Christmas Eve, 1968, downtown Missoula.
We’ve traveled back 50 years in a Wayback Machine fueled by the Missoulian online archives (missoulian.newspapers.com) and the Polk’s Missoula City Directory.
Let’s get our bearings.
It’s a typical socked-in December day, temperatures just above freezing and an occasional drizzle. The air smells, well, like 1968 Missoula, with just a hint of the pulp mill out west in the valley.
Unseen high above the clouds are astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, William Anders. They’re spending the day making history, the first men to orbit the moon. As we wander Higgins Avenue amid throngs of last-minute shoppers, the “Apollonauts” of Apollo 8 take turns reading the creation story from Genesis on a live telecast beamed back to earth. Afterward they wish “Merry Christmas and God bless all of you on the good earth.”
Seven months later, a different set of Americans will walk on the moon.
There’s Christmas music in the department stores, some of it perhaps ukulele-playing Tiny Tim doing a rendition of “Nowhere Man” on The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record.
We start our virtual walk downtown at a place where most things Missoula start, the Mercantile. Those of a certain age remember the brick department store at the northeast corner of Front and Higgins. Sigh.
We’ll come back to visit, but let’s cross Higgins Avenue to the Florence Hotel “complex." There’s a shopper’s special at the Travelers Rest Lounge — steak sandwich, fries, salad and a beverage for $1.75. Sigh. The suggested beverage: a Tom & Jerry, to “brace against the cold.”
North now, and stroll past the Christmas display in the iconic J.C. Penney store (did it have an escalator or not?), then Dixon and Hoon Shoes.
On to Woolworth's and the Diana Shop. North of Broadway, there's Smith Drug, the Uptown Café and Bob Ward and Sons. At the end of that block, "for a man's meal it's the Oxford," not to be confused with those slip-on Oxfords on sale for $7.95 at Army-Navy Economy Store across the street.
On the northwest corner of Higgins and Pine, where Sushi Hana will stand in 50 years: Yandt’s Men’s Wear. There's free gift wrapping, S&H Green Stamps and turtleneck dress shirts for $12 in the Port Hole Room "below decks."
Up that 400 block, downstairs from Tony’s Lounge and Bar in the Priess Hotel building (think the parking lot of Worden’s Market), an "alkathon" is going on. It began at 3 p.m. and will last until midnight on Christmas in the club room of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Anyone having an alcohol problem or who's bothered by the prospect is invited down to “discuss it or just to socialize.” Friends and relatives are welcome.
Yet another men’s clothing store (sigh) waits on the 500 block. Dragstedt’s has been here since 1926, and just last month Carl Dragstedt celebrated the 50th anniversary of the business in Missoula.
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At the top of Higgins is the Park Hotel, Circle Square and the Northern Pacific depot. Then back down on the other side.
Inside the brick Missoulian, a newsroom copy girl (sigh) tears off the AP teletype wire (sigh) the latest update from southern California, where the 82-man crew of the USS Pueblo is landing in two big Air Force jets, newly released after 11 months of captivity in North Korea.
Staff photographer Harley Hettick is down in the darkroom, processing film that will result in tomorrow’s Page 2 shot. It’s an overhead view of four parallel pews in an unidentified local church. A person of indeterminate gender is sitting the second one from the top of the frame.
“A lone visitor on Christmas Eve reflects on the true meaning of Christmas in pews which will be filled with worshipers at special services today,” the cutline will read.
Eddy’s Club (sigh), the Golden Pheasant Restaurant, Ogg Shoe Co., Singer Sewing, the Kiddie Shop and Denise’s. The three-story First Federal Building rises at the corner of Main and Higgins.
Then back to the Merc.
By now Santa’s not holding court in Toyland on the third floor. Dusk approaches and the streets are thinning out as shoppers, ahem, rush home with their treasures.
The Mercantile will close at 5 p.m. Until then you’re invited to “use your credit card storewide! Charge it!”
Up in the mezzanine books and record section you can pick up an audio stereo tape deck for $64.95. Maybe throw in an “Al Hirt: The Sound of Christmas” eight-track tape (sigh). Then let's call it a memory.
Back at the Missoulian, Sam Reynolds has wrapped up his Christmas Day editorial.
“This is the day for poets,” it began. “They can express what is in the hearts and minds of men. The rest of us can feel it, and show it, and believe it, and enjoy it, but our poetry must murmur mutely inside, expressed but not written.”
“Have a Merry Christmas,” Reynolds concludes, 150 words later. “It should be merry because it is a feast of joy. But remember today that there is more to it than indulgence in collective happiness. There is the obligation to renew one’s spirit with the meaning of what the feast celebrates.
“High in meaning is the duty to help all people, everywhere.”