A slight drizzle covered the lake house that somber Sunday morning in flawless fashion to supplement the mood of saying goodbye. I had just spent an almost perfect week in the state of Wisconsin and now the thought of heading to work at 5 in the morning was all ready making my body cringe.
I took a moment to breath in a few last molecules of Chain o’ Lakes air, but due to the fact that I was “dilly dallying” (as my mother used to say) the night before, that moment was cut short, and a classic race against time scenario was in play to pack my belongings into my undersized carry-on and catch my plane. To my luck though, I would find the Appleton airport to be much smaller in size compared to SeaTac, and navigating through security and to my gate was a breeze, turning my crush on time into a non-issue (after the fact that is).
I boarded the plane and found my seat, finally getting a moment to relax after the Chinese fire drill that consisted of me scurrying to the airport. I leaned back and shut my eyes as the flight attendant instructed us of what to do in case we fall to our immanent doom… And that’s when it set in. My grandparents were selling the house. It was the last time I’d ever step foot in that place ever again.
Immediately, memories started to flood my head, one after another. I embraced the opportunity and pondered on each passing one, letting the nostalgia sink in before moving on to the next, further exploring the infinitesimal alleys of the mind…
I still can still remember walking into that house for the very fist time. Through the eyes of an 8-year old boy, I saw a gargantuan castle on the water filled with secret passages, built in intercoms, and 1000’s of square feet to provide me with hours of exotic exploration. Not to mention an arsenal of toys at my disposal: speedboats, inner tubes, noodles, a floating dock, fishing poles, paddle boats, you name it! This place had it all. And for a kid growing up in the 90’s, it was a Big F***in’ Deal (to quote our often candid vice-president)!
Us kids were wired from the get go the night the Bero’s and the Wohler’s came together for the first time to celebrate the holy union of my grandma and grandpa. Everyone had a lot to prove to each other, especially me. I did my part by devising a secret scheme with the big boys to sneak into the girl’s bunk and pour water into all of their sleeping bags, leaving them completely miserable for their night’s slumber. My stunt had gained enough respect from the older cousins that lasted through the wedding, however my cousin Brian and step-cousin Hans had different plans, for my devious plot was pork and beans compared to what they were about to pull off.
The adults that night found it in their best interest to separate themselves from their kids, which proved to be a foolish choice after Cousin Brian and Step-Cousin Hans found an empty champagne bottle, in which they proceeded to fill it up with a half and half mixture of 7-Up and Sunkist Orange Soda. While Step-Cousin Hannah played a dramatic tune on the piano resembling a legato/minor ragtime feel, the two took turns taking pulls from the bottle, simulating the effects of two pre-teens getting completely plastered (pulling it off quite well actually). It didn’t take long for their slurred words and stumbling about the house to make it to the upstairs in full view of grandma. She cried out in disgust and embarrassment, especially after they spilled soda all over the carpet in front of the new members of our family, setting a perfect Wohlers example for years to come!
Luckily for Cousin Brain, he’s always been grandma’s favorite, and can get away with just about anything, and Step-Cousin Hans wasn’t officially our cousin yet, so a high energy scolding was waived, and the two were able to continue with their wild antics with little consequence throughout the night, as well as future visits.
We learned a many great traits of the lake, including how to tube like a champ, the art of fish filleting with grandpa (in all honesty I never really got that one down very well), and even how to go pee when you’re out in the middle of the lake (consisting of draining the bladder into an old coffee cup and dumping it overboard). Some of those skills came in handy when my cousin Kimmy and I took the paddleboat out to the floating dock and I caught a nice blue gill in front of a bunch of slightly intoxicated locals passing along in their pontoon (fortunately, I didn’t have to pee that time). They cheered over my success, only to berate me when Kimmy unhooked the fish for me (I know right. A girl unhooking a fish? It’s Crazy!). APPARENTLY I wasn’t man enough to do it myself.
And somewhere along the timeline of our childhood Cousin Brain, totally oblivious to his surroundings, walked straight through the screen door in front of the whole family. Everybody talks of the incident as if it’s the Holy Grail of events that occurred at the cabin, and for the longest time I pretended to know all about it. But to be honest, I have no recollection of that ever occurring. Not even of grandma blowing a gasket (And believe me, I would’ve remembered that)! It kind of makes me mad, the fact that I’ll never fully relate to such an epic tale that will be passed down for generations, and that is still being retold to this day. Maybe I’ll get over it… Someday.
During one summer, my family and I drove all the way to Wisconsin from Washington, one of the best family vacations we ever had in my book (one where my little sis found the urge to bite into the bottom of a Styrofoam cup, spilling a quart of lemonade all over the Burb’s interior, but that’s a whole other story). I was cruising in the back seat of our baby blue Suburban with my Pokémon (Red Version) Game Boy game with the mega-hits of the late 90’s blasting through the speakers, which was all I needed to last through the trek. The hits included Smashmouth’s “All-Star,” The Abercrombie and Fitch Song, Pearl Jam’s “Oh where, oh where has my baby been,” and Six-Pence, None the Richer. It was the peak of the 90’s Alternative Rock sensation as so elegantly reflected upon the styles of us teenage cousins and our excitement over Woodstock 99.
Once we arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s that summer, the tunes got a little more explicit when I reunited with Kimmy, who had acquired quite the potty mouth since the last time we hung out. Regardless of her tendencies to speak as if she had the mouth a sailor, we were busy rockin’ out to Limp Bizkit, Blink 182, and any other dirty band that Cousin Holly had introduced us to, for she was full blown into her pop-punk/hardcore phase at that point.
And when Cousin Brain showed up, all he could talk about was American Pie, and how it was the greatest freaking thing that ever happened in the 20th century. For hours he was talking a million miles a minute, babbling on about who got naked, what ridiculous thing this one kid did, who said all the swears, and on and on and on… Jesus Christ the guy wouldn’t shut up about it! And I was hanging on his every word, totally obsessed.
“Shannon Elizabeth’s boobs? He does what to a pie?” Holy crap I was salivating! The way he was describing it, I figured it was going to be this generation’s Gone With the Wind, and during the next year, I made it my goal to see this magnificent accomplishment of cinema magic, no matter the cost. And as it turned out, when my best friend Austin Moody got his heart broken later that year, his mom felt bad for him and rented American Pie for us to watch. It turned out to be everything my Cousin described it to be… And so much more…
Once we finally bloomed into adults (about ten years later), we realized that no matter how much we had grown, some things never change. With all of the cousins back at the cabin, we could only act mature for so long before something got out of hand. It probably started during the bon-fire after I spent about an hour chasing Kimmy’s kids around. “You’re it!” Carson would scream after an unsuspecting tag, followed by a most devilish laugh as if she knew she was going to put you through hell just to tag her back. Miraculously, they would all tucker out and go to sleep. But that’s when the real trouble would begin.
Tony (Kimmy’s Husband), Nick and I stumbled upon a stash of fireworks in the water sports shed after we had polished off a few brews. “Yea! Let’s light them off! That sounds like a fantastic idea in the middle of the night!” So we did… ending up waking half the lake in the process.
The next morning, I walked into an overflow of verbal abuse at the house. “What were you doing lighting off those fireworks?” my grandma sneered. 1: She didn’t have to scream and embarrass me in front of all my aunts and uncles. I go through enough crap as it is. 2: She had absolutely no proof it was me who lit the fireworks off! As soon as I walked in, she just ASSUMED I was the one who lit off the fireworks. This is America for God’s sakes! Innocent until proven guilty!
Yea, I lit the fireworks off, so? I’m always the guy taking the blame, no matter what! Maybe it’s me who causes the most trouble around the cabin, but regardless, it’s still a bunch of bull crap if you ask me!
Not all the trips to the Chain O’Lakes were of the recreational sort however. In fact, some of those trips proved to be very humbling experiences. One such occasion was when we joined together to mourn the death of my Aunt Cathy, who had passed from a long and painful struggle with cancer. I’ll never forget the storm of emotions floating around that cold January weekend in 2011, all leading up to the NFC championship between the Packers and the Bears. That Sunday, we gathered at the grandparent’s house and we watched the Packer game as a family, hoping and praying for a win, some type of sign to let us know that her spirit was still with us.
And when BJ Raji intercepted Jay Cutler’s pass and ran in for a pick 6, we went ballistic! We recreated his famous “Teach me how to Raji” dance, and jumped all around the house, hooting and hollering, performing silly dances, doing push-ups… Well, I think I was the only one doing push-ups and stupid dances (I don’t quite have all the details nailed down), but the one thing that was for certain was the explosion of positive energy that surfaced in that house when the Packers defeated the Bears, sending them to win Super Bowl 45.
After moments like that, I think it’s only natural to wonder if your loved one’s had a hand in that game. Now it’s unlikely that the good lord meddles in the affairs of NFL teams, but victories like these remind us that our loved ones are always watching out for us, as was Cathy during the game, and will continue to do so throughout our lives. It reminded me of her positive and easygoing spirit, for she never got too worked up over things, knowing that life was too short to waste getting upset over things that don’t matter in the long term. Even in her final hours, we were told she was still cracking jokes doing her best to keep us from worrying about her fate. I think she understood that this was just one step in a grander picture, and that we would all be reunited with her in heaven someday soon. And until then, we should enjoy the small victories like seeing our favorite team reach the Super Bowl.
And as it turns out, it is those small things that will stick with me the most. My grandpa’s off-colored jokes, for which it seemed as if he’d always have a new one ready for us to crack up at each visit. Listening to that Rihanna song (Oh na na, what’s my name?) during my work out and runs around the lake, and enjoying happy hour every 4 PM at the house with the relatives, devising new tricks to getting under grandma’s skin (I should add that I have a pretty high success rate). It’s as if they all come together in a grand picture to make up a culture, where it might not be just a single memory that you miss, but the overall feeling of being in a place you hold dear in your heart where so many special things have taken place.
And nothing cut deeper into my heart like the times when I could sit on the dock and watch the hot summer sun set on the lake, reflecting the golden rays of light back on the lakefront property. There’s an amazing phenomenon that happens during a sunset, one of those things that settles the soul and brings serenity to your life at that very moment. As if time slows down, and no matter how hectic life gets, you always have time to sit down and reflect on it whenever that great ball of burning mass lowers itself from the sky.
And for a final time one evening during my vacation, with an old fashion in hand and the new Daft Punk album pumping into my ears, I was able to do just that; Reflect, and write… About life, love, how blessed I was to be in such a beautiful setting, and whatever else was going on in that crazy head of mine. I reminisced about the importance of family and how my grandparents had provided us grandchildren with the ability to acquire such wonderful memories over the past 20 years. A place where I truly felt at home and could flourish with my talents to unlimited bounds. A place I had grown to love and would have to come back to, retaining the sprit of the Chain O’Lakes with me wherever I would go.
I thought about all of those memories and so much more on that plane ride back to Seattle, for so many things occur inside the human brain in such a short period of time, far too much for us to ever understand. Your thoughts and senses cause reactions that send signals through your body that release different chemicals, causing us to react a certain way. Whether it’s pain, happiness, anger, you name it. The brain controls it. And the usual emotion that comes from reliving great memories in your life is a bit of sadness and depression, for you may miss those days, or possibly be horrified at some of the choices you had made. But for some reason, I didn’t feel that at all. Instead, after looking back at my time in Wisconsin, I felt an emotion that hadn’t been felt in a long time…
I became inspired.
I realized how much I had taken the lake for granted over the years; the cabin, all the toys, the boat, and the property itself. All of that didn’t just appear for my family one day. It came from the expense of hard work and sacrifice from my grandpa, who had a dream. Working through the ranks in his career, and through his sincere dedication, he eventually became the president of his company and was able to provide his family with an unimaginable gift that we were able to enjoy throughout the passing years. A place where my grandparents got to watch us play out on the floating dock, take us on pontoon rides through the lake, and send us to their secret fishing spots around the lake to come back with bucket full of blue gill for the evening’s fish fry.
A place where we would get in trouble and have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, whether it’s lighting fireworks in the middle of the night, using an Ouija board and forever haunting the downstairs living room, or walking through a screen door in front of the whole family. A place where we could laugh and love by singing songs and doing ridiculous tricks in your Speedo for passing boaters, or gather around the campfire to share your words of wisdom, such as the greatest movies of the 20th century, or just sit out on the lake during a summer sunset to appreciate the magnificence of life. But most of all, it was a place that my grandparents could watch us kids grown into self-sustaining adults, forge life-long memories, and make us realize the importance of family and how great life can truly be with it.
It took me 20 years to realize how precious this gift was, and how grateful I was to be able to spend the time I did in such a wonderful place. I didn’t want to see it go, didn’t want it to be the last time I’d ever see it. So I became inspired; that someday, I could work hard and utilize my talents to become successful, just as my grandpa had. That someday, I could maybe find my own special little place where I can bring my family and watch them grow up; where they can create their own memories to pass down to their children. It inspired me to create my own destiny, that I can someday find my own house and cabin on the Chain O’ Lakes.
And while I’m finishing this post, I find it appropriate that I’m sipping on an old fashion, a perfect Midwest cocktail to compliment the memoirs of my epic Wisconsin trip. It’s made up of a mix of cherries and oranges, two fruits reflecting the attitudes of the people of Wisconsin; a certain quaintness and sweetness that you just can’t find anywhere else. The whiskey, which allows us to let loose every now and then, for there’s no need to be overly judgmental in the Badger State. Add a little bit of 7-up, to provide a little excitement, in the same fashion every Wisconsin trip brings. All poured over a cup full of ice to remind us how strong and lumber the people of Wisconsin are when they go through the great pains of enduring freezing temperatures and harsh winters to support the things they love and hold dearest to their hearts, kind of like they did during the ice bowl many moons ago. And to top it off, add few sprinkles of aromatic bitter, for yes, life throws us curveballs from time to time, but mixed with a supporting family of tasty ingredients, we take it all in and remember that life is good, and will always be good in this gem of the Midwest.
So with my old fashion in hand, I would like to propose a toast. Here’s to the great state of Wisconsin. A state I can’t wait to come back to and make even more fantastic memories for the many years to come.
Till next time Wisconsin. I’ll see you soon…