Thursday, April 1, 2010

Back to Ferguson

A few years ago I had the opportunity to return to Ferguson, Missouri, the town where I grew up, with my friend Paul. We’ve known each other since we were nine. We went to the same elementary school, were both in cub scouts and played on the same little league team. In the mid 60s Paul went away to college and I went into the Army. Neither of us returned to live in Ferguson.
In the ‘50s when we were growing up, Ferguson still had the feel of a small Missouri town. The lakes froze over in the winters for ice skating and in the summers we swam in the town’s public pool, rode our bikes and played baseball. But what Paul and I most looked forward to was sleeping over at each other’s house on Friday nights and then on Saturday morning walking to downtown Ferguson.
The trip took less than an hour from my house. We talked the whole time. I don’t remember the content of those conversations-- probably typical pre-teen subjects like current TV shows, comic book characters or some new toy we wanted. We passed by the giant oak tree on Nancy St., cut through Jeske Park where we first played little league baseball, across a four lane street and through several neighborhoods until we spilled out into the parking lot of the medical building. Entering the back door and exiting the front put us right across from the library, fire station and Sonderagers Bakery. The smell of fresh bakery goods often drew us in. To this day these German pastries serve as a standard that is rarely met in my adult quest for an apple strudel, cheesecake. stollen or crème filled torte. Our main destination was Quillman’s Drug Store where we could buy a fountain cherry coke, with extra cherry syrup.
We would sit up at the Formica counter on the chrome and vinyl stools that swiveled completely around, across from the shiny chrome soda fountain dispensers. Directly behind us was the comic book rack with all the latest comics. We were not allowed to spin around on the stools or take the comics off the rack. We knew the rules.
Our next destination was the Ben Franklin Five 'n' Dime, where we meticulously examimed all the toys and trinkets, usually purchasing something like a small caste iron car or baseball cards. The entire trip took most of the morning.
When Paul and I returned to Ferguson as adults, we were in our 50s. We parked in my old neighborhood. The houses looked small and close together. First we walked up to Lee Hamilton elementary school. The kids were just lining up outside to load onto the buses. We waited a few minutes before going in. It was a strange experience, everything looked miniaturized. The building and classrooms had not been altered much over the years. I had the feeling I was experiencing something from another lifetime lived long ago, yet so familiar.
As we walked in the hall, one of the male teachers approached, “I heard there were some old guys wandering around.” He looked about 10 years younger than us. I had the fleeting thought, I’ll show him who’s an old guy. He was probably the history/gym teacher and could have cleaned my clock. Besides he had the authority to send me to the Principal’s office. My adult, adolescent and little kid brain were all going at the same time. Luckily the adult brain stayed in control and I continued to behave like a 54-year-old man.
All around us were sights, smells and sounds evoking strong memories, the bathroom where we hid from the bullies, the stair wall on the side of the building where I jumped off to the rocks below, learning the life long lesson never do anything on a dare, the heaters on which we softened hunks of clay to throw against the walls where they would stick, simultaneously yelling “Pooperdoo!”. As we talked to the teacher, I had the odd feeling that he might have heard about some of our childhood shenanigans and maybe we shouldn't linger too long.
Paul discovered his 6th grade classroom had been split in two and now was an office. The secretary told us she had lived in Ferguson her whole life. My first thought was, how sad that she had been stuck in this small town. I asked her if she had known my favorite teacher from the 5th grade, Mr. Atkins. She said he retired a few years ago and he had recently died. She seemed to know exactly why I was asking. She said that two of her kids had him for a teacher as well. I felt sad that I'd never taken the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me and how often I’d thought of him over the years. By the time we left the school, my thoughts had changed. How lucky she was to have been able to stay in Ferguson all these years.
We left the school and began our trek to the downtown area, just like we had done so many times as kids. The big Oak tree across from the park was gone. No trace of it remained. A wide sidewalk wound its way through the park and a sturdy railing followed it close to the creek. Did we really need to be protected from falling into the creek where we used to spend hours playing and exploring? The baseball field and backstop looked the same. We'd both started out in little league there. Paul remembered his very first game. He hadn’t purchased a glove yet, but the coach stuck him in the outfield anyway. He said, “I started my baseball career afraid I’d be hit in the head and killed by a fly ball.” When I started out, I remember sitting on the bench watching Jimmy, the pitcher, throw very fast curve balls to BillyBob, the catcher. I was in awe of their confidence and skill. I sat on the bench most of that first year.
Downtown Ferguson was barely recognizable. The main street through town was 4 lanes and the traffic non-stop. Quillman’s was a Chinese restaurant and Ben Franklin was gone. We recognized most of the old brick buildings, but all the shops were different and uninteresting. The town had definitely lost its charm. Several pedestrians stopped and politely listened as we rambled on about what the town used to be like, “Right in this field behind us the Catholics had their Friday night fish fry. And in the summer the traveling carnival set up there.” “Across the street over there was the Velvet Freeze ice cream shop and on the corner, Luby’s restaurant where our families ate out occasionally.” “And over there was the department store where we bought all our school clothes.” I’m sure they were utterly fascinated by our astute memories and observations.
On the way back to the car we walked through January Wabash Park. The swimming pool looked pretty much the same except there was no more high diving board. Paul remembered, “That cement area around the pool would be covered with bodies. You had to get there early, get in and out of the water fast in order to find a space to lie down on the hot concrete.” I remember once coming out of the pool and being punched in the face by a kid I didn’t know. He said he didn’t like me and wham! I was upset an shocked. How could he not like me? Across the lawn was the small amphitheater where outdoor movies were shown on summer evenings. Paul pointed to the spot where he first made out with the hot little cheerleader he was dating in high school. He was lingering in that memory until we rounded the recreation center and an earlier one replaced it. "That's where Mike C. used to beat me up everyday at summer camp."
Our trip back to Ferguson was in 2002. We had both taken time out from our “important” lives to re-turn the place of our childhood. It was a time before the '60s cultural revolution, before Vietnam, before the Internet and cell phones and before we became “serious, responsible adults”. Now we're both in our 60s and it feels like time once again to experience life as a wondrous adventure.

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this trip down memory lane. I lived in Ferguson from my birth in 1949 through 1968 when my parents moved to a "bigger" ranch house in Florissant. I never really understood why they upsized since I was just starting college. When my wife & I bought our first house it was in Old Town Ferguson, a California bungallo that had once been the first school house in Ferguson back in 1867. That may have explained the unusual floor plan. We stayed 11 years moving in 1984. We got the same vibe when we revisited last year.

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  2. Wow Michael, this could have been my life, I grew up on Shireford and played ball in Jeske Park. Went to Lee Hamilton and had Mr. Atkins for fifth grade. Use to walk the same way to get to the library and downtown Ferguson through the medical building, Remember the park pool and movies at the band shell well as well. Ben Franklin, Quillmans, the bakery. I left to go to college, returned a couple of times but have lived in Scottsdale for the past 24 years. Great blog post enjoyed it. Don

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