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Dual Residency: Torn Between Bears and Packers

Updated: December 29, 2013 2:10AM



In Illinois, we refer to them as cheeseheads and make jokes about the slow-witted men and Amazonian women, stereotypes derived from a historic urban condescension toward farmers.

In Wisconsin, we have a derogatory acronym for vacationers from Illinois and resent their boorish behavior, and especially the stinging fact that we rely on their tourism dollars.

The border animosity is accentuated every time the Bears play the Green Bay Packers, as they will Sunday for the divisional championship.

Each time they do, I am caught in the middle, primarily through the fault of my old man.

I was only 6 when he was off work for two weeks in July and drove the whole lot of us — five brothers, two sisters, and his wife Gertrude — on a long drive up north from Chicago.

We left so early, it was still dark. I shivered in my pajamas on the middle seat of the Pontiac station wagon, covertly watching him back out of the garage. He made a quick sign of the cross with his left hand before shifting into drive.

It felt like a million miles. There were no interstates yet, and it took us all morning, all afternoon, and all the way till it was dark again, to get there. In between, we must have made 100 stops for the bathroom, for food, for Kevin to get sick, for gas and for inquiries at resorts about vacancies and rates. (There was no Internet for scouting out places in advance.)

Finally, when from the car we saw him exit the umpteenth resort office with a smile on his face, we knew he had found an available cottage that could sleep 10.

It was dark, and though we kids were assigned unfamiliar quarters, we fell fast asleep, so that I was not aware till the next day that we were in Tahiti.

At least, that’s what Charlie called it. I had no reason to doubt him, since he was the oldest. And the exotic sounding Tahiti surely seemed fitting, since, after all, we were kids raised on concrete, playing in alley ways that snaked through a forest of houses and apartment buildings in the city.

Whereas, in this place, there were trees and grass and sand, and a pure lake resembling the Hamms Beer commercial on TV.

You could run downhill, even cartwheel to the water, and never worry about getting hit by a streetcar or bus. Or you could explore the Hansel and Gretel paths leading deep into the woods.

I could open my eyes underwater, staring straight back at perch and bluegill. And the next morning, in a rowboat with the old man and Charlie and Jimmy, could hook the same fish with trickery and red worms.

Night was best, since only in Tahiti were we allowed out after dark. We needed jackets in spite of the campfire, and it was here that I finally learned that the Big Dipper I’d only ever seen in story books, was for real.

We went again the following summer, by which time I had learned it was really Wisconsin, not Tahiti. We stayed at a different place this time, on Squirrel Lake near Minoqua. But it had the same open spaces and an even bigger lake shimmering with secrets. The nearby forest had the same smell of pine, peppermint, and danger.

Most important, it gave me a profound sense that this was where I was meant to be. For although I was born and raised on the south side (54th and South Winchester), Wisconsin felt more familiar. There seemed to be memory in my blood of its woods and waters. Remnants passed down by long lost ancestors to my DNA, in spite of the total absence of any traces of Native Americans, Norwegians or Swedes in our family tree.

The connection felt older, as with wolves and ancient instinct.

So when Marianne and I started our own family, I retained the childhood dream of owning our own cottage on a lake in Wisconsin’s north woods.

Not just to fulfill what John Steinbeck believed was every man’s desire, to own your own piece of the earth (Of Mice and Men).

Not just to have a place to fish and swim and hunt.

Not just to inspire our own children with love of nature.

For me, the main reason was more basic: to finally go home.

I am from Illinois. And I am a cheesehead.

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Go, PEARS!

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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