Tag: Missouri

The Spirit of St. Louis

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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)

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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.”

The Gist of Past Augusts

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Securing pink and white hollyhocks that sagged across suburban lawns.

Devouring fresh melons and spitting out seeds at barefoot picnics.

Chasing patrolling peacocks to capture feathers for the trip home.

Cornering grasshoppers that jumped and landed from nowhere.

Dodging dragonflies that flitted, then perched in shallow waters.

Tiptoeing back to school over fading July-to-September bridges.

Discovering an old empty wagon laden with summer memories.

Heating Up and Cooling Off

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Here in the Valley of the Sun, 100-degree temperatures have returned. This is not a revelation. Now that I’ve become a desert rat, I’ve learned to expect they’ll be with us for the next few months.

There’s no need to worry about me. I’ve adapted to living in the heat. Early morning walks and swims before the heat sets in. Daily and repeat applications of sunscreen. Plenty of water. Broad-brimmed hats. Pop-up monsoon storms. Biannual visits to the dermatologist. A few weekend getaways to the majestic mountains and fragrant pines of northern Arizona. A trusty sunshade to cover the dashboard of our car when its parked. These are the norm in the Sonoran Desert.

I find strange comfort in all of this, because the return of triple digits reminds me of the scorching summers that defined my suburban St. Louis childhood. This 1960 image always makes me smile. It features the neighborhood kids and me (on the far right) devouring popsicles on the front porch of my home. As a tribute to the blazing days of summer, I hope you’ll enjoy this cooling excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of twenty-six, up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

***

The oppressive heat and humidity in St. Louis can wear you down. At times, it’s like carrying around a moist ten-pound cape on your shoulders. Or having your dental hygienist take x-rays and forget to remove the protective flak jacket before you leave the office.

One solution is a three-letter word: ice. In the 1960s, a Pevely Dairy truck driver would deliver milk and other dairy products to homes at the top of our street in the cul-de-sac. About a half dozen of us kids would scurry to catch the truck up the street screaming “ICE!” at the top of our lungs.

On occasion, the driver would pause and drop a big block of ice off the back of his truck onto the pulsating concrete, where it broke into smaller pieces. We’d grab a chunk and apply it to our skin as a soothing balm. We were in heaven.

Truth be told, the iceman didn’t cometh to deliver the goods that often, but he winked and dropped a block of ice into our path a few times each summer–just enough to give us hope that we could carry on the chase and renew the ritual.

The ice cream truck also visited our neighborhood. My sister and I begged our parents for change to buy an ice cream sandwich or dreamsicle from the Good Humor man. He even sold a “bomb pop” popsicle. It was red, white and blue and shaped like an actual bomb with a round top and fins coming out the sides.

Of course, in the Vietnam War era, we didn’t grasp the horror of buying a refreshing treat that was shaped like a weapon. We just knew it kept us cool.

 

 

 

 

The Soldier on the Hill

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When I drafted this poem on August 27, 1996, I wrote it as a tribute to my father, Walter Johnson, who died in 1993. He was an aspiring-but-unfulfilled poet and proud World War II veteran, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of the war in Europe.

Dad is buried here at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery–just south of St. Louis, Missouri–alongside thousands of others who served their country and, in many cases, died defending it.

As Memorial Day approaches, I’m posting this to honor Walter and all of the soldiers on the hill, who rest eternally on the banks of the Mississippi River.

***

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.

 

 

I Didn’t Know, Indigo

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I didn’t know what roads we’d take eighty-two thousand miles ago.

“I bought a new car, Mom” … “What color is it?” … “Indigo.”

I didn’t know we’d escort her ashes in Illinois.

I didn’t know we’d dodge a windswept tumbleweed in Albuquerque.

I didn’t know we’d take a desperate left turn in St. Louis.

I didn’t know we’d go back to the Grand Canyon rim to gather pine cones.

I didn’t know any of it seven years ago.

I only knew you’d be the one to carry us home.

 

By Mark Johnson

May 21, 2019

 

I’ll Be Seeing You

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On the afternoon of April 23, I wrote and sipped ice tea at Echo, an independent coffee shop in Scottsdale. I sat there, creating characters and spinning scenarios for a piece of fiction.

At some point, I became aware of the sounds in the room: my husband typing on his laptop across the table; the chatter of patrons; the whir of a barista grinding coffee beans; the soaring voice of Ella Fitzgerald cascading down upon us. It was her rousing rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You, an iconic 1940s tune my mother, Helen Johnson, loved. So much so that my sister and I chose to play it at her memorial service in 2013.

The irony of hearing the song on April 23 was that I had been feeling blue all day. I’d spoken with the manager of an independent bookstore a few hours before. She said she hadn’t recently sold any copies of my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir I wrote and published in 2016 about the grief I experienced after my mother’s death. The manager had decided to pull it from the store’s shelves. I could pick up the five remaining paperbacks at my convenience.

From a business standpoint, this isn’t unusual. Books come and go. Bookstores have a limited amount of space. They’re under intense pressure to maximize the revenue possibilities on their shelves and keep their inventory fresh to entice readers. Intellectually, I got that. But, emotionally, I felt something different. Disappointment. Sadness. Grief.

If you’ve lost someone you loved, you know what I mean. The wound of grief heals with time, but is ever present. As a character in the 2010 movie Rabbit Hole explains, grief is like carrying a stone in your pocket. Some days the stone is heavy. Other days the stone is light. But the stone is always with you and over time provides strange comfort. For me, that metaphor rings true.

To take it one step further, imagine if you wrote a book about the stone, as I did. You mustered all the energy and creativity you could to tell the tale of grief. About an adventure-seeking woman from rural North Carolina, who leaves the south and her hard-working parents. The woman finds a new-and-often-tumultuous life in St. Louis, where she builds a successful career, becomes a wife, mother, and grandmother. One day she retires. She decides to devote her time and energy to writing and sending a litany of letters about the lessons she’s learned to those she loves.

Of course, no matter how many books I sell, I am grateful for my writing and the satisfaction it gives me. I will always have my book as a chronicle of Helen’s life, death and legacy.  I will always have my memories of writing it. Capturing the universal story of love and loss that permeates every life. Hearing from friends and strangers who enjoy reading it. As a writer, this is what I’ll hold onto even as we live in a society of constant distraction that overemphasizes the latest superhero movie and undervalues the historical perspective, humanity and truth in books all around us.

As Mother’s Day approaches, this is the most meaningful part of the stone metaphor. This is what I choose to carry with me:

I still love you, Helen. There is comfort knowing that I’ll be seeing you and your fading blue eyes in my writing. For as long as I’m in the world, I’ll be seeing you in my grief.

***

To learn more about  From Fertile Ground, listen to my podcast interview on The Authors Show.

 

 

 

 

 

Free Rollercoaster Rides Through April 8

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In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.

Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, more than four decades later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.

From April 5 through April 8, you can download a free Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon worldwide. It’s my way of celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of my amusing amusement park experience and other vivid Baby Boomer recollections, including: discovering the joys of a first pet; loading up the car and heading to the drive-in theatre; embarking on a quest to wrangle World Series tickets with my dad; working at the top of the Gateway Arch; and witnessing the wonder in a brand new year after a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger.

Perhaps my stories will make you smile and light your desire to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood. Wherever you were born. Wherever you grew up. Wherever you called home.

Six Years Have Passed, but the Poppies Still Bloom

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In mid-January 2013, I was marking time. I had just returned to my consulting job in Chicago after a two-month leave of absence to spend time with Helen Johnson. She was my wise, but ailing, mother. Somehow Helen had dodged and surpassed the prognostications of her doctors. She was clinging to life in hospice, enduring frequent breathing treatments to relieve her congestive heart failure, channeling the will and resiliency that had sustained her for more than eighty-nine years.

A few weeks later, everything changed. I got the dreaded call. My mother’s life ended peacefully in the wee hours of January 26, 2013. Soon after, a grief-induced fog rolled in and consumed me. Fortunately, I found the strength to write about it. My new life as an author began to take root. I never imagined the vacuum left by my mother’s existence would become the catalyst and subject matter for my first book, From Fertile Ground.

Six years have passed. Today I’m thankful I can remember my mother freely without the specter of pain. Helen Johnson had a passion for nature and supporting aspiring artists. She also believed in second chances. In the 1970s, Mom insisted I come with her to annual art shows at Menard state prison in southern Illinois. That’s where some of the more talented inmates presented and sold their work. On one of those excursions, she bought this painting.

For nearly the next three decades, it hung in our living room in suburban St. Louis. Then it traveled with Mom to her new home in Chicago’s western suburbs, where she spent the last nine years of her life. After Mom died, I kept the painting. When my husband and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we brought it with us.

In a weak moment this week, as the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death drew closer, I considered giving it away because we have less space now. But then I had a change of heart. With my husband’s encouragement, I realized the painting will never mean as much to anyone else. We found the right spot to display it in our condo kitchen.

This vivid splash of blooming poppies on a hillside, painted by an artist named McCall in 1975, will always represent my mother’s best qualities. As long as I’m alive, I hope the memories of her goodness never fade.