Trains illicit magical journeys, through enchanted forests, fields of golden wheat waving in the sun, and bridges over emerald streams and rivers.
For a few years back in the day, I shared an apartment with my friend Don Booth. Don, was the brother of my best friend Jim Booth. Ours, the 2nd floor apartment of an old two flat, was owned by Jim and Don’s parents, and located at the corner of 63rd street and 30th Avenue in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was a handy location for our little bachelor pad, which soon became known as “party central”. Each week, any number of gatherings for festive parties, poker games or televised sporting events were well attended at our humble abode.
Our back yard butted up against the Kenosha railroad yard, a large parcel consisting of surplus rail cars, various equipment and three sets of rail tracks, one of which ran through central Kenosha. To our west was an empty lot, then 30th avenue, then a large reinforced berm which held back idle rail cars on a short spur in the railroad yard.
The railroad yard, though in the middle of the city, was mostly untended and grown wild. Many rabbits, racoons, possums, pheasants and even a few deer made their home there. This worked out well for our neighbors who lived two houses to the east of us, Walter and Hatti Hoerner.
Neighbors who were Resourceful and Interesting!
Already in their late seventies when we moved into the neighborhood, Walter and Hatti Hoerner were definitely what would be called “old school”. Though Walter had worked as a house mover, among other things, they lived on wild fish and game their whole lives, only purchasing paper goods and other such staples as needed. Walter hunted, fished, and trapped for all of their protein requirements, until too old to do so and Hatti grew all of their veggies in the large garden between their home and the railroad tracks. The railroad took no notice of them cultivating railroad property for their purpose.
I became good friends with Walter and Hatti shortly after moving into our upper flat nearby. For every morning at around six, I would be wakened by the “Walter Hoerner alarm clock”. Walter’s home was heated by an ancient coal furnace, with wood being the only fuel ever used. Their kitchen stove was also a wood burning unit, the natural gas service to their home having never been connected.
At six AM each day, Walter would start up the large band saw next to his garage. He would then cut up all of the old wood, which friends and acquaintances delivered to him on a regular basis. Afternoons were spent removing nails and hardware from the wood which was to be sawed up the following morning. No amount of coaxing could get Walter to switch his schedule, and all of the neighbors were quite fond of the spritely old couple so no one complained too much about all the racket from the saw. I came to look forward to it as well and missed it in later years, even after I had moved out of the neighborhood.
Up and about, I would often take my cup of coffee and visit with Walter while he worked. Walter was a very sociable individual and had a story for every occasion. The stories were often repeats, with some elements added, eliminated or revised for his purpose, but they were always entertaining.
One aspect of visiting Walter, however, involved a bit of a risk. In addition to Walter and Hatti, their nephew Bob and his dog “Nicki” occupied their modest home. Walter and Hatti took care of both of them, as Bob, a Korean War veteran, was incapacitated with PTSD and alcoholism and spent most of his days sleeping off the previous nights drinking binge. Bob was mostly harmless, but his dog Nicki, a mixed breed mutt, was definitely not. The Booth brothers and I referred to Nicki as “Crazy Dog”, as the only human beings that Crazy Dog would not attack without notice were Walter, Hatti and Bob. If a visitor was on Walter’s porch and rang the doorbell or knocked, Crazy Dog would hurl himself at the door as hard as he could, barking, snarling and snapping all the while. He would keep up this performance non-stop, until the visitor left, or Walter gave him a swift kick in his back side. Most of the fur on Crazy Dog’s back was missing, the result of his having attacked an electric coffee pot that had been percolating. He flung the pot around by the cord until it was empty, scalding himself badly in the process. Bob, usually incapacitated, took no notice of Crazy Dog’s antics and Hatti ignored him completely so it was left to Walter to impart whatever discipline was required at any given time. If Crazy Dog were a human being, he would be diagnosed with any number of maladies; bi-polar disorder, PTSD, perhaps, or as my old NCOIC Sergeant Price would say….NTRP (Needs to be removed from the planet)
Before any stranger could enter the house, Walter would put Crazy Dog in their fenced in back yard. One day while visiting Walter, and in the house, Bob woke up and unwittingly let Crazy Dog back in. The furious animal rushed up to me, growling, snapping and slobbering. Very calmly, Walter told me to just be still, which was unnecessary, as frozen stiff, I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. After a time, Crazy Dog calmed down, and even allowed me to pet his scarred-up backside. From there on out, I became the fourth person in the world that Crazy Dog would tolerate.
Don, Jim and myself became part of the many that routinely dropped off game, fish and any old wood materials to Walter and Hatti. Unlike some, Walter didn’t fuss about cleaning fish or game, and happily accepted anything he was given. I enjoyed many fine meals with the old couple, Hatti’s squirrel stew in peppery gravy still being one of my favorites. Walter and Hatti both lived into their upper eighties, and I remained close to both of them, helping as I could. Upon his passing, Walter left me an old thirty-thirty rifle that I had admired and a fine winter jacket.
Sunday was a good day to show up at the corner of 63rd & 30th Avenue
The most attended events in our fine upper flat abode on 63rd street, were Sunday football games. The regulars, Don, Jim, myself and our good friend George were often joined by others who were in town or were able to sneak away from their wives, families or other obligations. We’d take turns providing eats and treats, which normally consisted of a large pot of chili plus extras along with plenty of suds, of course.
With few nearby neighbors, no one complained about our raucous festivities which could occasionally get out of hand with yelling screaming and even a few wrestling and shoving matches taking place. Mostly Packer fans, we took sides when watching other games and things could get pretty wild. Seldom were any women in attendance for the football parties, so it wasn’t necessary to monitor our language or behavior. (As compared to other events when we monitored said language and behavior just a tad)
My brother always says everything happens to me
One Sunday morning, I was in the apartment watching the run-ups to the football games which normally started at noon. Don was out, and no one else had shown up yet. As I walked from the kitchen through the dining-room I heard (and felt) a tremendous crash, just to the west of our building. After rushing to the window, I was mortified by what I saw. A moving train had crashed into the idle cars on the rail spur right across the street, sending them smashing through the barrier and berm; and straight at me! The first car, a box car hit 30th avenue hard, tearing up the curb and pavement along the way. I watched in astonishment as the large car, the top being the same level as our 2nd floor apartment, continued breaking through the curb on our side of the street, then on thru the vacant lot rapidly approached our building. Frozen in place, the event seemed to be unfolding in slow motion.
About midway through the vacant lot, about twenty feet from our building, the steel wheels, which had been digging deeper and deeper into the sod and ground beneath, came to a halt. The box car then broke free of the wheels and traveled several more feet before it to, came to a stop. I remained, still frozen, as if unable to move. Finally, realizing the event was over, I let out my breath and sat down. Within minutes, police cars, followed by fire trucks, other neighbors and plenty of gawkers flooded the area. The train car, it’s wheels and other parts were moved out within a half a day. The pavement, was repaired within a couple of days and things went back to normal. The incident did make front page news on Monday.
The event didn’t stop our football party, however everyone had to park a block or two east and walk in from there. And of course, we had to help supervise the activities around the derailed train, which provided all of our entertainment that day. And no event after the train wreck ever topped that one. A tough act to follow!
My good friends Jim and Don have both passed on now, but George and I still get together on occasion to discuss our beloved Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers. We miss our old friends and all the fun we had back in the day.
And I also miss old Walter and Hatti Hoerner; Crazy Dog….not so much.
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