The Day my mother outdid Jesus, and other memories from the fifties
Me standing in front of the big maple tree in our front yard - the neighbors grapevines behind me
I Googled and Zillowed a street view of the South Huttig home where my siblings and I grew up. The side yard on the south side, that looked so wide in my childhood memories could be traversed with a hop, a step, and a jump. Not an adult hop, step and jump,
but my ten year old hop, step and jump when I weighed 69 pounds and was barely the height of a fence post.
The two majestic maple trees in the front yard have been cut down, replaced by a flagless flagpole and an unimpressive spindly tree with a trunk smaller than the flagpole. The house was recently listed on Zillow as a two bedroom one bath bungalow for $69,000. It is off the market so I couldn’t take a virtual tour of the inside, but there’s no need for that. For seventeen years I lived in that house. I carry images in my head of every square foot of it, from the dark basement to the braided cloth covered wires in the attic that wound around little white ceramic knobs to keep them away from the wood.
With little arrows on the computer screen I clicked my way up and down the street to see the neighboring houses. It’s sad to see the houses `looking so poor and neglected. The house directly across the street that was owned by the Catholic family that wanted to adopt me in 1946 looks completely abandoned. Weeds and small trees are so thick you can’t see the house. The house just north of it, once owned by a preacher for a short time, is on the market for $49,000 dollars. I was only in the front room of that house once as a child but now with Zillow I virtually went through every sad room of the 720 square foot house and wondered if the caved-in couch with the exposed spring visible on the tour had once been owned by the Holy Rollers that lived in the even smaller house beside it.
My sister Ruthie and I, as curious youngsters, hid in the grapevines and watched the Holy Roller Hickman’s one evening in that house from across the street. Mr. and Mrs. Hickman, and their church friends, worked their way into a religious frenzy. From our vantage point we could only see the couch against the living room wall, and the Holy Rollers jumping on and off it, as if they were suddenly appearing from off stage. I guess they had opened the front door to cool the place down.
At the time I was quite interested in Holy Rollers, and caught wind of a Holy Roller Revival Service being held in the theater on St. John’s Avenue in the Italian District, where they normally featured spaghetti westerns. My buddy Tom, and I, caught the city bus in Fairmount, and put our dimes in the anchored cylindrical obelisk that set next to the bus driver. It had a glass top and required exact change. The driver would glance over to make sure you weren’t dropping a washer in it. Tom and I got off near the theater.
We sat in the back of the ornate theater, not knowing what to expect. It didn’t take long before a cripple that had to be helped on stage was healed and started what looked like tap dancing. Not long after that, the Holy Rollers in the front rows were throwing their eye glasses and hearing aids high into the air. Tom and I were spell bound watching the flurry of prescription eye glasses and hearing aids arcing through the low stage lights near the front. Glued to our seats we waited until the service ended and the preacher had left, passing us as he came up the ramped aisle. The theater was vacant except for me and Tom, and a dozen or more Holy Rollers, crawling up and down the dark aisles searching for their hearing aids and eye glasses. The whole service was more exciting than any of the spaghetti westerns that Sergio Leone produced.
As an example of my mother’s Christian outreach to neighbors, no matter what sect or religious faith, I offer up this little exemplary act of hers. Once Mrs. Hickman became deathly ill, and her Holy Roller husband stubbornly refused to take her to the doctor. He evidently held beliefs reminiscent of the Christian Science practice that prayer is more potent than medicine. My mothers spent three days nursing her and finally figured out her bowels were blocked. She took the dreaded pink enema bag from our bathroom cabinet, carried it across the street, and administered a service normally reserved for only a very-very close member of the family. That selfless act, in my book, was several steps up the Christian ladder of simply washing a stranger’s feet. That’s the day my mother out -Jesused Jesus.
I Googled my way past the homes on both sides of the street, all the way north to Kentucky Avenue, then west a block to the Fairmount Elementary School, where all my siblings and I attended kindergarten through the seventh grade. Google lists the distance from our home to the school as .03 miles, a leisurely five minute walk. We didn’t own a car and there weren’t school buses then, so it was always a walk. The few parents who owned cars dropped their kids off by the school entrance on Cedar. I Googled my way the other direction, south to 24 Highway (Independence Avenue), and arrived at that commercial disruption on the Interstate Highway called the Fairmount Business District. We always said we were walking “up the street.” Explain to me why up the street was south and down the street was north. We say we’re going up to Minnesota or down to Georgia, based on a map. It was just the opposite on our street.
Distance to the school north was .03 miles, equidistant to the town of Fairmount south, also .03 miles according to Google, but listed as a seven minute walk instead of five. Is that because it was slightly uphill?
It was very depressing to see the dilapidated buildings in Fairmount where we once shopped, dined, banked and entertained ourselves. Maybe not the bank so much since our family was cash only. The dime store, the theater, the drugstore, and the appliance store all provided jobs for us at one time or another. The Standard State Bank that looked so solid in the fifties, with its black slate exterior, is now condemned and may already be torn down. The iconic Byam Building that housed the Byam drugstore and the Byam Theater is looking worn, and that’s an understatement. The whole Google thing was a real- time shocker on how a once vibrant neighborhood can disintegrate over time. I won’t Google it again. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the neighborhood. It would be too painful. I prefer to remember it as it was when I was growing up there. I want to leave my good memories intact, especially some of the best years of my life between the late forties and all through the fifties.
There are so many great recollections I carry around from our Huttig Home and the Fairmount area, (unincorporated at the time). Fairmount had two stop lights that interrupted the highway traffic coming from the west. In that direction was the Badger Lumber Company; a little roadside trolley owned by a Greek that sold crusted brain sandwiches, and then the huge Mount Washington Cemetery where the pioneer Jim Bridger is buried. I worked there two summers as a teenager trimming around the gravestones. Not long after the bus stop in front of the cemetery you could see the Kansas City skyline and the Power and Light Building with its art deco top that was constantly changing colors at night.
Going the other way, out of Fairmount on 24 Highway, you would pass a slummy neon- lit bar, (for some reason named the Calico Cat); the Studebaker dealership that donated the Studebaker that was raffled off to raise money for my mother after the plane accident; the Nu-Way Drive Inn (the fifties edition of Sonic), then the cluster of warring gas stations that drove prices down to seventeen cents a gallon. Eventually on the left was Slover Park where I won a medal in a Cub Scout footrace even though I was late to the starting line. The Park I used to play in has now been replaced by Harry S. Truman’s presidential library.
Before my mother married she was an Episcopalian, and taught a Sunday School Class at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Independence. Harry Truman’s daughter, Margaret, was in her class. This might have been around the time someone tried to kidnap Margaret from Bryant Elementary School, when she was six. Harry always remembered my mother and would stop to talk to her when they crossed paths on the Independence Square.
Harry also had history in Fairmount, where he and his political buddy, F. L. Byam, were thick as thieves. Before being President, Harry was a hat salesman, and later a Judge. He held political meetings at Jerry’s restaurant in Fairmount where a thick permanent cloudy layer of cigarette smoke hung in the air like a curtain. It was so thick that it masked the features of the men sitting on the bar stools by the counter. Harry’s meetings there were a little before my Fairmount days, but on the rare occasion our family ate a sit down meal at Jerry’s, the cloud was an undiminished feature of the restaurant, constantly kept intact by the heavy smokers.
I’ve never fully processed the idea of how a man who started out selling men’s hats and ties ends up ordering the vaporization of over a hundred thousand Japanese citizens. I’ve heard persuasive arguments on both sides of the decision.
One of my favorite things in Fairmount was the Byam Theater, which featured Tarzan movies, The Three Stooges, and lots of Westerns. General admission was ten cents; except on Friday nights and the Saturday afternoon talent show, when entry was raised to a quarter. Popcorn and candy bars cost a nickel, and colas were a dime.
One summer day, my sister Sherry was babysitting Butch and Johnny, the next door neighbor boys, in their house. I was constantly there, so she put all three of us in the bedroom for a nap and closed the door. Butch and I felt we were too old for babysitting and escaped through the window and walked the seven minute walk to Fairmount, and watched a western in three dimensions. I think it was “Hondo” starring a young John Wayne. It came out in 1953, when I was ten years old. I remember ducking behind the theater seats in front of me when spears and arrows flew out from the screen.
If you left Fairmount, traveling north on South Huttig, you would cross over Kentucky and continue up the hill until you ran out of road. If you entered the woods and crossed over Rock Creek, you would soon come to the bluffs that overlooked a looping branch of the Missouri River. My childhood friends, Tom and Richard, and sometimes Butch, would fish from “Look Out Point, or roam the shore line looking for the entry to the elusive Jesse James Cave.
I once caught a large carp that had one side completely eaten away by the chemicals dumped into the river. The nearby Standard Oil Refinery and chemical plants all dumped caustic chemicals and heavy metals into the river. That’s another story.
I’m trying in this wistful moment to remember only the long list of god times I experienced in the fifties growing up in Fairmount.. There was very little crime, drugs were unheard of, and we never ever locked our doors. My mother left for work at five- thirty in the morning and didn’t return until five- thirty at night, leaving me and her other children the priceless gift of discovering the consequences of making bad choices on our own. There will be more stories.