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January 20, 2020

And They Say You Can’t Go Back

They say “you can’t go back.” Well, I just did it. I threw a few clothes in a bag, packed some cameras and film, put on my boots, my hat, and headed south toward Lamar, Missouri in my ‘96 Ford F-150 with Biggie in the back seat.

I’d been through Lamar a few times since leaving, mere days after my high school graduation in 1983. I would usually stop for gas, thinking maybe I’d run into someone I knew. One time while getting gas, the tall kid behind the cash register at LaMarti’s asked me “are you coach Viers?”

“Yes I am,” I replied.

“I’m Kyle Kellenberger,” he said to my shock. Last time I saw him he was only a couple feet tall riding in the back of my car to a soccer tournament talking about boogers. I remember a lot about that ride, like the boys making up dirty alternate lyrics to “Jack and Diana” when it came on the radio. Dumb kids.

Yes, I had been there since, but not for the world famous Lamar Free Fair. Or is it the Barton County Fair? I can’t say with any certainty.

My plan was to photograph the Fair with the same cameras I used when I was a reporter/photographer for the Lamar Democrat from ‘81 to ‘83. So riding along were my old Nikon Nikkormats, solid black, plus some others and loaded up with Tri-X film.

As expected, I took the long way there, wandering around rural Missouri, taking pictures of what’s left of some of the “towns” along the way. The highlight of the trip down was dinner at Cooky’s Cafe in Golden City, MO, where I had the first, and best, piece of pie I’d had in years.

Cooky's Cafe in Golden City, MO. Drop by for a piece of pie, made right there every day.[/caption]

I had barely been in Lamar two minutes when I ran into Jerry Marti. Of course, neither of us has changed a bit in the 37 years since I left. I delayed checking into my motel room as I was enjoying watching him, and three other guys, try to get a vending machine into the motel through various doors. Rumour is that it took them three hours. I arrived at the tail end when they decided to try to back door off the pool.

After checking in, and getting Biggie settled, I planned to go out to the fair and shoot some night stuff for fun. I loaded some 3200 asa film in the cameras and was walking out the door when the rains cancelled that plan. Wine and a book will have to do for this evening.

To make up for some lost shots, I was up early and drove through town.

I started the trek on the opposite side of town from the motel, letting Biggie stretch her legs on the soccer fields by the new elementary school, the old Thorco plant, down by the Barco Drive-in Theatre.

I remember seeing “The Rose” there. I was enjoying the movie, Bette Midler looking good, then all of a sudden she was in Mexico and looked like hell. Then, out of nowhere, she looked good again and was still planning to go to Mexico, then she was back to looking horrible and died. Later, I figured out they had switched the second and third reels, making it a whole new experience for anyone there that night.

As Biggie was sniffing around I looked at the large soccer goals and thought they looked familiar. Yep...those are the same goals I asked Kent Garfield to build for me when I started the Barton County Soccer League in 1980. I was 15 and Lamar didn’t have a soccer program. I LOVED soccer and had played since I was six, so I thought I would start something for the kids. And I needed goals. He and a friend made them in shop class for a grade, I think they got an A, and I remember Kent telling me “These will last forever!” Well, apparently, he’s right so far.

After we hopped in the truck and weaved back through town, I noticed Jim and Charly’s Market is closed. Slinker's hasn’t been there for years, but I still think of it when I drive by its old spot. Papa’s Pizza is now a Mexican place. Bait shop’s not there anymore, either.

Harry Truman’s birthplace looks a lot smaller than I remembered. I went in once. Meh. Local lore is that he wasn’t even born in that house. He was born outside of town at a relative’s and at the age of three days moved to the farm in Grandview. I’ve spent ZERO time researching this, so don’t quote me.

I was surprised at how many of the street names I had forgotten. When you grow up in a town of 4000 people, and your bike is your freedom that takes you all over to visit friends, you know the street names. The numbers I was good on, First street is the rich side of town and it goes higher to the Park and the old O’Sullivan’s plant. I was good on Gulf, as I lived on that street, and Broadway, one block over, and Walnut. The rest were a bit of a blur.

I ended up on Walnut and headed toward the school. Some of the old playground equipment was still there. I don’t think the swings have changed since the second world war. Or that jungle gym made from steel plumbing pipe. The old elementary school gym is still there. For some reason, I flashed back to the tunnel that ran from the classrooms to it. Perhaps there was some trauma in that, as we had the tornado drills down there. And there was a unique smell to it, I seem to recall.

As I drove around to the football field, I saw where half the town was...Pee Wee Football. Don’t know why, but I flashed back to a bomb scare in sixth grade when Mrs. Lowe took us all out there to hang out for the afternoon.

I parked and paid my $3 to get in and hope to get some shots. I took a few, but nothing jumped out at me as I did a loop around the game and the stands. I ended up standing on the track. Last time I stood there it was cinder, not rubber, and we still measured in yards.

I loved track. No, I HATED track, I loved BEING on the track team. We got out of school, layed around in the sun waiting for our races, and ate junk food. Ron Bean would bring his ridiculously large boom box which took 75 D batteries to operate. I remember doing the mile relay and he would rally team mates who weren’t running to stand with him at the third curve, the toughest, and blast the theme to “The Warriors” to keep us motivated. By the end of the meet, with batteries struggling to survive, the cassettes would drag and the tunes weren’t quite as motivating.

I moved on, knowing the Car and Tractor Show was going on in the city park.

I took the long way there, driving by my old house, which isn’t white, anymore. The house up the street that used to look haunted doesn’t look haunted anymore. One that didn’t look haunted does now. There’s the apartment Pam Jeffries lived in. There’s George Alyea’s old house that ended up getting bought by my former sister-in-law’s parents, who’s son Kent is now the mayor. Crazy how things end up.

When George lived there I went to see him and he was mowing his yard. I’d never driven a riding mower before and asked if I could try it. He let me hop on, showed me the clutch, changing gears, and the brake. Got it. I mowed for a bit then George came up to chat about something. I had my foot on the brake as we talked. He then told me he wanted to drive it and, without remembering to put it back in neutral, hopped off. Oops. I remember it popping a wheelie and driving itself across the grass as the front continued to hop for a bit. George’s dad came running out and got it under control. Yes, I was a bit embarassed.

There’s a tunnel that runs right from George’s house, at 4th and Gulf, along 4th to Broadway, near where the Glasgows used to live. It’s under the street and at the age of 11, a boy of average height (me) could stand up in it and walk inside. I know this, because I did...with my friend Russ Day. There are holes in the street for the water to drain into and they let in enough light to see a little of the way, until you get almost to Broadway, where it does a 90 degree turn and is totally dark.

In the darkness, Russ was convinced there were people coming to get us and he darted back toward Gulf St. When I realized I was alone, I took off running after him. Up ahead, I noticed he was on the ground, rubbing his head, and I wondered why, just as I saw stars. There is a pole that runs across, just at the perfect height to knock two 11-year-old boys on their asses. We both sat there, on our asses in the dirt, rubbing our foreheads. At school the next day, I’m sure Mrs. Warren wondered why we both had lumps on our heads in the exact same place, but she didn’t pry.

Before long I was at the edge of town and turned right at Belinda Kaderly’s old house, and ended up at the hospital. It’s closed. It’s not run down enough to be exciting photography, but it’s on the way there. Maybe I’ll come back in a year or two and see if it has deteriorated enough.

There’s the National Guard Armory and the Sherman Tank. Once, someone had taken the escape hatch off the bottom and we could get inside. Russ and I climbed inside and were able to turn the turret, and REALLY play war. It wasn’t long before they figured it out and welded it back on, but I have bragging rights that I’ve been in a WWII Sherman Tank and turned the barrel around, pretending I was in battle.

I took Broadway down as far as John Bartlett’s old house, then turned to the school. There was an old timer parked in front working on his antique tractor.

“I thought the Tractor Show was in the park,” I said.

“I don’t know. They told me to be here at ten,” he replied, with a little frustration in his voice. He continued to mess with his old John Deere.

“Can I get your picture with your tractor?” I asked.

“I don’t know why you would want that,” he said, striking a shameless pose.

Driving down Walnut toward the park I passed the senior apartments where my grandmother used to live. I wasn’t allowed to call her “grandma” … it made her feel old. We all just called her Mary.

The summer she moved in I got a job mowing the lawn. The apartments had doors that opened onto a commons area that was grass. She would sit out front and watch me mow and sometimes wave. She didn’t cheer me on, or anything weird, she just was there for me. I could take a break and chat with her and grab a drink.

There was a couple living in the apartment next door and they must have been bored as they, too, came out to watch me mow. She was so proud of her husband. He was a motorcycle cop in Chicago during the Capone years.

“He wasn’t afraid of Capone,” she would tell me, every time I visited. “If he was speeding he would pull him over and give him a ticket. Capone respected him.” He would just smile as she rattled on, bringing me framed pictures of him, from back in day, in uniform next to his old Harley Davidson police bike.

I wrote a feature story on him for the Democrat, but don’t have the article handy to give the names, or any other particulars. I just remember thinking how much they loved each other. I enjoyed their company.

Before I knew it, I was at the Park, looking for the car show. It’s a small town.

I cruised the park, past the pool where I spent EVERY day of summer during my childhood. I would get there in the mornings for swim team, go home for lunch, then back all afternoon. The O’Sullivan’s plant had a horn that would go off at 5:00, so I knew it was time to get on my bike and head home...starving...not thinking I could make it. One thing that every child should experience is that first day the pool opens, when it’s filled with fresh tap water and hasn’t been in long enough to get warm. It’s a jarring memory.

I found the Antique Car and Tractor Show over by the ball fields. I parked my very NOT classic truck as far as I could from the cool kids, grabbed some cameras and took a walk. It was no time at all I was running into friends I hadn’t seen since I walked off the stage at graduation.

Kevin Oglesby came right up and grabbed me, followed by Ron Reno. Damn. We haven’t changed a bit in 37 years.

What is it about friendships that survive the gaps? You know the gaps...years when we put other priorities ahead of anyone other than kids, spouses, ball games, work, parent-teacher night, family reunions, sickness, and dreams... Then, out of nowhere, in walks an old friend and it’s just like yesterday. I felt it a lot that day in Lamar.

Tim Riegel called out as he stood by his gem of a Chevy II. Brian Brewer came by to chat. Brad Potter was there with his amazing purple Javelin. I shake my head as I write this, amazed so many years passed, but it felt like a blip.

Once back on the square to see what was going on, I heard my name called from a distance. Rodney Means … my God … you look great. We chatted for a bit, but his family and good BBQ were waiting, so he moved on.

It happened again after I set up to take pics of the parade. Looking up, I saw John Bartlett walking by. I walked out to greet him and have a chat. I could have chatted longer, but we all have things to do that pull us away.

Looking over, there’s Felicia Costley causing trouble in the crowd along the parade route. She was sitting with Karen Dale, Junior and Anna Costley, and Lynn Pewitt...rowdy bunch. One thing I like about meeting friends after all these years is seeing their kids and grandkids. Felicia has NINE grandkids to my one. I’m such a slacker.

I know to most readers these names will mean nothing. Substitute them with names from your own past and see if you don’t know how it felt for me.

So how is it that people can still feel connected after nearly 40 years? Do we choose to be connected? Is it in our DNA somehow?

Some people believe we are all separate beings, and we choose who to connect with. Some do it by religion, others clubs, social media, and similar interests and hobbies.

My hypothesis is that everything is connected and we choose to NOT be connected, finding some reason or other that he or she just doesn’t fit in our lives anymore. And in doing so, this leaves a hole. And the hole never heals, it only gets pushed further back in the brain, but it’s still there. The only way to heal that hole is to reconnect.

And it doesn’t just happen with people we know and choose to disconnect with. It happens when we see a homeless person and reject them, or someone with special needs, or of a different race, or of a different religious or political belief and push them aside. Perhaps this explains why there is so much pain in the world these days. We’ve disconnected from so many people for unimportant reasons. We’re filled with holes. We have chosen to disconnect with “Trumpers” and “Libtards” and “Queers” and “Atheists” and “Evangelicals” and … and ….

And in doing so, we’ve rationalized the disconnection, but there are still holes. Holes because of someone’s political or religious beliefs, or because of … what … someone is different?

Test it. Next time you meet someone do you feel connected. Do you feel connected as long as you stay on safe topics? But when something pops up that causes a knee-jerk reaction are you quick to want to disconnect? "Oh, hell no!" you say and you have a hole.

Well, it’s just a hypothesis. Maybe I think too much as I drive along.

So I guess they’re can go back. I did, anyway. Maybe it’s based on expectations. I had none and wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how much joy I got from a day reconnecting with places and people from my youth.

I’ll do it again.

I lugged my cameras back to the truck and headed out, of course taking the long way back, with the first stop in Iantha, then Lockwood, and wandering aimlessly into Kansas and a strait shot north to home.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If I’ve left anyone out, I apologize. I don’t take notes, hoping to remember it all, but it was a busy day.


Russell Viers

I'm just a guy who finds the world an interesting place and likes to capture certain moments with a camera. They aren't for sale, or anything. I just like them. Well, usually. I've taken a lot of photos I don't like, as well.

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