Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Pub Was the Place

The songwriter’s line, “On State Street, that great street,” could have applied to the site of some of Madison’s zaniest antics in the 1950s just as well as it fit Chicago’s busy thoroughfare. Many University of Wisconsin students spent a lot of free time on the street that ran from the State Capitol to the lower edge of Bascom Hill on campus.

The State Street ambience was light hearted; the students and business owners who catered to them made it so. A Rennebohm drug store, a favorite place to gather for coffee and chit-chat, was called, of course, The Pharm. Creative students often chose the sidewalks outside The Pharm as places they could entertain a big audience with their hijinks. As part of one of our Sigma Nu initiation stunts, a pledge was required to stand at the busy intersection for an hour eating popcorn out of a Kotex box.

Nearby, two bookstores faced each other across the street. In the student newspaper, The University Co-op’s ads said it was “across the mall from Paul.” Paul’s Book Store gave its location as “across the loop from the Coop.” University enclaves seem to inspire inventive names as well as prose. When our son was a University of Minnesota student, he took us for a beer at “The Improper Fraction,” where U of M students hung out. The bar was nothing special, but its name struck me as memorable.

State Street bars didn’t have cutesy names, but I thought they had distinct personalities. I was not a regular in the taverns as some students were. Most regulars flunked out of UW in a semester or two. But I visited all the State Street taverns at one time or another.

The Kollege Klub, where locals and visitors mixed with students, attracted noisy, and sometimes unruly, crowds. Two of my fraternity brothers who were on the boxing team worked there part-time as bartenders. Now and then they also functioned as bouncers.

The Brathaus, a favorite hangout of law school students, had much quieter patrons who actually were interested in the food as well as the drink. The grilled “brats” would have been classified as Polish sausages anywhere else in Wisconsin, something that still mystifies me. Brathaus “brats” definitely were not on menus in Sheboygan.

The Varsity Bar was a dimly lit smaller place, where young men took serious dates for a bit of hanky-panky in the booths. Things could get very serious at the “Var Bar.” Fraternity brother Don Tubman and his steady girlfriend Sue Mickeljohn took to spending considerable time there. Don and Sue became Mr. and Mrs. Tubman after their junior years.

The Pub was something special. There, I enjoyed my first State Street beer as a 17-year-old freshman after gaining admittance with a poorly altered draft card saying the bearer was 19. All the beer bars had their special stories. Tales of events at The Pub probably could fill the pages of a lengthy book. I heard a lot of them because Jack Peters, my best Sigma Nu buddy, tended bar there for a year or more. Jeff Weir, another Sigma Nu good guy, poured suds at The Pub before signing on for an Army tour and again in 1961-62 when he returned to UW to finish up work on a degree. Weir has a good memory, and lately has been sharing a few of the better Pub stories through e-mails. He became an attorney, and has practiced law for more than 25 years in Door County.

The Pub was the scene of “phantom dates.” Whether by house rule or just an accepted rule of conduct, coeds never entered the bar alone or in groups of females only. So those who wanted admittance badly hung around outside until they found a non-threatening male walking by who would agree to escort them in. The understanding was that the man would not have to stay, and many didn’t.

The Pub was home to one of the craziest characters in Madison history. Cy Butt lived for several years in an upstairs apartment. His roommate, Bobby Hinds, was a heavyweight boxer on the UW team who also was known for strange behavior. Butt gained fame by staying enrolled as a UW student for nearly 30 years. That happened because a family will provided him with a comfortable living as long as he was a student in good standing at Madison. Accounts vary, but one holds he stayed in the Law School for the last 12 of the 30 years, before the rules were changed and he was forced to graduate.

Butt, known as the “Sage of State Street,” was good at thinking and drinking, according to a writer who knew him well. He bombarded Madison’s two newspapers with letters to the editor advancing outlandish ideas. He once fired a pistol inside his apartment, and when a Madison police officer showed up to investigate, Butt said the explosion helped him with his writing. A favorite Butt antic was to walk up State Street tipping his hat to any female he passed. A few were said to faint when they got a close look at the live mink Butt was carrying on top of his head.

I encountered Butt only once--in The Pub. He came in wearing an old gray sweater with a bulge under it. He ordered one 15-cent beer and shared it with what I thought was a cat snuggled in the sweater. Maybe it was the mink!

I no longer remember the exact number who received law degrees with him, but when Butt finally graduated in the summer of 1955 I was in summer school and clearly recall reading the news. The Daily Cardinal headline proclaimed something like: Cy Butt and 87 Others Graduate From Law School.

The Pub was a bar and grill. The menu was interesting. Weir recalled serving Yummies (hamburgers) and Chummies (cheeseburgers). He said a Chummie with Swiss cheese was known as a Swummy. Fritos were an order of “Vegetables,” because you had to have them for a balanced meal.

Weir said the regulars at the Pub loved to sit near the front windows, park their beers on a ledge, and tap on the window panes when an especially attractive coed walked by. One regular noticed holes in the metal sidewalk elevator cover that was opened when kegs of beer were delivered. He welded a half dollar to a bolt and attached it to the metal panel. Gales of laughter swept through the bar whenever an embarrassed girl realized she couldn’t pick up the coin after bending over to grab it, and the regulars were watching.

Rumor had it that some student bartenders contributed to sort of a Pub welfare program for thirsty, but poorly financed, buddies. An early version had guests plunking a couple of nickels and dimes loudly on the bar when the regular bartender wasn’t watching. Their pal behind the bar would serve an 85-cent pitcher for the “wholesale price” payment of 30 or 40 cents, and help cover up the ruse with a loud, “Thank you,” as he rang up the sale.

Later, The Pub’s owner installed a cash register tape mechanism to thwart any conniving by student bartenders. Some were said to occasionally beat that system with an ingenious scheme to ring up receipts in a way that balanced the till and the tape totals, yet helped a few special friends satisfy their thirsts at reduced rates. Most transactions at The Pub, however, were known to be strictly on the up and up.

The Pub was the place to be on St. Patrick’s Day. Green beer flowed after the bartenders injected vegetable dye into the kegs. A lot flowed—Weir said as many as 35 half barrels were emptied over the three-day weekend.

When I visited The Pub about 40 years ago as an old grad the floor spaces where the regulars once positioned themselves to observe pretty girls walking down State Street were occupied by pinball machines. I quietly turned around and left. It just wasn’t the place to be anymore. I could envision the ghost of Cy Butt frowning.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where the Prince is No Pauper

Why we visited Liechtenstein two weeks ago is somewhat mysterious. Perhaps we considered the tiny nation, one of the smallest independent States in the world, akin to the mountain that must be climbed “just because it’s there.”

Sandy, Lee, Karen, and I had no problem finding the place, although it does its best to hide by snuggling up between Switzerland and the western border of Austria. Even a country that is only about 15 miles long and seven miles wide cannot avoid detection by modern global positioning equipment. When we drove in, the day was sunny and mild and we knew the Prince was keeping an eye on things because the Liechtenstein flag was flying at the mountain-top castle above Vaduz, the capital city. That meant he was at home.

I didn’t take long to find out what makes the wheels go round in Liechtenstein—money, and lots of it.

Histories and even tourist brochures state that members of the House of Liechtenstein are “good at business” or “entrepreneurial.” Family leaders owned lots of land elsewhere when Germany was a series of small, frequently warring, States until the mid-1800s. Unfortunately for the ambitious Liechtensteiners, their lands did not qualify for designation as an imperial State. So they bought what is now Liechtenstein in two purchases in 1699 and 1712. Although they didn’t bother to live there, the area was designated as a principality in 1719 and allowed to join the German Confederation of States. It was the only small German State to maintain independence through numerous reorganizations and two world wars.

In 1938, the Prince moved to the country named for his family, occupying the medieval castle above Vaduz. You can go there to look, but you can’t enter or touch. It is a private castle.

With Hitler making serious noises about bringing all Germanic lands into the Third Reich (German is the official language in Liechtenstein), the Prince may have been feeling a bit of heat. He flew to Berlin in 1939 for a private meeting with Hitler. No one knows what deal was struck, but the Wehrmacht never marched into the principality. Opposition would have been light, anyway. The business-like princely family dissolved the Liechtenstein army in the 1860s, because it was too expensive to maintain.

The Prince established the first Liechtenstein bank in 1861. Today, a dozen or more modern financial buildings constitute the Vaduz skyline. Mirroring their Swiss brethren to the west, they long have featured accounts unavailable to the prying eyes of tax collectors. That probably soon will change. The Prince recently advised parliament that bank reform, including adoption of a Tax Information Exchange Agreement with the United States, was top priority if Liechtenstein was to continue as the ‘best-organized and best-regulated State in the world.”

In contrast to a lot of glitz and glamour at Rolex, Armani, Gucci and other shops and a flock of overpriced cafes in the car-free zone below the Castle of Vaduz bordered by the banks, much of Liechtenstein is alpine country where skiing is popular in winter and small pastures start where city streets end. The Porsches, Ferraris, and Mercedes traversing the only main route through Vaduz often are slowed by a farm tractor hauling a trailer full of manure.

The Prince lives well above any unpleasant odors and can look down from his castle with considerable financial satisfaction. Beyond other family properties, he can easily see the princely vineyard and winery and parts of the princely forest. If those and other views become boring, he can stroll through the hallways of his home to inspect one of the finest private art collections in Europe.

It’s good to be the Prince.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sorry He Asked

Commenting a while back on the demise of the Christian Science Monitor brought one of my favorite newspaper stories to mind.

Christian Scientists I knew, and I knew many, were scrupulous about abstaining from drinking and smoking in accordance with church doctrine. In fact, I have only witnessed one exception. My Aunt Dorothy, who professed to be a member although she rarely attended church services, occasionally requested a bottle of Miller High Life when she visited our home. She was a strong-willed lady, and Dad usually had to go downtown and bring back the beer rather than risk a tirade about intolerance. We believed “Dode” demanded the beverage just to shake Mom up a bit.

Christian Science rules prevailed on all church property. Newspaper people at the time the story took place were known for observing few, if any, rules of deportment in their workplaces.

After a brash, young reporter was seated for his appointment to interview the Monitor’s chief editor in the newspaper’s offices in Boston, he said, “I suppose it’s OK if I smoke in here.”

The editor fixed the upstart with an icy glare and
said, “Nobody ever has.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cashing In At Last

After years of contesting with opponents, the March-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians has the green light to move ahead with development of a major casino not many miles up the highway from our home.

The Native Americans plan to make a bundle. The State of Michigan apparently believes they will, judging by an agreement approved by both parties. The State will get 8 percent of slot machine profits up to $150 million a year. Above that the profit share rises to 10 percent. Geez--a hundred million here and a hundred million there could add up to some real money.

Some may be jealous of our soon-to-be-rich Indian brethren. But those of us who recall the poverty experienced by many Pottawatomis 60 years ago are not among them. They were few in number near my hometown, but those who lived in mysterious places like the tiny town of McCord west of Tomahawk were far from wealthy.

One day near the onset of a Northern Wisconsin winter, my Dad finished his workday and he and I started for home. Outside, we were greeted by a chaotic scene in the middle of “Main Street.” A crowd had gathered, two of Tomahawk’s finest were on the scene, and Joe Waubiness and an Indian woman assumed to be Mrs. Waubiness were holding a shouting match with each other and the local gendarmes.

It seems that Mr. Waubiness was accustomed to being locked up for large parts of each winter in the Lincoln County Jail in Merrill. There he enjoyed a warm bed and food until spring brought his release and return to Tomahawk. Unfortunately, a new Sheriff had refused to house him when the local police radioed to arrange his incarceration that fall. Waubiness pondered the injustice of that decision over several drinks in “The Mug and Jug” at the end of our block, and finally careened out of the tavern to state his case in the middle of the street. His wife was angry because (1) Waubiness apparently had no intention of taking her along to jail, and (2) he and the Tomahawk policemen were ignoring her complaints altogether.

Waubiness finally hit upon a solution to his cold-weather lodging problem. He hurled a rock squarely into one of the large plate-glass windows at the front of Nick’s Casket Factory, completely shattering the pane and scattering glass in all directions. He turned to one of the cops with a smile and said, “Now you have to take me.”

With head held high, Waubiness assumed a position in the rear seat of the city’s squad car and was driven away on the first leg of what he hoped would be a trip to his winter lodgings in Merrill. Mrs. Waubiness was left in the middle of the street. Nick and Sons was left with a substantial repair bill.

It is good to know that the Pottawatomis in Southwestern Michigan will not have to resort to crime to stay warm next winter.