Tag: Missouri

A Fateful Friday Fifty-Six Years Ago

FFG_Photo 1

For all of his eighty-five years, S.R. Ferrell lived an ordinary and unassuming twentieth-century rural life. Before the first rays of sunlight emerged each morning, my grandfather rose to milk the cows, tend to his crops, and complete a never-ending list of chores on his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Every night before bed, until the day he died in 1985, the stoic farmer recorded his brief thoughts about the day (like the pages you see here from 1962).

Five years ago, as I perused his diary entries and told the story of my hard-working grandfather in From Fertile Ground, I discovered that many of the things S.R. wrote were rather mundane. But, every once in a while, I unearthed a hidden gem. A startling first-hand account of a momentous day in American history. Ironically, my grandfather was sixty-two … the same age I am today … when he wrote the following on November 22, 1963. It was a fateful Friday. Exactly fifty-six years ago.

***

I went to pasture to work up some wood and haul it to the house. Mr. and Mrs. P.E. Miller came this morning to get some strawberry plants. Then they went on to Charlotte. I hauled more wood in the afternoon.

President Kennedy, 46, was assassinated at twelve o’clock noon in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon Johnson is now president.

Partly cloudy. Warm. 56 degree low. 77 degree high.

***

While S.R. Ferrell was toiling on his farm in Huntersville and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dying in Dallas, I was an innocent six-year-old schoolboy in suburban St. Louis in November 1963. Probably sitting at my first grade desk practicing my spelling.

I remember my teacher crying in the front of the classroom that day. As she tried to compose herself, she told us school would end early. Soon after, we filed to the cloak room to put on our jackets. We boarded our buses for our respective homes.

That weekend, I sat glued to the floor in front of our family’s black-and-white TV and watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. And, in the horrific and historic days that followed, JFK’s three-year-old son saluted his father’s passing, flag-draped casket. That image may have been the most mournful of all.

We’ll never know how the world would have evolved if JFK had lived to write another chapter in American history. But somehow the world kept spinning and S.R. Ferrell kept writing. And I have the comfort of knowing that my grandfather’s account of November 22, 1963 is forever chronicled in Chapter 39 of From Fertile Ground. You’ll find it on page 157 of my first book.

 

 

Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

Camelback_Oct2019

At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.

Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”

Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”

It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.

I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness  the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.

Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc. 

I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.

This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.

I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.

***

The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.

Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.

Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our  neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.

In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.

Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness:  two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.

On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.

Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.

A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.

In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.

Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again.  Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.

Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.

For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

For All the Soldiers on the Hill

FFG_Photo 6

Every year at this time thoughts of my father resurface. Mostly because Veterans Day is drawing near. Dad served during World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. But also because he died in the eleventh month of the year. A second heart attack took him on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving nearly twenty-six years ago.

Now that I live in Arizona, it’s less convenient for me to visit Walter Johnson’s grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis. But I have no difficulty summoning vivid recollections of him from afar.

I remember a tender moment between us sometime in the 1980s when he asked me if I liked the idea of him one day being buried in a national cemetery alongside other soldiers who’d served during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the list goes on.) I told him I thought it would be the perfect, peaceful resting place for him. A proud patriot. A man who loved his country. A citizen who served it to the best of his ability.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired to tell Dad’s story. This unfulfilled poet of good intentions–this complicated, compassionate and troubled comrade, deeply affected by the horrors of war and bipolar disorder–appears in all three of my books in various forms.

Recently, I came across a poem in a file of prose I’ve written over the past thirty years. At the time I penned this one in 1996, my grief for Walter Johnson was fresh. I had just visited his grave. I was searching for answers. Still reeling from my failed first marriage. Doing my best to raise two young sons. Finally coming out of the closet. Beginning to connect the disparate strands of my emerging life.

As it turns out, the passage of time (along with greater understanding, acceptance and forgiveness) helped me heal my wounds, find my path, and build an integrated life. I’m thankful for that eventual transformation. Walter wouldn’t have understood all of it, but he would have kissed me on the forehead and loved me anyway. He would have cheered me on during these late-in-life writing years I’ve been fortunate to find.

I’m grateful for the poetic propensity that came from this one particular soldier. Yes, he is long gone. His physical remains rest under the shade of a large tree not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. But his imperfect imprint will always appear in my writing. This is for him.

***

The Soldier on the Hill

I talked with the soldier on the hill today,

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand—all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

August 27, 1996

***

More broadly, I’m thankful for all of the soldiers on the hill. Many of them lost their lives in battle and had little or no time to discover a path or realize their dreams. We must always honor their service and sacrifices, past and present.

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

FFG_Photo 20

In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.

The Spirit of St. Louis

TORO_Photo16B (843x1000)

If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know I write frequently about the importance of family and home. Thematically, I’m a big believer that they shape and influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though I left St. Louis (my original hometown) nearly forty years ago, my Missouri memories have proven to be a source of creative inspiration, pride, joy and considerable heartache. In fact, I’m certain the Gateway to the West occupies a permanent strand in my DNA.

No one personifies the spirit of St. Louis in my memories more than Thelma DeLuca. She was my aunt. I’ve been thinking of Thelma a lot lately. Mostly because the twentieth anniversary of her passing is coming later this month. But also because Dad and she were lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Tonight their favorite team (and mine too) will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. I’ll be watching the game on TV. If Thelma were living, she’d be doing the same. Cheering for her Redbirds. Wearing something red.

As a tribute to my aunt (shown here in a 1952 photo with “Bluebird”, her beloved blue Plymouth), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy this excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

* * *

Thelma’s middle name was Ruth, but it should have been Truth. She was Dad’s older sister, the life of the party, the leader of the band, a true original. There was no denying Thelma. She was the boldest, biggest-hearted member of the Johnson family. You always knew where she stood, because she would tell you with gusto. Like an Olympic gymnast on a quest for gold, she nailed the dismount, stuck the landing, and finished her routine planted firmly on the ground on the right side of an issue.

Thelma sheltered a collection of canines over the years. In the 1950s, when Lassie was king, she devoted her free time to Laddie, her prized collie. The dog won several blue ribbons with Thelma at his side. In the years that followed, she welcomed: Tina, the runt in a mixed-breed litter; Tor, a powerful but gentle Norwegian elkhound; and Heath Bar and Gizmo–Yorkshire Terriers–into her home. There’s no question she revered all of her pooches. I remember when I was a teenager as she moved in close to remind me with all the sincerity she could muster. “You know, dog is God spelled backwards,” she proclaimed …

In one breath Thelma, a lifelong Democrat, praised Harry Truman’s the-buck-stops-here forthrightness. In the next, she launched into a smooth glide down the hall on high heels with Uncle Ralph as Dean Martin sang Come Back to Sorrento or Vikki Carr belted out It Must Be Him on the hi-fi. All the while, Ralph’s prized braciole was baking in the oven.

Thelma craved the richness of relationships and the cumulative effect of what we learn from each other throughout a lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in the 1970s with a far-off look in her eyes, she leaned in with her wig slightly askew and told me, “Mark, we’re all like ships passing in the night.”

In her wake, Thelma certainly left her mark on me. Whenever she sent me a letter, she sealed it with a kiss–along with the letters SWAK written underneath in case her love was ever in question–leaving behind remnants of her red lipstick on the back of the envelope or at the bottom of her letter next to her signature. 

In 1976, Thelma gave me a small envelope filled with bicentennial coins: medallions, dollars, half dollars, and drummer boy quarters. She encouraged me to start a century box with these so that all of my “heirs will sit in awe and wonder about the old days back in 1976.” I still have the coins. It was a magnanimous gesture. I loved her for it and all of her convictions.

Like my dad, Thelma loved her St. Louis Cardinals. She was sixteen in 1926 when the National League Champion Cards played in their first World Series against the American League Champion New York Yankees, led by legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Cardinals won the series four games to three and were crowned World Series Champions for the first time. Rogers Hornsby was the Cardinals player-manager. Grover Cleveland Alexander was the winning pitcher in two of the Cardinals’ victories. Though Ruth clubbed three home runs in Game 4 and another in Game 7, the “Bambino” recorded the final out in Game 7 when the Cardinals caught him attempting to steal second base.

With a chuckle and a raspy voice, Thelma recounted that when the 1926 series was over, “I walked down the street chanting ‘Hornsby for President, Alexander for Mayor, Babe Ruth for dogcatcher, isn’t that fair?”

In April of 1979, during my senior year of college at Mizzou, I interviewed my aunt for a family folklore assignment. I was riveted as Thelma described the destruction from the September 29, 1927 tornado, which tore through St. Louis and killed seventy-eight people. She and my grandmother Louise Johnson huddled inside their home that day and rode out the storm safely.

At one point, they leaned against the front door with all their might to keep it from blowing off the hinges. When the violent storm was over, they ventured outside to discover houses on both sides of them had been lifted off their foundations. 

Thanks to Thelma and her recollections, the link to my Johnson family heritage and St. Louis history is alive and well. That was Thelma.

The Little Red Wagon (Part Two)

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m traveling during much of September. While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this story (divided in two parts) about a different sort of journey. The Little Red Wagon first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book I wrote and published in 2017 about the ups and downs of my early years in St. Louis, Missouri.

***

… I wanted to believe Dad, but his recovery was slow in spite of his desire to regain his previous vitality. When he returned home in mid-October, he was depressed and agitated. He wasn’t able to return to work.

As the bills mounted, Mom felt the financial pressure grow. She could see that it would be months or years before he was able to resume working. So she began looking for a full-time job to begin replacing his lost income. Five months later, she found one as a stenographer at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center, earning $4,000 a year.

During the next several years, I was filled with anxiety and uncertainty as I watched Dad struggle. I could see he had lost his bearings. He was drifting away physically and emotionally. But I also observed my mother’s resolve and resiliency under duress as she worked to balance her life at work and home.

In the summer of 1963, our ’59 Plymouth sedan died. Our family couldn’t afford to buy another car for several weeks. Fortunately, Mom was able to get a ride to and from her job with a coworker, but we were left without any conventional transportation to go to the store on weekends. That didn’t stop us. Mom realized we had another set of wheels parked beneath the house that could serve us in a pinch.

While Dad was convalescing at home on Saturday mornings, Mom, my sister Diane, and I pulled our slow-but-steady Radio Flyer — our little red wagon with four trusty wheels — behind us for a mile each way down and up the hills to Yorkshire Plaza. It was at the corner of Laclede Station Road and Watson Road. Our destination was Jansen’s IGA.

Jansen’s was the closest place to our home where we could buy meat, milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. It was an ordinary supermarket in a strip mall just off Route 66. After we bought a few bags of essentials for the coming week, we loaded them into our wagon and walked next door to the Kresge’s five-and-dime department store. Mom bought shampoo, soap, paper supplies, and other inexpensive household items there.

Our last stop at the strip mall — and my favorite on our weekly little red wagon tour — was Lubeley’s Bakery. It was a pastry-lover’s paradise. When we stepped through the doors of Lubeley’s, it felt as if we left our money worries and Dad’s illness behind. I was immediately swept away by a warm wave of freshly baked bread, gooey butter cake, sugar cookies, and yummy glazed donuts. Lubeley’s made such a positive impression on me that I recall saying to Mom late one morning, “I think I want to be a baker when I grow up.”

Mom pondered my revelation. With all the love and restraint she could muster, she confided, “Honey, you’ll have to get up awfully early if you want to be a baker. She knew I loved glazed donuts. She also knew how much I loved to sleep.

Eventually, we completed our Saturday shopping. We left Lubeley’s, Kresge’s, and Jansen’s behind. We climbed the hills of Laclede Station Road. We returned home with our little red wagon filled with groceries and a few waxed white paper bags. One contained two fresh loaves of bread. Inside the other was something you might consider non-essential for a family struggling to make ends meet: a half-dozen delectable glazed Lubeley’s donuts.

I firmly believe those heavenly baked goods kept our family afloat. We were hungry for security beyond the scope of our wagon. The donuts gave us hope that Dad would feel better, that he really did have a lot of living to do, and that one day we would see order restored in our lives.

We all craved the peace we deserved and the goodness of a glazed escape with a hole in the middle.

The Little Red Wagon (Part One)

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m traveling during much of September. While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this story (divided in two parts) about a different sort of journey. The Little Red Wagon first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book I wrote and published in 2017 about the ups and downs of my early years in St. Louis, Missouri.

***

It was my second week of kindergarten and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962 — September 13 to be exact — I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.

Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened up the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board. The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.

I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the backyard fence.

“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.

I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.

Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month.

During the next thirty days, my mother, sister and I visited Dad several times each week. I remember boosting myself up to sit on the edge of his bed. I swiveled my head to watch portions of unidentifiable westerns and night-time dramas on a grainy black-and-white TV mounted high above on the facing wall across the room.

Every few minutes, the nurses trooped into Dad’s room to adjust his bed, prop him up higher on his pillow, bring pills and water in paper cups, and deliver trays of bland food and a bonus cup of ice cream Dad wasn’t allowed to eat. Instead of throwing away the ice cream, he gave it to me as a treat.

Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long — unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames.

But, Dad insisted he would rebound. Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”