Archive for the ‘Growing Up’ Category

In my last post, I described conquering my fear of the laughing clown at the Forest Park Highlands in St. Louis, where our school picnic was held each year. Of course, I had a little help from a friend.











But there was a much bigger milestone looming on the horizon – and I do mean looming: the Highlands’ famous and beloved wooden roller coaster, the Comet. It was a fine roller coaster – fast, rattle-y, with huge drops and even a tunnel, which was unusual for the time.  It was also pretty scary for a little kid. I can’t remember if the criteria for riding was age or height (oddly enough, I think it was age). I wanted to be a big kid and ride it. But I was also pretty darned scared of it. The screams coming from the riders in action didn’t help. But all the cool teenagers rode it (over and over again, because you could re-ride without standing in line again – all you had to do was have another ticket in your pocket).   I was also motivated by the fact that my sister could already ride it because she was one of those cool older kids. Just as I had with the laughing clown at the Funhouse, I vacillated between longing to ride the Comet and fearing it.

My Dad knew just what to do. He said that he would ride it with me. I can remember our walk to the Comet and my Dad chatting away about how much fun it would be.

I had a great Dad. He was the Dad who always drove my friends and me to parties and school events. He taught me to drive – taking me to cemeteries where there were roads, but no traffic. He was sympathetic.  He liked to tell jokes and use wordplay, but truthfully, he never acted the way he acted that day. For one thing, I don’t ever remember him riding any of the rides. Parents usually held court in the covered pavilion, protecting the picnic lunches, while the kids roamed freely.

But that day, he wanted to ride the Comet. As we approached the wooden behemoth. Dad’s attitude was very casual.  My legs felt like wooden sticks. But still, I wanted to ride.

When we got to the platform, we had to wait a long time, because all the cool teenagers would hold up their tickets to re-ride. You had to wait a long time on the platform before you got a seat.  Too long for a little girl who was torn between proving she was a grownup (well, not reallly) and fleeing. But Dad just chatted away and was breezy and relaxed.  Finally, we got a car. Thank goodness it wasn’t a front car. Before long, I’d fight to get the front car, but it’s not a great idea for the first time.

I can still hear that rattle-rattle-rattle as the car lurched forward. Dad just looked at me and smiled. The rollercoaster climbed – and oh, that first drop was a doozy. “Scream,” Dad told me.

And my father, for the first time I’d ever heard, he screamed. I screamed, too.

Every drop, every turn, he’d scream.

This was my father, whom I never saw shed a tear until many years later. My father, who had fought in the worst of WWII: the Battle of the Bulge in Patton’s army. My father, a business man who also  built things with his own hands on DIY projects ranging from laying bricks and stones to building a whole family room on the house and roofing it. He transported tons of rocks by hand one summer.

He screamed and I screamed right along with him.

Through sharp turns and unpredictable drops, we screamed and then, he took his hands off the rail and waved them in the air. “No hands,” he said.

I released my white-knuckled grip and raised my hands. Because that’s what you did on the Comet.

I was a grown-up.

I was a cool kid.

And I owed it all to my father.

As far as I knew, he never rode the Comet again. But during the following years, you couldn’t keep me off that glorious ride.

I don’t know if I really was a cool kid, but by the time I got to Junior High, pretty much all I rode was the Comet. And like those teenagers before me, I re-rode.

Unfortunately, the Forest Park Highlands burned down in 1963. I was in high school at the time, but I think the school picnics had already ended.  I had other mountains to conquer. I don’t remember mourning.


Interestingly, two rides didn’t burn down that day: the Comet and the equally-iconic and very beautiful Carousel, which still exists in Faust Park in Chesterfield, MO. I haven’t paid the carousel a visit, but I can still hear the ringing of the bells, the music, the bright lights. Those two rides represent my entire childhood: from the point when the Carousel was exciting to the unbelievable thrill of the Comet.  Those rides took me from childhood to – well, maybe not adulthood, but that next place between childhood and adulthood.

A very sweet spot.

P.S. Our next door neighbor, Mr. Haemmerle, was the chief electrician at the Highlands. He assured us that every single day an inspector checked out the Comet and took a ride, which was very comforting. (The Haemmerles had one of those bowling machines in their basement Rathskeller – something the Highlands had phased out.)

Also, one of my favorite school bus drivers, Carl, was a French-Canadian roustabout – compact, muscular, handsome – who worked the Ferris Wheel at the Highlands during the summer. A rather heroic figure to us riders – someone I should definitely write about!

And now, if you’re feeling very grown-up, take a ride on the Comet.













June 21 may be the official first day of summer, but everybody knows summer starts the day after the last day of school. Most schools are out by now- so let the fun begin! Today, summer for most families may mean a patchwork of day camps, classes, lessons, sleepaway camps – what’s a working parent to do? It doesn’t matter, because summer is still fun. But when I was growing up, while there might have been a week of day camp or vacation Bible school, summer was wide open for all-day play. And we took full advantage of the time.

In the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, we started off summer with a full-out joyous celebration of the season. The day after the last day of school, a Saturday, we had a school parade in the morning. Each class marched through the streets with students carrying hand-made banners, the high school marching band played, parents cheered, and I imagine the superintendent of schools rode in an open car and waved. I’m not sure about the last part because I was always too concerned with holding up my banner.

But the parade was just the prelude to an amazing day! After that, everyone in the school district was off to the local, much revered amusement park, the Forest Park Highlands, for the whole day. Families packed huge hampers of food and the parents and grandparents sat at picnic tables in a shady pavilion. BUT if you didn’t have a ride, or if you were too old for that nonsense – say Junior High or High School age – there were buses to take you there and pick you up.

The picnic area was  home base for us kids. We pretty much roamed freely with our friends (after a certain age) but regularly reported back to the family for more tickets, more cash, something to eat, something to drink, Sno-Cone money. The parents came along on some rides or for a trip to the Penny Arcade to play Ski-Ball (I loved that game – especially with my grandfather) or watch old Nickelodeons.

I don’t think it cost much and if you ran into a member of the school board or some other exalted person, he or she might just present you with a bounty of free ride tickets.

There were rides for really little kids at the front near the ticket booths. I don’t recall ever riding those.










I usually hit the Bobsleds first since it was near the front of the park. Fun but short – it left you wanting more. Next to that were the bumper cars . I waited until later to ride that. I remember “driving” my grandmother on that ride. She was completely unruffled throughout the ordeal. Grandma didn’t drive, so other people’s bad driving didn’t bother her.

A little farther in was the Ferris Wheel – oh the joy of getting stopped at the top, especially if there were cute boys or even non-cute boys involved – and the Tilt-A-Whirl was always a favorite. I think my mom liked that because I remember riding with her. And there were the airplanes – always an exciting choice.

There were also two “fun houses” – one riding and one walking. I don’t remember much about the riding one – it was on water, a traditional Tunnel of Love.

But I’ll never forget the walking one. Outside, there was a mechanical laughing clown straight out of a horror film. Just as you were about to go in – there he was, laughing hysterically at your foolishness at thinking you could possibly endure the horrors awaiting you. For several years running, I actually got to the door with my ticket, and changed my mind, turning back. I was a coward, but at least I was alive.

Eventually, however, I made it – thanks to my neighbor, Joel. Just mentioning Joel and his two brothers, Dave and Jim, brings up a world of memories. They lived two houses up the street from us and our families were the very best of friends. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that they are like brothers to my sister, Janet, and me.

Joel is the oldest. Dave is close to my sister’s age and Jim is a tiny bit younger than I was. He was  my best friend as a child. They didn’t even go to our school – they went to Lutheran school. But they came along (just as we were included in many of their family and school events) – thank goodness.

I vividly recall what  was probably my third year of chickening out. Once again,  I reached the laughing clown. My stomach churns just thinking about him.

I really wanted to go inside but once again, I froze. What to do? Walk past the clown and face unimaginable terrors? Or admit to being a coward once again?

“Here, just hold on to my belt and follow me,” Joel said.

I don’t think I’ve ever been given a more generous gift, because I REALLY wanted to walk through the fun house. I closed my eyes to shut out the clown, grabbed onto Joel’s belt and started walking.

The walking funhouse was classically cheesy. The 1950s effects were definitely less than special. Some mildly threatening neon faces and ghosts lit up along the walls. At the end was one of those rooms where you’re all off-balance and gravity-challenged. The whole fun house was a total piece of cake… but I was still tightly clutching Joel’s belt at the end.

I survived! It was a rite of passage! The laughing clown never bothered me again and soon I moved on to a much bigger challenge: the iconic Highlands roller coaster called The Comet.

—– to be continued!



It’s HOT-HOT-HOT, as my friend Humphrey would say. And while I was watching the synchronized swimming events of the Olympics, suddenly a waterfall of childhood memories tumbled over me as I had one very cool thought: Esther Williams.

I feel much cooler already.

When I was growing up, my sister and girlfriends and I loved Esther Williams. Who didn’t? She starred in many unique films where she displayed unbelievable feats of swimming and diving (and water-skiing) expertise … and she was smiling and gorgeous the whole time. There’s the old joke about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers saying that Ginger did everything Fred did, but she did it backwards and in high heels. Well, Esther had all the grace and athleticism of Fred and Ginger … but she did her thing underwater. And during my 1950s and 60s childhood, we reveled in her amazing exploits in a nice cool movie theater, even before we had air conditioning ourselves.

When I was very young, on hot and humid St. Louis afternoons, my mother would take my sister, Janet, and me down into the cool basement. Janet and I would strip down to our underwear or slips (remember ?) and play in front of the fan. When it was almost time for dinner, we’d go upstairs for a bath and clean clothes and feel quite refreshed.










After dinner on hot evenings, we might take a drive to ride the boats on the lagoon at Forest Park – Janet and I got to steer the motor boats – or just look at the big fountain with the changing colors. Or we’d go out to a big swimming pool, like Springdale, and cool off. But an Esther Williams movie was the coolest thing of all. Just watch this little video tribute and you’ll be a believer.

When I was older, about middle school age, my life changed completely when Sandy Birnie moved in across the street. Yep, my married name is Birney and my childhood best friend was named Birnie. Little did I know! Sandy and I were inseparable, especially during the summers. Mostly, we’d play cards all day and evening. We’d take the Hoyle’s Book of Rules and play everything,  including poker with just about everything wild. There were insanely high-speed games of double solitaire and War. We’d also walk our blonde cocker spaniels every day. Mitzi (a mix) was mine and Ginger (a purebred)  was hers. They weren’t that friendly, but they tolerated each other for the walks. Ginger even had puppies one summer, thanks to the neighborhood rogue, Buttons.

Sandy and I would also walk to the Crest Theater to see Esther Williams or Doris Day or anybody at all, to cool off.

But the best part of summer was swimming. Our wonderful neighbors, Lora and Gil Hansmann, had the only pool in the subdivision. On certain days, Mrs. Hansmann would hang a flag on the outside of the pool, signalling the neighborhood kids that they were welcome to come swim at a certain time. Sandy and I did that at first, tolerating the rowdy younger boys, but later the Hansmanns invited the two of us to swim without the rest of the pack – no flag needed. After all, Sandy was a superb swimmer and a certified lifeguard and we were (fairly) mature and responsible. We had to clean out the pool – they taught us how – and respect their rules of not running and not making too much noise.

Miss Birnie and Mrs. Birney-to-be had all afternoon to swim and play in that pool by ourselves and it was glorious – thanks to Esther. As we did handstands, backwards somersaults and our own version of synchronized swimming, we were channeling Esther Williams. We raced (Sandy was a much better swimmer than I was). We dove for pennies on the bottom of the pool. We had the best time two best friends could ever have.

To repay the Hansmanns for their incredible generosity, we would occasionally “Grandma-sit” for Mrs. Hansmann’s 90 year old mother, Mrs. Pippin. She was a sweet little old lady who had no teeth, but still chewed Chiclets gum incessantly. She liked cards, so Sandy and I would teach her “our” card games with their crazy rules. Invariably, sweet Mrs. Pippin beat us. We could never really figure that out and despite our plots to unseat her as the reigning champion, we never succeeded. Mrs. Pippin was a loveable shark.

Those summer days were just as hot as the days we’ve been having, but much sweeter to me. I can still remember walking back up to my house in my swimming suit, then taking a long, hot bath and feeling amazingly refreshed and relaxed.

I can still remember feeling just like Esther Williams when Sandy and I were in that pool.

Esther Williams is still alive at 91. I hope she’s well and can still dip her toe into the water. I have a lot to thank her for – not just the pleasure of imagining myself to be her, but also for the fact that she inspired our family to visit Cypress Gardens on a big trip to Florida. We loved it because we felt that Esther had been there.

By the way, my other childhood idol was cowgirl Dale Evans. Somehow, I think that longing to be feisty Dale or Esther – whose athleticism paralleled her beauty – was a little better than wanting to be a model or a princess. But then … that’s just me looking back in time.

I still think Esther was the coolest thing around.






















[Note: Humphrey asked me to tell you that if you’re a fan, he’d be unsqueakably happy if you “Liked” his Facebook page at]

  Mom, me, Janet


I once knew a woman who had an unusual daughter.  Many parents panic if they notice anything about a child’s behavior that falls into uncharted territory, but this stay-at-home mom was unflappable.

While her daughter played outside endlessly by herself, way, way  back in the yard – weaving in and out of the row of evergreens that lined the back wall – the mother glanced out the window from time to time. Her daughter talked to herself in a highly animated manner, acting out some kind of a story but the mother was merely bemused. When the girl came back in the house to get ready for dinner, the mother never, ever asked her what she was doing in the backyard. (I’m not sure whether she had to bite her tongue.) Once the girl told her about the little hotel that was back there -each evergreen was a door to a different room – and her mother accepted it without question.

Without question.

When the weather was bad, the girl played in her room. She lined her dolls up on the bed and pretended she was their teacher. It was a small house and the mother couldn’t help overhearing the girl’s monologue, but the mother didn’t questions, although from time to time, she could be heard telling other family members, “I know everything that happened in school today from listening to her play. I knew who got in trouble, who got a bad grade, who talked out of turn.” On Sundays, her daughter returned from church and re-enacted Sunday School.

The girl also spent long hours at her desk, drawing and writing. The mother surely noticed the accumulation of drawings of an endless cast of characters in the wastebasket and the wadded-up pieces of writing, but she didn’t let on. Her mother let her type on the old upright typewriter on the back porch as soon as she could form words.

Sometimes, the girl showed her parents a story or poem she had written. Her writing got good grades at school. The mother was pleased, but she when she saw her daughter scribbling away for hours, she didn’t ask what she was writing.

The unusual daughter had a father, too. He was tolerant, as well. The parents were already used to a daughter who loved to read. After all, their older girl was a devoted reader and when she was very young, they’d take her to three or four libraries at a time. The libraries only allowed children to check out a few books, and their first daughter needed more to get her through a week.

It didn’t bother the father when his younger daughter followed him around while he worked in the yard, her nose stuck in a book, spelling out words she didn’t know so he’d tell her what they were.  It didn’t bother him when she’d call out at night (the family all read in bed every night) and spell out words. He’d just call back down the hall with the word and they all went on reading. No one ever told her she was reading too much, even when she tripped over furniture as she walked through the house reading.

At seven, the younger girl wrote a book (with pictures) and when she  gave it to her parents, she told them she wanted to be a writer. They were surprised but proud. The father, who was an excellent amateur artist, took a shoe box and made a little diorama of her book, with cardboard cut-out figures of her hero, Teddy Bear, and his girlfriend, Tallulah.

When the family converted from an old coal furnace to gas, they painted the old coal bin in the basement, with its thick walls and the little window for loading the coal, and made it into an office for their writerly daughter. She had a desk, a blackboard, a chair, a little china cabinet. She carried a pitcher of water down there and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was her first office, the first of many and one of the best.

Perhaps if the little girl had been a loner, her parents might have worried, but she had loads of friends and in addition to playing alone, she loved to play jump rope, hopscotch, roller skate, ride her bicycle, play with her dog, play piano, play board games (and jacks and pick-up-sticks), watch TV and giggle.

Still …. still …. she spent a lot of time in some kind of imaginary world that they didn’t know. And they never tried to know.

Somehow, this girl’s parents knew that even a child has a right to privacy … the right to grow and change and create without intervention. A decade or two before people started saying, “I need my space,” they already knew it.

I can never thank these parents enough, for I was this girl, and these were my parents and I am grateful.



            I have something in my pocket

            It belongs across my face,

            I keep it very close at hand

            In a most convenient place.

            I bet you’ll never guess it,

            If you guess a long, long while.

            So I’ll take it out and put it on,

            It’s a great big Brownie smile!



(Could any uniform be less flattering?)

Happy 100th Birthday to the Girl Scouts! I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout and on this occasion, I’ve been reflecting on what I got from those organizations besides Thin Mints.

I was very lucky to get Mrs. Anderson for a Troop Leader. As an adult, I’ve thought a lot about all the hard work she put into our troop activities. Lots of magical things happened in her basement. I loved the Brownie songs – especially the one up above, which ends with us reaching in our pockets and plastering that Brownie smile on our face. We also sang “Make New Friends and Keep the Old,” “Kookaburra sits on an old gum tree,” a politically incorrect Indian song, and a silly song called “I’m a Nut” which almost has the word “underpants” in it.

We made things: sit upons, wooden trains, Christmas ornaments, gifts for our parents. We played games. Our favorite was called “Murder” and I wish I remember exactly how it worked but we sat in a circle and someone was named the detective and was sent out of the room. While she was gone, one of us was “murdered” – which meant the victim got to lie down and play dead with a ghastly expression on her face. The girl returned and had to guess who the murderer was. I don’t remember that part, but we liked it. Little scraps of paper were involved. (If anyone remembers how to play this – please help me out!)I doubt that the Brownies endorsed that game or that any parents would let their kids even think about murder but it was fun.

(Most memorably, I broke my pinky finger playing cannonball -a very rough game which we adored- in Mrs. Anderson’s driveway while waiting to be picked up.)

We went to Camp Cedarledge in Peveley, MO and earned several badges, including outdoor cooking. I’m sure that marshmallows were involved. Something must have gone awry with the cooking because all of the girls except Ruth Ann Blum and me made numerous hurried trips to the latrine all night. Ruth Ann and I sat outside on a fence railing and laughed at them. I don’t know what they ate that we didn’t and  I’m sure that was not behavior condoned by the Girl Scouts of America!

One of my favorite events was the annual re-enactment of the Brownie story, which involved the elf-like type of Brownies. I always was selected to read the narration because I was a good reader and I loved the part that referred to a “wee bairn.” Mrs. Anderson explained that meant a baby and it just delighted me to say it.

The low point of my Girl Scout years: the annual cookie sales. Our parents didn’t sell them at the office. We didn’t sell them to relatives or accost people at the supermarket. We went door-to-door. I hated it. We took orders and when they came in we had to deliver them door-to-door. Believe me, I never won the award for selling the most cookies. But I suppose it did challenge me to do something I really dreaded.

The high point of my Girl Scout years – and you knew this was coming – was earning the Writer’s Badge. When I saw that in my Girl Scout Handbook, I knew I had to have it. I’ve been rummaging around my office to find my little notebook … I know it’s here somewhere and Mrs. Anderson’s note was priceless. (Basically saying, “I didn’t know you could write.” And here I thought everyone knew I could write.)

My mom wasn’t a saver and I’m not either.  I don’t know what happened to my badges but I’d sure like to have that Writer’s Badge. I was the only girl in the troop who was even vaguely interested in it, but I love that the Girl Scouts gave us ways to challenge ourselves in so many areas.  That still puts a great big Brownie smile on my face.

I stayed in the Girl Scouts until Junior High. As soon as I discovered boys, I lost interest in the Girl Scouts. And I think Mrs. Anderson didn’t continue the troop and I would have had to find a new one. Somehow, I knew it would never be the same.

Were you a Girl Scout, Brownie, Cub Scout or Boy Scout? I’d love to hear your experience.