Lo and behold, I finally passed the Pittsville city limit sign (pop. 800) and easily found Main Street where Billy said his store was located. Sure enough, there was “Billy’s Mini Market – Cold Beer Frozen Piazza and All the Bait You Want”. It was time for my masterful disguise as I donned my Detroit Tiger baseball cap and some shades.
Billy was behind the counter as I entered undetected and strolled the aisles pretending to grocery shop. Eventually, I made my way back to the front noticing Billy eyeing me somewhat suspiciously and opened the frozen food box under the guise of buying something. By then, curiosity had gotten the better of Mr. Rodgers, so he came over and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Say, aren’t you Bill Early?” My cover had been blown! I shed the cap and glasses and said, “When I saw you at the reunion I said I might be coming this way. You never can tell so here I am.” He stepped back in astonishment and said, “Hot dawg! C’mon, you’re going to spend the night at our house and we’ll cook something outside. Boy, it’s sure somethin’ seein’ you.”
I hung around for about thirty minutes until he closed the store and then followed him to his nearby farm. His modest self-built one-story house stood on 40 acres of pasture land and was replete with dogs, cats, chickens, his beloved horses, and a collection of old cars and tractors. His wife Sherri whom he met when she was a flight attendant for United and his teenage daughter and son Billy Jr. met us at the front door. As promised, Billy cooked some hamburgers on his outdoor grille and we dinned alfresco on the back porch.
The family graciously retired which left Billy and I to reminisce about the good old days at Hillcrest. Midway in our talks, I had to say, “Billy, I remember you being a part of the ‘wild bunch’ that regaled in drag races out on Belt Line Road. You were always hangin’ out with Barry Smith, Louis James, and Leroy Lucky. Let’s face it, you weren’t exactly the role model student, especially when it came to Tessie Cox, our erstwhile venerable English teacher. He said, “Yeah, that was a fun gang. We loved our Chevys and Fords.” I continued saying, “But, you know, seeing what all you’ve accomplished – owning your own store and your own home and raising a fine family – makes me feel mighty proud of you, Billy Boy.” I said goodnight to the implausible family man. Needless to say, I had a cool and comfortable night’s sleep in Ol’ Blue, gazing up at millions of stars through the skylight. I thanked the Good Lord for a safe day’s trip and for one fine time with an old classmate.
The next morning, as Billy and I sat on the porch sipping coffee waiting for Sherri to serve us some scrambled eggs, he said, “Your timing couldn’t have been better. I usually close the store on Sundays, so I’ll have the day to show you around Wisconsin.” It was another great gratuitous breakfast. As I looked out to the northwest, I had to say, “This is the most peaceful place. What’s so neat is that you can sit out here and watch different weather patterns develop out to the west.” He said that’s what he did, just about every day, especially from mid-autumn to early winter when the snowstorms rolled in. He went on to say, “You’re right about how quiet it is here, but for nine days in November all hell breaks loose. Some big corporation owns land just beyond that tree line and lease it out to deer hunters. Sounds like a damn war going on over there.”
The rest of the morning Billy gave me a tour of several counties in his ’79 Chevy pickup. We visited several of his farmer friends, one in particular had just bought a new bull that was sniffing out his new cow companions. After shaking hands with those gents, I felt as if my hand had been caught in a vice – their paws were as big as a picnic roast! And their manner of speech was crisp and fast. On our way over to another farm, I asked Billy, “What kind of dialect were your friends speaking?” He kind of laughed and said, “Fred is Polish and Mort is Norwegian. Most of the farmers around here are of European descent.”
We meandered over to another neighbor’s place that was a cranberry farm. I mentioned that I had noticed some flooded fields at an “Ocean-Spray” farm back down the road. As he described it, they flood the levee-rimmed paddies in the spring, then in autumn they scrape off the berries from the tops of the plants. Then they drain the paddy and scoop up all the cranberries, or something like that. Give me a break – I’m just a city boy, but it was an education. After we got back to the house, I had to say, “Billy, it’s been two helluva days with you and your family. I’ll never forget it.” He simply said, “Come back any time.”
It was a cool cloudy afternoon when I left the Rodgers’ farm, a perfect day for driving west. I gallivanted around on state roads until finally merging with U.S. 10. I had time to reflect on my last four wonderful days in Wisconsin. I forgot to mention that on Friday morning of the Fourth, Owen and Sue gave me a quick tour of downtown Milwaukee and points in between. What impressed me was how clean the city was and Owen pointed out that the city was practically void of any slums. It was a city of strong European ethnicity – a blue-collar city, a proud city. I stopped at a small grocery in Neillsville for some grapes to munch on. Outside, one of the local gentry noticed my Colorado plates and said, “You’re a long way from home.” I replied, “Yeah, I took a wrong turn back there at Pittsville, but I think I can find my way home.”