Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dispatch from the Road: Wisconsin Wonderland

Professional football is one of my least favorite sports to watch in person. The couch is always more comfortable than one's seat. the replays and angles guarantee you don't miss anything, and there are very rarely drunk people vomiting in the ManCave as I watch the game. Yet I have always wanted to come to the Sistine Chapel of football stadiums--Lambeau Field--to take in a Packers game.  Over the summer, General Dan and I both turned 50.  He wasn't able to make it to my 50th Birthday Party because of his travel schedule, so instead we dreamed up this little boy's weekend to his ancestral homeland--Mighty Wisconsin--to take in a game.  This explains the title of today's post.

We left Friday from BWI with opposing aisle seats on the way to Milwaukee. Of not, a blind passenger sat behind me, an elderly man accompanied by two older women. As he approached their row, one of the women asked him if he wanted to window seat. I almost chuckled out loud, and Dan texted me in seconds his own joy at the statement.

We arrived in Milwaukee to an airport that was clogged with people already wearing their Packers gear for the game two days later.  We grabbed our rental and were on our way, a thirty minute drive to the town of Hartland (I kid you not--you simply can't get more midwestern stereotyped), where Dan grew up and where his Dad and two of three sisters still live (the third sister lives a few towns over, Mom has passed away, and Dad has remarried the lovely Linda).  Dan claimed to have a "special lunch" planned for us, and while I am always happy for special things, my hunger was driving me to suggest pulling into the first fast food joint we saw.  Instead, we pulled up to what looked to be a small, independent coffee shop in Hartland. Having no clue why were were there, I got out of the car and walked to the door, assuming that Dan understood the requirement to feed the beast, and to do so with some alacrity.

As soon as I walked in the door and saw the proprietress, it all came to me. A high school classmate and Facebook pal Joan had come to live in Hartland and opened a coffee shop some nine years ago. The magic of Facebook brought she and Dan together and they conspired to bring us together for lunch. It was great to see Joan, as her last reunion (5) was the only one I've missed since we graduated high school 32 years ago.

Joan was a classic high school story. Tall--or at least taller than I (not saying much), she was painfully shy and quiet, ridiculously smart, and almost invisible--to me. That is until senior year, when all the cosmic tumblers clicked into place and she came back to school looking mighty fetching, though I had grown no more and so pursuing her was largely out of the question.  We were in a ton of classes together in school, but her shyness and my obliviousness kept there from being much interaction between us.

The years have been good to Joan--she's married with a few kids, and whatever shyness there was in high school has been replaced by a bright and warm sociability, the kind that one wants from one's coffee shop owner.  I had a superb turkey sandwich that she made herself, and we had a very nice visit.  Then it was off to Dan's Dad (Tim) and Linda's place.

Tim and Linda lived very near the coffee shop in a low-slung rancher on a large plot of land in a subdivision of similarly sized houses and plots, though there was an attractive diversity to the houses themselves.  I'd met Dan's dad a few years ago, and at least one of his sisters, but in the course of the next few hours, I would meet them again, along with in some cases, their spouses and children.

In addition to this being Dan and Bryan's Packers Weekend, this is Major General Dan Karbler's first visit back to his hometown in nearly a year and a half, and let me just tell you, General Dan is kind of a big deal in Hartland, Wisconsin.  He comes from a close-knit, supportive family and from all available evidence, he was "raised right".  He idolizes his father and his sisters, and the feeling is returned.  Everywhere we went on Friday night, he was hugged and lauded by old family friends and old high school friends. More on that in a second.

We've all heard that the kernel of many stereotypes contains some truth. Well, every stereotype you've ever conjured about the folks from Wisconsin is spot on.  They are known as "cheese-heads", as many of you know. But I have to tell you, I have spoken of and heard spoken more about cheese in the past two days than I have in the previous two decades.  Additionally, on the way up to Green Bay from Hartland yesterday, we stopped in Theresa  (pronounced "Ter-essa") Wisconsin at this small, craft cheese-making establishment (Widmers) so that Dan could have some of his favorites shipped back to him in Maryland.

The next stereotype is friendliness. My GOD--these people are the most pleasant and friendly I have ever met. I find myself downright shamed in my curmudgeonliness, and even my brother Tom would seem socially shy among these folks.  It's like being surrounded by hundreds of Bill Clintons, and I mean this in a good way.  Clinton was always a master at making the person he was talking with the center of the universe for that conversation. Everyone here does that to you, except here I don't find myself wondering if they are genuinely interested.  They really are.

The third stereotype worth discussing is the ability to drink and the centrality of bar-life. It gets awful cold up here, and winter last a long time. To get through it, Badgers have taken up the practice of including prodigious amounts of alcohol with all social gatherings. Add the alcohol to the natural friendliness of these folks, and you have a recipe for great conversations and new found friendships. For instance, last night, we were at a bar in Green Bay (Krolls). Across the way was a fellow wearing an Ohio State sweater--Dan's dad is an OSU grad, and so this then was the entree to across the bar chatter for an extended period. Dan would chirp in enthusiastically. I sat and marveled at the capacity of these people to instantly bring strangers into their orbits.

Friday night's big event was a Karbler sibling dinner at The Hartland Inn, an example of the phenomenon of the "Wisconsin Supper Club", something I had never heard of before this trip but about which I am now a big, big fan.  Generally family owned, and often with the family living on the premises, these are great "joints", with a plethora of good food and a lively bar scene (although calling the bar scene at the Hartland "lively" may be a bit of a stretch, as I think the youngest person at the bar was 80).  Dan's three sisters and two of their husbands joined us and it was a wonderful evening of chat and gluttony.  After a weekend in New Orleans and a weekend in Wisconsin, I am doing great violence to my diet.

I've gone on too long and need to get going for the day. When I get back tonight, I'll bring you up to date on what we did Saturday and Sunday. Cheers!

1 comment:

BigFred said...

I am glad my people welcomed you and you are enjoying the trip. That supper club video you linked is spot on, Smokey's is in Madison and my Dad used to take me there when he was coming through town for 'bidness. The Brandy Old Fashioned (Sweet) is an institution, although I still prefer mine with Whisky. Because I have lost much of my native patois, when I order one, they ask which spirit I want. Speaking of spirits, when you order a Bloody Mary in Wisconsin and Minnesota, you usually get an 8 Oz. beer with it. Hell of a deal.

I saw you were at Krolls yesterday, let me pass on some family folklore. When My Dad was in high school in the space between WWII and Korea, he and his boys would go out on a Friday night, and wait until Midnight to go get a burger, because no meat on Friday for the boys from Central Catholic High, and after Midnight is really Saturday and Krolls stayed open for this very reason.

The Fish Fry. Alive and well. In some parts of the state they will ask you if you want your fish with them "In/With" or "Out/Without" and they are of course referring to the guts.

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