Send Letter to Editor
In late June, my brother Chuck from Oshkosh and I drove up to Superior. Our first priority, as always, was to drive past the well-kept Dutch colonial home our parents built on Lamborn Avenue in 1930. Chuck was four when our family moved in. I was born a few months later. The Martin Pattison Elementary School was just half a block away.
I already knew the school had been razed, but coming up against that reality in the form of an expanse of sky and a new housing development triggered a torrent of nostalgia – memories of the mythical world we called "Behind the Pattison." This was the whole geographical province stretching southward from the backdoor of that imposing landmark. By the time we had hiked to its farthest reaches, which took a lot of years, it must have encompassed 20 square miles.
I was pretty young, perhaps eight, when I started exploring Behind the Pattison. My companions were neighborhood pals: Charles (Skip) Herubin, Bob Geimer and Jack Wallenstein. Our jaunts were within easy sight of the school, just beyond the baseball diamond, actually.
It wasn't long before we were building campfires out of willow sticks and roasting potatoes in the coals. With our cheap jackknives – every kid had to have a jackknife – we'd peel away the charred exterior and salt the dickens out of the white, steaming meat.
As the years passed, and we grew stronger – and bolder – the hikes got longer.
First came the abandoned South Shore railroad trestle just beyond 28th Street. There was a grove of popple trees, a creek and a hill. Now, sprawled beside our campfires, we could enjoy a degree of independence although our security was assured by that sturdy structure clearly visible across the brushy fields no more than a half mile away.
Next came Bums' Jungle where 28th Street intersected with the Soo Line tracks. This was a full mile from our part of town and separated from it by an extensive patch of scrubby tag alder and popple woods. In those days, at the end of the Great Depression, it was a sinister place, more so in the lengthening shadows of late afternoon. Once as we hastened homeward, we came into a grassy opening and found a hobo with his bedroll, cooking supper in a Karo syrup pail. We walked faster then and looked over our shoulders a lot.
Tower Pond was just beyond; it got its name from the railroad watchman's tower located there and a marshy water hole hardly more than a widening of another creek.
It was at Tower Pond that Skip and I saw our first great blue heron. When we spied this gawky creature, it looked to us like it had stepped straight out of the comic strip "Alley Oop." Without a word, we dropped onto our bellies and wormed our way through the long grass until we got a really good look. When we tried to get even closer, off it went on great sweeping wing beats.
Dick Flaherty, another kid from Sacred Heart Grade School, of fond memory, was into bird identification and confidently put a name to our ungainly monster.
A couple more years and we were into Scouting – our hikes got longer and more purposeful. They included such things as building fires with one match and cooking somewhat more elaborately. More elaborately meant canned baked beans and bacon fried to the point of disintegration.
As our explorations became more extensive, we sometimes came straggling home late for supper. This was not met with much approval by mothers who believed "Behind the Pattison" meant exactly that – just beyond the baseball diamond. How could they know that we had been all the way to an overpass that carried the Soo tracks over Stinson Avenue? Our sole purpose was the joy of an unobstructed view as the sun set gloriously behind the Duluth Hills.
At last, we would strike out cross country all the way to the Nemadji River.
Mostly there were just the four of us, and those boyhood friendships have endured. Skip is now a retired college professor in Albany, New York. Bob is retired from his role as a research scientist at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison; and Jack, the eldest, had his career with the Social Security Administration in Eau Claire.
Sadly, we buried Jack just a few weeks before I retired back in 1992. Geimer and I helped carry our pal into church for the funeral mass. Our hearts ached, we couldn't talk; we couldn't see. We loved him like a brother, and a part of our boyhood died with him.
To my own great good fortune, these friends were also very smart kids. Important parts of my education came from conversations that went on for miles and miles. We shared books ranging from Jack London, the adventures of Richard Haliburton, and Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake to the wonders found in the World Book Encyclopedia.
For us, Behind the Pattison was truly a magical place. There were sunsets and ski trails and cackling pheasants startled into flight where they fed on spilled Dakota grain along the railroad tracks. Every few years, snowy owls would suddenly appear from up around Hudson Bay. We ran traplines for weasels and muskrats and skunks. We got to know trees and animal tracks, and how to deal with some of the godawfullest weather on the continent.
Behind the Pattison, to the uneducated eye, was just an undistinguished open space destined some day to become house lots and the campus of Superior Senior High School. It was immeasurably more, of course. It was a place for kids to stretch their legs, their minds and their spirits.
Over the years, I have come to understand that our Behind the Pattison was not unique. Most of us, in some way, have such touchstones and refuges. They are the places we hiked, built shacks, cooked bacon to disintegration, burned off excess energy, talked earnestly about life, and, at last, went off to become men and women.
Our explorations were part of a more innocent time. Even with that school building only a memory, I imagine there are kids in Superior still hiking to some of the places where we roamed over half a century ago. Of course, it is no longer Behind the Pattison.
In some form and with many names, I think places like this still exist wherever there are open spaces to be explored when kids have time, even in this highly scheduled world, to hike and dream and to innocently be kids. I sure hope so; I don't like to think of a world without Behind the Pattisons.
Roger Drayna is a retired public relations director for Wausau Insurance and has been a freelance writer since 1951.