cement company. He was in charge of filling the bags that we loaded onto trucks and pallets. Our job was hard; his was boring. Imagine sitting all day attaching bags to a funnel and then kicking them down the belt with your left foot, and doing this for twelve hours a day.

Frank was very nice to me, probably because he liked my father, but he was generally a nice guy. I was young and not as nice to him as he deserved. My co-workers at the end of the line, the ones who loaded the bags that Frank filled, disparaged Frank. They call him the dumb Pollack, ironic since about half the cement company’s workforce was Polish, like my father, John Domelski and … well … me party. They criticized him when the bags were too full or not full enough. Guys working in hard and boring jobs can be very cruel to each other, maybe because nobody wants to be there. You look forward to leaving and dread coming back, so maybe you take it out on your fellow workers.

Frank was no great intellect. In fact, he was noticeable not smart. As I said, I was not as nice to him as I could have been, but I did try. My father told me to talk to him and I tried, but it was tedious for me and I think for him. Frank’s nickname was “Hud”. My father told me that he got that nickname as a young man when they used to play baseball. They used to call him Houdini because of his skill at stealing bases. It was hard to picture the Hud I knew ever being able to do that or ever being young at all.

Frank retired a couple years before my father gave it up. We went to his retirement party. It was a sad affair. Frank was ready to retire. His health was not good. But he was sad to go. His job was, IMO, one of the worst possible – physically hard at least for one arm and one leg, environmentally unhealthy (lots of dust), and intellectually enervating – but Frank evidently liked it.

When the cement would stop flowing through the ducts, Frank would shut down the line and pound on the duct with a mini-sledge hammer. My co-workers would yell “bang-bang Frank’s silver hammer,” riffing off the Beatles song. The boss, a big guy called John Broderick, gave Frank that hammer at his retirement party.

This upset my father. He complained all the way home that it was no way to treat a man who had given so much of his life to the company. I did not see it the way my father did. I understand it better now. My father was actually talking about himself. He was could see the end of his own working life – his own productive life – and it bothered him that what his lifelong friend had to show for it was an old hammer.

I could not have known it at the time, but I was working in the twilight of working-class Milwaukee. In 1970, we were a working city, with lots of jobs, lots of industrial feeder shops and a hard-working blue collar outlook. Our breweries were world class. Our steel helped build the world and the cement my father and others filling into truck was building the Interstate system. A guy could graduate HS, get a job and start a family. Ten years later, we were one of the buckles on the rust belt.

Growing up in Milwaukee

Some stream of consciousness thoughts about growing up in Milwaukee.
We were poor by today’s standards, although the comparison is unfair. Everybody was poor in the past, since progress and innovation has made once scarce luxuries into common necessities. Of course, it worked the other way around too. My father often pointed out how easy we had it compared to when he was growing up.

Like most Americans, we called ourselves middle class, although I think we would have chosen the description working class had it been available. Milwaukee was a working-class city. I could see a couple of steel mills and a tannery from our kitchen window. Within walking distance were factories that made industrial equipment, cement and very good bratwurst & kielbasa. The workers at these places could walk to work.

Our neighborhood was “blighted” during part of my childhood, at least that is what the city told my father. My parents worried that they would punch a freeway through our neighborhood. They tended to do that to blighted neighborhoods. I-94 ended up about a mile to the west. That is another thing we could see from the kitchen window. Cars used to make a lot more pollution in those days and so there was a yellow smudge line along the western horizon except on windy days. The air was not clean generally. We forget sometimes how it was in industrial cities during the 1960s. Besides the cars, the steel mills to the south and the Solvay Coke & Gas plant to the north ensured that we got a variety of flavors added to our air. The Solvay Coke & Gas plant flared methane as a byproduct and the eternal flame glowed day and night. The east wind that blew cool air off Lake Michigan brought the smell of the sewage plant. We did not have any fresh air and got used to that. When I came back to Milwaukee from college in Stevens Point, Wisconsin is the first time I noticed the special smells of my native city.

But I do not want to leave the impression of dirt and blight. It was not like that. Milwaukee was a great place to grow up. Those same factories that produced that pollution also provided plentiful jobs. We had lots of parks and back then Milwaukee was very peaceful. We had almost no crime and families were generally stable. Kids used to “fight” all the time, but never with the intention of hurting each other significantly and we stopped fighting if there was any blood or sign of real injury. Our schools were crowded, but competently run and students were reasonably well behaved. We had good local libraries, so everybody who wanted had free access to the accumulated knowledge of the world. Our Milwaukee Public Museum was a true gem and our zoo was great. We had public pools and you could swim in Lake Michigan if you could tolerate the cold.

We rarely went anywhere and few people moved in or out during my childhood. We could wander only as far as we could reasonably walk in one day. We had stability.

We were baby-boom kids and there were lots of us, the biggest generation in American history. Schools were crowded and the cities strained to build more. Our elders and the authorities were not sure what to do with us, so they often tried just to chase us away.
The cops were always chasing us out of parks, out of businesses or just asking us to move along when we got together in groups. There was a curfew for kids and you had to be home by 11pm. The cops enforced the curfew. I do not recall being afraid of the cops generally, but I do remember that we just ran away when we saw a squad car. We used to play football in the road. The cops would – justifiably – chase us out. We used to play football in nearby empty lots. The cops would chase us out of these places only after someone called them, but someone always did. That meant that our games usually lasted only around 20 minutes.
Most people did not call the cops on us unless mightily provoked but there were three who always did, maybe because of their proximity to fields where we played. The only one whose name we really knew was Mr. Reiner. He disliked kids in general and would call the cops when we walked anywhere near his house. The cops would come and kick us out, but they would sometimes explain that it was only because of him. He took the extraordinary step of painting in block letters on the side of his own garage – “Mothers watch your children.” A little down the road was a guy we just called “The Crab.” He was odd. He lived with his mother and was friendly to individual boys, but hostile to groups. My mother told me stay clear of such guys and I did. He called the cops as soon he spotted us, assuming we would soon be up to no good in his eyes. The last guy we called the “God D**M Man” because he would always come out swearing at us. He tended to yell and swear before he called the cops, so we would withdraw a little until he went in and then come back. The cops were usually okay to us. They would tell us to go to the park and play, where other cops would tell us to go home if we hung around too long.

Just as we were unaware that our baby-boom status was a departure from tradition, we did not know that we were the tail end of ethnic America. A generation earlier, our parents had been members of ethnic groups. They spoke different languages at home and were vaguely or openly hostile to other groups. Our generation remembered the ethnicity and would respond to surprising frequent question, “What are you?” by describing our purported ethnic heritage, but it didn’t make much difference.

I do recall a funny case of prominent ethnicity involving my father and our neighbor John Domelewski. They were arguing because John D accused us kids of making a mess in the alley. My father jumped to our defense, since he thought that he should enjoy a monopoly of yelling at his kid. John D and my old man were yelling loud enough to attract the attention of Mr. Gebhardt. Mr. Gebhardt was proudly German and a former Marine. He had the thickest white hair I have ever seen, trimmed to a flat head crew cut. I always thought he looked like a bald eagle. I think he would have been pleased.

Anyway, my father was calling John D a dumb pollock and John D was calling my father a stupid pollock. I don’t doubt that Mr. Gebhardt thought that both were right. They would not have come to blows. My father and John D were not that sort. But they calmed down and when they did they discovered that we kids were indeed guilty as John Domeleski said.
We had been playing in the alley and catching bubble bees in peanut butter jars. The trick was to catch the bee, shake the jar to make it mad and then release it close or onto a nearby friend. They rarely stung, but if they did it was just a temporary pain. If you cried about it, you suffered the greater pain of being ridiculed, but the anger option was available. I do not recall all the details, but someone had broken the bee jar in the alley and then, as often happens, we made a bigger mess. We had to clean up the whole alley, even though our mess was localized. My father and John Domelweski retired to their preferred activity of drinking beer as they watched us work.

I think this stands out in my memory for a few reasons. First, my father never got angry like that. This was odd. Second, parents, neighbors, cops and teachers – all adults – usually stood in solidarity against kids. If we were accused, we were usually thought to be guilty or at least culpable.

From death comes new life

From death comes new life. I know that is true and amply demonstrated on the ecology of the land, but I am still upset by the near total death of the ash trees (Fraxinus).

Ash trees
The ash were among my favorite trees, with their glad grace, dark green leaves and fast growth. Ash quickly formed groves. They were among the first to leaf out in spring and in fall turned a beautiful golden, not yellow but really more golden color. Except the white ash. They could turn a beautiful maroon. Beyond those things, I liked ash because they seemed almost impervious to disease. You could plant ash, or more commonly just let ash plant themselves, with reasonable certainty that they would cover the area w/o problems. This last part proved not to be true.

Ash were very common in southeastern Wisconsin. That and their tendency to form groves of almost purely ash has made their rapid demise because of the emerald ash borer more painful. You can see the destruction easily just driving down the roads. That was exacerbated by another of the ash characteristics. They were a pioneer species, quickly filling in disturbed areas, like areas near roads.

Kettle Moraine again
I drove up to Kettle Moraine State Forest (Northern Unit) along Highways 41 and 43 and the Götterdämmerung of the ash as particularly noticeable. By the time I arrived at Mauthe Lake I was in a profoundly sad mood and I was uncharacteristically pessimistic. The weather conspired in this. It was overcasts and gray. I thought for sure it would rain, but I needed to do my walk around the lake, as I have been doing for than fifty years.

Mauthe Lake is a gift of the glaciers. It is pretty, but not remarkable. The lake is much more prominent in my personal landscape of memory than on the ground. It was carved out during the most recent ice age and is the headwater of the Milwaukee River.  The Milwaukee River does not start here, but flows through early on. Mauthe Lake is important to me because it was where I first learned about conservation, where I came to appreciate the Ice Age and where I saw how landforms interact with biotic communities. I took part in a nature camp there when I was in 5th Grade. It made a lasting impression. In HS, I rode to Mauthe Lake on my bike. In college, I hitchhiked down. I have driven up here dozens of times. The visits bring back memories and I can see the changes that have been taking place over the decades. I expected the dead ash. I had approached the visit with trepidation last year. They were mostly dead by then.

The old trail
The walk around the lake is two miles. As usual, parts of the trail were flooded. This is not a problem. Once your feet get wet, they cannot get any wetter, so you just trudge on. You start off in a cedar swamp, with white cedar, tamarack and – until recently – lots of ash. It was on this leg that I felt the deepest discontent and rehearsed the narrative of loss. As I walked, however, I got more cheerful. Maybe it is the stages of grief. I was moving on to acceptance. More likely it was a prosaic combination of seeing more of nature and an improvement in the weather. The sun started to come out and that makes your disposition sunnier.

The turning point came as I crossed the Milwaukee River and started into the mixed and pine forest on the other side. There are a lot of big oak trees there, mostly bur oak. We had the big old oaks surrounded by lot of small and newly deceased ash trees. This reminded me of the impermanence of … it all. At some time in the not very distant past, this ground was probably sedge savanna, with a few big oak trees, some still extant. The oak savanna was almost certainly the result of fires set by Native Americans. I speculate that settlers grazed cattle there. After that, when the land because State Forest, the ash moved in. In other words, the ash were part of the cycle, not the beginning nor the end. This does not take the sting out of their loss, but it does put it into perspective.

You come into a red pine forest as you gain a few feet of elevation. These pines were planted in 1941 and thinned four times. This forest now looks a lot like an open southern pine forests, with a lot of sunlight hitting the ground allowing for diversity. My loblolly on Brodnax look very similar. The red pines are a little bigger than mine, but surprisingly not that much. The Wisconsin trees are nearly 80 years old; mine are just over 30. Trees grow faster in Virginia. Of course, all trees grow faster in their exuberant youth and then plateau. My loblolly will not end up bigger.

I remember the changes in this forest, as least I think I do. I remember my childhood hike in these woods and how I was impressed with hot deep and dark it was. The pine needles formed a thick carpet and there was not much growing under the trees. This was how they did forestry in those days. These days, they like to let in more light. It sacrifices some timber value, but creates a lot more wildlife habitat and species diversity.

What next?
All of this made me ask the “what’s next?” questions. The ash trees are gone. We shall not soon see their like again. What is going to come up instead. Something will benefit from this. I observed tamarack, black willow, alder, maples, birch and – surprising to me on the damp land, bur oak. In some places the cattails had become more profuse. Maybe the treed swamp will in some places become a marsh or a sedge meadow. The trees suck up water. Absent the ash, maybe more water will stand.

I observed last time and still now that in some isolated places the ash were still standing and healthy. Sometimes dead ash were standing next to lives ones. What happened? I understand that ash trees in Asia resist the ash borers. Ash borers in Asia are endemic, but not as decisive. Some American ash likely also do not taste as good to the borers or maybe have some characteristic making the less attractive. In this maybe we have the seeds of recovery. I have a picture of the live ash near the dead one with the backdrop of a beautiful sedge meadow. The future?

We think the environment we first saw is THE proper environment, that the forests and fields of our youth was the way it was supposed to be. Nature, in fact, is dynamic and impermanent. Our nature was just one short and changing scene in the endless drama. As I described with the big oaks, it was not what had been or what had to be.

Along the trail, I passed some kids with their parents and a group of what looked like high school kids. They were looking at each other, the boys paying attention to the girls and the reverse. They were not paying particular attention to the forests around them, but they were drinking it in unawares. This is their baseline. Maybe the next generation will think that the cattail marsh next to the river is the way it is “supposed to be.” If sometime the ash recover and recolonize the fenland, these old people of the future will decry that mess and invasion, the trees sucking up water and shading out the cattails.

I know I should more joyfully embrace impermance. I know that intellectually. I know that future generations will not feel that way and maybe even I will not long into the future.
From death comes new life. The environment endures and adapts. But I still miss my ash trees.

A Landscape of Memory

I would have preferred a sunny day, but the rain was where I wanted to go when I wanted to be there, so I shared my walk with the raindrops.  It did not rain the whole time, anyway, and it stopped just about the time I got back to my car.

Walking in the rain confers some benefits.  You are much more likely to have privacy on the path when it is raining, and the rain provides a soothing soundtrack as it falls into the woods.  It also makes everything glimmer a little.  Rain is not something always to be a avoided.

I wanted to walk along my old running trail.  While at Madison, 1977-81, I ran on that trail hundreds, maybe thousands of times.  I used to run a lot. Started at the old red gym, I ran out to picnic point. It took around twenty minutes. Sometimes I ran all the way back too, but most of the time I stopped about half way and enjoyed the walk.  It was good to run along that trail because there were lots of other runners and if you ran to slowly they implicitly “lazy shamed” you.  I never chose to race anybody who passed me, but I tried to keep a pace sufficiently fast that few people did.  I ran in all weather, except when snow and ice covered the trails. In Wisconsin that is a lot of time, but rather less than you might expect, since the university plowed the paved parts of the trail.

My favorite trail surface is the dirt and gravel that you see in the picture on top.  It is a dubious assumption that the relatively softer but uneven surface is better for your legs than the harder but smooth asphalt.  What I liked was the texture and the sound of my feet hitting that dirt and then the sound of my own breathing. By the time I got to the dirt, my body was in energy saving mode, and I would take deep and comfortable breaths.  I know it is silly, but I felt part of the nature doing that. I would never run on tracks.

My time in Madison before I met Chrissy was the loneliness of my life.  Paradoxically, it was also the time when I had the greatest number of friends.  I resolve that paradox by recalling that most of my friendships at that time were ephemeral and episodic.  I was often alone in the crowd. One of my problems is that I just do not love sports the way many guys do.  I would watch the games more out of duty than pleasure.  I did (and do) like to watch the Green Bay Packers, but even there I lack the enthusiasm of the real fan.

I spent most of my life in and between Memorial Library, the Red Gym, the Student Union (Ratskeller) and my running trails. I did not spend much time at home, since for most of my student days the places I rented were not attractive.  One year, I shared what had been a bigger room with another guy.  We had a wall made of cardboard boxes, probably a fire hazard.  The year after that, I did not have a room at all.  I used the couch when it was cold and the back porch when it was warmer.  I paid something like $35 a month rent that year – saved the big bucks.

Still and all, I look back on my Madison days with great fondness.  It was my formative time, when I came to understand what I liked and did not like, and I could contemplate the type of life I wanted, even if the details were foggy.  That is why I still like to haunt some of the same of places.  It is a landscape of memory that still has meaning for me.

Top two pictures show the running trail. Second one is a nice oak savanna.  Next is the student union, followed by the red gym and the library.  That church across the street is new.  It is kind of medieval. That used to be the Catholic Center.  Guess they owned the land.

A June Day in Milwaukee

Milwaukee Sewage Plant

You didn’t need a weather vane or even to hold your finger to the wind to know which way the wind was blowing when we lived near Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. An east wind blowing in from the Lake brought relief from the heat of summer, but the price was the smell. We lived less than a mile from Lake Michigan and from the Milwaukee sewage treatment plant. It is better now than it was when I was a kid, but I still thought it might be interesting to see the place we had so often smelled by never saw close up. So with my sister, Christine Matel Milewski, and cousins Mary Karshna Robertson and Dick Karshna, we went to look at the plant.

When it was built in 1926, the sewage treatment plant was one of the best in the world. It still is. Some of the original tanks and facilities are still working.

A big challenge for the sewage plant is that Milwaukee originally had a combined sewer system. That means that rain water that runs into storm sewers mixes with sanitary sewer that run from toilets and drains. In 1926 this made sense. The cleaner storm water periodically flushed out the system. The cost was that when storms were severe, there was too much to process. One inch of rain over the area covered by the sewer system. drops 7.1 billion gallons into the system. The excess went out into Lake Michigan, partially treated.
Milwaukee addressed this problem in 1994 by building tunnels deep under the city. During big storms, the water is shunted into the tunnels and processed when there is capacity. Partially treated water is sometimes still discharged. The woman at the sewage plant said that it had been almost two years since this last happened. Ironically, I just saw on the news that the sewers had backed up today. We had a couple inches of rain in a short time, following a lot of rain yesterday.

I was also interested in biosolids. We have used them on the tree farms, but they are hard to get. Milwaukee makes fertilizer out Milwaukee’s crap. Milorgranite is very well processed so that it can be used even on food crops.

The sewage process also produces methane, which is used to run the plant.
When the water is discharged into Lake Michigan, it is 98% clean. Not sure what that means exactly, but it is clean enough. The area around the discharge is full of sea birds because it is attractive to fish. What the fish like it the highly aerated water.
The pictures show the process. Sewage is first filtered by screens. Lots of stuff finds its way into the sewers, things like shopping carts, mobile phones and even bowling balls. These are taken to landfills. Next they filer our coarse materials like sand and grit. It then goes into settling tanks, where settling materials are removed at the bottom, while grease and soaps are skimmed off the top as they float on top of the water.

After that, the water goes into digester, where microorganism literally eat the sewage. These are also aerators. Lots of air is pumped in to give the microorganisms a little help. The microorganisms live for only 7-10 days. They spend their short lives eating & reproducing. They settle to the bottom when they die, where they are processed into Milorgranite. The progeny are recycled into the next batch. Milwaukee put in the first microorganisms in 1926 and the community has been in business ever since. The microorganisms are hard working employees. After the microorganisms are done, the water is chlorinated to kill any pathogens that somehow made it through. Then the chlorine is neutralized and the water discharged into Lake Michigan.

First picture is the skimmer, followed by the digester. Picture #3 show some of that rain that overwhelmed the system. Next is Lake Michigan south of the plant. You see a group of geese going one way and a group of boats towed in the other way. Last is a Lake Michigan vista looking north.