by David Luhrssen
As someone who grew up on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side in the ‘70s, reading Dana Alioto’s memoir brought back memories of times and places. Even though Alioto is probably at least a decade older than me, many things hadn’t changed since the ‘60s.
His book, Hey Nineteen: A Memoir of Growing Up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a fond and well-written account of one boy’s life in the city’s parochial and public schools, in “a neighborhood, not a suburb,” where enduring friendships were forged. I think I must have lived at one point in the same house as Alioto—his descriptions were more or less the same as my memories, but then, those tract-house subdivisions were as alike as cookies from a cutter.
Summers in Milwaukee were not as hot in the years before global warming, but Alioto’s family, like mine and most families, weren’t early adopters of home air conditioning. “In the summer, windows were taken out and replaced by screens which hopefully brought welcomed breezes into the home.” On the worst nights of summer, they slept on the living room floor by the open screen door.
By the time Alioto entered high school, the student body was divisible by three groups: nerds (“They existed then; they exist now”), greasers; and “collegiates.” By the time I enrolled at Marshall (Alioto attended Custer), a fourth group was prevalent, the “freaks.” Apparently, pot was not as pervasive in schools during his student days.
Alioto, turns out, was no novice when he penned Hey Nineteen. He graduated from UWM with a mass comm degree and did some freelancing before finding a job in the insurance industry. “This opportunity led to my living in numerous cities in the country,” he says. “At one time or another, I had an office not only in Milwaukee but also Chicago, St. Louis, Orlando, Richmond, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and eventually Atlanta where I currently reside. While this afforded me the chance to observe various American cultures, I was also engrossed in reading their local newspapers as well as giving me the time to read books, both fiction and non-fiction. While reading, I was always contemplating on what I might decide to write about once the time was available.”
The death of his father-in-law, who always intended to write down his childhood experiences from the 1930s and ‘40s but never got around to it, was the trigger for writing Hey Nineteen. “Seeing this play out, I decided that I actually would put the memories of my youth in book form for my kids and my family’s future generations,” he explains. “As I was writing it and sharing certain passages with others, I was getting feedback that these folks too could identify with what I had experienced—common touchpoints. So it morphed from being strictly a family accounting to a memoir on growing up in Milwaukee. This allowed me the chance to begin placing Milwaukee historical information into the text. It took on a bit of life of its own.”
Dana Alioto will sign copies of Hey Nineteen from 5-7 p.m., Oct. 7, at Mo’s Irish Pub, 10842 W. Bluemound Road.