One of the great Americans passed away this week in Eau Claire, WI. Willard "Willy" Johnson and family lived across the street from us for most of my childhood. His son the MadDog was a year younger than me and an unindicted co-conspirator in a number of episodes from the 2nd grade well past high school. Willy was a 100% purebred Norwegian, master carpenter, WWII Pacific veteran, generous neighbor, excellent skier, and probably the most patient guy I ever knew. He never seemed to get pissed off, a Herculean task given some of the trials his son and I put him through.
One of the first incidents that we vexed him with had to have been about the 2nd or 3rd grade when MadDog and I were apprehended 'borrowing' what we thought was spare lumber at a home construction site down the road. The plan was to build a tree house and we were turned over to Jack and Willy for proper disciplining. My guess is that Willy must have known the carpenters on the site and got to explain the actions of his son and derelict buddy from across the street. Much baseball was played in the neighborhood, usually in the lot that bordered the Johnson residence. After at least three balls, baseballs folks, not much whiffle ball for this group, crashed through the garage window which was poorly located in deep center field, Willy finally put up a wooden shutter to avoid any more glass bills. We may have busted a couple more after forgetting to close the shutter but Willy never came out and ragged our asses, an activity that other dad's in the neighborhood seemed to excel in and relish.
There was one dad in the neighborhood that would go out of his way to yell at us if we so much as leaned on his car while standing in the driveway. We abused poor Willy's vehicles horribly and he never raised his voice, at least at me. When it came to lending the MadDog and I a car, the common wisdom in the neighborhood was that, "I wouldn't lend an anvil to either of those two clowns, much less a car". We took Willys van up north ice fishing and I don't know what we did to it but I do remember stopping and adding three quarts of oil on the way home before we saw anything on the dipstick. We also drove this same van out on Half Moon lake so we could be the first car on the ice for the season. The van had every tool he owned in the back but that never crossed our minds. Probably the most disgusting episode was when we went fishing for bullheads in that same Half Moon lake one beautiful May night. We had read in the Sportsman's Column in the local paper that liver was a great bait for bullheads and they were right. We absolutely nailed the bullheads and then took them home and cleaned them. What we forgot to deal with was the leftover half pound of liver in the trunk of Willy's Oldsmobile. After a couple days of the May heat there was a telltale odor in the car. After a couple more days it was no longer telltale. I was not present when the trunk was opened but I heard it was an impressive stench. Once again no tongue lashings or beatings were administered.
The 'double S' incident had to be one of the most memorable stories involving the male members of the Johnson/Olson families. For some reason no sisters or neighbors were involved in a ski trip to Viking Skyline in Strum, WI, a small town about a half hour south of Eau Claire. The typical ski day had two or three adults and four or five kids stuffed into a large mid 1960's Oldsmobile or Buick along with all their equipment. This time it was just my dad Jack, Willy, MadDog, and me. After a fine day on the rope tow hammering the 250' vertical drop of Viking Skyline (the image above may have actually been on that very day) the boys drove across Hwy 10 for a drink in the clubhouse. They ran into some ne'er do well buddies from the area and two hours of beer drinking dragged on into three. Neither the Dog or I had a drivers license but we were so bored and the dads were having so much fun that they flipped us the car keys to 'practice driving' in the parking lot. I immediately took off down the road with MadDog clinging to the wipers on the hood. To this day I don't know why. I put it in the ditch and he ran back to the clubhouse to rat me out. Jack and Willy showed up on snowmobiles and we hauled the car out of the ditch. They figured it was an excellent time to head home since skiing ended at 4:30 and it was now around 8:30. They had been notably overserved but were smart enough to realize that neither of them should be behind the wheel. The alternative was to put one of us unlicensed drivers behind the wheel and since I had basically stolen the car and put it in the ditch I was disqualified and the MadDog was tapped for driver duty. Things went fine and it was decided that we should cleverly get off the highway and sneak into town on the back roads to avoid any law enforcement. The Dog was instructed by Willy to 'take a left on double S (county highway SS)'. Except it was apparent to both MadDog and I that it was actually county S. "But dad, it's highway S". Willy's response, "I don't give a shit what it is, just turn on it". At least they had only had enough beer to turn it into SS and not SSS. Our driveways faced one another across the street. When we pulled in we both noticed that only one light in both houses was on, the small light in the kitchen. We aren't sure if Jack or Willy made the same observation or not. We could see the shadowy figures, both holding rolling pins we assumed, of Mary and Anna waiting to see what the boys had to say for themselves. When the car doors opened and the MadDog got out of the drivers side we just looked at each other, secure in the knowledge that for just this one time, neither of us was in any trouble at all. Unfortunately we can't report the same for Jack and Willy.
Willy will be missed by many. Countless times, especially on crisp fall days our garage doors would be up and would wander across the street, down his driveway and up ours to BS with Jack for ten minutes or maybe an hour. He would have on the flannel shirt and be gnawing on a Swisher Sweet cigar. I don't remember ever seeing him light one but they would talk and every so often Willy would lean over and spit some stray cigar leaves into the grass. I desperately want to attend the wake on Friday but am stuck in Puerto Rico for work and will miss it. I am now officially lobbying for a "Willy Wake" up in Chetek this summer, preferably on a pontoon boat where we are all drinking beer and chewing on Swisher Sweets. I am certain Willy would get a kick out of that.