Reader mail: Stay, go in light of SARS, war?

I love reader mail, regardless of whether adventures occur close to home or halfway around the world. Among your comments and observations:

Will you stay home or travel? That question was asked shortly before the United States began war with Iraq, and before the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) resulted in U.S. State Department travel advisories.

Plymouth, Sheboygan, Freedom and Platteville school officials are among those who recently canceled student trips to Toronto because of the SARS outbreak there.

Carlo Kumpula, an eighth grade geography teacher, says Spooner Middle School students, parents and teachers still plan to go to the East Coast in June.  “We realize now, more than ever, the need to explore and understand the people and events that have shaped our nation,” he writes.

“Courage helped make this country what it is today, and we have chosen not to live in fear. In fact, since the war in Iraq began, three more students and parents have joined our tour, now in its third year.”
Spooner is in Washburn County, with a population of about 2,600.

Elizabeth Schuck of Madison writes that her son just returned from a monthlong trip to Africa. “I guess this trip was pretty expensive, but he said it was worth every penny,” she writes.
“It is too bad that people are being frightened to travel. Everyone was so good to our son; they invited him into their homes for tea, and even though they had almost nothing, they wanted to share.

“He was not afraid to walk the streets, day or night.  The planes, trains, ships and guides were on time; everyone was most polite.  The rudest treatment he received was when he returned to the Chicago airport.”

Two staff and seven eighth grade students from Madison Country Day School returned recently from a two-week trip to Santiago, Chile. It was a cultural exchange and language immersion program.

The group left Madison less than 10 days after war in Iraq began. “Had there been any terrorist threats to airports or significant demonstrations or agitation in Chile, we would have certainly called the trip off,” says Nora Flood, head of school.
“I think that especially during this time of international instability, it is critical that these types of exchanges continue.  This experience will change the lives of these young people forever. They are learning that as different as our cultures might be, there are more similarities among people than one would think.”

Madison Country Day School is not a part of the Madison Metropolitan School District, whose superintendent has canceled school-sponsored travel outside of North America. The ban bothers Ariel Kazunas, a senior at Madison West High School.

“Some students have been trying for two years to broaden their horizons,” Ariel writes. “They have paid over $800 in deposits, held fund-raisers and worked overtime for a year or more to pay for their respective trips. More importantly, students involved in these trips have been preparing for months, as they study the language, the culture, the customs, the lifestyles and the history of their respective countries.”

Ariel was in Spain for three weeks in 2001; she stayed with a local family for a part of the time. “What I learned across the ocean cannot be learned without first-hand experience,” she contends.
“Americans are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to our isolation. We touch only two other countries and are separated from all other countries by oceans and huge land masses,” which enhances the chance of being ignorant or apathetic about other cultures.

Neither global terrorism nor war has slowed down Mary Fritz, Belleville (Dane County). She recently returned from Bolivia and will go to Italy in May. Last December, the destination was Progreso, Mexico, for her and four relatives.

It is a five-hour drive from Cancun, which is where their flight landed in late afternoon. Mary writes about her irritation with a major car rental agency. Reservations had been made two months in advance, then rechecked a week before departing Wisconsin.

“When we arrived, there was no car, no apology, no explanation,” Mary says. “We were left at the mercy of another company, which gave us – for the same price – a smaller and rather dirty car, manual rather than the automatic shift we were paying for, uncertain air conditioning.”

The family also had to pay $200 in cash, with no receipt, as part of the price, she said. They obliged, feeling as though there was no choice.

We won’t name the car rental agency, but you can bet that the Fritz family won’t be using it in Italy next month.

We have another customer service tale, from Marjorie Halverson of Black River Falls, who went to Minneapolis to see a son’s art show recently.

“My husband called a beautiful looking motel that our daughter had found on the Internet.  The motel employee was quite rude and quoted a much higher price. She acted as if she would rather not have any customers.”

So the family looked elsewhere for housing and found great satisfaction at Country Inns & Suites, Inver Grove Heights, near St. Paul.

“The person answering the phone was gracious, said that they had a room available and stated a price.  Then he said, ‘Just a minute, I might be able to do even better than that.’” Which he did.

The stay was “one of the nicest that we have ever had,” and the cost was less than $75, including continental breakfast for five people.

“If my husband and I ever go away for some time by ourselves, which is a dream of ours, we would like to go there,” Marjorie writes. “We were treated with respect and kindness.”

For more about this motel chain, call (800) 456-4000 or go to

Other mail includes this kind note: “Thank you for your well-done article on railroading,” writes Arlyn Colby of Barron.  “As a rail fan, I’m always looking for rail related activities.”
He has compiled a list of rail attractions in Wisconsin, which we will refer to later this summer (or send you via e-mail earlier, if you so desire). Arlyn is a volunteer with the Wisconsin Great Northern Tourist Railroad in Spooner (

We also were glad to hear from Nicholas Pothitakis of Burlington, Iowa, whose family has operated the Palms Supper Club since 1961.

“When the Palms opened, the laws in the state of Iowa did not allow restaurants to sell liquor by the glass,” the lawyer writes, to explain what distinguished a supper club from a restaurant in Iowa. “Patrons were supposed to bring bottles to the restaurant if they wanted to drink.
To get around this, my grandfather (George Rashid) set up the restaurant as a supper club. All patrons had to be members, and they could then buy drinks from the bar. The memberships to the ‘club’ were sold for $1 and could be purchased at the door. I suspect some were even given away.”