Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Missouri in the Middle

It started with a trip my wife and I took to Marceline, Missouri in May. That's about 3 hours northwest of St. Louis. The Disney Museum is located here, alongside a railroad track. I had recently read a biography of Walt Disney, and Marceline figured prominently in his development. He grew up on a farm there, at a time when the town was a major stopping and refueling spot for the Sante Fe Railroad. 

He honed his imagination, moved to Kansas City to discover a mouse, then to Hollywood and the rest is history. But before he left Marceline, while in grade school, he carved his initials in his desk. It's in the museum, along with a treasure trove of letters, sketches; family, personal and school items.

After 4 hours in Marceline, we headed south to Independence and spent the next day at the magnificent Harry Truman Library. The building is beautifully designed, complete with roses around the entrance. If you think politics is ugly today, know that Harry had his share. You could spend a complete day here if you cared to. One of the things I remember about Harry is that, after he left office, he never accepted any money for speaking engagements. He refused to use the Office of the President for personal gain. 

Jump forward three weeks now, to the third floor outdoor balcony of the Lewis and Clark Restaurant in historic St. Charles. That’s where I had the good fortune to have lunch with distinguished author and adventurer John Robinson, whose column appears regularly in County Living magazine; and the publisher of County Living, Todd Abrams. Sometime between the arrival of my Arnold Palmer and my pulled pork daily special, a fascinating subject came up: The unique position Missouri holds in America. It’s a combination of the yin and yang of America, along with a diverse crop of men and women who had roots here, either by birth or residency. Putting it together, I realized we live at the cultural, historic and geographic crossroads of America.

Let’s start with St. Louis and Kansas City, a contrast separated by more than the width of the State.  St. Louis belongs to the East. Traditional, established, seasoned, energetic yet cautious. The Arch may be the Gateway to the West, but Kansas City is actually The West. Rugged, contemporary, confident, dotted with daring architecture and visionary endeavors.
The contrast continues with the Civil War. The Blue and Gray not only battled here, but divided the State in sentiment and struggle. Sure, we voted to stay with the Union, but a large contingent of rebel-minded folks cheered for Robert E. Lee. We’re a Northern state, we’re a Southern state. It depends where you get off the train.

Missouri is also home to the many faces of Nature: tornadoes, blizzards, bitter cold, sweltering heat; graceful Springs and colorful Autumns; streams, lakes, and rivers (the nation’s 3 greatest rivers meet here: the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio);  flatlands and low mountains and gentle hills; and a plethora of wildlife. (I’ve always wanted to use “plethora” in a column).

Now to mention some distinguished Missourians. This is where Mr. Robinson jumped in enthusiastically. I already told you about Truman and Disney. When it comes to literary lions, John began adding names such as Twain, T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Eugene Field and Mort Walker (writer AND cartoonist!). Key military leaders dating back to the Civil War include Grant, Sherman, Sterling Price, Pershing, and Omar Bradley. 

Let’s talk shopping. J. C. Penney was born on a farm in Caldwell County. There is no truth to the story that his first words were “Attention, J. C. Penney shoppers.” Harlow Shapleigh, an astronomer, was born on a farm in Nashville, Missouri, and a student at U. of Missouri. He correctly estimated the size of the Milky Way galaxy. And that was without any help from Google.

The famous Betty Grable pin-up
Speaking of Google, I used it to find “Famous Missourians.” Here are a few favorites of mine I pass along - some familiar, some not. Josephine Baker, Susan Blow, Dale Carnegie (I should have read his book years ago), Walter Cronkite, George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Hart Benton, Edwin Hubble, Dred Scott, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Buck O’Neill, Stan Musial, Emmett Kelly, and, finally, three of my favorites - Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, and Robert Heinlein. I have a weakness for blondes and sci-fi authors. 

I’ve left out a lot of familiar names and influential people, especially politicians. Here’s what you can do to broaden your horizon, not that anything is wrong with your horizon. Google your way through the State’s history; take a trip to a small town; buy one of John Robinson’s entertaining and informative books; John Robinson's Book Or send me a check for $20 to further my literary career. (Just kidding about that last item.)

On behalf of John, Todd and myself: Welcome to Missouri.

(Note: This column is in the current Summer issue of County Living Magazine.)