It Was The Stars

Feb 6, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

It’s cold here this time of year. You know that going in. And it was a bit on the seriously chilly side a few nights ago when I went outside for some reason. I don’t remember now what took me out there. Some sort of errand? Whatever the reason, I walked out the door and over to the driveway, and I looked up. It was a cloudless winter night, and the stars were amazing. Billions of them. They’re like that on crystal-clear winter night. And as I stood there, looking up, a totally unexpected thought burst into my consciousness. “These are the same stars. That’s Orion. They’re all the same. It’s the same sky.”

Now, I’ll admit, that’s not a huge revelation. It’s been the same sky for all 63 of my years. But it triggered something in me, and I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just getting old and nostalgic. But, right there at that moment, staring at the same sky, I was back on the driveway at 513 Woodleaf Court in Kirkwood, Mo. I was there. It was a lot of wonderful and little bit scary all at the same time. I was there. I felt it. I was home.

Let me bore you with a little more detail about Kirkwood, Missouri. You could not possibly ask for a better place to grow up. And I was lucky, in that regard. My dad moved around ceaselessly in his baseball career. It was a different town, a different league, or a different job almost every year. It’s a vagabond lifestyle unless you’re one of the truly talented and fortunate who get to spend decades in one place. My dad was a great player, though he was no Stan Musial. But when he was signed by the Cardinals and put on the big league roster in 1946 my parents bought a home. In Kirkwood. I really don’t know why. It was about 12 miles from the ballpark and 15 miles from downtown. It was a “bedroom community” in some ways, but it had its own historic downtown with shops, a bakery, a drug store, a hardware store, and more. Plus an actual functioning train station. It was middle America in spades.

Their first house was on Par Lane, not far from where I grew up. There had been a golf club there, way before the houses were built. I think you can still find it in the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest putt ever holed. Some golfer teed off with a putter at the Woodlawn Golf Club and got a hole-in-one. When a developer bought the entire place and built hundreds of small Cape Cod brick homes, the sort of suburban homes that were popping up everywhere after World War II, my parents bought one after my dad became a Cardinal. The developer was cute enough to name many the streets after golf terms. Par Lane was one of them, along with Fairway, Bogey, and Club. Those street signs are still there.

This will always be home. (Click on any image to enlarge)

When the family grew, and my sister Mary and I were about to join the world, they moved a few blocks, to Woodleaf Court, just down Woodlawn Avenue from Par Lane. It was a modern contemporary 1950s house. Split level with huge windows and modern touches beyond its time. It was cursed with something typical for the time, however. The three bedrooms were small, the closets microscopic, there was only one full bath, and the galley kitchen was barely big enough for 1.5 people at a time. But by 1956 when I was born, it was home.

We may have traveled a lot, for my dad’s career, but 513 Woodleaf was always home. It stayed the family home until we finally had to move Mom and Dad into assisted living and then sold the place. That was hard. It was the warmest, safest, most wonderful home a boy could grow up in.

We had a basketball hoop in the driveway, it would’ve been about halfway down on the left in this current-day photo. I can’t believe I was never more than an average basketball player considering the hours I spent out there shooting hoops. And I was an aspiring football kicker, who spent an equal amount of hours kicking balls into the large oak tree on the other side of the drive. They would pinball down, branch to branch, and I’d retrieve them and kick them all again. We always had four to six footballs in the bin in the garage. That was a necessity.

That large tree that’s seen right next to the driveway? My sister Mary took a branch from another big tree and stuck it in the ground right before we left for Washington D.C. for the summer of 1970, when Big Del was a coach for the Senators. We could not believe it when we got back home after that summer and the thing was still alive. Look at it now! That’s a Wilber legacy, all by itself. Our history is in that tree. Mary’s DNA is in it. Amazing. It’s officially known as “Mary’s Tree.”

Little Bobby Joe and his big sister Mary Lynn. Same driveway. Same spotlight. Home.

There is a lone spotlight on the front of the house above the garage. It wasn’t all that bright, but it gave us a chance to play basketball at night. The challenge was always shooting from the left side of the basket, because you were not only looking into the light but you were shooting uphill by a degree or two. It was a small slope toward the street, but it was real. No wonder, later in life, when I did play pick-up basketball, my favorite shot was from the right side of the basket, about 15-feet out.

On too many nights to count, after basketball was done, I’d lay on the lawn and stare at the sky. The same sky. The same stars. You could do that in Kirkwood. It was quiet. It was full of families living in modest yet wonderful homes. I never once felt worried about my safety or those around me. Not once. It was home.

See the diagonal sloping window connecting to the chimney, above the huge windows in the living room? That was a skylight. All 10 homes on Woodleaf were designed by Harris Armstrong, a much admired mid-century-modern architect. The entire cul-de-sac is now considered an historic enclave of this design, but we never knew that at the time. Each home had the same basic design, but all 10 were slightly different. Ours was the only one with a skylight.

Through the years, our neighbors came and went. Mostly families, and we got to know all of their kids, but sometimes older couples. The Hargis family lived next door the entire time my folks owned the home. They were the only ones who were always there, but the others in the neighborhood all felt like friends. We had block parties and all knew each others’ lives. The Shoemakers lived on the other side of us for a few years, and Mr. Shoemaker actually built a World War I style biplane in his garage. Not kidding. When it was done he hauled it to a local airfield and attached the wings. Then he flew right over Woodleaf Court and we all stood in the street to wave. The McNichols lived directly across the street. They were an older couple and “wealthy” by our standards. Their house was the only one with a brick facade and a swimming pool. Once in a blue moon, they’d invite us over to swim.

The five Wilber kids. At home.

This photo is from the front yard, not far from the basketball hoop and the same place I’d kick all those footballs. Sister Cindy is clearly getting ready for her first communion at Mary Queen of Peace, where we all went to grade school. This is the single most angelic photo of her ever taken, and we all look like exactly who we ended up being after growing up in that wonderful home under those same stars. Del Jr. is holding me. Rick is in the back. Cindy is practicing for the nuns. Mary isn’t sure what I’m doing, and for some reason I have the “belligerent lip” going. But we were home.

My best friend in grade school, Larry Eberle, and I would ride our bikes all around Kirkwood, and looking back on it I don’t ever recall my legs being tired. We were young and full of energy. Riding the few miles to downtown Kirkwood was easy, and we’d usually ride right down Par Lane and pass the Wilber family’s previous home. I was glad to have been born after the Woodleaf house was bought, because the house on Par Lane was tiny. Larry and I would stop in all the stores, get a cold glass of Coke with slivers of ice and a paper straw at the soda fountain inside the Rexall Drug Store, maybe buy a donut at the Kirkwood Bakery if we had enough spare change, and we’d always stop in at the Kirkwood Train Station. The water fountain in there had the coldest and most wonderful water in the world. And when the passenger trains came in, we were enthralled. I’ll admit that we might have, just once or twice, slid a penny under the massive wheels when the train was stopped, just to see it get smashed. The station is still a vibrant part of downtown and the Amtrak trains come through daily.

So I don’t know why the view of the Minnesota winter sky prompted all this in me. I’ve always loved Kirkwood, and any time I’m in St. Louis I do all I can to drive by 513 Woodleaf just to see it, then I’ll cruise down Kirkwood Road in downtown or over to Mary Queen of Peace to see my old grade school and reminisce about Sister Gertrude Marie trying to teach me long division. When I’m there, a wave of overwhelming nostalgia sweeps over me. But for some reason, right here in Woodbury, I felt like I was there again, out in the driveway after shooting hoops, looking up at the stars. I can still smell the logs burning in the living room fireplace, and see the wooden frame leading into the galley kitchen, with all of our heights marked off in pencil. I assume the new owners replaced that piece of wood. I wonder if they ever noticed the 1-thru-10 numbers carved into the frame of the living room windows, where Mary and I played “elevator” as preschool kids. I’d like to know.

At one point, when Cindy came home from college, we all pitched in and turned the garage into a family room, complete with green shag carpet. We also went down into the north side of St. Louis where many fabulous homes from the 1800s were abandoned, and found a hallway in one that was paneled with old wooden slats that were completely covered in carved initials. There’s no telling the stories behind those carvings, but we brought those musty darkened old slats home and covered one garage wall in them. I have no idea if that was legal. I was just a kid. Later in life, I had more than a few high school parties in that room. After a few years, we turned it back into a garage but the planks on the wall stayed. Are they still there? I can only hope.

It was the most pleasant and inviting home ever. We didn’t have the best of everything, and usually didn’t have the best of anything, but we lived on Woodleaf Court in Kirkwood. It doesn’t get any better than that. Under those same stars.

I took this shot so I’m not in it. Barbara gets to meet Mom and Dad and the Smiths at Woodleaf Court

Not long after I met Barbara, I took her there. My folks were old by then, and not long after we’d be selling the house when we had to move them to assisted living, but I’m so happy she got to see and experience the home I spent my entire young life in. My sister Mary, her husband Lonnie, and their daughters Leigh, Lauren, and Kimberly were there. Not sure where Ewan and Rhiannon were at that time. They had probably both already gotten on with their careers and left St. Louis. I love this photo.

Kirkwood is changing now. It’s too convenient to St. Louis, too nice, and too attractive to avoid developers who are buying up the little Cape Cod brick homes like the one on Par Lane, purchasing them two at a time in order to tear them down and build midsize McMansions that look as out of place as an igloo in the desert. I sure hope that never happens to Woodleaf Court.

But it’s still a wonderful town in a wonderful place. Those stars spoke to me. They transported me. We love it here in Minnesota and have the best friends we’ve ever had, here. But I miss it. It’s home. Under those same stars.

That’s all for this week. I guess it’s enough nostalgia for one blog. I think if you’ve ever been to Kirkwood you know what I’m writing about.

If you could click on the “Like” button at the top that would be great. It helps us draw more traffic to the blog and to The Perfect Game Foundation.

I’ll see you next week. Under these same stars.

Bob Wilber, at your service and thinking of Kirkwood.


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