My Life as a Country Boy

Me 1961-page-001 (2)
Jim Merkel around 1961 behind his house in Des Peres

For sheer chaos, few places in St. Louis County match Manchester
Road at Interstate 270. The West County Center, numerous
strip stores, office buildings and a mass of suburban homes in all
directions combine to bring more many thousands of vehicles a day
to Manchester just east of I-270.

Traffic is so great that eastbound and westbound lanes of Manchester west of the interstate separate, creating an island surrounded by congestion. People in the stores
and the Marcus Des Peres 14 Cinema go about their business in
the midst of the roar of vehicles just a two-minute walk away. But
not that long ago, it was quiet, almost rural. I know, because I once
lived in a house that today is within that island.
We moved there in the summer of 1956, with my oldest sister
Lois and my older brother Charles, around my fifth birthday.
Home was a one-story ranch house with white metal siding and
an adjoining two-vehicle carport on a dead-end street on the north
side of Manchester Road. To the east, the Manchester Drive-In
showed movies on the present site of the West County Center.
Behind our house was a barbed wire fence topped by an electrified
wire, formidable enough to keep horses inside and big folks out.
But I could crawl under it and wander through what seemed like
miles of trees and fields. In time, I discovered a quarry, perfect for
sneaking in with a friend and hearing the immortal words, “Hey,
you kids, get out of here!” I was on my own, to imagine all sorts of
wonders.
School intervened, and I attended kindergarten in the Mason
Ridge Elementary School on South Mason Road next to the
current route of Interstate 64. My teacher, Gretchen L. Kilpatrick,
wrote in my report card that “Jimmy has been a pleasure to have.
His sense of humour (sic) has pepped us all up at times. He tries
hard and is a good little worker,” But she offered a warning: “He
should work on his ‘scatterbrain’ forgetfulness though.” Nothing’s
changed. I’m still scatterbrained, and I still need to work on that
forgetfulness.
In first grade, the nuns at St. Clement Catholic School in
Des Peres had to figure out what to do with me, because my
parents were Catholic, and good Catholic parents sent their kids
to Catholic school. I paid great attention when the nuns instructed
me in the ways of the Catholic Church, including confession and
communion. I wasn’t sure whether my sins were sufficient for my
first confession, so I stole a nickel pack of chewing gum from a
store to make sure.

  • From pages 170 and 171 of Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades by Jim Merkel. People can buy the book by clicking here.

Published by Jim Merkel

Reedy Press published four of my books, Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis's South Side, 2010; Beer, Brats, and Baseball: St. Louis Germans, 2012; The Making of an Icon: The Dreamers, The Schemers, and the Hard Hats Who Built the Gateway Arch; and the Second Edition of Hoosiers and Scrubby Dutch: St. Louis's South Side, 2014. They're available in bookstores and online. For an autographed copy, send a check for $21.50 made out to Jim Merkel, to Jim Merkel, 4216 Osceola St., St. Louis, MO 63116.

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