from the upcoming and untitled book about Northwest Missouri
Life in St. Joseph, Missouri 1940s-1950s
By Larry Flinchpaugh of St. Joseph, Missouri
I really never thought much about it until I began to write about my childhood experiences, but I now realize what a wonderful, full life I have had growing up in St. Joseph, Missouri. At 73 years old, I can’t do all the things I used to do as a youngster, but still have fond memories of my childhood that can never be taken away from me.
St. Joseph was about the right size of town to grow up in, not too big and not too small. If St. Joe didn’t have what you wanted, Kansas City was only 50 miles away. The first TV stations were in Kansas City: WDAF Channel 4, KCMO Channel 5, and KMBC Channel 9. St. Joseph’s KFEQ, now KQ TV, didn’t start broadcasting until about 1953.
I can’t really remember when I first heard about a TV, but I do remember daydreaming about it while listening to Captain Midnight, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, The Green Hornet, and Sky King on the radio. We would all sit on the floor facing the large Zenith radio looking directly into the speaker as if we could see pictures of what was happening. Actually, the pictures painted in our minds by the sounds coming from the radio were as good as a real live picture, maybe even better.
Television was actually invented before WWII but wasn’t produced in large numbers until after the war in the 1950s. My family didn’t buy one until 1953 because they were fairly expensive. Our first television was a table model Raytheon, costing almost $250. You could buy a nice, used automobile for $250. Before getting a TV of our own, all the kids in the neighborhood would gather about four o’clock in the afternoon at the Stapleton’s house in the 2600 block of Duncan Street to watch the small, 10-inch, round, black and white TV. They had several chairs arranged in the dining room like a small theatre. The TV shows did not start until five o’clock so we would just sit there and stare at the Indian test pattern until the shows started.
The picture was so snowy that all the lights had to be turned off so you could see a picture. The first programs I remember were the Kukla, Fran and Ollie puppet show and a comedian and dancer named Pinky Lee. Each afternoon they would show an old theatre movie serial, which would always end with something like a cowboy, tied to a barrel in a mineshaft and then there would be a huge explosion. You had to tune in the next day to see if he really died or somehow miraculously escaped. He always managed to survive. The Howdy Doody show with Buffalo Bob, Clarabell The Clown, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, and Mr. Fluster and Mr. Buster were on the air from 1947 to 1960.
The first TV screens were very small with many being only ten to 12 inches. Someone got the bright idea to mount a large 15-inch magnifier glass on a moveable frame. This would be placed in front of the small screen to magnify it. It worked perfectly, but also magnified all the snow and interference, which tended to cancel out any benefit of a larger screen. Another company had the bright idea of giving you the illusion of a colored TV picture. The dime stores sold a piece of plastic film that had blue at the top, orange in the center, and green at the bottom. You would attach this to the TV screen and you had colored TV for only 69 cents. Well, not actually. It didn’t look too bad when watching a ball game because the sky was blue, the faces were orange, and the field was green. However, other programs looked rather stupid with this color arrangement.
We never even imagined a VCR to record moving pictures. Everyone knew pictures had to be recorded on film and never even dreamed about them being recorded on an electronic tape.
Some people in the 1940s didn’t have a telephone and if they did, it was usually a party line phone. Each house shared the line with three or four other people. You had to be careful and try not to dial or talk when another person was talking. I would get in trouble when my mother would catch me listening to someone else’s conversation. One would sometimes need to call a person who had no phone by calling the person’s neighbor who would then walk to that person’s home and ask him to come to the phone.
I didn’t think of my family as rich, but we did have all that we needed. Most people had only one car and the wife stayed home. The middle class people could survive at that time with only one parent working. If my mother and I needed to go somewhere, we would ride the bus. If I got sick, the doctor would come to the house. Our house was heated by a large coal furnace in the basement. The Artesian Ice and Coal Company would deliver coal in the winter and ice in the summer for the iceboxes. I think most people in my neighborhood had an electric refrigerator, which, to make it confusing, was also referred to as an icebox. Those with an icebox would place a card in the window that had either 25, 50, 75, or 100 showing at the top of the card. This was an ingenious way of keeping the iceman from making extra trips to the house to ask how much ice you wanted. Children would follow the ice truck to beg for a piece of ice, just for the fun of it.
I remember my dad filling the furnace with coal just before we would go to bed so the house would remain warm all night. Sometimes he would get too much coal in the furnace and the house would get so hot we would have to open the windows in the middle of the winter with snow dripping down the windowsill. There were no thermostats on the coal furnace.
When I was about 16 years old, three of my friends and I discovered a cave in the bluffs above Water Works Road next to the Missouri River. The cave opening was large enough you could have driven a truck into it, except it was full of water. Not wanting the water to deter our exploring, we went back to town and bought four old inner tubes and scrounged up some boards to make a raft. After assembling the crude raft, we began slowly paddling deep into the cave. It started getting scary because the further we got in, the smaller the entrance looked, and our small flashlights weren’t helping much. One of my buddies said, “Do you think we are the first to explore this cave?” I replied, after looking at the ceiling of the cave, “I don’t think so, there are light wires attached to the ceiling.” About that time, the inner tubes separated and the boards fell off our raft. We were splashing around trying to hold on to the tubes, hoping that we would not meet up with any water moccasins in the water. Eventually we floated out the opposite side of the bluff. Later we found out that this had been an old rock quarry. I never told my parents about what a stupid and dangerous thing we had done.
In 1951, the Federal Communication Commission introduced the “Novice” class ham radio license that required the applicant to take a written exam and show proficiency in sending and receiving Morse code at five words per minute. Shortly thereafter, I took the test and passed it, getting my first call letters: WN0RXO. Today, 60 years later, I still have the original call letters, but it is now W0RXO because I had upgraded to a General class license.
The Novice class license only allowed me to communicate by Morse code and, if you wanted to use voice, you had to upgrade to a General class license, which I did a few years later. My first transmitter was built from a kit where all the parts had to be mounted on a metal chassis and then you had to solder wires connecting everything per the schematic diagram provided.
Shortly after getting my ham license, I heard a cricket in my basement that sounded exactly like he was sending a Morse code message. I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and pencil and started writing down the letters. He was chirping so fast I just wrote down the letters as fast as I could and thought I could separate them into words later. Finally, he stopped and I started analyzing the message to see if he had been sending any words. You know maybe God was sending me a message or some alien intelligence was trying to communicate with me through the cricket. I wasn’t completely disappointed. As it turned out, the cricket wasn’t saying anything intelligent, but he was repeating the same message over and over. Even that I thought was very interesting.
You don’t realize at the time how much you have learned from your parents. One morning on a crowded bus, an obviously poor, elderly, black woman got on and there was nowhere for her to sit. Remember those were the days when many ignorant people harbored racial prejudices, not only against the Negroes, but against anyone different from themselves. My mother had me get up and give her my seat. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but what a wonderful gift my mother gave me that morning to teach me to respect everyone, no matter their race or station in life. To this day, I have never been burdened with prejudices against any race, rich, or poor, thanks to my loving and caring mother.
In the 1960s, I went to the library to check out a book on genealogy. The librarian directed me to a book section at the rear of the library. Halfway down the aisle, for no apparent reason, I suddenly stopped and turned to my left to see a book directly in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. The book was, “The Book of Woodcraft.” This was a copy of a book that my father had given me from his childhood library in the 1940s. The book had first been printed in the late 1800s and was the precursor of the Boy Scouts’ handbook. How was this possible? I hadn’t even thought about this book for years. I was a little shaken until I realized what had just happened. Our senses record everything around us and only those things that have meaning trigger our conscious mind and get our attention. I used this concept later in scanning genealogy census records on a microfiche reader looking for the name “Flinchpaugh.” Even though I wasn’t consciously reading every name out of hundreds, the name “Flinchpaugh” actually would jump off the screen.
Several years ago, I was studying religion and asked one of our group leaders what was the difference between prayer and meditation? I assumed what I was doing was prayer and what the hippie weirdoes were doing was meditation. She said, “Oh no. Prayer is when you talk to God and meditation is when you listen.” This won’t mean much to some people, but to me it was one of those “Ah ha” moments. I realized that I had been praying but had not been listening.
Seven years ago when I returned home to St. Joe from California to retire, people would ask, “Why in the world would you move from the excitement in California to Missouri?” I would reply, “For a better quality of life and to be around my friends and relatives that I grew up with.”