Novel recounts Triggs' experience with Brew City Skins
Loaded with Brew City places and settings, Milwaukee author Kevin Triggs' "Ready Fire Aim" captures a unique moment in the history of the city's subcultures.
For his debut novel, Triggs digs into his own past as a part of the skinhead movement here in the early 1990s, including his time spent with local oi band, The Service.
We caught up with him to ask about his book, his past and Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us a bit about your connection to Milwaukee's skinheads during the period you write about.
Kevin Triggs: Skinhead was my life for well over a decade. Almost every decision I made from the age of 15 into my late 20s had some sort of skinhead undertone associated with it. My work, play, love life — all revolved around the scene or how the scene would be affected by my actions. Skinhead was everything to me. An identity. A family. Skinhead culture informed the music I listened to, the manner in which I dressed and the way I interacted with those around me. I was no longer simply acting on my own volition, but representing Skinhead each and every day I hit the pavement.
OMC: What made you want to write this story?
KT: My motives for writing the story was familial posterity. My wife, Molly, was pregnant with our third child and I wanted my kids to know where their father came from in a tangible form they could reference.
The majority of people I know, individuals I work with, fellow parents, whomever — "people" — belong to things. They belong to fraternities or sororities, groups or clubs. They have memberships or affiliations, things that they relate to and in turn, pass on to their children. I really never knew that world. I had a very unique education. I learned political science in the basements of East Side bungalows; athletics and physical education on North Avenue; and psychology at The Unicorn tavern.
Everyone has his own path. I'm not saying mine was better. But as a skinhead, I took chances. We weren't risk-averse. I think there's something to be said for that. Clearly, I'd rather have my kids cramming for finals, furthering their education, assuming extra credit work and participating in student council, but we took a particular road available to us that should never be discounted.
Ninety percent of the Brew City Skinheads (BCS), the guys I grew up with, are all well-adjusted, contributing members of society. We own businesses, teach both our own children and yours, and manage nonprofits. We're artisans, argue before courts of law, put out your fires and work any number of industrial jobs in the public and private sectors.
So, as much as I wanted my children to know where I came from or what informed my upbringing, it was larger than that. I wanted the world to know. I wanted to convey that a beautiful subset of kids who felt so marginalized and "less than," came together to forge their own pathway to manhood in the face of, or in spite of, whatever hand mainstream society was dealing to youngsters.
My skinhead brothers and I were constantly being told that we wouldn't amount to anything; that we didn't matter. We've proven them wrong. I can testify to that personally and have done so in this homage of a story. This brotherhood called BCS meant so much to me. The father, the husband, the son and the employee that I am today is a result of my "belonging" to and identification with BCS. I couldn't live my life in comfort if I hadn't let that be known.
That is the personal reality of the story. The other fact is that as BCS, I acted in a manner working to set the record straight back in the day. As an adult, writing a book was a logical way to preserve this part of Milwaukee history and distinguish it from the lore surrounding what a true skinhead was as I lived it, and not as the world would impose on us.
OMC: Why do you think Milwaukee's white power skins (Brew City Skins were NOT a racist group) faded from the scene?
KT: It's got to be hard to be a Nazi in the city, don't you think? At this point, the punk scene is fully integrated and so are urban areas, generally speaking. You can't walk down Farwell Avenue sporting a swastika and expect to remain safe. Twenty-five years ago you could. Folks would just move to the other side of the street in fear.
I also think the white power movement overall recognized that and modified their own goals and desires. They've realized that their dream of a master race and a white-only America is doomed for failure. So most of these folks have moved on, bought land and set up shop away from the people they don't want to be around. And I'm fine with that.
There's always going to be people that want separation, from the Klan to the Nation of Islam. And that's the great thing about this country. We've got plenty of space. Go out, buy some property and live off the land. You can ban abortions, horde your weapons, outlaw sodomy and make race mixing a crime …. on your property. Black, white, I don't care. As long as you pay your taxes and don't infringe on others, believe what you want. I'm done with that fight, and politics overall.
OMC: Is there a lesson to be learned from what happened here during those years: the fights, the Amy Place shooting, etc.?
KT: Yeah. Politics ruin everything. Left, right, no matter. It destroyed the scene. And the scene is just a microcosm of what it does for us as a country. There's no compromise, no dialogue. Everyone is screaming, no one hears anything.
The shootings, the time in prison, the violence, the families wrecked ... it did nothing. And for skinheads in particular it just lowered the bar. And again, it was on both sides. There were times when the anti-fascists were just as rabid and even more violent. It was a sick cycle that we were thankfully able to move on from, but sick nonetheless.
OMC: Do you get a sense that the movement here was really a white power one or was it more a cult of personality or just kids playing at something dangerous?
KT: That's a great question and a topic that I touch on as the protagonist matures throughout the story. Do these white power kids really believe what we think they do? Undoubtedly, when you have a strong personality that exhibits any sort of leadership skill set, it's going to pull people into areas they would have never conceived of on their own.
But, I wasn't there, on that side. I don't know them. And there's no question that some people carry hate with them for their entire life. How many have continued on that path of hatred? Who knows, but I'm sure there are some.
OMC: Have you ever talked to (former racist skinhead) Arno Michaelis (who later founded the pro-peace Life After Hate) about any of this stuff? Has he read the book?
KT: I've never spoken with that man once in my life. Not once. I'd be happy to talk to him and if he were to reach out to me he would be greeted with open arms. That said, I in no way want my work to be positioned as a counter to what he has done, or an opportunity to get "both sides of the story."
OMC: There are lots of Milwaukee references throughout the book – places like Zaffiro's. Was it fun to write something so ingrained in the place you live? Or maybe not so much fun as inescapable?
KT: The book is as much a love story to Milwaukee as anything else. In fact, I had to cut out massive sections of the book exclusively dedicated to descriptions of the city, just because they were so long and so detailed. I began to worry that my overarching message wouldn't be able to cross over into other markets if it was too Milwaukee-centric.
The Southdown Challenger, Milwaukee Bavarian Society, Mean Mountain Music, the Turf -- tons of material left on the floor. I love this place. Maybe when the unedited version of the book is released?
OMC: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
KT: Wow. There are so many rivers to cross here. Ultimately, I want readers to be immersed and entertained. If these characters pull you in and you feel the laughter and the tears along with them, then I think I did my job.
OMC: As I say, I remember those days and walking past the (white power) skinhead house on Wright Street with trepidation, hoping to never come face to face with them.
KT: Those days were nutty, that's for sure. And I obviously can't include any sort of ringing endorsement of the white power collective, but there was innocence to it all on our end. It was a process of aging that will never happen again.
There are no real youth cultures anymore. It's all watered down. We puke out the next pop trend to our kids every few years and they gobble it up like junk food.
We were the last generation to grow up without the internet. When you actually had to dig, really dig to find your unique place as a youngster. It was a word of mouth, pay phones and dubbed cassettes way of life.
And what we didn't know, we came up with on our own. We were creative and built upon what we had heard passed down from the previous generation by word of mouth. Real tribal communication. Like literally around a fire, next to the rushing waters of the Milwaukee River. How did this thing start? What's our history? What does it all mean?
That's how the traditional skinhead culture grew from late 1960s England. It's what made the culture so resilient and why it still continues to resonate today.
Follow Kevin Triggs on Twitter for information on upcoming readings and events.
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