Center, Missouri. Population 644 (at the 2000 census). About 100 miles northwest of St. Louis and about 20 miles southwest of Hannibal. Home.
I’ve been back home a number of times since I moved to the Kansas City area more than 18 years ago. From 2001-2008 I went back about once a month to check in on Mom and/or Dane. Those brief visits didn’t allow for much time to visit with people outside the family or to really connect with the town I called home for 18 years.
Looking for an opportunity for Dane to catch up with old friends, this past weekend I attended what my childhood friend now refers to as “the social event of the season”—Center Park Day. There is apparently some debate about how many years this event has taken place, but it’s been 59-ish years. My aunt recalls the circumstances around how it was begun. I wasn’t around then, I just remember it was a much-anticipated event for the youth of the town. (Adult views were probably more varied.) In my day, it was always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in August (election day). It is now held the last Saturday in July.
The Park Day of my youth included hourly cake walks and prize walks, kiddie parades, best decorated bike and trike contests, frog jumping contests, a bingo stand, the penny pitch, a dunking booth, water fights…the list goes on. At lunch time, they would randomly stop a family with out-of-state plates—presumably on vacation—at the four-way stop (yes, THE four-way stop…there is only one) and invite them to join us for lunch. They’d be ushered onto the stage and introduced and given a few gifts like a cooler and a road atlas or something and then they’d get a free meal. I always thought that would be an odd experience for anyone. Can you imagine?
Many aspects of the Park Days of my memory continue today. I watched a little girl carry a frog that was bigger than her forearm and plop him down on at the starting line of the frog jumping contest. I didn’t see the best decorated bicycle contest, but I spotted a bike adorned with streamers and wondered how it fared in the contest. The dunking booth was up and running. Dane won a German chocolate cake in the cake walk. My niece, Hannah, won a bike helmet in the prize walk. I watched from afar as youngsters fired water hoses at the barrel suspended from a line. Somewhere I have a plaque from winning the water fight in nineteen eighty-something.
This year, some of the things I remember were gone, but new things entered the mix including a newlywed game where a boy I once babysat was a contestant. There was a “Center’s Got Talent” competition and a “Minute to Win It” game based on a TV show. This suggests that while Park Day is rooted in tradition it can evolve with the times.
The absolute best thing about Park Day, though, is the people you see. I saw former classmates (from grade school through high school) Wendy, Beverly and Joni. I spotted Wendy with her son and asked, “Is this your little one?” She replied, “Yes,” and then she whispered, “He’s a mean little shit.” It warmed my heart to know she hasn’t changed. Beverly was there with her son selling cold water to raise money for a field trip (or something). Joni, who can proudly claim to have never missed a Park Day in 40 years, was there with her teenage daughter and they were looking forward to entering the look-alike contest. (I didn’t see it and I don’t know who their competition was, but they should have had a good shot at winning.)
I saw former Sunday school teachers, and softball coaches and a history teacher and lunch line ladies. I saw former softball teammates, Amber and Dawn. I saw parents of former classmates and friends—Joann and Charles; Mac and Leona; Bert; Judy; and Nancy. I ran into people who I used to see regularly on Sunday mornings at Olivet Christian Church—Ron and Lisa and Jan. All of these people helped shape my life in some way.
I tend to think of Kansas City (or Overland Park or whatever) as home now, but it’s no Center. I think the thing I like most about where I work and where I go to church (both of which have about the same number of members/employees as Center has residents) is the sense of community I feel at each of those places. It’s the sense of community that I first experienced in that little town that is but a speck on the map in northeast Missouri.