East Side Misadventures
An essay collection of boyhood memories from Depression- and WWII-era Madison
Billy White and I were born on the same day, Wednesday, July 15, 1934, and we lived in the same Williamson Street apartment but not at the same time. His family moved in after our family moved to a more palatial estate at 1418 Northern Court. I was born at Wisconsin General Hospital, which became Madison General hospital and then the University School of Nursing. I don’t know what it is now. Billy was born on a farm near Wauzeka, Wisconsin, with a veterinarian in attendance. He swears that that is true but Billy lies a lot.
In the fourth grade at Marquette School we had to sing in the annual Christmas pageant. We filled the stage. The non-singers were dressed as wise men and shepherds but somehow I don’t remember a crèche. Me and Billy were in the choir and we had our new clothes on or, in my case, new hand-me-down clothes. We lined up, girls on one side and boys on the other, and shepherds and wise men in the center.
I looked out at the audience when the curtain opened and saw many familiar parents. The Klevers, the Woods, the Pearsons and Sandra Yopack’s mom and dad. The Yopacks owned a carpet and tile store on the corner of Few and Williamson. Years later it occurred to me that the Yopacks were Jewish and there was Sandra up there belting out “O Holy Night” and “Away in the Manger.” I always wondered about that.
After the show I was selected by Mrs. Hile to help take the music and costumes to the music room. Billy helped me since we were walking home together. By the time we were finished the janitor was turning off the lights and the only door left open was the Thornton Avenue exit facing the Yahara River.
The wind had picked up pretty good, and for December it was very cold. I supposed that was the reason for the empty streets. Ice had formed on the river and Billy wanted to investigate. It was what we called “skim” ice and I warned Billy not to step on it or he would fall through. He ignored me, and holding on to an overhanging tree branch, he edged his way out on the ice, which swayed under his weight but seemed to hold him. He ventured out a little farther, let go of the branch and took a few more steps. He looked back at me triumphantly. The “creak” sound that came wasn’t the big “crack” and “boom” you hear on Lake Mendota when you’re walking on the ice but rather more like the sound of a rusty door opening. I didn’t hear the next sound although I’m sure there was one.
Billy sank below the black waters of the river and my wits left me. I looked around for help, for anything that would get Billy out of the water. As I turned back Billy popped up the same hole he made in the ice when he went in. He began to dog paddle toward shore, breaking the thin ice as he struggled. I stepped in and helped him gain his footing and make his way up the bank to the sidewalk next to the footbridge.
“Jesus, Ronnie,” he said.
“Jesus, Billy,” I said.
We made our way up Jenifer Street with wind and now snow buffeting our progress. At the bottom of the Dickinson Street hill I looked at the chattering Billy. His pants were frozen and he walked with his legs apart like the Frankenstein monster. His black hair was frozen as was his coat and scarf.
“Couple more blocks,” I encouraged him.
We went up the hill and turned left on Williamson Street. (Only newcomers to Madison call it “Willy Street.”) The light from Tiny’s Tavern—now the site of Lazy Jane’s Café—spilled out on the street and Billy quickened his pace now that 1331 was almost in sight. We turned into the driveway shared with the little house in the back and up the porch steps to the kitchen door. With me right behind, Billy stepped into a warm kitchen greeted by the smell of fresh-baked bread and said to his mother, who was wiping her hands on her apron, “I fell through the ice on the river.”
Her emotions flashed across her face—first fear, then anxiety, followed by relief, and finally, anger. At anger her hand left her apron and in a heartbeat hit Billy on the side of his head. “In your new gabardine pants?” she said as ice from Billy’s hair tinkled and clattered throughout the kitchen.
She was hugging him as I backed out the door. I thought I would never understand mothers. I told my mother all about it when I got home. She toasted me a thick slice of bread in the oven, slathered it with peanut butter and sprinkled sugar on it. I thought, at least she’s relieved that Billy isn’t dead, until she said, “In his new clothes?”
Richie’s brother Billie came home from World War II with an injury received while serving in the navy. Billie was not specific about his wound but word in the neighborhood was that he was a flickering porch light. I didn’t think that was true because he seemed normal to me and he told us stories. Not about the war but spooky stories about ghosts and vampires.
Early one evening he sat on the front steps of our house on Williamson Street and told us about the “Ghost Park.” As he told the story I thought the “Ghost Park” was far away or in another country or at least in another state or city, but Billie said it was only a few blocks from here.
He said that during the Civil War many Southern rebel soldiers were kept at Orton Park and that many had died and were buried there in unmarked graves. Their spirits longed to return to their homeland in the sunny South. Each month, Billie explained, the ghosts of the soldiers rose up from their graves to look around to see if the wagons had come to take them home. They did this so they could see the wagons by the light of the full moon. Some crawled all the way out and walked around while others only came up as far as their waists. Not seeing the wagons they moaned, cried and slipped back to their graves. Billie said you could hear their moans and cries if you walked by Orton Park at midnight during a full moon.
That was all Richie and I had to hear. We didn’t believe in ghosts but we didn’t NOT believe in ghosts! We had to see for ourselves. I have to admit that without Richie I would never have had the nerve to follow up on our plan.
“When’s the next full moon?” Richie asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s ask Mr. Gerhardt.”
Mr. Gerhardt was the pharmacist on the corner and when I had scientific questions I went to him. I once tried to count my teeth but kept losing track. My older sisters counted them but they each came up with a different number. I went to Mr. Gerhardt and he said “twenty-six” without even counting them!
We walked to the corner and entered the drugstore. I sighed when my hot bare feet met the cool terrazzo floor. We soon found Mr. Gerhardt working on a prescription in the back.
“Mr. Gerhardt,” I said, “can you tell me when the next full moon is?”
“Tomorrow night,” he answered without looking up.
“Thank you,” I replied and turned to leave. He said, “Thank you what?” and I said, “Thank you, sir.”
I arranged for my sister to wake me when she came home from her job as an usherette at the Majestic Theatre. She got home at eleven and gave me a nudge. I popped out of bed, telling her Richie and I were going to look at the full moon. Richie had slept in the backseat of his father’s car, which was up on blocks due to the wartime tire shortage. I knocked on the window and we were soon off to Orton Park.
We covered the five or six blocks quickly and were at the east end of the park before 11:30, according to Richie’s Ingraham pocket watch.
South off Spaight Street on Few Street took us to Rutledge. Orton Park was a rectangle framed by Few Street on the east, Rutledge on the south, Ingersoll on the west and Spaight on the north. There was a streetlight on each corner and with the moonlight Orton Park was fairly well lit. This changed when we reached the middle of the park where the land sloped down to the north. The large trees shaded the moonlight and their trunks cast shadows from the streetlights.
“What was that?!” Richie said. The hair on the back of my neck stood out and I held my breath, listening.
“What was what?” I finally said.
“It sounded like leaves rustling,” Richie said.
“Maybe a squirrel or something,” I told him.
“Squirrels don’t come out at night,” he said.
We walked further up Rutledge with our eyes on the park. Richie stopped in his tracks. “I saw something near the bandstand. I think it was one of them,” he said. I didn’t look ... I didn’t dare. I turned away from the park and faced Richie. He was standing sort of awkwardly with a sick look on his face.
“Let’s run!” he said.
I was the second-fastest runner in the neighborhood and Richie was the fastest. We bolted! We jumped down the slope from the sidewalk to Rutledge Street and ran. That night Richie and I were side-by-side, neck-and-neck and stride-for-stride. There was no fastest and second-fastest.
We pulled up at the Baldwin Street streetlight, caught our breath, and looked at each other. A far cry from the two brave boys who started out that night.
The bells from St. Bernard Church pealed the hour softly in the distance.
Richie said, “Don’t tell anyone I wet my pants.” I said that I wouldn’t and for that matter I wasn’t going to tell anyone about anything that happened.
I never go by Orton Park at night. Even if I’m driving a car I go on Jenifer or Williamson. I’ll never know what Richie saw that night—maybe it was a hobo smoking a pipe or maybe it was one of those rebel soldiers looking for a wagon to take him home.
The Purloined Egg
Kenny was the biggest kid in my eighth grade class and he chased me home every night. Being big, he was slow and I, being small, was fast and Kenny never caught me. Finally he gave up trying and we became friends. Kenny lived with his mother, stepfather and stepbrother and, with the exception of the dinner table, he came last in the family.
The Teasak girls lived next door to Kenny on Williamson Street and I lived about six blocks away on Northern Court. Rose Mary was a big girl, teased and tormented in school but a big help to her mother, Sal, in the restaurant. Her sister, Ruby, was as outgoing and brassy as Rose Mary was shy.
Kenny and I and the gang hung out at Sal’s until she got busy and kicked us out, then we headed down to the basement where we peeled potatoes and played the jukebox. The mechanics rigged the jukebox in the basement so we could trip the lever and play songs without depositing a nickel.
One night as I left I grabbed a couple of hardboiled eggs on my way up the stairs. I cracked the first one as I reached the sidewalk and to my chagrin it wasn’t hardboiled at all. It was raw and broke all over my shoes. Sergeant McCartney rode by on his three-wheeler Harley Davidson servi-car motorcycle and told us to go home. Sergeant McCartney was a smart-aleck cop who was always harassing us. He turned the corner and drove east on Williamson Street. I stepped out in the street and lofted the remaining egg in the air east on Williamson. It seemed to take forever for the egg to complete its graceful arc. When it landed, it was with a splat squarely on the back of Sergeant McCartney’s neck. I was transfixed. I couldn’t believe I hit him.
Everyone scattered to the four winds while I just stood there watching McCartney turn his motorcycle around and head back toward me. When I came to my senses, I bolted down Few Street. As I said, I was fast, but I knew I couldn’t outrun a three-wheeled motorcycle so I headed for the boxcars at the lumbermen’s supply. I lost the good sergeant in a few shimmies up one car and down another.
A few days later, I went up the alley between Main and Williamson to see my friend Kenny. I found him pinned to the partition between the garage doors by his 1931 Chevrolet Cabriolet Coupe, which he had recently bought from Ruby’s grandmother. Kenny was in obvious agony. The bumper of the car had pinned his left leg to the jamb and he couldn’t get enough leverage to push the car away. I got in the car, put in the clutch and it rolled backward. Kenny leaned painfully against the fender and explained what happened. His half-brother, Muggsey (then nine years old), was told to keep his foot off the clutch and the car lurched forward, trapping Kenny. Muggsey was afraid he would get yelled at, so he took off, leaving poor Kenny.
Standing south, Kenny’s left leg pointed east so I knew we were in trouble. Kenny didn’t want his mother to know about it so he asked me to drive him to Dr. Shieb’s office on Atwood Avenue. I did, but every bump or tar line in the road made Kenny grimace. I helped him into the waiting room and Dr. Schieb’s nurse let out a gasp. She said he had to go to the hospital and called an ambulance. I rode along for the thrill of it and we raced to Wisconsin General on University Avenue. Kenny’s mother was called. She told him that he always got in trouble when he hung around with me. I left and took a bus back to Dr. Schieb’s office to pick up the car.
It was a beautiful July afternoon, so I decided to take the car for a little spin around the Square. At this point I should tell you that I was fourteen years old and although I had been driving for a year or so, I had no license. I saw Ruby and Rose Mary and stopped to say hi. Ruby wanted to go for a ride, so she piled in the front seat, leaving the rumble seat for Rose Mary.
We drove around the Square a few times with the windows down, enjoying the warm afternoon. As we headed east on East Washington, who did we pull up behind but Sergeant McCartney. I pulled over and he started writing tickets before I even got out of the car. He said one ticket was for expired license plates (the car had been in storage for three years), and one was for no operator’s license. He then made a big mistake. He said he should give me another ticket for having such ugly girlfriends.
With that, Ruby was out of the car and in his face, and saying something like, “There are a lot of girls uglier than we are!” and generally reading him the riot act. Rose Mary had gotten out of the rumble seat and backed away from the confrontation until the motorcycle stopped her retreat. I got Ruby away from Sergeant McCartney before we got in real trouble, collected my tickets and the three of us started walking home. After about twenty yards I looked back and Sergeant McCartney was looking on the ground and patting his pockets. I then looked at big, shy Rose Mary. She was beaming with a huge grin on her face while tossing up and down the keys to a Harley Davidson three-wheeled motorcycle. We turned the corner and took off in a dead run.
My grandson was born in July about forty-five years later. Ruby called me that day and said that Rose Mary had died and she wanted me to come to the wake. A strange request since I had long ago lost track of them. I went to a Catholic church in Richland Center and Ruby took me up to Rose Mary’s casket. She looked peaceful and shy, hands clasping her rosary beads. Then Ruby signaled me to lean close—and handed me a worn set of a Harley Davidson three-wheeled servi-car motorcycle keys.
“I found them in Rose Mary’s purse,” she said.
Ron Hoppmann’s stories are part of a memoir he’s written with writing coach Sarah White of First Person Productions. Hoppmann was born on Madison’s east side in 1934 and attended Marquette Elementary and East High. He spent three years on active duty in the Marine Corps, attended college in Colorado, and owned Bord & Stol furniture in Madison. Hoppmann, a father of three and grandfather of nine, can often be found swapping stories at C’s Diner or the Hubbard Avenue Diner in Middleton.
Sarah White writes about the journey of writing a memoir in her blog From Memory to Memoir.