Badger State license plates say it all, don’t they? Well, in my milky memory, they certainly did in a small, sedate Wisconsin village because, from the very first to the very last day of every June in honor of “Dairy Month” in Wisconsin, two tiny banks in one torpid town – the Farmers State and the First National – provided gratuitous white and chocolate milk to any man, woman or child who lollygagged into either FDIC-approved savings and loan.
Honestly! Ya could just stroll in, grab a now-dangerous Styrofoam cup, ponder your choice of two flavors, then lift the ball-shaped, silver lever upward. Out from the chosen spout would lazily flow the liquid manna from a cold, clean cooler.
Ya didn’t have to pay any money. Ya didn’t have to sign any papers. Ya just reveled during this celebration of the Holstein. No doubt, it was one delicious month.
“Hey! How many more days are there in June?”
“Plenty, but there’s never enough.”
But by 1993, California had abruptly pushed past not only towns like Bangor, but all of Wisconsin in cheese production.
By 2000, Wisconsin was second to La-La Land in total dairy output. Was this shift a plot? A conspiracy? No – just “progress.”
They had more cows. They had more people. They had more flash. Those glitzy, Left Coast types know how to advertise – just look at ‘em.
“Are the cows happier in California than they are in Wisconsin?”
“What? Just shut up.”
My homogenous childhood ride through small-town life was everything but California-like. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Vietnam War were just words on TV to Bangor kids.
Instead, June after June, Dave, Paul, Pratt and I would mindlessly ride our banana bikes before baseball to our first destination – the First National Bank on Main Street across from the ol’ dime store and Coffee Cup Cafe.
With $10 gloves hanging off our handlebars, the June milkarama was sweetly predictable – walk in, grab a cup, fill ‘er once, gulp it, then take a second one before pacing out the glass door every Monday through Saturday, June after June.
Weaving through pedestrians walking in and out of the downtown stores with one of our hands steering the bike and the other holding the cup, we would pass the pharmacy and Hanson’s IGA.
Then once at Farmers State Bank, enter, grab, fill, gulp, refill, burp, then pedal onward.
And all this took place without security cameras, without permission slips, without threats to call our parents.
During these pre-Title Nine days, baseball and milk-guzzlin’– both with no girls allowed – were our major activities.
In a town where time seemed to move slower than it really did, baseball was one of the few legitimate, noncriminal choices guys had.
It was a couple of hours of throwing, catching, hitting, sliding and yelling on the dusty diamond in 90-degree heat without fancy flavored waters or electrolyte drinks cooling in stay-cold packs that mamas give their kids today.
Instead, to quench our thirst after baseball practice in June, we’d slowly walk our bikes up the hill and back into the downtown for more whole, homogenized heaven.
And there was no problem with seconds – no, sir! No one yelled at us for drinking too much, even if we lived a little dangerously and drew a third cup of chocolate-and-white swirl. Hell, it was dairy month, man.
Later, we’d allow our bikes to coast us back to the park where we dismounted, then lazily laid low under lush, languishing elms. The late afternoon passed by as we spit straight up into the air until someone would hear his mama calling for supper.
“What time does the bus leave for the game tomorrow?”
“4:30, but let’s make sure we meet at First National for milk before noon, then take some swings.”
The Bangor Creamery once employed dozens of men, including me and other Churchwells, who would serve dozens of area Coulee Region dairy farmers.
Sheer, shiny metal milk trucks would deliver raw milk. Creamery laborers wearing rubber boots and plastic aprons would make, flip, wrap, and box cheese.
Office workers would send these all over the country as efficiently as any business around. A man could count on goin’ to work, puttin’ in his time, walkin’ home, complainin’ to his wife, eatin’ some supper, goin’ to bed, and doin’ it all over again the next day five, maybe six, days a week.
What more could ya want?
Before I could shave, my dad was a creamery legend ‘cause he could carry two full milk cans with two huge arms.
Once the hair rose on my own chin, I tried the same – with the recent luck of Osama bin Laden, unfortunately.
Weekdays and weekends, license plates from Indiana, Oklahoma, and other places I never went to would line the narrow streets around the Bangor creamery to buy what we made and eat what they bought.
This routine, this cycle, this pace was part of the rhythm and lifeblood of this town – it put Bangor on the map.
But what was once slow is now dead. No more bulging biceps carrying cans. No more unfamiliar license plates parked on streets.
No more lifeblood pumping its way through the town. Well over half of the Bangor creamery’s original white structure has long been replaced by green grass alone.
The leftover is up for sale as this former milk-and-cheese-makin’ machine strives to somehow remain alive until someone or something can revive it in the new millennium.
“What happened to all the jobs?”
“They disappeared, man. They disappeared.”
Let’s just say my dad wasn’t one of those modern types that overwhelmed his kids with his time. Anyway, it was the morning before a tradition over which every small town salivates – a Little League’s version of David versus Goliath – Bangor against the Boys Club from LaCrosse later that June evening.
This meant parents and lights and memories on a Saturday night – pretty big whoop for a kid from a small town, ya know.
In general, I never told my old man I was gonna do anything – I begged. While going to Farmers State, I timidly asked dad if Paul, Pratt and I could take some extra swings that morning.
I had twelve-year-old uneasiness about that evening’s tilt. LaCrosse was a city of 50,000 and wore spikes. We were Bangor and wore Chuck Taylors.
But he wasn’t really listening.
As we entered Farmers State, my dad went to the shortest available line while I began to douse my innards with milk.
By the time I was into my second cup, dad was talking not only to the teller, Millie Small, the mom of my first crush, but also to the big bank president, Mr. Dick Bedessem. I couldn’t hear or lip-read, but I didn’t see anyone smiling.
In came Paul and Pratt, who didn’t hesitate a second to get to the nozzles. Years later, I blame it on not only the free milk, but also the inbred friskiness and impending puberty of three twelve-year-old boys.
Predictably, the reach for a second cup of milk turned into a nudge to the ribs which turned into a playful shove into me which lead to a spilled cup of chocolate-and-white onto the bank’s checkered floor in the midst of many on a once-delightful Saturday morning.
For that suspended moment, every eye was on me, including two of the bank president’s. Then, head honcho Dick Bedessem abruptly stopped doling the cash to my old man and bullishly peered at me either over or through the rest of that day’s customers as they resumed their business.
He put the rest of that money down and walked into the back of the bank without a word. Just as my dad looked and I mean “looked” back at me, out Dick Bedessem came – dressed in his lime green, polyester leisure suit with a white belt and matching wingtips – pushing and weaving a bucket and mop.
Paul and Pratt silently slipped into obscurity.
Dad cursed under his breath like I’d heard too many times before.
President Dick Bedessem rolled the mop bucket toward me.
I thought I had drunk my last cup of milk ever.
“Churchwell, for this . . . .”
Just take me now, Lord.
“For this . . . you had better win tonight.”
I didn’t have the opportunity to faint. My dad, who received the rest of the $150 he came to borrow to get the family by for a while, jerked me by my throwing arm and led me outside to “counsel” me like any good father would.
As Coy addressed me outside, I saw Dick Bedessem inside wiping up my spill like I was somebody.
“Hey, I thought Jeff was gonna take some swings with us. Where is he?”
“Let’s just hope he plays tonight, OK.”
We know too much about people and “progress” to ever go back to that pace, that place, that purity, that life. Driving up and down the same ol’ Main Street 40 years later, I don’t see kids on bikes almost getting hit by farmers as they visit town.
The only two wheelers are ridden fast by the pretend wanna-be’s wearing motorcycle helmets. The dime store where we went for fifteen cents’ worth of candy on Saturdays is closed; the Coffee Cup where teenagers went for fries is closed; the pharmacy where dumb dads would frantically pick up birthday or anniversary cards is closed.
The IGA where juveniles got their first taste of shoplifting has moved. It ain’t Mayberry anymore. Yes, “progress” rudely pushed forward – all the while takin’ more than givin’.
But the milk remains! By golly, the milk remains. And so does our state’s mantra. “Bearing the title ‘America’s Dairyland’ is about more than just producing the greatest amount of commodity cheese,” said a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board. “It’s about quality, quality, quality.”
Fortunately for me, life in Bangor during the 70s was about the same. One reason was because June was Dairy Month.
And though today milk is served in cartons, it’s my theory that Bangor is still makin’ some kids’ memories during June. Though today’s adolescents are “progressed” from when I would wear bell-bottoms and the Packers played badly, the milk’s still there.
And who knows? Maybe 40 years from today, some other freelance hack will commiserate over his experiences with summers and cartoned milk and drive-through services and piercings as if the todays of today were the good ol’ days of yesteryear.
So, here’s a toast with a white or chocolate mustache to places like Bangor and Wisconsin and memories like free milk and good cheese and people like Dick Bedessem and Coy Churchwell, with a hope and a prayer that those entities remain as this world keeps “progressing.”