I Look for Places like This

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I grew up in Blue Island, Illinois. I went to college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When I came of drinking age, which would have been 1979 in Wisconsin and 1982 in Illinois, both of these cities were dotted with neighborhood bars, taverns, pubs, saloons, or whatever you would call them. Each had a personality of its own that would be difficult to explain to one not familiar with this sort of establishment. As drinking venues go, I have always preferred those to their larger, noisier counterparts. But more than that, some of these places were special to me.

I speak of neighborhood bars, because I am by and large a city mouse, but should point out that small town bars seem to have the same flavor as these—only there aren’t nearly as many to choose from. Back when I lived and drank in Blue Island, for example, that city had a population of just over 20,000 people. Not a terribly large community by some standards, but there were many bars there, not just on the main thoroughfares, but in the residential areas—the neighborhoods—themselves. Each was a place quite unique unto itself, quite different from all the others. Many of these establishments have gone away since that time, but you get the idea.

When you find a good one, you know so, because it resonates with you somewhere deep within. Case in point, my personal favorite in the Blue Island of my day was a place called the Backstage, on the corner of Vermont Street and Hoyne Avenue. Get this, my favorite neighborhood bar wasn’t even in my neighborhood. Ha! The place was awesome. It had atmosphere. The Backstage was the kind of place where people could meet and talk and have fun, without being bothered. The owner kept a nice place, something I learned to appreciate over time. But alas, it’s long gone now. That property isn’t even a bar anymore, And truth be told, there are fewer places like this in that town… maybe elsewhere, too.

Milwaukee, circa 1983, the last year I lived there as a student at Marquette University. Back then I could walk two blocks in any direction from my apartment and hit at least one bar,  usually way more than one. The whole city seemed to be full of them. My personal favorite, that year? I had two. Very near my apartment was the Harp & Shamrock on West Wells Street. Although the place still stands, I’m sure the original proprietor Bernie Conway is now long gone. What a character he was! Bernie kept a clean place, where one would always feel safe, as long as you were not a vagrant or otherwise undesirable sort, in the owner’s estimation (let me leave it at that). He had a large bartender named Tom, who also doubled as the bouncer, and a large German Shepherd named Duke, who slept behind the bar, helping the patrons feel safe, I guess. In 1983 the Harp & Shamrock was a throwback bar, in every sense of the word, yet I loved that place. It was there that I first kissed the girl who would become my wife, despite the fact that at the time, she was already engaged to marry another—that’s a long, sordid story for another time.

My second favorite exists only as a memory now, Wimpy’s Hunt Club, way over on the east side of the city, a stone’s throw from Milwaukee’s old Oriental Theater. Now this place had class. Owned by one Wilbert “Wimpy” Kotas (I knew him only as Wimpy), a silver-haired gentleman who usually wore a crisp, white dress shirt behind the bar. Up on the wall behind him hung a beautiful painting (maybe it was a print, I no longer recall) of a classic fox hunt scene. Opposite the bar was a row of old-fashioned horseshoe booths. The jukebox was loaded with Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and such. No beer on tap, only bottled. This was a clean, quiet, classy place. I only took certain friends there and was very sad the night I returned, just a few years later, and found it gone.

Some additional years after that, while having dinner in Chicago, I learned from a business acquaintance who had lived above that very bar when he was first married (small world indeed) that Wimpy had been murdered one morning after closing up the bar. While walking home, he encountered two men fighting. I’m sure Wimpy’s barkeeper instincts kicked in, he moved in to stop the fight, and was stabbed to death. This apparently happened in 1984, just one year after I had graduated and left Milwaukee. As happy as I had been to meet somebody who had known Wimpy’s Hunt Club, I was stunned by this news.

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Now fast forward to 2016. Bars like I just described are somewhat hard to come by in the sprawl of exurbia, where I live. Sports bars are a dime a dozen out here—they open and disappear with predictable regularity out my way, because let’s face it, how many large, noisy sports bars can any community support. But I found a place this year. I found a place that rivals the kind of establishments I just described to you.

I don’t know if Lemont, Illinois is big enough to have neighborhoods, but I’ll tell you this: Lemont has a hell of a bar. Let me tell you about Nick’s Tavern. I’ve only been there twice, so far, but I can already tell you one thing: I like this place. It has everything I look for in a drinking establishment.

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Here you will not find dozens of tappers, nor a ten-page menu, nor giant TV screens glaring at you from every direction. And that’s okay by me. If I want any of that, I’ll go to a mega sports bar, the kind I can find in just about every city and village within the greater Chicagoland metropolitan area. They’re all alike and on most days, as far as I’m concerned, you can have them. Just give me a place like Nick’s.

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Give me a place with a bit of history, and maybe some good stories to go along with that history. A place where I am made to feel welcome the minute I step through that door. Nick’s Tavern is that kind of place. The wood paneling and somewhat weathered-looking wooden bar give the place a warm atmosphere. Certain touches, like the old cash register on display in one corner and the stamped metal tile ceiling, tell you that this place has been around for a while. The bartenders greet people as they arrive and seem genuinely glad to see everyone, even me. The regulars are greeted by name.

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People are eating, drinking, talking, laughing… and it just makes me smile to see and hear all this. The first time I went there, I brought my wife and we both liked it. The second time, I brought a friend who had grown up with me in Blue Island, and who had also drank quite heavily with me back in the day. The following day he texted me, “If Nick’s was in between our houses, I would make that our our usual meeting place. I like that place.”

To which I could only reply, “Me, too!” I invited my friend Ed to come out and see Nick’s because I had already known he was going to like it there. When you drink together for as long as Ed and I have been drinking together, you get to know each others preferences.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the food. They make a very good burger at Nick’s, but come hungry. The full-on Nickburger is a one-pounder and the smaller Little Nickburger, which I get, is still half a pound of ground beef. Believe me, it’s fresh and tasty. They also do Italian beef, chicken sandwiches and more, but so far I haven’t gotten past the burger. No fries here, only chips.

I should also mention that Nick’s is a a cash-only proposition. What can I tell you, it’s a classic small bar.

But you know what? That’s just the way I like it. You’ll find Nick’s Tavern right on Main Street in downtown Lemont. Check it out. And as always, thanks for hanging with me.

Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs

In 2016 astronomical fall began on September 22, with the autumnal equinox, while meteorological fall began, as it does every year, on October 1. In the minds of many, though, the fall season pretty much gets underway the day after Labor Day. When I was a kid, shortly after the mastodons died out, my school years generally began either right before or right after Labor Day weekend, which is probably why to this day my mind turns to fall on that first Tuesday in September of every year, even though the astronomers and meteorologists see otherwise.

As an avid motorcyclist, I see both good news and bad news in the arrival of fall. On one hand, here in the Midwest, the first part of fall offers nearly ideal riding conditions. Temperatures are cooler, but not yet cold, so that one may comfortably wear gear when riding. The countryside gradually becomes painted in fall colors. There’s a sense of abundance in the air as farmers are harvesting crops, wineries are making wine, etc.

On the other hand, it won’t last. I have long likened motorcyclists to bees and wasps. Both become more active in the fall because they can sense that the end is near. Days become shorter. Wet or dry, fallen leaves on the pavement present their own hazards. Bees and wasps really are more prevalent, and they sometimes get sucked behind one’s windshield, into one’s shirt, or up one’s pants leg (don’t ask), where they may become agitated. Whether gradually or suddenly, even the daytime temperatures become less conducive to riding. And then there is the matter of snow and ice.

But as the saying goes, we must make hay while the sun shines and get some riding in while the riding is still good. That’s pretty much what Ann and I have been doing since we got back from our Labor Day weekend run to Dubuque, which I still considered to be a summer trip. There is a direct, bittersweet relationship between the hours of daylight and the duration of our rides together as the fall season plays out. Those autumn rides can be so pleasant, so beautiful, I find myself wishing they didn’t have to end so soon. Inevitably the days and the rides become shorter, but we make the most of what we are given.

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We were blessed with some fantastic weather on September 18, so I ran up to Ann’s place early that morning and, after a bit of breakfast, we headed to Holy Hill, home of The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians. I love this place and I’ve written about it before, right here on the MGD Time blog site. Indeed the very first time I carried Ann on my motorcycle was in the fall of 2014, at Holy Hill.

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My 2014 article as it appeared in Thunder Roads magazine.

She had agreed to meet me there and take some photos for me to use in an article I was writing for the now-defunct Wisconsin and Northern Illinois edition of Thunder Roads magazine. I was nervous as heck about carrying Ann. Lord only knows why. After walking the grounds at Holy Hill, I took her to lunch up the road at The Fox and Hounds—the round trip couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen miles—and Ann, having been a motorcyclist herself, proved to be a most competent pillion passenger. She also took some stunning photos, which the magazine printed with my article. So nervous as I may have been at the onset, by the time I headed for home that afternoon, I was already thinking about how cool it might be to take Ann riding again. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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So it all started at Holy Hill, you see, and it seemed fitting that eventually we would return. There was no magazine article being written this time, no official reason to be there, other than to revisit this beautiful place and enjoy each others company. We had plenty of company this time, as apparently a lot of other people had the same destination in mind on this beautiful Sunday. Once we parked, we did something that I had never done at Holy Hill before, despite having been stopping there periodically for well over thirty years: We went to mass together.

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Doing mass at Holy Hill  together proved to be a pretty cool experience, actually. I came away feeling like maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long. Then we walked the grounds for a while, taking in the majestic views and natural beauty all around us.The last time we visited, we had climbed the scenic tower in one of the twin spires, where both the view and the climb are quite breathtaking. But the tower was closed this time, so we opted to move on and enjoy a late lunch.

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Ann had suggested the lunch stop in advance of our trip, a place called MJ Stevens, located outside of Hartford, along Interstate 41. What a delightful spot! This is a place that Ann’s mother enjoys and now I understand why. The atmosphere is pleasant, the food is very good, and the entire staff seems warm and friendly. Ann and I opted for sandwiches off the menu that day, but from all appearances, the Sunday brunch is also a worthwhile choice. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back or to recommend this establishment to friends.

We rode around for a while after lunch, but the high point of this run had been our time at Holy Hill. I enjoyed going back there and attending mass at the basilica with Ann. She took most of the photos and all of the video clips you see here. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, if not for Ann, I wouldn’t have nearly as much cool stuff to show you from all these excursions.

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Our next run was on the weekend of October 9, down by me in Illinois, and it was a big one: the 30th Anniversary DuKane A.B.A.T.E. Toy and Food Run. Ann had come down last year for the 29th annual event and we had so much fun together, I invited her back. This year was a little different, though, in that Ann played an active role in helping me promote the event. This was my third year assisting the DuKane Chapter with PR and publicity for their flagship charity event, but this year—with no small amount of creative assistance from my dear friend—I was able to do a better job before, during, and after.

Given the hours that would be involved that day, Ann drove down the night before and stayed over with my wife Karen and me. As Karen is not physically able to ride much, we arranged for her to meet us on the event grounds, where the motorcycle parade portion of the Toy and Food Run terminates and where a full day of music, food and fun begins. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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After rising early and going to 7:30 mass at my church, we headed out to Fox River Harley Davidson in St. Charles, a remote registration point for the Toy and Food Run and a darned good one at that. After registering for the run and dropping off our toy and food donations, Ann and I (along with all the other attendees) were treated to a hot breakfast. Then after perusing the dealership and checking out all the bikes parked outside, we assembled for a group ride to Elburn, which was the main staging area for the Toy and Food Run parade.

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There were motorcycles parked everywhere when our group arrived. We were directed to a parking lot about a block away from the pre-run festivities held outside of Knuckleheads Tavern on North Avenue. More and more bikes poured in as we walked the area, listening to live music, greeting people we know, looking at bikes, and otherwise being a part of the scene—just me, Ann, and a couple of thousand casual acquaintances. At the appointed time, everyone returned to their machines and prepared to roll out. When that many motorcycles fire up together, the word “thunder” is a very appropriate term that describes not only the sound, but the vibration that fills the very air around us.

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What a blast. After we rolled onto the grounds of the Batavia VFW, located right on the banks of the Fox River, we were treated to hours of live music, provided by six different bands. As A.B.A.T.E. is a motorcycle rights organization (actually a sizable lobby), there were numerous politicians in attendance, including Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself a motorcyclist and active member of A.B.A.T.E. There were many, many product vendors and food vendors, too. A very touching flag ceremony took place early on. We filled a couple of flatbed semi trailers with toy and food donations that were picked up the same day by numerous local charities.

It felt so great to have been a part of this and we had such a good time again. Believe it or not, Ann and I are already talking about possible promos for next year.

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October 16 started out wet for me, but fortunately not cold. By the time I got to Ann’s place, the rain had moved on. We waited a while for the pavement to dry off, and then took a ride up into the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. At one point during our ride, on a whim, I turned in at a sign I saw for the Ice Age Visitor Center, which turned out to be a nice little find. We took one of the trails and ended up at a scenic vista overlooking some of the prettiest fall color we saw that day. There was also a large observation deck out behind the visitor center itself, but as the sign warned, there were many bees, wasps and hornets nesting and flying about, so we didn’t linger there. When touring on a motorcycle, sometimes the best places are those we find by accident. This was one of those times.

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Our last run of the season, so far, was again rather local. I left home in the dark and ambient temps were still in the 40’s when I arrived at Ann’s. Remember, motorcycling inherently involves its own wind chill factor. I hadn’t opted to wear longies and was rather cold when I arrived. But it warmed up quickly after the sun rose and we did manage to get a nice ride in, albeit a short one. We revisited a place called Nature Hill, that Ann had taken me to see last spring, before the riding season had even gotten underway. We got a good walk in that day and I think I did a little better climbing that hill this time.

I stayed long enough to partake in some crock pot beef stew that Ann had prepared before we headed out that morning. It was delicious! Still, the days have been getting shorter all season long and it was already dark when I headed for home early that evening.

Although we have no more rides scheduled, I doubt very much that we are done for the year, not just yet. Conditions are such that we can no longer plan well in advance, but I assure you that on very short notice, if conditions and schedules permit, Ann and I will ride again.

And of course you’ll read about it here. Ha! Thanks for hanging with me.

Ann and Michael’s Great Labor Day Weekend Adventure (Version 2016)

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This adventure began in the wee hours on the Friday leading into Labor Day weekend. I was up sometime between 3:30 and 4:00 AM, getting myself ready and loading Miss Scarlett, my motorcycle, and I was rolling out of Plainfield shortly after 5:30, hoping to miss at least some of the dreaded Chicagoland morning rush hour traffic, which incidentally lasts about four hours. Despite the relatively early hour, I was stoked. My friend Ann and I were taking a three-day road trip to Dubuque, where we would rendezvous with an unknown number of motorcyclists who attend the Midwest Motorcycle Rally, which occurs in July of each year. This Dubuque meet-up was not a formal event like the rally, but more of a “gathering by invitation” for those rally goers who would rather not wait until next July to get together again. As soon as I received the invite, I had begun pestering Ann about going with me. After all, she had enjoyed the La Crosse rally so much and besides, as I’ve said so often, I am not a good alone person.

By sheer coincidence, before we had even discussed taking this weekend trip, Ann and I  had individually arranged to have that Friday off. So even though the first gathering of our group wasn’t scheduled until 6:30-ish that evening, we were able to take full advantage of what turned out to be a picture perfect day, weather-wise. Which is why this adventure began so early on Friday.

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I rode up to the Oconomowoc area, encountering a few pockets of traffic, one near O’Hare International Airport and the rest in the greater Milwaukee metro, which has been hobbled by road construction for some time. All in all it wasn’t so bad, though. The air was on the cool side for early September, but the sun was shining and the skies were beautiful. Before long I arrived at Ann’s place and began removing my riding gear as my dear friend came out to greet me, as she usually does. We were both grinning from ear to ear, like a couple of kids on Christmas Eve, but as eager as we were to set out, our coffee-drinking adult sides won out and we went in for some hot java first. We sat out on Ann’s balcony, sipping our coffees, updating each other on our respective family lives, and discussing the day’s loose itinerary. I even got a poppy seed muffin out of the deal. When time and weather allow, breakfast on that balcony has become our favorite way to start days like this one. But just because we had all day didn’t mean we wanted to spend it there.

In no time we had Ann’s things stowed away with mine in Miss Scarlett’s hard luggage and were heading out toward Dubuque, Iowa by way of Galena, Illinois. I take no small amount of pleasure in taking Ann places to which she has never been before. In that regard this whole weekend promised to be a virtual jackpot for me, because as far as I could ascertain, my favorite pillion hadn’t been to any of the places we were scheduled to visit, unless you want to count passing through Prairie du Chien on our way home from La Crosse as a visit.

In any case, I have been making trips to historic Galena, Illinois ever since I was seven years old.My eldest sister attended a small liberal arts college in Mt. Carroll and when we went to visit, we would sometimes go to Galena. Since that time, I’ve managed to go back at least every few years, either by auto or motorcycle. (Side note: Shimer College moved out of Mt. Carroll years ago, but the former campus is still there, now home to the Illinois Preservation Studies Center. It’s kind of a neat place to see, so perhaps Ann and I will stop there, briefly, on some future ride.)

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Galena is a great destination in itself, for people of all ages and walks of life. Bikers love this area because Jo Daviess County features some great riding roads, with plenty of hills and scenery that most of Illinois is not know for. They don’t call us flatlanders for nothing, but in this, the northwest corner of the state, they don’t call us flatlanders at all. Ha!

There is enough here to keep history buffs occupied for a while, too, including the home of Ulysses S. Grant, our country’s 18th president  (see granthome.com and www.galenahistory.org). Shoppers and antiquers alike will love all that the downtown area has to offer. Do you like to eat? The restaurants and food shops will keep you busy for some time. Romantic getaway? It’s here. Stuff for seniors? It’s here. Got kids? Galena has toy stores, candy, popcorn and ice cream shops, too.

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The first thing Ann and I did was head over to Durty Gurt’s Burger Joynt for lunch. Some eating establishments come and go in places like Galena, and some places stick around for a while. Durty Gurt’s has been offering decent food,  generous portions, and atmosphere in spades since 2007. I had been there a couple of times and thought Ann might enjoy eating there. She did, although we walked out full almost to the point of being uncomfortable. The portions here are very generous, but the food itself is rather tasty, which makes it easy to just keep right on eating, even when you know you ought to stop. We needed to walk it off, so we spent some time perusing downtown Galena.

We went into a yarn shop Called FiberWild that had a sign by the door proclaiming “You Need Yarn” (Ann is a knitter/crocheter and loves yarn). I applauded Ann for not being shy about going into any store she wanted to see, but much to my amazement, she did not buy anything. Whether this was because the bike was already almost packed to bursting or because of my friend’s iron willpower, I can only speculate. By comparison, at my urging, we stopped in at the Galena Cellars winery shop, tasted a variety of their goods, and walked out with two bottles of wine to enjoy during our stay in Dubuque. Hey, there is always room on board Miss Scarlett for wine.

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Get this: I’ve been going to that town for almost 50 years now, and in all those years, I have never taken the time to check out the Galena River that flows through it, or this picturesque little place called Grant Park, which lies just across the river from downtown Galena. Until now. Besides motorcycle touring, Ann and I both enjoy taking long walks—not rugged hiking, but nice walks of say one to five miles—so on that Friday, both of us walked across the foot bridge at the end of Green Street and checked out Grant Park for the first time. What a lovely municipal park this is, with many benches, old-fashioned street lamps, a gazebo, a pavilion, a really old-looking fountain, and people. Real people, like school kids, running about hooting and hollering, and couples young and old, strolling the park or sitting together watching the river flow. In the middle of this park is a statue of Grant. At Ann’s urging, I did my best to imitate his stance, but I don’t know how well I did.

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After a decent amount of walking, and with our wine selection safely stowed, we headed off to Dubuque, a mere 20–25 minute ride via US Highway 20, which becomes Dodge Street after you cross the mighty Mississippi and come into town. That’s where our group’s hotel, Days Inn Dubuque, is located. And unfortunately this is where the only dark cloud cast its shadow over our otherwise bright and cheerful weekend.

Without dwelling on the negative, let me summarize it thusly. About a month prior to our stay, I made one reservation for two king rooms at this inn via Booking.com. I added a request that the rooms be close together and corresponded directly with the hotel (I still have the emails) regarding this request. When we arrived,  the desk help claimed they received reservations from Booking.com for one king room and one room with two double beds. That’s one count of bullshit.

With regard to my (documented) request that the rooms be together,  the desk help would not even acknowledge receiving my request and said our rooms were nowhere near each other. They were at opposite ends of a three-building complex. Neither Ann nor I was okay with that arrangement, if only for safety reasons. So in order to get two rooms anywhere near each other, we had to agree to two rooms with two double beds each. Not the end of the world, but not what I reserved over a month prior. That’s two counts of bullshit.

The only available rooms were smoking rooms—that’s not the hotel’s fault because such was the case when I made my reservation—but my room was so bad, it smelled like someone had just put out their cigarette, and that odor never got better, for three days and two nights.

I’d like to say that’s the end of it, but the bullshit went on. The outdoor pool was cold and full of insects—mostly dead, but not all of them—and there was this odd little spot in the pool where mini/micro bubbles continuously rose to the surface for no apparent reason. We swam once; that was enough. I can’t comment for Ann, but in my room, both of my mattresses were worn out. Meanwhile in Ann’s room, one corner up by the ceiling had substantial mold growing on it. Presumably because this was Labor Day weekend, the hotel was booked solid; and it had been too late in the day when we arrived to cancel anything, which meant our essential choices were two: take it or leave it. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

But Ann and I are both resilient types and made the best of a bad situation, essentially laughing it off, saying nothing of consequence to the others in our group, and making the most of an otherwise fantastic weekend. Besides, it sounds worse than it was. On a bright note, one day after I returned home, I received the usual survey invitation from my friends at Booking.com, asking me to rate my recent stay at the Days Inn Dubuque. I gave a very thorough review, with a chaser email sent directly to my friends at Booking.com, and I’m sure as soon as the appropriate party’s computer quits smouldering, I’ll hear something back. But I digress.

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On the evening of Friday, September 2, our merry band of travelers convened in the hotel bar and made plans to go out for supper. There being no substitute for local knowledge, we took the advice of some locals and went downtown to the Mason Dixon Saloon, which is reputed to have good barbecue. I am pleased to report that their reputation is duly earned. I ordered a half rack of ribs, while Ann ordered grilled shrimp. We shared and for the second time in one day, ate more than our fill. The ribs were served dry-rubbed, with a sweet sauce on the side. They had the right texture and decent flavor, too. The shrimp rested in a seasoned garlicky buttery coating, were cooked correctly and were also very flavorful. This proved to be a good start to our weekend.

After supper, some of the group returned to the hotel bar, some turned in, and some opted to open a bottle of Galena Cellars wine and toast the weekend before saying goodnight. You know, thirty-some years ago, I’d have stayed out until the last person had had enough and then laughed as I walked away, still vertical. Today I possess neither the stamina nor the need to prove my drinking prowess. I’m either becoming old or becoming more careful; maybe a little of both.

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Saturday was to be a full day of  motorcycle touring for our group and it did not disappoint. After a free continental (read: no meat) breakfast at the hotel, we readied up and gathered in front of the lobby for a day of fun and adventure that would take us to destinations in Iowa and Illinois. Our first stop would be the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa. I enjoy visiting this museum, which features quite a collection of interesting, unusual, and/or historically significant pieces, in addition to changing exhibits that give visitors a reason to return.

Certain enthusiasts will spend hours here, going over every detail of a particular genre or brand or even a single machine, while others take a more casual approach and simply peruse the exhibits, spending a little more time on items of particular interest. Ann and I both fall into the latter category. I would occasionally stop and tell her what I knew about a particular item and she would do likewise, often pointing out things that I would have otherwise missed. I particularly enjoyed the small Evel Knievel exhibit, which included one of his Harley-Davidson XR750 motorcycles, a couple of his leather jumpsuits, and a rather nasty-looking set of his x-rays that I had never noticed before. And then of course there is the Roadog, a unique custom motorcycle built by the late William “Wild Bill” Gelbke, an engineer from Wisconsin. This machine, like its designer, is the stuff of legends, utilizing a Chevy engine and a Powerglide transmission, among other things. It’s big, really big.

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Next we went down the road to J&P Cycles, a large mail order/internet retailer of motorcycle parts, accessories, apparel and novelties. The company was founded by John and Jill Parham in 1979. John is also one of the founders of the museum from which we had just come. I don’t know that either of us was expecting to buy anything—we had merely intended to browse the huge retail center—but we both walked out with some new headwear. Ann found a headband that she really liked and also bought me this really neat “COOLMAX” skullcap-like thing that is easy to don and remove, but manages to stay put, even at highway speeds. I was skeptical when she first pointed it out in the store and I remarked, “it looks like underwear for my head,” but she persisted and bought the cap for me. I was grateful for the gift and within minutes was loving the thing, which can also be worn as a cooling liner inside of a helmet.

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From Anamosa, Iowa we headed east on Iowa 64 toward the Mississippi River, where about 70 miles later, we crossed over into Savanna, Illinois. Sometimes it seems as though every weekend in the river town of Savanna, during riding season, is like a mini rally of sorts, with a constant parade of motorcycles coming, going, and of course, stopping. There are several bars in downtown Savanna that cater to the two-wheel crowd, including one called the Iron Horse Social Club, which is an arch rival to the establishment we were about to visit. I have never been there, but we rode past it and there were a lot of bikes parked in the vicinity of that place.

Just on the other side of town, on Illinois 84, we arrived at Poopy’s, which bills itself as Illinois’ biggest biker destination. This place is impressive. Besides the Pub n’ Grub, where the bar stools are made with padded toilet seats and references to excrement run wild on the menu, there is a souvenir and apparel shop (where you will find more crude references), multiple bars indoors and out, live entertainment outside, cabin rentals, and new this year, the Squirrel’s Nest, a covered bar up on their catwalk outside. Poopy’s used to have a tattoo parlor on the premises, but that had moved up the road since my last visit. I’m not sure why. In any case, it’s quite a biker destination and I had the privilege of taking Ann there for her very first time—but maybe not the last. Ha!

Poopy’s was to have been our lunch stop, and it was, but it was mid afternoon by the time we arrived, so this became our late lunch stop. And since Poopy’s serves up good food in generous portions, like most popular biker stops, we effectively did away with the need to go out for supper that night, too.

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A live band began performing while we waited for our food and the place began to take on a more festive atmosphere as people continued to arrive and the rumbling thunder of bike engines never died down. This is the Poopy’s experience.

After we had eaten our fill and bought our souvenirs, we found our way to US Highway 20 and followed it north and west, past Galena, over the Mississippi and back into Dubuque. But rather than return to our hotel, we made our way into the city and up the bluff upon which is built, to check out the Fenelon Place Elevator, a fairly short and very steep scenic railway of sorts.

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As I understand it this elevator was put in by a banker who worked in town and lived up on the bluff above, so that he would have a quicker way to go home at noontime for dinner and a nap. The only other time I had been there, we started our tour at the bottom, but this time we started at the top of the bluff. From there you can see parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. On a picture perfect day like ours, the view was breathtaking.

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The cars are pretty small, so we had to descend in two groups. Ann and I were in the second group. The ride is relatively slow and smooth, but the stop at the bottom is somewhat abrupt, so riders are warned to remain seated until they hit bottom—literally. Once at the bottom, we got out, walked around, took more photos of the elevator, and found a shop that sold ice cream, candy, popcorn, and toys. Ann and I were still pretty full from our feast at Poopy’s, but we managed to share a cup of peanut-butter-and-chocolate-laced ice cream. Hey, it’s not like we were the only ones.

A short while later, we ascended the bluff, got back on our bikes and rode back down to our hotel, where an overwhelming majority of the group voted “no” on going out to eat again and instead we opted to hang out in the hotel bar, where a folk music duet was performing and the drink prices were on par with those of any normal bar, as opposed to a hotel lounge. As we all sat there, talking, laughing, and sipping our various libations, I looked around at the bar, the adjacent breakfast eating area, which had surely been a full service restaurant at one time, the patio and circular outdoor fireplace, and the decent-sized outdoor swimming pool. I imagine this was once a pretty cool place to stay, perhaps back in the late 1970’s or early 80’s. That wasn’t too hard to visualize, because I was certain we were looking at some of the original furnishings.

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Despite my opinions about the hotel, it still felt like Sunday morning had come all too soon. I didn’t want to leave yet; we were having too much fun! Part of the group was staying through Monday morning, but Ann and I had decided in advance to go home Sunday. We both had things to do before returning to (ugh) work on Tuesday and besides, we each had our respective families and pets waiting for us at home.

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Before heading for home, though, we followed our group over the river and up into Wisconsin, where we had planned to stop for lunch in Prairie du Chien. From that point, several of us would be peeling off and heading our separate ways. The weather was beautiful, again, and the ride to Prairie du Chien was fabulous. Besides, I was only too glad to have a few more hours of “we’re not going home yet” time with this awesome group of people.

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Unfortunately every other biker for miles around, and quite a few non-bikers as well, had the same lunch idea in mind. We walked to four different places and they all had long waiting lists. Ann even tried smooth-talking a cigar store Indian posted outside of one such establishment, to no avail. So while the rest of the group toyed with the idea of crossing back into Iowa and looking for a lunch stop in that direction, Ann and I decided it was time to head east. So we bid our goodbyes and peeled off from the group.

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We found our way to Wisconsin 60, a most excellent road, and then onto Wisconsin 19 by way of US 12. Whenever we would enter a town and slow down enough to hear each other easily, Ann and I would talk about things, clarify our route, or just share a laugh together. After a quick snack and caffeine stop in Boscobel, we had decided to enjoy a late lunch in Watertown, at  a place Ann had wanted me to try, before getting her home. But as luck would have it, that establishment was closed when we got there. So we continued on to an alternate restaurant and found it to be closed as well. Ann suggested one more place to try before we headed out of our way in search of decent food—the Ixonia Pub. Lo and behold, the place was open! And so we went inside to share one last meal before I dropped Ann off.

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You know what? It wasn’t bad at all. The place was clean, the staff was friendly, the beer was cold and the food was quite good. Ann ordered a Pub Wrap with a side of fried curds and I ordered the Boss Hog, a burger topped with ham, bacon, cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce, with a side of crinkle cut fries. We shared our sides along with each others company and had a nice meal together.

We got to Ann’s place and unloaded her things. I lingered for a short while, trying to rest a bit before taking my long, lonely ride home. I don’t like goodbyes. I don’t like long, lonely rides, either. I usually counteract my post-road-trip letdown by looking ahead to the next time—and that’s pretty much what I did, all the way home to Plainfield. My Sunday night ride home was blissfully uneventful, mainly because the big going home traffic jams were still 24 hours off. I no longer recall exactly when I pulled in, but it was late.

Time and again Ann and I found ourselves thanking each other for the fantastic weekend we’d shared. It really had been great. Less than 24 hours after I got home, I was sending Facebook friend requests out to the folks in the group who were on Facebook but with whom I had not yet connected, while Ann uploaded many photos and a few awesome videos that she had shot, and began producing the most lovely slide show video as a permanent reminder of the wonderful time we’d shared. Ann is a decent photographer in her own right, with a creative eye for doing things like this video. She is also my most excellent riding companion and a very dear friend. I look forward to our next outing.

Thanks for hanging with me.

History, Memories and a Gastronomic Adventure

My friend Ann and I love riding together and cooking together. When we try to combine the two, unless the ride or the meal is particularly small, it makes for a long day—albeit a fantastic day. Well, you’ll see what I mean.

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As has often been the case lately, we were blessed with nearly perfect summer weather for our planned outing. Neither too warm, nor too cold, low humidity, and zero chance of precipitation from my little corner of the world to Ann’s. I was up and out early enough to pick up my favorite passenger/photographer during the eight-o’clock hour. She in turn favored me with freshly brewed coffee and a plate of fresh fruit, meats and cheeses (not a bad spread by any standards—and Ann is not even 1% Italian, so go figure). We sat out on her balcony, chaperoned by her feline bodyguards, Mona and Atlas, and planned our day. I probably ate more than I should have, but the food was really good.

Minutes later we were rolling across the heartland. I have no photos to offer from the ride itself, which was quite pleasant. Some of the greatest features Wisconsin has to offer lie not in her tourist attractions, which are in and of themselves formidable, but in her natural features, even along “ordinary” roads. Ann and I rode along Wisconsin Highways 83 and 60, plus a few lettered (i.e. county) roads in-between, and the scenery was beautiful. If you draw a rectangle around an area roughly from Oconomowoc to Cedarburg, you are capturing a portion of the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin. You don’t even have to be on the official Scenic Drive to appreciate the rolling hills and scenic views to be had on a ribbon of two-lane blacktop coursing through the area farmlands.

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Before we rolled into “downtown” Cedarburg, we headed north along Covered Bridge Road until we arrived at our first stop, Covered Bridge Park, home of the last covered bridge in Wisconsin. What a beautiful little spot! Ann and i spent some time walking the park, examining the bridge itself, and marveling at the fact that there were so relatively few people there on this beautiful Sunday. What I had expected to be nothing more than a token stop had turned out to be a joyful discovery. When in Cedarburg, make a point of checking this place out. You may wish to bring a picnic lunch along, as a number of tables dot the park, which runs along both sides of the creek there.

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From there we motored down Washington Avenue into downtown Cedarburg. I’ve been coming to this town since my college days (shortly after the earth cooled), when my then-girlfriend (now wife of 30+ years) introduced me to this historic town filled with shops and galleries. Because, as Ann likes to kid me, I always want our outings to be perfect, I had done a little research and found many good things said about The Stilt House, a gastro bar specializing in small plates, craft beers, and wine—it says so, right on their sign. It was a pleasant enough little place, with (are your ready?) stilted tables and stools. From our perch near one of the windows, Ann and I enjoyed a couple of craft beers and a relatively light lunch. The beers were good, the food was well-prepared, and the waitstaff went out of their way to make us feel at home. I would go back there.

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We walked a few more shops. Not counting the newly discovered Covered Bridge Park, my favorite place to visit in Cedarburg is still the old woolen mill, which houses the shops of the Cedar Creek Settlement. This includes the Cedar Creek Winery, now owned by Wollersheim (my favorite winery in all of Wisconsin). That was not the case when I first started visiting there. Of course Ann and I had to stop in and sample a few wines. We both liked the Marquette red (we both attended Marquette University), made with Wisconsin-grown grapes. If you enjoy a medium-bodied, dry red, check this one out. I appreciated the pleasant nose and good flavor.

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Not long after that, we headed back to Ann’s home, where we had planned on making ourselves a little supper before I headed on to my own home. In preparation for this part of our day, I had brought up a sizeable bag of fresh tomatoes, some fresh basil that I had picked from my yard that morning, some fresh mozzarella cheese from Caputo’s, a loaf of ciabatta bread, and a box of angel hair pasta. Ann supplied everything else we needed.

Ann and I were cracking jokes, trading barbs and laughing ourselves silly as we prepared our meal. She and I cut up many tomatoes and chopped a fair amount of garlic as well, in preparation for the two dishes we had set out to make—a Caprese variation on traditional garlic bread and our own interpretation of Shrimp Fra Diavolo.

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Without getting into the entire play-by-play (that’s what my upcoming book is for), suffice it to say that Ann’s entire home was smelling quite fabulous almost as soon as we got started. Caprese garlic bread starts out much like any other garlic bread—with bread, butter and garlic—but then add slices of fresh mozzarella and tuck that under a broiler until the cheese melts and the edges begin to brown. To that we added slices of fresh tomato, shredded fresh basil, and a reduction of balsamic vinegar. Neither of us had created such a reduction before, but we were very pleased with the results.

Our version of Shrimp Fra Diavolo involved a fresco sauce, made from all the tomatoes Ann and I had chopped into little pieces. From this we created an arrabiata sauce, which relies heavily on the use of garlic, onion and cayenne pepper to produce the desired result. Ours was not so spicy up front, but produced a pleasant flavor and a nice after-burn. The shrimp itself was sautéed in olive oil with garlic, pepper and salt added. Right before removing the shrimp, we deglazed the pan with some Pinot Grigio.

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The appetizer could very well have been a meal in itself (thanks, Ma, you trained me well), and the main dish was to die for. We ate and drank our fill in earnest, congratulating each other on how well this meal had turned out.

When it was all over, I helped Ann clean things up and then prepared for my run home. She seemed concerned—no, she WAS concerned—because I had already begun showing signs of fatigue. She had been clearly worried when I took off, and remained worried until I had arrived home safe. Me, I was touched by the concern she had shown for me as I motored home that night. As soon as I had arrived home safely, I messaged Ann to that effect.

After that, I slept. And soon after I had slept, I began planning our next outing. Why? Because I live to do exactly that, and I believe Ann also looks forward to our next outiing. Until next time… Thanks for hanging with me.

Moments Captured

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My first time was June 5, 2005. It was a Sunday. I had recently purchased a Honda ST1300 sport touring rig—my second-ever bike and the first one I’d bought new—and had taken it up to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin to see the AMA Superbike races. My wife and two then-small children had come up in the family minivan for the weekend. We had a great time together, but when Sunday came, I had in mind to linger a bit while they took the fast way home.

After having eaten a terrific breakfast at Schreiner’s Restaurant, which is somewhat of an institution in Fond du Lac, I kissed my family goodbye and they headed west to the Interstate as I headed east, to a county road that would take me through the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

Despite having been on a new motorcycle, bought less than a month earlier, with which I was less than 100% at ease, I had so much fun running the Scenic roads of the Northern Unit, I came very close to turning around and running the exact same roads a second time.

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At some point during my ride, I’d noticed a turn-off to some sort of local office/station. There wasn’t much there, as the office itself was closed Sundays and there were precious few, if any, people at this particular time and place. The quiet solitude was rather soothing. After walking around a bit, I pulled my motorcycle around to this spot in front of a sign intended to guide folks to a local trail head and some restrooms.I took a photo and moved on.

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In the years that followed, I stopped a few more times, occasionally retaking the same photo, just for fun. Apparently i did not take one there with my ’07 silver ST1300, but I’ll never forget stopping there with it on a cool, gloomy, drizzly Sunday. My son was riding along on his first motorcycle, a ’94 Kawasaki Vulcan 500. It had been his first overnighter on his own bike and having been just a little ill-prepared for what Mother Nature dished out to us that weekend, he was freezing. Another friend and frequent riding companion, himself a seasoned motorcycle traveler, was with us.

Leading our little group along a scenic stretch of Highway 67, I turned off at the same spot and once we had come to a stop in the little parking lot, my son glanced around and inquired, “Why the heck are we stopping here?”

“I’ve been here before,” was the only explanation I could come up with. My shivering son looked at me as if he suddenly realized that his father had just lost the last of his marbles. I looked back at him and smiled. “Someday you’ll get it.” Then I added, “Now put your rain gear on. It’ll block the cold air and keep you warmer for the rest of our ride.” He did so and discovered that his old man could be right about some things.

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Our trips to the AMA races became a regular thing for John and me, and every so often, we would take that same road and stop in that same little clearing.The only thing different was that after that, my son got it. He never questioned that stop again. He even took the photo a couple of times, so that I could be in it with my bike.

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This past June we attended the AMA races again, just John and me, and on our way home,via the scenic route, we pulled into that place once again. John was grinning from ear to ear as I positioned my bike in front of the wooden sign and inquired, “Would you do the honors, please?” He was only too happy to oblige because he gets it now. This photo moment has become a thing of mine, just as these annual trips to Fond du Lac and Road America have become our thing.

As I look at these photos, I see that the trail head sign has changed colors over the years, as has my hair. Thanks for hanging with me.

 

I Was Once Young

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Today I attended the wake of a man who died far too young. I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of that, but such events always give me reasons to pause and reflect on my own life. And so I offer you the following thoughts, in no particular order. For whatever it’s worth… 

  • I hate wakes. I attend them because it’s the right thing to do. I pay my respect to both the deceased and to those left behind. But  I hate these things! I promise you, if I had any say in the matter, I would not attend my own. And if I had to be there, I’d make sure there was entertainment, and maybe even an open bar. I thought it might be cool to make a video in preparation for this eventuality. Can’t you just see it?
    “Hi! I’m Michael D’Aversa. If you’re watching this video, I’m dead!”
  • The first wake I ever attended was for an 8th grade classmate of mine who succomed to a brain tumor back in 1975. He was a good guy and an altar boy. I still think about him to this day, as well as other people who died before me and in each case, for the life of me, I cannot tell you why they’re gone and I’m still here. 
  • I am going to die, eventually. I don’t know when and I don’t know why. But understand this, if you can: When I die, go ahead and cry about it; but then pick yourself up. In the end, I don’t want you to think about how I died, but how I lived. 
  • If I die in a firey motorcycle crash, know that I died while doing something I loved. That’s not a tragedy. A tragedy would be for me to suffer a fatal stroke while seated at a desk, sruggling to find a way to save a few cents off the cost of a given thing. 

I know, strange odds and ends. Thanks for hanging with me.

Travel: My Therapy, My Drug

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The map you see above, encompassing parts of Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, represents my intended playground for the next couple of months, based on the road trips that I have planned. Some are day trips; some are overnighters. Most, but not all, involve my motorcycle. This has gotten me to thinking, once again, about my love affair with traveling and the open road.

Whether I look forward or back, I spend a lot of time thinking about my travels. Over the years, I have been on some fantastic journeys—some of them alone, but most of them with other people, and nearly always with people who matter to me. There is a relationship at work there, between me and one of the things I love to do most, and between me and those who matter most to me. Is it so surprising that I endeavor to weave these together?

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Family… Friends… Loved ones, all… I strive to share with them the things that matter to me most, just as they themselves matter to me. Both of my kids have had a taste of my wanderlust and each now develops their own in their respective ways. My wife, she had it at least as bad as me before we even met. So in some ways, our kids never had a chance. Ha!

Yes, there is an element to this that is all my own, even when I have others with me. I’ve said many times that I do not consider myself to be a good “alone” person. Sure, it’s beneficial at times, even necessary, but I just don’t care for it. I love sharing experiences. So even shen I take the ocassional solo trip, I inevitably find myself looking for things to share on future journeys.

I have made new friends in the course of my travels, and I have also drawn old friends into my wanderlust experience. Surely some folks look at all this and wonder whether I’ve gone off the reservation, taken leave of my senses, etc. And my answer to them will always be, emphatically, yes! This is who I am. This is what I do. And if you want to get a taste of something really neat, follow me just once.

The open road is my therapy; the journey is my drug. Those I take along for the ride are the ones who matter most to me. Thanks for hanging with me.

Tales from the Dockside

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Before I was a biker, I was a boater. Before I became a boater, I was just a guy who wanted a boat. But all that changed on July 4, 1990 when I was thrust into the world of recreational boating by the makers of Royal Crown Cola. Let me tell you about that.

It had been a typical 4th of July holiday in Bensenville, where my wife and I lived at the time. I had been grilling outside and drinking copious amounts of Diet RC Cola. In fact I had been drinking cans of Diet RC for weeks, because of a contest they had been running at the time. Specially marked cases of the product had been proclaiming, “Win A Boat Instantly!”

So there I was, doing some dishes in my kitchen. I had just drained another can of Diet RC and was tossing my can into the trash when I remembered the contest. I literally stopped in mid-toss, drew my hand back away from the trash bin, brought the empty can up to my right eye, and peered inside to see the winning code printed across the bottom.

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I put the can down and stared straight ahead, stunned into disbelief. After taking a breath or two, I put the empty can back up to my right eye and looked inside again.

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Now my heart was racing. I had just come that close to throwing a 17-foot Bayliner into the kitchen trash bin. But I hadn’t thrown it out. There I stood, alone in my kitchen, still just a little bit dumbfounded by the whole thing as I stared at the winning can in my hand. I had to tell Karen. I wanted to call out to her so eloquently, “My dear, come see what I have here,” but instead I began bellowing at the top of my lungs, “Boat!” That wasn’t what I’d meant to say or how I’d meant to say it, but that’s all that came out, again and again. “Boat! Boat!”

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My poor wife came scrambling into the kitchen at top speed, probably expecting to find that an ocean liner had somehow crashed into our heavily wooded back yard. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

I still couldn’t say any multisyllabic words, so I held the can out to her and said, “Look!”

Karen looked at me as one might look at a deranged lunatic wielding a bloody machete. Ever so tentatively, she reached out, accepted the empty can, and held it up to one eye. Her other eye popped open when she realized what she was seeing. Then seized by the same excitement, she began to yell at the top of her lungs, “Boat! Boat!” I’m sure we sounded like a couple of overgrown Muppets on Sesame Street. Eventually we regained the gift of human speech, but that’s pretty much how it started.

Months later, we took possession of the craft. While at the dealership, no fewer than three people jokingly cautioned us about remembering to install the boat’s drain plug. First there was the business manager, who collected the sales tax for which we were responsible, executed various forms, and otherwise gave us legal possession of our new boat. “Here’s all your documentation, here are your two keys… oh, and here is your drain plug.” She handed over a plastic bag with the little brass plug inside. “Don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!”

scan0004Then there was the young man who took us up on the boat to give a crash course in what and where everything was. The last thing he said was, “Did they give you the drain plug?” I nodded. “Good! Well, don’t forget to put it in. Ha!”

Finally there was the guy who helped me hitch the trailer to the back of our tow vehicle, a 1980 AMC Eagle (we were people of simple means back then, as we pretty much are now). As I got into the car, he called out after me, “Hey, you know the drain plug is out. Did they…” I held up the little plastic bag and waved it back and forth. “Ah, good! Now don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!” I shook my head, smiling. Don’t forget to put the drain plug in… What kind of an idiot did they take me for, anyway?

I’ll never forget the first time we took that boat out. We had hauled the boat up to my in-laws’ place in Kenosha. Yes, it was a bit of a drive from our home, but they lived a lot closer to water than we did and had ample space in which to store the boat and trailer, when we weren’t using it—which turned out to be most of the time. I still remember what great pains we had taken to ensure that we had everything before leaving Bensenville. We had picked up a lot of essential equipment in preparation for our maiden voyage: PFD’s, dock lines, anchor and rode, a chart of Lake Michigan, 2-way marine radio, air horn, first aid kit, and on and on and on. Then there were the few things that had come with the boat, like the ignition key, hitch lock key, operating manual, and—oh, yes—the drain plug, which I stuffed down into my right front jeans pocket, so as not to leave it behind.

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A couple of hours later, we were at Kenosha Harbor, preparing to launch our Sweet 17 for the first time. Karen and I were both a little nervous, having never launched a boat before, but we had gone over the process many times on our way up from Illinois and worked as a team to ensure a smooth execution on the ramp. Right.

I was at the wheel, trying very hard to look cool as I backed the trailer into position on the ramp. Karen stood on the dock, signaling and calling out helpful directions. “A little left… A little more.. Straighten out… Go right… No, right… No, your other right… Wait! Okay, pull forward and straighten out.” You get the idea.

We were finally lined up relatively straight on the ramp. I set the car’s parking brake and got out so that the two of us could make ready. We removed all the tie downs, fastened the dock lines and fenders, and unhooked the bow eye safety chain. Karen took the dock lines into her hands and stepped out onto the dock as I got back into the car and began backing down the ramp. Slowly, slowly, slowly I went until the boat floated free and Karen drew the lines in. She would stay with the boat at the dock while I went and parked the tow vehicle. That hadn’t been so bad! I felt proud as I drove away and up toward the parking lot.

I pulled into an open parking space, shut off the car and got out. Being the conscientious sort, the last thing I did before shutting the car door was to feel my right pocket for the car keys. I slapped my hand down against my right leg… and felt that little brass drain plug.

Dale Earnhardt would have been proud to see how fast I sent that car and trailer across the parking lot and down the hill, back toward the launch ramps. As I barreled down the hill, I could see Karen waving frantically and pulling on the dock lines for all she was worth as the back end of the boat sank lower and lower into the water. She didn’t even have to direct me as I backed down the ramp—not that she could have, anyway.

I put the back end of the trailer as far into the water as I dared to, set the parking brake, and flew onto the deck to help my wife draw the boat forward, its bow now pointing up toward the top of the ramp as­ though to say, “Get me up there now!” It took some doing to winch the boat onto the trailer, but we got it done. Then, with the bow eye chain safely in place, I hauled my boat, trailer, and quite a few gallons of Kenosha harbor up to the top of the ramp, where we let the incline and gravity help drain the water out.

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While we were standing there, another couple pulled in on the opposite side of the same dock. The man hopped onto the dock and began walking up toward the parking area, to retrieve his tow vehicle and trailer. He paused as he passed us, glanced at the water streaming out the back of the Sweet 17 and deduced, “Forgot to put the drain plug in, eh?” His tone was not the least bit unkind as he said this. Rather, he just looked at me knowingly and nodded, his gray hairs catching the sunlight as he did so. I felt a little better after that.

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We did get out on Lake Michigan, once we had gotten everything relatively dried off, and had a wonderful time out on the water. I felt rather skipper-like as we skimmed the waves, waving at other boaters and observing people on shore as they watched us passing by. Gulls flew overhead. The sun shined down upon us. Despite a rather challenging start, it turned out to be a good day.

mason-awardIn the months and years that passed, I made a point of furthering my boating knowledge. I took a safe boating class offered by the United States Power Squadrons, then went on to join the Chicago Power Squadron, became instructor qualified and began teaching sessions of the course myself. One year I even won an award for my teaching efforts. My students always appreciated the stories I offered as real-world examples of certain principles they were trying to learn, but my drain plug story always got the biggest laughs.

Until next time…

Close Encounters of the Thanksgiving Kind

roast-turkey-1566802-639x479   My memories of Thanksgiving are not exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell illustrations. Oh, there have been plenty of fond memories, just not your typical textbook Americana vignettes. For one thing, I didn’t grow up in a traditional American household. My mother and father were Italian immigrants, as was the overwhelming majority of my cousins. I was born here, but my first words were probably spoken with an Italian accent.

how-to-make-italian-food-2-1566265-1280x960The traditional American Thanksgiving dinner consists of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and other assorted goodies. My Thanksgiving dinners came with most of that, plus a steaming bowl of homemade pasta smothered in homemade tomato sauce and a huge platter of meat that had spent hours simmering in that sauce – things like homemade meatballs, braciole and salsiccia (aka fresh Italian sausage). There was always homemade wine and homemade bread on our dinner table. The insalata – a tossed salad dressed with vinegar and oil, plus a small plate of olives on the side, in case anybody wanted some – came after the main course and before the dessert, which may have included pumpkin pie, raisin pie (my father’s favorite), biscotti, and who knows what else.

On any Sunday or holiday, my mother would get up around 5:30 and start preparing dinner, which we ate at noon, or shortly thereafter. By 9:00 AM, if you walked anywhere near my mother’s kitchen, the aromas alone could cause you to gain two pounds. And if she was expecting ten people for dinner that day, my mother cooked for twenty. That woman would rather have died than see us run out of food. My father used to say, “If you leave my table hungry, you’re a damn fool.”

olivesWhen I was a child, back in the 1960’s, there were still a good number of live poultry shops in the Chicago area. And since my grandfather, who briefly shared ownership of a small restaurant, refused to eat any bird we hadn’t killed ourselves, the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving dinner was usually still walking during the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. I still recall a particularly traumatic experience I had one Wednesday afternoon prior to Thanksgiving, when I ran down to the basement of our Blue Island home, probably looking for my father, and came face-to-face with a tom turkey that was every bit as tall as I was. Maybe taller. We both stood there for a moment, staring at each other in the dim light of what was remaining daylight filtered through a small basement window above our heads.Turkey

The turkey said nothing. I turned and bolted back up the basement stairs, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Mmmmaaaaaaaa!” In the decades that followed, for as long as that house remained in the family, I always approached the basement with caution.

As time went on, it became apparent that nobody in our family cared all that much for leftover turkey. So by the mid 1970’s my mother had discovered the perfect solution to this: She stopped making turkey for Thanksgiving and baked a ham instead. This went on for years until 1986, the first year my new bride and I had Thanksgiving dinner at my folks’ house. A few weeks before, my mother turned to my wife and asked, “Karen, what would you like to have for Thanksgiving dinner?” Ma was just was trying to be accommodating to her new daughter-in-law. And in a similar spirit, not wanting her mother-in-law to go out of her way, my new wife responded, “Oh, a turkey would be fine.”

We had a huge turkey that Thanksgiving, plus all the other stuff – even a small ham. When Karen found out, after the fact, that my mother hadn’t cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving in years, but in fact had prepared that trophy bird just to please her, she seemed irritated with me for some reason. “I’m gonna’ kill you,” she hissed at me as I drove us home. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“But dear, had I done that, you would have given an answer to please Ma, when all she wanted to do was please you. See?”

Let me tell you, my wife may have been small, but she could sure pack a punch.

I’ll never forget the first time my wife baked a big, beautiful ham for dinner. Within 30 minutes, the whole house was filled with this burning chemical stench. It seems my bride had removed the outer plastic wrapper without realizing there had been a second layer of plastic beneath it. I came running into the kitchen just as she was removing our slightly charred, plastic-glazed dinner from the oven.

I tried to lighten up the situation by exclaiming, “Oh, look, a laminated ham!” Man, that woman can really swat when she wants to.

So yeah, our Thanksgiving gatherings may sometimes be more suitable for a slapstick comedy that the cover of Life magazine, but they are no less memorable. And it’s still very much about family for us. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Brothers. Sisters. And always, always children. These have surrounded me on various major holidays throughout the years – and there have been a lot of them now.

One last thought: Traveling has become a little easier for me over the years. When I first got married, starting the Thanksgiving holiday with a full tank of gas was very important, because even the local gas stations were closed on major holidays. I can only speculate that this is because, being people, retailers back then had their own families with whom to spend their holidays – and hearts that made them want to do nothing less. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that again.

To all of my readers, old and new, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

A Matter of Life, Death, and Motorcycles: A Brief Glimpse into How I Got This Way

StevenHis grave is tucked away in a far corner of St. Benedict Cemetery in Crestwood, Illinois, not far from Blue Island, where I was born and raised. It wasn’t easy to find, but from all appearances, it hasn’t been neglected, either. Several youth-oriented Christmas decorations were left near his headstone the last time I stopped there, presumably by his mother (his father’s grave is now beside his) or perhaps his siblings. Regardless, the love and affection for this boy has withstood the decades.

His name was Steven and he died in 1975, exactly one month before his 14th birthday. Also just a few months before he and I were to graduate from the eighth grade. Steven and I had pretty much come through grade school together. I remember one time, when we were in sixth grade, he came from out of nowhere when some other kid had thrown a wild punch at me for no apparent reason – he was showing off his kung fu prowess or some stupid thing like that – and Steven basically came between us, asked the kid what he thought he was doing, and then proceeded to stare him down until he slunk back into the woodwork. Why had he done that? I don’t know for sure. I think I might have gotten him out of trouble once and he was repaying the favor. In any case, I appreciated what Steven did and still remember his gesture of friendship to this day.

My classmate died from what we refer to today as a pediatric brain tumor. A brain tumor diagnosis in 1975 may as well have been a death sentence. I do not recall all of the details, but I know that Steven’s troubles seemed to have come from out of nowhere, very quickly. I know that surgery was performed and I know my classmate did not survive. I’m not sure I believed the news at first, but was soon to be convinced.

His was the first wake I had ever attended, the first dead body I had ever seen in person. There Steven lay, a classmate the same age as me, whom I had known for about eight years and who by all rights should have still had an entire lifetime ahead of him. The top of his head was wrapped in a flesh-colored bandage, where his long, straight, black hair should have been. His skin had this unnatural pink hue to it, instead of the usual brown. He was dressed in his altar boy garments. None of this had a calming effect on me in the least. That kid showed up in my dreams for weeks afterward.

That was an ending, a rather unpleasant one, too. Forty years have gone by since then, but I have never forgotten about Steven. Through the decades, especially during some of the lower points in my life, I have found myself wondering why he was taken from us at such a young age and why I was left to continue on. The answer to that question has not yet been fully revealed to me.

Now there is no simple way for me to transition smoothly from what I’ve just told you to what comes next, but if you’ll just be patient and walk with me a bit, I promise you will see the connection. For the record, I went on to high school, then college; I graduated, got a job, got married, started a family, and so forth. Somewhere along the line, I took a fancy to writing. All of this is well and good, but there is a different beginning you need to know about, and this also originated in Blue Island.

Once when I was about four years old, my family had gone visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins, all older and cooler than me. Like many Italians at the time, they lived “below the hill” on the east side of town. The two families visited each other very often, but this time stands out in my mind because it turned out to be a pivotal point in my life. One of my teenage cousins had bought a motorcycle and was showing it to everybody. At some point he and several others present asked if I would like to go for a ride. I must have nodded or something, because I was suddenly lifted off the ground, placed in front of my cousin – more or less on the gas tank – and shown where to hold the sides of the handlebars. Then we turned around in my uncle’s driveway and headed off, among shouts of “Hold on tight!” and “Be careful!”

I can still recall the sound of that one-cylinder engine and the vibration through the handlebars as the engine rose and fell, going between first and second gears. At one point, we came to a stop and my cousin asked me which way I wanted to go. I pointed and off we went, cruising through the neighborhood. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. A few minutes later, we pulled back into the driveway. People were asking me what I thought as somebody lifted me from the bike and set me back on terra firma. I turned around, pointed to that motorcycle and exclaimed, “I want one of those!” My mother began yelling something in Italian and I don’t think she stopped for another fourteen years.

In the years that followed, I went for many more rides with my cousins, as they acquired bigger and faster bikes. Every so often I would be foolish enough to utter the word “motorcycle” in my mom’s presence and she would begin hollering again. It was great fun. But then I went to college, got a job, got married, had kids… It seems I had neither the time nor the money to get that motorcycle. I’m sure my mother was very happy, at least for a while.

The year was 2002 and I had turned 41 years old. Chalk it up to middle age crisis – why not, my wife did – but somehow that long-dormant desire had reawakened and I decided to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford a bike of my own, but I reasoned that it would be satisfying enough just to see that “M” classification added to my drivers license. So I did it… and I failed. That’s right. I had gotten a perfect score on the written exam, but lost my nerve on the riding range and gave up too many points to pass.

I was crushed. Didn’t these people know I was destined to become a motorcyclist? Apparently not, except for one particular instructor who had seen that gleam in my eye and understood how much it meant to me. On our way out, she pulled me aside and advised me to come back in August, because although all the MSF classes are booked solid by March, the end-of season classes end up with vacancies and I could likely just walk in and register.

I spent the rest of that summer mentally repeating the range exercises over and over again, until I was executing every maneuver flawlessly. When August came, I walked into one of the scheduled classes and was able to register, just as that instructor had said. I took the entire course over again, asking more questions and getting much more out of it than I had the first time. The range exercises were less intimidating, because I had performed then all hundreds of times in my head. When testing day came, I went first and came within one point of a perfect score. At last I was a motorcyclist!

Turns out I had been sorely wrong about one thing: Getting that “M” on my license wasn’t enough. The motorcycling bug had bitten me hard. Less than a year later, I had acquired a gently used two-tone Honda Shadow A.C.E. Like most new riders, I started out by riding through my neighborhood, gradually going farther and farther. But I was riding alone, and I am not a good alone person. Because none of my friends at the time were motorcycle riders, I began seeking out opportunities to ride with other people. After doing a little research, I came across a local event called the Chicagoland Ride for Kids®, a fundraiser for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Pediatric brain tumor? Steven!

Back in ’75, when a tearful teacher told her classroom full of stunned kids what had caused Steven’s death, she hadn’t used the word “pediatric”, so it might have taken a second for me to understand what I had found – an organization formed to fight what had killed my classmate. I knew I had to do this. So despite having not one minute of group riding experience, I showed up at the Allstate Insurance corporate facility on July 14, 2003, for my first escorted charity ride. There we were, just me, my then-11-year-old daughter and roughly 3,000 casual acquaintances.

RFK_CHI2012Was I nervous? Not at all. I was scared. But we did it! And together with all the other motorcyclists, we raised $325,092 for pediatric brain tumor research that day. Thus began a new tradition for Teresa and me. My daughter and I have been raising money for pediatric brain tumor research by actively participating in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids every year since 2003.

Now a funny thing happened in 2005, when my son, then age 12, began expressing an interest in our efforts. A motorcyclist companion of mine learned of his interest and offered to carry my son on his bike at the ’05 event. I graciously accepted and in so doing, incurred the ire of my daughter, who had come to think of the ride as “our event.” Oh, the shame of it all!

Of necessity, for the sake of keeping peace in the family, our tradition then expanded and I began participating in two Ride for Kids events per year. Each July, my daughter and I would ride in the Chicagoland event and in August, my son would ride with me in the Wisconsin Ride for Kids, which was held in Middleton. Both of my kids were happy with that arrangement, an accomplishment in itself.

Last year, for the first time, the Chicagoland and Wisconsin Ride for Kids events were held concurrently, out of Lake Geneva. Lucky for me my son, now in his twenties, has a motorcycle of his own and his sister no longer sees it as a supreme insult for him to participate in the same event as us. Even my wife, who does not ride, showed up at last year’s event, making our endeavor a true family affair.

RFK 2015 Group ShotAnd so it continues, year after year. Me, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. And now you know why. Thanks for listening.

If you would like to support our efforts with a small donation, please visit my fundraising page at http://pbtf.convio.net/goto/daversa. We would be grateful. I even have a No Shave November promotion going on, where the amount of my beard that gets shaved off will be determined by the donations made via my page this month.