Tag: Nostalgia

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

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The Columns and Buttes

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Our best memories–the ones cast in precious metals and inscribed with our names in cursive–far outweigh the cubic zirconium rings and balled up aluminum foil we choose to discard. But even the brightest ballast-laden snippets blur at the edges as they flash through our mind’s eye. They provide the weight we press against, cling to, or push away from.

My fourteen-karat gold college ring symbolizes the continuity of my University of Missouri years in Columbia. Resting in a dish with assorted jewelry in my bureau drawer, it features the school’s six iconic time-tested columns. All that remains of the university’s Academic Hall, which burned in a fire in the fresh snow of January 1892.

Out of the ashes, President Richard H. Jesse had the vision and fortitude to guide the school and transform it into a research-based institution. During his seventeen-year administration, the modern university Jesse envisioned was born. It grew and produced positive ripples around the ever-enduring stone columns … as well as generations who met near, lounged under or studied beneath them.

MU students have built lives and careers there. Succeeded and failed in times of war and peace. In the 1970’s, dozens of us tossed our Frisbees around the stone pillars … galloping across the Francis Quadrangle grass, running amok in the “Show Me” state until the next keg of beer or slice of Shakespeare’s pizza captured our attention. In my case, I walked across an outdoor stage to accept my Bachelor of Journalism degree in May 1979.

At their essence, the columns represent more than a social backdrop for play and frivolity. They are larger-than-life markers of time and civilization, before automobiles, airplanes, computers or digital technology. Poetic and historic reminders of their permanence and significance under fire versus our relative impermanence and insignificance.

I no longer wear the ring, but I’ve kept it nonetheless. When I pick it up and examine the luster and sparkle of the tiger’s eye, I marvel at what I accomplished, recall what I survived, and “retreat to the chambers that I left behind”, a lyrical line from folk rocker Dan Fogelberg’s song Heart Hotels and his 1979 album Phoenix.

In the late 1970’s, as I turned up the volume on my stereo and escaped into Fogelberg’s melancholy music behind my long hair, I didn’t imagine I’d go west one day and create a whole new life near the base of another rock formation … the Papapo Park buttes; a natural one … but that’s what can happen over the course of a lifetime.

More than forty years later, I’ve discovered a longer view, which comes only with lengthening late-afternoon shadows and survival. Whenever I imagine my life on an eighty-year, bell-shaped curve (we should all feel lucky to live that long … Dan Fogelberg died in 2007 at age fifty-six), I see the columns as the launching pad after the first twenty years.

The geological formation of the Papago Park buttes, just steps from my Arizona condo and millions of years ago at the bottom of a vast ocean, are likely the landing pad on the down slope of life for my last twenty.

Global pandemic or not, none of us knows when the end point will arrive. What the circumstances will be. We might as well enjoy the flights of fancy–keep throwing and catching our Frisbee in our sixties as Tom and I do–and take comfort in the anchors of life. The symbols of strength around us. The columns and buttes that keep us grateful and grounded in good times and bad.

 

 

 

 

 

Time Tunnel Fitness

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You know me by now. My propensity to slide back and forth in time. I see an object or hear a sound and I find myself suddenly tumbling through space. Perhaps, I’ve fallen for a Irwin-Allen-directed remnant from my childhood: the 1966-1967 TV show, Time Tunnel.

The series begins in 1968. The U.S. government has given a group of scientists–devotees of Project Tic Toc–one final chance. After years of research, a U.S. senator tells them they have a mere twenty-four hours to prove their untested time tunnel works and will allow man to travel safely through time. (Incidentally, it’s located deep beneath the Arizona desert … possibly not far from where my desert rose is poised to bloom in the searing heat.)

In a last ditch effort to save the project, Dr. Tony Newman (dashing James Darren in a tight green turtleneck) and his sincere scientific sidekick Dr. Doug Phillips (tall, dark and handsome Robert Colbert) spin from one time period to another.

Their colleagues beneath the ground at mission control work breathlessly to “get a fix” on their location and beam them back home. This becomes the team’s quest after Tony’s attempt to salvage their time tunnel goes terribly wrong. He lands on the deck of the Titanic in April 1912, just before it hits an infamous iceberg.

As you may have guessed, Doug travels back in time to rescue Tony.  He succeeds and they escape before the ship sinks. But each week we stay tuned because they are destined to be catapulted into another time frequency fraught with disaster and drama.

This lengthy backstory is my way of telling you I’ve felt myself spinning through time (albeit above ground in Arizona) over the past six weeks during this pandemic.

To help alleviate our anxiety and keep our bodies and minds in shape, Tom and I have fashioned a primitive, throw-back, 60s-style home gym.

Our hand weights, yoga mats and basketball might as well be at-home props–a chair, a broomstick, a couple of cans of green beans–which Jack LaLanne (the original modern fitness and nutrition guru) might have suggested my mother use at home in 1960 if she didn’t have the right equipment.

At any rate, in 1960 three-year-old me sat cross-legged, sucking my thumb and transfixed. The organ music on The Jack LaLanne Show blared. Jack smiled, twisted and shouted wearing his zip-up, one-piece jumpsuit and ballet slippers. Inhale, exhale.

My thirty-seven-year-old mother leaned back to the floor in her pedal pushers and began kicking her heels up and down toward our suburban St. Louis ceiling. She was following Jack’s lead. A bicycle to the sky. Peddling from a tripod position.

Sixty years later, I imagine Jack would be proud of us all. Though our beloved gyms and fitness centers are closed, we’ve cobbled together stay-at-home fitness tools to keep some semblance of our pre-COVID-19 physiques. The ones that have expanded a little in the middle due to sumptuous meals consumed at safe distances behind closed doors.

Oh well. If the gyms stay closed for too much longer and the girth of our bodies gets out of control, there’s an easy solution. All we have to do is keep walking and continue our yoga practice on the sun room floor. Inhale, exhale … Namaste.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll channel Tony and Doug. “Get a fix” on 2019. Step into the time tunnel. Prepare for a trip back to the world we once knew … gainful employment, physical closeness, dining out with friends, life without masks … far away from the trauma of 2020 and the mind-numbing news that keeps us spinning through time.

 

 

Missing Baseball? It’s in the Cards

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Soda Pop Saturday

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You know you’ve reached senior status when your mid-century adolescence–complete with teak tables, primary colors and kitschy collectibles–has turned vintage. All of it resides under one roof at Soda Pop on Seventh Street in Phoenix just south of Camelback Road.

At the recommendation of Martin, a much-younger friend, Tom and I stopped in on Saturday. Wow, was it cool. Possibly even hip. Hip enough for us to buy a vintage teak kitchen table with six matching chairs. The dining surface we already owned wasn’t nearly as cool. Plus, our new table has two fold-and-hide leaves. Perfect for two guys with limited space and unlimited regard for stuff of the 60’s and 70’s.

Yes, I know. The words cool and hip are no longer hip. Neither is Cool Whip. But occasionally I still see it lurking in the freezer case at our local grocery store and am reminded of countless pumpkin pies past and that signature, creamy tub of topping that every family consumed at holiday gatherings.

Flash cubes. Fringe on bell bottoms. The peace sign. The first walk on the moon. Man, all of that was half a century ago. Now, in hindsight, even recollections of the Vietnam War and Watergate feel relatively innocent and cuddly. Are they vintage too?

At least we can smile when we drive past the bright yellow Soda Pop sign, framed against the blue Arizona sky, knowing our time, place, furniture and cultural identity still have some sort of perceived value.

The end will truly be near when we’re considered antique.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farewell, Ticket Stubs

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Tom gave me a ticket stub organizer for Christmas. It’s a handy, dandy place for me to keep and reflect on the remnants of events we’ve attended and enjoyed over the years.

You probably aren’t surprised to learn I like this sort of thing. After all, I’m a memoir writer. Though early in 2020 the events of 2019 are indelible in my brain, it will really help to have a physical representation–a photo, a program, a ticket stub–something to jog my memory years from now.

I’ll need that physical representation when the nuances of personal and performance highlights aren’t as vivid and precise:  Kirk’s commencement at DePaul University in mid-June; the matinee performance of Hamilton we saw the following day in Chicago; the second time I sang The Star Spangled Banner with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus on the field at an Arizona Diamondbacks ballgame; and our spectacular New Year’s Eve on the main floor at the Phoenix Symphony with friends Len and Adele.

But I have this sinking feeling that ticket stubs are quickly becoming passe. So 2019, you might say. Sure, they aren’t gone entirely. Yet I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing many in 2020 and beyond. I think it’s likely that someday in the not-too-distant future the ticket stubs of 2019 will become relics, dinosaurs, dust collectors. The “dance cards” of 1919. The “flash cubes” of 1969.

My hunch is based on a few recent online ticket purchases. One for a performance of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical at ASU Gammage in Tempe. The other for a Major League Baseball Cactus League game later in February in the Valley of the Sun. In both instances, physical tickets (to be mailed or picked up at Will Call) weren’t offered as an option. I was required to purchase mobile tickets and keep them in two separate apps on my phone in two virtual wallets where they can be scanned and accessed securely.

Of course, I recognize the value of mobile, as long as I don’t lose my phone. I also recognize I’m old school or old-fashioned. Perhaps just plain old. (For instance, it won’t astonish you to learn I prefer to read a book in hardback or paperback versus on a Kindle.)

Still, it feels like a loss. Say goodbye to our paper trail to the past for the sake of convenience and progress in the present. Rest assured, I’ll do my best to adjust, stay relevant and smile … while I hold onto what’s left. Torn ticket stubs. Melting memories. All of it.

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.

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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.”

That’s Not My Bag, Baby

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In reality, it is my bag. I just wanted to say it wasn’t, so I could quote Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery from the 1997 movie that spoofs 1960s spy films. This commemorative swingin’ sixties Woodstock bag, while not remotely vintage, was a groovy gift from a friend about ten years ago. She knew how much my husband and I love pop culture from that era. Primarily because we were children of the sixties.

Truth be told, now that we are fully ensconced in our sixties, Tom and I schlep this colorful tote bag with us on fall, winter, and spring Saturday mornings when we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Scottsdale Farmers Market here in Arizona.

By now, I’m sure you’ve realized this Baby Boomer bag is nothing more than a lame prop for me to tell a story about the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival … billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music” … a pivotal moment in popular music history which actually stretched into four days (August 15-18, 1969) of peace, rock, sex, drugs, rain, mud and traffic on and around Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York.

The irony of me writing this story is that I have no personal connection to Woodstock. No substantive recollection of it either. It wasn’t so much that Woodstock wasn’t my bag. It simply wasn’t on my radar as a twelve-year-old boy living in the steamy suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1969. Perhaps I was a little too young. Or maybe just a little too out of touch with what was happening outside my immediate world.

My focus was on other things closer to home. Mostly, following my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, collecting baseball cards and creating my own canvas to obsessively scribe the scores of all twenty-four major league baseball teams on it every day from April to September of 1969. As I described in my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, by the end of the regular season, I had recorded 3,888 handwritten ball scores and squeezed them onto one giant rolled up piece of paper!

You can see I had no time or inclination to join the wave of Woodstock worshipers from afar. Even if I had, my Lawrence-Welk-loving parents had different ideas of what constituted popular music … a-oney-and-a-twoy-and-a … and they controlled the TV dial in our household.

It would be another thirty years before I’d really see and hear Woodstock. The moment of enlightenment came in the form of a grainy VHS tape of the 1970 film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I sat with my future husband on the love seat in his Schaumburg-Illinois condo. Together we immersed ourselves in the actual performances, interviews with some of the artists, and candid footage of the fans.

Thanks to the film and the resourcefulness of my movie-loving husband, I got to see and hear Richie Havens open the show and Jimi Hendrix close it on the same well-traveled stage before a sea of soaked teens. Though it had taken me thirty years longer than the rest of the country, I had finally closed the gap in my knowledge about the “Three Days of Peace and Music” in mid-August 1969 that would come to define the counterculture movement of our generation.