End of an era

What happens when a city loses its heart?

The Boston Store, Milwaukee’s last great department store and the last link to the past greatness of Milwaukee’s once bustling and vibrant downtown, is gone.

Bon Ton, the owner of Boston Store, Yonkers Carsons, and other retail stores, is liquidating.

It is still hoped that someone will buy their inventory and save the once great Milwaukee landmark, The Boston Store, unfortunately however, that is the merest breath of a hope.

The city of Milwaukee had thrown millions of dollars at The Boston Store to help it survive and keep it downtown, but that was just wishful thinking.

This is most likely the death nell of not only The Boston Store, but of department stores everywhere. Once, like the proud bison of the American plains, they were everywhere, thundering across our consciousness.

You couldn’t throw a snowball in downtown Milwaukee without hitting one of these majestic giants. They were Amazon before there ever was an Internet.

Our downtown thrived because of these flagship retail stores. Beautiful edifices dedicated to Gimbel’s, T.A. Chapman’s, Schusters, Epenhains, J.C. Penny, Woolworths and more graced the streets all veying for our shopping dollars.

And they were all successful. Milwaukee’s downtown was bustling with humanity. Well-dressed people strolled up and down the Grand Avenue, now Wisconsin Avenue, shopping. The streets were filled with cars looking for a space to park.

Now the streets are deserted in comparison to those days of the mid-twentieth century.

But downtown isn’t the only place experiencing this hole in its economy due to the loss of the department store, malls everywhere also are losing their anchor stores that once drew hordes of shoppers.

Sears recently closed here, and now soon The Boston Store will be gone, leaving vacant buildings filled only with the echoes of memories while mall managements everywhere scramble to fill these large empty spaces at the ends of their malls.

Just a few weeks ago I blogged about how The Boston Store downtown had shrunk from owning a massive many-storied building covering nearly an entire city block to becoming just a tiny tenant within it.

I didn’t think I’d be writing their obituary so soon.

Good bye, The Boston Store. We had some grand times, didn’t we?



There was a time

Back in the olden days, and I’m talking the distant past, like the ’60s and ’70s, there were these places, and they were everywhere, every street, every corner, in every town, city, and village, across this great land of ours, where people went when they needed something, anything really, and they’d go inside these places, find the thing they were looking for, hand real money to a real person, and take that thing home that very day!

I think they called them “stores.” There were specialty stores and then there were also department stores.

The specialty stores sold all sorts of merchandise, from music, to books, to musical instruments, to radios and stereos, and so on.

For example, at one time there were all sorts of stores that just sold musical instruments. One such store was called, “The Brass Bell,” and they had locations all over including within many of the malls (a mall was this giant complex filled with all manner of stores, honest).

If you were at the mall to buy a book, or a record, or a clothing item, and suddenly got a hankering for a trombone, well, there they were, all brassy and shiney, on display at the Brass Bell.

This was in a time before the Internet, before Amazon, or Wayfair, or Overstock, or eBay. Before you could order anything you wanted over your smartphone, tablet, or computer.

In fact, and here’s the really unique part, you could go into these stores and touch the items! Seriously. You could try it out IN PERSON before you bought it. Back then, when you walked out of the store with your purchase you knew it was exactly what you wanted, that it fit you exactly, that it worked exactly the way you expected, that it smelled or tasted exactly how it was supposed to.

You didn’t have to wait for your item to ship, it was in your hands already. And there were no surprises back then.

Sure, you often had to drive around town stopping at different stores until you found the item that you wanted, but you knew right then and there as you plunked your money down that that goddamned item was exactly what you wanted.

There were no hastles of trying to return imperfectly fitting garments, or items of the wrong color, or that were damaged, or anything like that because you had in your hand as you walked out that door the exact thing you had been searching for.

I know, right? Crazy.


The lonely forgotten knife

Several years before my father-in-law passed away, he was clearing out stuff he felt he wasn’t going to need much longer.

He gave me a beat-up old toolbox filled with a variety of well-worn tools. I’m not the handyman he was, by any stretch of the imagination, but I took the box graciously.

When I got home, I browsed through it, vaguely noting that it had pliers, wrenches, a partial set of sockets, long screwdrivers, a battered tape measure, a nub of a straw hand broom, and an old pocketknife. The knife was dirty, tarnished, with some paint specks on the rustic, imitation wood handle. It was not very attractive, so I left it inside the box and set the box in the corner of the basement and promptly forgot about it.

Until last night when I had an ADHD attack of I’m suddenly interested in this thing! Now! Get the thing! Where is the thing?! I need the thing!

Other ADHDers can relate.

So, I dug the knife out. Examined it and attempted to clean it up with Q-tips, some rubbing alcohol, and a little oil.

It looked like your average well-used, utilitarian four-blade folder with a 2-1/2 inch spear blade, a plain punch, a screwdriver-caplifter, a can opener, and a shackle (key ring?).

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My wife said she remembered seeing it on her father’s nightstand after he emptied his pockets every night, so we determined it was probably his every day carry (EDC) knife.

There were no identifying markings on the knife, no name badge on the handle, but as I cleaned it, I noticed some illegible writing on the tang of the knife blade, which I speculated spelled out the word, “stainless” on the tang of the knife blade. It looked like my FIL’s EDC was just an ordinary, plain Jane, generic folder.

Not that I should have been surprised. My FIL was an unpretentious man who cared more about how something functioned than if it was flashy or had an impressive name. I liked that about him.

As I cleaned away years of accumulated gunk however, I saw that it didn’t say “stainless” after all. There was a brand name stamped there.


Yes! Now I could indulge in my most favorite hobby of all! Research!

Camillus, my research showed, was one of America’s oldest knife companies. It was established in 1875 by Adolph Kastor, a Jewish German immigrant, and they originally imported knives until the Dingley Tariff was enacted in 1897, which made it too expensive to import knives.

To survive, they needed to manufacture knives domestically and eventually, Kastor found a small knife manufacturer in Camillus, New York.

By 1910, with Kastor now at the helm, the Camillus Cutlery Company was producing close to a million knives a year.

Camillus was a very successful company throughout the twentieth century. They provided private label knives to Sears, Craftsman, and J.C. Penny and others, and created a wide range of collectible knives honoring famous people.

When WWII began, Camillus was contracted to provide knives to the military, including the development of their KA-BAR Fighting Utility Knife, which was adopted by the U.S. Marines. After the war, Camillus began producing a full line of official knives for the Boy Scouts of America.

As the twenty-first century arrived however, the company started to struggle. Revenue declined from overseas competition, and they suffered from poor management decisions, until they declared bankruptcy and went out of business in early 2007. Later that year, their product names and intellectual property were acquired by the Acme United Corporation (a shadow corporation of Wile E. Coyote, I’m told) for a mere $200,000 in a bankruptcy auction. In 2009, Acme relaunched the Camillus name.

But my FIL’s knife? Best I can figure by the tang stamp is it was possibly manufactured sometime between between 1946 to 1950.

It resembles the Camillus Camp knife, but lacks the badge on the handle that particular knife sports in their catalogs from that era.

In their 1946 catalog, they have a page showing their Army-Navy knives. The very first one, the Army General Purpose Knife, looks exactly like my FIL’s knife.

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My wife says that makes sense because her father would have been 18 years old in ’46 and he joined the Air Force a few years later. It’s possible therefore, that he either received the knife while in the Air Force or purchased it at the base PX.

And now that little folder, which once languished alone and forgotten in the bottom of a toolbox, now has an interesting history behind it and a prominent place in my collection.


Thor’s Day

As a child, my parents gave me a children’s book on Norse mythology, “Norse Gods and Giants,” written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire.

The stories, adapted from the Norse myths that come to us from the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, captured my imagination.

(In school, I was disappointed in the obvious bias against Norse mythology. They never touched upon it, making it seem like there were only the Greek and Roman gods. Bah.)

In “Norse Gods and Giants,” I learned about the nine worlds, and learn about Ymir, the frost giant, his cow, the giants and trolls, the birth of the Aesir gods and their battle killing Ymir and creating the world with his bones, how Odin, the All-Father, lost his eye, how Loki, the mischievous one, was blood brother to Odin, the story of Fenris, the wolf, son of Loki and how Tyr lost his hand when the gods fettered Fenris. I loved these stories.

But above all, I really loved Thor, the hot-tempered, if dim-witted god of thunder. They drew as a bulky, angry God with fiery red hair and beard.

Often he’d fly into a rage at the mere mention of jotuns (giants) and throw his mighty hammer, which they drew as a roundish mallet with a very short handle. He’d throw it so often, the hammer would become red hot and he needed an iron glove to catch it so his hand wouldn’t burn. He road on a chariot drawn by two angry goats.

So this was my image of a Thor (and one I used when I wrote him into one of my still in progress novels). An image which is very different from Marvel’s version.

I mentioned Friday, I was reading the early stories of Thor when he first appeared in Journey of Mystery. I have almost finished that book, “Essential The Mighty Thor, Volume 1.”

It covers Journey into Mystery #83 (August 1962) through Journey into Mystery #112 (January 1965). None of these stories did I read as a child. I was still reading DC, Harvey Comics, Archie Comics, and Gold Key at this time.

Now for a really bad segue, when the Thor movies came out, I was very disappointed when they decided to make the Aesir aliens instead of actual mythological Norse gods. It pretty much ruined the movies for me.

Part of that was because at a young age, I came to love Norse mythology. And the Silver Age Thor I read, dealt with the mythical gods, not aliens.

Some people seem to think the comic book Thor was an alien, too. I don’t know if they recently changed canon, but I stopped reading Thor sometime in the mid to late 1970s, the Bronze Age, and he hadn’t been changed into an alien at that point.

To prove this point, one of my favorite features within the Thor comics were the “Tales of Asgard,” which began in Journey into Mystery #97.

“Tales of Asgard” was a wonderful feature illustrated by Kirby showing the majesty and grandeur of life in Asgard. He drew sweeping vistas of gleeming Asgard and momentous battles featuring Balder, Syf, Thor and others that really captured my budding sword and sorcery loving soul.

But to my point, the first several “Tales of Asgard” were essentially a retelling of the Norse creation myths. No aliens. No ancient galactic space travelers settling on Earth.

No. These were fairhful retellings of how the Norse gods came to be including the birth of Ymir, the frost giant, his companion cow, and how the first Aesir, Buri, grew out of the ice, took a wife, had a son, Borr. And that son had three sons, Odin and his brothers.

The “Tales of Asgard” mention the Yggdrasill, world tree, and even tell how the first man, Aske, and the first woman, Embla, were created from an ash and adler tree.

Granted Lee and Kirby took artistic license and told these creation stories in their own inimitable style, but they still followed the original Norse mythology stories.

In the beginning, therefore, Marvel’s Thor, Odin, Loki, et al were actual, true mythological Norse gods, never aliens.

So there.


That reminds me

An interesting characteristic of our brain is associative memories.

It is throwback Thursday, after all.

I’m refering to the brain’s ability to connect two completely different items or concepts.

Music, for example, has very powerful associative properties. For many of us, hearing a certain song will awaken certain memories, some happy, some sad.

Many songs will remind us of a time in our past when we first heard the song, say a childhood event, or a year in school.

Some songs give us a vague feeling, such as “Sugar, Sugar,” by The Archies gives me a general happy feeling about my chikdhood, whereas others are more specific. When I hear “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,” I’m back in the Cub Scouts with my friends taking a train down to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Some parent had brought an AM radio along and we’d sing to somenof the Top 40 hits.

Another example is, I used to listen to Black Sabbath’s first album while a teenager reading sword and sorcery tales, particularly the Conan stories by Robert E. Howard.

Now, when I listen to Black Sabbath, a feeling comes over me, a mood, if you will, that is similar to reexperiencing the awe and wonder I had back then reading those stories.

So intense is this mood that now I’ll play their music when I’m writing, hoping to capture some of that magic in my own story.

Smells also provide strong associative memories. Maybe a whiff of a certain cologne or perfume will bring back memories of someone out of our past.

Sometimes the association will surprise us because it was unexpected.

For instance, the reason for this rather bland post is because I was making coffee and enjoying the aroma of the freshly ground coffee.

Now I’ve been around the smell of coffee my whole life. There are many decades worth of memories associated with it that I could have recalled.

I could have remembered my time in the Navy, where coffee was figuratively our life’s blood. We drank it nonstop from the moment we awoke until we fell asleep. Our index fingers nearly atrophied into a permanent crook from holding our coffee cups.

On the other hand, because I do drink it regularly, the pleasant scent of coffee doesn’t always trigger any specific memories, it just puts me into a good mood.

Today I was surprised when the coffee scent triggered a memory of my childhood. I was taken back to my parents’ house before they were divorced. Back when I thought my childhood was happy.

Both my parents had coffee in the morning, so our house would fill up with the odor as it was being brewed in an old aluminum electric purculator in our kitchen.

It was similar to the old perculators they’d show in the Maxwell House coffee commercials, like this one:

I remembered that my dad, who, because he drank a lot of coffee, smelled of it. Many people remember the scent of their dad’s calogne. Me, I remember that he smelled like coffee.

My mom had made breakfast and ee were eating at the kitchen table, while my dog, Thor, lay just outside the kitchen doorway watching us. He wasn’t allowed in the kitchen and he stayed obediently on the other side until we came out.

It was an odd associative memory and I thought I’d share.

Have you had any associative memories lately that surprised you?


This changed everything

It’s Throwback Thursday. I thought it would be fun to go back and listen to some ground-breaking music, if not historically ground-breaking, then personally ground-breaking to my own music habits.

It was 1971. I was fourteen, a year into my teens, but still rather innocent musically. That fall I would be entering high school as a freshman.

My dad took me to a record store. Until this day, my musical tastes were poppish and bubblegummy. On the more mature side, I listened to the Beatles, but on the still chikd-like side, I had the entire collection of The Archies albums. I also liked the Monkeys, and most Top 40 hits that were played on the local AM radio station, WOKY, the Mighty 92! (920 on your AM radio dial.)

So who knows what I was looking for when I went in there? The Beatles had broken up the year before, so there would be nothing new from them. The Monkees technically were gone for several years. I liked Creedence Clearwater Revival and their breakup was still a year away, so maybe something from them. 

Hard to say. So I just browsed, which is a lost art today considering there are no more record stores. You’d start at A and work your way along looking at all the album art. Because back then, album art was just becoming a thing. In the ’60s, most albums were just graced with a picture of the singer or the band. Boring. But the drug scene changed that and album art became psychedelic, in many cases it was real works of art able to stand on it’s own. 

Maybe The Beatles pioneered that, with covers like the White Album (“It’s literally, just a white album, man!” “Far out!”) Or Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was a collage of many different pictures and great fun trying to find all the celebrities.

So often times while browsing you’d run across artwork on an album that was so compelling, you’d buy it even if you never heard of the band before.

Thus, when I got to the Bs, I flipped to this spooky cover. It was simple, really, just some woods, with a haunted looking house, and this blurry image of a green-skinned woman dressed like a witch. I was mesmerized. The only printing on the album were the words, Black Sabbath. What’s a Black Sabbath? I had to know.

“Are you sure?” My dad asked, who I have to believe knew about the band already because he was always kind of trendy.

Once home, I rushed up to my room and put it on my Realistic Clarinette II turntable. The album started with the gentle sound of falling rain, then thunder and the chime of a a bell, like a church bell bonging slowly as if announcing some impending doom. A moment later, the first deep, thunderous guitar note struck, reminiscent of the thunder that came before. Slowly, like a dirge, but powerful like a punch in the chest, the first three notes crashed against my senses and kept repeating, then they grew more soft accompanied by the drums, which were also soft like the rain.

Then came the vocals, deep, raspy like a death rattle, and they croaked out, “What is this, that stands before me? Figure in black, which points at me. Turn ’round quick and try to run, find out I’m the chosen one. Oh noooooo!”

It gave me chills. I could feel the terror of the song’s narrator. I was hooked! This wasn’t anything like The Archies at all! 

Even as I’ve grown in my music tastes, this is still my favorite. It has a strong blues influence, yet Tony Iommi’s guitar detuned a step and a half, gives an additional darker, scarier feel to it. 

In high school, I also discovered the writings of Robert E. Howard, specifically Conan the barbarian, King Kull, and Solomon Kane. It was like this music was made for it and I’d read those sword and sorcery tales while listening to Black Sabbath’s eponymous first album and also Vol. 4.

So today, when I listen to either of these albums, my mind makes a strong association with sorcerers, demons, black magic, and sword fighting. So strong is the association that I play them when I write in that genre because they not only make a great soundtrack to what I’m writing, but provide inspiration as well.

I mean, with songs like Black Sabbath, The Wizard, Behind the Wall of Sleep, and Sleeping Village, how could you not be inspired to write something demonic?

Here then, is that first album. To me, it still sounds as fresh as it did that day I first heard it as an innocent, pimply-faced kid back in 1971.


Black Sabbath full album
#tbt #throwback Thursday


Junk Food Junkie

Yes, folks, I’m here to tell you I’m a junk food junky. Always have been, probably always will be.

Now let me tell you, I try, yes I do. I try to eat healthy, or at least healthier than I have, but there’s just a certain something about heavily salted snack chips that I find irresistible. 

As I’ve said, I’m down 20 pounds from a year ago, part of that is walking, and now running, and part of that is eating salad or something light for lunch. 

I’ll eat a big breakfast, essentially an English muffin, egg, bacon,  and cheese (a slice of Velveeta! I can hear the gasps from here) sandwich. And I’ll eat a good dinner. In between, I’ll have some pretzels, a fruit like an apple or cutie, and a salad, just lettuces and spinach–I no longer add cheese or croutons or bacon bits or other salad accessories–and a low fat, low calorie dressing like raspberry walnut vinaigrette. 

But come evening time, like the song says, I become a junk food junkie. I know I shouldn’t, but I get this craving for salt, for something crunchy, crispy, and flavorful. I’ve tried munching carrots or apples or raw broccoli, but none of that satisfies my craving.

So I grab a bag of chips, or sometimes a can of shoestring potatoes, and I go whole hog. Lately, I’ve been scarfing down Lay’s new flavors (damn you, Lay’s!), but my old standby is cheddar and sour cream.

I’ll polish off a bag in a couple nights. We’re looking at 160 calories and 10 grams of fat per ounce. In a 13 ounce bag. That’s 2,080 calories and 130 grams of fat in just a few nights! Considering a 3,500 calorie gain or loss equals a pound of fat, that extra 2,080 is putting the brakes on the weight loss.

I’d probably have lost an additional ten pounds by now if it weren’t for junk food.

Guess I just have to run faster and farther.

“But at night I’m a junk food junky, good lord have pity on me.”