Thursday, July 16, 2015
Youthful Times Along the Mississippi (1956-1958)
Ecole St. Louis School, St. Paul, Minnesota
I now conduct the reader into the little time period just before I moving onto Donkeyland, and to the locality on the banks of the Mississippi, and at the foot of a cave. The least of things often becomes the greater of memorable events in one’s life, or later recollections, so I shall tell you about some idlers, tricksters and so forth!
Mike Reassert and I, we were both full of trust and confidence with one another. It was remarkable, we were like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, in those far-off days, now what I call those far-off youthful days, along the Mississippi cliffs, just below the city proper of St. Paul, Minnesota, how about ‘Youthful times along the Mississippi.’ We met each other in a Catholic elementary school, around 1956, and would remain friends, until I was about fifteen, then we seemed to go our own ways, and lose track of one another. The school was located at Tenth and Cedar Streets, in St. Paul, called Ecole St. Louis. A little French school, built in 1886, and demolished for a parking lot in 1960. It had a red brick structure, and was adjacent to the church I attended, and studied to be an altar boy. Some 130-children attended that native limestone building consisting of two stories. The top story was of a slate mansard roof. We lived at 109 East Arch Street, until we moved to what ended up being called ‘Donkeyland’ at 186 Cayuga Street, in the summer of 1958.
Mike and I, we climbed those bluffs in the mid-1950s, a considerable distance up and down the Mississippi River Front to visit the caves; not miles in extent, but rather blocks. Some of those upper cleft caves were dug out during the Civil War times, they had iron doors on them still; it was where they kept the munitions, so I heard. They were long and narrow and lofty caves in the upper strata of the clefts, with long passages.
The cliffs were of sandstone, and easy to make, reaching and stretching hands and feet from hole to hole carved into the sandstone, by other climbers, perhaps as old as the days before they built for Snelling, where in the early 1800s, thereabouts.
The larger caves were river level, one being so huge, a boy of our age, such as we were in those years (10 to 12-years of age), could get lost in them; dodging the half starved to death bates flying low and high and roughly overhead, as if local. We found on many occasions city drunkards sleeping off a hangover inside those lower caves. I swear—fingers and toes not crossed—the mouth of this one cave was as big as Moby Dick’s yawn, stretched as far as it could go.
I knew Mike well, for years I knew his every thought before he even knew he was going act upon them, “Let’s kick the bums in the feet,” he’d say, just to attract their attention. And we’d both do it, wake one up, startle him some, kick a little sand in his nose that would attract him right quick, to enhance his temper. The caves were an uncanny place to contain a sport such as this, but we did our best because we wanted the scare, the thrill, the fast run; Mike of course more devious than I, I think, but I went along with it, to a certain degree.
We often found cylinder like objects, writings on them, as if they were drafts from the newspaper, the St. Paul, Pioneer Press.
We never stayed too long, eventually loafers and rowdies would appear, ruffians dragging one another along, with a bottle of whiskey in hand. Matter of fact one day, Mike had an irreverence thought: he found a brown half-pint whiskey bottle, it was empty, and he peed in it filled it more than half way and wanted me to do the same fill it completely, which was half the mission! and I had but a drop to offer, he gave it to a poor dried out looking drunk, and right after he took a gulp of it, figuring out what it really was he hollered to the high heavens at Mike and me, swearing and cussing and jumping up and down and then he and his fellow comrades started to chase us, and like the Lone Ranger and his sidekick, Tonto, we jumped on our bikes and hightailed it out of there, to beyond the sunset (figuratively speaking—this was not the kind of hero I had in mind in my dreams), and all the shadows that ran after us, trying to hang us as if we were outlaws and in Dodge City, as in the weekly series “Gun Smoke”; we were hidden in the dim lighted path of a nowhere shack in the backyard of an old dilapidated wooden structure! Of course once within the downtown part of the city again, we were walled in on all sides, like a forest, but it wasn’t hard to escape if indeed we had to, we were seasoned in escaping, plus, the bums never mingled among the more sane inhabitants of the city, and we knew this.
It seemed to us, along the Mississippi the air was always crisp, with freshness, especially in the mornings, while the dew lifted from the river. When the day became more heated and more sticky like, it became also more dangerous, the cat size, fat rats, came out of the lower ways of the clefts, to breath the fresher air, and it got to over 105 at times in the cemented heart of the city of St. Paul, so hot one could cook an egg on the sidewalk, and they even showed that on television once.
I had no ill luck with the monster rats, although one time, three reddish haired rats tried to corner me, but I escaped backwards towards the river, throwing stones that only seemed to bounce off their backs. As I mentioned, there were three of them, this one time, I was liken to a delicious Twinkie filled with sweet cream to them: I was cowering at their approaching. It was as if they intended an entire family to feast on me. And I bet I would have tasted good! But again I escaped, before they leaped.
Then off, Mike and I went to find someone’s garden that had rhubarb in it, I loved rhubarb, and especially rhubarb pie, and then next someone’s green apple tree, we were like raiders, some days.
Mike lived in the inner circle of the city, I lived some three miles or so, away; as years passed, by and by we’d meet, until about twelve, thereafter once at fifteen, and that would be the last I’d see of him. We had attended St. Louis School, on 10th and Cedar Streets, in downtown St. Paul, in those early years, 1954 to 1957, although our friendship started about 1956. They tore the school down in 1960. He was a good lad to have as a friend, and always meant well, and was full of juice and vitality. He was also precarious, taking risks, uncertain, and poor. This is just a reflective pause, to think out the facts, should he ever read this story.
This is all part of my education, I look back with the most satisfaction.
During those years with Mike I learned to smoke fairly well, a bad habit I’d keep for twenty-years. We’d put our change together, buy cigarette packs, of Lucky Strike, or Camels, or Pall Mall, in the Walgreens stores, or Woolworths, or Grants. Run in and out before the manager caught us, and run over to the Emporium, and Mike would press all the buttons in the elevator, and when someone would get on, they’d see all the floor buttons lit up, lit up on the side wall of the elevator, and that person would look at me and Mike, and I wanted to say, it was Mike’s doings, but I had to hold back my laughing, and once he or she got off, we bust out with amusement.
I suppose you could say I was a little more characterless than Mike, he was always more daring, spunkier, but I was for me, spirited enough. Perchance I was more like Huck Finn, and Mike was more like Tom Sawyer. Neither one of us noticed, nor if we did, didn’t say so, that we didn’t have much charity for one another’s defects—we didn’t think we had any, we just lived life without any of its trials and tribulations bothering us, and we lived on the edge, at an instantaneous impulse. Our life and adventures together were—which I led with Mike, and there are many more—were full of charm and so are the memories of them yet.
No: 1031/2-18-2014 / Reedited, and revised 7-2015