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, soft-ball, 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.