Thursday, May 24, 2018

Home is where again?

Trying to figure out where home is
A recent trip back to Milwaukee

Others have surely been gone longer, but 27 years isn’t nothing.   Am I still the same person whose genes were grafted to the soil in this place?

Sure I’ve visited, more then than now, but I haven’t lived there since 1991.  Is it still home?  Several generations in line before me called it that, as did I for just shy of two decades. 

I’ve been gone longer than I ever lived there, but after countless airline miles, and after multiple countries, states and cities have passed under my feet as - temporarily - home, another is imminently in the offing (for me, anyway), with more certain to follow.  Some day we'll really go home, I'm sure of it.

And as with all cities and towns, hamlets and whistle-stops, some of the good has remained, and some has evolved away.  The same with the less than good.  Is the city better for it all?  Am I?

Despite not being an architect, I have an affinity for structures.  In equal parts, it seems, I enjoy the old and the new, along with that which has fallen into disrepair or that which has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes.  I like people, too, don’t get me wrong. But old factories and bridges and houses of worship tend to be more compliant models for mediocre photographers like me. 

The old Mexican restaurant Conejitos (#1) stands guard on the corner of 6th and Virginia, as it has for perhaps 40 years or more. It’s been almost as long since I was last there, and while old man Jose has slipped the bonds of this earthly soil, it doesn’t appear the successive generation has changed so much as a table cloth, if they ever had them in the first place.  But the beer is cold and the tacos cheap and tasty, and the place was full early on a spring Friday afternoon.

#1 Conejitos on 6th and Virginia

Notre Dame hall (#2) at Mount  Mary College glowers down imposingly like a stern Mother Superior at a wayward student (such as I was for a time) along the Menomonee River Parkway.  At some point in history, I believe my mother spent time at the school, and while she didn’t complete a degree she was undoubtedly a stronger student than I ever was.

#2 Notre Dame Hall at Mount Mary College

The sun was not a regular visitor that weekend, until I happened upon the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (#3, designed by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright), and then just like that it made an appearance and continued its work on the remaining snow from just a week earlier.

#3 Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

To my knowledge, Scandinavians did not make up a very large proportion of early immigrants to Milwaukee, yet there sits the neighborhood of Valhalla, of Old Norse mythology.   (A friend in Australia once wondered aloud why we Americans name our places after old Greek or Roman places like Troy or Syracuse, and I speculated that perhaps the founders of such places wished their posterity to follow in the footsteps of those from the ancient version.)  And within this small slice of the city lies the cemetery of the same name, although a great hall for the chosen dead ruled by Odin is not evident here.  Nonetheless my second-generation German maternal grandparents lie here (#4), together with my grandfather’s parents and his brother and sister-in-law.  (Grandpa Daniel Albert Schneider, 1908-1981, and Grandma Emma Wilging Schneider, 1912-2005.)  The area around the cemetery, along with Valhalla itself, seem a bit tired and worn, but perhaps they, too, will experience a small rennaissance in the coming years. 

#4 Headstone for Grandma and Grandpa Schneider at Valhalla

One afternoon, my 82-year-old father put to shame me and many men years his junior when he made solid contact on successive 80 mph fastballs in the batting cage.  (See short video clip to be duly impressed, below.)  Roughly 75 times in a row.  It was standard fare for him, but an impressive thing to witness.  80 mph is tough on a good day, but inside a dimly lit 70s era warehouse-cum-amusement center, and from less than 60 feet 6 inches and with no ability to establish a rhythm from the regular motion of a pitcher, it’s another thing altogether.   But it was a pleasant way to spend an hour or so, and even after a number of years, I managed to hit a few, making decent contact with the round ball on the round bat at 80 mph (as everyone knows, the most challenging feat in all of sports), and while I missed my share, I enjoyed our little trot to first down memory lane. 

Trains are another interest we share, dad and me.  Nearby to my childhood home in suburban Milwaukee a local train club has quite the layout set up (#5 & 6 and the other short video), with thousands of trains worth who knows how many thousands of dollars.  We all have our favorites, and for us it is particularly those of the O gauge size, like those of dad’s youth which he displayed on a layout in the basement of his childhood home (#7, 8 & 9) at the corner of 16th Street and Pearl Street South.  

#5 Detail of the large layout

#6 Panorama of the full layout

#7 The house where my father grew up
on South 16th Street

#8 The house and medical practice in the red brick building to the south

#9 The view from the back. (The steeple from St. Martini's Lutheran is in the background.) When my dad was a child the small cottage on the left was also owned by my grandparents.

Like many cities and neighborhoods across the Rust Belt, this one has experienced good times and bad, and while nostalgia works its magic on our memories, the truth of it is that those “good ol’ days” weren’t always as good as we like to think they were.  But the old neighborhood has good bones, and while the names of the streets and the places have taken on a decidedly different flavor - the next wave of immigrants changed it from Polish, German and Italian to Hispanic, and 16th Street is now also known as Cesar Chavez Street - it looks pretty good at the moment.  St. Martini’s Lutheran Church (#10) still stands tall across the street from my father’s childhood home, and while my friend Paul attended there as a youth, he likely didn’t listen in on sermons presented by Pastor Alphonso, the young and charismatic preacher who invited me to the 1230 service.  He offered a sermon in several languages, since “Lo siento, no hablo español.”  He suggested Russian might be available, and when I asked him, in Russian, if he spoke the language, he tilted his head back and laughed.  But although he offered to speak very slowly in Spanish for me (“bwaaaaay-naaaas deeee-aaaass,” he chuckled), I had other places to visit before I my flight.  

#10 Saint Martini's Lutheran Church

As a child visiting my grandparents on the south side, I would often let Madame Nostalgia assist me in imagining the horses of the rag sellers and fruit peddlers visiting the horse trough (#11) on the little triangle of land just across from my grandfather’s medical office, the red brick home immediately adjacent to the house where they lived.  Decades later, it now stands as a silent reminder of times long gone, and I suspect few people would know what it is, if they gave it notice at all, as the trough itself is long dry and now filled with soil and flowers.  

#11 The horse trough

After a lovely, albeit cacophonous brunch with my niece, nephew and sister-in-law, I wandered along the river in the old Third Ward section of the city (#12 & 13), enjoying an early spring morning.  Then I stopped to visit Pompeii Square (#14 & 15) once the site of the Little Pink Church - the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Church - which stood just across the street from this landmark from 1904 to 1967.  Now a little patch of land and this marker are all that remain under the shadow of Interstate 794.

#12 Loft apartments in the Third Ward where my nephew lives

#13 Steel girder bridge on the Milwaukee River in the historic Third Ward

#14 Pompeii Square under the I-794 overpass

#15 Marker explaining the existence of
Pompeii Square across from
the former site of the Little Pink Church

The old Allen-Bradley building on 2nd Street still stands tall, although the building which houses the “Polish Moon” clock tower (#15 & 16) is now owned by Rockwell Automation.  The clock was once the largest four-faced clock in the world, and is a well known Milwaukee landmark, visible from all over the city as well as to sailors far out on Lake Michigan.

#15 The Polish Moon of the old
Allen-Bradley building

#16 Allen-Bradley is now Rockwell Automation

My paternal grandparents (Harold Ernst and Zona Gale Miles, the physician and his flapper-era wife who lived in the big house on 16th Street), both passed away when I was just a boy, and are interred at Forest Home Cemetery (#17, 18 & 19) also the site of many old world Milwaukee elite like the Blatz, Pabst and Schlitz families and several founders of Harley Davidson.  On the National Register of Historic Places, it is also the final resting place for more than 1000 Civil War veterans.

#17 Entrance to Forest Home Cemetery 
#18 Marker for grandma and grandpa Panetti

#19 Grandma and grandpa Panetti are tucked in the corner under the portico

My long driving tour back through time and place next took me to Wauwatosa, where my new bride and I rented a second floor flat on 62nd and Lloyd (#20), nearly 29 years ago shortly after graduating from university and celebrating our marriage six days later.  We quite enjoyed our time living in that flat, despite the short time we were there and the crabby Hungarian-born landlady who lived below us.  Of course just about anywhere would have been fun when we were a young couple just starting out, and further, with each passing year that old devil nostalgia continues to work its magic on my memory, softening out the rougher edges.

#20 Our first flat on the second floor of
62nd and Lloyd
I made one final stop before picking up my things and heading to the airport.  Outside of my own childhood home, probably the place I spent the most time was the home of my maternal grandparents (those who rest in Valhalla) and where my mother grew up.  The home itself (#21) was built by the hand of my great-grandfather (also Daniel, and still to this day known with affection as grosspapa), and his son, my grandfather.  They built it and several others like it in the post-war years, and my grandmother lived there nearly until her death in 2005.  The photo is actually of a new home built on the site something like ten years ago after, sadly, the original home was destroyed by a fire. 

#21 The new home on Potter Road, the site of the original home where my mother grew up.
My grandfather helped to build the original home, and planted the evergreen
when it was just a sapling.

I suppose we all go through this to some extent, trying to figure out whether or not we can actually go home to a place even though we haven't lived there for decades, and even if we spent our formative years there.  And further I imagine it's more acute or profound if you happen to live a largely itinerant lifestyle like those of us in the Foreign Service.  But that doesn't stop us from trying, and while home for us these past seven years has been Washington (three times), Port-au-Prince, Chisinau and soon to be Baghdad, I think the nature of home for us will always reside in The Greatest State in the Union, and in our actual home in Bloomington.

And some day we will go home again.

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