Beyond Peshtigo

The Great Chicago Fire began October 8, 1871. More than 100,000 residents were left homeless and 300 lost their lives. Help flowed in nationally and internationally to rebuild the city.

North of Chicago, the largest and deadliest forest fire in United States history took place the same day in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Over 1,200,000 acres (1,875 square miles) burned. The number of people killed can only be estimated because church and government records burned in the fire. Some of the 1,500 to 2,500 men, women and children would never be identified. The fires were so intense that some victims were totally incinerated. 

Many of the Peshtigo fire victims were immigrant farmers and small-town dwellers. Belgian and German settlers bought acres of cheap land to farm only to discover thick forests covered the area. Along with the railroads and timber industry, farmers slashed through the trees and left much wood on the ground. It was not unusual to see several small fires burning. Even ships in Green Bay and Lake Michigan experienced visibility problems from smoke. In 1871 drought dried fields and wood waste. October 8 a cold front moved in and whipped flames from many small fires into a giant firestorm with temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

People who hid in their wells or storm cellars died. People who tried to outrun the flames in their wagons or buggies died. Some burned, some suffocated. Others drowned while seeking refuge in rivers or ponds. The flames formed a tornado of fire that tossed buildings into the air. Peshtigo was burned to the ground with only two buildings remaining. Fires burned on both side of Green Bay touching Marinette and stopping short of Sturgeon Bay.

The Belgian Heritage Center remembers the fire each October and the dramatic impact it had on its community. Thick wooded lands were transformed into barren acres. Wooden farmhouses were replaced by red brick buildings. Roadside chapels stood near many homes. 

My Belgian ancestors lived in the Peshtigo fire area. This year I find a strange comfort in the reality that awful fires are not a modern experience but have devastated parts of our country before. Instead of seeing our current wildfires as one more sign that we are heading toward doom, history is reminding me that there can be more living on the other side of disaster. Learning from the disaster to make the rebuilding smarter is the challenge.

Fifty Years of Technology

My first public relations job after college came with a workstation equipped with an IBM Selectric Mag Card Executive machine. In the 1970s this was the equivalent of leaving a simple bicycle outside only to find a stick shift European automobile locked to the bike rack on your return. 

Marquette University’s College of Journalism still used manual typewriters. The Milwaukee Journal where I did stringer reporting had manuals. I saw a few electronic typewriters, maybe even Selectric, during an internship. My first, professional job was with an engineering company owned by a husband and wife. I was their first PR department. The executive secretary presented with this $3,000 or more marvel said she would leave before she used the thing. Of course, the new college graduate was the logical place to stash a purchase that didn’t work out. 

The machine had a selection of font balls, so it was possible to jazz up a document. It had a magnetic storage card to store what seemed like an amazing amount of work, about one printed page. There was a correction ribbon. Overall, the start of desktop publishing. Except no one knew that phrase. 

I battled that machine for almost a year. Learning engineering lingo and understanding the company’s products was a steep curve for someone used to covering suburban governments for a newspaper or writing press releases and speeches for a healthcare nonprofit. The wife-owner was my manager, and she had all kinds of uses for the fancy typewriter including menus for her garden club, invitations for fundraising dinner parties, their son’s class papers. I spent hours and hours teaching myself how to use the fancy Selectric. I hated the machine, and the job.

Through decades of desktops and laptops, of cables and wi fi and Bluetooth, I’ve figured how to use the next generation of technology. I probably master about ten percent the capability of each computer, printer, or apps.

Last month I turned away from replacing a fitness tracker with another fitness tracker and bought an Apple Watch. It is an unbelievable piece of technology. I can receive and answer phone calls, text messages, alerts. It pings when it is time for me to breath, stand, move. I know the current temperature, air quality, and UV. Eventually I’ll figure out how to turn off some of those amazing, but useless, features and figure out why I can’t change to other albums in my account or listen to audiobooks when I walk. No rush. 

Grudgingly I should probably thank my first employer who threw me overboard into technology without a life jacket. 

Mermaid Slippers and Princesses

What kind of jokes do six-year-olds tell? Do they wake up at five thirty and tumble down the stairs with the cat to ask if grandma is ready to watch morning cartoons? And what cartoons would they watch?

Our annual summer vacation with our granddaughter just finished. The lilac mermaid slippers left behind by a five-year-old didn’t fit the tall seven-and-a half-year-old girl who searched for a heavy, snuggly blanket while ignoring her old favorite princess cover. Her Frozen cup looked small in the hands that now write stories, multiply numbers, turn pages in a chapter book. She reads to us, no longer sounding out as many words, instead adding emotional emphasis to characters. 

In a mostly rainy week, there was one beach day when we watched her patiently teach two very young children how to use a squirt gun and return a dead minnow to the water. She learned with great enthusiasm how to play old video games. She and her mom made craft projects. And we watched a different set of morning programs cast with early teens as well as an Australian cartoon about a family of dogs. She made the dinner salad one meal. What mattered was that we were together around the clock as a family. Creative as we tried to be last year, this experience had been lost.

Far greater losses were experienced during the pandemic lockdown. Far greater losses are being experienced now as the pandemic continues. It is not over. People are falling ill. Fewer people are dying, a small comfort to those who do lose a loved one. With an unvaccinated child in the mix, we returned to considering when to mask, where to eat out, avoiding crowds. She is the last in our family to walk unprotected in open communities. It is scary to know our kids are still at risk. It is hard to not be disappointed in the adults who contribute to Covid’s continued spread in our country.

I’m not sure how I could convince an unvaccinated person to take the jab. For me it was a mix of trusting science, hope that the virus would be slowed, and feeling responsible for contributing to the safety of our country. But I didn’t have to balance concerns of caring for a family if I got ill from the vaccine or missing work. Maybe neighbors are part of the next push to increase the vaccinated numbers. The wearers of mermaid slippers are our future. Let’s keep them healthy and safe.

Family vacation puppet show 2021

Broken Dreams

Aniya Allen’s funeral was June 2, 2021.  Six years old, the newspapers said she wore a sparkling tiara in her small pink coffin. The second to die of three young children caught in gun violence in Minneapolis this May. One is still in hospital. On a local television news show, young Minneapolis school children talked about being afraid to play outside or go to the park or to see friends. They asked, begged, demanded that older kids and adults put down guns and give peace a chance and kids a chance to grow and dream. 

Unfortunately these two families are not the only ones who have lost their very young children to the senseless and unexpected gun fighting of young men with disagreements that should have been resolved with discussions, even strong words, maybe fists. Not guns shot in an alley. Not a shootout on a street corner where parents drove home from grocery stores or taking a child to McDonalds. These babies cannot be replaced, these families’ broken dreams cannot be rebuilt.

According to Brady every year 7,957 children and teens are shot in the United States. More than 1,600 will die from gun violence. Gun sales in the United States grew over 65% increase in 2019 and continue strong in 2020. Like icebergs, there is no true tally of general U.S. gun possession that accounts for arms purchased illegally or stolen. 

A child’s funeral is about the saddest gathering on earth. Eulogies for a child describe their smiles, their bright eyes, their wonderful laugh, their love of sports or dancing or swimming, their helpfulness, of pride in being a big sister or brother. All the ways a young child’s life should be talked about when families gather for birthdays or holidays, but not in a solemn church or temple service while mourning the one resting in a small pink coffin.

We have all lost Aniya Allen and Trinity Ottoson-Smith and the other 1,600 children and teens dead because of gun violence.  So many broken dreams.

Bunny in a Basket

Weather wizards are implying a decent Easter weekend. Warm enough for plastic eggs to be hidden outside amid rapidly growing daffodils while avoiding winter piles of rabbit turds.

My husband remembers Easter egg hunting as a wonderful annual event in Indiana. Every single year while our kids were growing up he was disappointed by rain, or slush, or plain old snow and would tell them about how the Easter Bunny hid eggs and treats outside when he was a child. The stories returned when a grandchild appeared. And we watched her search for plastic eggs and her basket in snow last year. This year will be different.

Now there is a reality check-my husband’s brother and sister don’t have that same Easter memory. They remember wearing winter coats to church on Easter a number of years, other years when sleet froze the daffodils, and maybe one or two years that all came together in the way he holds as the “every year” family happening. One time we took our children to Indiana for Easter and an outdoor egg hunt. Part of the drive included iced over car windows and slipping on icy roads from Indianapolis to his hometown. Not even living bunnies were out that morning.

My father’s parents had a tradition (I was told) of giving us live critters for Easter—little chicks or bunnies or a kitten. There are pictures of me as a toddler with a skeptical face as a real, live bunny sits in a pretty basket next to me. Being rural and practical, my grandparents insisted my parents take these critters home to become future egg bearers or dinner. I never heard what happed to the kitten, but I assumed it went elsewhere because my mother hated cats. And the bunny? It’s fate was settled after biting me on the finger and chin. Again, that is what I was told, and knowing the players I believe it to be true.

One year my mother and father fully celebrated the end of the Easter Vigil with friends. That night they did hide our eggs outside. My mother planted them next to the back porch and set the chocolate bunnies next to the row of colored shells to protect future egg trees. These were not plastic eggs or plastic wrapped bunnies. She was too sick to supervise the morning hunt. My dad did what he could to pull some fun into setting dirty eggs and messed up chocolate bunnies in our baskets. After church, we headed to our grandparents for clean jellybeans and the annual disagreement about taking home live chicks. 

Eventually we moved to a city. My parents changed friends. Easter became safe fun followed by Mass where we squirmed about in new church clothes. Two states south my future husband, a time or two, searched outside for eggs and other surprises appropriately hidden.

May your holiday be peaceful. Peace for our country is all I want in my basket. Save the bunny.