Bill’s eyes widened at the sight of four F/A 18 hornets screaming across I-94, the heavy roar and air compression from its jet engines so close to the ground it nearly brought the Benz to a shake. His fascination with airplanes has been no secret, having walked into moving traffic nearly a week and a half before just to get a glimpse of a 747 flying over his house, making the impromptu Blue Angels air show a wonderful welcome to work off the joyous, yet costly obscurity Minnesota had dealt our bodies the night before. The ecstatic feeling remained onward over the many ripe green pastures lining both sides of the highway, each with its own set of silos set at the back corner of the field.
A large water tower greeted us at the onset of each passing town with it’s name plastered across the tower’s circular surface, as it was the first visible sign of civilization between the miles of agriculture during our drive through America’s Dairyland; an unusually unique sight for natives of the Pacific Northwest. Friendly faces and refined manners greeted us at each pit stop, whether it was for food, gas, or beer; a community ever so eager to welcome foreigners (of which we clearly were) to the lovely place they call home.
“You know, Wisconsin is exactly how I imagined it to be,” said Bill with a modest smile on his face. I had a strong inclination that he would feel that way. Yes, this was it. We had made it, our 2,00 mile mission complete.
We had finally reached the motherland.
“If only I could just see some cows…”
Sure enough, within a mile of his words, there lying to the driver’s side was a pasture full of Holstein Friesian’s, your stereotypical spotted cows exactly like the ones pictured on the milk cartons at your local supermarket. Again, he looked onward with approval, his first impression growing more favorable by the minute. We continued down a county road that eventually became flanked with a light packing of forest, where to the passenger side laid a strange wooden building behind a scatter of trees, its empty parking lot seeming very unusual for an afternoon.
“That’s odd. Why would they have a strip club in the middle of nowhere?” asked Bill. The sight was baffling to me as well, the pink pillars and exotic lettering on the door being a dead giveaway. “Wait, it says… Xavier’s Supper Club… What the heck is a Supper Club?”
“I’ve heard of those before. It’s like a place where you eat food and hang out and stuff. They serve you drinks and then they give you dinner.”
“So it’s pretty much a restaurant then…”
“No, not exactly.”
“Then what’s the difference?”
“Well, a restaurant will have… well they just… you know… I guess I’m not exactly sure…” The mystery of the supper club would leave us in wonder all the way to the unincorporated sections of the Fox River Valley where my Aunt and Uncle resided.
“Well, how ya doin’!?” said my Uncle Mike as he greeted us at the front door, using his best, most welcoming and full Wisconsin accent, the zenith of Midwestern courtesy; one I’d been waiting for since our departure.
“C’mon in, make yourselves at home!” said Aunt Chris following the friendly, Midwestern drawl of Uncle Mike, more than excited for the chance to provide hospitality, as is the standard for all Wisconsin Natives. “Grab yourself a beer and c’mon out back. We got some burgers and brats waiting for ya! And you gotta try my sugar snap peas. I just plucked them from the garden today. They’ve been growin’ like crazy!”
With a cold, frosty PILS-ner in our hand, we walked across the wood-stained floor of a living room decorated with early 20th century artifacts and into to the backyard, a half-acre long haven for flora and fauna where Audrey, her son Dino, and a grill full of burgers and brats awaited us. Dino greeted us with reluctance at first, not an uncommon reaction when two strange hunks show up in your hood. “Hey Dino, you wanna give Bill and Zack a tour?” asked Uncle Mike. Dino’s eyes brightened and he popped right out of his chair, reacting to the sudden rush of blood through his legs. A tour meant a chance to cruise the golf cart around the compound, an opportunity no 8-year-old can ever pass up.
“Follow me!” instructed Dino with an enthusiastic stride towards the cart. We obeyed his command and hopped in with the promise that we’d be back by the time dinner was ready.
“Go ahead and give it a little gas,” said Bill, a phrase that prompted Dino to permanently slam the pedal to the floor, turning a momentarily peaceful garden tour into Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride—Bill’s famous last words. Dino’s narration was exceptional, provided the speed we approached each planter, shed, tree and every other yard object that was barely averted as we skid across the lawn. It was a nicely landscaped garden from what we were able to observe, and would’ve given the scenery much more appreciation, if only we weren’t already busy holding on to dear life.
Dino received a lecture upon our return about his reckless driving, something we learned that he had been punished for in the past. Little did they know Dino was merely the victim of provocation, urged to break the rules by a couple of dinguses that should’ve known better. We kept silent through the scolding, for all would be well the moment a ground up mixture of burger, brat and bun entered our bellies.
…A moment later, a mixture of burger, brat and bun entered our bellies, and all was well.
“…So we were driving today, and came across this place called a ‘Supper Club’,” I mentioned after biting into a big chunk of brat.
“Oh yea, supper clubs!” Aunt Chris jumped in. “They got a real nice one in Menasha that we used to go to all the time. Great prime rib!”
“So are they like restaurants?” asked Bill.
“Well, you go to a supper club, and you can sit and hang out, talk to your friends and meet other people,” explained Audrey, having spent time in the service industry.
“Oh. So it’s a lot nicer than a restaurant then, like a restaurant/bar mix?”
“Not exactly. You see, you go and order your drinks first, and after a little bit, you order your food.”
“So I take it you have to order whatever they’re making that night, like home-style?”
“No, they have menu’s at supper clubs.”
“Alright… I take the drinks real special then.”
“Well… we’ll put it this way. Either the drinks are good and the food is bad, or it’s the other way around.”
“…Oh… ok. I think I’m starting to get it…” Bill and I nodded at each other, our secret signal of understanding. Under the guise of our stoic faces was a harsh reality that couldn’t be hidden having spent nearly a week together in a car—we were left even more confused about supper clubs than ever before. Even a later Wikipedia search failed to provide clarity, leading both Bill and I to the dismal conclusion that we may never truly understand what a supper club is.
“Look, at dem orioles up in da tree there,” said Uncle Mike, his observance causing a head scramble with Bill and I, for orioles are not common birds from our neck of the woods. “They like to come visit every couple days or so with a few humming birds. See em’ up in the tree?” He pointed to a small opening in the tree branches, taking Bill a minute, and I two just to focus in on the yellow bird. “We don’t mind em’ really. It’s the deer that we can’t stand though. Dem bastards come in da middle of the night and eat all of the rose heads! That’s why we hang a sock with a bar of soap right next to em’. It’s supposed to keep em’ away, and its done a damn good job so far!” Bill and I shook our heads in agreement, impressed with my Uncle’s wealth of knowledge, one gathered not from reading textbooks and studying, but from years upon years of hard work, trial and error, and honing in on his trades ever since his days as a young bachelor; an old art-form that has gone lost to the Millennial generation. “How about we c’mon back? Let me show you my shop.”
The walk through the garden, once traversed under extreme circumstances was now a light stroll, making it possible to take in the surroundings with ease. “Your grandpa helped me build this house years back before he passed. Got most of da lumber as scrap from the ol’ closed down sawmill. Barely had to pay a dime,” he continued as we examined the finer details of his property, strolling through the open lawn filled with an even mix of flora—towering trees sheltering all forms of plant life below it, wild bushes outlining the bounds of the well-maintained lawn accompanied by sprouts of flowers, a garden that laid home to the heavily boasted sugar snap peas, and traces of wildlife who were more than welcome to live in harmony with its providers, as long as they followed the rules.
Bill’s eyes grew in wonderment the moment he stepped into the shop, an adult playground filled with band saws, table saws, drill presses, lathes, compressors—any type of tool that could possibly be useful to a man and his imagination to build. “Let me show my newest project,” said Uncle Mike, leading us to his woodturning and wood-burning benches. “Here’s a plate I just made outa a block of cherry wood. I’d been experimenting with different woods for a couple months. Finally I came out wit something that woks.” He showed us a wooden plate with the etching of a hawk resting on a hard foundation with a sun glowing behind it, drawn from the wood-burning technique that left a dark imprint on the surface of the wood as a hot metal rod pressed against it. “Each type of wood burns a little differently, so you really have to practice and control the temperature just right.” Bill overloaded my uncle with a deluge of questions as the Clint Eastwood character in “Gran Torino” played over and over in my head, a proficient working man who had acquired an accumulation of tools over his lifetime, although I don’t think Uncle Mike could ever be half as cranky as Eastwood’s character, even if he tried (Not even praise of Scott Walker could piss him off that much!).
“I want one of these someday,” said Bill, his eyes still stuck in a state of wonder. “Where do I start?”
“Take it from me. The first ding you gotta do is get yourself a heated floor. By God they saved me from freezin’ my ass off more than a few times in da winter…”
A bowl of the highly touted sugar snap peas awaited our return from the shop, freshly picked by Aunt Chris. The crisp vegetable snapped in half as the name suggested, breaking away at the first sign of tension between my teeth, sending a fresh cut of greens to cleanse my body of any impurities left inside it from the night (and perhaps week) before. For once, I think I could appreciate the simple and refreshing taste of a fresh vegetable, although given the choice, I’d still go with the processed and genetically modified combination of Slim Jim’s and Easy Cheese any day.
As the sun set on our first night in Wisconsin, we gathered around my Uncle’s homemade fire pit, made out of a circular piece of sheet metal 10 feet in diameter that had been cemented into the ground, surrounded by cement slabs pressed with wildlife tracings, another scavenger find from an old mill from a few years back. Flames rose from the ground 20 feet into the air over at its initial lighting, the full size logs providing enough fuel for a solid, sustaining flame into twilight, with many more trunks of wood to be added that would last well into starlight.
There was something peculiar about the moon that night. I can’t remember if it were a full moon or some other phenomenon, but its effect seem to cause a raucous with some of the animals, even going as far as to give Aunt Chris and Aubrey the urge to share a mother/daughter bond by jump out of their seats and singing “The Age of Aquarius.” Us boys remained silent as they fearlessly belted out the tune, adding to it exotic hand motions and flamboyant gestures, neither of them concerned at the prospect of waking the neighbors; our only regret being that we were absent of the song’s lyrics and general progression, therefore unable to participate in such a sentimental moment.
The night turned to black, hinting at the notion that it was near Dino’s bedtime. The glow of fire, moonlight, and a vast splatter of stars left Bill, Uncle Mike and I to think about the mysteries of life and the universe. As each of us sipped a whiskey on the rocks, we discussed the important issues stirring about the world today—The current state of affairs circling around the Green Bay Packers and the overrated legacy of Brett Favre. “He was just a Cowboy,” my Uncle Mike opined. “Mike Holmgren just knew how to control him, that’s the only reason they were any good,” he added; an undeniable analysis I couldn’t have agreed with more. Bill of course added his own thoughts about his beloved Miami Dolphins, and I’m sure we all took our own shots at the Shi—I mean Seahawks.
I couldn’t help but ask about Grandma, part of my scheme of gathering ammunition to give her a hard time. Much was needed, for I planned on a surprise visit at her new retirement home the next day. Of course I was warned not to tease her too much, for it’s well known around the Fox Valley that whenever I’m in town, I’m the most flagrant and repeat offender of torment when it comes to grandmas! It’s not that I mean to, but it just happens… Hey, when you’re good at something, why quit? (Grandma surprise video provided below, heheh).
“Remember that time you took my sister and I fishing and we caught like 20 fish?” I asked him, the conversation of family a natural lead into one of my favorite Uncle Mike memories, one I’ve brought up multiple times in past visits.
“Oh God ya, that musta been 20 years ago! I swear we musta cleaned that pond out! I been to that same spot many times since then, and never caught any other fish. I keep tellin’ my buddies and they never believed me!”
The talk of fishing transitioned to hunting, of which my Uncle was a quite avid participant of the sport. He told us of one of his most recent accomplished of which he nabbed two turkey’s with one shot, and afterwards, I made him promise to show Bill the black bear he had claimed many years ago. I even had to throw in a shameless plug for “Uncle Mike’s Sausage,” made famous during my childhood, as it was always a treat to find my mom pulling out a large tube of his venison from the mail.
We sat around the fire until the early hours of morning, sharing stories, memories, and wisdom while watching the raging flames thin into the atmosphere, a solid streak of vital energy fade into nothing with the contrasting sky. Once the blaze dwindled into sweltering coals of ashed timber, we added layers, myself clad in my newly accrued Surly crew cut sweatshirt, for the state of minds had reached a rare level of harmony worth sustaining, no matter how discomforting the weather may turn.
It had been a 2,000 mile trek so far through some of the best and worst the country had to offer. We had crossed glistening mountain ranges and dipped through pernicious valleys where the vilest of human creations lay. Relationships had been broken and formed, old friends had been reunited, and love had been found and lost, but not forgotten; left to be rediscovered once the fruits of our wisdom had reached full development. And through it all, every up and down thrown at us had been swallowed, taking the brunt of whatever emotion thrust upon us and spitting it back at the world as a means of carrying on, pushing towards that impossible goal that we hoped to someday be attainable.
“You know, I’ve been a lot of places,” said Uncle Mike. “I’ve worked, and traveled, and explored all over da place. But this… this is the best place. There’s no other place I’d rather be than right here… right here…” So we stared up into the night sky, the same familiar sight I had seen 2,000 miles away, yet struck by a comfort not felt in a long time. We had reached our destination after what had seemed like an eternity, home being a place barely recognizable if not for distant memories. The pilgrimage to the motherland was complete, but our journey was not over. It was far, far from over… and there was still much of a story to tell.
And through our pondering into the great reaches of space, thoughts that reached farther than the distance galaxies our eyes gazed upon, a congruency ran through our minds, an improbable thought only met through the miracle of fate.
“This is where we would be someday. After it’s all said and done, we would come back, for this is where we were meant to be… for all time…”
And someday… we were going to find out once and for all what a damn supper club was…