Dave Mulderink had lived in Lake Mills his entire life, and recently retired from teaching Physical Education. I had migrated from The Land of Lincoln, and was nearing my first decade in veterinary practice. We had vaccinated, castrated, and pregnancy-checked his 22 Hereford cows and their calves.
For the month leading up to our herd check, Dave had a round bale feeder full of prime second crop alfalfa in the corral. In previous attempts we had looked like poorly-trained monkeys herding feral cats. Now, the cows had to walk through the chute in order to get to breakfast. They filed through like hung-over college kids for Chicken Kiev on Sunday morning, leaving a little time for a session of cow pasture pontification as the sun dropped to the tree tops. “You know, the thing about kids these days”, we moved forward the exact verbiage Dave’s Baby Boomers had spoken of my Gen-X, and applied it to the “Y’s” to follow.
Boots washed and gear stowed, I stood with one foot on the field road, the other on the floorboard. I paused to take it all in. His cattle paddock was flanked by an impenetrable overgrowth of boxelder, burdock, and barbed wire to the west. Working Dave’s cattle had earned me access to “the mother lode”: a pile of Andalusite, Dolomite, and Quartz-flecked Wisconsin field stones flanked the field to the east. It’s still the size of a school bus, after years of being raided for retaining walls, rock gardens, and stone mantles.
The 60 acres falls out of sight, and returns as the neighbor’s bean field, feeling more like a snapshot from Dave’s Cessna than looking through the windshield of a Chevy half-ton. Just past 2:00 and a quarter mile to the east, SUVs squatting with roof racks loaded with swim-floats, beach towels, and coolers full of snacks flash in the break between the Ho-Chunk Casino billboard and the Airport Road overpass. Inside, 2.2 kids are buzzing on fast food, watching movies, and kicking the driver’s seat of dads who smile absently, dreaming of their first cast, and an IPA.
Accounts of country vets being “out pulling calves at 2:00” every morning may be somewhat historic and subject to exaggeration, or at least passively perpetuated. Cow comfort is dramatically better, farms are fewer, and farmers are more capable than ever. The updated image of on-call is that of lethargic Guinea pigs, vomiting dogs, and amorous un-spayed cats, in addition to the fabled “upside-down and backwards” calves. Along with the tow-and-recovery folks, EMTs, volunteer firefighters, electricians and every other service who sleep with one eye open, veterinarians know an unbroken night’s sleep is a gift from God.
Hopefully it is also a sign that “all is well”.
Four years into my veterinary practice, a soft curve on County Road G and a poorly placed pile of field stone resulted in the tragic loss of Dr. Anderson, from whom I purchased the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic. Compounded by a slumping dairy economy, my life had been dictated by the pager in my pocket 7 days a week for the better part of 5 years.
I was humbled, fortunate, and aware that my hardship was secondary. Still, I’d find myself at Haack’s, Spoke’s, or the Highway A overpass by Liquor Locker, watching the constant stream of cars on I-94. The known of their destination or origin is… not here. I’d mentally stow away on the next Grand Caravan headed north. I had visions of Hayward, Cable, Minocqua, and Bayfield, but anything past Portage was no more than a mirage.
I crept past the mailbox to check for the last engineer pedaling home from Trek world headquarters in Waterloo. The truck stopped sooner than the cloud of gravel dust that sucked off the drive and through the sliding back window, adding another strata to the health papers and CD cases sliding around on the dash.
I grabbed the shifter just below the knob, and pushed it towards my hip. Before my foot let the clutch off the floor, a revelation came like looking down Lombardi Avenue and beholding Lambeau Field for the very first time.
Fifteen years ago, I had been one of those cars, headed north on “The Highway to Heaven”.
Depending on how your faith may fall, my arrival in Lake Mills can be considered the ultimate act of serendipity or pre-destination. Recall I was born a flatlander, bound by apron strings that had never stretched more than the 44 miles down interstate 72 from Decatur to Townsend II South.
I arrived at the University of Illinois in August 1983. I had just learned that Scott R. Clewis grew up the son of a tile-setter turned State Senator, raised near Portage Park, in the shadows of Wrigley Field. In my haste I was expecting Clewis Scott, having grown up in the city, closer to Comiskey, and a few shades more darkly complected. I still struggled to pronounce the middle name of our Sicilian suitemate from the ‘burbs, Joseph Aloisius Gerbasi. And we hadn’t yet hung the nickname “Worm”, on our third roomie, Bill Muson.
Within my first few trips to the cafeteria, I met Barb. It could have been her sense of humor, microscopic attention span, or orange running shorts, but I was smitten.
From 8th grade on I was the kid who was always just about to ask the girl to dance. A high school diploma, summer tan, and being relocated 40 miles down Highway 72 had done little for my “swagger”. It took me a month to say “hi”, at the chocolate milk cooler. By Thanksgiving, I actually sat next to her at lunch.
Her will turned out to be stronger than her legs. Bill’s version of playing “hard to get” translated to three bushels of $15.00 roses from the Chinese grocery. Even “Happy Birthday, Barbara Ann” from the campus bell-tower and an honorary membership into The Decatur Carp Club failed to win her hand. Three years on and she had still managed to resist my charms.
We were dancing with abandon at a Thursday night Mudhens show at the Alley Cat bar when she shouted over Bruiser’s telecaster, “My family is hanging out up by the river in La Crosse next weekend, do you want to go?”.
I didn’t know La Crosse, Wisconsin, from Paris, France, but like a lab pup after a bag of hotdog bits, “Sure, Barb”. Fourteen hours in the car and two days with her family would give me ample opportunity to chip away at her resistance.
In 1988 Google Maps and Garmin were little more than some engineer’s wet dream. We’d have to rely on Rand McNally and recollection. We knew how to get from “Vet Village” in Tolono to Barb’s house in Chicago. I asked her dad for directions.
“Oh yeah, you can go up to Sparta and bring 90 over to LaCrosse, then drop down to 35,” he growled, “but that’d take you way North.”
“What I’d do,” he continued, “I’d just bring 14 up through Coon Valley and you’re there.”
As far as I knew, Canada was just past Kankakee. I responded, “That’s pretty much what I was figurin’ on.”
One thing I had learned is that city folks measure miles in minutes. “How far is it up there from your place, Joe?”
“Ah, once you get outta the traffic, it’s only about four hours,” he calculated.
Three hours to Chicago, four hours to the Goose Island Camp Ground. My boss at the University of Illinois Swine Research Center was a man named Bill. Upon meeting him, your first thought was, “Now there’s a man who believes in his product,” followed by, “he must a fine delegator of physical labor.” His policy was that I could leave work any time I wished, so long as it was eight hours after I got there. I could have feeders scraped and a load of feed started by 6:00 that morning. We were weighing Temple Grandin’s “McDonald’s Playland” pigs that day, but we would be done by 2:00, easily. Eau de Swine is an odor that becomes a part of you, more than on you. It’s not truly gone until you’ve molted the exposed layers. I’d take a shower and blast the big chunks off at work, then take another at home. We could be Northbound on I-57 by 4:00, and sipping a Budweiser by the fire by 11:00.
If love is blind, infatuation is also deaf. To that point I had blown past more “Caution” signs than O.J. in a Bronco, so what’s another?
“If we do that, we’ll just get there in time for bed,” she said, which seemed logical to me. “Let’s leave at midnight; we’ll get there just as everyone is getting up,” she phrased her question in the form of a statement. “Sure, Barb!”, as if she’d just asked me to the Sadie Hawkins. All the while I’m thinking about the prospect of 450 miles with no AC, an AM radio and 7 hour grooves, and a gallon of plastic seat sweat.
I had a fair bit of confidence that my witty banter and folksy style could win the hearts of the Hanek family. Still, I feared I could let fly with rogue “Rs” when I went to the warshroom. Such heavy affairs of the heart are best not left to fate. I picked a 50lb feed sack full of Illini Super Sweet, straight off the stalk, and stocked a grandma-sized cooler with 20lbs of ice and a case of Budweiser. We would be camping but a few miles down-stream from the “World’s Biggest 6-Pack” at the G. Heileman Brewing Company, but I’d no more drink an Old Style than wear a Cubs hat. In the name of love I may scrub the y’alls from my Central Illinois Mushmouth, but I would not sell my soul.
While I do believe the key to a successful future is honesty, I had two habits that I wished to wait at least until we had the first kid on the ground to share with Barb. The first was purely physiological, and the second cultural. There is no way to emerge from working 4:00am shifts at Dave’s Tackle Box and be a charter member of the DCC, and stay strictly within the Surgeon General’s guidelines. I had never touched a cigarette, but I did chew tobacco. I had committed to quitting; I just hadn’t picked the occasion.
Barb’s trigger to begin packing was my taillights in her picture window. I was backed up to her apartment just before the crack of midnight, just as she had prescribed. Anticipation had kept REM at bay, but I did get a bit of a nap as she scrambled to pack her swimsuit, sunscreen, and bug spray. By 1:00am we were 20 miles North of Champaign. Before the runway lights and test flights at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, she was head-bobbing like a Crash Test Dummy. By Paxton she was laying in my lap, her soft palate snorting a chorus with every inhale.
The anticipation of the weekend would surely get me to Kankakee. With the architect of this excursion in surgical anesthesia, and nothin’ but “WGN News Weather and Talk” to keep me awake, this was no time to go cold turkey.
To date, I’d scored a birthday kiss from Barb when I turned 21. I recall oysters, strawberries, and chocolate, but I’ve never seen Skoal Wintergreen on Cosmo’s list of aphrodisiacs. Getting caught would be the proverbial cold shower. Snoozin’ and Cruisin’ would get us upside down in the median, spill the Budweiser and slow our progress. It might scratch the paint on the roof of the Valiant. So I’d strategically planted a tin under the visor, and left a plastic 50-cent beer cup from CODs ovaled between the seat and the door jamb. The rhythm of reaching for the spit cup, nicotine, and a 20oz Mountain Dew had me buzzed to the Chicago loop, all the way to Schaumburg.
I’d started to nod, and taken to mouthing Amarillo by Morning in perfect pitch along with George Strait’s Greatest Hits cassette. Just past Richmond, Illinois, the headlights found the 12x8 “Welcome to Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland” billboard.
Dad worked construction; there were no sick days and paid vacation. If he wasn’t on the levers in a Bucyrus Eerie 25B setting steel, or a Cat D-8 cutting grade, there was no paycheck. At 23 years of age, I’d been to Disneyland and Denver. I had crossed nine state lines and still got as giddy as hearing the bell ringing on the ice-cream truck. The excitement lasted until Elkhorn, when the gauge dropped just below ¼ tank.
As Barb staggered to consciousness and squinted to find the bathroom, I walked the spittoon past the canopy lights and dumped it among the cigarette butts and Egg McMuffin wrappers. As the pump ticked off the 17 gallons, I did push-ups and dead-lifted the back bumper of the Valiant.
As I contemplated safety, Barb offered to drive. Research says: “Second only to scrotal circumference, the greatest predictor of fecundity is directional sense and stamina behind the wheel.” With insecurity, modesty, and lack of familiarity, the latter seemed a more appropriate demonstration of my worth. I was bound and damn determined to pilot Grandma’s grocery-getter to the shores of the Mississippi.
To this day, I struggle to consider myself a writer. I was introduced as an author for the first time in September 2015 at the Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival. It is true, in the sense that I had written a check to Little Creek Press. In exchange they agreed to bind and print my first collection of short stories. It was also at SWWBF that I learned that my genre is “creative non-fiction”. Within said genre we are able to take “artistic license”. To this point, I may have augmented reality and extrapolated the details that aren’t so clear after nearly 30 years.
What is absolutely true as told, printed, framed, and stored under glass, is my first vision of the great state of Wisconsin.
Less than two weeks past the Summer Solstice, the rising sun knifed through the ground fog boiling head-high from fields of corn and alfalfa terraced in grand curves, on the south side of I-94. The leaves of the daylilies in the drainage ditches pursed to protect their pistils and stamen from the night; the corn unfurled to absorb every drop of dew. A hip-roof dairy barn and a herd of red and white cattle lay nestled in the pine valley that fell away from the highway grade. In perfect apposition, just below a “Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show” billboard the size of a football field, the modest steeple of St. John's Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church kept it real.
On the north was a small barn adorned with a hand-painted mural of summer wildflowers, Blue jays, and Cardinals.
Summer 1988 my mission was to stick mule-kick on my slalom ski, and get an atta-boy from Barb’s brothers, Joe and Dave. I had no more notion of living outside the 2-1-7 area code, than unseating Eddie Murphy and becoming the Crown Prince of Zamunda.
Proving that anything that can happen, will... In 1992, I graduated from Veterinary School and took Dr. Anderson’s offer of 28k, and 1 out of 3 nights on emergency. My second farm call in practice was a cow with ketosis at Joe Spoke’s farm, the hip-roof dairy barn nestled in the pine valley in the shadow of the Lutheran Church.