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  • August 25th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Two little boys about six years old, blond and wearing overalls, standing side-by-side stiffly self-conscious in front of the camera. Each is holding a stringer aloft and each stringer has a tiny sunfish on it, the product of a fishing trip to Little Birch Lake—probably off the rickety town dock which no longer exists.

The site is Birchwood Wisconsin and I am the taller of the two little boys. The other one is Pat Catman, my first cousin and 24 hour playmate anytime I was in Birchwood. We are in the front yard of our grandmother’s house.

Pat is older than I am, a fact he loved to point out. He was born on August 7, 1934, and I was born September 25, 1934, which made him about seven weeks older than I am. I would like to say that my tiny bluegill or lake perch (they are so small it’s impossible to tell the species) is larger than his, but neither one is in the ballpark of much larger fish we will catch during the next more than seven decades.

Pat died July 5 and there may be some obscure symbolism in the fact that it was one day after the nation’s most revered patriotic holiday because Pat was a Marine veteran of the Korean War. He never shared any of his memories about the war with me, although he possibly did with his widow Kathy and his son Rocky and daughter Terri. But it is a fact that few if any Marines escaped Korea without seeing intense combat. If the US Marine Corps, as it always says, is looking for “a few good men” it certainly found one in Pat.

He had every reason to avoid the Marine Corps because his older brother Mike was a Marine in World War II and island hopped across the Pacific engaged in the horrific battles that the Corps endured. They didn’t call it PTSD in those days— shell shock or battle fatigue— but the effect was the same and Mike suffered from it to the end of his days. My father picked Mike up at the railroad station in Chicago after he was mustered out and when a car backfired as they were walking down the sidewalk, Mike reflexively hit the dirt— not the dirt of some obscure Pacific island, but the grit of a Chicago sidewalk.

Pat and I shared childhood together before we diverged and rarely spent time together over the next seven decades. Sometimes there are echoes of shared experience that sound over the passage of time and one such was a night in Birchwood when my wife and I were spending a vacation there. I was just leaving the Bluegill Bar, which was founded by my uncle Hud Soper, brother of my mother and Pat’s mother. The Bluegill (called Hud’s Bar then) was where Pat and I swiped a couple bottles of beer from the store room and scuttled out to the outhouse behind the bar to enjoy a forbidden pleasure. The third member of this preadolescent Three Musketeers was Sam Soper, another cousin, younger than Pat and me, and the little kid who tagged along and considered himself lucky if Pat and I included him in in our adventures.

The beer tasted awful, hardly worth the effort we put into swiping it. And here I was 75 years later going out the front door of the bar instead of the back door. A bulky stranger blocked my way and I stepped to one side to get around him and he did the same and I thought “uh oh!” There was a second guy with this bruiser who just grinned as if he were anticipating the enjoyment of watching me get beaten to a pulp. I knew that if the fight that appeared to be brewing started I was doomed.

“You don’t know me do you?” Asked the big guy and I quavered “Nnnnnnoo.” He grinned and said, “Sam Soper— and this is Pat.” They were all grown up and, fight avoided, we went back inside for more beer—and this time we didn’t have to sneak it out of the back room and drink it in the outhouse (the Bluegill had upgraded to an indoor toilet by then).

I saw Sam and Pat one more time some years later when our whole family stayed in Birchwood for a week and we gathered at Pat’s house on Little Birch Lake and talked over old times. Sam especially was convinced that the fictional boys in my book “Grandma and the Buck Deer” were the three of us and that the outrageous adventures I created for the boys actually were true. Some of them, as outlandish as they were, weren’t that far off from what actually happened.

Sam died a couple of years ago and now Pat is gone and the memories crowd in. There was a time that Pat picked up a ladyfinger firecracker that didn’t explode and he stuck it in his mouth and said “look at me! I’m smoking!” In an instant he was because the firecracker went off searing his mouth and stopping up my ears. He healed after a few days and my ears unplugged and we went back to roaming the streets of Birchwood and doing things that our parents would’ve been horrified by if they had known we were doing them.

We jumped out of the hayloft of a barn behind Pat’s mother’s house into a skimpy pile of hay, never stopping to consider that something like a pitchfork may have been hidden in the hay. Fortunately, we survived that leap, no doubt imagining we were Superman or Batman, rather than two goofy kids trying to survive adolescence.

Some of our adventures bordered on illegality beyond swiping a couple of really bad beers. Once, we were prowling in the attic of a barn behind Uncle Hud’s house when we discovered a couple of slot machines. Maybe there had been a day when slot machines were legal in a drinking establishment, but they weren’t at the time we made our discovery. So Uncle Hud had stashed them there perhaps against the day when they would be once again be legal. And he hadn’t even bothered to empty them from their accumulated coins.

So Pat and I liberated a stash of quarters and then there came the problem of how to account for them. If we got an allowance from our parents it was minimal and we had no independent source of income to account for a sudden flush of wealth.

That night my mother walked up the road into town with us and I pretended to find a quarter in the weeds alongside the road. My mother appreciated my good fortune, but when Pat pretended to find another quarter a few feet farther, on even though my mother was not noted as a world-famous detective, she quickly deduced that such coincidental good fortune was suspicious. It doesn’t take long for a mother to break down a flimsy alibi hastily concocted by a couple of juvenile slot machine robbers and we both were hauled before the stern presence of my uncle. Apparently we escaped a life sentence.

The sinew of the Soper family is threaded through the history of Birchwood. Grandma and Grandpa Soper emigrated to Birchwood at the beginning of the 20th century, coming overland from Argyle, Wisconsin, in a covered wagon. My grandmother ran a restaurant for the loggers who were busy cutting down the forested hills around the 20 mile chain of lakes on which Birchwood and a couple of other towns were established. My grandfather served the loggers two ways— he was the town bootlegger and if they got too obstreperous from his strong drink, he also was the town marshal.

The Soper grandparents had nine children, four boys and five girls. One boy, Orville, had his leg amputated on the kitchen table after a tree fell on him and his fascinated sister, Viola (Vic) was inspired to become a registered nurse. In the 1930s, Howard (Hud) opened Hud’s Bar, now renamed the Bluegill Bar, and his brother Foster (Bud) was the bartender. Later, Hud would build a resort on the north shore of Big Birch Lake and Bud would open a bait and tackle shop across the street from the Bluegill. The fourth brother, Myron, left home during the Depression and never was seen again. My father hired a private detective to track him down and the detective reported that a hobo killed somewhere out West, either by falling or being pushed from a train had papers identifying him as Myron Soper, but that’s where his story ended– except for a family legend which Bud’s son, Foster (the Second as he terms it) tells it: “Urban legend has it that Myron, known to be an especially “capable” boxer, took on two of Al Capone’s men who had come to Birchwood seeking drinks and adventure. After Myron dutifully handled them to a point of submission, they are said to have threatened that if Myron was still in town by the time the sun came up, he’d be snuffed out! That night, Myron vanished and was never heard from again, and Gramma Soper would look for him every time there was a knock at the door!”

One of the girls, Nellie, died in childhood from a minor wound which she got while swimming at the dam on Little Birch Lake which became infected— there were no antibiotics in those days and infection often was a death sentence. Three of the girls migrated to Chicago–Vic, Margaret (Mugs) and my mother (the only one of the girls without a nickname). Pat’s mother Lillis (Pill) stayed in Birchwood. Ultimately, Vic and Mugs ended up in old age living together in a house on the south shore of Big Birch Lake entertaining an endless stream of family and friends—it was the social epicenter of Birchwood.

Pat and Kathy would retire to a tidy home, on Little Birch, across from what once was the town dock where Pat and I caught our little fish. Pat’s sister, Mavis (of course she also had a nickname—Sammy) was my babysitter for a time before I became big enough to catch little bitty fish with Pat.

After he left the Marines and retired to Birchwood, Pat continued the Soper dominate presence in the town–he drove a school bus for 20 years and also served two terms as what they call the president of the town–the mayor. In addition to Rocky and daughter Terri, Pat and Kathy had three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

After Pat’s memorial service at St. John’s Catholic Church in Birchwood, family and friends did the only logical thing to celebrate the life of the man who had become the patriarch of the Soper clan— they gathered at the Bluegill Bar to swap stories and anecdotes about Pat’s life. Maybe some of them involved three little boys and their youthful adventures, but who was left to tell them?

Rocky wrote and read a eulogy to his dad that says in part:

“When we were kids, he used to tell Terri and me that the Marines were the strongest men—and I believe my dad was the strongest Marine. My dad was my hero. He taught me how to throw a football, baseball, how to shoot a basketball, catch a fish, shoot a deer, how to drink a beer, and most importantly, how to treat people, and how to conduct myself as I went through life. In other words, he taught me how to be a man.

“Terri was always “daddy’s little girl” he used to call her “Mutt”. In high school the boys started hanging around. They had a pretty high bar to meets Dad’s standards.

“Mom was his rock, his reason for living. With her at his side, he was invincible, and he was her knight in shining armor. A love story, worthy of a Hollywood movie, it was love at first sight. She was his high school sweetheart. They had to sneak away to get married–and they stayed in love to the very end.

“If done right, the bond between father and son is stronger than the strongest steel. Dad did it right, he’s the man that built me, and every day, I will try to live up to his standard. We will all miss you, though your presence and influence will always be felt. You fought the good fight, Marine. You earned some R&R.”

When I read Rocky’s eulogy, through tears, my mind went back more than seven decades to two little boys and two little fish. Our paths widely diverged over the years but they always seemed to lead back to Birchwood and I hope that wherever Pat’s R&R is, it includes catching a lake perch while fishing off a rickety town dock, miraculously restored, and, Pat, I admit your fish is bigger than mine.

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