Being Strange in a Stranger Land: A Vision of Wisconsin

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    "Well, let me introduce you to our captain, Mike" she said, "And this is our copilot for today, John."

    "Mike," I said, shaking his hand, before turning to the copilot. "John," I shook his hand as well. "Nice to meet you."

    "Nice to meet you, too, err?" They smiled, but their smiles were a little strained.

    "Well," I said finally, "things seem to be under control up here. I guess I'll just go take my seat now."

    The stewardess, a very kind woman, apparently noticed the wavering, unfocused deadness of my eyes. Taking it for either blindness or pure wild insanity, but presuming the former until I gave any real, hard evidence of the latter, she kept stopping by my seat throughout the flight to Chicago, just to make sure I was doing all right.

    Which was nice. Much nicer, in fact, than my trip to Wisconsin had been, just two days earlier.

    No matter how big the signs may be, an airport is simply no place for a blind man. Especially an airport in the midst of heavy renovations, the way O'Hare is.

    The flight from La Guardia had been utterly?even shockingly?uneventful, but as I felt my way a quarter mile through O'Hare to make my connection, I noticed more and more machinery, more and more plywood walls thrown up around various gates. It wasn't good news.

    It took me a while, but I finally found my way through the crowds and the machinery to the end of a long and dim passage, the only possible place my posted gate could've been. I stopped and caught my breath finally, sweating in my coat in the unventilated and humid waiting area. I still had 15 minutes before boarding.

    Then it was announced that they were changing the gate. So I gathered myself together again and moved back down the dim corridor to where I had been told to go. This gate, at least, was marked clearly. It was also in the middle of a construction site, with planks and tools scattered across the floor. I stepped gingerly around things, and leaned against an unsure wall, waiting for the boarding announcement.

    Until, that is, two workmen showed up and taped large pieces of white paper over the gate number, effectively negating the entire area.

    Oh, Jesus Christ.

    A handful of us?there weren't that many going to Green Bay, but you can spot them in an instant?stood around in mild confusion for a bit, until someone noticed another gate with the same number about 30 yards away. So we all shuffled down there and waited some more.

    The movie business has made a great deal of money in the past few years making fun of Midwesterners, and while that annoys me to no end, I still have to admit that there is some truth to what they portray. People waiting to take a plane to Green Bay, for instance, are mostly old, and strangely, lumpily overweight, with battered faces, great shocks of white hair, odd piggy noses on the women, workshirts and suspenders on the men. And those remarkable accents. But always friendly and talkative and trusting. Where they're from, they have little reason not to be. If I had stayed there past the age of 17, chances are I'd be all those things today, too, instead of none of them.

    When we were all loaded on the plane after an hour's delay, we sat on the runway, quiet and patient and unmoving.

    "We haven't forgotten that we're supposed to be flying you good folks to Green Bay," our captain announced calmly after we'd been sitting there a while. "But you see, we're having a little problem with a stuck windshield wiper. We accidentally turned them on while the windshield was still dry, and now they're stuck. So we had to send someone inside to get a bucket of water..."

    Oh, Jesus Christ.

    Well, the water arrived, the windshield wipers were liberated, and we were on our way with no further incident.

    I hadn't seen my family in more than a year?which, to be honest, is not nearly as long as the normal stretch between visits. It's not intentional?I love my family dearly, they're a lot of fun to be around, but getting to Green Bay is much more expensive than, say, flying to Los Angeles or Cuba or Japan?and a remarkable pain in the ass. But my parents are getting older, my two nieces are growing up, and I like to get out there whenever I can.

    Wisconsin itself can be a place of great horrors. It's a state with a history chock-full of bizarre murders (and murderers), disease, madness, strange animal stories and varieties of human behavior that simply don't make much sense once you cross the border into Minnesota or Illinois. I think that's why I love it so.

    Unfortunately, things there are changing, just as they are?and have been?everywhere else. Endless, empty green fields in Green Bay have been erupting with sort-of-fancy homes. My old school's been replaced by an Osco drug store. Local newsreaders I grew up watching have been replaced with plastic-faced nonentities. It's become pretty much indistinguishable?a point I may have made a half-dozen times before?from Columbus, or Rochester or Des Moines.

    At least, thank God, the people have yet to adapt to this universal sameness. I could still point them out in the airport. And as the older ones die off?as so many of my folks' friends have been doing this past year?the younger generations are filling in the gaps. Obvious beer jokes aside?and yes, the beer flows freely, none of it very good?people still drink large glasses of milk with every meal, the kids thrive in between on Bubble Up and Jolly Good. People keep their political views to themselves when in groups larger than two or three. Public conversations center around lawn care and the weather.

    "Gonna rake the lawn next week."

    "Let's just hope the weather holds up."

    "Sure is nice, ennit?"

    "Beautiful day, eh?"

    "Yup. Things stay like this, lawn'll dry out nice, make raking easier."

    Simple avoidance of conflict is what it boils down to.

    Still, though?while I was there this time, two 14-year-olds were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for throwing an 11-year-old Hmong boy off a five-story parking ramp. And while that may be an indication of things to come?the two boys joked and giggled throughout the trial, even after their convictions were announced?there was no public outcry over trying these kids as adults. It was a simple given, and there was no argument.

    The same edition of the Green Bay Press-Gazette that carried that story on the front page (beneath a story about the planned renovation of Lambeau Field, where the Packers play) also carried, plastered across the front of the "Lifestyles" section, the bold headline "Bible Study Open to All."

    (Can't exactly say what my point is with that, or with any of this, so feel free to make up your own.)

    When I was there, none of that mattered. I sat around and talked to my folks. Played?and lost terribly at?penny-ante poker, cared, if briefly, who won a basketball game and went to my first craft show, where my brother-in-law was selling some of the furniture he makes in his basement. Thanks to some quick thinking on my dad's part, I only had to stay in the high school gymnasium where the craft show was taking place for about three minutes?even though it cost us 50 cents to get in!

    Likewise, I was only in town briefly?got in late Friday afternoon and left Sunday morning. And in that time I relaxed, I built a fire in the fireplace, was given the history of all the trees in the backyard, slept, drank cans of Milwaukee's Best Light and had a fine ol' time. And through it all, at every turn, in every conversation or public encounter, I could not shake the deep wisdom that this was, indeed, the place that made me, that formed me into what I am?and that I was, without question or possible denial, a freak.

    At the security check in the airport Sunday morning, even though the guards kept smiling, kept up with the pleasant chatter, I could tell something was wrong. They made me take off my coat and send it through the X-ray machine because of, as one of them explained it, "all the metal buckles."

    Well, my coat features nary a sliver of metal on it. No zipper, no clasps, nothing. I thought it odd, but ignored it, until we were walking to the gate afterward.

    "You know why they did that?" my sister asked, though it wasn't much of a question.

    "No, uh-uh."

    "First, it was a black trenchcoat."

    "Oh, Jesus?you're kidding."

    "Uh-uh. And second?hell, just look at you."

    She was right. I looked at myself, then at all the other people in the airport in their bright colors, their happy sweatshirts, their Packer logos. My day-to-day attire, things I don't even think about, ever, clothes that leave me absolutely invisible on the streets of New York, cast off an evil aura these good folks?and I mean "good folks" sincerely?could sense immediately, and only sense in outsiders.

    Oh well. I still like it there, even if I don't belong. It's not like I belong here, either. Twenty minutes after the security check, I found myself standing in the cockpit.