Back before there were computers, cell phones, ipods, video recorders, microwaves and even before most families had color television I had a childhood that meant the world to me. A large part of my childhood memory was a Shangri-La nestled in the north central part of Wisconsin called Clintonville. If Disneyland was, “The Happiest Place on Earth!” Clintonville was the safest place on earth, at least to a young boy growing up in the United States of America. As children, we all need a safe place to visit not only for the joy it brings us at the moment but also for the adult escape we can retreat to when our lives become frayed or filled with fear from time to time.
Clintonville, Wisconsin, was the home of my dad’s parents, Bernice and J.P. Hurley. She was a homemaker and he worked at the front gate of the Four Wheel Drive Company. Every morning, Grandma Hurley would pack his lunch in a black metal pail and fill his thermos with coffee and off he would trudge to the Drive. Basically, he was a greeter for all the employees that worked there. He was a common man. But, it made him feel important after he lost his farm years earlier. Pa was a terrible farmer. You could give him all the fertile dirt in the universe and he would have trouble feeding a squirrel.
They lived in a quaint blue and white house 98 Clinton Avenue next to St. Martin’s Lutheran School and church. I can remember looking out the window at all the children playing kick ball in the parking lot. They couldn’t see me but I could see them. As a Catholic since birth I remember thinking, “So, that’s WHAT a Lutheran looks like!“ They did look different than any of my friends that was certain. I was just never sure why.
Downtown Clintonville had all the earmarks of a Norman Rockwell imagination. There was a small river flowing under Main Street to the picturesque park in the heart of the town. If you were daring you could cross into the park via the swinging walk bridge that spanned the Pigeon River. I will never forget it swaying back and forth as my life passed before me each time I crossed it. Once there, you could climb up on the tank that served as a memorial for the heroes of past wars. Clintonville was proud of its veterans and patriotism was at its core.
There was a soft ice cream shop on the river for those humid summer nights. Now, there is a Culver’s which is more advanced and air-conditioned but it is not the same. On the other side of the bridge was Kroll’s Bar. That was where my mom, dad and all my aunts and uncles would gather on Friday nights for fish fry. If you live in Wisconsin you know all about fish fry at the end of the work week. Especially, if you grew up Catholic.
Clintonville always had a great semi-pro baseball team called the Athletics. We would always go to the games in the small stadium next to the park and sit close to the field. It was a post card setting as you looked out past the outfield with the beautiful woods framing the park in left and the majestic Catholic Church gleaming on top of the hill in right. Everyone knew everyone. There were no strangers at the ballgame. We enjoyed one friendly encounter after another. It felt good to be around nice people for an evening.
Grandma and her friend Agnes would always make large, cake doughnuts. We could smell them when we pulled in from California and we raced into the kitchen just as they were adding sugar to them! It took a while for us to get acclimated to the milk because it was fresher in Wisconsin than we were used to in California. My grandpa told us the cows were purer and that’s what affected the taste. But, with great doughnuts you can adjust to any liquid.
Grandma’s home was simple. A small kitchen, a musty basement that smelled like dead moths, a small master bedroom near the front door that no one used as an entrance, a parlor, a tiny winding staircase with two bedrooms upstairs and a cozy, living room. There was only one bathroom. As a small child I can remember innumerable times when my aunts and uncles would come in while I was in the bathtub and use the toilet. They would say hello, do their business and cruise on out as I went back to playing with my little boats in the water. At night, my brother, sister and me would look through the small grating at the adults talking in the parlor. Granda always had his rocking chair next to the large radio because he loved to rock and listen to all the weather and news in the morning as he struggled to put his dress socks on.
Across the street was a huge playground with a slide, monkey bars and a merry go round. Both of my brothers fell off the top of that giant slide in successive trips to Wisconsin but they somehow survived. It was part of being a kid, I guess. I would wear my Milwaukee Braves cap and t-shirt and throw a rubber ball up against the school building for hours and pretend I was a major league baseball player.
My sibs and me used to play a game with the cute girls that lived behind my grandma’s house, Linda and Marsha Phelps. They would position us on the sidewalk curb next to the highway that ran through Clintonville and we would run out and shout the license plate numbers as the cars went by. Linda always recorded them on paper to make the game valid.
There was a movie theater with a double-feature every Saturday including cartoons. There was a family grocery store called, Schroeder’s that always had my favorite snack: Boston Cream Pies. There were several bars that my mom and dad took us to which thrilled us because they would always buy us Nehi Orange Soda. I remember their favorite establishment. It was called, “Lefty’s.” I liked it because I was also left-handed.
One summer, I fell in love for four days with a girl named Linda Gretzinger. She was a Lutheran which made me feel a little weird but at fifteen years of age you have to be mature enough to handle that kind of tolerance. She was two younger than me but much more experienced. She was the first girl I ever kissed and I had the feeling she had kissed a boy before. She was my first love. It happened in Clintonville.
On the first Sunday in July all the Hurleys gather for a reunion. It used to be several hundred people but that number consistently dwindled down as relatives aged and died. We used to meet in the park. There was always tons of food and all my first and second cousins came from all over the Midwest. We played tag, hide and seek, softball and ran around all day long until it got dark and we had to go back to Grandma Hurley’s house.
How many families from California go to a small town in Wisconsin for their vacation? With all the great places to see within our state, my dad chose to go see his ma and pa. His two brothers and three sisters always joined us. We were family. Irish, Catholic and close.
Everyone is gone now. My grandparents, my two uncles and three aunts, my mom and my dad. They have all passed. Even that little blue and white house with the pretty love seat swing in the back was leveled to make more parking space for the Lutheran Church. This morning I received an email from my sister telling me that my cousin, Colleen had died. She was the first of all our closest cousins to pass away. She was 43 years old. It made me realize that you are never completely safe in life because death is inevitable.
But, it also reminded me of a time and a place a long time ago that seared into my mind the importance of childhood, family, fun and a joy that was boundless and liberating forever. No one can ever take those memories away from me and I will revisit them as many times as I choose to so I can smile whenever my life gets a little more scary. I will remember the faces, the voices, the laughter and the images of the safest moments of my life…
In a town called Clintonville.
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