Tag: Nostalgia

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.”

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.

 

 

 

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.

Remembering Man’s First Lunar Landing

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Like millions around the world, on July 20, 1969, I was glued to the Apollo 11 coverage. We strained to watch American astronauts Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin become the first humans to land on the moon. It was nothing less than moonlight madness on CBS as my sister and I sat transfixed, cross-legged and sleepy-eyed in front of our grainy, black-and-white TV console.

We were all thirsty for every nuance of Walter Cronkite’s televised play-by-play, because it was a collective glorious moment for all Americans. Looking back, it was also strange redemption for the trauma we had endured less than six years before when — with a lump in his throat — Walter (the same trusted newsman) had the most painful task of all. To deliver the unfathomable news to a nation that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. That our president with the lofty goal of landing a man on the moon would never see it realized.

When Christmas 1969 arrived, one of the presents under the tree from my mother and father was this Apollo 11/John F. Kennedy medal commemorating man’s first lunar landing. On the back it reads:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

It may not surprise you to learn that at the time I received this gift, I was an unimpressed twelve year old. But fifty years later, it’s one of the items I treasure most from my parents. Not just for the sake of owning this beautiful and rare piece, designed by renowned sculptor Karen Worth.

But also because having the medal helps me to relive and cherish the memory of a remarkable moment in American history … when we reveled in a positive shared experience and were universally proud of our accomplishments as a nation.

Get Well Soon, Bob Gibson

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Over the weekend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Bob Gibson is battling pancreatic cancer. The flame-throwing, right-handed, Hall of Fame pitcher–who spent his entire seventeen-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals–is eighty-three years old. He is likely to begin chemotherapy this week. (This photo of the acrobatic and intimidating delivery of the Cardinals’ ace pitcher came from the cover of one of my 1960s scorecards.)

In 2017, as a tribute to the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s, I wrote and published the following story about “Gibby” and an historic, astounding moment my dad and I witnessed. The full piece, titled The Transistor Radio and the Crack of a Bat appears in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book of twenty-six true stories about my Missouri youth.

***

Many of my memories are forever embedded as sounds. Of course, there was “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”–that profound yet tinny phrase Neil Armstrong uttered on July 20, 1969, when he became the first person to step on the surface of the moon. That sound and a few sketchy images broke through our black-and-white TV.

But two years before Armstrong’s historic moon walk, there was another sound that echoed through my childhood. This one emanated from my portable, pocket-sized transistor radio. It was July 15,1967. Bob Gibson was on the mound pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals that day at Busch Memorial Stadium. He was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dad and I were sitting in the right field bleachers. I had my baseball mitt on my left hand and my transistor radio in its tattered leather case blaring away in my right …

Together Dad and I had the good fortune of watching Gibson pitch at least twenty different times in my childhood. I’ll bet he won seventeen or eighteen of those games. But on this particular hot summer day, all of us in attendance were in store for something stunning, unimaginable, and apparently catastrophic–and the transistor radio would play a big role in a shocking St. Louis moment that is forever sealed in my memory.

Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ legendary right fielder, stepped to the plate to face Gibson. I remember the crack of Clemente’s bat, booming across the field and through my transistor radio. (Harry Caray and Jack Buck–arguably the best baseball broadcast team ever–provided the color commentary on KMOX Radio.) Clemente had smacked a line drive off Gibson’s leg, just above his ankle.

In spite of the warm temperature, the fans went stone-cold silent. The Cardinals’ trainer rushed to the mound to attend to the perennial all-star pitcher. After the trainer applied a freezing agent to the area, Gibby took a few soft tosses from the mound and then waved off the trainer. He was ready to resume pitching. A collective exhale filtered through the crowd and my transistor radio.

But the relief was short lived. After walking Willie Stargell and retiring Bill Mazeroski on a pop up, Gibson swung into his pitching motion and delivered a 3-2 pitch to Donn Clendenon. That’s when he collapsed in a heap on the mound.

A palpable hush blanketed the ballpark. It echoed and hung in the smoky bleacher air as vendors–suspended in slow motion–passed peanuts, beer, and hot dogs into waiting hands. Overriding the silence, the only sounds I can recall were the concerned voices of Buck and Caray cascading through my transistor and those of countless other fans muttering around their squawk boxes throughout the ballpark. After the Cardinals’ medical team removed Gibson from the field on a stretcher, we soon learned he had suffered a compound fracture. Caray and Buck told us through our transistor radios. It was devastating news.

As you would expect, Bob Gibson was sidelined for much of the year, but a young, unproven right-handed pitcher named Nelson Briles took his place in the rotation for the remainder of the regular season. Briles led the National League that year with a .737 win-loss percentage and a 14-5 record. His performance silenced the skeptics, who insisted the Cardinals wouldn’t recover from Gibson’s debilitating mid-season injury.

Remarkably, Gibson returned to the Cardinals in time to face Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, “In the end, Gibson was clearly the difference, winning three complete games 2-1, 6-0, and 7-2 while striking out twenty-six and walking only five.” That included the deciding game 7.

Though Dad and I weren’t in the crowd to see any of the 1967 World Series games in St. Louis, we were there to hear the crack of Clemente’s bat reverberate throughout Busch Memorial Stadium. We witnessed an unlikely moment shared by two of major league baseball’s future Hall of Famers.

Ironically, four years later on August 14, 1971, Bob Gibson was on the mound against the Pirates again. This time the tables were turned. On this night, pitching at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Gibson achieved something that had escaped him previously. He recorded the only no-hitter of his illustrious career. I wasn’t in Pittsburgh that night to witness Gibson’s historic moment in person, but I listened intently from my bedroom in south suburban St. Louis. Propped up on my elbow, I heard exuberant Jack Buck exclaim, “Gibson’s thrown a no-hitter!” Best of all, I heard the man do it. I heard every pitch on my trusty transistor radio.

***

Ironic postscript: this evening–exactly fifty-two years since the Gibson-Clemente moment–the Cardinals and Pirates will renew their long-standing rivalry. It will the first of a three-game series at Busch Stadium (the Cardinals’ current home, which opened in downtown St. Louis in 2006).

In the off chance that Gibby reads this, there’s only one more thing to say. Get well soon, Bob Gibson. Just as I did in 1967, I’m rooting for your speedy recovery.