Category: St. Louis History

Candy Cane Kids

In the early 1960s, the four of us–Dad, Mom, Diane, and I–preferred a natural Christmas tree.

In mid-December, we bundled up, drove to a local tree lot, and picked out a well-shaped balsam.

Money was tight, so our family’s philosophy was the cheaper the better.

One of the men at the lot usually helped Dad tie the tree to the top of our car.

Once we arrived back home, we sawed off a notch of the trunk.

Then, Dad placed the six-footer outside in a metal bucket filled with water to keep it fresh until we trimmed the tree.

In those days, these porcelain candy cane kids adorned the branches of our family Christmas in south suburban St. Louis.

Originally, there was a third sibling, but he or she broke in the years following and couldn’t be repaired.

Thankfully, these two have survived until now … traveling from Missouri to Illinois to Arizona.

This year, Tom and I nestled the remaining candy cane kids near the top of our artificial tree in the sunroom of our Scottsdale condo.

They remind us of the memory magic of Christmas, seen through the bright eyes of an exuberant child.

As 2022 draws to a close, thank you for following me on this journey.

No matter your age or whether you celebrate Christmas, my wish for you and me in 2023 is that we continue to nurture our imaginations and rekindle our sense of possibilities and wonder.

Because it is that spark–and the spirit of the candy cane kids in all of our lives–that helps us create the art to make the world a richer and more joyful place.

Waitin’ for the Man with the Bag

Everybody’s waitin’ for the man with the bag, cause Christmas is comin’ again.

I’ll be singing this lyrical line with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus mates this Saturday and Sunday on stage in Tempe, Arizona at the Galvin Playhouse. (Go to http://www.phxgmc.org for tickets.)

“Man With The Bag” is a jazzy, Christmas mash-up, artfully arranged by David Maddux. It’s the second number of Act II, a mix of frolicking, silky, reflective, fun, inspiring, and sometimes-bawdy music in our “Twas the Night Before Christmas” show.

If I sound excited, I am. This will be my thirteenth consecutive holiday concert: seven with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago; six here in Phoenix.

Singing Christmas music in my fifties and sixties with two diverse community choruses of gay men has somehow rekindled the wonder and anticipation of my childhood.

Close your eyes and travel back in time. Music or not, you remember that giddy Christmas feeling.

For me, it happened annually with my sister Diane. Decades before the advent of fake news, we stood on opposite ends of our fake, cardboard fireplace in suburban St. Louis. No doubt, as we posed for this photo, Perry Como crooned a holiday tune on the hi-fi.

Anyway, in December 1962–yikes, sixty years ago–we were waitin’ for the man with the bag in the dining room of our modest brick home without an actual fireplace. But that didn’t deter our keen imaginations or exuberance. In fact, it nurtured them.

I don’t know what happened to that fabulous fireplace I leaned against years ago. I doubt that it survived to see 1970.

But Diane and I are still here. Yes, much older and definitely wiser. She lives in Wheaton, Illinois, with her husband; I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, with mine.

I mailed a small box of gifts to her recently, and her package will arrive here before Christmas. But it is the gifts of music and memory that I cherish today … and the thought of just the two of us–way back when–waitin’ for the man with the bag.

Above and Beyond

Completed on this day fifty-seven years ago, the Gateway Arch served as a catalyst for St. Louis’ mid-twentieth-century renaissance.

The six-hundred-thirty-foot-tall structure was then, and still is, that gleaming stainless-steel phenomenon and symbol, soaring above and beyond the banks of the Mississippi River. It replaced a sagging riverfront packed with dingy brick warehouses and smokestacks.

It is impossible for me to reflect on this city I love–the place where I was born which now bears little physical resemblance to what I remember half a century ago–without acknowledging the magnificence, continuity, and meaning of the Arch.

In late 1965 shortly after a construction crew finished the project, I stood directly underneath it with my parents, looking straight up from the base, running my palms across its smooth-and-shiny skin. It would be decades before sapling trees would grow tall enough to create this park-like atmosphere you see here.

For three summers–1977, 1978, and 1979–I worked underneath, around, and inside the Arch as a history interpreter for the National Park Service. It was a fabulous job for this then-twenty-year old idealist and history buff.

I gave tours in the Museum of Westward Expansion, talked about the city’s founding as a French fur-trading post in 1764, and played color commentator for wobbly visitors as they gazed across the Missouri and Illinois horizons through tiny windows at the top of the Arch.

In those days that federal landscape was defined as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, because the Arch was built as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and recognized St. Louis’ pivotal role in the westward expansion movement.

Of course, the concept of westward expansion conjures sometimes-controversial overtones in this era. Of white settlers moving west to push Native Americans from their land.

But no matter your point of view about U.S. history, the Gateway Arch constitutes an architectural marvel at the very least and a symbol of pride for St. Louisans past and present.

In 1947, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won a competition with his Gateway Arch design. His concept included reflecting pools on the ground to soften the sharp edges of the monument that carves its path through the sky.

Unfortunately, Saarinen didn’t get to see his masterpiece completed. He died September 1, 1961, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor.

But the rest of the world watched with wonder four years later. When construction workers–dancing on the edge of the sky–inserted the capstone piece to connect the north and south legs of the Gateway Arch, St. Louisans breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed their brighter-and-shinier identity.

Fifty-seven years later, I understand the surrounding trees have matured, and the Arch grounds have been connected more seamlessly with the rest of the downtown area.

And the Gateway Arch itself? It’s still standing and an inspiring site to behold.

Setup Complete

A delivery man handed me a box at my front door on Thursday. Inside was my new Samsung phone. It includes a lot more memory and features than my previous model.

“Great. No big deal,” you might think. “After all, we live in a world where techie products and capability change every few minutes and many people buy a new device every year or so.”

But I object, your honor. It is a big deal for this guy.

This is not a purchase I make frequently. It’s not so much the cost. It’s the drama and tumultuous change required. And, when I make such a change, I need and expect support to pull me through the uncertainty.

It’s the fear of losing all my contacts and photos that I don’t want to send into the cloud (wherever that is) that amps up my anxiety from “reasonable human being” to “caged animal.”

Let’s peel a few more layers of the emotional onion.

***

On July 9, 2017 (yes, more than five years ago!), Tom and I bought my previous Samsung phone at a Verizon Wireless store in St. Louis, Missouri. We were between homes at the time, on our way west from the Chicago suburbs to Scottsdale, Arizona. I was fresh out of the hospital.

More background. On July 5, 2017, somewhere in Southern Illinois, my previous phone died. Strangely, the next morning–it was our 60th birthday–I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis.

My husband and the medical staff at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis saved my life. Tom got me to the hospital lickety-split. The cardio team performed an angioplasty. They found an obstruction in the left side of my heart.

The next day, once my blood pressure was stable, the team installed two stents in my heart. Remarkably, I left the hospital two days later with a new lease on life, no cell phone, and a story that would become my third book: An Unobstructed View.

Tom and I bought a functioning phone the following day in the city where I was born in 1957.

***

On Friday, I drove to a nearby Verizon Wireless store in Tempe, Arizona, with my new phone. Two representatives–one in person, another via live chat–had told me Verizon would help me transfer my data and activate my new phone.

But Verizon left me high and dry.

When I walked in the store to describe what I needed, a young representative told me they didn’t/wouldn’t do that. My anxiety and anger soared. After a volley of choice words, I announced “I’m outta here.”

I left the store an emotional wreck.

When I arrived home, Tom tried to console me, but I was inconsolable. He suggested I contact Geek Squad at Best Buy. We have a total tech support plan there. I made an appointment.

On Saturday, I arrived at Best Buy, in the same Tempe Marketplace mall where the Verizon debacle occurred. Over the next hour, the Geek Squad team activated my phone and helped me transfer my data.

All three “blue-shirted” technicians, who assisted me, treated me with respect. Like the medical team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital five years ago, they restored my hope in human care and kindness.

***

Think about it. Like the fragility of our personal health, and the heart that ticks inside us, so much of our world is tied to this one important item we carry in our pockets (instead of our chests).

When that one thing (heart or phone) becomes vulnerable, so are we.

Fortunately, my phone setup is complete now. It feels like I have my life back. Tomorrow (Monday), I see my cardiologist for my annual checkup. My ticker is strong. I’m in much better shape physically than I was five years ago. I expect a good report.

Wide and Deep

My heart raced and jaw clenched. Like thousands of Americans, on Tuesday I tuned in to watch true patriots from Arizona and Georgia do the right thing.

The 2020 election numbers–votes counted and recounted numerous times–don’t lie. Neither did Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his deputy Gabe Sterling, and Georgia election worker, Shaye Moss.

At a defining moment in American history, on June 21, 2022, they delivered their testimony before the U.S. House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

They sat before the nation. They breathed deeply, mopped their brows, and somehow maintained their composure. They told us how they kept their fingers in the dike to keep a corrupt president and his allies from breaking through the dam and cheating the American people. They upheld the law and the letter of the U.S. Constitution.

Over three hours of testimony, we heard heart-stopping stories. Each witness detailed how some of those who still support the ex-president have threatened and targeted their professional and personal lives. All in an effort to illegally change the outcome of the 2020 election.

In this one blog post, it is impossible to address the sense of fear, anxiety, and division that exists in our current culture. But suffice it to say, this insurrection and its related tentacles run wide and deep. It appears there is much more evidence to come. Each day we brace ourselves for more of the ugly truth about the targeting of public servants and slates of fake electors.

What will happen next in this drama? Who knows? But the biggest question of all looms on the horizon: Will the U.S. Department of Justice pursue criminal charges against the forty-fifth President of the United States and others who apparently have violated the rule of law?

Young and old alike, we watch and wait. Our nation’s future is at stake. Our sense of freedom hangs in the balance.

***

Tuesday’s hearing occurred fifty years and four days after five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Soon after, the Watergate political scandal dominated our lives. Our nation was thrust into the pain and complexity of a constitutional crisis and investigation that would expose President Richard Nixon and members of his administration.

I was a teenager at the time. I didn’t understand the gravity of the Watergate scandal. But I remember the anxiety of uncertainty that pervaded our country and how outraged I felt that our president would lie and cheat and do all he could to try to cover up his deceit. That pain has resurfaced today.

I also remember pausing for breakfast with my friends John and Jon in the middle of our western camping adventure on August 9, 1974. It was the day Nixon finally resigned after two years of political denial and trauma.

John, Jon and I chowed down on steak and eggs in a dark tavern/diner somewhere in Wyoming, while on the other side of the room, through the tube of a grainy black-and-white TV, we watched Nixon break the news in an address to the nation.

Before and after that moment, my buddies and I drove through miles and miles of magnificent western landscapes–mostly through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Wyoming. But we also ventured through the beauty and desolation of Arizona and New Mexico.

Imagine three sets of parents of three teenagers, permitting one seventeen-year-old and two sixteen-year-old boys to pack up a beat-up AMC Javelin without adult supervision. Somehow, we convinced them to let us go.

Over a ten-day period, the three of us towed a small camper more than a thousand miles each way from St. Louis to the Rockies and back again. We had fun, drank Coors beer, exercised our freedom, cooked over a Coleman stove, slept in a tent, and managed to stay out of trouble. Those were simpler and safer days. That trip wouldn’t happen today.

As a young man about to begin my senior year of high school, the possibilities of life surrounding me traveled as wide and deep as the terrain you see in this photo of Shiprock, New Mexico, which I captured and saved from our 1974 journey.

Little did I know that one day nearly five decades down the road–as I approached my sixty-fifth birthday in this western literary chapter of my life–our nation would face a much darker and historic challenge.

We must find a way to restore some semblance of sanity to our culture and political process … we must punish the perpetrators to resurrect our democracy from the jaws of an insurrection that continue to haunt us.

Dad and Me

Though he has been gone since 1993–taken by a second heart attack a week before his eightieth birthday–my dad still appears in fading photos on the walls and shelves of my Scottsdale condo … and in memories I carry.

In July 1959, I celebrated my second birthday with Dad in the basement of our suburban St. Louis home.

Like an earnest anthropologist combing for clues, I’ve kept Walter Johnson’s history and story–his highs and lows–alive. He lingers on the pages of all four of my books. The journalist and the son in me believe I’ve done right by him.

In spite of his traumas (World War II shellshock, bipolar rants, and heartache), I’ve long ago put Walter’s pain to rest. It no longer consumes me in my sixties.

It has been replaced by abundant compassion and appreciation for the man he was in his forties: enthusiastic, fun-loving, loyal, and truly patriotic.

I don’t think I’ve ever uttered or written the following sentence, but it’s time I did: I have never doubted my father’s love for me.

I certainly see and feel it in his eyes in this (now vintage) photograph my mother captured of Dad and me.

More than six decades later–in these desert-dwelling days I never imagined in my Midwestern life–I link the joyous and boundless expression on Dad’s face with a keepsake Tom and I wrapped carefully and brought with us in the backseat of our Hyundai Sonata when we came west in 2017.

It’s an electronic GB Means Good Beer advertising sign, which Walter the salesman salvaged from his days peddling products for Griesedieck Bros. Beer in the 1950s.

What follows is an excerpt from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, which I published in early 2021.

***

In the early 60s before his first heart attack, Dad turned on the sign when company came over and we ventured into our basement. Long after he died, the sign’s magical light-and-color wheel spun and bounced a range of hues on a knotty-pine shelf downstairs in Missouri. Then later, it danced on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of our suburban Chicago home.

Strangely, the wheel disengaged in 2017–somewhere on the road between Illinois and Arizona as I mended from a heart attack on the passenger side.

I wasn’t sure the sign would ever spin again, but I found a trusty repairman named Bob in Phoenix. He opened the back of the rectangular sign and tinkered with it. He told me he could reconnect the wheel to the track. I left Walter’s beer sign in Bob’s capable hands.

Bob called two days later to say the sign was working again. The following afternoon, Tom and I paid him. I thanked him for his time and trouble. We brought the sign home and found a suitable place to display it on the top of our bookcase in Scottsdale.

I plugged in the sign and turned on the switch. The light-and-color wheel twirled. The blues, reds, greens, and purples bounced, just as Walter had

***

It comforts me to know that on Father’s Day–or any day–I can flip the switch in one simple motion. I can reignite the love I still feel for my father and remember his best intentions.

In an instant, I can remind myself that Dad is with me on my journey.

Decoration Day

When I was a youngster in the 1960s, my dad and his sisters spoke solemnly of an alliterative-sounding day we don’t hear about anymore: Decoration Day.

It was an apt description for an activity Americans performed every May 30, as the heat of summer rolled in. They decorated the graves of those who died in defense of their country.

According to history.com, the tradition began May 30, 1868. After General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, 5,000 participants left flowers on the graves of 20,000 who died during the Civil War.

What we now know as Memorial Day has evolved into a hybrid holiday–the day we honor those who have served, pig out on barbecue, watch sports on TV, bicker about politics, guns, and vaccinations, pay an arm and leg to fill up our gas tanks, and race to the mall for a new mattress that’s on sale.

On this especially somber weekend–just days after the latest school shooting and slaughter of innocent children in Uvalde, Texas–I prefer to pause and kneel (theoretically) before the grave of my father rather than salute our flag. Though I can’t be in St. Louis right now to do that, I can write about it.

Walter Johnson served our country during World War II. He was an Army sergeant, who fought in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

Despite shell shock, personal trauma, and frequent nightmares, Dad lived nearly fifty more years. He died in 1993. He and Helen Johnson, my mother, are buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis on the top of a hill under an oak tree.

This weekend, volunteers will be decorating all of the graves there–and in all national cemeteries–with miniature American flags.

On September 4, 2021–it would have been my parents’ seventy-third wedding anniversary–Tom and I visited Dad’s and Mom’s graves.

We left two decorations–a couple of acorns–on top of their marble headstone. Though my parents are both long gone, like the acorns, the vivid memories are alive and the love endures.

My hope is that one day soon–for the sake of American children and future generations–we can find our way to put down our guns, regain our senses, and decorate our lives with more than flowers and regrets.

All That Jazz

Ruminating from the threshold of Medicare eligibility, this is how I choose to remember my parents in their later years: content and seated side-by-side, listening to jazz in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi River.

If you’ve read my first book, you know Helen and Walter had a complicated and volatile relationship. But by the mid-to-late-80s–after the heavy lifting of jobs, child rearing, and the daily swirl of Dad’s bipolar rants–they found a more peaceful coexistence.

Together they rediscovered a love of Dixieland jazz under the shadow of the Gateway Arch. They tossed their metal folding chairs (latticed with yellow and white nylon strips) into the trunk of their sensible sedan, drove downtown, and evidently walked to this shady spot.

It happened just steps away from the cobblestones that led to the now-defunct Admiral Boat and historic Eads Bridge that still connects Missouri and Illinois. (If you squint, you’ll see them both in the background.)

I remember the faint giddy-up in my fading father’s voice over the phone. He described what he and Mom experienced … together … rousing, organic music played by happy people. Trumpeters, saxophonists, trombonists blaring on a summer’s day.

Best of all, all that glorious music was FREE. Products of the Great Depression, Dad’s and Mom’s frugality was baked into their souls. Thankfully, it transferred magically into mine.

Years later, as I gathered coupons for a trip to the grocery store with her in northern Illinois, my mother would smile with pride at me from under her floppy hat and announce, “You’re a good shopper, honey.”

I imagine my sister Diane took this photo. At the time, she lived near them in the St. Louis suburbs. I had already moved to Chicago in 1980 to launch my communication career and create a life with Jean, then my wife.

Busy in my late twenties and early thirties, I was happy to know of a positive change in my parents’ relationship, but I think I dismissed their newfound glee and meeting of the minds. Digging deeper, maybe I felt sad that I missed this better chapter.

Now that I’ve arrived at the station in life depicted in this photo–greater leisure time, protective hats, contentment, wisdom, and personal vulnerability–I see more clearly how tragic it is that we Americans dismiss the trajectory of our older citizens in favor of youth and vitality.

It seems like it should be the exact opposite. Other cultures figured that out long ago. Why is it we are so hung up on viewing the activities and lives of young people as more valuable? The Kardashians? Please!

It boils down to money, marketing, and economics. Companies know that many seniors–then and now–live on fixed incomes. They don’t have the disposable income they once did. But what a shame to diminish their worth and assign it a dollar amount.

This story–part nostalgic reflection, part rant on agism–was prompted by rejection. No, I wasn’t job hunting. Five months ago, I entered my latest book in a contest with Memoir Magazine. I had high hopes I might at least get some sort of honorable mention.

On Sunday, I received a cordial, strategically written email thanking me for my submission. Then the other shoe dropped. Though my set of whimsical-and-serious Arizona stories and flights of fancy made it through the initial review, it didn’t land on the short list.

I have to admit. I was crestfallen. I think I’m a damn good writer. I also realize the competition was stiff. I lead a relatively ordinary life with my husband. At this point, my life isn’t filled with drama. It’s my calling to write stories about what it means to age, what it means to be gay, what it means to exist and survive in this crazy world.

Yes, as my husband reminds me, there will be other opportunities, other contests to consider. But especially now (three weeks after testing positive for Covid and fortunately recovering) none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.

All of this brings me back to Helen and Walter … and all that jazz they enjoyed under the Arch in the 1980s. I suppose I’m better off just enjoying the moments of life as they appear, singing when I want to sing (I have a brief solo in my June concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus), writing what I want to write, and caring less about accolades and awards.

I guess I’m better off giving thanks for the perspective that comes with aging. No matter whether the literary world or the greater universe ever recognizes what I have to say, I have my life. I have my voice. I have my writing.

Fallout

We sat–quietly and obediently–in rows facing the front of the room. Most of the girls wore frilly dresses, bangs, and patent-leather shoes; the boys sported bold-striped shirts, crew cuts, and bright-white Keds.

Our mornings and early afternoons were occupied with simple math, spelling, reading, recess, and cartons of cold milk on lunch trays. The American flag draped over the alphabet border above the blackboard.

Images of George, Abraham, and John–Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy–stood guard. I suspect they were there to ease our minds and protect our American innocence.

If only it were that simple.

***

I don’t remember feeling fear, when our teacher told us it was time for another drill. We knew the routine and followed instructions.

A voice on the public address system told us when to practice hiding under our desks, when to duck and cover, when to escape to fallout shelters in hallways if a bomb were dropped.

It lasted but a few minutes. We covered our heads and faces until the all-clear signal came from our teacher. We absorbed the fear–the height of the Cold War–without knowing what it was.

This was what we knew in the early 1960s in middle America. We were fortunate these were merely practice drills, false alarms.

I imagine the scenes weren’t much different in schools on the outskirts of Chicago, Cincinnati or Cleveland. At Mesnier School in Affton–ten miles from downtown St. Louis–we aspired to a gleaming symbol. We lived in the shadow of an emerging national monument.

By its completion in 1965, the Gateway Arch would soar, though across the nation the fog of pollution and social issues intensified.

As history would have it, all of the names of St. Louis school children would be stored in a time capsule in the base of the Arch. Mine is among them.

Back in the classroom, between random drills and parent-teacher conferences, we learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. We tied our shoes and kept on skipping in a world where rules were prescribed narrowly for girls and boys.

This was the credo for boys: Get good grades in school. Be prepared. Keep your eye on the ball. Run faster. Jump higher. Find a decent job. Don’t be a sissy. Meet and marry a woman. Buy a house. Have kids. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Pass the baton to the next generation.

But what about those of us who are different? Where do we fit into the story? We had to figure that out for ourselves.

***

The sixties weren’t pretty. Assassinations reigned. The Vietnam War raged. Poverty and racism amplified. People felt trapped, ready to shed the remnants of restrictive gender roles and sexuality, sealed in the repressive 1950s.

But the world is exponentially more complicated now. The latest madman is hellbent on ravaging innocent people in Ukraine. Though love appears in abundance in many circles across all continents, ignorance and hate manifest themselves next door and around the world.

Once again, sixty years later, we find ourselves living in fear of the fallout. We must find ways to duck and cover, to speak the truth while standing as tall and mighty as the Gateway Arch.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren to put politics aside, to protect our planet, to uphold individual rights and civil liberties, to teach them about black and white, but also the color and grayness of the world and all its permutations. Pandemic or not, they are watching.

Even if they don’t know it, the youngest members of our society are counting on us to speak the truth, denounce racism and hate, celebrate gay and straight lives, and to teach them that every generation has a responsibility to remember and honor the seminal moments in history, and–hopefully–carry the best of humanity forward.

A New Year Resolution

Photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

This is a true story about a chance encounter on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1962. It’s a testament to the good citizenship of my mother and father, who did the right thing sixty years ago.

The story, A New Year Resolution (I wrote it in 2017), fills me with hope and the warm possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen. It first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri stories.

As we cross into 2022, I wish you good health and a few magical surprises to lighten your spirit.

***

Aunt Thelma was flush with frozen anticipation and prepared to toot her fringe-laced party horn. It’s how she felt every year. She had a new year resolution: to be the first out the door to inhale the cold remnants of December night air and replace it with January oxygen expectant with sharp promise and unassigned possibilities.

Thelma fumbled to secure the buttons on her worn car coat, snap her hat in place on the top of her wobbly bun, and race into the frigid Midwestern night. “Happy New Year,” she hollered leading her merry band out the door as the clock struck twelve. In an instant, the atmosphere from two distinct years comingled in her lungs and the clamoring began on cue.

Uncle Ralph, Mom, Dad, Diane, and I twirled our ratcheting noisemakers, flailed away with wooden spoons on pots and pans, and shrieked with glee. Magically, in an instant, the joys and regrets of 1961 were erased. Each of us had a fresh batch of winter air to contend with. It was January 1, 1962, in St. Louis, Missouri.

The frosty air told us it was too cold for the revelry to linger. By 12:15 a.m., we scurried back inside and returned our cockamamie thingamabobs and pointy hats. As Thelma and Ralph gathered it all and washed off the wooden spoons for safe keeping in the kitchen drawer, Dad and Mom broke the news to Diane and me. Our makeshift winter carnival was over.

With Dad behind the wheel, it was time to head home to South St. Louis County and our three-bedroom brick ranch in Affton. We had an hour-long drive ahead of us in our ’59 Plymouth.

Dad figured Hanley Road would be the most direct route. He could take the highway, but he didn’t want to contend with higher speeds and the potential for an anonymous, boozy driver veering head-on into his path. The thought of that was too much for his weary brain.

Under the whir of tires hugging cold pavement, Mom glanced over her left shoulder to check on the two of us in the backseat. Diane and I were beginning to fade. Mom knew we would be asleep soon. She and Dad were prepared to rouse us from our slumber once we pulled into the driveway. She felt comfort knowing we would need to be carried into the house and rolled into bed. She didn’t know there was more excitement coming before we trailed off to sleep.

A few minutes passed before something caught Mom’s eye between the high beams of an approaching car. She spotted a fuzzy figure up ahead a few hundred feet on the right shoulder. Someone was walking alone. From a distance, it could have been a man or woman. She and Dad couldn’t be sure.

Dad reduced his speed. As we approached, our headlights illuminated a bewildered young woman teetering on silver high heels, shivering under a skimpy mink stole thrown over her shoulders, exposing an emerald cocktail dress and too much skin on a cold night.

Mom verbalized what Dad was thinking. “Walter, I think she needs help. Let’s pull over and see if she needs a ride somewhere.” They rolled down their windows and waved her over to the car.

At first, the young woman’s eyes darted away. She could see a man was driving the car. But when she realized that an entire family was in the car, she relaxed a bit and approached on her fast-freezing feet.

“It’s so cold out, honey. Can we help you?” Mom offered through her partially open window. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“Yes,” she stammered. “I guess I do.” She grabbed the hinge of the back door and shimmied into the backseat next to Diane. “I was going home with a date after a New Year’s Eve party, and we got into a big fight. So, I got out. That bastard drove off and left me on the side of the road … Oh, I’m sorry about the language.”

“It’s alright,” Dad assured her. “We’re just glad we stopped. Point us in the right direction and we’ll get you home. What’s your name?”

“Oh, it’s Melba,” she confirmed. It was a name I’d seldom heard. Melba recited her address in Maplewood. By this time, any notion of sleep in our eyes was history. It vanished when Melba and her allure entered our world. We were wide-eyed and dumbfounded–captivated by her exotic name and slinky dress. Diane homed in on Melba’s beaded purse and shoes. I was mesmerized by her glistening green eyes, which flickered when cars flashed by. They matched her sequined gown.

Melba must have been an aspiring movie star or a lost character in a Twilight Zone episode, I thought. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, I was certain she was navigating a sudden detour on the road of life, trying to make the best of plans gone awry. She was craving silence in a secure sedan with no requirements, explanations, or assumptions.

From the front seat, Mom respected Melba’s need for quiet and distance. In the back, Diane and I sat motionless; we preferred to watch relief wash over Melba’s face. Dad focused on the tasks at hand: operating our vehicle and driving Melba home. He could tell the young woman was rattled. He wanted to return her home safely without fanfare.

Within twenty minutes, Dad pulled up in front of a tidy bungalow with white awnings and a steep front porch. This must be where Melba lived, I thought. Even though it was 1:30 a.m., all the lights inside Melba’s house were lit. I was thankful and relieved that her family had waited up.

With a flip of her hair from the top of her fur collar, Melba thanked Dad and Mom for the ride. She flashed a grateful smile, wrapped each end of her mink stole around her neck, patted Diane and me on the top of our heads, and braced for the cold air. She left the cozy warmth of our green sedan.

By this time, I had imagined a whole new life for Melba–a wandering, sensitive soul with a caring mother and father of her own, a nosey little brother, and a dream to escape her world and climb a ladder into a fairy-tale universe filled with brilliant stars.

Then, under the partial glow of a frosty January moon, I watched Melba ascend the concrete stairs, turn to wave goodbye, and step across the threshold of her ordinary front door into an awaiting aura. Certainly, New Year’s Day 1962 was off on a magical foot.

None of us thought we’d see Melba again. And we were right. Even so, all we needed was thirty minutes together to keep the memory alive. I curled up in the back seat next to my sister and considered the vision of Melba–coming and going in a pre-dawn hush.

There wasn’t much to say, but Dad knew what to do. He eased the car from the curb and guided us back onto the road. With a flash of his headlights, he signaled to Melba that all was good.

We were on our way home.