William Zimmerman represents an important part of the American experience. The first American-born child of ethnically German immigrants from Poland, he grew up in a large German-American community in Wisconsin. He went to school speaking German, learned English, memorized huge sections of Longfellow, and left school after eighth grade. He swept the garage floor in Les Paul’s father’s garage so Les could play the guitar. He ran an amusement park ride. He built ranch roads. He was invited to become a member of the Junior KKK, drove from Wisconsin to Chicago during Prohibition, and then drove trucks from Wisconsin to Portland, Oregon in the early days of the Columbia Gorge highway. He had brain surgery in the forties at the May Clinic. He lived as a German in America through both world wars, and sent his son to Vietnam. He loved history, and reading, and gardening, and his grandchildren. He was a lifelong Milwaukee Brewers fan. He loved caramels, butterscotches, Zane Grey, and Harlequin Romances, and the Beverly Hillbillies. He loved loading up his car with grandchildren and driving—to the beach or to the Charburger or A&W downtown: it didn’t really matter. And while he did all these things, he told us stories. I thought I knew Grandpa, but when I started getting his stories down on paper I realized that there was a part of him I had never seen, not because he had concealed it, but because when he told us his stories he infused them with magic—and that magic made it easy to overlook some of the pain and fear he must have felt, more than once. Writing these stories has been like having a conversation with him again.
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