The Admiral Coontz Armory, in Hannibal was a big part of my early years. Father was in the Missouri National Guard, and, it seems, had always been in military uniform, as least for as long as I could remember. The armory was the site of many community events, including professional wrestling matches.
Father, who for several years was the only full time employee at the armory, would often take me with him when he had to be present for weekend events. The armory had a large drill floor, which had a full basketball court out of the middle. I spent many hours out on that floor, trying to throw the basketball high enough to make a basket. As I recall, I spent more time chasing the basketball, after a missed shot than anything else I did there!
The professional wrestling matches were quite a big event back then, drawing large crowds to the monthly events. A boxing ring was set up in the center of the floor, in the middle of the basketball court, with hundreds of metal chairs in near rows set up all around it. Father, and other National Guardsmen, ran a concession stand those weekends, from a kitchen adjacent to the drill floor. The kitchen had a window counter that opened up so that patrons could buy refreshments from the drill floor where the match took place.
I recall the huge cooking utensils the men used in the kitchen, particularly the stock pots filled with chili, soups, and stews. It seemed to me that the coffee pots were big enough to make several gallons of coffee. Even the spoons and ladles they used seemed enormous! In those days the National Guard wore olive drab fatigue uniforms with large roomy pockets on each trouser leg. The pants legs were tucked in shiny black combat boots. As an employee of the National Guard, father wore his fatigue uniform to work every day, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see him at business or social events in uniform.
It was a great surprise, a source of much pride, when father presented me with a fatigue uniform of my own, which he, himself, had made from old uniform parts. Although not an exact copy of an adult’s uniform, it had patch pockets on the trouser legs, and looked enough like a real uniform that I felt really good about wearing it to the armory to be with the men. The uniform was popular with the guardsmen, and they would good-naturedly salute me when they came into the room. I was very young, and this kind of kidding around with the adults was a lot of fun to me. The guardsmen took it upon themselves to entertain me, instructing me in how to perform marching drill, facing movements, proper salutes, and how to stand at attention.
I got to help out with the concession stand on several occasions, working first in the kitchen getting supplies and serving as a “gofer” for the adults. In later years I served bottles of soda pop, retrieved from a huge ice-filled tub. The first time I worked at the drink counter, taking cash, I was very impressed with how kind people can be. Many customers who bought a soft drink from me, said, “Keep the change.” Wow! This was great! So, I happily out the cost of the drink in the cash box, and put the change the nice people had given me, in my big patch trouser pocket!
By the end of the night my pocket was so full it bulged way out, the weight threatening to pull my pants clear down! This was a great bemusement to the guardsmen, who had been watching me do this all night. When the evening was over, and it came time to close the kitchen, father turned to me, and asked what was making my pocket so heavy. I happily reached into my pocket, pulled out a handful of coins, and told him about all the nice people who had been giving me their penny change.
All the guardsmen got a good laugh, and father explained that the change wasn’t meant to be mine, but the unit itself. I was so embarrassed! But, it quickly became clear to me, even at that tender age, that volunteerism, and selflessness, brings its own rewards.
The guardsmen good- naturedly teased me about that for some time after that, but it wa all in fun, and I became a regular helper for the weekend matches, helping with the concessions and setting up chairs.
A couple of years later the National Guard unit’s mission was changed from infantry to military police. They were designated the 35th Military Police Company of the 175th Battalion, Missouri National Guard. The unit acquired more olive drab jeeps for their new mission, and the men were busy training for their new mission, studying police tactics and duties.
One of their jeeps was painted white, in contrast to the olive drab of the other jeeps and trucks in the unit. The white jeep was designated for use by the Provost Marshal, who is, essentially, the Chief of Police in a military unit.
The white jeep had a two way radio installed behind the driver and had a very long whip antenna that stood several feet high. Mounted on the front fender was a bright chrome siren with a flashing red light on the front. The siren was activated by pressing a foot switch located on the floor next to the clutch pedal.
I thought that jeep was about the prettiest thing I had ever seen, and spent a lot of time pretending to drive it when I would accompany father to the motor pool, where he performed various maintenance chores on the trucks and jeeps. I recall a room in the armory that was set aside just for charging the starting batteries used in the unit’s vehicles. Since the unit didn’t use the trucks or jeeps very often, other than going to summer camp, the batteries were removed and kept charged up by a long row of battery chargers.
Along with the change of the guard unit’s military mission came new involvement in the community. The unit could be found providing traffic control at large community events, including parades and the annual street fair downtown. The men’s uniforms had changed, too, for this new mission.
They wore tan khaki uniforms with white pistol belts, white helmet liners, white gloves, white laces in their boots, with bloused trouser legs, and white gloves. This seemed like the perfect uniform to me, and it was all toped off with a silver whistle attached to the right lapel or epaulet, and the whistle itself hung from a hook on the right pocket. Father looked very striking in this uniform, and I was very proud of him when he dressed to perform some volunteer duty in the community.
Hannibal’s central business street is Broadway, which runs uphill to the west from the Mississippi River. One of my most vivid memories is being on the curb at Broadway and Third Streets, watching father direct traffic from the middle of the street. The National Guard unit was performing traffic duty that day, in support of a parade that was scheduled to begin later that morning.
Pedestrians were lining Broadway from our position, where the parade would turn, all the way to the top of the hill at Fifth Street. There wasn’t a lot of vehicular traffic at that point, but military policemen stood in the middle of Broadway at each alley and street intersection, in their khaki and white uniforms, whistles blowing as they directed traffic. And, at the top of the hill, at Fifth Street, sat the white Provost marshal’s jeep, with it’s red light flashing!
I suppose this event, and others like it, had a deep impact on me, since I can so clearly recall the images that so deeply impressed me, and forever affected my inner self. Uniforms and volunteer service were tightly woven throughout my life. From that first army uniform to Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Civil Defense Police, Danville, Illinois Auxiliary Police, Danville City Police, Civil Air Patrol, Missouri Reserve Military Force, Indiana Guard Reserve, to Indiana Air guard reserve, it seems I always had at least one uniform hanging in my closet.
Volunteer services ran from scout activities to Jaycees, Lions, Holts Summit Volunteer Fire Department, to countless days of service to one group or another. Uniforms and volunteerism, it seems, were imbedded in my lifestyle from those very earliest days in Hannibal.
I attended elementary and junior high school at Eugene Field School in Hannibal. The school was located on Market Street, across fro Levering Hospital, and diagonally from the fire station. Playgrounds were located on two sides of the school, with a third playground across the street, and behind a house, on the east side of the school. The playgrounds ere always in use, it seems, with different age groups on different playgrounds.
There were no black children in our school, since they all attended Cotton School, some six or seven blocks away. We rarely saw any black children except at public events, and we all pretty much keep to our own groups, although I don’t recall any animosity or hard feelings between any of us. I was aware, however, that the blacks were different that us, and socializing with them would be unacceptable.