Memories of Depression- and WWII-era Madison

Madison Magazine's memoir contest winner recalls his boyhood
Memories of Depression- and WWII-era Madison

By Ron Hoppmann

No. 1
Billy White

Billy White and I were born on the same day, Wednesday, July 15, 1934, and we lived in the same Williamson Street apartment but not at the same time. His family moved in after our family moved to a more palatial estate at 1418 Northern Court. I was born at Wisconsin General Hospital, which became Madison General hospital and then the University School of Nursing. I don’t know what it is now. Billy was born on a farm near Wauzeka, Wisconsin, with a veterinarian in attendance. He swears that that is true but Billy lies a lot.

In the fourth grade at Marquette School we had to sing in the annual Christmas pageant. We filled the stage. The non-singers were dressed as wise men and shepherds but somehow I don’t remember a crèche. Me and Billy were in the choir and we had our new clothes on or, in my case, new hand-me-down clothes. We lined up, girls on one side and boys on the other, and shepherds and wise men in the center.

I looked out at the audience when the curtain opened and saw many familiar parents. The Klevers, the Woods, the Pearsons and Sandra Yopack’s mom and dad. The Yopacks owned a carpet and tile store on the corner of Few and Williamson. Years later it occurred to me that the Yopacks were Jewish and there was Sandra up there belting out “O Holy Night” and “Away in the Manger.” I always wondered about that.

After the show I was selected by Mrs. Hile to help take the music and costumes to the music room. Billy helped me since we were walking home together. By the time we were finished the janitor was turning off the lights and the only door left open was the Thornton Avenue exit facing the Yahara River.

The wind had picked up pretty good, and for December it was very cold. I supposed that was the reason for the empty streets. Ice had formed on the river and Billy wanted to investigate. It was what we called “skim” ice and I warned Billy not to step on it or he would fall through. He ignored me, and holding on to an overhanging tree branch, he edged his way out on the ice, which swayed under his weight but seemed to hold him. He ventured out a little farther, let go of the branch and took a few more steps. He looked back at me triumphantly. The “creak” sound that came wasn’t the big “crack” and “boom” you hear on Lake Mendota when you’re walking on the ice but rather more like the sound of a rusty door opening. I didn’t hear the next sound although I’m sure there was one.

Billy sank below the black waters of the river and my wits left me. I looked around for help, for anything that would get Billy out of the water. As I turned back Billy popped up the same hole he made in the ice when he went in. He began to dog paddle toward shore, breaking the thin ice as he struggled. I stepped in and helped him gain his footing and make his way up the bank to the sidewalk next to the footbridge.

“Jesus, Ronnie,” he said.

“Jesus, Billy,” I said.

We made our way up Jenifer Street with wind and now snow buffeting our progress. At the bottom of the Dickinson Street hill I looked at the chattering Billy. His pants were frozen and he walked with his legs apart like the Frankenstein monster. His black hair was frozen as was his coat and scarf.

“Couple more blocks,” I encouraged him.

We went up the hill and turned left on Williamson Street. (Only newcomers to Madison call it “Willy Street.”) The light from Tiny’s Tavern—now the site of Lazy Jane’s Café—spilled out on the street and Billy quickened his pace now that 1331 was almost in sight. We turned into the driveway shared with the little house in the back and up the porch steps to the kitchen door. With me right behind, Billy stepped into a warm kitchen greeted by the smell of fresh-baked bread and said to his mother, who was wiping her hands on her apron, “I fell through the ice on the river.”

Her emotions flashed across her face—first fear, then anxiety, followed by relief, and finally, anger. At anger her hand left her apron and in a heartbeat hit Billy on the side of his head. “In your new gabardine pants?” she said as ice from Billy’s hair tinkled and clattered throughout the kitchen.

She was hugging him as I backed out the door. I thought I would never understand mothers. I told my mother all about it when I got home. She toasted me a thick slice of bread in the oven, slathered it with peanut butter and sprinkled sugar on it. I thought, at least she’s relieved that Billy isn’t dead, until she said, “In his new clothes?”

Click here for two more of Ron Hoppmann’s essays.