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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Winterless Spring

The toboggan runs at Pokagon State Park
Brett McNeil
The toboggan runs at Pokagon State Park

No moving side to side; keep your arms and legs in the starting position; no waving if your hat flies off. They’ll pick it up for you.

Everyone understand the rules?

Good. Now hold on.

The gleeful, 30-second plunge and clatter down Pokagon State Park’s landmark toboggan runs – a rush of purest, silliest thrill. A screaming, laughing, chortling joy.

We did the slides after Christmas and again in early February, with friends from Mishawaka and friends from Chicago – all of us Pokagon first-timers, all of the parents raised in the winter snow and introducing our children to the antique and timeless pleasures of a toboggan run.

Like our folks did for us in a different time and place: My dad in a blue snowmobile suit and me and him jostling in the rowdy, boozy crowds at the Swallow Cliff slides outside Chicago during those wonderful and munificent snowfalls of the late 1970s. Fun but also maybe dangerous. My introduction to adult recklessness.

The Swallow Cliff slides are gone and for most of this winter, and so many recent winters, so was the snow. The Pokagon scene exists because the DNR, in a terrific feat of soothsaying, installed refrigerated tracks in 1971 and has never let them go.

So my son and his young buddy took their first trips down the hill in a steady December drizzle and skidded to a stop in a mud-tracked field of grass. He and his Chicago pals abandoned their coats on a February afternoon that felt warmer than 37-degrees.

A vista of brown from atop the toboggan tower – the leaf-strewn woods, the naked trees, the wet and worn lawn outside the lodge. Lake James in rapid thaw from a temporary freeze.

Something like spring but a winterless spring.


We managed to hit our local sled hill once during the January snows. And likewise just once on the tube hill at George Wilson Park. Then the rains.

My annual ice fishing trip this weekend will again be on a boat. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Eagle River, Wisconsin were canceled last weekend. The Drummond Island Ice Bridge to Canada is washed out in the U.P.

My son is learning to skate inside at Notre Dame. Will he ever learn to ski outside at St. Pat’s? Should he bother?


When I started at the Chicago Tribune in 2003 there were about 700 people in the newsroom. The fattest advertising years were over but the paper was still staffing foreign and national and suburban bureaus and published multiple zoned versions of the Tribune to accommodate targeted classified and display advertising. The Sunday paper was published as a Saturday bulldog for the ads and inserts and again for late news and sports and more ads on Sunday.

The operation was different but not dissimilar to those under Colonel McCormick and his inheritors – a daily paper printed on giant presses, trucked around town and sold or delivered by hand, read at breakfast tables, in commuter seats, in the stands at Wrigley then blown across the infield.

I read the paper like my mom read the paper like my friend’s parents read the paper like my high school journalism teacher taught us to read the paper – skim the page-one headlines first, then the editorial and op-ed pages. Then deeper into the sections – the national headlines, Royko’s column, Bernie Lincicome’s column, the box scores, the news briefs, the crosswords. The funnies.

A completely engrossing, cheap and disposable tactile record of one day and the next. Part of a continuum, decade on decade: Volume X, Number Y.

Today the Tribune employs about 75 people in the newsroom. The print paper is a strictly niche offering for elderly readers and stubborn, spendthrift anachronists. Tribune Tower is a luxury condo building.

OK, who cares?

What I am saying is that irreversible change came fast and exploded an established set of realities that seemed immutable. Inherited facts and assumptions, traditions, expectations.

Lost in 20 years. A single generation.

Music: “Joplin Song Fragment” by Reginald R. Robinson

Brett McNeil is a writer and essayist in Mishawaka, Indiana. His radio essays have aired on WVPE and WBEZ and his writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Crain’s Chicago Business and elsewhere. He is a former newspaper reporter and columnist and is the recipient of writing awards from the Chicago Headline Club, Illinois Press Association and Inland Press Association. Brett is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois Chicago. He works as an investigator in a law office. Reach him by email here