Sailing the Seas of Cheese: My Neighbor Mike
My parents still live in their home in De Pere that they bought when I was two-years-old. It’s a Cape Cod style white shingled house built in the Thirties that’s seen several additions added to it. The lots are huge, and there are only seven houses on the entire block. As a kid I took my dad’s tape measure to see just how long the back foot really was. It was exactly one hundred feet if anyone cares, stretching from one neighbor’s Cyclone fence all the way to our white picket fence on the other side that was guarded by an ancient apple tree which still grows in the backyard to this day.
Some of my earliest memories of my parents’ home involved that fence and the many conversations my dad had with the old man that lived on the other side. They always seemed to meet at the fence, my dad begrudgingly doing yard work and Mike tinkering in his garden. Mike’s hair was completely white. He had a soft yet gravelly voice, wore glasses like most men his age, and walked with a cane. He would use it to knock over the mushrooms that would spring up in the lawn from time to time. I have no idea why I remember that, but he always had the perfect lawn.
Mike was a gentle giant with broad shoulders and enormous hands. He always seemed huge to me, but then again I was only three feet tall at the time. Everyone seemed big to me. He never complained when my brother and I careened into his cedar bushes when we were learning to ride bicycles. Unlike the mean old bat that lived around the corner, he never yelled at me when I’d ride my bike up his driveway to turn around and head home once I mastered those skills. He even made a set of blocks that he affixed to my friend Aran’s tricycle so he could reach the pedals. When my younger brother Jay was four, he declared that Mike was his best friend. To this day he cherishes a photo of the two of them lying in the grass playing.
To me, Mike was the neighbor that grew sweet corn alongside his irises. He drove a white Cadillac. And like lots of people in the Green Bay area, he would sometimes wear a yellow golf shirt with a little oval-shaped G over the breast. I played with his granddaughter when her family would visit on weekends. At night you could see him reading in the red leather chair in his study. To my dad and Aran’s father Tony, he always seemed like something more. Maybe it was the whole “respect the elder” thing my parents ingrained into me, but now I realize there was more to Mike that met the eye. My grandpa—a man of very few words—always seemed to seek him out to say hi when he visited as though talking to him was something special.
In retrospect, Mike really was something special. My unassuming neighbor Mike was August “Iron Mike” Michalske, member of the second class (and first guard) inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame who played for the Green Bay Packers in the 1930’s. He didn’t just define that position, he was one of those sixty-minute players that played both sides of the ball. He joined the team in 1929, the year the Packers won their first World Championship. He wore many numbers during his tenure, but the Packers continue to remember him as one of the quintessential #36′s.
As I grew older, I realized that Mike had been a Packer, that team my dad and uncle cheered for from their nosebleed seats at Lambeau Field. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized what a historic player he had been or that there was even a Hall of Fame where he was honored. And looking back, I now realize why my grandpa seemed to be in awe when he talked to him. Mike was a legend from the championship team that my grandfather had loved so many years before. No wonder Grandpa always wanted to check if Mike was outside.
Mike died when I was in sixth grade. It was the same fall my great-grandmother passed away. My mom was the one that drove him to the hospital that day. His wife Doris had never learned to drive. He was eighty-years-old. I still remember sitting in my parents’ bedroom when my mom told me that Mike had died and that he was never coming home. That was the fall I really learned about death.
I didn’t go to his funeral just like I didn’t attend my great-grandmother’s. My parents wanted to shield my brother and me for some reason, as though death was something reserved for grown-ups. So I said my goodbyes in the front seat of my mom’s Volvo, sitting where he had sat only a few days before.
He’s buried somewhere in Green Bay alongside his wife Doris who passed away nearly twenty years later. I’ve never visited his grave. The again, I’ve never been one for cemetery visits. They’re just plots of lands dotted with gravestones and ugly landscaping. They’ve held true emotional value to me.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t visit with Mike from time to time. In 2008, the same year the team welcomed Aaron Rodgers as its starting quarterback, my husband and I lucked out and became Green Bay Packers season ticket owners. Our seats are in the southeast corner, two rows from the top. I see Mike’s name every time I walk out to our seat,s and I say hi to him. He and the other Hall of Famers are not just memorialized in Canton. Their names ring the walls of Lambeau field. And it is there that I connect with him. When I say my silent hellos to him, it isn’t to Iron Mike the football player. I say hello to Mike the kind neighbor that never had a bad thing to say about anyone and always waved when I rode by on my bike.
I sometimes wonder if the current players see the names stretching across the stadium. Sure, they recognize the names like Bart Starr and Reggie White, but do they know about the older names? Do they mean anything to them? After all, Mike died a little over a month before Aaron Rodgers was even born. Do Le Roy Butler or Nick Collins know anything about the man who wore their jersey number when the colors were blue and gold?
There was a recent survey at the Green Bay Packers website surveying Who Was the Greatest 36 of all Time. No disrespect to Le Roy or Nick, but Iron Mike has my vote for a million reasons that probably have nothing to do with football.