Growing up in the center of America in the 1960s kept me a little insulated from the world. When my older sisters came home on visits from college, I would listen to their stories about people they had met. At times I assumed they must be attending school on Mars from their shared stories.
To me, as a small boy, the universe ended just beyond St. Louis, unless you counted Vietnam where the soldiers went and the news placed it on our living room television sets.
I looked at everyone as a foreigner if they lived beyond a two-hour driving radius from Hannibal.
As a young man I took a busboy position at Hannibal Holiday Inn. It was an eye-opening adventure for me. Being a tourist town, I met people from countries and cultures all over the world. Interacting with them was a challenge, but I somehow managed with limited language skills.
I was asked multitudes of questions by these travelers. I was once asked by a child if I knew Mark Twain. I guess this town really brings history into the present, which explains our level of tourism.
After such encounters I began to ask myself what I was missing. I had lived my entire life in Mark Twain’s boyhood hometown, yet I knew very little.
I decided to read some of Mark’s writings and visit a few tourist locations here. I was 16 years old before I ever visited the cave.
People travel thousands of miles to see what is at our back door. I discovered a wealth of history and humor in Twain’s works. I could see remnants of what he must have seen and a glimpse into his mind.
I had heard of Twain my entire life. Other than reading a required book in school, I was essentially numb to Twain’s literary prowess.
He was able to capture the lifestyle of people of his time and make them larger than life. His humor was a bit dark at times and philosophical other times. He could spin many things and make it a present for you, all with quill pen.
Many local people will never know or embrace Mark Twain as the world has done. That is a terrible shame but a real truth.
Just know as you visit the Autumn Historic Folklife Festival or participate in Hannibal’s many celebrations, there is a ghost of a little boy with a straw hat, a slingshot in one pocket, an apple core in the other, barefoot and dragging a stick along the picket fence of Twain’s boyhood home. He stops only to gaze out over the Mississippi River and smile. This is his town. This is our river town.