GROWING UP AT THE END OF THE EARTH FOR ONE SI WRITER IT TOOK YEARS OF URBAN LIVING AND A TRIP BACK TO THE FOX CITIES TO LEARN TO LOVE HER HOMETOWN

August 10, 1986

I used to tell people I was from California. L.A., San Francisco.
It didn't matter. California seemed like the place to be from.
I did everything I could to keep from admitting I was from a small
town in the middle of nowhere -- Neenah, Wis. -- a town best known
for toilet paper (Kimberly-Clark Corp.) and manhole covers (Neenah
Foundry). A place where stretch pants are the rage, bratwurst is
considered fine cuisine and bowling is the sport of choice, the one
everyone does. Everyone but me.
Just five miles from Appleton, Neenah is nestled on the
northwestern shore of Lake Winnebago. In fact, Neenah is a Winnebago
Indian word that means running water. For a long time, to me it
meant the end of the earth.
My father, Bill, is a true Neenahite. One of the few. Born there,
raised there. He has never left. He and my mother, Paula, who comes
from White Plains, N.Y., and moved to Neenah when she was 15, met
as sophomores at Neenah High. They've been together ever since,
married 34 years.
My Fox River Valley ties go back to the late 1800s when my
great-grandfather, William Brown, a carpenter, built the columns that
still stand in front of Main Hall at Lawrence University in Appleton.
In 1929 my grandfather, Otto Lieber, founded Lieber Lumber Co., and
in the 1960s the family business grew to five lumberyards in the Fox
Valley area. I started working at the Neenah yard when I was in
third grade; I knew what a 2 X 4 was before I had ever heard of a
touchdown.
This summer, having lived in New York City for five years, I went
back to visit all the old hometown hot spots. I went to the Dairy
Queen, where my girlfriends and I used to cruise for high school
jocks. I went to Kimberly Point, a lighthouse overlooking Lake
Winnebago near Riverside Park, where my pals and I spied on couples
in parked cars. I drove through downtown Neenah with its colorful
new awnings over the 100-year-old buildings, past the lone stoplight,
and wound around the main street route I had marched as both Brownie
and Girl Scout in countless Memorial Day parades.
It all made me wonder, suddenly, what it was that I never liked
about Neenah. There didn't seem, now, to be anything wrong with the
town at all. It's such an easy place to live -- safe and clean and
simple. The attitude is: If I get there, I get there. If not, there's
always tomorrow. Or the day after that.
I drove past Taft Elementary School and Conant Junior High, where
cows grazed outside the windows during English class. I played so
hard in those days, one game after another. Double Dutch, jingle
jump, kickball, basketball, softball, tennis, hopscotch, jacks and
kick the can.
Summer weekends were the best. My family went to a cottage in
northern Wisconsin, to a burg called Townsend (pop. 752), a two-hour
drive from Neenah. I swam and sailed through lily pads, fished for
perch, hunted for painted turtles, learned to skip stones over the
water, picked wild strawberries, climbed the Carter Lookout Tower in
Nicolet National Forest, visited the trout farm in Mountain and the
cheese factory in Suring, ate my way through the Wabeno pancake
festivals and by campfire light learned about the constellations. On
Saturday nights we would drive to the Townsend dump, park our car,
roll up the windows and watch black bears scrounge through the
garbage.
I tackled the Wisconsin winters head-on. Tobogganing at Appleton's
Plamann Park, cross-country skiing on the golf course at nearby
Butte Des Morts Golf Club, ice fishing for sturgeon off Waverly
Beach, skating on the frozen parking lot of Park 'N' Market grocery
store and sledding at Fritse Park in Menasha, barreling down the
hills where the Winnebago Indians are buried.
Junior year in high school I signed up for the track team and
began running six miles a day around and around Plummer Court, the
street where I lived. Joe Kohl, the garbage man, would honk as he
passed in his orange truck; the policemen would sound their sirens
when they saw me coming. In the field at St. Gabriel Catholic Church,
which backed up to our block, I practiced shot put and hurling the
discus. I finished fourth in a Fox Valley Association meet in the
discus (132 feet).
I was also a volleyball and wrestling cheerleader. Mat Mates, we
were called, and we came in all shapes and sizes, just like the guys
on the wrestling team. Most of our cheering was done sitting
crosslegged on the floor and slapping out variations of Pin Your Man,
Takedown and Be Aggressive. We did, however, do occasional
acrobatics. (My brother, Bill, says there are still dents in the
front yard where we practiced jumps.)
The city of Neenah lived for high school basketball games, and so
did I. Every Friday and Saturday night the Armstrong High School
fieldhouse was packed to the rafters with screaming fans of all
ages, from babies to grandmas. It was -- and still is -- the social
event of the winter. Most car windows bore the sticker NEENAH WITH
PRIDE.
Since 1969 the Neenah Rockets have qualified for the state
tournament in Madison nine times, winning the title in 1975 and 1978.
But regardless of how they finished, when the players returned home
from Madison they were paraded through town on fire trucks, while
people dressed in red and white lined the streets.
I miss that small-town spirit, the community feeling of knowing
every face and every name that goes with it. And having everybody
know me. I miss the matside seat at the wrestling matches, the
camaraderie of Rockets games and, yes, even those trips to the
Townsend dump.
More than anything, though, I miss barbecues. You can invite me
over for bratwurst anytime. I'll wear my stretch pants. And after
dinner we can go bowl a few games. What the heck, I'm from Neenah.

Photo(s): NO CREDIT NO CAPTION
NO CREDIT NO CAPTION BILL EPPRIDGE NO CAPTION NO CREDIT NO CAPTION NO CREDIT NO CAPTION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)