Childhood memoirs 1956-1968

By Max R. Weller

1956

I was born in the small town of Lexington, MO on Friday, January 13th, 1956. Apparently nothing of great significance or really bad luck happened on that date, based on limited research I’ve done on the Internet. In any case, I’m not superstitious. Frankly, I’ve always thought that Lexington, MO was stuck in a Time Warp circa 1850, much to its detriment. Fact is that Lexington’s antebellum prosperity was built on the backs of African slaves, something that its residents continue to ignore in favor of romanticizing the Old South. Here’s some info on slavery in Missouri, and specifically Lafayette County –http://www.missouri-history.itgo.com/slave.html  According to the 1860 U.S. Census, there were 6,374 slaves in Lafayette County owned by 909 slaveholders, the highest slave population of any Missouri county.

My family consisted of my father, Brad Weller; my mother, Mildred (Nelson) Weller, and an older brother, Lowell. Lowell was born April 14th, 1949 at the hospital in Nevada, MO — the family living in nearby Sheldon, MO at that time. My father worked as assistant manager at Burgner-Bowman-Mathews Lumber Co. in Lexington (sort of the Home Depot of its day in that small town), and my mother was a true 1950s-style homemaker. I suppose that we were a typical nuclear family of the Eisenhower era.

I obviously don’t remember the small rental house we lived in during 1956. By May of 1957, my parents had built a new home in Lexington’s Second Southside Addition, an area mostly unsettled at that point.

1960

My earliest memories come from about four years of age. Our home was modestly middle-class, and my mom kept a large vegetable garden and fruit trees of several kinds, and did a lot of canning. The retired Lexington Superintendent of Schools, Leslie Bell, kept a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, and grape vines next door to the west; my brother and I earned pocket money doing chores for this gentleman for many years. In front of Mr. Bell’s lot stood a couple of magnificent American Elm trees, both  about 3′ in diameter at the base, which later fell victim to Dutch Elm disease. Across the street to the south, retired Circuit Court Judge Aull had about an acre of ground devoted to fruit trees and flowers. Adjacent lots in the neighborhood were empty, and made for convenient playgrounds for Lowell and me.

I recall my dad taking me to work with him at the lumberyard one day. We took a load of lumber out to a building site east of Lexington. When we returned to Burgner-Bowman in the downtown area, a worker there asked my dad a question — addressing him as Brad, of course. I asked the man why he called my dad “bread”, when his name was Dad. Everyone in hearing thought this was funny for some reason I couldn’t understand.

I recall a family picnic in the backyard one evening, with all of the usual delicious fare of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, corn-on-the-cob, a green salad of some kind (which Lowell and I likely ignored), watermelon, and homemade ice cream. To earn this dessert treat, of course, one had to take a turn at the crank; well worth the effort! (It’s one of the gifts of selective memory that I don’t recall the Missouri mosquitoes).

I recall a trip to the nearby town of Excelsior Springs during the winter. This is a hilly community, and Highway 10 into it is quite steep. Going down into town, climbing up going out. Our ’51 Ford couldn’t make it up that hill, as snow had started falling, until we stopped and Dad put on the snow chains. No more slippin’ and slidin’ after that, but it was fun while it lasted.

We had a black-and-white TV, of course, and Lowell and I watched the shows that all kids did. He pointed out to me how ridiculous it was for The Lone Ranger to always shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand, and then get into a fistfight with him. Along with westerns like Wanted: Dead or Alive starring Steve McQueen and Rawhide starring Clint Eastwood, we loved the old horror movies with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and other great character actors. We were big fans of The Three Stooges, although my mom didn’t care for their staged violence. And Rocky and Bullwinkle still remains the best TV cartoon series ever. Lowell almost always was sprawled on the floor, on his belly and propped up on his elbows, right in front of the TV. Mom always watched Lawrence Welk and Wagon Train and Gunsmoke – but I don’t recall what my dad watched.

Rowdy

Clint Eastwood as “Rowdy Yates”

moose and squirrel

Moose and Squirrel

Lowell and I always had pets. Dogs, cats, fishes, turtles, pigeons, parakeets, rabbits — usually at least three of these species at any given time. Later on in life, I worked extensively with horses; at that time, there wasn’t any place we could have kept one.

Being in school, my brother naturally had a best friend his own age — Greg, who lived about a block away from us. Not being in school yet, and with no boys my age in the neighborhood, I looked to Lowell as a companion and he was very patient about it. Lots of girls my age around there, but almost all were prissy, only a couple of tomboys among ‘em.

Both of my parents had been born and raised in Kansas; my dad in Blue Rapids in Marshall County, and my mom in rural Greenleaf in Washington County. They met when Mom was Mildred Nelson and teaching at the elementary school in Blue Rapids, where my grandfather E.B. Weller was principal. I know that we made some trips out to see the Nelson family farm and the Wellers, also, but details are sketchy in my mind from such a young age. BTW, my uncles Leslie and Neil ran the Nelson Bros. Motor Co. in Greenleaf, the authorized Ford dealership.

1961

My dad passed away of a heart attack on January 3rd, just ten days before I turned five years of age. He was only forty. I recall getting up the morning of the 4th feeling that something wasn’t right; I went into the living room and lots of people were there; family members from Kansas, neighbors, and some I didn’t know. Not seeing Dad, I asked where he was. They all looked at each other for what seemed to me like a long time. Finally, my uncle Leslie Nelson told me that my dad was gone. “Gone where?”, I demanded to know.  Someone else, perhaps my aunt Helen (Weller) Cardey, explained that he was gone to Heaven. Strangely, I have no recollection of either Mom or Lowell being present at that moment. Dad had died the evening before after I’d gone to bed, thus all of these folks had time to travel to Lexington, MO and gather in our home without my knowing anything of it. I slept soundly then, before my world changed so dramatically.

I recall the graveside service for my dad, where a man in military uniform handed my mom the American flag which had draped Dad’s coffin. He had been an Army combat engineer during WWII, serving in North Africa, Italy, France, and finally on German soil. At one time I had a photo of Dad in fatigues, .45 pistol in web holster on hip, standing next to a wrecked German 88mm artillery piece. I wish I still had it.

That summer of ’61, Lowell attended the annual Boy Scout camp at Osceola, MO in the Ozarks. We traveled there to visit him, along with another Lexington family visiting their intrepid young Scouts. We all had a picnic outside under some pine trees. A photo of Mom, Lowell, and me taken at that event showed a pretty forlorn-looking trio of souls. I’m not sorry that I no longer have that photo.

In the fall, I entered kindergarten at Leslie Bell Elementary School in Lexington. Kindergarten, I believe, is a German word which means “fingerpainting”. Back in 1961-62, nothing of educational importance occurred in any kindergarten, and that’s probably the way it should be today. Naptime was my favorite activity during the half-day session; I needed the rest because my classmate Carol kept chasing me around trying to kiss me. She never did catch me, then . . . I did find a best friend of my own in kindergarten, Donald.

By this time, Lowell was in 7th grade. He was a brilliant student, never sufficiently challenged by anything offered in Lexington schools. In coming years, he would become self-educated to an astonishing degree.

I should point out here that Dad’s life insurance policy paid off the mortgage, and may have provided a little extra cash for the proverbial rainy day. Also, Social Security survivor’s benefits and VA benefits helped our family to maintain a comfortable, albeit modest, lifestyle. Mom got rid of the ’51 Ford with its manual transmission (three speed on-the-column) in favor of a ’58 Fairlane with automatic transmission, courtesy of Nelson Bros. Motor Co. Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1961 were not as grim as they might have been, otherwise.

'58 Fairlane

1958 Ford Fairlane

1962

Grandmother Annie Nelson passed on early in the year (Grandfather R.C. Nelson had died in 1948). We took the Santa Fe (or Burlington Northern?) passenger train from Henrietta, MO out to Manhattan, KS where my uncle Leslie picked us up for the short drive to Greenleaf and the funeral service. Shortly after our return to Lexington, Mom came down with the mumps, which she’d somehow avoided catching during her childhood. She was quite ill for a week or so, and her cousin Ila came from Kansas City, MO to take care of all of us until Mom recovered.

During my childhood years, of course, every kid had to suffer through mumps, measles, and chicken pox. Polio had been defeated, fortunately. I had a couple of close calls with death; one from a very bad reaction to the smallpox vaccination and the other from anaphylactic shock following a penicillin injection at the doctor’s office.

Lowell was playing the clarinet in the school band and orchestra by this time, and continued to do so until his graduation from high school in 1967. He became very interested in classical music, especially the works of Mozart, and he acquired sheet music for the clarinet part of many advanced compositions. He also had quite a collection of classical albums, although we couldn’t afford the really high-quality stereo system these works require. Neither Lowell nor I were fans of the pop music of that era; I still regard the Beatles as silly, although the Rolling Stones have captured my respect since then.

A word about youth sports in general back then: Little League baseball was the only organized sport available, but just as many kids played informal “sandlot” baseball wherever there was an empty lot or conveniently located pasture. Ditto for informal basketball in driveways and football games wherever. (I think this is better for kids than today’s overweening emphasis on organized competition from very young ages). Riding our bikes everywhere was more than recreation, it was a necessary means to get around town. BTW, I never saw a ten speed bike in Lexington, MO until the early 1970s.

I entered the 1st grade in the fall, and was sorely disappointed to find that my best friend Donald was going to the Catholic parochial school instead. I found a new best friend, Mike. Interestingly, our 1st grade teacher started every morning by reading a story from the Bible — something that would change in 1963.

Mom had a suitor for a short time. He was her old classmate from Greenleaf, Clarence. A nice enough guy, even though he drove a Chevy, who once took us all to a drive-in movie to see How the West Was Won. Mom told him that she didn’t share his romantic feelings, and she never did remarry. Clarence remained a bachelor for life.

I think it may have been about this time that I became aware of Lexington’s own little ghetto for blacks. Up until the 1970s, almost all black families lived in the area north of Main Street and west of 24th St. or maybe 25th St. Almost no white families lived there. And it mattered not if you were a middle class black family, as many were – this is where you lived. The segregated Frederick Douglass School for black kids, upon being desegregated in the 1950s, had been promptly renamed the Franklin Avenue School. When my parents bought the lot on which they built our new home in 1957, from a prominent Lexington citizen (a well-known physician and surgeon), the deed contained a restrictive covenant to the effect that the property could not be resold to any “Negro” for a period of 99 years. All of this prejudicial nonsense seems hard to believe in 2010, but it’s part of history all over America.

1963

The SCOTUS decision to ban organized prayers in public schools was handed down, and reading of the Bible immediately ceased in our 1st grade classroom. Naturally, we asked our teacher why. She made some really ill-advised comments about the future presence of a couple of Jewish students in next year’s 1st grade class as the “reason” — never mind that most of her stories came from the Old Testament, which is Jewish scripture. Anyway, she was replaced. I suspect now that she was given the chance to retire, being a teacher with many years of service, rather than being fired outright for bigotry. Of course, we were never told why she was replaced. The new teacher took time to explain, as far as you could to first graders, the SCOTUS decision and the rule of law in our nation.

The other big event of 1963, which has sort of wiped out everything else in my memory, was the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd, a school day. I was in 2nd grade and Lowell was a freshman in high school. I remember rumors during the day among students, none of whom really understood what had occurred. Finally, we were taken into the school auditorium and told that President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas, TX. When I got home from school, Mom showed me the front page of the Kansas City Star (an evening paper in those days) – still the largest headline font I’ve seen to this day. I can’t recall Lowell’s reaction, but at 14 years of age he must have been more impacted than me by this tragedy.

Perhaps this event was a factor in Lowell beginning a serious self-directed study of religion and philosophy.

Christmas of ’63 I received a chess set, which was most welcome because Lowell had been teaching me the game for several months. I cannot remember any other specific gift that far back. I still play the game now, albeit online with opponents from all over the world — http://www.instantchess.com is my favorite website for this brain exercise.

This is as good a place as any to briefly describe Lexington’s vibrant downtown business district during my childhood. Two lumberyards, several restaurants, a “dime store”, clothing stores, Montgomery Ward, a hardware store, a movie theater, two grocery stores, several gas stations, Western Auto, and much more were present and apparently thriving in 1963. Within a decade, almost all had either moved away from downtown or simply gone out of business. (Wal-Mart had nothing to do with it; they weren’t even a player of any note in small town retail trade while I was still in high school). Last time I was in Lexington in fall of 2005, I sat on a bench in front of the Lafayette County Courthouse and what I saw was a ghost town in front of me. Frankly, I think Lexington in general started going downhill as soon as Mayor Henry Dankers left office in the late 1960s, after having served continuously since the 1940s.

1964

This was a busy year for Lowell in many ways. Our family decided to raise chickens for both the eggs and for frying, and my brother obtained plans for building a chicken coop. He did an excellent job on it, too. As I recall, we bought several laying hens and a rooster from a local farmer. For several years we enjoyed benefits of this enterprise, and a few of the hens became pets. We favored breeds like the Brown Leghorn and Barred Rock because they laid big, brown eggs which tasted better, had darker yolks, and were easier to peel. Chickens, of course, can be fed on vegetable scraps — and we had plenty from the bounty of our garden produce. Plus, our chickens would patrol the garden and eat all manner of harmful insect pests, especially tomato worms. BTW, there was no city ordinance at that time which prohibited raising chickens within the city limits; in fact, a neighbor just two blocks to the east of us had a stable with Shetland show ponies, and only hogs were banned from Lexington.

In the summer, Lowell took on another and much larger project: Replacing the Masonite siding on our house, which had warped and cracked terribly in only a few years. It was still under warranty, so the company replaced it gratis. They wouldn’t pay for installation, however, and my handy brother was recuited by Mom for the job at 15 years of age. I doubt that I was much help, although I did drag the old siding torn off to a pile in the backyard for burning (all such trash was burned by Lexington residents in those days before environmental concerns came to the forefront in America). At least, I dragged some of it off . . . Lowell did an expert job of that tear-off and installation, too, and I seem to recall that he worked about two weeks at it during the summer months.

My brother also spent several hours every weekend throughout the year reading every book on philosophy he could obtain. I remember books on Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Spinoza, and many others. Lowell also put together quite a library on religion; Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, even Confucianism (sort of a secular religion, if you will). At least one prominent citizen in Lexington helped Lowell assemble his library, as did the pastor of the Methodist Church. My brother continued these studies for all of the period covered by this memoir, and likely beyond that. I got as far as reading Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy before I concluded it was far too deep for me. My brother, however, reveled in it!

In the fall of ’64 I entered the 3rd grade and Lowell became a sophomore at LHS. My teacher that year may be my favorite of all, except maybe my high school algebra/physics/trig teacher later on. Both Mrs. K and Mr. W., respectively, appreciated my sense of humor as well as understanding that I was bored stiff most of the time in school. I was sick and missed a lot of days during 3rd grade, and began to read the Kansas City Star and watch the evening TV network news to learn more about the world outside of my small corner of it. That seemed normal enough to me, because I was doing it myself, but my classmates thought I was weird. It didn’t help any that I convinced a couple of them that I was really a Martian spy . . .

I joined the Cub Scouts, and Mom volunteered as a Den Mother in the Pack (no nepotism, as I had a different Den Mother). It helped fill a couple hours after school once a week, and I enjoyed the monthly potluck suppers held by the Pack. I discovered that almost all of the mothers, and a couple of the dads, were great cooks just like Mom. Maybe this inspired me to do all of the cooking for our family starting about the time I entered high school, or perhaps I’m simply a glutton. Our Cub Scout Pack went on several noteworthy field trips: To a Coca-Cola bottling plant, to the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Claycomo, MO, to the RLDS auditorium with its magnificent pipe organ in Independence, and to Fort Osage in Buckner, MO – http://www.fortosagenhs.com/ .

For Christmas in ’64, I received a transistor radio. I recall taking it to school so that everyone could listen to the launch of one of our manned space flights.

1965

Lowell began work on the Boy Scout God & Country Award, under the guidance of the Methodist pastor. Back then, this required a year-long course of religious study and some time in service work for the church, too. The pastor gave my brother a key to his church office, so that Lowell might have a quiet place to pursue his studies. During this time, Lowell was made aware of an essay contest sponsored by the Methodist Church all over America; the prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. and New York City. Together with his religious studies, my brother was also working on the essay he planned to submit in the contest and doing some maintanance jobs around the church building and grounds. As I recall, the subject Lowell chose was Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the effects of his Stoic philosophy on Christianity in the Empire. Results would be announced the next year, about the same time requirements for the God & Country Award were fulfilled.

Even I was impressed by my big brother’s intellect. Still, I could hold my own in our frequent wrestling matches in the living room, being the husky brat that I was. Of course, years later when Lowell got back from Army basic training he just creamed me . . . We were, of course, big fans of the terribly phony wrestling on TV back then. I haven’t watched wrestling in years, but I hear that it’s even more faked today.

Mom’s career during this time was raising my brother and me, of course. We had a small share of Nelson family farm income to supplement Social Security and VA benefits — but she still had to be quite the master at managing money to enable us to live so well. During WWII, she had obtained a Kansas state teaching certificate on an emergency basis, after only two years at Kansas State. Since her marriage to Dad in 1946, however, she’d put off returning to college to finish her bachelor’s degree in elementary education; this is something Mom would take up in 1970, after briefly being a lay teacher at Lexington’s Catholic parochial school for the 3rd & 4th grades combined.

Anyway, Mom told us these wonderful stories of her own childhood growing up on the Kansas farm in the 1920s and ’30s — and also told us the stories handed down in the Nelson family going back to my great-grandfather Neilssen, who was born in Denmark in 1842. I’ve decided to attach some of these stories as an appendix to this memoir.

Sometime during this year, maybe in the fall after entering 4th grade, I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time. Such a wonderful book, which can be enjoyed on so many levels! So, I’ve read it again and again in the years since.

I broke my left arm playing our version of soccer at recess (more like rugby, really), and had to learn how to write with my right hand for about six weeks. It was a clean break, and probably healed much sooner, but my arm was kept in a hard cast for the entire time. When the plaster cast was removed, my trusty left arm was all shriveled up and it took some weeks more to regain strength in it. I understand that treatment of such a simple fracture today would be much better in terms of physical therapy, etc. Back then, of course, I was just happy to be able to resume my southpaw writing-style.

All through these years, Lowell and I were regular customers at Ceno’s Market located at 20th & Jefferson, alongside the railroad tracks, just five blocks away from our home. A real old-fashioned store with jawbreaker candies a penny apiece and a 10 cent pop machine of the old kind — like a chest freezer with the pop bottles in a rack at the bottom, bathed in ice-cold water. I loved Nehi Cream Soda best of all, but Nehi Grape was also very good. Ceno’s had a deli counter and they provided home delivery of groceries by a young stock boy on bicycle.

1966

Indeed, Lowell was one of the winners in the essay contest sponsored by the Methodist Church all over America; another winner in our area was a young lady from Lee’s Summit. Dozens of these bright young people would travel together to Washington, D.C. and New York City during the summer. My brother took hundreds of photos of all of the interesting sites they visited, and later on gave a talk about his trip to the ladies of the Lexington Methodist Church. (Somehow, I don’t think the ladies would have been quite so eager to learn about Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in re Christianity, the subject of Lowell’s prize-winning essay).

My brother also received the Boy Scout God and Country Award in 1966, something he’d worked on for a year. The pastor of the Methodist Church invited Lowell to deliver the Sunday address (not really a sermon per se) on the same Sunday he received this honor, which some consider to be equal to the rank of Eagle Scout. My brother, however, was quick to disagree with that notion and said so from the pulpit. His talk to the congregation focused on the alienation of youth from traditional values in America circa 1966. In Lexington, MO at that time only a couple of high school boys sported long hair and nobody smoked marijuana; by the time I got to high school, every guy had long hair and maybe half-a-dozen out of the entire student body of 400 or so smoked “grass” (usually so-called ditch weed, which persists in that part of Missouri from antebellum days when hemp was an important crop). Had anyone conducted a poll of youth there in 1966, probably 75% would have stated support for LBJ’s misadventure in Vietnam, and only a handful could have found that country on a map of the world.

My brother, as can be easily imagined, was an indifferent student at LHS. In the fall of ’66, he became a senior and I entered the 5th grade. Lowell had a serious personality clash with the high school principal, Mr. V. (This would later prove to have negative consequences for my brother’s aspirations to attend Kansas University in Lawrence and major in philosophy). In the spring, as a junior, Lowell had taken the NMSQT and by fall we learned that he was in line to be named a National Merit Scholar Finalist. Mom, my brother, and I even drove out to Lawrence to see the KU campus that fall and meet the chancellor, too. It  looked like Lowell would gain a full scholarship, the only way he could afford to attend an out-of-state school.

In the back of everyone’s mind, of course, lurked Vietnam.

A couple of TV series stand out in my memory of 1966: Batman and Star Trek. The actor and impressionist Frank Gorshin portrayed the “Riddler” on Batman, and he had a distinctive maniacal laugh for that character. Lowell was able to mimic that perfectly, and became well-known for it as teenagers cruised around Lexington on Friday and Saturday nights. We never missed an episode of either series.

riddler

Frank Gorshin as the “Riddler”

I got the opportunity to take a trip of my own, together with others in my 5th grade class. Our teacher, Mrs. P., arranged a reasonably priced weekend trip for us to Chicago courtesy of the Burlington Northern Railroad, which offered this sightseeing excursion to students. We left from Kansas City’s Union Station on a Friday, crossing the Mississippi River at Hannibal, MO during the night (I was one of the few who stayed awake to see it; it dwarfed the Missouri River at Lexington), and got into Chicago on Saturday morning. We spent all day touring with very few breaks. I remember the Museum of Science and Industry very well. The Marshall Field’s Building occupied an entire city block! We went on a short cruise out onto Lake Michigan, too. There was a Soviet ship at anchor, displaying the notorious hammer and sickle; my friend Kenny remarked that he would have brought some guinea fowl eggs from his farm if he’d known we’d have a chance to egg the dirty commies. Naive kids we were, but still patriotic Americans. At lunch at a hotel restaurant, I can’t remember the name of it, we had creamed chicken which I found very tasty. My classmate Sheryl wouldn’t eat it because the cream gravy was a deep yellow color, and she was glad to give her portion to me. It really did look like pee, but I was a hungry, growing boy far from home . . . We stopped in Chinatown to buy cheap souvenirs before heading to the station to catch our train back to KC by Sunday morning. Two nights sleeping upright on a passenger train traveling across rough tracks is quite an experience in itself. All things considered, I enjoyed seeing a really big city like Chicago — but was thankful to be living in a small town.

This wasn’t a school-sponsored field trip, and because our teacher Mrs. P. had used some school time working on arrangements for it she landed in hot water with school administrators. In fact, they wouldn’t allow Mrs. P. to accompany us to Chicago. Several parents were more than capable chaperones, in any case. To her credit, when we asked her about this, she accepted responsibility for having made a mistake and wouldn’t allow us to voice our displeasure with the principal and superintendent (both of whom, Mr. R. and Mr. G., remain morons in my mind to this day).

I began playing the alto sax in the school band and orchestra, but was never any serious competition for the legendary Charlie Parker.

1967

This was a very difficult year for my brother, who saw all of his plans for college dashed. In order to gain a full scholarship to KU as a National Merit Scholarship finalist, Lowell needed a written recommendation from Mr. V., the LHS principal. You’d think this would be pro forma; apparently, however, Mr. V. harbored a grudge against my brother because Lowell had never taken high school too seriously. Indeed, he had been something of a class clown — but never in real trouble of any kind, either in school or out. Mr. V. adamantly refused to give Lowell a written recommendation, despite the earnest appeal from my mother. KU was out. Lowell might have gone to a college like Central Missouri State in nearby Warrensburg for four years, but his heart wasn’t in it after receiving this low blow. Later on, my brother did attend CMSC in the early ’70s after his Army enlistment was over, and he joined ROTC with the view to making military service his career.

Bear in mind the military draft in 1967; without a college deferment, and being of the middle class, it was almost inevitable that Lowell would wind up in the Armed Forces soon after being classified “1-A”. To his credit, Lowell never considered marrying right after graduation and making a baby or two to avoid military service, nor did he consider joining the National Guard as many others did back then (Guard units almost never being sent to Vietnam).

After this debacle courtesy of Mr. V. early in ’67, my brother was cast in the male lead for the senior play. I cannot remember the play’s name, but it involved a homeless man and woman who were called the “King and Queen” together with several of their “subjects”, all of whom lived in an abandoned theater in New York City. (Were I living in these circumstances today, I’m not sure that I’d really be homeless). Full of genuine pathos, this performance by high school students had a few in the audience crying. Perhaps Lowell brought some of his own raw emotion to his portrayal of the King; I’d not known that he possessed acting skills previously. Apparently, the LHS speech/drama teacher knew what she was doing, as the entire cast was superb and worked well together.

The Methodist pastor and Mom put their heads together and came up with an alternative college for Lowell: Central Methodist College in Fayette, MO. We took a trip down there to visit the campus and see the town; a quiet, almost pastoral setting. One of my brother’s favorite teachers at LHS was the band instructor, Mr. B.; he had just been hired at CMC to start in the fall semester. We even looked at a house in Fayette, which sat on the edge of town with fields of grain and pasture right across the street. I think Mom was really anxious to get Lowell settled in college so he could gain that student deferment from the draft — so anxious that she considered moving the whole family to save the expense of room and board at CMC and make it possible for Lowell to attend. For reasons I’m not sure about, this plan fell through shortly thereafter.

Lowell’s class was the last to graduate from the old LHS that May, a new high school having been built only two blocks from our home. Grandpa and Grandma Weller drove to Lexington all the way from Blue Rapids, KS to attend (as they also did every Memorial Day to visit us and Dad’s gravesite). I remember the commencement speech — What’s Right with America! — delivered by an out-of-town insurance agent; too bad he didn’t sell a life insurance policy to Lowell’s classmate who was killed in Vietnam less than a year later.

Mom and I always enjoyed spending time on Sundays driving around the countryside. I know that she really missed living on a farm like the one from her childhood. In the ’60s, you could still find old-fashioned family farms on modest acreages raising both livestock and crops, with chickens wandering around the farmhouses. Now, it’s almost all corporate farms of huge size employing vassals, instead of the independent and sturdy country folk of yesteryear. Anyway, Mom began teaching me how to drive out there on those deserted gravel roads; quite a thrill for a kid only 11 years of age! Later on in high school, my driver’s ed instructor said to me (after I’d driven only a few blocks), “You already know how to drive, don’t you?” Farmers who saw me driving paid no heed, because their kids also learned to do so from an early age. BTW, a gallon of regular leaded gasoline typically sold for 31.9 cents in 1967, sometimes as little as 23.9 cents. And the service station attendant pumped it for you, as well as checking your car’s oil level, the air pressure in your tires, and washing the windshield.

I became a fan of science fiction short stories and novels. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation was the first book-length sci-fi story I can remember reading. My interest in this written genre was sparked by TV shows like Star Trek, The Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Although I read the works of Jules Verne, I was more pleased by contemporary authors like Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, and a host of others. To this day, the greatest sci-fi work I’ve read (several times) has been Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Lowell also enjoyed sci-fi, and he certainly needed a little light reading as a break from his studies of philosophy and religion.

After his graduation, my brother worked at several different jobs. They included pumping gas at a downtown Lexington service station, work at a die casting factory in Buckner, and a job in the mail room at Commerce Bank in Kansas City. (For the job in Buckner, Lowell commuted back and forth with former Lexington City Marshal Tom Atwood; for the Commerce job, my brother lived at the YMCA in downtown KC). This latter opportunity led Lowell to enroll in the classes offered by Commerce for entry level bank employees. I could never see him as a banker, any more than I could as a factory drone or a gas station jockey; none of these pursuits lasted very long, and we all knew that the draft was soon going to catch up with Lowell.

The empty lots around our Lexington home were starting to fill up with new houses. One was just north across the alley, and became the home of the most loudmouthed gossip in town, Mrs. G. It’s no exaggeration to say that we could hear every word she said from our back porch, at least 200′ away. Another new house went up next door to the east, and became home to Dr. O., a female chiropractor with her office in the basement. We all soon began to refer to her as “The Quack.” She had a boyfriend who sometimes spent the night; the first time that Mom saw him take a pillow out of the trunk of his car and enter Dr. O.’s home she was fairly scandalized. Lowell and I rolled on the floor laughing when we heard about it.

Christmas of 1967 was the last we would enjoy as a family in the traditional way, although we didn’t know that at the time.

1968

The old ’58 Fairlane finally bit the dust, and I was saddened to see it go because I’d learned to drive in it (albeit outside the law). Mom bought a used ’63 Galaxie from the Ford dealer in nearby Higginsville, MO. Possibly, she didn’t wish to accept another special family discount deal from Nelson Bros. in Greenleaf, KS, but I’ve never been certain about that.

In Vietnam, the commies launched the so-called Tet offensive. While a failure in strictly military terms, the bloody mess certainly boosted anti-war sentiment in America. In fact, within a few months, President Johnson decided not to seek the Democratic nomination for President in 1968, which surely could have been his for the asking. This, along with signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts early in his administration, were the only decent things this befuddled fool ever did in any official capacity. There have been several horrible presidents during my lifetime thus far — but LBJ is by far the worst.

Then we suffered the losses by murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in June. The latter was assassinated the very night he’d won the California Democratic primary, and presumably would have gone on to gain the presidential nomination. Instead, after the debacle of the Democratic convention in Chicago, we were offered Vice President Humphrey as the nominee. Lowell and I referred to him as “Fish Face”, and also poked fun at his propensity for slobbering during his speechifying (everyone in the first ten rows or so was no doubt covered with Humphrey’s spittle every time he spoke).

Fish Face

Hubert Humphrey as “Fish Face”

It’s small wonder that the Republican retread, Tricky Dick Nixon, won the race in November.

Worth noting was a third party candidate in 1968, former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, who managed to gain 10% of the popular vote nationwide. I can’t recall if he even carried Alabama, but he certainly siphoned Democratic votes away from Fish Face. In Lexington, MO, a minor scandal erupted because of a presidential preference poll conducted by the Lexington Advertiser-News among students at the all-male Wentworth Military Academy – Wallace was the choice of over 50% of the cadets. We found this quite amusing!

Around the time of Lowell’s 19th birthday on April 14th, 1968, he made the decision to enlist in the U.S. Army. Along with two other enlistees, Lowell was featured on the front page of the local paper with a photo and story “above the fold”. My brother scoffed at this attention, because he would have been drafted in any case and would never have fled to Canada or Sweden even if our family had been wealthy.

Mom returned to teaching at the local Catholic parochial school sometime that fall, when the lay teacher there suddenly resigned. Despite being Protestant, in fact Lutheran, she enjoyed a good reputation in the community and the Catholic priest and school board approached her with this job offer. It was necessary for Mom to find employment somewhere at that time, because Lowell’s Social Security and VA survivor’s benefits had ended with his graduation from high school. My brother had helped to support the family at his various jobs after that, and would send money home after he joined the Army, but I think Mom was ready to return to the profession she’d chosen back in the 1940s. Her first teaching assignment had been at the one-room schoolhouse in rural Greenleaf which she had attended through the 8th grade: North Dane School. It was only a half-mile or so west of the Nelson family farm, and was still standing in 1990 when the farm was sold at auction. I understand that it’s now gone.

I always thought that my mother might have missed her true calling in terms of an occupation. She had a marvelous Green Thumb in both our vegetable garden and with houseplants, too. She might have pursued a degree at Kansas State in agricultural science to great advantage, but I don’t know if she ever considered it. She did mention to me once that she had wanted to study law, which just shocked me given her most easygoing personality; I cannot imagine Mom as an aggressive courtroom advocate a la Gerry Spence or Johnnie Cochran.

I entered the 7th grade in the fall of ’68. Immediately, my favorite teacher became John W. “Doc” Carter for World History. Doc Carter, a black man, had been principal at Lexington’s segregated Douglass School in the 1950s, then became a member of the LHS faculty teaching science and other subjects. He should have been made LHS principal, rather than the tyrant Mr. V. In any case, Doc was not in good health at this point in his life and resigned about halfway through the year. Doc remembered my brother, of course, and he took a liking to me even though I tended toward being a class clown. Many times Doc would say, when he saw that my attention was wavering, “Weller, get up here and lead the class in a discussion of this” — then he would show me the material from the teacher’s edition and I’d do it. Everybody seemed to enjoy it, and much later on in my life I found tutoring GED students to be gratifying. I could never have tolerated all of the political bull**** involved in the teaching profession, however.

After Army basic training and Advanced Individual Training, Lowell wound up at Ft. Dix in New Jersey. He was scheduled to board a flight to Southeast Asia. However, the Army had more soldiers there than available space on the plane (SNAFU). Going by alphabetical order, naturally, the seats were all taken before they got to the names starting with “W”. My brother later told Mom and me that it was the only time in his life he’d been thankful to be near the bottom of an alphabetical list. He wound up going to Germany, our paternal ancestral homeland, instead.

Here I’ll end this memoir. After the events 0f 1968, I was no longer a child . . . 

3 thoughts on “Childhood memoirs 1956-1968

  1. Lucia Hulston

    Max – It was I who cast Lowell in “The Cave Dwellers” by William Saroyan, a meaningful experience for both of us, but not your typical LHS dramatic offering. Having returned from teaching in Cincinnati, I was available to substitute that year for Mrs. Seiter who took a year’s leave of absence following the death of her husband. From what I have read of your blog I think you would enjoy Saroyan’s writings. I enjoyed my brief acquaintance with Lowell and would love to share my memories of him if you would be interested.

    Reply
    1. homelessphilosopher Post author

      That would be great, and it’s so generous on your part! Lowell spoke fondly of you then, and I knew who you are right away. Of course, he also spoke of Mrs. Seiter, although he never explained why she was nicknamed “Ernie the Bear.” If you’d like to e-mail me, and share those memories with both me and my nephew Rodger Weller, please do so at mweller1956@hotmail.com — I’ll forward it to Rodger. The Internet is truly amazing, thanks for getting in touch!

      Max

      Reply
  2. Russell Pocock

    Hey I was just reading your article and found a 1958 Fairlane I just bought is the one in your photo.ELF373 What are the odds,im in New Zealand and it still has the same number plates on it.It was very surprising,ill leave it the same white with the blue roof when I get it all tidied up

    Reply

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