Before anything else, and after nothing else, I remember my mother hanging laundry on the line. She and I are on the south side—the short side—of our little, soft-pink house in Cameron, Missouri. The air is clean and damp and warm. A broad expanse of green grass spreads before me, beads of dew sparkling in the sun rising behind us. I am looking to the west, toward St. Joseph, a small city of about 76,000 people just over 30 miles away. My family would move to St. Joseph in April 1968. Because I was born in late March 1966, I would have been barely two years old in my memory, at the most.
Cameron was originally linked by the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad to St. Joseph on the Missouri River and Hannibal on the Mississippi. The tracks ran through the center of town, and the old depot still stands, as a museum. I imagine farmers bringing their crops to town for shipping to the east or west and from there, to anyplace in the U.S. By the time we moved to Cameron, another link between Cameron, St. Joseph, and Hannibal had emerged—a two-lane state highway, U.S. Route 36. It opened in 1922 as Route 8, following the route of an old covered-wagon trail, an big improvement for people wanting to cross the northern part of the state.
Route 36 was important for my family, too. It brought my parents to Cameron in November 1963 after my dad had gotten out of the Army just the month before. A civil engineer, he had begun working for the Missouri Highway Department in Savannah, a small town just north of St. Joseph, before enlisting to avoid being drafted later. He came to Cameron to resume his career with the highway department, and his first job was to help build bridges for Route 36 over the new Interstate 35, heading north from Kansas City to Des Moines, Iowa. He remembers that one job involved a bridge that had a 1,082-foot box culvert that required 26 separate pours of concrete, but almost all I remember of Cameron is watching mom hang laundry.
In that small town, they rented the soft-pink house from a guy in dad’s downtown office. The small, brick office building they worked in is still there, as is the building that housed the dealership where they bought their first car, a dark-blue 1965 Mercury Comet. The single-story hospital where I was born is now a single-story daycare center. The public school where my older sister, Marilyn, attended kindergarten, because the nearby Catholic school didn’t offer early it, is still there, too. But what had been the local community college is now an empty field.
My early memories of the first two years after we moved to St. Joseph are more numerous and a little clearer, but they are not enough to form complete stories. The mystery of my life—as for everyone’s, I think—is how the place where I spent most of my childhood shaped me, for better or for worse.
St. Joseph was founded by a fur trader, Joseph Robidoux, in 1843. The town prospered as a jumping-off place for pioneers headed west, but its most famous historical event came seventeen years later with the Pony Express. The Pony Express was a bold experiment to deliver mail from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California, via horseback. Though it lasted just over a year, the Pony Express became forever linked to St. Joseph’s identity and mythology.
In 1940, an archetypal statue of a Pony Express rider on his horse went up downtown. Across the street, the Southwestern Bell building features a triptych relief illustrating the role of the Pony Express, and then the telegraph, in opening the American west—ironically, the telegraph had helped kill the novel-delivery system. A few blocks west, a mural depicts the Pony Express horse and rider morphing into a jet airplane. The German-American Bank building now houses the Pony Express Community Bank. Out on the Belt Highway, near my high school, the Pony Express Motel long boasted a sign with the Pony Express rider astride his horse. The horse’s legs pumped in red neon.
Older cities, such as St. Louis, have long histories of shifting community symbols and identities. Over St. Louis’ 200-plus years, it has been the Mound City, recognizing the Native American earthen ceremonial mounds that once dotted the area; the land of the Crusader King, named for the statue of King Louis XIV erected for the 1904 World’s Fair; and, of course, the Gateway City, due to the glorious Gateway Arch.
St. Joseph, on the other hand, has stuck to its identity as the town where the Pony Express started, plus one other historical event: the 1882 shooting of the outlaw Jesse James. Years ago, visitors traveling west on Interstate 70 toward St. Joseph would find signs promoting the town: “Where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended,” verbally joining stories of both vision and violence—in other words, the Old West.
In 1968, you could symbolically connect these two events by driving a mile or so south from the Pony Express Motel on the Belt Highway. At the intersection of the Belt and Trevillian Drive, sat the home where Robert Ford had shot James in the back of the head as he straightened a picture. For 50 cents, you could walk through the house and see the bullet hole–even stick your finger in it, before it was framed behind glass.
From the James Home, Trevillian Drive curved around for about a quarter mile to reconnect to the Belt Highway, forming an empty ellipse of earth. Modest homes lined Trevillian Drive on its east side. One of them would be our home from that spring of 1968 until the winter of 1970.
Our Trevillian Drive house was very simple. From the street, a driveway, double the width of most driveways because it also served the neighbor’s house, sloped down to a concrete parking area. Mom liked that, dad tells me, because it gave her room for error in the winter—less to worry about sliding into. I remember looking up the driveway from the parking area and feeling very small, the driveway feeling very steep. Beyond the parking area stood a majestic willow tree in the grass of our yard. Marilyn and I played under it a lot, dad says.
On the south side of the driveway was a stairwell. If you climbed the stairwell up the side of the house, you could enter on its only floor. Once inside, you could take the stairs to the basement on the left, or enter the kitchen on the right. After the kitchen you entered a floorplan replicated millions of times: dining room, living room, hallway leading back to two bedrooms—my parents’ room and the one I shared with Marilyn—a single bathroom on the left.
That was pretty much it. And though parts of me feel tied to this house, my memories of it are vague and episodic. My sister would have been going to school while I was at home, so most of them involve mom. I remember listening to the morning public-service talk show on KKJO, the city’s AM radio station, in the dining room with her one morning. In my memory, the sky through the dining room window is dark, almost green; while it fills the house with an ominous glow, but dining room feels safe and warm. The radio must have been playing is eerie, three-toned storm alert sound that haunted me for years. I remember watching black and white TV with her during the day. I remember the time I accidentally swallowed a hard butterscotch candy while watching Bewitched and thinking I was going to die; we ended up on that stairwell somehow. Maybe mom had decided to take me to the hospital and it miraculously dislodged or became small enough to swallow on the way down to the car. In any case, I never ate those candies again. I remember the basement seeming like a massive dark place full of old clothes, but it was also where dad’s circular saw and other tools were, which drew me to it. I remember when he built the desk that is still in Marilyn’s old bedroom at our next house. It is built of shiny blonde wood with a timeless mid-century vibe to; we know it will outlast us all. I remember Granny Foote, mom’s mom, coming to stay with us when my brother Paul was born in the summer of 1969, as astronauts prepared to walk on the moon.
Some memories may not be memories at all, but extrapolations of memories from photographs. Do I actually remember a particular summer day, sitting in the maple tree in the front yard with the Schubert sisters from down the street, or do I just remember pictures of it? Do I remember the maple tree falling in the yard, or am I confusing it with another tree that came down on the vacant ellipse across the street, during an ice storm, and do I only think I remember that because of mom’s photo of it and her handwritten caption—“The old tree was no match for the ice”? Do I remember the time Uncle Tom and Aunt Sharon drove down from Michigan in the summer after Paul was born, or is it only because we have photos of us all in the living room together?
But memories, whether inspired by events or photographs, are all most of us have of our past—in addition to journals, or the few people still around who remember, or think they do. My fuller memories, the ones that will be the subject of the first volume of my memoirs, do not begin until we had moved to our next house. That house, the one I truly grew up in, the one dad still lives in, is at the end of a block-long street called Plattsburg Avenue. It is a single-block street jutting off of South 28th Street, which was the city’s eastern limit at the time that Ford killed James. I still remember seeing the stop sign at the intersection of South 28th and Agency Road on our early (maybe the first?) visit to the house, and rummaging through its closets with Marilyn, where we found odd-colored, otherworldly rocks and other goodies.
There, I lived an idyllic childhood with Marilyn, Paul, and the two brothers who only knew the Plattsburg house, David and Chris. The house was near a creek that flowed through the Parkway, acres of green space and trees that had been protected from development since the 1920s. I grew up at that creek and in the Parkway—catching crawdads in the summer; “skating” on the ice in our white rubber boots in the winter; sledding down the hills; climbing mulberry trees to pick the fruit and put it in my cereal; playing hide-and-seek in the evening as the fireflies started popping until mom yelled from the back porch to come inside; shooting fireworks; looking for beer cans and rocks; riding bikes with no helmet; wandering the woods and the parks and the streets unaccompanied, with abandon.
Like the Pony Express and Jesse James, all these things happened. But also like the Pony Express and Jesse James, in some ways, maybe they didn’t—or at least, not as I remember them. Time can hide the truth and gloss over the many unromantic parts. My memoir’s goal is to state events as clearly as I can remember them and let the reader decide where their truth lies, because in many ways, I’m not sure myself—or why I remember them at all.
Almost 20 years after I left home, I went back to St. Joseph for a week to help my dad paint the house. At first glance, not much seemed to have changed in the town since I had left home in 1984. The Parkway and was still a stunning monument to urban planning. The twenty-seven-mile system of gently curving boulevard that winds through the Parkway, connecting the towns north side to its south, was still nestled among its carpet of green. The city was still sharply divided along racial lines, with the black community largely where it had been before, west of 22nd Street, north of Mitchell, and south of Krug Park. The wealthier neighborhoods still looked wealthy, the poorer neighborhoods still looked poorer, and our house still looked like our home—again, for better or for worse.
But beneath the surface, things had changed. When I was growing up St. Joseph had two editions of its newspaper, the Gazette in the morning and the News-Press in the evening. Dad would start and end his day with the two different St. Joseph newspapers. By 2016, the News Press was gone, and the Gazette became the only daily paper in the nation to endorse Donald Trump for president. Today, the Gazette publishes a print edition only a few days a week. While I know this reflects newspaper economics playing out nationally, it represents something else to me. To me, their decline is the cold clanking of the latch on the long creaking, rusty-hinged door of the town’s mind.
Meanwhile, the ellipse of land in front of our Trevillian Drive house is now overtaken by the kinds of urban un-renewal everyone sees when they’ve lived long enough: an auto-parts store, a vape shop, a payday loan place. The Jesse James home long ago moved from the Belt and Trevillian to be part of a museum complex downtown. Many of the trees I remember are gone or dying, and most of our backyard, which used to be full of grapevines and rhubarb and apple trees, is as dead as Perky the Parakeet, my sister’s bird that we buried beneath one of our two apple trees in the late 1970s.
As I prepare to write these memories, this place is what I think of. It is me. Except for trips to Kansas for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a few occasional lesser holidays, I have few childhood memories that took place anywhere else. It became both a motivating force to do more, and a force that held me back. Either way, I am struck by the many references to roads, streets, and highways. It’s almost embarrassing, how cliché it feels, like the memoirs where every day is sunny, everyone is always happy, and we were so, so much better off then, in almost every way but financially, because we were poor but happy because at least we had each other and that’s all that really matters . . . somehow forgetting about inflation and pay rates or, in my case, the fact that mom had probably been hanging my cloth diapers that sunny morning in Cameron as I marveled at the sun, the dew, and the green wide open.
When I was in my 20s, I sometimes did a mental exercise in my journal. I would choose two widely disparate things and write about them until I found a way, in 500 words or so, to tie them together. I even imagined creating a game consisting of a bowl of random things written on pieces of paper—dandelions, steak, the consumer price index. The player would draw two slips of paper from the bowl, with the challenge of showing how they came together through writing.
Back then, my mental exercise was just a chance to show off to myself. Look what I can do with words! But as I’ve been thinking differently about time, I have begun to view the exercise differently. I now believe it is more about uncovering connections that are already there, rather than my ability to pick out odd strands and weave them together.
I think again about streets, highways, bridges, roads. My dad had built bridges connecting two pieces of a 40-year-old highway. Before it was a highway, it had been a covered-wagon trail. Before that it was probably a Native-American trail, following a lucky coincidence of flat lands and few obstructions. The railroad, the river, the Belt Highway linking the neon Pony Express rider at the motel to Jesse James lying on the floor, and at that intersection, the beginning of the tiny street that led to our first St. Joseph home—all of these things connect things and events, both physically and symbolically. All flow together, the Pony Express rider, Jesse James, the Schubert sisters. . . . all are part of my past, all are part of the same road, all are me.
This is why I write about these things. They are connections and intersections of time and history; they join me to something bigger than me. As events, they are fairly banal—no great rise to stardom, no horrific abuse, no real trauma—just a boy growing up in a Midwestern river town at the end of a one-block street. All I can bring to them is my own perception, my own interpretation, even if countless others share the bare bones of my banal experiences. I tell myself: Maybe their banality is their strength. For those who grew up in similar conditions, it’s a comforting way in because it reminds them of what was; for those who did not grow up like I did, it’s a way in that masquerades as a comforting escape.
Either way, I hope the lesson is that if my banal life and perspective is interesting in its own way and worth recording, maybe others can begin seeing their lives as interesting and worth recording. My life gives yours value, and your life gives mine value. The laundry hangs on the line. The highway crosses the state. The creek flows, the trees live and die, the rider rides and the bad guy falls. None of it happens alone. None of it is unimportant. All of it is connected. All of it matters.