Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Boo Boo Years!

In early summer of 1970 I was introduced to a woman by some mutual friends. Her name was Louise Claudia French but all her friends called her "Boo Boo". It was a funny nickname and she certainly didn't look or act like a Boo Boo. Turns out the nickname came from when she was young and played peek-a-boo with her family, she could only get out the boo boo part of the game. She was a red headed firecracker who grew up on the upper east side and attended all those elite high schools and colleges. During the summer her family with vacation at a home on Pine Lake. Her mother opened a small needle point store in the Village of Chenequa to entertain herself and to socialize with other peers. After a car accident where Boo Boo was forced to be still for a few months, she picked up needle point from her mom. Boo Boo lived next to her grandma on Hackett Avenue, just off Downer Avenue and a small store was soon to be occupied by Boo Boo called French Knots. Boo Boo had a long line of well heeled ladies who patronized her store and learned all the complicated stitches. It was a very busy store. Boo Boo or her staff would paint the canvas designs so the ladies could stitch their custom creations. She also needed people to sew the finished items into the pillows, eye glass case, bell pulls or chair seats the women created.

Meeting Boo Boo was like a scene from the Walt Disney Movie, Lady and the Tramp.
Love at first sight and opposites certainly do attract. Here's a very early picture of me, Boo Boo and my first partner Ron Raffey as we walked into Summerfest.

Louise French, Ron Raffey and Bill Odbert Outside SummerFest - 1970

Boo Boo was very well schooled in all aspects of life. She knew her way around academics and the arts. Her family and friends were the movers and shakers of Milwaukee. At that time I had no clue how that side of society enjoyed their life but I can tell you one thing, Boo Boo and I enjoyed each others company. Boo Boo was every bit the rebel that I was. She disliked being pigeon holed as a rich upper crust snob but wisely used her position to enhance her life and business. We became like peanut butter and jelly, inseparable.  From her I learned how to sail a boat, ski downhill and ride a horse. Those were activities that were never offered to me earlier but now I was catching up. She was smart, beautiful, funny and I loved her very much. 

Two separate pictures of me and Boo Boo on the steps of The Leather Shop:

Louise "Boo Boo" French in Front of The Leather Shop - 1972

Me and My Irish Setter in Front of The Leather Shop - 1972

Over the next four years Boo Boo and I had a whirl wind romance. We lived together on Hackett for a short time until one early Sunday morning as we sat in bed reading the Sunday paper. She noticed a classified ad for a forty acre horse farm that was for rent out near Pike Lake. It had been renovated by a local attorney who's wife would not live out there. We drove out to the farm later that day and fell in love with it. Not only did it have a modern interior to a pre-civil war split rail log cabin, it was completely furnished. There was a horse barn, a silo that was turned into a sauna, a swimming pond and a half mile long driveway from the road. We moved in, bought a horse, new cars and became very popular amongst our friends. Two friends of mine were leather workers from Appleton via Sheboygan. Names were Chuck and Hoodia Hurtienne. Here they are posing in front of the Ponderosa we called home.

Fellow Leather Workers, Chuck and Hoodia Hurtienne in Front of My Home in the Country  1972

This is the only picture of me on a horse. Notice the sandals and the uneasy grip on the reins.

Me On A Horse - 1972

Boo Boo and I both still worked in the city. Me at The Leather Shop on Brady Street and her at the French Knots on Downer Avenue. To travel back and forth between the city and the country we decided that a new car was needed so we bought this little Porsche 914. I also bought a Toyota Land Cruiser that would be ideal during the winter months. It also worked well for the four dogs we had to haul around.

My First and Only Porsche - 1972

Over the years Boo Boo and I were an item, we experienced some memorable moments. We would go to Pine Lake and fish the crystal clear waters. This was my first time to learn how to operate a small outboard motor and boat. Here's a picture of me in that boat threatening to take off my pants. Boo Boo was holding my dog Ellis. Both of them had beautiful red hair.

Me on Pine Lake - 1971

On other boating occasions Boo Boo patiently taught me how to sail. On Pine Lake we used small boats that would dip over easily but getting wet was half the fun. The warm sun and water felt great but being in love was the best. We also would sail on Lake Michigan by renting unsinkable boats near the old War Memorial. I had to learn new terms like "locked in irons" and "coming about" to master the art of sailing.
During the winter months, some of Boo Boo's friends would invite us out to Pine Lake for ice boating. One year the ice was very smooth and the ice boat sailing was so much fun. If not a little dangerous too as we hit speeds that rattled your teeth and chilled you to the bone as we zipped across the frozen water. The picture below is from one of those excursions with Jim Anderson of Pine Lake waving to me the camera man. Bob Degge, a very talented metalsmith is there from Minneapolis, plus my brother Roger, Chuck Hurtienne and Jack Goudreaux. What a motley crew!

Ice Boating on Pine Lake - 1972

During on four year relationship we traveled all over the state of Wisconsin. Boo Boo showed me places I would have never know about. Places like the "Hogs Back Road", and the mysterious commune built in the shadow of Holy Hill called Sconfinato. Commune is a loose term for this development but it seemed so strange at the time. An architect designed these out of this world looking structures and hippies built them to live in. I don't have any pictures of the homes built there but if you travel down Hwy 83, just south of Holy Hill and on the Mayo Road, there is still some of these dwelling visible. They look like they landed like a space ship and not a part of this world. Boo Boo was a great tour guide and I was loving it. One year she flew to Florida during the winter to visit her folks in Fort Lauderdale. I drove that little Porsche all the way there to meet up with her. This was my first long trip by myself and the first time I swam in the ocean. The water was very warm and of course salty but those damn jelly fish stung my tender flesh. Freaked me out as it hurt so bad. Yikes!

A fellow I met through the leather business was a tanner from Tullahoma Tennessee. His name was Eric Soesbe and he was a red neck through and through. His grandpappy had started the tannery and his father took over the reins to the company. Eric was next in line and had come to Milwaukee for one of our many trade shows that showed off our vibrant tanning industry. The first time I met Eric is when he walked into my shop with a unloaded shot gun slung over his shoulder and a coon skin cap on his head. Eric was in town for business and to P A R T Y. Next to him was this VERY buxom blonde bombshell named Janice Lee. Eric had hired her to be his "greeter" at the convention he had a booth at. He wanted us to make her a blue suede outfit. She was so busty, I felt like Howard Hughes trying to design a bra for Jane Russell. Eric was a great guy and became a good friend. He was enamored with Boo Boo and invited both down to his home in Tennessee. We accepted his offer and drove down in that roller skate of a Porsche. Once there Eric showed us the tannery where they made the white traditional baseball leather out of horsehide. The horsehide was used because it would not deform as easily as cowhide. The tanning process was very similar to cowhide but differed by the drying process they used. We entered a room with row after row of hide sized cedar boards bound together. On each one of these was a white horsehide stretched and nailed to the wood. A formaldehyde odor was in the air. Pungent and irritating to our eyes and nose. The formaldehyde was used to slowly dry the hides so they did not become brittle and remained soft for making the baseballs. This is a patented process and still used by his company but they don't use horse anymore, the major leagues switched to cowhide years ago.

Eric was a marvelous host and his home along with his wife and children were very hospitable. Early the next day, we awoke long before dawn and traveled to a friend private air field. Once there, a very large wicker basket with a one million BTU burner at the top was carried to the open air strip. Tipping the basket on its side and aiming a huge fan at the fabric that stretched from the top of the wicker basket allowed the fabric to inflate like a ballon. Once it got large enough, Eric lit the burner and started to blast very hot air into the fabric. What started to appear was a hot air ballon. Once the temperature inside the fabric reached more the 80 degrees warmer then the outside or ambient temperature we would have lift off. Early in the morning or early evening works best for this process as there tends to be lighter air. Eric inflated a weather ballon with helium and set it flying off into the sky. A stop watch was used to calculate it's ascent and notes were made of which way it traveled as the hot air ballon was soon to follow.

The wicker basket only had room for two people. Since Eric was the pilot, Boo Boo was his first passenger. As they lifted off, she nervously waved and as they drifted off into the early morning air I took this picture.

Hot Air Ballon Over Tennessee - 1975

A friend of Eric and I were in the chase vehicle. Armed with walkie talkies we were in communication with Boo Boo and Eric for s host time but radios back the were not the sophisticated devices we have today. We kept our eyes on the ballon and tried to determine which way they were going. The weather ballon showed us two different air streams at various levels. At 2000 feet the wind went one direction but at 4000 feet it went another direction. As we scampered across the Tennessee landscape we traveled over wooden bridges and unpaved roads. One small creek we had to forge over was only made possible by metal I-beams that we had to size to our car width before using them to cross the stream. Fortunately we were able to keep them in sight and when they landed we could gather up the ballon fabric and load the basket onto the trailer we pulled. The tradition is to toast the landing with a bottle of champagne but we settled for some ice cold beer.

The next day was my turn. Once again we arose very early and went through the process of inflating the ballon. As we lifted off I was not frightened but I was very excited. Eric cautioned me to be quiet until we gained some altitude as moon shiners were directly below us and wounding think anything about taking a shot at us less we be any guys from the infernal federal government. We barely made it over some trees in the beginning but as we gained height the ground was slowly moving away. I could see the countryside and the cows and mules in peoples backyards. The only sound you hear is the blast of the burner overhead. When it wasn't spewing  the hot air we needed to stay afloat it was very quiet. One could hear the birds sing as they flew by. By my surprise, I learned that since the wind is pushing the ballon along, there is no feeling of the wind. Only calm air surrounds you. We ascended to 4000 feet and I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder and down at the ground. I felt my knees buckle and my stomach flip. I sank to the bottom of the basket. Eric laughed at first but then coached me not to look down but to look straight out so I did not lose vertigo. In the distance, Eric saw a field he wanted to land in. Using the lift of the ballon, he decreased the heat inside the ballon so we would slowly descend. As we approached the open field, Eric had me stand behind him as he operated the enormous rip cord that allowed the hot air to escape once the basket had touched down. The rip cord was attached to a velcro panel in the ballon and once pulled, the hot air rushed out. When the air rushed out it took us down the filed a little bit, making the basket bump along the ground. We landed successfully and were greeted by a Tennessee family and their livestock. Eric had flown close enough to their home that as we approached, permission was asked and granted to us to land in their field. The only ones that didn't get the message was the cattle. Eric had me run out to the ballon's fabric and quickly start gathering it up and keeping the cattle away. It seems like cattle like the taste of fancy flying ballon fabric.

Once on the ground we expected to see Boo Boo and the other chase person there to take us home. The walkie talkies were primitive and the chase vehicle didn't know where we were. The back up plan was for us and the chase to call back to Eric's wife who would relay where we were. Eric stayed with the ballon and entertained the throng of people who had gathered from miles around to see what the hell just landed.
The landowner had a telephone and was happy to let me use it. I dialed the number and when I asked the where we were, he said we were at the "Gnat Hill" and the "Hoo Doo Road". Seriously, I had to ask him several times to repeat that because his Tennessee accent was so strong and that intersection was certainly not in my Milwaukee vocabulary. Eric's wife knew immediately where we were and dispatched the tracking vehicle to us. What a trip!!

We made it back to Milwaukee and back to reality. The early 1970's were years of growth in the business and in my personal life. The business was good. I loved being a leather worker but my relationship with Boo Boo was suffering. Was it that her parents were always dead set against me dating her daughter or was it that our hopes and dreams were not the same. Boo Boo and I parted our ways and this picture of the lonely dog in front of The Leather Shop that appeared in the paper seemed to sum up how I felt.

Cute Picture of Someones Dog in Front of The Leather Shop - 1976

No comments:

Post a Comment