Milwaukee - A Trip Back In Time

Mary Beth tells me stories from the Tech Wars

NOTE: This spring and summer were very busy, as well as very eventful for me. I got way behind with posting on the Dog Blog. I am going to try to catch up, and as I do I will post events in chronological order. Some of them were a while ago but I will write what I remember.

After a weekend in Madison for an eightieth birthday celebration for Sandy's mom, I headed for Milwaukee. This had been planned for a while too. My mom has had health issues for some time so my dad did most of the chores at home for them. But in the past year he had been sick himself. He was diagnosed with an ulcer, along with some mention of stomach cancer (although he was very vague about that). Potentially this was really serious so he was advised to take it easy while he went on a program of antibiotics to clear up the ulcer. So my sister Lorri, who lives nearby, was helping out more than usual. My sister Diane came from Idaho to stay for a few weeks to help out. I volunteered to come for a week to take a slot to help out as well.

When I got there my dad had been receiving treatment for a few months and was doing much better. But there was a lot of discussion about my parents moving to an assisted living place sometime soon to take some of the burden off my dad. So my primary job on this trip became helping him clear out some of the stuff he had accumulated over the years in their house.

This was quite a challenge. My dad grew up during the depression. My grandmother was a single mom (my dad's parents were divorced) and they were very poor. Because of that, he could never bring himself to throw away anything that could still be used. Over the years he had accumulated quite a bit of stuff. I focused on his old electronics equipment. Every day I would fill my rental car as full as I could with stuff: old record players, tape decks, televisions, movie projectors, computers, printers, microwave ovens, even an oscilloscope. There were things that I wasn't even sure what they were - I took anything that had a power cord. It wasn't easy to convince my dad to part with all this stuff. It was tough for him. It was totally against his nature. But he recognized that he was never going to use any of these things, and there wasn't anyone that he could give them to who would want them. It was hard for him to lose so many treasures that he had accumulated over the years but he was a trooper.

Our house was one of these two - I think the one on the right

The effort was nostalgic for me as well. There were things I hauled away that I remembered using when I was a kid in grade school. Yes, some of the stuff was that old.

There were practical difficulties too. We couldn't put anything in the trash - there is a Wisconsin law about disposing of electronics properly. I called all over Milwaukee to find a place to get rid of the stuff. Even the dump wouldn't accept it. Finally my dad said he thought Goodwill would take it. That didn't really seem to me what Goodwill had in mind by a "donation" but when I couldn't find any alternatives, I agreed to try. We took our first load there and I unloaded the stuff as fast as I could, hoping the attendent wouldn't stop me. When that worked we went back with load after load. Each time I would hurry, hoping that the guy wouldn't turn me away with "we don't want that junk", but that never happened. Score one for my dad.

Besides the electronics, I hauled boxes of books to the used book store (and got about a nickel a book). All my mom's old hobby paints went to the hazardous waste disposal. I even took my dad to the jeweler to sell his old gold crown. He got $135 for that.

Although the cleanup operations kept me busy, there was still a lot of time to visit. Naturally my dad and I had a lot of discussions about physics and engineering. We spent a whole day talking through some research that I had done on his time in the Eighth Air Force during WWII, going over what I had found and adding in his recollections. Those were remarkable discussions and they deserve a post (or posts) of their own.

Our house on Nevada Street, probably

On this trip I stayed at a hotel. Although my dad was feeling much better than a few weeks before, he still got tired by evening, so I would head back to my hotel to give my parents some time to themselves to rest.

A few evenings I was able to connect with Mary Beth, a good friend who used to live in Boise but now is in the Milwaukee area. And I always thought that people only moved from Milwaukee, never to Milwaukee. MB and I met for dinner a couple of evenings. She lives 30 miles north of Milwaukee and my parents live in the far southern suburbs, so we would meet halfway between at Bayshore Town Center, a shopping area that has a lot of good restaurant choices. One night we went to California Pizza Kitchen, while another night we tried Sprecher's Pub. We had some good dinners and of course, since we were in Wisconsin, some good beers. It was fun to see Mary Beth again and she told me about how management in high tech companies makes life difficult for software engineers. That was certainly nostalgic too, although I will admit I don't miss it.

Finally the day came when I had to drive back to Madison to catch my flight home. Since I woke up early, I decided that in keeping with the nostalgia theme of this trip, I would check out some of the important places that I had known growing up. I drove to Bay View, an old neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee near the lake.

First I stopped at our old house on Nevada Street. I was born in Chicago but my parents moved to a duplex in Milwaukee when I was about a year old. We lived there until I was three or four. Some of my oldest memories are from living there, although there are only a few of them and they are very faint. I remember that we lived upstairs in the duplex. After a while, my cousins moved in downstairs. I have one memory of sitting with them on the front porch.

The neighborhood looked pretty much the way I recalled, except that the street was much shorter and everything was much closer than I remembered. I guess I took shorter steps in those days. I remembered Milwaukee Drop Forge, only a block away, which we could hear pounding from our house. It's been there for over a hundred years and it's still in business. I remember walking to Humboldt Park, only a few blocks away. Strangely I have almost no recollection of the inside of the house, only one very vague memory of a clown light switch in my bedroom, where you flipped the clown's nose up and down to switch the light on and off. I think I remember bars, like a crib or playpen, so that might be my oldest memory, from when I was only around two years old. It's funny the little fragments that you remember after sixty years.

My grandparents old house on New York Avenue

To be honest, I can't even say exactly which house was ours. I think I know which one, but it could have been the one next to it. There are two duplexes that are nearly identical next to each other, almost at the end of the block. I think it is the one on the right in the pictures. When I asked my dad, he said the address of that house sounded right. He's always had an excellent memory and I would trust him on that.

Next it was just a short drive to my grandparent's old house on New York Avenue. Before I started school, my mom would drop me off at my gramma's house on her way to teach school at Sacred Heart Parish. That was day care in the 1950's. I have a lot of memories from that house. Although I can't remember anything about the inside of our house on Nevada Street, I remember the inside of my grandparent's house quite well, the layout of the rooms and even where the furniture was. I have one very distinct memory of sitting in the kitchen with the grownups as they listened to the news on the radio and discussed the important event that had occurred that day, the launch of Sputnik. That was in October of 1954 which would have made me four years old. Even then I was fascinated by science and outer space and space travel, which might be why I still remember that day.

I remember helping my gramma in the garden behind the house. I remember playing in the gazebo in the back that was covered with grape vines. I remember how cool it was that you could get into the basement through the coal chute in the back instead of taking the stairs. I remember riding my bike around their yard. Strange that I remember it so much better than my own house.

Earlier that week, during my visit, my dad had given me a DVD with some home movies he had made many years ago. That's where I got the video clips that I linked to above. It was strange seeing all those old places, and some of the people that had been part of my life so many years ago, many of them no longer with us. My dad and I had long talks about those times, and shared lots of stories. It was a good time. Those discussions made me want to finish the trip by seeing those places that had so many memories one more time.

Then it was time to drive to Madison and catch my plane, to take me back to Boise and back to the present.