Racine Journal Times
FRIDAY FISH FRY AND UNCLE BUB
The third entry in "Rediscovering Racine," my weekly column discussing the culture shock of returning to my childhood hometown after 20 years away.
Writing about Friday fish fry's in Racine is like asking people to tell me how wrong I am. We all have our favorite fish place with batter style, sides, and accompanying drinks. Hopefully, warm rye bread is a universal desire.
Now I am not a huge cod fan. I prefer Walleye, Bluegill, and Lake Perch. Smelt fries, of course, in season. Beer batter. Potato pancakes and a sweetish, peppery slaw. Capital Pilsener or Berghoff Lager. This is where I stand on the important issues.
The first 'return' fish fry we went to was at The Yardarm. At 4:45, we would be seated immediately, right? I can hear the laughter. We were actually lucky enough to be quoted a 45-minute wait, but with a baby, that is a lifetime. So we ordered from the take out window instead. Man! I forgot about those gorgeous sand dollars. We enjoyed our food at home and Brie said, "We should have stayed. It looked great inside." And I said, "But I was okay with staying." And she said, "But you looked like you weren't." And I said, "I was just worried that Adi would get antsy." And she said, "Well, we had a bottle for her." So I was wrong, somehow, and we're definitely staying next time.
The first Friday fish fry we were able to stay for was when the Grandparents treated the three of us at Well's Brothers. The food was great and, as Brie pointed out, the music fit the meal. Pasta calls for Sinatra or Prima, not Spears. Adi enjoyed her two pieces of bread, four crackers, a little taste of fish, a jar of baby food, and a bottle. I had the Bluegill and great American fries. The grandparents were pleased and we all had a grand time.
The Bluegill looked perfect, small and curled, and made me think of my Uncle Bub. Clarence Ptachinski. Grandma Bette's brother. Uncle Bub was a true Racinian. Schlitz and Pabst. He smoked cheap cigs into the filter. He fished just about everyday. He was the first guy to take me fishing. My brother and I stayed at Gram's and Uncle Bub woke us at 4:30 a.m. We ate donuts as he drove to Shoop's Park. He parked with the headlights shining just off the practice green and we scanned for nightcrawlers.
We fished into the late afternoon and caught around 60 bluegill. We brought them back to my Great Grandma Margaret's house, Bub's and Gram Bette's mom. She lived right next door to Gram Bette. Mom and Dad joined us. We fried and ate all 60 in Gram Margaret's screened in porch in the middle of her beautiful garden, as she pointed out new additions and old standbys. At 80, she mowed her grass with a push mower.
We sat back, bursting. Uncle Bub looked at Dad, Jeno, and me, smiled, and said, "A boat, a motor, and a dog." We laughed, and then asked, "What?" Uncle Bub repeated, "A boat, a motor, and a dog. That's all a man needs. On the Mississippi River, porting here and there. Yep." He looked away, grinning, a little nostalgic.
Aunt Dorothy would have none of it though. Aunt Dorothy was a true Racinian woman. She could drink a Schlitz, but she could also hide them. Whole summers were spent with Bub showing us new tricks, and Aunt Dorothy yelling, "Bub, don't show the kids that sh--." He showed us mumblety-peg. Mom yelled at him that time. He'd yell, "Jeno! Mat! Watch this," as he threw a brick in the air and, with a karate chop, smash it all over the ground, the ground doing most of the work. Coin tricks. A card trick I still pull out when I need a spare 5 bucks. I still haven't figured out how he put his cig out in his hand.
One day, he drove over to Gram's and, as he got out of his car, knocked the cherry off his cig into the car seat. A half-hour later he saw kids pulling a smoking seat cushion out of his open window. A huge burnt crater smoldered in the cushion. He explained to Aunt Dorothy that he needed more air down there. She wasn't amused. He came back to Gram's later that day, looked at Dad, Jeno, and me and said, "A boat, a motor, and a dog." It is a mantra in our house. The days when one of the Somlai men does something that makes a Somlai woman not so happy, and very quiet, he turns to the other two and repeats the mantra with the same sad little headshake and half smile.
The mantra is intoned bittersweetly because we know it is true, just not for us. Not even for Uncle Bub. He doted over Aunt Dorothy, just as we Somlai men dote over our own spouses. After Aunt Dorothy passed, Uncle Bub's health began to decline. He didn't eat very well. Don't get me wrong. He was still spry and lively. The last time I saw him was about 2 years ago, when we visited Racine before moving back. His handshake was as strong as ever. He simply did what he wished all day long. He passed away a couple of months ago. Mom's grandfather, Bub's and Bette's dad, passed just before I was born, and Mom always said she wished I could have met him. I feel the same about Bub, and my daughter never being able to meet him.
Well, the column went far off the original intent. That's okay. I am sure someone can write a better Friday fish fry roundup. I also think someone can write more intimately about Uncle Bub. I would be happy just knowing that a father and son went out early and used this column to wrap up their nightcrawlers. As the father unwrapped them, maybe he'd see the mantra and then explain to his son why he was laughing as he shared this secret teaching.