Into the Woods

I’m well aware that the environs surrounding Eagle River, Wisconsin went Trump-Pence by a sizable margin. During the winter off-season, you’d be hard-pressed to gather a minyan or find anyone to discuss my haftorah portion with, anywhere in the adjoining counties. And the town of Eagle River itself has an exponentially greater number of novelty t-shirt shops and fudge stores than museums.

Oh yeah, and it’s also one of the most perfect, magical places I’ve ever been.

Both of my children have had the luxury of being LA kids who got to spend summer after summer in the camps of Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Over the past decade, I had seen the pictures and read the progressively more spartan letters. But nothing can accurately describe the layer of stress that peels away the moment you land at Rhinelander Airport like actually being there. (The airport itself is so modest and tiny, you half-expect Lowell the mechanic from Wings to show up to crack wise.)

I had never been to my kids’ visitors’ weekend. My wife had gone in the past and even her stories about bucolic peace couldn’t convince me that taking off a Friday wouldn’t cost me my job. Then a co-worker (and fellow dad) died suddenly and I recognized that any experience with my children is a gift I am not promised. And that there wouldn’t be many more summers for me to understand why this place meant so much to them.

So I went. As you drive through the Northwoods, it is almost nothing but trees and lakes in every direction. I was more likely to hit a pedestrian in my own driveway at home than anywhere in Northern Wisconsin. In Los Angeles, I sit in bumper to bumper traffic, including Sunday nights when I drive to LAX to protest Muslim travel bans. On the drive from Eagle River to neighboring Minocqua, you can go 45 minutes without seeing another car. Like a post zombie apocalypse future. But in a good way.

My other initial observation was that almost every radio station was some version of an 80’s oldies station. This is not Kendrick Lamar or Beyonce country. Here, by my estimation that I frequently shared with my son, the airwaves remain ruled by Def Leppard, Billy Idol, Bryan Adams and the Steve Miller Band. Someday the eighties may end in Vilas County, WI. But not yet. And what I found both comforting and disconcerting is that it made me realize the last time I allowed myself to be out of LA during the summer was in 1983, when I went to Andover Summer School. That was the last time I was driving around America’s open highways. And I was listening to roughly the identical soundtrack. But it also hit me hard that 34 years can pass in an instant. And that for 34 years, I was able to make excuses as to why I was not entitled to enjoy at least a weekend of American freedom. A weekend on a lake or cruising down an open highway. (Sorry to get poor man’s Springsteen. There was a lot of Born in the U.S.A. as well. But not as much as Bryan Adams.)

But the real joy was getting to see my boy in what amounts to a second home for him. Two of every twelve months he’s in the Northwoods, without technology, without any of the negative trappings of modernity. It was awesome. We ate at one restaurant with a moose on the wall. The next night we at the local supper club. We were in our seats by 4:40 to beat “the rush.” By which we mean, Jews from Chicago and Scottsdale also visiting one of the many camps in the area.

We didn’t do anything special. Yet, everything we did felt special. We watched the US-El Salvador men’s soccer Gold Cup Match. I had the best pancakes in the world, yes the world (Thank you Wolf Pack Cafe.) I listened to a Kasey Casem countdown from 1976— “for the second week in a row, the number one song in America is “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band.” The parking at the beach, yes there was a beach, was free. Yes, it was free!

I did have one overly emotional moment. Heck, I was due for one, wasn’t I? Have we met?

On my last night in town, Jack and I were driving and passed a National Guard event. I started telling him a story about my dad and the Air National Guard, which was also the story I had told to end my dad's eulogy. In short, on the night he died I found an old photo from when I was 4. My dad had been away on Air National Guard training and my brother and I were allowed to stay up extra late to see him. And like I said in the memorial (and tried to say that night to Jack) was that the feeling of hoping your dad would walk through the door never went away, especially on that night he passed 40 years later. Needless to say, I didn't finish the story. Also needless to say, my son didn't expect me to get suddenly teary-eyed on the ride back from our rib-eye dinner. I think he gave me a supportive pat on the shoulder. I didn't finish my story, but I did unexpectedly muster a "So you can probably tell how important a weekend like this is to me." It was thoroughly unplanned but I got to tell my kid how I feel about him. Then we watched US soccer, got some ice cream and I delivered him back to camp. A perfect weekend. Just me and my boy in America's heartland.

But between dropping him off and actually leaving the Northwoods, I spent a ton of time ruminating over why I had gotten so teary-eyed the night before. True, tears come all too naturally to me. I could likely defeat an Italian widow or someone who just watched Up at at “cry off.” I also think it has lots to do with having a friend with kids roughly the same age as my own, die suddenly and unexpectedly. And finally, though I’m somewhat resistant to always try to input the same meaning from the same event— as the child of a father who took his own life, I think I have become subconsciously obsessed with not leaving anything unsaid. Whether you think about losing your loved one to suicide every day or once in a great while, most of the thoughts seem to center around “What were they thinking? What is it they couldn’t tell me?”

So, is that why I started quietly sobbing that night driving through Eagle River? Maybe I’m just a colossal pussy, to use the proper medical terminology. But I do believe that I’ve become more aware that the kids are grown up and time is passing quickly. And deep down, you want them to know for a fact, not guess, but actually know that you loved them dearly and cherished every moment you got to spend with them. So, if for no other reason, my trip into the Wisconsin woods was a huge success. But really, truly, you also have to try those pancakes.

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