4/26/2008

The Natatorium

Over at Badger Blogger, Bruce is calling on "Old school memories of Milwaukee," and I added my two cents of recollection with the Natatorium.

For those of you not in the know, the Natatorium was an early-20th century bath house that had been converted into a restaurant where the pool housed porpoises to entertain diners. Before Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz came along, this was the place for kids' birthday parties, and I certainly had my share.

One Saturday night, my father, aunt and I were sitting around the dining room table, and my aunt was drinking peppermint schnapps. I asked if I could have a glass, and being only twelve, my aunt laughed at me. But my father said it was alright, I would be fine. Not believing my father, my aunt insisted that I would be very sick after drinking even a little bit of the breath-freshening liqueur and continued to refuse. Both my father and I disagreed, which led to a bet: if I could drink a shot of the schnapps (though I wouldn't have to shoot it) and not throw up in within an hour, she would take my father and I to dinner anywhere I wanted.

And so I got my schnapps. Two, in fact.

What my aunt didn't know that my father and I were both well aware of is that since I had been about four I'd been putting away a shot of schnapps every Saturday night at my grandparents. Looking back, I think it was their way of being sure I was in bed by nine and up for church the next morning. And on holidays, I usually got two.

(I should note here that these were different times, folks. My grandparents had a fully-stocked bar in their rec-room, tap lines and all, and booze was a big part of family gatherings. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked for Schlitz. The Italian side of the family assured that I had my very own miniature wine glass. When other kids were coming home from school and playing baseball, I was in the basement making up new cocktails. Hmmmm...maybe times haven't changed for me that much after all.)

Two hours later my father called my aunt and told her that I was outside playing with friends and not only hadn't thrown up, but wasn't even tipsy. And he added that next weekend she would be taking us to the Natatorium.

On the night we went, my last because the restaurant was soon to shut down, one of the porpoises had recently died (a friend of my father's who joined us kept insisting it was the night's special), but the recent addition of trained seals and the ever-present flock of tropical birds still made it exciting. If I recall correctly, the food was fairly bad, and as a consolation the manager offered our table a round of drinks.

This time, my father made me pass.

1 comment:

Bruce said...

I'm a sucker for a good story, and your recollections certainly fall into that category. Nicely done, Dave.

As a kid growing up on the northwest side of Milwaukee, the only child of a single parent with no extra cash in the budget, I always associated a fully-stocked rec room bar with beer tapper the true sign of "Milwaukee prosperity".

When I was about 12 or 13, some Saint Margaret Mary buddies and myself took turns sucking foam off of one of their fathers beer tappers in a basement around 95th & Keefe. I became so disoriented and ill, I couldn't bare the thought of even walking home, so I called grandpa to come and rescue me.

He picked me up, and I went out of my way not to speak to him, nor direct my breath toward him. We sat speechless in his little yellow VW Beetle, block after block, for what seemed like an eternity. Just before we pulled into the garage, as he got out of the car to open the door, grandpa turned to me and said, "Boy, I understand you and your buddies are just experimenting, and I'm not going to criticize you, but if your grandmother smells that beer on your breath, she's going to kick your ___."

I heeded grandpa's advice and stayed clear of grandma for the rest of the afternoon.

What's even more amusing about this story is that my grandmother was a raging alcoholic.