During my grade school years, we lived in St. Louis on Pershing Avenue, near Forest Park, in a house facing south towards the Park, which we could sense, so close, maybe seven hundred feet, but unseeable: intervening were the houses across Pershing, their alley, the University street-car tracks, an abandoned railroad right-of-way, a high crumbling cement wall, a wide alley called the Private Road, the sweeping deep back yards of the Lindell Boulevard houses, those houses, then, and their green front lawns, finally Lindell itself, the street, busy but on which trucks could never drive and from which horns were very seldom heard.
The imposing Lindell houses had been built before the World’s Fair, held in the Park in 1904. In St. Louis in the 1950s, the memory of the Fair was alive, a stately, opinionated, older female relative, silent in her chair, but impossible to ignore for long.
An even older force, usually (but not always) less apparent than the Fair’s memory, was the River des Peres. Its source was somewhere northwest of us; it ran captive, southeast underground, into Forest Park. Basement dampness in the neighborhood was often attributed to the river; its presence not far below was believed to be why some lots on Lindell were vacant.
Two such vacant lots lay almost directly south of our house, side by side, comprising an acre and a half or more. To grade school boys, the big joined lot was a forest, a jungle, a war zone, a tropical island, any wild place imaginable.
There were several large trees on the lot, giant trees easily visible from Pershing, not too far in from the private road, and various smaller trees, volunteers or wind-blown maples. I paid less attention to the big trees than to vegetation closer to my height. There were weeds—tall, with dull green prickly leaves, or short and dark green—vines, various grasses, and poison ivy. The average height of the growth was approximately my neck level. It was a good place to have a pocket-knife, for wood, or for cutting one’s way out. The lot was home to many green and brown grasshoppers, self-flinging upwards rocket-like; home, too, to bees, birds, and garter snakes.
There were man-made objects to be found, as well, not as many, but differently interesting—forgotten keys, fragments of glass or china, an occasional coin, an empty wallet, playing cards—all causes for wonder.
Among our dogs, my favorite was a beagle-fox terrier, brown and white. She loved running, chasing rabbits and squirrels. My brother and I often took her over to the lot, where she would run into the weeds, jumping tirelessly above the undergrowth, keeping her prey in sight. She was an excellent dog. Her name, unfortunately, was Princess. My little sister named her, I would explain defensively. Mary Theresa was not the least bit apologetic about it, ever—it was how she had perceived the puppy when she had arrived at home, and the dog was, undeniably, female; so, weed-jumping, rabbit chasing, wind-sniffing Princess, she was.
There was a garden in the big lot, just beyond the big trees, half-a-dozen long rows, carefully tilled, planted, staked and tended, yielding carrots, tomatoes, sunflowers, greens—stringbeans, lettuce. The gardener, a thin, white-haired elderly man, would raise and wave his hoe when we approached, yelling at us in words we did not understand. We never purposely ran though his plants, though we probably touched his borders often, where his furrows ended and the weeds resumed.
We called him Mr. Sunny; perhaps we made up the name, since we only saw him outside, or perhaps Sunny was a short form of a difficult Eastern European name. He and his wife lived at the end of our block, at Laurel. We gradually reached smiling-and-waving good terms with them, but we never conversed.
The big Lindell lot remained vacant for decades. I passed it often, remembering, en route to high school, to meetings, to life’s various destinations. A For Sale sign appeared over a year ago; forewarned, the other day I noticed a small modern house on the lot’s western side, and a very large house, growing, front and center in the lot, tall, brick, with a set-back side wing running towards DeBaliviere. I was glad to see, once more, still there, two ancient giant trees at the back of the lot, close to the Private Road.