Adventures in Childhood

A childhood spent in Wauwatosa prepared me to love Madison

For the most part,  I think I enjoyed being a kid. Unfortunately, I know not everyone can say that. I can’t say it was an “idyllic” childhood, though I tend not to trust most claims to such a thing. But looking back, I feel like I was a pretty happy kid.

I had loving parents and related adults in my life, and I had ten younger brothers and sisters, every one of whom I got along with and get along with to this day. Which was an especially good thing growing up in a small, four-bedroom home, with one bathroom, in a middle class neighborhood in Wauwatosa exactly four blocks west of the Milwaukee city line.

Now, without digging too deep into the sociological evolution of Milwaukee, I readily acknowledge the Milwaukee of today is not the Milwaukee of the 1950s and ’60s. But isn’t that true for all of us who are reading this issue of Madison Magazine through the “back when I was a kid” lens? The similarities, and differences, only become important when considering how we’re doing in today’s world letting “kids be kids,” and what it means to try to do that in Madison.

I love seeing groups of kids in Madison. At the Capitol, the zoo, Overture, Troy Gardens, Elver Park ... on and on; seeing young people take advantage of what this city has to offer is energizing and hopeful.

I, on the other hand, used to hang out at the creek. At least that’s what we called it. It was a lazy, meandering, man-made stream that ran through the fancy neighborhood just below ours. I’d grab a handy brother or two and perhaps a neighbor kid and we’d head to the gates where the water ran into a giant stormwater opening. It all felt like we were adventurers in the Amazon.

From there we’d ride our bikes to “the playground,” of which there were several, but one in particular is where we would spend endless summer days playing Strikeout against the brick school building wall (needed equipment included one tennis ball, one bat and one glove) and box hockey, which involved using a popsicle stick (after the popsicle had been eaten) to coax a bottle cap through a series of doors in a wooden box. Video gamers, eat your hearts out.

Swimming lessons were accommodated, Little League games filled with equal parts elation and despair. And everything happened after the morning paper had been dutifully delivered to seventy paying customers throughout six square blocks, with the exact location of each customer’s preferred newspaper delivery (under the mat, in the door, in the mailbox, etc.) committed to a memory that is likely to re-open in a dream at any time.

But for the most part we “went outside.” We got up, had breakfast and went outside. We came home for lunch and then went outside. We spent the day outside. And after dinner we went outside ... until it got dark out. We walked to hidden spaces. We gathered in the back yard behind the garage. We biked all over glory. And you know what? That’s my connection to Wauwatosa.

As I got older, that extended to Milwaukee. But the good stuff, the age six or seven to fourteen stuff that is childhood to me, is all about this place Wauwatosa. It created a connection that I didn’t fully appreciate until long after I’d left. But it’s a connection that rooted me in the experiences that were so influential in developing me into the person I became.

I want that for Madison. I want that for Madison’s kids, that accumulation of experiences and memories. Not so they’ll stay. Not even so they’ll come back. My childhood in Wauwatosa actually prepared me to fall in love with Madison. That’s what I want for our kids, wherever they end up.  

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. 

Find more of his columns here

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