Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Memory is a funny thing. Snippets from the past can lie dormant in the brain for decades until one day, quite by accident, a word, a picture, even a sound can unlock that storage and unleash a wave of sweet nostalgia. It sneaks up on you and quite without warning transports you back to a time long ago, and almost long forgotten.
I don't have a FaceBook account myself. I prefer to piggyback on my wife's account, mainly because it seems like too much work to set up my own. One of the groups I (we) follow is one called "Growing up in Independence, MO." This week, one of the members posted some pictures from the 1960's one of which was of the Mugs Up root beer stand. Seeing the place was the key that unlocked that musty storage locker in my head. We had a similar place much closer, a real classic of the drive-in era, called "Dog n' Suds."
I've lived a lot of places, but Independence was where I've spent the most time, especially my formative years. We moved there from Los Angeles in 1960 not too long after the building containing my Dad's office burned to the ground. We spent the first two years in a rental house before buying a new home on Mark Avenue. Being six at the time of our move, and eight when we got the new place, I hadn't really been old enough to have been vested in Southern California. I do remember how hot and muggy our new home town was, compounded by the lack of air conditioning, which my Dad considered an extravagance until he finally had central air installed a few years later after the onslaught of Missouri summers conquered his fiscal stubbornness.
There were those oppressive summer evenings when we would be sitting in the living room watching TV with electric fans whirring away until Dad would decide that we needed some relief. We'd pile into the car (which was also non-air conditioned) and drive for about 10 minutes or so before pulling into a slot under the garish yellow lights which always seemed to attract a multitude of flying insects. A teenager would come out and take our orders, and return a few minutes later with several iced glass mugs holding that treat of treats, the Black Cow. This was, of course, the same root beer float we could have made at home, but going out, as rare as we did that, made it special.
I always drank the root beer first, then took the long spoon and went to work on the ice cream. The root beer would have frozen in places on the ice cream, making a delightful sweet crust, which turned the vanilla flavor into something exotically delicious. We took our time. After all, this was a masterpiece, and it demanded our full attention. After finishing, we would pass out mugs forward and Dad would place them carefully on the tray hooked over the top of his partially-raised side window. He'd then honk the horn, and the teenager would return and collect the tray. Then we headed home. It was still warm and humid outside, but my insides were now delightfully chilled.
My memories of driving around on a summer's evening consists of a collection of sensations, sights and sounds. I can still hear the sound of the tires on the pavement, and the feeling of the velvety air passing outside my window. I would stick my hand out and it would become the wing of an airplane. By tilting it up or down slightly, I could make it "fly" through the night. Stopping at red lights, the sounds of the night would make themselves heard. Cicadas, crickets, tree frogs; the aahhh sound of passing cars. And if the traffic was light enough, I could hear the sound of the relays in that big yellow box changing the traffic light from red to green. It would be late enough for me to feel that scratchiness in my eyes, sure sign that bedtime was close at hand. Eventually, we'd pull back into the driveway. Dad would get out and open the garage while we piled out and went through the front door. Inside, I could hear the deep thrumming sound of the car pulling in, and the cacophony of the garage door being pulled down and locked. Mom would shoo me into the tub for my bath, and then after donning my pajamas, I would slide into a bed that, at least for a few moments, was cool to the touch. And as the crickets sang outside my window, I drifted away to dreamland.
I think most people my age and older, have memories of the small retail establishment that populated the town squares of most places. Woolworth's, Kresge's, and Ben Franklin are the ones that were in my home town. Today's collection of monster supercenters and big box warehouse stores while convenient, really don't hold a candle to the charm of the small five-and-dime. In the business district in Independence, which everyone called "uptown" for reasons that still remain obscure, there was a collection of stores in the square around the county courthouse which was a replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Woolworth's was on one side, Ben Franklin on the other. Kresge's was there somewhere, but time has eroded my memory of its exact location. My mother would go on shopping trips to The Square, visiting all three stores in order to find exactly what she was looking for. I remember Ben Franklin the most because it was the only one with wooden floors. These were original to the building which had been put up sometime in the 19th century. They were old, so there was a bit of a flex to them as you walked the aisles. During the summer, the heat would release a nice woodsy smell from the floors into the air, something I always liked. The furnishings were stubbornly ancient, but on those shelves was a huge collection of really interesting things. The men who worked the store all wore white long-sleeved shirts and bow ties, over which hung a dark green apron. They were always friendly, making the store for a little boy, something like home. Afterwards, we'd walk around the square, my mom and I, passing Gateway sporting goods, the Army-Navy store, a barber shop, the ice cream parlor Velvet Freeze, where we might stop if I had been a "good boy." I lost Mom to cancer in 1982, and now I look back and wish I had been smart enough to treasure those times.
Every other Friday evening after supper, we'd head out east on U.S. 24 to the grocery store. The area was called Farview, and nearby was the church where my wife and I would marry some years into the future. Lew Richards was a friend of Dad's and even though there were other stores closer to home, he made it a point to support his friends in the business community. Lew owned US Supers, in many ways a typical grocery of the era. Big enough to stock what we needed, small enough that you could find it all. I had the task of turning in our soda bottles, for which I would receive the magnificent sum of fifteen cents. For that infusion of wealth, I could buy the latest Superman comic and one of the finest treats of my childhood, a Hostess Twinkie. Thus with both my brain and belly fed, I was a happy little boy. One of my enduring memories was once when we stopped for just a few things and as we walked out to the car, I remember my Dad grousing about how ten dollars of groceries now fit into one bag. Now, ten dollars of groceries might just fit into my pocket.
We didn't eat out all that much because Dad would say it was cheaper to go to the grocery store. Scattered around town were a few privately owned drive-ins (nobody as yet did drive-throughs). One of them was a place called "Smaks."
The hamburgers were thin, the fries greasy, and the place didn't smell all that good, but it was still good eatin' for a small boy. Another place was HiBoys.
Here, the food was a step up. The burgers were all hand made, and while still thin, they arrived in a bun soaking up the most delicious grease ever. It was here where I made my first acquaintance with a treat called "tater tots." In the restaurant's original configuration, you parked and went up to an open air counter and ordered, hearing the hum of those bright neon lights, and again, the presence of tons of flying insects bobbing and weaving. The food, once completed, was passed to you through a different window, and you returned to your car. The brown bags would already be splotched with grease by the time you sat down. One of the true tragedies of life is that things that are good for you generally taste really bad, and things that are really bad for you taste oh, so good. That was HiBoys. Heart attack in a bag, and I didn't care. Still don't.
On really special occasions, particularly birthdays, we would get dressed up and go to a really special place, Stephenson's Apple Farm Restaurant.
The Stephenson family owned large apple orchards, and the restaurant had its start in 1946, opening a small place to feed folks who came out to pick apples in their orchard. It grew steadily, eventually growing into a 350-seat institution that still brings fond memories. Going in the front door, you checked in at the old wooded desk. Nearby, a wooden cask of apple juice sat with a stack of small paper cups. You could drink all you want while you waited for your table, and to this day, I've never tasted any sweeter apple juice. We would be taken back into the dimly lit dining rooms, all smelling deliciously of any variety of the magnificent dishes on their menu. Once seated, they would bring out little bowls of water with pieces of lemon. We would use them to clean our hands, wiping them dry on the thick cotton napkins. Opening the fare was the potato soup, a thick and filling piece of heaven. Then the main course, for me, the most tender brisket ever sharing the plate with the smoothest mashed potatoes and gravy that ever existed on this planet, paired with a small pewter cup of green rice casserole. When all that was done, then came the crowning glory of the meal, a serving of apple fritters and ice cream, and I could have made a meal out of just that. If you looked up "scrumptious" in the dictionary, all you'd need for a definition was a picture of those fritters. It was an expensive evening, which is why we only went occasionally, but for me, it was the best way to top off a birthday. When the place closed in 2007, I understand that many people wanted to declare a day of mourning.
There are so many other memories, nearly all of them while making sweet sense to me would probably be boring to you. But we all carry these memories inside. They slumber in our brain waiting for that moment of unintentional stimulus when they will be awakened and will take us back to the past, a time that was always simpler, always nicer, and sadly, forever beyond reach.
But it was our life. And that is always something to be remembered.