Walter Rhein and his wife, Zulma, had an opportunity that was too good to pass up, no matter how unexpected it was nor how unprepared they were to take advantage of it.
The couple’s move to Wisconsin from South America is the topic of Rhein’s story, “The Darkest Winter,” which has been named the winner of the 2019 Christmas Memories Contest sponsored by The Country Today.
Rhein’s “The Darkest Winter” recounts the couple’s rather rushed decision after the granting of a visa to move to Wisconsin and the adjustments the move required.
“We had planned to move at some point, but it’s just one of those things, when you’re applying for a visa, they don’t really help you with the application,” Rhein said. “I maybe wasn’t reading the instructions as closely as I could have.”
Rhein’s story is featured on Page 1A of this edition. Runner-up entries can be found on Page 7A. Honorable mention selections will be printed in the Dec. 25 edition.
Rhein, now of Chippewa Falls, grew up in Spooner and moved to Lima after graduating from UW-Eau Claire in 2001. While in Lima, he worked as a teacher, translator and writer. He met Zulma when they were both teachers at a private school in Lima.
Rhein addresses some of the issues Zulma faced when adjusting to northern Wisconsin. Rhein said he took several important steps to introduce his wife to the state.
“I brought my wife from Lima, Peru, to Wisconsin, and I figured a Packers game would be a pretty good way to show her a bit about Wisconsin,” he said. “So I got tickets to the Packers-Vikings game, the first time (Packers quarterback Aaron) Rodgers faced the Vikings as the starter. That was a good way to introduce her to Wisconsin.”
Rhein is the author of “Beyond Birkie Fever” about the Birkebeiner ski race in Hayward and “Reckless Traveler” about his time adventuring in South America, which can be found on Amazon.com. He has been a featured writer at the Chippewa Valley Book Festival and the Fox Cities Book Festival. He is scheduled me to give a “Hiking the Inca Trail With Two Olympians” talk at the Chippewa Falls Public Library, 105 W Central St., Jan. 21 at 1 p.m.
You can follow him at Facebook.com/authorwalterrhein or on Twitter at @stsoflima. More of Rhein’s writing can be found on his website, www.StreetsOfLima.com.
Rhein will get an annual subscription for The Country Today for submitting the winning entry.
Contest rules require that all entries be true stories. About 20 readers submitted entries in this year’s contest, which was judged by The Country Today editorial staff. Readers are encouraged to continue to enter the Christmas Memories Contest in future years as well as submit stories for the weekly Yarns of Yesteryear feature on Page 7A.
In the years since their move, Rhein said that Zulma has grown more accustomed to Wisconsin’s winters.
“She had a rough time the first couple years,” Rhein said, “but one day I saw her walking to the car carrying her winter jacket over her shoulder. I asked her what she was doing. She said it was too bulky to drive with it on. That’s when I knew she was used to winters here.”
T.J. Perleberg spent more than a decade working at Aissen Tree Farm.
So it was only fitting he chose the Wisconsin farm for one of the biggest moments of his life.
Perleberg surprised his girlfriend, Julia Schumacher, by getting down on one knee and proposing to her Nov. 24 at Aissen Tree Farm. She immediately said “Yes.”
Making the moment even more memorable was the fact Perleberg did it after driving overnight about 17 hours — immediately after working a 12-hour shift — from eastern Pennsylvania to the unincorporated community of Pilsen in rural Kewaunee County.
“I couldn’t wait to get there, I was thinking about the proposal the whole way there,” said Perleberg, 24. “I wanted to surprise her. But I also wanted to get there in time before her dad went to work so I could ask for her hand in marriage. I got lost on the way to Wisconsin so it took a little longer than I planned, but I made it.”
Schumacher, 21, of Green Bay said she’ll never forget the moment: “It felt like I was in a Hallmark movie.”
Perleberg’s roots run deep at Aissen Tree Farm. As a youngster, he rode the school bus with siblings Skyla and Garrit Aissen (children of tree farm owners Jeff and Tammy Aissen). He helped the Aissens at their tree farm from about the age of 8 until about the age of 19.
“It was always a great place to be,” Perleberg said. “I did everything from baling Christmas trees to hauling trees and helping make kissing balls. Then I worked my way into the fields with the trees. I did that all and I worked on an actual cattle farm at the same time too while going to school. I started milking cows with my dad at the age of 6.”
Perleberg said the relationship he forged with the Aissen family “was great. They’ve always treated me like family. They have always been really good to me. They taught me life lessons and the importance of hard work on the farm.”
So it was a no-brainer, Perleberg said, to propose to Schumacher at a place he holds near and dear to his heart.
“I’ve always loved Aissen Tree Farm — it’s gorgeous,” he said. “And Julia is huge into Christmas. It’s her favorite time of year. So I thought it would be cute to do it there. It worked out well for everyone.”
Since Perleberg is working in Pennsylvania as a drill rig operator, he planned the proposal with Julia’s family without her knowing.
“My aunt is a photographer, and she told me she wanted to go to Aissen Tree Farm because she was going to do some wedding pictures there and she wanted to use me for the practice photos,” Schumacher said.
Perleberg’s plan was to drive back to Wisconsin and surprise Schumacher the following weekend — but then he found out he was going to have a few days off from work a whole week earlier.
“So on Saturday (Nov. 23), I got up at 4 a.m. for work and worked the whole day, and when I got done at 4 or 5 o’clock I took a shower right away and fueled up my truck and hit the road for Wisconsin.
“I got lost for a little while, so it took me more than 17 hours to get there. I was nervous and had the jitters pretty good. But when you’re driving through the night you’re excited, and then when you get there it really hits you.”
Perleberg said he called Tammy Aissen early in the morning on Sunday as he closed to within a few hours of the tree farm to ask if he could propose there.
“We are so happy for him,” Aissen said. “He really has been like a family member, and we were excited to help out.”
While Schumacher was standing along a row of Christmas trees at the farm, Perleberg emerged from behind some nearby trees and surprised her.
“I didn’t even know he was home, so it was a big surprise to even see him,” Schumacher said. “I wasn’t expecting him to be back for a couple more months.
“At first, I thought he was just surprising me that he was home. And then he got down on his knee and I was in shock.
“I’ll never forget it. It was the perfect place and the perfect moment.”
My wife and I were married in Lima, Peru, in January of 2009 one day before my wife’s birthday. I figured having the two dates together would make them easier to remember, although I did run the risk of double trouble should I ever forget.
My wife had lived in Peru all her life. She’d never seen snow. Ice was something you put in a drink.
Our plans didn’t include a return to the U.S. We had built a life in Peru as teachers in a private school. We needed a visa to come and see my brother’s wedding. Apparently I put a check mark in the wrong box.
“Here’s your residency visa.”
“Um, we just wanted to go for two weeks.”
“Well, you have six months to move to the U.S., or you can never apply for this visa again.”
America here we come.
I told my wife to focus on Disney World. That was easier to digest than leaving her home and country behind forever.
We flew into Miami before making our way up to Wisconsin. Miami is a travel hub for all of South America. Everyone speaks Spanish. My wife liked it just fine, right up until the fatal question came.
“Are you staying here?”
“No, we’re moving to a different state.”
Again and again the reaction was the same. Their eyes got bigger and they winced. “Oh, no, you can’t move to Wisconsin. It’s cold in Wisconsin.”
“Have you ever been to Wisconsin?” I’d interject.
By the end of our Florida trip, my wife was terrified. She didn’t know what to expect when we got off the plane in Minneapolis.
Her first impression was that of pleasant surprise.
“It’s not too cold.”
It was unseasonably warm. There was no snow and even some color in the trees yet.
“This isn’t too bad.”
And then disaster struck. The sun went down.
“Wait a minute,” my wife said, “why is it getting dark?”
“It’s not evening, it’s 4 o’clock. What’s happening?”
I tried to draw a picture of the earth tilted on its axis to show the relationship to the sun.
As a human being, there are things you think you can rely on. I’m not talking about parents or friends. I’m talking about the fact that water is wet, a rock is hard, and the sun travels across the sky.
Imagine waking up in a new land where water is dry, rocks are soft and the sun is nowhere to be found.
It’ll break you. I’ve seen it.
And then, days later, the cold hit. Snow, blizzard, ice.
I had to take her to Scheel’s for thermal underwear.
“It’s okay,” I said, “You just dress in layers, see?”
She didn’t see.
And then there was the food. If you’ve only had American chicken, you don’t know what chicken can taste like. Our processed, injected animals are something like rubbing a bouillon cube on a piece of wet cardboard. Free range chickens have an intensity of flavor and texture that makes your mouth water.
“I can’t eat this chicken.”
It made her sick.
Then all the food started to make her sick.
There she sat in this cold, dark place with no sun and no sustenance.
“On the solstice the days will get longer,” I told her.
“How much longer?”
“A minute or two.”
She threw up.
The throwing up continued, so I took her to the doctor. He ran some tests and came back with a smile.
“I’m pleased to say you’re in perfectly good health, both of you.”
“You mean, me and my husband?”
“No, I mean you and your baby. You’re pregnant.”
Twelve months married. Twelve months trying. Long enough for concern to take root.
The miracle washed the worry away.
“Thank you doctor.”
He left us alone, the three of us. With Christmas just around the corner.
“This,” she said, “is the greatest gift.”
The solstice hadn’t come but we’d already found our light to lead us from the darkest winter, and I knew we’d be just fine.