Clem Flickinger was 92 years old when I met him, still living in the house where he grew up, in Marceline, Missouri. This was meaningful, because his house was one block up the street from the house where Walt Disney had lived as a boy. Walt and Clem had been boyhood friends.
I was in Marceline to research a teleplay I was writing about Walt Disney. I’d already spent a day with Rush Johnson, who’d been mayor of Marceline when Walt returned to dedicate an elementary school named after him. The school replaced the one Walt had attended as a boy. A famous anecdote about those days: For an art assignment, Walt’s teacher instructed her class to draw flowers. Walt drew flowers with faces. “Walt, flowers don’t have faces,” the teacher said.
“My flowers do,” Walt had legendarily replied.
Walt and his wife, Lillian, stayed at the Johnsons’ house when they returned for the school dedication. Rush Johnson was a collector. He had a big collection of Winchester rifles mounted on the wall of his living room, and a collection of llamas in a field outside. He had found and kept Walt’s father, Elias’, Grange Union card. Johnson told me the card held lot of sentimental value for Walt, and that he’d had snapped at Lillian when she’d questioned its authenticity.
He told me that one night during his stay, Walt had gotten drunk on Scotch Mists (his drink of choice), and had peed all over the walls in the Johnsons’ guest bathroom, “like he had peed while turning in a circle,” said Johnson.
“I didn’t want to wash the walls. That was a one-of-a-kind Walt Disney autograph.” Johnson laughed. “But my wife insisted.”
Johnson had bought the old Disney Marceline homestead, and his daughter was living there at the time. He gave me a tour of the place, which was on a plot of 20 acres. Nothing a farmer could make a living on today, and, in fact, Elias Disney hadn’t made a go of it, either, and after ten years of struggling as a farmer, he’d moved his family to Kansas City, where Walt would get his start as an animator.
It was Rush Johnson who introduced me to Mr. Flickinger. We sat in his living room and talked. You could see the Disney homestead out his window, a hundred yards away. It was the house where young Walt had famously earned a whipping from his father for drawing a city skyline on the side of the house with a tar brush.
Mr. Flickinger told me what he remembered about the boy who’d grow up to become one of the most famous storytellers in the world.
“I remember him pulling a shoebox up the street that he’d tied to a string, talking to himself the whole time,” he said. “I don’t know what he was imagining, but you knew he was imagining that shoebox was something.”
“He had an Uncle Ed, who was slow in the head,” Mr. Flickinger continued. (Intellectually disabled, we’d say today. I related to this. My mom’s Uncle Carl had been the same way.) “His Uncle Ed would stand on the railroad tracks and wave down the train and he and Walt would ride the train into town.” Trains were probably going to stop anyway .There was a big coal pile a quarter mile outside Marceline, not far from the Disney house, where trains could take on coal. But I always thought that seeing a grown man act like a child, and the thrill of riding in the steam engine of a train must’ve surely stayed with Walt in his adult life, so strong was his own sense of childlike wonder, and his lifelong love of trains.
“We used to climb that coal pile,” said Mr. Flickinger. “I always thought it’s where Walt got his inspiration for the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland.” Umm, not sure about that one.
“One time, Walt had an idea to put on a circus in the basement of his house,” Mr. Flickinger said. “The only act in the circus was that he could get his family’s cat to sit on a stool. And the only customer was me. Walt charged me a dime to see the cat sit on the stool. It was the only money I had. When Walt’s mother found out he’d taken my dime, she made him give it back.”
That, I thought, was the most telling story. It would not be the last time Walt Disney lost money in the entertainment business, but his drive to never let it happen again must’ve burned like the furnace of a steam locomotive, because every time he lost, he and his company came back stronger, more resourceful, and better-off financially than ever before. His empire was built of dimes he’d never have to give back to Clem.