JP's PG Party 3.0 - May 2004
Stephensville, Wisconsin, USA

A Cat's Eye View of the 2004 Panzer-Party
by Joel "Whoopy-Cat" Illian


NOTE: A version of this after-action report with photos can be found here: PHOTO REPORT


The JP's Panzers PG Party version 3.0 was held around the last week of May, 2004. It has long been my dream that such a gathering would take place in North America. At long last, my dream came true. Best of all (for me), I was actually able to attend, thereby getting a chance to meet many of my dearest friends for the first time.

That, in itself, seems an odd thing to say. How often does a person "meet for the first time" someone who has been his friend for literally years?!? These are strange times indeed. I venture to guess that before the Internet it was quite uncommon indeed for anyone to have a dear friend he has never met in person.

And the people I met were truly among the closest friends I've had for a number of years now, despite the fact that I'd never met ANY of them, and had only spoken with a very few of them on the telephone. Clearly, the fact that nearly all my closest friends are Internet friends doesn't exactly speak well of my social life. Be that as it may, the folks I had the pleasure of spending the past week with are among my favorite people in the world; people whom I consider my dearest friends, and the best friends I've ever had! At the very least they are the best friends I've had since we became hermits a few years ago.

Now obviously there were some wonderful people and close friends who were not able to attend this event, and I'm sad that they weren't there. But, considering how close we ourselves came to not attending the PG-Party, I certainly can't hold it against them that some of my best Panzer-Friends weren't able to be there. Besides, the fact that I still have a number of good friends who weren't able to attend this particular PG-Party gives me something special to look forward to in the future.

I am extremely thankful that I was able to attend this year's party, and equally thankful that my family could accompany me. That very nearly wasn't the case! I won't bore you with the details, but to put it briefly, Maxine's mother needed dual-hip replacement surgery. And she needed it badly! When we started planning the party early this year, she was getting along perfectly well. But in the ensuing months she deteriorated rapidly. Even then, when her first hip replacement surgery was scheduled for early June it seemed that we would still be able to attend as we had planned. The only difference would be that we would have to hire a nurse to stay with Mom while we were away since she's hardly able to do anything on her own.

As her situation continued to deteriorate at an increasingly rapid pace we consulted her surgeon again and he surprised us all by telling us he could do the surgery the very next day! This was barely a week before we were scheduled to depart for the PG-Party! Upon further investigation it was learned that Mom would have to stay in the hospital for at least two weeks -- more than enough time for us to scoot to Wisconsin and back before she would be released from hospital care.

But unfortunately she recovered from the surgery with remarkable speed ( odd as it sounds to say "unfortunately" about that!). Suddenly, the day before we were to leave for the party --the day we were to be packing and preparing for the trip-- she was released from the hospital! Obviously I could have attended the party by myself. But I would have been extremely disappointed if any of the four of us would have missed the long-awaited meeting of friends.

Over the past couple years Maxine has actually spent FAR more time on the forums than I have. In fact I have come to rely on her to keep me informed as to the goings-on in the Panzer Community. But even from the very beginning Maxine has spent an enormous amount of time on BP's and JP's Panzers Forums. I consider her the Ultimate "Lurker". We've always known that there are a great many people who regularly read the forums but never post (known as "lurkers"), and the quantity of e-mails I've received from such folks over the years bears this out. In fact it's quite possible that JP's Panzers has more lurkers than active members, and we've always considered these non-posters to be "members" of our community. And yet I highly doubt that we have any lurkers who keep track of our forums more closely and consistently than my wife Maxine.

And my kids know the members of JP's Panzers almost as well as Maxine and I. I can't think of any single topic which has garnered more discussion in our home over the past few years than JP's Panzers and our members. So, although my kids have spent far less time reading or posting on the forums, if we are to consider lurkers as members of the Panzer Community, it's impossible for me not to think of Amber and John as members as well. And I would be deluding myself if I thought that I wanted to meet the guys more than the rest of my family.

So it was almost inconceivable to me that some of us would go to the party and others of us would stay home. In my mind either the entire Whoopy-family was going to Wisconsin or none of us were. Maxine offered to stay home with Mom on more than one occasion, but to me that was not even an option! I would have been just as heart-broken to have left part of my family at home as if I hadn't been able to attend the party myself. Thank God neither of these options would be the case in the end!

As it turned out Maxine was able to find a wonderful assisted living facility here in Oskaloosa where her mother would have 24-hour care if and when she needed it and, at the same time, she wouldn't be stuck in a hospital bed. This was the perfect compromise between home and the hospital. Again I have to thank God that such a place existed for all of us! And, as usual, it was my wise wife who found the solution to all our problems. As usual. Although I should be accustomed to it after nearly 15 years of marriage, her resourcefulness never ceases to amaze me!

{Okay... so that wasn't as "brief" as I intended. After all these years that's something you should be used to from me!}

What follows is my After Action Report on the recent JP's Panzers gathering. Obviously this is simply my take on the PG2-Party. The other reports you may have read might vary greatly from my own since everyone sees things differently depending on their point of view. I have had absolutely no opportunity to read what the other attendees have written about the party; I hope I won't be repeating what has already been written by others. In addition, I wasn't with everyone from the beginning to the end (obviously!), so I may be wrong on some of the details, especially regarding times and places in which I wasn't involved.

In addition, a further comprise born of Mom's quicker-than-expected recovery was that we felt compelled to leave for home a few days earlier than we originally intended. And I still haven't had a chance to write or call anyone since we got home. So I have no idea what happened after we left. {But, considering how close we came to not going to the party at all, I should not complain about having to head for home a few days early!} Lastly, my family and I spent the week in a nearby hotel, so we weren't present for every single moment of the party even during the days we were there. So this will be far from a complete report of the 2004 PG2-Party. It's simply a report of the party from The Whoopy-Cat's point of view.


Friday 21 May 2004

Preparations and Departure

For the Whoopy-Family the PG-Party actually started a day early. This was due in part to poor planning on our part, and partly due to the confusion about whether or not any or all of us would be going to Wisconsin at all. Our original intention was to go a day early so that we could meet everyone as they arrived and also to possibly spend some time with Mick and his family before everyone arrived, which, in hindsight, was a really stupid idea since we should have guessed they would be busy making final preparations for more than a week's-worth of houseguests. Furthermore, we didn't think of the fact that Mick was going to spend most of the day traveling to Chicago to meet Steve and the Euros arriving at O'Hare.

What's more, we are chronic procrastinators, which meant that we had spent absolutely NO time preparing for the trip before Thursday. But we weren't worried because we had planned on spending the entire day Thursday packing and getting everything in order. Unfortunately, since we spent the entire day Thursday getting Maxine's mom settled in to Maple Ridge (the assisted living place), by Friday morning -- when we had expected to leave -- we had almost nothing packed, and nearly none of our pre-trip preparations were completed. This was especially true of me, for I am by far the Whoopy-Family's worst procrastinator!

Our scheduled time of departure was 12-noon Friday (...which is, in reality, about the time I finally started getting ready!). Despite frantic packing (and panicking! ), we were at least three hours late in departing. That pretty much eliminated any possibility of getting together with the Marchands before Mick had to leave for Chicago on Saturday. Despite this miscalculation, it turned out for the best since it allowed us time to sleep extra late Saturday morning as well as allowing us the opportunity of making the long-desired and highly anticipated family pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Lambeau Field in Green Bay on Saturday.

I have spent nearly four decades as a devoted fan of the Green Bay Packers football team (uhh... that would be American 'football' of course). And the rest of my family are also "Packer-Backers" to varying degrees. So we have all longed to visit "Titletown" (Green Bay) and "The House That Vince (Lombardi) Built" (Lambeau Field). The fact that Maxine had visited it a few years ago and that I hadn't was literally torture for me! I won't go into detail, but suffice to say, our Saturday trip to Green Bay was everything I had dreamed it would be! Truly incredible!!


We're Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto!

Throughout the day Friday, as well as Saturday, Mick and I stayed in close contact by telephone. In fact, he first called me sometime around 4:30 pm Friday, undoubtedly expecting that we were already in Wisconsin and possibly very nearly at the end of our 6-7 hour trip from Iowa. As it was, we were barely two hours from home when he called - and about 100 miles short of the Iowa-Wisconsin border! In fact, little did he know, Mick actually called at a rather critical moment! As it turned out, our procrastination wouldn't be the only thing to cause us to arrive in Wisconsin later than expected. Let me explain.

About 90 minutes into our trip we started noticing some rather disturbing weather to the north of us. The radio almost continuously warned of severe weather in the Cedar Rapids area and about four other counties surrounding our intended route to Wisconsin. In the distance we watched the telltale "anvil clouds" that often bring severe thunderstorms in our part of the country. Maxine, ever the devoted weather-watcher, worried that we would encounter the rough weather we could see and about which the radio continued to warn.

Whoopy, ever the cynical naysayer, said there was no way we would encounter the worst of the storm. And, in a way, I wasn't entirely wrong to think so. The radio reported the storm to be a few miles north of us moving at a mere twenty miles per hour in an easterly direction while we were traveling at least 60 mph in a roughly northeasterly direction. And, although, at the time, we were traveling in a somewhat northerly direction, we were also heading in a slightly easterly direction - presumably more away from the storm than toward it. *D'Oh!* Silly me. Although I thought of our trip's course as being generally to the northeast, it was actually far closer to north-northeast than to due-NE. Furthermore, the roads from Oskaloosa, Iowa to App1eton, Wisconsin are far from straight and direct. And this particular portion of the route was a lot closer to straight-north than NNE.

By the time we reached the greater Cedar Rapids metro area, the entire sky was blackish-green, looking far closer to near-dusk than mid-afternoon. Tornado warnings were being issued for all the surrounding counties and tornado sirens were wailing in every town in about a sixty-mile radius! Great.

Soon the wind around us was blowing so hard it was difficult for Maxine to keep the car on the road, the rain was coming down so hard it sounded like thousands of little pebbles hitting the car, and the clouds above and in front of us continued to spin around faster than any I'd ever seen with my own eyes. In a matter of minutes the visibility dropped to as close to zero as anything I've experienced. We were constantly having to pull over to (what we hoped was) the side of the road until the visibility improved enough for us to continue slowly onward. But even then, the wind and rain caused our rate of speed to drop to around 15 miles per hour and never above 20-25 mph. It was getting worse with every passing minute.

Then, during a period of somewhat improved visibility which had again allowed us to proceed forward, we were actually able to view one or more funnel clouds protruding from a bulge in the skies we had been keeping our eyes on for some time. As luck would have it, we and the tornado were heading for exactly the same spot! We craned our necks to look up and out the windshield and when we looked up we saw that a twister had clearly formed and that it was directly above our car! The car was violently buffeted by winds that were blowing huge trees so strongly that they were bent at nearly 90-degree angles. Small hail stones fell like tiny bombs, pelting our car, and the rain fell in enormous blankets!

Although Iowa isn't always listed as one of the "Tornado Alley" states, tornados are far from uncommon in Iowa. When Maxine was a child she watched a tornado that was headed straight for her home, lifting from the ground just in time to leap over the house, then landing again close enough to the house that it destroyed some of the structures on her parents' farm. When I was seven years old a group of tornados devastated my hometown and destroyed our house at the very moment my family reached the bottom of the basement stairs. There probably isn't a town in Iowa whose tornado sirens don't sound several times each summer.

So tornados aren't exactly unknown to us in Iowa. Some Iowans (probably the smart people!!) are quite nervous about severe weather and they pay close attention to the weather when conditions are ripe for tornados. Although she probably wouldn't admit it, Maxine is one of those kinds of people. Others, like myself, couldn't care less about tornados , figuring the odds are astronomically greater of being killed in a car accident or falling from a ladder than from a tornado. I pay absolutely no attention to tornados, even when they're near, except to send the children to the basement when the sirens are sounded.

But this was quite another matter altogether! We were in a car in a tornado!! the middle of nowhere!! ( if "middle-of-nowhere" and "Iowa" weren't synonymous! ) Although I've been much more frightened by far more mundane things, I must admit that even I was a bit uneasy about the thought of my whole family being launched like a V2 rocket while we sat in our car! I think it's safe to say we were all simultaneously praying that we would survive to see Wisconsin. ...and that we would get there with all four wheels remaining on the ground the whole way! Flying to Wisconsin without the aid of an aircraft was not our first choice.

You don't grow up in the Midwest without learning what are the proper precautions to take in case of a tornado; it's practically drilled into you from birth onward. If you're in your house, you should go to the basement. If you don't have a basement, you're to go to an interior room, preferably one with no windows. If you're not in your house, it is advised to seek shelter immediately. If you're in your car, DON'T stay there! Get out of the car and, if nothing else, find shelter in the ditch. Uh... Yeah. Right. Although I would be lying to say that I was utterly terrified (just as I would be lying to say that I wasn't at all concerned), there is NO Freakin' WAY I was going to coax my family out of the car and into the ditch!! "No thanks. We'll just stay in here where it's dry and where we aren't being pummeled with hail and flying objects."

Before the tornado actually hit us, there had been more than one occasion when Maxine and I had silently debated whether or not to abandon the car and run to a nearby house. But when we were actually in the middle of it you couldn't have made us leave the car if you had thrown a grenade onto the front seat.

Just then, when the tornado was directly above our car, my cell-phone rang. It was Mick. Just checking on our progress.

Needless to say, that was a rather short phone call.

We eventually were able to see well enough to move on up the road a bit where we eventually found a sizeable gaggle of cars and trucks all grouped together under a highway overpass. Although the overpass was the highway that we needed to take to get to Wisconsin, we wisely opted to join the people huddled under the bridge. Together we had both sides of the road blocked as well as the shoulders. I think we were stacked in about six columns of cars from one ditch to the other. Every manner of car and truck was packed in under that bridge so that as many vehicles as possible could get out of the pounding rain, wind, and hail.

The whole thing stopped much more suddenly than it had started. Pretty much every car and truck under the bridge left at the same time, and nearly all of us, regardless of our destination or direction of travel, visited the gas station a couple hundred yards beyond the overpass. Most everyone was pretty shook up to one degree or another. I saw grizzled truckers who couldn't stop themselves visibly shaking for quite some time. Being a school day, I think our kids were the only children in that gas station. But I was very pleased to notice that they weren't nearly as shell-shocked as most of the people who had been through the storm appeared to be.

The radio told of nearby houses being leveled. The gas station employees said that a truck up on the highway (the highway that passes over the bridge under which we had found shelter) had been wrecked - twisted in half by the storm. We ourselves saw the roof taken off a building during one of our short and slow periods of forward progress. (On our return trip the next week we noticed that the building had already been repaired.) At one point I'm sure I saw a wrinkled old school-marm riding a bicycle in the sky, but I could be wrong.

While we were trying to slow down our collective heartbeats at the gas station, we noticed a couple of the employees wrestling with a large steel door. Closer inspection revealed that the door had been completely blown off it's enormous hinges! There aren't many times when it actually comes in handy to be a window and door expert. This just happened to be one of those rare occasions. The employees were most pleased at their good fortune to have a professional door-fixer on the spot. And not just one door-fixer, but a whole bloomin' family of 'em! With the help of our usual apprentices - Amber and John - Maxine and I soon had the door back in working order after only a couple short minutes of work. The manager insisted on not charging us for the snacks we were trying to purchase, but we steadfastly refused. After a minute of further debate we reluctantly agreed to a compromise and the four of us got our coffee for free as thanks for our help with the door.

A couple cigarettes later we were back on the road, happy to be on a highway that was now clearly heading northeast and away from the center of the storm cell. We made a quick call to Mick and Jo to let them know we were back on the road and to confirm that we were in fact not in The Land of Oz wearing ruby slippers.


Are We There Yet??


Thankfully the rest of the trip was comparatively uneventful. One consequence of our meteorological adventure was to make the remainder of the trip seem considerably longer than it actually was.

But we did enjoy the scenery! Compared to the rest of Iowa, the topography of the northeastern part of the state is quite varied and interesting to view. We saw lots of trees, hills, and very cool-looking rock outcroppings where the roadbed had cut through the hillside. The bluffs of Dubuque and the hills of southwestern Wisconsin seem downright mountainous to us "flat-landers". The kids were most impressed and were finally able to remember that long trips are far less boring when traveling outside the prairie region in which we live.

We hadn't had a vacation since 1999. That trip was a short two or three day trip by air to see my little brother graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point (New York). It was a tremendously stressful trip with a tightly-scheduled itinerary planned for us by my mother. And the enjoyment was further diminished by the extreme migraine I suffered, which was possibly simply a particularly bad case of air-sickness (although air-sickness is something I've never experienced when flying on other occasions ). And just when I finally started to feel a bit better, our stay was over and we got to return to LaGuardia and board the plane for the flight back home.

Before that we had taken a trip to South Dakota the previous year. South Dakota may not be the destination dreams are made of, but it was extremely fun for a pair of kids whose prior notion of a "vacation" was a long weekend in Des Moines, Iowa's state capital city, barely 60 miles from our home. And, like our recent trip to Wisconsin, it was made to seem shorter by the varied landscape and distinctly un-Iowa-like terrain features. (...such strange and exotic things as trees... hills... )

No matter how many times we cross the Mississippi River, it is always an impressive sight, and we all enjoyed crossing it. ...well, John and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately my poor wife and daughter are both terrified of driving/riding over river bridges. But it was still fun for them to see, I think.

So even though there were times in which the kids (all four of us in fact!) wondered if we would ever arrive at our destination in Wisconsin, the trip was enjoyable and most certainly a welcomed change of pace for us all.

As if the three-hour delay in our departure time and our extended rendezvous with a cyclone weren't enough to postpone our arrival time, we had a minor navigational mishap in and around Wisconsin's capital city of Madison. Remembering her previous trip to Green Bay a number of years ago, Maxine insisted it was important to avoid as much of Madison as possible since going straight through the city was a major hindrance. So we had made a special point of ensuring we would not make the same mistake she had made years ago; we would bypass Madison!

Unfortunately, Yours Truly, the Whoopy-Cat, (of all people!! ) was conscripted to serve as navigator for this little mission of ours. Maxine is well aware of my reputation of losing recons, so one would think she would choose ANYONE but me to be in charge of scouting the route to be taken. But she is practically petrified by my driving (and anyone else's, for that matter!), so she prefers to be behind the wheel where she feels far safer and more secure. That left Yours Truly as the default navigator for our trip.

And, in any case, I'm probably quite a bit better with maps than she is (if I do say so myself ). And I had printed literally scores of maps from MapQuest several months ago, so I felt more than competent of my ability to negotiate the convoluted route from Osky to App1eton. I only forgot one thing. I never printed (nor even looked at!) a map of Madison or the area surrounding the city. *D'Oh!*

I realized this both in time and too late. I say "in time" because we stopped for gas before reaching the Interstate Highways that bypass Madison, scoring a wonderful map while we were at it. I say "too late" because, little did we know, we had purchased the map less than 100 yards from the exit we would have to take if we wanted to bypass the heart of the city. This we realized only upon our return trip. Having fully consulted the map by that time, we managed to find the proper roads and circled the outskirts of Madison on our way back to Iowa. As soon as we exited the Interstate that circles the city we realized why we missed that route on the way up: at the time we had all been very anxious to get back on the road and finish the journey to App1eton. So, instead of sitting for a moment and examining the new map I had purchased, we simply jumped in the car and took off as soon as the gasoline had been paid for. We had no idea that the gas station was within spitting distance of the road we wanted to take! Therefore, by the time I had a chance to peruse the map of Madison we were already on the way through the heart of the city! So, in spite of our intentions, we got "the scenic tour" of downtown Madison.

Although we surely regretted it at the time, there was some good that came out of missing our exit. It was fully dark by this time, so the Wisconsin capitol building was beautifully lit and our course through Madison caused us to pass within a block or two of it. I still think Iowa's capitol in Des Moines is easily the most beautiful government building in the US (including the U.S. capitol in Washington ), but Wisconsin truly has a capitol building to be proud of! It is gleaming white and is designed in the style of the U.S. capitol in Washington (as is Des Moines' capitol building although Iowa's capitol building's domes are covered with shiny bright gold-leaf), which makes for an impressive site both in the distance and up-close.

This 35-mph detour through the middle of Madison cost us the better part of an hour, I should think. So, despite the beauty of Wisconsin's capitol building, considering the time of night it was, and after stressful the day we had before we reached Wisconsin, that extra hour or so was a bit aggravating to say the least.

When Mick and I spoke on the phone at various points in time throughout the trip I think he wondered if we were traveling by horse-drawn carriage although he never said so.

We finally reached our hotel, safe and sound, although thoroughly exhausted both mentally and physically, shortly after 11:00 pm (2300 hrs), fully eleven hours after leaving home and at least 4-5 hours later than planned.


Home Suite Home


We stayed at The Comfort Suites in App1eton, about 15 miles southeast of Mick and Jo's house in Stephensville and little more than a half hour southwest of Green Bay. Overall we were not exactly impressed by the hotel we had chosen, but we get to stay in hotels so infrequently that we tend to be somewhat particular (some would say "downright PICKY!") when it comes to hotels. Hotels are one thing for which we typically don't mind spending big bucks in order to stay in the cleanest, most comfortable place with the most amenities. If we had spent more time in the room we would definitely have been disappointed by the Comfort Suites we chose for this trip.

When we saw the "suite" we realized why Expedia gave it only two stars. Even when I was a traveling salesman living on per dium (and therefore staying in the cheapest hotels money can buy!) I stayed in single rooms that were no smaller than this "suite" -- and those dirt-bag rooms had two beds rather than the single king-size bed + fold-out sofa bed (for the kids) that the App1eton Comfort Suites provided us.

Although we have spent plenty of nights in run-of-the-mill motels (and occasionally in outright FLEA BAGS! ) when circumstances required it, if we have our choice we like to stay in just about the nicest places we can find. Even when we have taken our extended-weekend 'vacations' in Des Moines we stay in places that have nicer rooms than App1eton's Comfort Suites. But I would never classify this place as "a dump" by any means! In fact, most people would probably say it was fantastic; and we would end up calling it 'more than adequate' at the very least.

Best of all was the lobby and pool area. When we pulled up to the front door I think all four of our jaws dropped in awe! I know the kids were blown away. It looked like the most elegant hotel in Beverly Hills! ( least to us hillbillies! ) Before the kids were born Maxine and I went to Hawaii and stayed in four different hotels none of which, to my mind, had lobbies any more impressive than this one. As it turned out, we never spent any time in the lobby while in Wisconsin, but if we had been on a "regular" vacation we would have enjoyed it very much!

Like the lobby, we never spent any time taking advantage of the pool area. Since the weather was too cold to use Mick and Jo's outdoor pool we had considered having Kameron (Jo's son) and the kids go swimming while the rest of us were busy with other stuff. But the hotel had a draconian policy on the pool area being a guests-only facility.

In the end the kids brought their swimming trunks in vain; they never even got near it. But it's a testament to Mick and Jo's hospitality that I never once heard either of my kids complain that they hadn't gotten to swim in the fantastic pool; I don't remember them even mentioning the fact that they never had a chance to swim. And they were very much looking forward to swimming on our vacation! As I said, this is as perfect a testimony as I can think of as to how much fun even Amber and John had at the PG2 Party! Normally they would complain if they hadn't gotten a chance to swim even if the time had been spent at Disney World (or whatever the most spectacular thing in a kid's world would be). But in this case they apparently had so much fun doing other things that it seems they completely forgot about swimming! That's how great this event was! Truly unimaginable! It was simply a great time!!

Upon arriving at the hotel, we were unspeakably tired -- not only from the length of the trip, nor even from the eventfulness of the trip we had. I don't even think that the events of the preceding days were to blame for our exhaustion. Rather, I think it was all of these things combined that made us so fatigued. We had some Dominos Pizza delivered to our room (perhaps my favorite food in the world!!! ...easily among the top four or five!). We checked in with the Marchands one last time, ate our pizza ravenously, and then proceeded to fall into bed and crash -- HARD! This was amazing to us all because, despite our tiredness, we were all SO excited to be in Wisconsin and excited about what the following days would bring. It has been *many* long years since we were all so incredibly excited. Thankfully, on this particular night I guess we were actually more tired than excited.


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