Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The day the world got smaller

All eyes were on the western sky.

*     *     *

By morning, most of the best vantage points had been grabbed, occupied for hours. A day earlier, when the estimated time of arrival was sometime around midnight, people began positioning themselves on downtown rooftops, on the hill opposite Union Station, in cars parked along the mall leading to the Liberty Memorial. WDAF radio had put an announcer on top of the Kansas City Star building, broadcasting nonstop into the night. Floodlights were aimed skyward. All eyes and ears strained toward the southwest. Is that a constellation there? Is that a locomotive rumbling or ...?

But Texas headwinds kicked up down in El Paso. Kansas City would have to wait until daylight. Skywatchers dozed in place. The radio played musical interludes between progress bulletins. It would be sometime between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., said the announcer.

At 9 o'clock the temperature was 70 degrees, the sky hazy-cloudy, laced with smoke from the railyards and factories. Visibility was poor for the thousands now stationed on blankets and rooftops. The two-hour window passed. Then at 9:35 the big whistle blew loud from the Armour packing plant in the stockyards. Three minutes later the nose of a giant emerged from the mist above Southwest Boulevard and Summit street. Then the whole giant, dark gray, three city blocks long, a thousand feet overhead, engines roaring, cruising northeast towards Union Station. Small airplanes circled the giant, appearing to one observer like "mosquitoes buzzing a colossal bumblebee."

The pale disc of the sun briefly managed a few bright shafts, turning the giant silver. From the ground, those with field glasses could make out tiny figures in cabin windows. Large red letters on the silvery sides were clear: Graf Zeppelin.

The Graf Zeppelin over Union Station, August 28, 1929.
*     *     *
For three weeks Kansas Citians, like the rest of the world, had been reading about the great journey of the Graf Zeppelin – around the world in record-breaking time. Leaving Lakehurst, New Jersey, on August 8, 1929, the airship had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, Europe and Asia, across the Pacific Ocean and half of the United States by August 28, when it broke through clouds above Kansas City. In another day the adventure would end back in Lakehurst. Twenty-one days, five hours, twenty-five minutes, the fastest any humans had circled the globe.

Two days before the arrival in Kansas City.

The ship, a German accomplishment, carried forty crew members and a multinational passenger group of twenty, including one woman. Lady Grace Drummond-Hay was a well-known British journalist whose daily dispatches were read in newspapers worldwide. On that Wednesday she wrote:

Kansas City waved us a welcome this morning as we sped overhead and circled about, preparatory to setting our course for Chicago, which will be our turning point and our own special gateway toward the East. A score, it seemed, of welcoming airplanes soared about this giant silver ship, greeting us and photographing from all conceivable angles. It was ten minutes ahead of schedule, at 9:40 o'clock, that we flew over Kansas City, and it was ten minutes later that we left it, to the accompanying sounds of whistles and sirens below.

*     *     *

The Graf Zeppelin's circle here appeared to center on the three-year-old Liberty Memorial – from Union Station east to about Prospect, south and west over Linwood boulevard, north along Broadway – before it continued downtown, over the Missouri River and vanished again into the clouds.

Headed north, over the Missouri River.

A few shouts arose when the airship was first sighted, but for the most part spectators fell silent as they watched the massive thing, propelled by five great engines, soar over them. At the time the fastest they could travel from coast to coast was via train-plane combo – plane in daylight, train overnight – in forty-eight hours, weather permitting. Air travel was shrinking the planet, but perhaps that was just now dawning on some.

As one Kansas Citian later said, “How amazing it was! How altogether incredible! But one short week ago this ship was forging her way across the lonely, unexplored wastes of Siberia.” 


*     *     *

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Postmark: July 24, 1955


*     *     *

Kansas City was expanding in the heat of summer 1955.

A hundred thousand more people since just before World War II. New freeways and viaducts and cloverleaf interchanges. A new bridge rising over the Missouri River at the foot of Broadway, and a new underground parking garage across from Municipal Auditorium downtown. It was the first summer as a major league city. The Kansas City Athletics, having moved from Philadelphia the previous winter, were playing their first season at Twenty-second and Brooklyn in an enlarged Municipal Stadium. 

The Kansas City Zoo welcomed a new baby elephant named Casey, born in the wilds of Africa and purchased for the zoo by Arnold Johnson, the new owner of the A’s. The longtime team mascot was an elephant.

By the weekend of July 23-24, the A’s were not the worst team in the American League, but had lost 10 straight games, including three straight to the worst team, the Baltimore Orioles. Now here came the New York Yankees – Mantle, Ford, Berra, etc. – also in a slump but clinging to first place. The A’s somehow took the Friday night and Saturday afternoon games, then dropped a double-header on Sunday.

After games, major league ballplayers – A’s and visitors – often had dinner at the Majestic Steakhouse at Thirty-first and Holmes, run by Tudie Lusco, a veteran of the wide-open nightlife days of the Pendergast era. (In coming seasons Lusco would attend each A’s spring training in Florida and cook steak dinners for the team.)

The Majestic was a decade old, among established favorites like the Savoy, the Golden Ox, the Wishbone, Nance’s, Italian Gardens, Jennie’s, and the Forum. Putsch’s Cafeteria advertised its 11 a.m. opening, “plenty of time to get to the ballpark” for a day game. Joe Gilbert’s restaurant at the downtown airport was “open ‘round the clock,” and used the image of an elephant in advertising. 

Gilbert’s former partner at the airport, Nathan “True” Milleman, now owned perhaps the city’s trendiest restaurant, the year-old Milleman’s at the corner of Pennsylvania and Ward Parkway on the Country Club Plaza. Newspaper society columns gave details of wedding parties, club meetings and retirement tributes at Milleman’s. A year earlier a front-page article in the Timeshad documented the restaurant’s soft opening. Highlights included a cocktail lounge called the Web Room, “with a jeweled spider and fly entwined in a large black web that overhangs the bar.” And the Fountain Room, upholstered in green and styled as an outdoor patio with a central fountain. 

Another fountain just outside the entrance featured a mascot of sorts. Not an elephant, this one was drawn from Greek mythology. “Pegasus” was a small bronze flying horse, which sat on a pedestal in the fountain on the sidewalk. Inside the restaurant, “Pegasus” had his name on a second bar, and he starred in advertising. 



Milleman’s patrons found white tablecloths and waitresses in long skirts and starched white blouses. They dined on steaks and roasts and fresh seafood, and afterward could buy a souvenir postcard at the front counter. As so happened that Sunday evening, when such a postcard was mailed to a suburban address outside Houston:

Sunday nite 7-24
Rita & Frank just took me to dinner at this ritzy restaurant – its lovely on the inside. Saw the K.C. A’s beat the N.Y. Yanks Sat.
Love, Jerry    



*     *    *

Milleman’s lasted until 1957, when Wolferman’s bought it and renamed it the Empire Room. In the early 1960s it became the Embassy. And for more than fifty years it was Plaza III.

The Kansas City A’s moved to Oakland after the 1967 season.

True Milleman died in 1973 at age 84.

Casey, the zoo’s African elephant, died in 2003. Thought to be 52, he was the oldest African bull elephant in North America at the time.

“Pegasus” was moved to a pedestal at Forty-seventh and Broadway in 1963. In 1990 he was stolen. His replica now stands on Broadway near Nichols Road.

*     *    *

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The unkissed pedestrian

Twelfth and Baltimore in the heyday of Kirby McRill.
Anderson Photo Company Photograph Collection (K0489). The State Historical Society of Missouri.
 *     *     *

Kirby McRill has not been forgotten. A few years ago there was a 5K walk named for him in Tonganoxie, Kansas, near the land he once farmed. He’s immortalized in a few books, notably Tom’s Town, a definitive account of the Pendergast years in Kansas City. He even has his own web page. That some memories of him are incomplete, or inaccurate, probably would not have mattered much to Kirby, so long as his name was still out there. He hasn't disappeared, as he did for a time in the summer of 1920, weeks after following railroad tracks out of town, on foot, toward a different life.

 *     *     *

Fifty years ago, a Kansas City Times reporter recalled seeing Kirby McRill downtown in the 1930s, “silhouetted against the sun, moving hell for leather behind his loaded wheelbarrow.” Passing gambling joints along Twelfth street he “pounded through Baltimore avenue, his great red beard and his shoulder-length tresses quivering, clad in his 1918 baseball pants and a shirt as green as the gamblers’ aprons.” 
 
Kirby McRill late in life.
This is the Kirby McRill that evolved from the summer of 1920, the eccentric old man in the weird outfit who walked around town wearing a sandwich sign for a pet store or pushing a cart full of splintered wooden boxes that he rebuilt and sold for income. The guy who lived in a fleabag hotel near the city market, who did time in the municipal farm for creating a fire hazard with his pile of broken wood. Guards there held him down and shaved his hair and beard. He filed a $160,000 suit against the city, without success. 

That old guy resembled his younger self only in that he walked everywhere.

  *     *     *

In the summer of 1920 Kirby McRill was 44 years old. He farmed more than two hundred acres of Kaw Valley bottomland in Leavenworth county, northeast of Lawrence. He had his own threshing equipment, which he hired out at harvest time. He tinkered with his machinery, traveled to implement shows, and in winter sometimes worked at equipment dealers in Kansas City. 

Back then Kirby was tall, dark, blue-eyed and handsome, with carefree hair and a thick mustache. He didn’t consume alcohol, coffee, or tobacco, was a Shriner and a member of a group of bachelor farmers in his rural neighborhood. He was a big eater, favoring rare beef and blackberry pies. He enjoyed walking. A lot. 
 
The younger Kirby.
For years he had walked to Tonganoxie and Lawrence and Topeka, for business or pleasure. In 1911 he covered the forty miles of Union Pacific railroad tracks between Lawrence and Kansas City’s old Union Depot in nine hours and seven minutes, against a head wind. It would have been quicker had not several trains come along.

Sometimes business and pleasure mixed. He’d start from home around midnight, arrive in Kansas City mid-morning, and check into the Baltimore or Muehlebach hotel, Twelfth and Baltimore. Then bathe and eat a big meal, visit a few threshing companies, and start home in the late afternoon.

In 1917 jury duty in Leavenworth meant twenty-seven miles each way in the snowy cold for several days. A local newspaper took notice. “Americans don’t walk enough,” Kirby was quoted as saying. “If they walked more they would have better health; it is the best exercise in the world.” His favorite walking uniform consisted of his old amateur baseball uniform, wide-brimmed hat, and size 12 shoes.

As Kirby kept walking, reporters kept writing about him. In the spring of 1920 he announced he would walk to Chicago, visit a few threshing houses, take in the Republican National Convention, see the sights. With permission to use the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way he set out on May 14 and pulled into Chicago eight days later.  The Chicago Tribune published a small story:


Days later the Tribune ran a story about five young Evanston women seeking husbands, promoted by the local justice of the peace. Soon Kirby showed up at the judge’s office, saying he’d read about the women and would like an introduction, having decided he “ought to a got hitched up long ago.” Unfortunately, the judge was out of town, so Kirby walked on. 

Next day the Tribune’s front page story began:



 “I haven’t ever kissed a girl,” he had told the paper. “And I’m 44 years old.”

By August, worried friends and relatives had not heard from him in weeks. Meanwhile, Kirby continued walking, visiting Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His crops and business were suffering from neglect. When he finally returned in early September, the bank had foreclosed on his livestock. But Kirby would not stop walking, or seeking publicity. He began spending even more time in Kansas City.

Now the stories were in papers nationwide, usually referring to him as The Unkissed Pedestrian. The Heart of America Walking Club here in town recruited him to help promote walking and the city. He participated in publicity stunts. In 1921 a Post reporter ambushed him with a showgirl named Flossie Devere. “You can’t tell me he’s never been kissed before,” she said after planting one for the camera. Kirby looked surprised, but not displeased. He was still searching. 
 
Kissed at last.
Finally, in the summer of 1922, he was seen with a young female walking companion. A trainee, he called her. She was Daisy Belle Hicks, half his age, daughter of a neighboring farmer in Leavenworth county. All that fall, as Kirby trained for another Chicago walk, this time sponsored by the HOA Walking Club, Daisy Belle was there. Though he hoped she would soon be ready for long-distance walking, he paid for her to attend barber school in the meantime. “She's going to get a job in one of these here lady barber shops,”  he told the Post.

In December, leaving the steps of city hall in Kansas City, bound for Chicago, he passed her school whistling “The Girl I Left Behind.” She waved goodbye with her clippers.

  *     *     *

Of course, Daisy Belle Hicks ran off with another man. Kirby never recovered. As a silent protest he grew his hair and beard long, and sued Daisy for breach of promise. The suit was thrown out of court. 

Walking had become an obsession. He lost his farm. His plan to break the transcontinental record of Edward Payson Weston never materialized. Kirby was growing old, and the only walking left was behind a wheelbarrow in the streets of Kansas City. 

“This never would have happened if I had not been kissed the first time,” he told a reporter. “Kissing is a dangerous habit. It is like opium. The more you get the more you want. I wish the women would leave me alone forever now.”

  *     *     *

The end came for Kirby McRill in 1950, when he was hit by a car on Third street in the cold hour before a January dawn. At first no one claimed his body, but four hundred Kansas Citians filed past his wooden coffin at the Lapetina funeral home on Campbell street. Finally, some relatives and friends buried him in a little cemetery near his old Kansas farm. 

Some of them recalled the old Kirby, before his walking became newsworthy. 

“After that,” said one, “Kirby wanted nothing greater out of life than to get his name and his picture in the newspapers.”
In death, he made the front page of the Star.

  *     *     *