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Anthony Wahl 

A truck cruises down Milton Avenue with a pickup full of passengers in the back on a recent Friday night. Each weekend Janesville becomes a hotbed of activity for teens wanting to cruise the strip and show off their trucks.


Circuit city

JANESVILLE

Tyler Bidlack shook a can of spray paint and spritzed matte-black primer over barnacles of rust on the fenders of his friend John Brandl’s dark blue Chevrolet pickup truck.

Under a pink and purple sunset in a Janesville parking lot just west of Festival Foods, a crew of about a dozen people in their late teens gathered beneath the glow of a Potbelly Sandwich Shop sign.

The teens milled around near where Brandl, 18, of Clinton and Bidlack, 17, of Elkhorn had parked their big diesel pickups.

A few teens were from Janesville. Others, including Bidlack and Brandl, had ventured in from outlying communities: Orfordville, Lake Geneva, Pell Lake and the Rockford, Illinois, area.

They were meeting up for a Friday night of cruising on Milton Avenue—Janesville’s equivalent of the Miracle Mile.

By sunset, Milton Avenue and some of the parking lots along the mile-long commercial strip would start filling with more pickup trucks—big, souped-up diesel Chevrolets, Fords and Dodges with blaring exhaust pipes, worn paint and tires, truck beds full of young men in ball caps and young women with sweatshirt hoods drawn tight over their hair.

At 8:58 p.m., Bidlack watched Brandl pull out toward the strip-mall and chain-restaurant glow of Milton Avenue, his truck bed and crew cab seats jammed full of friends. Through a cloud of black exhaust, Brandl flashed a broad smile and motioned for Bidlack to follow him.

Bidlack hit the gas pedal in his own pickup, a heavy-duty white Dodge with his Instagram handle emblazoned on the window. He turned and glanced back at the three female passengers and black dog in his truck bed, all hunkered around a spare Goodyear Wrangler tire.

Bidlack flipped on an electric blue interior light and cued up country singer Kenny Chesney’s “Summertime” on the stereo.

As he throttled onto Milton Avenue, windows down and a cool breeze riffling his longish hair, Bidlack laid out how he and his friends view their favorite pastime: weekend nights cruising Janesville’s main drag.

“We pretty much put all our money in our trucks to make them cooler, better and quicker,” he said. “We’re not out here drinking or smoking weed. We’re just a bunch of high school kids. We’re just trying to have fun.”

Tradition and law

Milton Avenue’s summertime guests of dusk to midnight—the circuit cruisers—make their presence heard with loud blats of exhaust, the revving of big engines and sometimes the squall of tires on the street, a chorus of sound that echoes through nearby neighborhoods.

Up close, the cruisers are a familiar sight to some residents whose drive to an evening dinner can put them in front of, behind or alongside jacked-up pickups, souped-up Honda hatchbacks or the occasional muscle car.

Some residents say Janesville’s street cruising ethos is tied to the era from the 1960s to the early 1990s, when the city’s former General Motors assembly plant rode a crest atop the auto industry.

The city’s identity as an auto manufacturing town bled though to the working class, cultivating a cultural affinity for cars and a fascination with cruising.

Janesville’s one-time cruising strip—the Milwaukee and Court street “circuit” downtown—was considered a statewide hot spot for weekend cruising until the 1990s, when the city banned cruising downtown.

In his 20 years on the city’s police force, Lt. Mike Blaser has seen the northern stretch of Milton Avenue become galvanized as the new cruising strip, although he said the dynamic has changed through the years.

Sport motorcycle and sports car cruising, popular in the early 2000s, has given way to pickup truck cruising over the last eight to 10 years, Blaser said.

It has come with a mixed response from the public, including some Milton Avenue businesses.

Blaser said police have worked with businesses in the last two years to dissuade cruisers from leaving their pickups or cars parked for hours in private lots while they car-hop around and cruise in other vehicles.

He said police and some businesses make it clear through signs that tying up parking in a business’s lot without patronizing that business is considered trespassing.

Along with issuing tickets for speeding and other violations, police have focused more heavily on ticketing Milton Avenue cruisers who violate parking rules, Blaser said.

“The majority of the kids we see out there are well aware of the rule. When a squad car pulls into a lot, they all usually take off running and getting in their vehicle to drive away,” he said.

In some cases, cruising can be a side activity to loitering in the lots at gas stations, fast-food restaurants and other businesses. Blaser said police seek to prevent such loitering because it has resulted in bad behavior, including fights and intimidation of customers outside businesses.

Blaser said some city officials have broached the idea of a cruising ban on Milton Avenue, but such a policy has never gotten traction.

The cruise

In Bidlack and Brandl’s pickups, it took about 12 minutes to complete a circuit north and south on Milton Avenue. That included a parking lot pit stop to connect with another cruiser and a layover to locate a hair tie for one of the three females riding in the bed of Bidlack’s truck.

As for the “cruise” itself: It was a series of short, rapid, loud bursts of pickup truck acceleration between stoplights along the strip, followed by braking for more stoplights, waiting for lights to change, and another dose of quicksilver acceleration.

Bidlack at one point trimmed his speed to a flat 40 mph. He gave a vague gesture toward the other side of the street.

“Unmarked cop. Second time I’ve seen him,” he said.

On one southbound lap while stopped at a red light near the Janesville Mall, Bidlack drew a steely glance and a half-nod from a stocky, bearded man in his mid-30s who pulled up alongside in a newer Ford Mustang.

If the older man’s head nod was an unspoken challenge, Bidlack gave it no acknowledgement—at least not until the stoplight changed.

At the green light, both Bidlack and the Mustang’s driver accelerated hard. Bidlack’s speedometer lunged to 50 mph as his pickup and the Mustang throttled ahead side by side, both clearly outpacing the general flow of traffic.

Just as quickly, another traffic light up ahead on Milton Avenue winked from yellow to red. Bidlack and the Mustang’s driver eased up and slowed to another stop.

Whatever you would call the encounter—a drag race or a momentary test of throttles and brakes between two closely timed traffic lights—it ended almost before it began.

Bidlack offered no explanation of his run-in with the Mustang, but his truck did some talking of its own. Its automatic transmission thumped and bucked through one of the low gears, and the air smelled of hot transmission fluid.

Embrace the summer

On the east sidelines in a parking lot between the street and the Topper’s Pizza, a gallery of teens and young adults hung out amid a throng of parked motorcycles and pickups.

Some sat on lawn chairs along the sidewalk and terrace, while others sat on truck tailgates.

Many of the groups sat and ate orders of pizza they bought at Topper’s. It’s one business along the strip that doesn’t seem to mind cruisers who stop and park—as long as they come in and buy pizza, some of the cruisers said.

“We make sure if we’re going to be here, we’re supporting the businesses next to the parking lot,” Brett Bunnell said.

Bunnell, 19, a Roscoe, Illinois, native, was with three friends from Roscoe.

The group had a shiny, black 2005 GMC pickup with dual rear wheels and a long bed. Bunnell said he and a group of about 20 friends from Roscoe and the Rockford area come to Janesville for weekend cruising because others that cruise Milton Avenue seem friendly. Bunnell said his friends feel safer cruising Milton Avenue than tooling around some parts of Rockford at night.

One carload of young women called to Bunnell from the street, asking if he wanted to play “Ransom”—a competitive game of hide-and-seek that involves carloads of people locating friends their competitors have “kidnapped” and dropped off at random locations around town.

Bunnell declined the game. He had to get up early Saturday.

“I always say I’ll only be out an hour, and then I end up cruising for at least three or four hours,” he said.

Some, like Afton resident Amanda Homerding, prefer a ringside seat facing Milton Avenue. She favors a spot west of Festival Foods, where a peanut gallery of car and truck buffs sometimes park and sit along the terrace, playing spectator and offering incisive, running commentary as cruisers in fancy trucks and cars roar past on the strip.

That night, some onlookers buzzed with rumors someone earlier had spotted a wraith-like, imported Toyota Supra street-racing car—one with the steering wheel on the right-hand side. Another group hopped up and down, excited to glimpse a huge, heavily modified white Chevy pickup they said they’d previously only seen on a ballyhooed truck enthusiast’s Instagram account.

Homerding shared a laugh with a friend as a spotless, late-1980s white Ford Bronco sped past along Milton Avenue, its windows halfway down.

Somebody along the sidewalk yelled, “Look! It’s O.J. Simpson!”

Homerding said she and her circle of friends are in their mid-20s, and have been gadflies of the cruising strip for the last five or six summers.

They all grew up hearing stories of their parents cruising the downtown Janesville circuit. Their own years of heavy teen cruising on Milton Avenue seem a distant era: the earlier 2010s, when Festival Foods didn’t yet exist. They hung in the same parking lot, but back then, it was home to a defunct K-Mart.

Changes come, but Homerding said there’s something that draws her back to watch a new crop of kids ply the strip. It’s true the kids are probably going too fast, probably staying out too late. Everyone’s loitering, at least a little bit.

But, she said, they’re probably having a time on Milton Avenue that they’ll remember their whole lives.

“I like that it’s here, the cruising,” Homerding said. “I like that it’s something Janesville is known for by a lot of people, probably more people than you’d think. People say there’s not a lot to do here, but this always was something fun.

“If I think about it, almost every person I met who is now a lifelong friend, I met them out here.”


Local
Thriving, not surviving: East Troy burn camp marks 25 years of letting kids be kids

JANESVILLE

If you ask 15-year-old Emma Kroll what she thinks of “burn camp,” her face lights up and she heaps praise on the weeklong event.

“I really look forward to seeing my friends there and having new experiences,” she said. “I’ve had opportunities at camp, like sailing, that I haven’t done before.”

Since age 7, the Janesville teen has attended the summer camp for burn-injured young people ages 7 to 17.

At Camp Timber-lee near East Troy, she and dozens of kids with life-changing burn injuries connect with others facing similar challenges.

“Everyone is burned,” Emma explained. “You can share your story about how it happened, but no one feels pressured to do it.”

Camp also is a place where children can forget about their burn injuries by going fishing, zip-lining or having pillow fights.

The 25th annual camp is Aug. 11-17 and is one of the biggest burn survivor support programs of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin Charitable Foundation.

Many individual and corporate donations make the camp free.

Emma calls other campers and counselors her “framily,” which she defines as friends who have become family.

The sophomore at Milton High School received third-degree burns on her arms and chest at age 4 while making applesauce.

Her mother, Jamie, is as enthusiastic as Emma about the camp.

“There’s not a single person related to burn camp who isn’t wonderful,” Jamie said. “It’s a place to heal. These kids are with people who look like them and understand how awful their injuries are.”

When Jamie comes on visitors day, she said it is impossible not to get emotional when she sees all the kids having fun.

In addition to the weeklong camp, a one-day Explorers program is offered for kids younger than 7 and any child not ready for overnight camp.

A Young Adult Leadership Program also is available for burn survivors ages 18 to 21.

Melissa Kersten said burn camp is all about giving young people hope and a network of support.

Kersten is chairwoman of the Burn Camp Steering Committee and an advanced practice nurse practitioner focused on burn care at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s in Milwaukee.

She spends much of her day caring for people with burn injuries.

“Usually getting burned is one of the most tragic things that has happened to someone,” Kersten said. “We talk about the burns (at camp), but they are not the main focus. The main thing is to let survivors know they are not alone in their journey. To meet another survivor like them can mean a whole lot to another child or a teen.”

No one is told what to wear at camp, but the culture is to be comfortable in your own skin.

“Some children may be newer campers, are shier and unsure,” Kersten said. “They see other children their age and older. They see their scars, and they see that no one is staring at them. I’ve heard young people say, ‘No one stares at us here. They accept us for who we are.’”

Within the burn community, younger people refer to themselves as “burn thrivers” instead of survivors.

“They are doing more than survive,” Kersten said. “They are thriving. Obviously, we hope all our young people feel that way.”

From a medical standpoint, a burn patient has to go through dressing changes, sometimes two or three times a day.

“For children, it is difficult for them to understand why there is so much pain,” Kersten said. “It is not an easy thing for an adult or a child to go through.”

Some young adults, who are members of the camp staff, are still going through reconstructive surgeries to give them better range of motion.

“Some have had 20 to 25 surgeries,” Kersten said. “Any part of the body where there is scar tissue can experience decreased range of motion.”

Many children get their burns in cooking accidents, hot baths or car accidents.

Kersten was fresh out of nursing school more than 15 years ago when one of the burn surgeons told her about the camp.

“I got a job as a camp counselor and fell in love with the kids and the whole concept of getting people to thrive and be accepted for who they are,” she said.

“Now I come back every year.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.


Obituaries and death notices for Aug. 4, 2019

Bethalene “Beth” Cunningham

Doris Ann Eastman

Suzanne “Susie” Elmer

Christopher Donald Gebhardt

Terrance L. Howland

Barbara L. Johnson

Jacob Kaldenberger

Mariette M. Kelly

Rudy Kopp

Randy Dale Nelson

Kathleen Lorraine Olver

Robert Charles Scidmore


National
AP
Texas governor: 20 dead in El Paso shopping-complex shooting

EL PASO, Texas

Twenty people were killed and more than two dozen injured in a shooting Saturday in a busy shopping area in the Texas border town of El Paso, the state’s governor said.

Among the possibilities being investigated is whether it was a hate crime, the police chief said. Two law enforcement officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity identified the suspect taken into custody as Patrick Crusius, 21. El Paso police haven’t released his name, but confirmed the gunman is from Allen near Dallas.

Police said another 26 people were injured and most were being treated at hospitals. Most of the victims were believed to have been shot at a Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, they said, adding that the store was packed with as many as 3,000 people during the busy back-to-school shopping season.

“The scene was a horrific one,” said El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen, who described many of those hurt as having life-threatening injuries. He also said police found a post online that may have been written by the suspect—one reason authorities are looking at whether it was a hate crime.

El Paso, which has about 680,000 residents, is in West Texas and sits across the border from Juarez, Mexico.

Residents were quick to volunteer to give blood to the injured after the shooting, and police and military members were helping people look for missing loved ones.

“It’s chaos right now,” said Austin Johnson, an Army medic at nearby Fort Bliss, who volunteered to help at the shopping center and later at a school serving as a reunification center.

Adriana Quezada, 39, said she was in the women’s clothing section of Walmart with her two children when she “heard shots.”

“But I thought they were hits, like roof construction,” she said.

Her 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son threw themselves to the ground, then ran out of the store through an emergency exit. They were not hurt, Quezada said.

She said she saw four men, dressed in black, moving together firing guns indiscriminately. Police later said they believed the suspect was the “sole shooter” but were continuing to investigate reports that others were involved.

El Paso police Sgt. Robert Gomez said the suspect, who used a rifle, was arrested without incident.

The shooting came less than a week after a gunman opened fire on a California food festival. Santino William Legan, 19, killed three people and injured 13 others last Sunday at the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Ryan Mielke, a spokesman for University Medical Center of El Paso, said 13 people were brought to the hospital with injuries after the Texas shooting, including one who died. Two of the injured were children who were being transferred to El Paso Children’s Hospital, he said. He wouldn’t provide additional details on the victims.

Eleven other victims were being treated at Del Sol Medical Center, hospital spokesman Victor Guerrero said. Those victims’ ages ranged from 35 to 82, he said.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who confirmed the number of victims at a news conference, called the shooting “a heinous and senseless act of violence” and said the state had deployed a number of law enforcement officers to the city. President Donald Trump tweeted: “Reports are very bad, many killed.”

Presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke appeared a bit shaken as he appeared at a candidate forum Saturday in Las Vegas shortly after news of the shooting in his hometown was reported. The Democrat said the shooting shatters “any illusion that we have that progress is inevitable” on tackling gun violence.

He said he heard early reports that the shooter might have had a military-style weapon, saying we need to “keep that (expletive) on the battlefield. Do not bring it into our communities.”

“We have to find some reason for optimism and hope or else we consign ourselves to a future where nearly 40,000 people a year will lose their lives to gun violence and I cannot accept that,” O’Rourke said.

El Paso has become a focal point of the immigration debate, drawing Trump in February to argue that walling off the southern border would make the U.S. safer, while city residents and O’Rourke led thousands on a protest march past the barrier of barbed wire-topped fencing and towering metal slats.

O’Rourke stressed that border walls haven’t made his hometown safer. The city’s murder rate was less than half the national average in 2005, the year before the start of its border fence. Before the wall project started, El Paso had been rated one of the three safest major U.S. cities going back to 1997.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, also said the El Paso shooting suspect wasn’t on her group’s radar screen prior to the shooting.

“We had nothing in our files on him,” Beirich wrote in an email.

The shooting is the 21st mass killing in the United States in 2019, and the fifth public mass shooting. Before Saturday, 96 people had died in mass killings in 2019—26 of them in public mass shootings.