Back to the City

On Sunday nights, Todd and I often walk to Boswell bookstore on Downer Avenue, have a latte and buy a book—the final stretch of our weekend. Then it’s back home for popcorn and we open a bottle of wine. Growing up, my family would always have Sunday dinner after church, so Sunday nights Mom made popcorn. She would hide pieces of homemade fudge in it.

On a Sunday night in January 1970, we were all out snowmobiling, stretching the weekend out as long we could. I got thrown off the back of Ed’s snowmobile, and landed face first in a snow bank. I felt the crunch of the ice and got up feeling like I had a face full of needles. The next morning was our first day at new schools in Milwaukee. Mom and Dad had made the decision to move from the farm back into town. This was the period of time that families were leaving the city for the suburbs but Mom and Dad felt it was time for our family to leave the suburbs for the city. I looked like I had the measles. Dad told me no one would notice.

Like the farm ten years earlier, Mom and Dad found a great bargain on a house on Milwaukee’s east side; the purchase price was seventeen thousand dollars. It needed some work but the neighborhood was close to our schools, there was a park and Lake Michigan nearby.

We traveled into town that next morning—Ed, John, Joan and I—all squeezed into Dad’s Carmen Ghia, along with our backpacks and John’s trombone. Ed got the front-seat. I had the center back because I have claustrophobia and there was more leg room. John and Joan were squished in on what was left of the seat on either side of me. I didn’t mind the trombone in my lap as long as I didn’t have a seat in front of my face like they did.  Somehow we fit and survived the thirty minute drives each way without too much trouble—for the next four months while the house got renovated. We moved in on the first day of April…Fools Day.

Ed was a sophomore and I was a freshman and would be attending Riverside High School, Dad’s Alma Mater. John was in eighth grade and Joan in third, both at Hartford Avenue Elementary. Every day after school we would go to the Wenzler Architect demolition project on Shepard Avenue—walls came down and beams were exposed and sandblasted. Dad was opening up the first floor and building a central fireplace that created a loft in a house feel long before lofts were cool. Ed and John helped. Joanie made friends in the neighborhood. I camped out in the old Victorian bathtub with feet and did my homework.

Go Riverside Tigers!

Go Riverside Tigers!

When Dad was a kid, Milwaukee Public Schools taught music lessons at Roosevelt Junior High. At the time, this was the center of the African American community in Milwaukee. Dad wanted to take trumpet lessons and they were offered at Roosevelt on Saturdays so he went. When his dad and brother found out what he was doing, they had a fit and told him it was too dangerous. Dad told them that that was ridiculous and continued on with his lessons. That’s how he raised us—to not be afraid. For example, after September 11, Joan was flying home a lot because of Mom’s cancer. The attack had made her nervous about flying. Dad said, “Joan, do not be intimidated. Get a seat on the aisle. If you see anything suspicious, take them down!”

That empowered her and she flew without fear from then on.

Riverside was one of the first schools at the time in Milwaukee that brought different neighborhoods of kids together to keep the city schools from becoming segregated. There was racial tension. When Todd, who also attended Riverside, was on his way to his first day of class, he got punched in the face by two guys—one on either side of him, in front of the Ben Franklin on Oakland Avenue. He went to the auditorium for orientation that day feeling a little sniffley at age thirteen, standing five feet four inches with red hair. We would have done well to have had a Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap program back then.

What I remember about my first day of school was the color of the Bobbie Brooks skirt and sweater I wore—lime green. It wouldn’t be long before I would be wearing the same pair of bell bottom blue jeans day after day. I also remember seeing Todd walk down the hallway—as I hid my measle spots behind my hair—and thinking he was cute.

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Homeroom. Todd second row, second from right. Facebook friend Doug Hoyt top row first on left.

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Homeroom. Deb second row center. Facebook friend Dawn (Silas) Dunkelberger, second row third from left.

So we moved into Milwaukee at the height of the civil rights movement. ‘Crazy,’ people said about what my parents were doing. They were right—crazy about equal rights. Mom and Dad wanted to expose us to diversity—to life.

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20140219_175111_resizedPictures from the 1971 Riverside Mercury Yearbook. The dedication reads:

We wish to dedicate the 1971 Mercury to all those who cannot laugh with us because sadness, poverty, sickness or loneliness have touched their lives. It is our hope that the changes we so desperately need will come about within our own lives. It is on the expression of this hope that we close this book.

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