I Remember ... Stories - Page Three
A Macon Boyhood in the 1940's and 1950's by John L. Romjue
One of the fondest memories of my hometown is the time I spent in the 1940's and 1950's with my grandparents, M.A. and Maude Romjue, in the old square, stucco house on North Rollins Street that had belonged to my great-grandparents Dr. Logan and Alice (Nickell) Thompson. On the old swing on the long side-porch that looked out on the street, I spent many hours listening to my grandparents' stories of their families and their lives. I stayed overnight with them as a child many times, and I liked to lie awake on my rollaway in the front room listening to the night music of the town - the singing of the tires on the old brick street, the quarter-hour chiming of the downtown clock, the rising and fading of the cicada chorales, and the whistle of the Wabash coming down from Iowa on the Missouri-Mississippi divide. Sometimes I could hear the farther signal of the Burlington on the old Hannibal-St. Joe track - first iron horse rails from the Mississippi west.
And I liked to hear my grandfather singing as he sometimes did from his bed off the middle room. He sang the hymns he'd sung as a boy, like Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown and The Old Ship of Zion that had carried thousands over and can carry thousands more, which he'd first heard in the little church in Love Lake where his grandfather John Roan preached, probably during the Administration of Rutherford Birchard Hayes. My grandfather personified, more than anyone for me, Macon and Missouri and the history of our town and state. I was thrilled as a boy by the story of the Pony Express at St. Joseph and the great covered-wagon trails to the West originating in Missouri and the Lewis and Clark Expedition from St. Louis up the Missouri River and all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We were proud of our Missouri heroes born nearby, General John J. Pershing who commanded the American armies in the First World War and five-star General Omar Bradley in the Second War and our president, Missouri's Harry Truman whose stalwart actions put in place the policies that contained and that ultimately would defeat the worldwide impulse of revolutionary Communism. And was there ever a greater American writer than the boy from Hannibal, Mark Twain?
I remember the bustle of Macon in the war and postwar years as a boy trudging through the downtown streets to the old Central School at Burke and Rutherford. Macon had many restaurants and cafes then, among them: Raws on Rollins Street; The Walnut Cafe; Tom's Place on Bourke; and the old Bungalow Cafe on Ruby. Next to the Valencia Theater with its Spanish decor was a candy shop where my dimes and nickels went. For two or three years in the postwar, the Valencia hosted movies in conjunction with John Deere Day on Butler Street, the town filling up with Macon County stockmen and farmers. Macon was a good trade town and every Saturday, North Rollins and other streets were lined with cars, some of them Model A Fords, with a few jiggling Model T's, and occasionally still in those days, horses and wagons. Louie's Sweet Shop near the corner of Rollins and Bourke was where one morning, let loose with money by my grandmother, I had a breakfast of a hamburger and a strawberry milkshake. Saturday nights downtown in the 1940's and 1950's saw a constant circuit of teenagers in cars clockwise around Macon's downtown, one-way streets. Every business building was occupied. The veterans had come home from Europe and the Pacific to a town full of life and new beginnings.
Old Central School housed all eight grades. Its dirt and cinder playground, where we boys played marbles in the spring, was a dusty contrast to the polished floors inside, which we had to skirt around on linoleum runners. One day, inside, I lost my whole sockful trove of marbles when the knot came loose and they spilled to the fourth grade floor - confiscated till summer vacation, except the ones grabbed with dibs by my buddies. Our principal Ruth Browett, a stern but kind lady, was taller than all but an occasional eighth-grade boy and kept strict, sometimes corporal, discipline. Teachers also had authority those days to administer whaps to the behind, and they did. We still had row seats with inkwells - ballpoint pens were a new invention. We had good teachers who tried hard to civilize us and teach us the fundamentals of the world.
What was Macon boys' business like in those long gone days? All travel was by foot or bicycle to Saturday matinees at the Valencia and Macon Theaters - 14 cents for children under twelve. Sometimes there were cowboy double features - Roy Rogers and Gene Autry or with luck, a Frankenstein and Dracula movie. By bicycle, my brother James and I carried the St. Louis papers in the town north end from Taylor News and Book Store, sometimes pushing our laden bikes through deep North Missouri snow. We made money mowing lawns, setting pins in the Elks Club bowling alley, and caddying at the golf course. Every boy went swimming and fishing and went hunting, if only for rabbits and squirrels. Macon had two Boy Scout troops in those days, Troops 81 and 85 - the best outdoors adventure and training for life a boy could ask for, thanks to great, devoted scoutmasters like Harry and Hubert Moehle.
Sundays, all the churches were full, and Macon, with only 4200 people, offered virtually every denomination. We Baptist boys and an occasional Baptist girl enjoyed the special challenge of circuiting the outside of the old yellow-brick church by footing along and clutching its two protruding brick ledges - which could startle a pastor in mid-sermon as he spotted a grinning small boy passing by a window open to the breeze.
Our little Southern-Midwestern town in North Missouri was where Maconites of my generation learned about our part of the wide world into which we had been born and what life could have in store. I am grateful for the privilege of growing up in a Missouri home and small town, and I am glad it was Macon. Growing up there with my brothers and sister, superintended and kept under control (most of the time) by loving parents and dear and indulgent grandparents, was a precious experience.