One for the Ditch!

While I was raised in New Orleans, my mother’s home city, my father was from a town called Appleton, which is located in Wisconsin in the Fox Valley region about thirty miles south of Green Bay in the northeast section of the state. The third oldest, he had eight brothers and sisters that reached adulthood and they in turn produced thirty-eight offspring. Many of my thirty-seven first cousins now have extended families which include their children and grand-children. And while some have migrated to other states,(New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Georgia, and California), quite a few have stayed in the motherland, which makes family gatherings large, raucous affairs.

My father died when I was eleven but I still managed to stay in touch with my dad’s side of the family. This was facilitated in part because my mother and I lived in New Orleans. Honeymoons, Mardi Gras, Super Bowls, and just vacations in general made us popular with the folks up north and my mother in particular enjoyed taking various family members around the city and showing them the sights. But as I got older I enjoyed going up there as well. Wisconsin, believe it or not, is a fun place. I was there last week to watch my beloved New Orleans Saints play the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers at historic Lambeau Field. While we lost, by failing to score from the one yard line with no time remaining, the visit was typical for me. A football game disguised as an excuse to hang out with some of my favorite people. And fun starts and ends most of the time in one place.

Bars abound in Wisconsin. Even the smallest towns have more than one bar. They are social gathering places in the same manner as English pubs. And these people can drink beer. I mean a lot of beer. When I was in my early twenties I went up for a visit. This was the mid 1980’s and beer cost a a quarter at bars in Appleton. You read it right, a draft beer was twenty-five cents! And customers didn’t tip. Of course I was not accustomed to this so I was always leaving money for my bartender. One night I left a dollar on the bar and we went down the street to frequent some other establishments. On the way back we stopped back in that bar and my dollar was on the counter. The barkeep grabbed my dollar, poured a beer, and gave me my change. I still insisted on tipping and according to my cousin Allan that changed everything. He says no bartender ever expected a tip before and now they all do, and my cousins universally blame that phenomenon on me.

I had numerous cousins with me on those excursions but my cousin Linda was very memorable. She was, and still is , a very attractive girl but good looks aside she could hold her own with any of us, a trait she acquired growing up with three brothers. When I visited my Uncle Denny and Aunt Sandy’s house, (her parents), the first thing she did was go downstairs to the basement and fill up a pitcher with beer. The night we were out she started buying shots. She also left me standing in a bar holding her purse while she went to the bathroom , which resulted in my receiving some less than flattering remarks. But her out drinking me was nothing compared to what her brothers did to me later that week.

Peter, Brian, and David took me to several bars and before long my brain and legs were in conflict. Now I was staying with My Uncle Karl and Aunt Bernie. My Uncle Karl, known locally as the Guv,  had already been chewed out for just taking me to see Elsa at the Badger Bar, (Elsa was the owner), and not bringing me around to see other family members. So my cousins had no intention of dropping me off in person. They leaned me up against the door, rang the bell, and left. Ding Dong and Ditch is what they called it. As Brian said later, no one wanted to face the wrath of Bernie. As an aside Brian is a very clever guy. One night after some extended libation he ordered a pizza for delivery while in proximity to the restaurant. As the delivery man came out with his pizza Brian approached him and said that if he let him ride with him to his house he would pay him for the pie when they got there. The pizza guy was impressed and Brian got his ride.

My cousin Dave, ( I have two cousins named David), and I visited with Aunt Bernie on this trip. Dave told her that one of his sons now lived around the corner from her. She began remarking about how nice her neighborhood was. She then told us about two vacant houses nearby and a child molester who lived next door. With a straight face I asked her if she could describe a bad neighborhood for me. Actually her neighborhood is very nice with tree shaded streets and manicured lawns but I couldn’t resist.

I have some interesting uncles. My Uncle Jerome is in his eighties and still outworks people half his age. In his own words, “I don’t take any pills”, and he mows the lawns of all the “old” ladies in the neighborhood. When my cousin Dave and I went by his house after visiting with Aunt Bernie we couldn’t find him. He was on a ladder reparing something on his garage while also watching his great-grandson.

My Uncle Mike worked in the paper mills and is also an entrepreneur. He sells gourmet popcorn locally and over the internet. He recently bought $1,000,000 Iraqi dinars for about $1,300.00. What possessed him to do that is beyond me but knowing him he will make a profit. His grown daughters still take turns working in their popcorn stand.

My Uncle Denny is retired and cuts grass at the local golf club near his house. We played golf last week and he basically ground me like meat while wearing a long sleeved flannel shirt and blue jeans. He only used his woods, even for chips and shots normally reserved for irons, and before he swung he would say ” a thousand one”. He made one twenty foot putt and two other long putts he put on the lip of the cup. All his drives were in the fairway and all his approaches avoided hazards. After I hit the maintenance shed and a Pepsi machine with a drive I became frustrated. Crouched over the ball I swung and missed three times. On the fourth one I tipped the ball but it didn’t move. He chuckled at me and said “You are getting closer.” Finally after nine holes he looked at me and said “Merrill maybe we ought to go into the club house and get a beer?” Later that evening while sitting on his back deck he asked if we wanted to throw the football around.It should be noted that he is almost seventy years old. Ten years ago at a family reunion we had a touch football game. At age sixty he was running deep pass patterns and was leaving all of us in the dust. He doesn’t brag but he was offered a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team when he was a teenager.

My Uncle Karl passed away six years ago. He had his basement set up like a bar and called it Karl’s Red Room. My Uncle Denny did the same thing except his was the Wagon Wheel Lounge. They even had business cards made. Uncle Karl was always telling really bad jokes but he was good about checking on me. He would call and say “Merrill this is your Uncle Karl from Wisconsin.” I would always respond by saying ” Thanks for clearing that up. I never know which Uncle Karl is calling unless you say that.” Of course I only had one Uncle Karl. I won’t tell you how he responded to that except to say it was colorful.

After my Uncle Denny humbled me at golf I went to his house for a fish fry. Later in the evening I was trying to leave and was told by my cousin Brian “One for the ditch.” Apparently that is the same as one for the road and you can’t refuse. I had at least six for the ditch before I was allowed to leave. Two days later my cousin Allan was trying to leave another party his parents , My Uncle Jerome and Aunt Carol, had thrown in my honor. As his wife was waiting impatiently in their truck. I said “One for the ditch.” Allan stopped, grabbed a beer, and his wife Ginger texted him “Good bye”. I felt bad about that. Sort of. Maybe if I hadn’t walked down the drive way and waved to her after she texted Allan the first time???

My cousin Dave was a world class fast pitch softball player, my cousin Pat is an outdoorsman so skilled that he could survive in the woods with a pocket knife and a pack of matches, my cousin Larry was a college basketball player, and well you get the picture. This is a hard family to hang with if you are not physically fit…like me. My cousin Allan is in his mid-fifties, a steamfitter, and he can still weld outside in below zero tempertures.

I don’t see my Wautlet kin as much as I would like. I tease them that since I moved to Shreveport, which is in Northwest Louisiana, that I am not nearly as popular as I was when I lived in New Orleans but I know that is not true. Every time I visit up there they all make me feel a part of something special. They love the Packers ( my cousin Allan has a Green Bay helmet tattoo on his arm and my cousin David named his son Brett after Brett Favre,) and I love the Saints but at the end of the day we are still family. However I refuse to buy or wear a Cheesehead. On that note I think I will have one for the ditch!




About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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