By Michael Mentzer
It’s interesting and a bit daunting to process what filters through a person’s mind when the thought barricades are pushed aside.
On a recent unseasonably mild afternoon, my thoughts — probably for a number of unfettered reasons — turned to Beauty and the Beast (not the story, but the outdoor world); baseball great Roberto Clemente and a mystery story about one of his bats; white-throated sparrows, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, catbirds, towhees, kinglets, rose-breasted grosbeaks and redstarts; and, of all things, woodchucks (not the famous ones that predict wintry patterns, just the run-of-the-mill variety).
It all started, I think, when I saw the distinctive shiny brown husks of American elm tree buds on our driveway and the fuzzy, grayish green skins of star magnolia buds in the garden. It seemed kind of early to see them but I certainly wasn’t complaining.
They appeared in the midst of a long-awaited warming trend sparked by a shift in the jet stream — the polar vortex be darned.
They opened the gateway to old memories and some growing concerns.
Beauty and the beast
By chance and observation a number of years ago, I reached the conclusion that the forces of nature that burst the blooms on the star magnolia in the far corner of our backyard are the same ones that prompt the lake sturgeon spawning ritual on the Wolf River and throughout the Winnebago System.
When the paper-white blooms with five petals, like stars, engulf our magnolia even before leaves appear and the fragrance filters through the surrounding air, it’s more than a “safe bet” that sturgeon are spawning and carrying out the grand design of their prehistoric ways.
It’s a link of beauty and the beast in the rites of spring.
I think about it when I see other magnolias, no matter what variety they might be, in bloom in Fond du Lac and beyond.
A few years ago, I watched huge sturgeon rolling and gliding together inches from the Wolf River shore and at most two feet from me where the river flows through New London. There’s a sturgeon walk there to make it easy for people to view the spawning spectacle.
Sturgeon are protected there, as they are at several key points along the river systems, and people volunteer their time to protect the vulnerable giants from those who don’t care about preserving the resource for posterity.
There was a time when violators slaughtered sturgeon when they were most vulnerable, weakened the genetic strain and threatened their future in Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes of Poygan and Winneconne.
Thankfully, that has changed. It’s one of the great environmental success stories in our part of the world — the Sturgeon for Tomorrow organization and human beings protecting a species for future generations.
Sturgeon prospects are bright not only here in our piece of the Winnebago System but at points around the world because of work and research being done in our so-called corner of the world.
If time allows, the walk along Sturgeon Trail in New London is priceless and unforgettable. I vowed a few years ago that I would go every year to experience it. I’ve failed on that promise. It bothers me because I know better than ever before how quickly life changes and opportunities fade into the fog of good intentions.
I laughed when I saw the newspaper photo of Jimmy the Groundhog and his big choppers nipping the ear of the Sun Prairie mayor on Groundhog Day.
It makes me smile even more when I realize that I know who Jimmy is but don’t have a clue what the mayor’s name is.
We have our own personal Groundhog Day at our house along the Dutch Gap near the Elizabeth Street Bridge.
It always happens in mid to late March. We look for days from our family room windows for the annual appearance. There are a couple burrows carved into the south side of the Gap where groundhogs traditionally make their spring debut.
They haven’t missed a spring appearance in 30 consecutive years. I say “they” because it certainly can’t be the same one we saw for the first time in the spring of 1985. They carry on the tradition, which is admirable considering the changes and threats visited on them over the years.
They make me smile but for a different reason than Jimmy did.
And they make me think about what’s to come and whether their days are numbered. They just might not fit someday in a more citified Dutch Gap.
The colorful birds that winter in the southern states, Central America, South America and the countless islands and estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico will be in our backyards very soon, singing the songs that distinguish them.
They need no lingual translation whether they sing in Nicaragua or Horicon, El Salvador or Fond du Lac, the West Indies or Door County.
Birds fire the imagination. They unite countries, even continents, during the spring and fall migrations. They know no boundaries, and nationalism is foreign to them.
The late Owen Gromme, who was regarded as one of the finest wildlife artists in North America, viewed his Fond du Lac hometown and this part of Wisconsin as one of the most remarkable, most prolific areas of bird life to be found anywhere.
He enjoyed great personal satisfaction in the outdoors and in watching the “birds of Wisconsin.”
In hindsight, I realize that Owen taught me more in his conversations, explanations and observations than I could comprehend at the time.
One of his lessons has grown in marked importance for me over the years. It’s simple and complicated at the same time: Make time to appreciate the beauty and the message of birds.
If you are fortunate to find that appreciation in your own proverbial backyard, enjoy it all the more.
I sat down at the kitchen table and read it again. The title is “A Drive into the Gap,” written by Kevin Guilfoile, son of Bill Guilfoile, a former Fond du Lac resident who was employed by the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates before becoming vice president of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.
It’s a small book in terms of pages (only 71), but large in terms of what it has to say.
It’s about baseball and the great Roberto Clemente of the Pirates and a bit of mystery surrounding the bat he used to get his 3,000th hit in his final regular season game of the 1972 season. The bat is on permanent display at the Hall of Fame, where Bill Guilfoile saw it every day of his career there.
But it’s about so much more — fathers, sons, memories, the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and the theft of memories, tragedy and the blessings afforded by the “good days.”
I read the book much more closely this second time around. I appreciated it more.
In fact, I also appreciate the legacy of Roberto Clemente more than I did when I was a kid. I grew up a Milwaukee Braves fan and Henry Aaron was my baseball hero. Back then I perceived any praise for Clemente as a slight of Aaron. If Clemente was picked as the All Star right fielder over Hank, I was distraught.
I view them both as heroes for different reasons today.
Clemente died aboard a plane bound for Nicaragua as part of a humanitarian aid mission for earthquake victims on New Year’s Eve in 1972. He was departing his native land of Puerto Rico when the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Roberto’s life is chronicled in the book “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero,” by Wisconsin native David Maraniss, the author of “When Pride Still Mattered,” the biography of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.
Breaking the banks
Bill Guilfoile’s name is mentioned at least a few times in the book by Maraniss. It was Bill, the public relations man for the Pirates, who broke the news of Clemente’s death to the world.
Kevin points out in his book, “A Drive into the Gap,” that his dad broke his children’s piggy banks the night Clemente died and put coins into a sock that he carried, along with his address book, “a mile through the cold and snow to a parking lot pay phone outside a general store,” to tell the world that his friend Roberto Clemente was dead.
The reason be broke the piggy banks and trudged to the general store pay phone was that he could not reach an outside line from his home phone and there was no immediate remedy to the problem.
Thanks to Tom Guilfoile of Fond du Lac, Bill’s brother, I’ve had the chance to hold one of Robert Clemente’s bats on a couple occasions. There are base hits in that bat once used by Clemente that will be confined in that chunk of ash forever.
It has a special significance, especially now with baseball in the air and another season on the horizon and the memories of Clemente slipping further into the mist.
There is relevance in touching the past. It must have something to do with age.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.