Fifty Years, Part 2

By Paul Ketterer

Part 2 in a 2-part essay. For Part 1, click here.


The venue is appropriate. The VFW hall was born in the 1940s, formed into completion in the 1960s, and has been going to seed ever since in a gentle and quite sweet way. It is basic 1940s cinder-block construction with a thorough whitewashing on the outside. The signs show evidence of repainting, and though haggard and tired are legible. They are hardly necessary, as this is a neighborhood bar and on most Friday nights the full house includes no one who has not been in attendance many times before. It’s noisy, but that isn’t a problem, as most of what is said is ignored or immediately forgotten. Though the neighborhood has undergone some gentrification, or at least a spike in the value of housing, the clientele has remained firmly working-class with a tinge of desperation.

Getting to the entrance means running a gauntlet through what some elsewhere might term a “beer garden”. Here it is clearly just a few picnic tables for the utilitarian purpose of allowing people to drink while also obeying the state no-smoking-indoors laws. The breeze is not strong enough to purify and the eyes sting a bit by the time the door is reached. Indoors there has not been smoking for many years, but there remains a sensate reminder that at one time visibility (and breathability) was severely restricted. Or perhaps it is just what clings to us and the other patrons stacked up around the bar.

There are two rooms inside, plus bathrooms and a kitchen. The kitchen is inactive this evening, but retains the perfume of past fish-frys. There is a barroom to the right where the regulars are gathered. The bar itself is Formica, probably redone in the 1960s, as the rest of the décor seems to have appeared about then, from the beer signs to the bowling trophies. Modernity is served by posters revealing the playing schedules of professional sports teams. There seems much less fervor about those teams than can be found around the corner at the “sports bar”.

The second large room is of similar vintage, though void of décor, save several generations of picture of women, presidents of the VFW Auxiliary. The floor is scuffed and faded vinyl tile. The walls are paneled with sheets of plywood from the era when plywood was actually made of solid sheets of wood. A few folding tables are scattered around the room, surrounded by metal chairs. The general scheme is brown on brown, with here and there a tinge of gray or tan. While there is still daylight, the sun on the dusty windows adds a note of cheer.

The bathrooms are the same vintage and color, with stalls tight enough that anyone over 200 pounds will face a struggle. But all the plumbing works, and there are honest-to-goodness paper towels that dispense by pulling.

As bleak as the above description may seem, there is a familiar, homey feeling to the place that makes me comfortable, though I have never been here before. Most of my growing up was spent three blocks away, and on the other side of the earth culturally. I never even went to the Hut, the burger joint the other junior-highers frequented, as my parents felt it was a disreputable training-ground for the neighborhood bars similar to where I now found myself. That cultural and psychological chasm comes into play in the ensuing…

In a previous musing, I debated whether to attend the events scheduled as a celebration of the 50th reunion for the class of 1964 of Madison (WI) Central High School. On the side of going was curiosity, and the possibility of interacting with a few people who had shared some genuine good times. On the no side was fear of feeling the need for acknowledgement that had been crucial to my sense of self. I dreaded that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The battle between moved back and forth for weeks.

My presence in this venue declares my decision – I would attend one of the two functions; the less formal and presumably the less attended “Pub Crawl”. Previous reunions had indeed gone from bar to bar on the Friday night of the reunion weekend. Our advancing age made it more practical to stay the evening in one place. The appropriateness of the setting was due to the matching impressions formed by the attendees. Born in the 1940s, formed into completion in the 1960s, and going to seed ever since, in a gentle and quite sweet way. Among the knee braces, white and non-existent hair, wrinkles and age spots, the mannerisms and voices remained amazingly consistent.

About twenty of my classmates were already present when I arrived, and another thirty of so arrived as the next hour passed. We were issued name-tags on which to identify ourselves – a necessity and two-thirds of us bear no resemblance to what appears in the yearbook. Some of the others – God bless them – could have passed for thirty. I was amazed and gratified by the warmth of greetings, hugs and smiles and genuine “glad to see you”. The positives seemed to have grown, the negatives shrunken. There are a lot of very nice people in my past, for which I’m grateful.

Those long-ago days were lonesome, as if the emotional upheavals of self-doubt and fears were mine alone. In the ensuing years the same loneliness has emerged from time to time. As I encountered one after another of my classmates that evening, I began to realize that we had indeed been much more involved with each others’ lives than I had thought at the time. And in actuality, there were many further from popularity and success than I was. The lens from a fifty-year distance gives a far wider perspective.

The fact that my school was a quarter the size of the other Madison schools meant that I knew most everyone at least by name, and was known as well. It was pleasing to find that as we mixed through a fluid process of conversation in groups of three to five, that I recognized the names, if not all the faces, and could recall shared experiences from those long-ago days.

So, was my ambivalence of whether to attend justified?

No! Nothing such. There were no unfinished agendas. The exchanges of the night were quick and shallow. Marriage, children and jobs covered the range of topics. Yet it seemed understood that all of us had long and deep experiences in life, some mundane, some profound. There was no need to process them, to show off, to pity. I feel a great respect for those stories, content with not knowing the details, celebrating the richness of human variety.

The more formal gathering on Saturday remains a mystery because I didn’t go. If past reunions set the pattern, there would have been about one hundred attending. That would mean that almost twice as many would be absent. Among them would be the valedictorian and salutatorian, the leading athletes and success stories. Also absent would be many whom life had treated harshly. There is a DVD available shot at that event, featuring short interviews with almost everyone there. $34. Another decision.

The strangest part of the experience was that this event was not about the past, but the present. Old issues of life were irrelevant. It was not 1964, but 2014. Glad I went.



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Fifty Years, Part 1

By Paul Ketterer

Part 1 in a 2-part essay

Central High 1951, slightly before my time there

Central High 1951, slightly before my time there

Fifty years ago, I graduated from Madison Central High School. All that is left of the building is the arch formerly over the front door of the building, facing the 200 block of Wisconsin Avenue. The building is gone, and there is no Central High in Madison any more – has not been for forty-five years.

The barrenness of the site, now a parking ramp for the upgraded Madison Vocational and Technical Institute (Madison College) is an appropriate symbol for my public education experience. While by no means abusive, the fact that I was able to slip through the system in 67th class rank while doing no more than 15 minutes of homework a week shows how unchallenging the academics were. I did manage to learn a vast array of information, by osmosis from class time and much more from personal reading and interests. So much so that in the infamous PSAT and SAT my class rank was number one.

This disconnect was reflected in physical endeavors, as in pick-up basketball games I always did well, but did not make the basketball team. With one exception – in a one-on-one with our all-state center, I failed to even get a shot off. He either stole the ball or blocked my shotI ran well in private runs of five miles, yet finished dead last in every one of my cross country meets.

Socially, my perception is exemplified by an experience at the end of our 9th-grade year. The Loft has gone through a number of reincarnations in the past fifty years, but at that time it was the place to be for high-schoolers, mostly Madison East and Central though a few high-society West students would show up. A mass mailing went out to all finishing 9th-graders inviting them to join. Most got theirs on a Thursday, and the conversation on the bus on the way to school involved would they go and what would they wear. I had not received mine, and was certain that the invitations went to the popular kids, and I was not included. Mine did arrive on Friday, the day of the welcome party, and the Loft became an important part of the next two years for me. Telling was my interpretation – I felt invisible – no one knew I was smart, or a fast runner, or a kind friend.

There are some rational explanations for the invisibility. I was often at our cabin fifty miles away. The two summers after my 6th and 7th grade years I spent entirely there, as well as most weekends. My closest friends were country kids from the cabin area, and I was confirmed in the church local to that place rather than Madison. The church youth group there became important to me, as well as one on Madison’s west side, where my close friends were West High students. As a result, I didn’t have social time with locals other than after school. I was often not physically present in our neighborhood.

I found the world of reading much more enjoyable than most “reality” and spent hours upon hours untouchable by any around me. I was a brooder who was traumatized by nuclear proliferation, nightmaring several times a month about observing/being in an atomic explosion. Always afterward I felt out of touch.

College years provided a wondrous contrast — three of my grade and high school friends continued with me to the UW. I treasured those deepening relationships.

The context of this reflection is the opportunity to reserve a place at the Inn on the Park July 26, 2014th for only $29.95, including eats and entertainment. There is a “pub crawl” at the southside VFW the 25th as well, for $5. The question is: “Do I want to go?”

How have I been the last 50 years? Would anyone be interested? Fifty years ago they didn’t seem to be, in any way shape or form. I spent most of my career in the public eye, with much attention and influence, and with a dangerous, secret interior. About the public stuff people have plenty opinions, most of which I’ve heard, and in none of which am I the least interested. The interior is too personal, and healing too sensitive. It’s really none of their business.

Am I interested in their last 50 years? Only the three good continuing friends. One of them will not be there; with the other two I have had recent contact. I have some curiosity about the other invisible ones from grade school, the ones least likely to be there.

The last reunion, the 45th, took me right back to that first trip to the Loft.

“Am I dressed ok?” “Will anyone talk to me?” “What will they think?”

Should I go?

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It’s “First Monday, First Person” time again!


modern-art-1-1Join us on the first Monday of every month except for Monday holidays to share and critique writing in the first person with like-minded people. Sign up on arrival to read on a first-come, first-served basis, and receive group feedback. Listeners welcome as well as readers.  Free, thanks to the kindness of the Friends of the Library).

Where? Goodman South Madison Branch Library, 2222 South Park Street

When? 6pm-7:45pm

We’re waiting for you there!



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It’s time to “Throw me somethin, Mister”!

Mardi Gras is approaching down in New Orleans, where cries of “Throw me somethin, Mister!” are already being heard–the krewes have been parading since Epiphany. Things have gotten a little quite around “True Stories Well Told,” so like the dazzling jewels that flash through the humid New Orleans air from parade floats toward upward-reaching arms, I’ve got my hands out to catch some surprise.

Are you writing? Maybe editing and polishing a piece or two you’ve written previously? Throw it my way! You–anybody with a true tale to tell–are welcome to submit a guest post for this blog. Here are the guidelines.

Now throw me somethin, Mr.,  Ms., whoever you are!

-Sarah White

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“Wild” vs. “Orange Is the New Black” Smackdown

I just finished reading Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black, and recently saw the movie adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I read a year ago and have been re-reading sporadically since.

orange_new_black     wild book cover


These two books are ready for a smack down! Their similarities and differences are interesting to contemplate. Here goes:

Category: Appealingly flawed protagonist

Wild: I liked Cheryl’s candor about her approach to grief prior to the hike: bury it in drugs and sex. OITNB: Not so much. Piper comes across as shallow and short on self-knowledge compared to Cheryl. Is what we have here a born-to-be writer vs. an individual who came to writing as a way to capitalize on an otherwise-wasted year? Point to Wild.

Category: Supportive boyfriend

OITNB wins in this category. Larry is hands-down angelic. Could use a few flaws, actually, to make him seem real. Wild: It’s complicated. The ex-husband Paul is as supportive as he can be, given their situation, and it all rings true. Life–and love–are complicated. Let it show.

Category: Role of environment

The contrast between Cheryl’s isolation in a majestic (but ultimately uncaring) landscape and Piper’s immersion in a corrections institution where she is anything but isolated made for some good contemplation for this reader. Piper writes, “…a familiar jailhouse trope says ‘you come in alone and you walk out alone’.” Cheryl writes of a saying on the Pacific Crest Trail, ‘everybody hikes their own hike.” (I’m paraphrasing.) This one’s a tie. As for which would I want to be in, Wild wins hands-down.

Category: Comparability to others in genre

Wild: Interesting for comparison to familiar male “hero’s journey” literature of the Thoreau sort. (Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild comes to mind as a more contemporary comparison.) OITNB: Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted comes to mind. There’s a certain “Look at me, I’m institutionalized” aspect to both that is a bit off-putting. This point goes to Wild.

Category: footwear

Cheryl certainly worked the footwear for high dramatic effect in Wild. (I won’t spoil it by saying how.) Piper’s canvas sneakers ands steel toe boots do mark certain stages in her heroine’s journey. Tie.

Category: Is this a “stunt book”?

A stunt book is one where you set yourself a goal in order to get a book out of it. Goodreads offers a list. Eat, Pray, Love and Julie and Julia come to mind. Cheryl waited 15 years to write about her PCT hike, so I’d say she wasn’t cashing in on a stunt. Piper didn’t choose jail, so I guess hers wasn’t a stunt either. Draw.

Category: Emotional growth of protagonist

In Wild, Cheryl ends her hike stronger at the broken places. In an interview she said, “I knew that the wilderness was a place I felt gathered, I knew it was a place that brought me to the calmest, truest self… So it didn’t seem surprising that I decided to turn to that place in my sorrow.” Meanwhile Piper writes OITNB  “…most of all, I realized that I was not alone in the world…”  Both protagonists start from a place of stoic, “I don’t need ANYBODY” independence (and chutzpa). Both end with that stance replaced with a more connected, joyful, gratitude-fueled approach to life. Close to a draw, but point goes to Cheryl for articulating her growth better.

Category: Career launchpad

Cheryl is teaching creative writing and writes an advice column. Piper is a PR flak in DC. Point to Cheryl.

Category: Did I like it?

I loved Wild, both book and movie. I disliked the Orange Is the New Black tv series enough to try the book instead. Liked Piper better in the book than the tv show, but still found her a bit annoying. Point to Wild.

Final Score

Wild: 7. OITNB: 3.

I borrowed OITNB from the library; bought Wild for my iPad (first book I read in eReader form.) I am perfectly satisfied with my choices.

What memoirs have you read recently? How would they score on this completely unscientific test?



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G.G. Michelson, Macy’s Executive Who Broke Glass Ceilings, Dies at 89

In May 2012 I went on strategic planning retreat with myself, and emerged with a goal that shocked me: to place at the center of my purpose helping feminists from the leading edge of the Baby Boom share their stories of participating in the social and political change that marked a generation. As a marketer I thought, “Are you KIDDING? You’re taking a small niche service–personal history–and targeting an even smaller niche?” But I like fearless foolishness, and I set out on that path. Within a few months, A Fund for Women (AFFW) tapped me to collect and edit women’s stories about their personal experiences with gender equality. Our book What She Said was the result. The audacious goal is turning out just fine. Which brings me to….

I’m an obsessive obituary reader; I find the first draft of the history of our times is being written in those brief essays. Knowing that, you can easily imagine why I want to share the obituary of G.G. Michelson with you.

G.G. Michelson, Macy’s Executive Who Broke Glass Ceilings, Dies at 89

Photo credit: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Time

Photo credit: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Time

Mrs. Michelson’s climb to the executive suite was strewn with obstacles, a passage marked by the struggles of the Depression, family illness, stays in orphanages and a college career that took her through law school but could not promise a woman a job in her chosen field…

…When she graduated in 1947, most law firms had little need for female lawyers, so she focused her job search not on legal positions but on companies that employed large numbers of women, assuming that they would need executives who could bridge the gender divide…

“The purpose of an obituary is to help the world appreciate the person we’ve lost,” says my APH colleague Sue Hessel. G.G.’s obituary makes me sorry I did not know her. I feel she’s a true mother and mentor to the Boomer feminists I admire.

How would you like YOUR obituary to read?


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A note to myself resurfaces…

sen biden on dead poets societyHave you ever found a note in your own handwriting that you have ABSOLUTELY no memory of writing? Well that’s what you’re looking at. I don’t know when or where I wrote this down, and I can only guess from the concluding scribble that it must have been while watching Sen. Joe Biden as a guest of Ben Mankiewicz’s TCM while featuring Dead Poets Society. (I have absolutely no idea when that would have been, and Google is mum on that point.)

Here’s what the scribble says:

Interesting stories come from exposing the everyday conflicts between people (going on all around us).

Challenging established authority/orthodoxy is interesting.  (ex. Catholic church.)

Conformity vs. independent thinking, taking the path less traveled.

Arrogantly ignoring advice of wiser counselors. (Bush on Iraq.)

Question what he seeks in entertainment.

– – –

I recognize why I made the effort to scribble down what I was hearing–these are fascinating writing prompts!

In fact, when the note fell out of some past writing notebook the other day when I sat down to plan my upcoming Pinney Library workshop, I decided I would use these as the assigned themes for the 4-week session.

Why don’t you try them too, and send me the result?  True Stories Well Told is in need of some fresh fodder!

-Sarah White


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