It’s a 90-minute drive from Chicago. Because of many similarities, Milwaukee could be Chicago Lite; or maybe Chicago is Milwaukee High Life. To this old guy, however, Milwaukee is an annual destination to celebrate the illusion that some things won’t change… even though they are changing right before our eyes.
It started 20 years ago in Rockford, Illinois, a town just west of Chicago that has a large indoor tennis facility. That fall, six of us – the Rockford Six – spent a weekend playing tennis at the club and poker in the hotel. The idea was a present from one of the wives, and it resulted in a memorable weekend. But we never returned. (What happens in Rockford stays in Rockford.)
We upped our game to Milwaukee, a bigger city with several indoor clubs and more hotels and restaurants. And we moved the event from fall to late January. Because Chicago’s winters are notoriously brutal, we decided to escape winter for a weekend and drive 100 miles north.
This past January marked our 18th Milwaukee weekend. The group has doubled to 12 guys. Four of the Rockford Six were in attendance this year; two of us have never missed a trip.
The obvious question is, “Why???” The easy answer is good old-fashioned male bondage. (I know. But that’s what I call it.) For an entire weekend, we can just be… guys.
But there’s more to it. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I can make a stab at answering that question for myself.
I’m not good with change. (That voice you hear is my wife saying, “No… really?? ”) I still wear button-down collars. I’m in contact with friends from second grade and many more from high school. (60-year reunion this fall) I look forward to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and driving 400 miles to my family reunion in Doniphan, Missouri. These things have been part of my life forever. They haven’t changed much, and they all involve people I’ve known over the years.
Okay Old Guy, what’s the point??
The point: Milwaukee has become a tradition from which we all have memories of people and events. For the most part, it’s the same every year. We know that we’ll congregate at the same house Friday morning, stay at the same hotel, play the same poker games over the weekend, and know who does and doesn’t bluff. We usually have the same roommate, dinner at a burger-and-beer place Friday night and a classier place Saturday, tell the same stories of Milwaukees long ago, talk about big winners and losers over the years, divvy up the communal expenses the same way, and stop at the same place for Sunday lunch to close out Milwaukee for another 51 weekends. It’s all very predictable.
Little by little, however, changes are creeping in, changes we can’t control. For example…
For many years we began the trip by meeting at one guy’s house and having coffee and homemade baked goods, compliments of his wonderful wife. Sadly, Bill died three years ago. But because Milwaukee was an important tradition in his life, his wife has graciously insisted that we continue to use her house as the meeting point. So we still start the weekend with coffee, breakfast goodies, bags of chocolate chip cookies, and a hand of liars poker in memory of Bill.
A couple other guys who were both important to the group dynamics have dropped out because of health problems.
And we used to reserve three courts for doubles tennis. Now, due to old legs, new hips and bad knees, only six or seven still play tennis. The rest just come for the poker.
It’s the changes in our lives that make the things that don’t change – like Milwaukee – so important. To me, anyway. Perhaps it’s my unconscious battle against mortality. Heavy.
Even heavier… At the core of all of these traditions is one thing: friends. Lasting friendships lead to lasting traditions. And that’s what’s so important about Milwaukee: a tradition of the same guys enjoying pretty much the same things all these years.
Milwaukee isn’t a tradition we’re likely to pass on to our sons. None of us has ever heard, “Hey Dad, can I go with you guys to Milwaukee this year? Please?” Milwaukee will come to an end sometime, perhaps soon. Probably when none of us remembers how to get there.
Meanwhile, as long as we have at least six guys eager – and able – to drive 100 miles north in late January to play poker and tennis, I will continue to pack my button-down-collar shirts to spend another memorable weekend with a bunch of guys – friends – I’ve known for a long time, all of whom are hoping this year they’ll be the big winner.
So who won this past January? I forget.