We just spent a week touring the eastern part of Wisconsin – some of which, despite its proximity to our residence in Madison, we hadn’t visited since our honeymoon, 45 years ago. It was a wonderful trip. (I’m our trip planner, and like George Peppard’s fictional John “Hannibal” Smith of the 1980s television series, The A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together.) Amid a lot of fun and interesting sights and experiences, a few impressions linger.
Whether it be as a result of the additional federal $300 weekly stimulus payment which just ended in Wisconsin, workers’ fear of contracting COVID, their assumption of new occupations during the pandemic quarantine period, or otherwise, a significant percentage of pre-COVID hospitality workers have not returned to their jobs at northeastern Wisconsin hotels and restaurants. Hotel housekeeping services are provided upon request rather than as a matter of course. Restaurant service is a little slower than one would expect in some establishments, abysmal in others. “We can’t find anyone” was a common plaint, particularly in Door County (for those from outside the Badger State: that’s the beautiful and heavily-toured part of the Wisconsin that juts northeast into Lake Michigan). In a tale of dueling mixologists: in one town, a genial dispenser of spirits bemoaned others’ unwillingness to work; in another, an equally genial bartender opined that the shortage wasn’t for lack of willing workers, but because employers weren’t willing to pay staff what they should. My general sense was that the proprietors of many of the businesses we visited were eager to pay anything remotely within reason to get additional help. Whatever its cause, we will soon see whether the hospitality staffing shortage recedes as benefit checks end and more of the vaccine-hesitant get their shots. If not, it may require a significant shift in expectations for hotel and restaurant patrons in some parts of Wisconsin and the nation.
One of our stops was in the historic, quaint, and decidedly well-to-do town of Cedarburg, just north of Milwaukee. At one point during the pandemic, the local authorities apparently instituted a mask mandate, but at this point, the town has adopted an honor system. Almost every shop had a sign such as, “No need to wear a mask if you are vaccinated,” or “Please wear a mask if you are not vaccinated.” Since TLOML is the shopper and I am simply her escort, it gave me time to chat with sales people about how they had fared when they had in a sense been required to enforce a mask mandate. One woman told me that Cedarburg “is very closely divided [politically], which made it very difficult for us.” Another: “It gave me PTSD. I actually hated to see customers come through the door. If they institute another mandate, I’m closing rather than deal with the abuse.” Another – from a charming, white-haired woman: “When I asked a well-dressed older man to put a mask on, he screamed at me and called me, ‘A F*****g Nazi.’ My heart was still beating fast an hour after he left.”
Too many of us have lost our sense of decorum. While former President Donald Trump clearly provided certain personalities the license to act out, they still have to take responsibility for their own behavior. Although I have a fiery Irish side and have made it difficult for more than one salesperson in my lifetime [sometimes with good reason; sometimes, in retrospect, perhaps not ;)], I cannot rationalize making a salesperson’s life difficult when anyone with the slightest sense of awareness should understand that the clerk is simply trying to abide by the law. Anyone that reads these pages is aware that I support vaccine and mask mandates, and seriously question the sense of those that contest them. Even so, if one is going to get angry about a mandate, go yell at those that imposed it.
Finally, we have literally traveled Interstate 94 between Madison and Milwaukee hundreds of times. There are signs along the highway indicating sights to be seen. We have never exited. On this trip, we did.
An early stop was Aztalan State Park, a National Historic Landmark depicting an ancient Middle-Mississippian village existing between 1000 and 1300 A.D. The Aztalans had an advanced culture for the time based on farming with a clear social structure. It was fascinating. We recommend it to all in our area. That said, aside from one gentleman who has made the study of ancient native peoples his hobby, there was nobody else in the park. We assumed that the lack of people resulted from it being a weekday after school started. Our companion advised us that he visited the park regularly, and there is rarely much attendance.
Our last stop of the day was Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, the vacation home of the Lunts, which has also been designated a National Historic Landmark. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a married couple, are at the forefront of the American theater pantheon. Their work spanned four decades from the 1920s to 1960. Mr. Lunt was born in Genesee Depot, and built – some of it with his own hands; he was a clearly multi-talented guy — an impressive home on 100-acre grounds to which the two repaired each summer. At their estate they entertained such stage and screen luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn, Helen Hayes, and Noel Coward. Mr. Lunt died in 1977, Ms. Fontanne in 1983. The complex was interesting and certainly worth visiting if one has an interest in American theater history. Clearly elegant in its day, more than a bit eccentric, now — despite extensive and effective restoration – it is a bit faded, a relic of a former age. Only two other visitors joined our tour, conducted by two docents, all six of us senior citizens.
The day’s lasting impression: the Aztalans are long gone. Despite their impressive culture and community, today only a few archeologists know or care that they were ever here. The Lunts dominated American stage in a way that perhaps no one else has. Query how many Americans still recall the couple called “the greatest husband-and-wife team in the history of American theater.” What it made me realize: how few of us will make the impression upon our times that the Aztalans and Lunts did; and how even these have faded.
Our youngest grandchild is 2. If I’m fortunate enough to live another 10 years and if he retains his faculties to a ripe old age and if he remembers me fondly, some vestige of a memory that I was even here might last to 2100. It is more probable that any meaningful memory of TLOML and me will pass when the last of our children passes. So it’s important to do what you can, while you can. Help your loved ones. In an observation perhaps more relevant for retirees with time and resources than for the younger among us having to deal with the obligations of family and career, a portion of one’s time might best be spent volunteering in one’s community. But by all means, devote yourself now to what you feel is the most important — for however long now might be. Judging by the dimming legacies of the Aztalans and the Lunts, ultimately only the Almighty will remember that most of us were here.