“My mother? She was a good lady, a hard-working lady, and my father was a nice, good man, too, at least the way I remember him,’’ Madelyn Gaash recounts in Jim Merkel’s recently-released book, Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades.
“I do not have bad feelings for him. Then he met this lady, and you know how ladies can be. He was with her and she was not going to accept just living with somebody. She wanted marriage, and that’s what she insisted on. So he asked my mother for a divorce, but she did not want it. And so he left her, which was awful—I don’t even like to tell the story.”
Then things got worse.
“I woke up one morning, and my mother was gone, too. They took her to the hospital, but it was too late. I was just eight years old when she died.”
After that incident in the middle of the 1920s, Madelyn Gaasch could have spent the rest of her childhood in an orphanage. Instead, an Italian couple named Elsie and Charles Pedrotti and took her into their happy home near the Bevo Mill. And that’s made all the difference for Gaasch, who was born in 1917.
Gaasch’s story turned out happy, but there also are sad ones, violent ones and stories of love in Growing Up St. Louis. Those who told their stories were black, white, rich and poor, representing St. Louis. Together, it makes for fascinating reading.
By far the oldest of the more than 100 people I interviewed for Growing Up St. Louis was Dorothy Hunter. I met her in the spring of 2017 in her room in the Meramec Bluffs Care Center, an assisted living facility in Ballwin. Born in 1907, the retired school teacher was 109, but had lost little of her edge. In a 50-minute conversation, she told about her strict upbringing in what’s now the Tower Grove South neighborhood of South St. Louis, playing tennis with boys in the Tower Grove Park and going to silent movies on Grand Avenue. I’m glad I recorded her, because she died just a few months later, at the age of 110.
Here are some of her recollections as recorded in Growing Up St. Louis.
The first thing I remember was when we moved to Connecticut Street from McDonald or McKee. I’m not sure. It was a bigger house, two blocks south of Tower Grove Park. We had three floors.
My father did not permit chewing gum. But when we went down to the station to see my uncle off to World War I, my uncle gave us each a package of chewing gum. A whole package, and we were in seventh heaven, and there wasn’t a thing my father could say, because this was a gift from a man who was almost at war.
It was either take the streetcar or walk. There was one car on Arsenal Street and one on Grand. I walked to the streetcar. One time I walked on the street car, and that was when I had passes up to a certain age, and the conductor refused to take my ticket because he thought I was too old. I wasn’t too old. I was just tall. Then I got off the car and got on the next car.
If I had to use one word about the way we were brought up, what my father believed in, it was moderation.
Copies of Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades came into the Reedy Press warehouse on March 26, 2020,. That’s 1,159 days (three years, two months and four days after I turned in a proposal to Reedy Press Publisher Josh Stevens.
It wast worth waiting for.
It’s not going to take you that long to get a copy, is it? For goodness sakes, go to jimmerkelthewriter.com and order the book.
The waiting soon will be over. On Friday, I’m told, we’ll get real copies of Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. We’ll have a chance to look at what I got from interviews of more than 100 people about their experiences growing up here. When you add the transcribing, writing, rewriting, changes editing, proofreading and so much more, the whole process took more than three years.
The work often was frustrating. Change that. It always was exasperating. But I knew we had a great concept: have grown ups tell, in their own words, what it was like to be a kid in St. Louis.
I’m looking forward to that new book smell. I’m disappointed that we had to postpone or cancel signings and presentations for now, including the big Laugh Event on April 11 at the Central Library downtown. But the book was worth the wait. You can order a signed copy here. The $26 cost includes the $20.95 cost of the book, sales tax and shipping. I’m biased, but I think this is my best book yet.
I wonder what kids today will remember about COVID-19 half a century from now.
From what I discovered in writing Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades, their memories should be vivid and fairly accurate. I interviewed a couple of experts about remembering things, and they talked about something called “flashbulb memory.” People remember sudden, world-changing events like Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11. They may not remember the stuff at the edges, but the core is is pretty true. COVID-19 wasn’t sudden, but it did come on pretty fast and was devastating. It’s easy to remember today’s kids telling their grandchildren in 2085 details about how McDonalds was closed and they did their schoolwork at home.
People I interviewed about Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11 all spoke about their effect on the inside. You’ll be able to read their stories of growing up in our town when my book of interviews with about 100 St. Louisans comes out soon.
James Conway, who was mayor from 1977 to 1981, was selling papers when news came of the Pearl Harbor attack. “You have to appreciate I was nine years old, so I cannot exactly remember when I heard about the war or the instant I heard about it, but it was one of those things that was just overwhelming and people wanted to comprehend as much as they could,” he said, in his account in Growing Up St. Louis.
Joseph Winkler was a sophomore at McBride High School when he learned John F. Kennedy was shot. Sent home on a bus, he saw people standing in a daze. “Most of what I remember is people standing there just stunned at what had happened,” he said. What affected Kiarra Lynn about 9/11 was that no matter what she watched on TV that day, all she saw was planes crashing into the Twin Towers.
Such events in our childhood helped make us what we are as adults. That’s one reason we should ponder their meaning.
For months, I and many others were looking forward to the big April 11 Launch Event for my new book, Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. We hoped to pack the 250 seats of the auditorium at the Central Library downtown. But then came the COVID-19 health emergency, and the library canceled the event. Other venues followed, hurting our hopes for a successful release of the book during April.
To be sure, this is nothing compared to what’s happening throughout the world. I’m still reading and watching the news about the deaths elsewhere. I’m still healthy and only moderately inconvenienced by social distancing. And I still know what a solid book this is, in any circumstance.
Remember this, all of you who think about how nice it would be to write a book. Personal contact, whether in a presentation or a signing, is a major part of the success of any book. If you don’t do it, all of your books will stay in boxes. In other words, writing is just half of a successful book project. Selling is the other half. And when you can’t use personal contact, you have to do something else.
I’m working on a plan to sell the book other ways. I’ll let people know in another way about how I interviewed more than 100 St. Louisans about their growing-up experiences and then crafted it into a book of stories about being a kid in St. Louis.
Check back soon. In a day to a week, we should have a link posted to buy the book. Then, on a day of more bad news, pick it up, read it, and imagine what it is to be a kid again.
After more than three years’ work, Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades will be out in a month. Officially, the release date is April 1. Unofficially, I’ve been told, it may show up at bookstores a week or two early. I think you’ll like how the snippets of my interviews of more than 100 St. Louisans about their childhood turned out.
I’m partial to the kid at the wheel above. He’s my Uncle Sidney Duerr, who died not long ago at the age of 91. I was glad I interviewed him before that about life in the 1930s. He was one of a few relatives and friends I interviewed. The rest were people I hadn’t met. They’re rich, poor, black, white, with all kinds of backgrounds. One is Tabitha Stowers, who was Kirkwood High School’s 2017 Homecoming Queen. Her picture is below.
I’ll sign copies for you and tell some of those stories at the book’s Launch Event at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 11 (the day before Easter) at the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library, 1301 Olive St. In addition to my talk, there will be a panel discussion with five people I interviewed. The youngest person on the panel will be 11 and the oldest will be 103. Afterwards, we’ll celebrate with drink and food nearby at the Lucas Park Grille, 1234 Washington Avenue.
If you can’t make it, you can find the times and dates for other presentations and signings by clicking the menu above and the “Upcoming Events.” I look forward to seeing you. You’ll find this book was worth waiting for.