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“No, we don’t have much good porn in Illinois,” my mother Vernabelle said to her brother Larry. “Why do you ask?”
We were in my Aunt Isabelle’s kitchen. Aunt Izzy is my mother’s twin sister and lives about a half mile outside of Wittenberg, Wis. As an 85th birthday present, my older brother Bruce and I drove Mom and Dad from Chicago to the small town in Shawano County for a quick visit.
Mom and Izzy made up one third of their class in the one room school they attended. They made it through high school by boarding with and working for families in town. After graduating in 1945 they moved together to Chicago, wearing identical green suits they bought with money earned cleaning fishing cabins the summer before. Mom married Dad and settled in Chicago; Izzy married Ray and returned to Wittenberg. Soon babies started arriving. By the time I was born in 1952, I had two older brothers and four older cousins courtesy of Aunt Izzy. More kids followed in both families to add up to an even dozen plus another six tossed in from the marriages of Uncle Larry to Pat and Uncle Gordie to Bernice, all of who lived in the area.
The ready pool of playmates made for lively times on our annual summer visits. We played baseball in the driveway and tag around the house; shot BB guns at targets, birds and each other; swung like Tarzan in Grandma’s barn; hiked remote gravel roads; licked salt blocks meant for cows to cut the sour of green apples or rhubarb; smashed pennies on the train tracks that ran near the house; rode horses and cows bareback; fished and swam in a nearby pond; touched electrified fences on a dare (but never peed on one like cousin Ronnie claimed he did); and more.
We also did chores.
Both Uncle Larry and Grandma Sickler were dairy farmers so there were always cows to milk (something I never mastered) and stalls to muck. Grandma’s barn was on the side of a hill and the manure was sent out the back door down the slope by wheelbarrow. When the dung got higher than October in an election year, a plank was laid across it. Before autumn, when it was spread on the fields, the pile could be a dozen feet tall and the planks across the top twice as long. It was quite a gauntlet to run with a wheelbarrow piled high and steaming.
We chopped wood, weeded the garden, canned pickles and, my favorite, baled hay. The cousins hated it as difficult and boring but for me riding on a lurching wagon and stacking the heavy, fragrant bundles was high adventure.
Occasionally, we got in trouble. Bruce shot a window with his BB gun, one cousin almost died from eating too many sour apples, and once we got it in our heads that it would be fun to chase Grandma’s pig around its pen. It was fun too, until the pig died of heat exhaustion. Grandma was so angry and scandalized by what her grandchildren had wrought that she went to bed in her Sunday clothes in case the Good Lord came for her that night.
My most favorite time of all was in the evening when all the work was done and a case of Kingsbury beer was brought up from the basement. Working hard and enjoying a cold brew at day’s end were and still are universal, almost genetic traits of the Wisconsin clan. Children are allowed to partake; if you worked you can drink. Letting kids as young as 12 or 13 sip a few ounces of beer may sound immoral to some, but we all did it and I don’t think you’ll find a drinking problem in the bunch.
It wasn’t just our family, everyone in the entire town (although, we were related to just about everyone) seemed to enjoy their suds. One of the taverns in town, The Rathskeller, even went so far as to offer a free beer on Sunday morning to anyone bringing in a current church program.
Besides loving beer, the other genetic trait that seems inescapable in the family is early deafness. I’ve been deaf in one ear (and can’t hear out the other) for years, so has brother Bruce. Mom, Izzy and Larry don’t have a good ear between them. Larry had not asked if there was good porn, but good corn.