Category: St. Louis History

Thelma’s Rosy Response

Stories of war, like global pandemics, aren’t only about those fighting on the front lines. There are the lovers, the brothers, the sisters, who worry and wait. They wonder about the worst and hope for the best.

***

World War II was winding down, while Walter’s older sister Thelma waited five long weeks in eastern Missouri for his next words. She didn’t receive his May 16, 1945 letter and photo of him linking arms with a somber Czechoslovakian girl until Friday, June 22.

Evidently, the Army bundled it with two others he wrote on June 10 and 12. The U.S. military transported all three across the Atlantic Ocean with a sea of other correspondence from service men and women stationed in Europe.

In 1945, Thelma was a single-and-sentimental-thirty-six-year-old secretary. By day, she worked at a branch of the Kroger Grocery & Baking Company in St. Louis. After completing her shift, she boarded the streetcar to 4218 Labadie Avenue on the north side of town. That’s where she lived in a modest, two-story, rented home with Louise and Albert Johnson, her mother and father.

My aunt was a gardening guru. A real rose and ballroom lover. Later, in the 1960’s when she and her husband Ralph owned a suburban St. Louis home, it was her ritual to lead us on a parade through her backyard to admire her flowers.

Through that gardening lens, I can imagine her coming home from Kroger on Friday, June 22, 1945, kicking off her shoes, flipping through the mail, and eagerly opening Walter’s letters while waltzing through her parents’ postage-stamp-size Victory Garden. That summer it might have been brimming with vegetables and herbs (perhaps even a few ruby-red roses) designed to supplement food rations and boost morale.

No matter how close or far my fantasy is from reality, I have in my possession proof that Thelma penned a rosy response to her brother later that night in an attempt to bolster his sagging spirit.

Here’s an excerpt of that letter, dated June 22, 1945 and postmarked June 26, 1945. She sent it via air mail from Chicago, Illinois. Incidentally, the Drake Hotel Thelma refers to, just east of North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast, still operates today. It’s a few blocks south of Oak Street Beach, where Thelma and Vi likely tanned themselves that weekend on the shore of Lake Michigan.

***

Dearest Walter, 

Your fine letters of June 10 and 12 arrived today and found us happy and anxious for word from you. Also, we received today those wonderful pictures taken by you in Czechoslovakia. They are really “super” Wal and that little girl is a doll. Vi was here for supper and she too was pleased and happy by seeing you again … if only in a photograph. You look thinner, Wal–but as Vi said–he’s regained his figure and looks wonderfully handsome, younger, and really on the beam. We surely are proud of our dearest Walter boy, and justly so. I have the negative you sent in a recent letter and shall have it developed too … it looks like another Czech girl, right? …

Well Wal, Vi and I leave in the a.m. for Chicago and since the weather has taken a change for the good … we hope to have nice sunshine and a chance to get a tan on the beach and am sure we’ll find the “Drake” the finest hotel in Chicago as it’s accessible to everything …

I am enclosing some snapshots taken on Mother’s Day, Wal, and with them comes all our love to you, our dearest and most missed member. I hope you get to be around Paris for a while … so you can take it all in … and I’m hoping too you’ll be assigned to occupation forces even though it would delay our meeting it would ensure its being permanent when it did come …

With all the love of your loving but lonesome family and many thanks for the fine pictures (and I hope there’ll be more later–I can send film so just ask Wal and its yours) until a little later then its ever and always.

Your loving sister,

Thelma xxxxx

***

I’m not sure if Walter, my father, ever made it to Paris that summer. But when Thelma wrote her letter six weeks after V-E Day, there was the frightening possibility he would be shipped east to help fight the war still raging in the Pacific Theatre.

Instead, he returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, carrying his dog tags, nightmares, a foot locker filled with possessions, and a fistful of family love letters. Dad received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on October 11, 1945.

This is one of the photos Thelma enclosed with her June 22, 1945 message. Thelma–the ever-exuberant, flower enthusiast–is on the right, smiling behind her corsage. Violet, my father’s twin sister, is on the left. On the back, Thelma wrote:

To our dearest brother Walter with all the deepest love of his adoring sisters

Violet & Thelma, May 13, 1945

VioletThelma_May13_1945

What Happened Seventy-Five Years Ago?

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WalterJohnsonHandwriting_Czechoslovakia_May_16_1945 (3)

Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.

***

Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?

I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.

Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.

One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:

“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”

Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.

Missing Baseball? It’s in the Cards

MajorLeagueMemories_1970

At the end of March, midway through a check-in call to see how we were fairing in our respective shelter-in-place homes, my sister posed this question from her Illinois domicile: “Are you missing your sports?”

At first, I thought she was referring to my interrupted gym routine … the one I so painstakingly established in the fall of 2017 during my cardiac rehab. But she went on to explain her question was really about my reaction to the loss of professional sports due to the global pandemic.

I don’t know for sure, but she may have been conjuring a memory of me as a frantic twelve-year-old baseball fanatic with a crew cut. Glued to my tattered transistor radio. Tuning out the world as I tuned into every pitch of every St. Louis Cardinals baseball game and Jack Buck’s color commentary on KMOX of Lou Brock’s base-stealing escapades.

At any rate, I told her I wasn’t sure Major League Baseball mattered as much to me anymore. But that was late March. The next day a few cravings surfaced. I dug out the official 2011 World Series film (a two-disc DVD stored in a plastic tray under our guest room bed here in Arizona) and watched my comeback Cardinals (down to their last strike twice in Game 6) defeat the Texas Rangers in seven games.

That primer led me to peel back another layer of the baseball onion. I began reading a book, which Tom … a life-long Chicago Cubs fan … gave me for Christmas: 100 Things Cardinals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, revised and updated by author Derrick Goold in 2019.

Times being what they are, I figured I’d better read this book pronto. (Incidentally, for lovers of the national pastime, my books Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator and An Unobstructed View include nostalgic stories about baseball that I think you’ll enjoy.)

Now we’re a week into April. This is about the time the first pitch on opening day of the new baseball season would have been thrown fifty years ago. Since I’m spending more time inside anyway, yesterday I reached to the top shelf of our guest room closet and pulled down a three-ring binder filled with my cherished Topps baseball cards from 1965 to 1971.

At that point, I was bitten by the baseball bug. Smiling ear to ear. Rifling through my collection of several hundred cards. Remembering the Major League Baseball all-stars and also-rans of my youth. Flipping over their cards to read their vital statistics and baseball anecdotes.

I’ve selected the following fourteen from 1970 to share with you … seven from the National League; seven from the American League … with snippets of information (in quotes) pulled from the back of each card. I’ve added my recollections too.

If you’re a baseball fan like me, no matter your favorite team, perhaps this will help rekindle the hope that one day (possibly sometime this summer) we will again hear a nameless umpire shout these two words:

“Play Ball!”

***

Matty Alou, Outfield, Pittsburgh Pirates: “Spray hitting Matty led majors in hits in 1969, also led Bucs with 22 stolen bases.” … I remember Matty as a tough out. In reference to his contact approach to batting, Dad would have called him a “Punch and Judy” hitter.

Don Kessinger, Shortstop, Chicago Cubs: “Don was the NL All-star shortstop for the 2nd consecutive year in 1969 … Led NL shortstops in assists in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, and in double plays in 1968 and 1969.” … As a kid, I saw Don play numerous times. He was a slick fielder and Cardinals nemesis for years.

Tim McCarver, Catcher, Philadelphia Phillies: “A three-sport star in school, Tim joins the Phillies in 1970. Two-time NL All-Star.” … McCarver was a hard-nosed receiver and long-time Cardinal before joining the Phillies. After retiring from baseball on the field, he moved to the broadcast booth.

Steve Renko, Pitcher, Montreal Expos: “Steve was a quarterback at Kansas University and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the 15th round in 1966 … he turned to pitching in 1967.” … Renko was a rangy right-handed starting pitcher. His team, the Expos, were part of major league expansion in 1969. Years later, they moved and became the Washington Nationals.

Tug McGraw, Pitcher, New York Mets: “Broke into pro ball with a no-hitter on July 3, 1964 … he was an important cog in the Mets” (1969) pennant drive.” … This emotional lefty was a bulldog relief pitcher. Whenever he entered the game, he slammed the door on the competition.

Jim Wynn, Outfield, Houston Astros: “Jim was Houston’s top slugger in 1969. First signed with Cincinnati in 1962.” … I remember the laser beam homers hit by the muscle-bound man known as the “toy cannon”.

Rich Allen, First Base, St. Louis Cardinals: “Rich again led the Phils in all offensive categories in 1969 … he was traded to the Cardinals during the off-season.” … The flashy and controversial Dick Allen (his preferred name) played for the Cardinals for just one year, but earned a place in the All-Star game.

Carl Yastrzemski, Outfield, Boston Red Sox: “Another great season for Carl in 1969, he was among the league’s top five in homers and runs batted in.” … Yaz, who later became a Hall of Famer, was a fierce left-handed power hitter and outstanding defender.

Jim Kaat, Pitcher, Minnesota Twins: “One of the finest fielding pitchers.” … Jim’s twenty-five-year career as a player ultimately spanned four decades. He played for the Cardinals when they won the World Series in 1982. After retiring from the game, he became an outstanding broadcaster.

Carlos May, Outfield, Chicago White Sox: “Carlos made the All-Star team last year (1969) in only his fourth year of pro ball.” … I remember Carlos as a clutch left-handed power hitter, who played first base predominantly.

Mike Hegan, Outfield, Seattle Pilots: “Mike enjoyed a fine year with Seattle in 1969, leading the club in three baggers.” … Though this card identifies Hegan as a Seattle Pilot in 1970, the franchise was sold and the team moved that year. They became the Milwaukee Brewers. Hegan also played for the Yankees and A’s during his major league career.

Gates Brown, Outfield, Detroit Tigers: “Pinch-hitter deluxe … Gates was an excellent high school fullback.” … Gates Brown spent his entire twelve-year, major league career with the Detroit Tigers. He hung up his professional cleats for the last time in 1975.

Gene Michael, Shortstop, Yankees: “Gene is called ‘Stick’ because of his slender appearance.” … After his playing career, Gene managed the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs. As the Yankees’ general manager, he received accolades for building a team that became a dynasty in the late 1990s.

Sal Bando, Third Base, A’s: “Sal, Reggie Jackson and Rick Monday were all teammates in college at Arizona State University.” … Sal was a key member of the Oakland Athletics dynasty that won three consecutive World Series championships between 1972 and 1974.

***

There is one more card and story I need to share. One of Lou Brock, the perennial all-star left-fielder. Though the 1970s were lean years for the St. Louis Cardinals (a sorbet of sorts between the glory days of two World Series championships in the 1960s and another in 1982), Brock became the all-time major league stolen base leader in August of 1977. That’s when he broke Ty Cobb’s career record of 892 stolen bases. Brock’s record was later surpassed by the phenomenal Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s.

LouBrock_1969

Between 1964 (when the Cubs traded Brock to the Cardinals) and 1979 (when Lou retired), I was fortunate to see Lou patrol the outfield in St. Louis and burn up the base paths in person on dozens of occasions. (Ironically, in October 2015, Lou Brock’s left leg was amputated below the knee due to an infection related to a diabetic condition. But to this date he has survived that and multiple myeloma blood cancer diagnosed in 2017.)

Most important of all, for much of my muggy St. Louis childhood, I sat beside my father on the boards of the left-field bleachers at Busch Memorial Stadium. Together we watched the baseball gods of yesteryear dazzle us on the baseball diamond and break all sorts of records. Dad will forever be my baseball buddy.

Not a bad recollection to pass the time in 2020 as I hold my breath and wait with the world to see what happens next.