The year was 1965. Madison, to a couple thousand high school small-town Wisconsin boys, was Babylon. Milwaukee was our vision of a big city, but Madison was mythical, seductive, a fantasy land outside anything any of us had ever experienced. But Madison was part of the charm, really, part of the glory of high school athletics—two whole days off of school, a room in some family home, hours and hours of basketball, and Madison. Just going there made our team’s having already lost somehow bearable.
We packed our our shaving gear and slipped on our penny loafers, and then threw on the red-and-white letter jacket, gold metals hanging in clusters on the chest, chenille chevrons, one atop the next, lined up beneath our ’65 and ’66 as perfect as a line of geese.
It was 1965, and we aimed to hang around the cavernous old UW Fieldhouse in identical haircuts straight from American Bandstand. We were cool, and we knew it because when we looked at everybody else they all looked just like we did.
That year three of us Oostburg boys stayed a good half hour’s walk from the Fieldhouse. We never took a bus because we had no idea how much it cost or even how to pay, and having to appear that we didn’t, by nature, know such things would have been deeply humiliating. Sometimes we’d pull our fingers in from our gloves and wish we were square enough to wear mittens.
It was 1965, and to a kid from rural Wisconsin, Vietnam was a national test of manhood, race riots were blatantly un-American, and 1968—Bobby Kennedy, King, Detroit, Chicago—all of that was still three long years few of us could have predicted in the world we lived in, a world as tight and strong as a class ring.
But Madison was Babylon.
We met our hostess after the first session of games. She noticed the “Dutchmen” in bold red and white on the backs of our jackets. It was the name of our team, we said; we had no idea that we were Dutch-Americans, growing up as we did with no one who wasn’t.
She was a nice older lady, I remember, her hair silvery and glowing. Her husband was away, she told us. We were sure that no grandparents ever had marital problems, but we wondered about him, about his absence.
It was a fine brick house, nothing outlandish, just sturdy and square, and it stood on a corner of a street that could have been one of ours—elms, skeletal in March, and other old homes like hers, like ours. Seemed strange that she was a resident of Babylon. There were some strange paintings on her walls—long, thick swipes on huge canvases. I do remember that. Nothing close to what was on our walls.
For two days she acted just like our mothers would have. We didn’t see her that often, but we did speak to her before we left in the morning, and she acted very nice, offering orange juice in tall glasses. She didn’t have to do that. No one else’s hosts were that gracious.
“My husband loves basketball, especially the state tournaments. He usually watches them on the TV,” she told us Saturday morning. “He would love to be here tonight for the finals, I’m sure.” She motioned us to take a chair before leaving for the Fieldhouse.
Once, when we walked down that never-ending sidewalk we wondered what he was up to.
“Probably a professor or something,” Rog said, “goofing off someplace.”
“Insurance maybe,” Bob said, “at a convention in Baltimore or something.”
So when Rog asked her outright what her husband was up to, I wasn’t surprised he did. That Saturday morning would be the last time we could ask.
“Didn’t I say?” she said. “He’s in Alabama, with Dr. King.”
My father thought Martin Luther King was an agitator who created all kinds of unnecessary trouble for good people who wanted law and order, a socialist, maybe worse. All we knew about African-Americans was the basketball glory of Milwaukee’s inner city powerhouse, Lincoln High. Anyone who marched with King had to be a socialist too, especially if he was white.
That complex infrastructure of ideas was as true as the precision of the Monroe Cheesemakers, the all-white team from downstate.
Finally Bob said it was time to get going.
It was cold in Madison in March of 1965. The snow beneath our feet cracked as we walked down to the glory of high school athletics. For a while we didn’t say a thing really, our hands clasped on the hard leather handles of our suitcases.
“Sheesh,” Rog said. “Old man must be a communist.” Any of us could have said it.
Fifty years ago just this week, two separate worlds were colliding in my head, and I couldn’t help feel some kind of fear because one of those worlds was new and threatening, the other so much more comfortable, a world of letter jackets and class rings, of truths as shiny as class mottoes.
Still, when we rode a Oostburg High School bus home in the cold darkness that night after the finals, I knew I wasn’t exactly the same kid I’d been when we’d left for Babylon.