It’s that time of year again . . . thank you to all of you who have served our country.
Be sure to thank a veteran today. And if you’re you are looking for a way to do that, check out Give an Hour. I’ve posted about them before, but Give an Hour is committed to destigmatizing mental health, especially within the veteran community. They also provide no-cost mental health services and promote mental health literacy. It’s a fantastic organization, and every Veteran’s Day I take a few minutes to send a few bucks their way. For more information, check out https://giveanhour.org/.
In the meantime, stay tuned . . . I’m going to start posting more regularly again soon. Adjusting to a new graduate program while recovering from a hernia surgery hasn’t been easy, but I’m still finding time to write and research. I have some ideas for things to do on here, and I hope to start sharing them in the coming weeks.
Hi folks, I just wanted to post a quick announcement about some wonderful news I received last week:
Never Caught Twice is a 2021 Nebraska Book Award winner for Nebraska History! Thank you to the Nebraska Center for the Book for considering my work and to the University of Nebraska Press for submitting it! I will be joining the other winners in Lincoln, Nebraska next month to accept the award, sign copies of Never Caught Twice, and celebrate the Cornhusker State’s deep and ever-expanding literary heritage! Incidentally, this will be my first in-person book event since my manuscript’s publication nearly a year ago . . . because of COVID-19, I have not been able to do any of the traditional book release activities (e.g., book signings and launch parties). While I am obviously excited to finally have the opportunity to participate in a non-virtual book event, I am thrilled that the reason for this particular event is to accept a book award in one of my favorite cities with several other amazing authors!
Sorry, it’s late and I forgot to do this earlier, so I’m just going to post the rest without bothering with photos . . . let me know what you think! – Matt
While Grandpa’s letters contain a trove of valuable information about his college history, there is another perspective that may give it some additional context and color: my own. In 1946 SMSTC shortened its name to Southeast Missouri State College, and in 1973 it rechristened itself as Southeast Missouri State University. This was the school’s name when I matriculated there in 1999. Now often referred to as SEMO or just “Southeast,” the university is no longer just for teachers or officer trainees. Its larger mission today is to serve as the preeminent educational, intellectual, and cultural institution for Southeast Missouri, long considered to be the most economically disadvantaged region in the state. But it is also a great alternative for many St. Louis-area students who, like me, could not get into a more prestigious school and who were turned off or intimidated by Mizzou’s sprawling campus community.
As I went through his letters from Cape, I noticed many little things that tied our experiences together: afternoons at Capaha Park, evenings at Cape Rock, cool nights spent smoking under the stars, hot days spent seeking relief from the sultry Gulf heat that somehow always stretched its way up the Mississippi, and the mysteriously (almost suspiciously) high quality of the dorm food. When he first mentions Cheney Hall a rush of memories come flooding back, reminding me of all those times I’d walk from Cheney back to Towers late at night after seeing my girlfriend, passing the blinking power plant and the brooding soccer fields, hearing nothing but the tinnitus-like ringing of Missouri insects screaming from the trees and soft winds blowing a long arc from the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic. If it was especially late at night – or early in the morning – I could hear the first songbirds serenade each other from the Spanish oaks and sweet gum trees. Sometimes I would stand outside of the Towers dormitory complex after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers announce the beginning of their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things more often, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.
Of course, we did compare notes occasionally. Like Grandpa, I spent most of my weekends in Cape, which is not well known for its nightlife (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). While the town was big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, it was too small for a pub crawl. At least the Illinois side of the river had the Little Vegas Strip in East Cape Girardeau. Anchored by the Purple Crackle, a “supper club” which regularly featured big bands, for generations it was the place for students to go on a Friday night. But there was a rub: the Cape Girardeau Bridge, which was long, narrow, frightening under even the best of circumstances, and utterly terrifying under the worst. Cars passing each other only had a few feet of clearance on either side (the roadtop was only twenty feet wide), so each party going east across the river to visit the Crackle had to come back with at least one driver who was sober enough to safely make the trip back west. That wasn’t always a sure thing.* Decades later, after dinner one Sunday evening my grandpa asked me if the Crackle was still there. I quickly glanced at him and we shared a knowing look, hopefully without my mother noticing.
Despite these commonalities, many things have changed since then. When I attended Southeast Missouri State University from 1999 to 2003, Cheney Hall was the oldest and most highly desired dormitory on campus. It is a gorgeous building, and its rooms have beautiful hardwood floors and classic radiators. But like all older things, it was not always so. Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College constructed Cheney Hall in 1939 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, so by the time Elmer arrived on campus in 1943 it was one of the newest buildings on campus. Meanwhile, Elmer’s dorm, Leming Hall, was already a couple of generations old, having been built in 1905. It was used for seventy years, setting the scene for generations of students’ memories. But while this spot lived on in my grandpa’s recollection of the campus, the building that came after that – the University Center, built in 1975 – became a special place for his grandson in turn. I spent a lot of time there: club meetings, my first student conference, BBQ sandwiches in the cafeteria . . . so many things come to mind. The buildings were different but the geographic coordinates were exactly the same.
It has been nearly twenty years since I graduated college, and the memories return in fragments. There are fuzzy mental snapshots of reading history books, looking at microfilm, taking notes, talking to professors, buzzing around Carnahan Hall, making friends, eating burgers and omelets in the cafeteria . . . typical college stuff. But my mind also plays 4K videos me of going to New York on a Greyhound with my best friend, falling in love for the first time, watching 9/11 unfold on a break room TV screen at work, reading Hunter S. Thompson while sitting next to the river as it rolled forever by, racing down two lane roads in old cars covered in band stickers and then drunkenly eating pancakes with groggy truckers at the Scott City Huddle House . . . College was such an indispensably formative time for me that I cannot imagine who I would be without it. Meanwhile, the four years I spent at Southeast were the only frame of reference I have for my grandpa, whose own four formative years were mostly spent aboard Naval ships in war zones. But his residency in Cape Girardeau at least offers an intersection, a shared place, a series of moments that spanned decades of time.
Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as beautiful when the leaves change. Flaming oranges, reds, and yellows polka dot the thick green forests across the Mississippi Valley, crowning the river bluffs with wreaths of gold and crimson. The region’s myriad apple trees sweeten the scene, and pumpkins are never hard to find. On the college campus, leaves congregate on Normal and Henderson Avenues, shirts begin to seek cover under sweaters and jackets, and cool winds from the north and west begin to overpower the Gulf moisture from the South. Today, October comes during the midway point of the semester, and despite the increasingly comfortable climate students are often weighted down by anxiety over midterms. For V-12 students, however, October brought the end of the semester as well as the end of summer. And like boiled eggs cooling in a pan of water, students were unburdened for a short time with both the pressures of school and the soupy humidity of a Cape summer.
As the V-12 semester at Southeast began to wind down, Elmer welcomed the dipping temperatures. After spending two autumns in the tropics he was ready for cool nights and hot cider. But he could not enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that would largely define for him his time at SMSTC. The first was a hernia that, as far as Elmer could tell, he had suffered while completing one of the obstacle courses sometime during the first two weeks of the term. It aggravated him enough to limit his activity, but not enough to warrant taking him immediately out of school, so he gutted it out. His commanding officer allowed him to put the surgery off until after the semester concluded, since it would also require two weeks of subsequent bedrest. But Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about causing his mother any more anxiety. On one of his trips home he confided in his father, letting him know what happened and what he expected to happen next. With respect to everyone else, however, mum was the word. He even kept the news from Rose. Elmer waited to read her in until he wrote her on November 9th, after nearly two weeks in the hospital. “I kept my condition a secret from just about everyone because I didn’t want my mom to know,” he explained. “She is a very high-strung and emotional person.”
Although Grandpa was able to get his hernia fixed, the second medical problem issue he faced was an intractable and, as far as the Navy was concerned, far worse for his prospects as an officer. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision exam. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer originally enlisted. The older test that Elmer took did not detect any problems with his color vision, but since a new physical examination was required prior to Elmer matriculating into the V-12 program he had to take the newer diagnostic. But after reviewing the results, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the updated vision assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was not severe enough to send him home, but it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program. He was ordered to return to active duty and allowed to retain his previous rating.
Once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He broke the disappointing news to his parents and then boarded a train south toward New Orleans, where he was to be operated on before resting for two weeks and awaiting orders that would presumably send him to a new ship. When he arrived on October 26th, his autumn was officially over, but it was not yet winter, either. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. Just the Louisiana air, thick and steamy as a pot of bouillabaisse.
He mailed his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before his procedure. He did not have much to say: “Didn’t see much of New Orleans yet, it is an old city. I noticed how old so many buildings were as we traveled from the Union Station to the Naval Station.” He sent his next letter on October 30th. “Hi you dad! Still at the job. Had that little matter taken care of that we talked about at home. Everything is fine and working out swell. Thought you would like to know.” Father and son kept mother in the dark about Elmer’s condition. But Rose Luckett, who may well have been “high strung and emotional,” was by no means dumb. She wondered what the word “dispensary” meant when she saw it on Elmer’s new mailing address.
After Halloween she looked it up.
The news deeply disappointed Elmer, who apparently did not discover his condition or his fate until he received his transfer orders in mid-October. His letters up until that point make no mention of the vision exam results, and at several points in his letters to Rose he expressed his excitement over being done with “this term,” as opposed to school overall. There is no sense of impending finality in his letters. One letter is written in Cape; the next is a postcard from New Orleans. And therefore, with the stroke of a pen, Elmer’s college career was over.
Grandpa told me this story years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime had passed. I detected more than a twinge of disappointment, even though he had since lived his best life. One time when I was a kid, I also asked my mom about this. I wondered how grandpa could drive if he could not tell the difference between red and green. After all, what would happen at a traffic light? My mom informed me that he had learned to tell which light was illuminated, which after 25 years of driving is still something I have to think about for a second. This made me admire him even more. And while I am not privy to the optical demands of the World War II Naval officer corps Elmer’s color perception deficiency never seemed to hinder him in the engine room. But just as one bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another exhibited enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third determined that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.
Years later, not long after grandpa died, I found a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother) as I was going through some of the papers he left behind. When I opened the envelope a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and self-published (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed. Seemingly more disposable was the program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony, which was carefully tucked away behind all the other childhood detritus. I do not even know where mine is today – I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. But when I peeked at the program my grandpa saved he had circled my name, and in margin he wrote “cum laude = with honors!!!” It was both touching and telling that he presumably felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been prouder of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.
I knew the honors distinction made him happy, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter. Although my grandpa did not choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I know he was pleased that I chose to follow his footsteps there, even if I never did join the Navy. And while I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, my grandpa left college with honors as well. Mine were published in a commencement program, while his were pinned to his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.
It’s almost back to school time! Whether you or your kids or grandkids are starting a new grade or a new school, this is a good moment to reflect on what our school and college experiences mean to us. This is especially true after the past year and a half of quarantine restrictions. Although we are not yet out of the woods (and if you are not vaccinated yet, please do so for your sake and for all those who cannot for whatever reason . . . like my four year old daughter!), I hope that we come closer to some kind of normalcy this next year.
For my part, I will be starting my MFT Counseling program at CSU-East Bay next week. I am both excited and nervous about being a grad student again . . . if memory serves, during my last go-around I could not wait to not be a student anymore! But this time feels different. It is also fitting that I end my registered student journey (one hopes, anyway) at a state college, given that I earned my Bachelors degree at Southeast Missouri State University. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s OK—it does not show up too often on the rankings lists. But it was a smart, affordable, and ultimately right choice for me and, I would guess, most of my friends as well, who have all gone on to do incredible things in their post-baccalaureate lives.
Anyway, check out the following chapter I’ve written for my book, Grandpa’s Letters: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey in History and Memory. When my grandpa was selected to join the V-12 officers training program in 1943, the Navy decided to send him to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College—now known as Southeast Missouri State University. This chapter describes his semester there, as related to his parents in his letters, and it also contains some thoughts of my own on how our experiences there intertwined. I think it shows just how powerful and profound the college experience can and should be.
Note that some of the prose matches the prose in earlier blog posts about the project. This is by design, since the book is largely based on these posts. But I hope this also gives you a sense on how I’m trying to make everything congeal into a larger, book-length narrative. As it continues to evolve I will keep adding things and taking other things away. But overall the final product will be much better—and less raw—than the posts themselves. Such is the nature of writing.
Please let me know what you think in the comments, or by sending me a message in the Contact page. The book is just about fully drafted, so I’m rapidly reaching the point where I can start sending it out to people and soliciting feedback. I’d love to know what you think!
Chapter 7, The College Try—Part I
Time flew. June arrived before anyone knew it, and Elmer’s 43 days were up. “That month at home was heaven,” he wrote his parents after arriving at San Diego on June 15th. “Mom dear, I sure miss that home cooking of yours. Our food is good, but it just don’t compare with yours.” Elmer’s train deposited him in San Diego several days early. What was in 1940 a sleepy if boisterous border town that happened to have a Naval base was by 1943 a large, bustling wartime port that happened to be near a major city. He spent his remaining days on leave with a couple of friends he made on the train west, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city before being shipped to Heaven Knows Where. While Elmer was on his way to start his officer training program, he had no idea where in the United States he would end up going. Texas? New York? Idaho? College students today have thousands of possible destinations to pick choose and can visualize where they will end up, but Elmer and other V-12 selectees had to wait on pins and needles for their school assignments without even knowing their destination’s time zone. But by the time he reported for duty on June 18, he received some unexpectedly good news: he would be soon be on a train back East. He would report to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College to begin his V-12 program studies. It was only one hundred miles from home.
Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College (SMSTC) was located in Cape Girardeau, where it stretched across a series of forested, rolling hills overlooking the Mississippi River. It was an odd place for a Naval school, just as Cape Girardeau is an odd name for a town located approximately 500 miles from the nearest ocean. Yet Cape Girardeau itself rests just above the northernmost tip of the Mississippi Embayment, a massive alluvial region that is at least geologically a continuation of the Mississippi Delta. Over millions of years the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers carried sediment from the Ozark and Appalachian ranges down towards the Gulf, which during the Cretaceous Period extended all the way up to the Missouri bootheel. As the once-towering mountain ranges across eastern North America slowly crumbled away the river sediment continued to build up, adding new land over tens of millions of years that eventually became the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By 1943 the Mississippi was much longer, and the rippled hills surrounding Cape Girardeau were now closer to the shores of Lake Michigan than they were to the sea. But Scott City, Cape’s southern neighbor, was once the maritime domain of sharks and plesiosaurs. The Navy was 65 million years too late.
While Cape Girardeau might not have been anywhere close to the sea, it was a classic river town. In many ways aesthetically similar to Hannibal, its more famous counterpart north of St. Louis, Mark Twain once complimented Cape’s “handsome appearance.” But unlike the more culturally Midwestern Hannibal, Cape’s location on what many Missourians would consider to be the state’s border between its Midwestern and Southern regions gives it a special flavor of its own. Residents prefer northern red brick buildings over plantation-style wooden frame homes, which do a better job of keeping the cold out. But at dinner time they will grab some gumbo or gator etouffee at Broussards, which keeps the heat inside. It is a bit isolated for a city east of the Great Plains: St. Louis is 100 miles to the north, and Memphis is twice as far to the south. The college’s nearest competitor, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is an hour’s drive away on rural two-lane highways. Meanwhile, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers make it hard to get anywhere else as they crash into one another south of Cairo. Both rivers elbow their way past Illinois and Kentucky while occasionally puffing out their chests like drunken revelers in the French Quarter. Even today ferries are the quickest and least circuitous way to get to many places on the other side of either river.
Despite being landlocked, SMSTC was well-equipped to host one of the Navy’s 131 V-12 programs during World War II. It also needed the business. School enrollments plummeted during the months following the Pearl Harbor attack, as enlistments and the draft snatched bodies out of dorm rooms and classroom seats in universities across America. The V-12 program, in addition to supplying the Navy with college-educated officers and providing its swelling ranks of enlisted men with a new opportunity for advancement, threw a lifeline to colleges like SMSTC. Instead of waiting out the war with reduced enrollments and endowments that nearly vanished during the Depression, these schools served as satellite Annapolises and extension West Points. Since most of the classes offered in the program were general education courses, as well as physical and leadership training, the V-12 schools provided both experience and facilities. No ocean required.
At least SMSTC looked the part. The Teacher’s College spread across a wooded hill northwest of downtown Cape Girardeau. Its dormitories crowded along Henderson Ave, just east of Capaha Park and on the western edge of today’s campus. The college’s flagship building, Academic Hall, was perched upon the highest of these knolls. The building’s milquetoast name does not do its architecture justice. A neoclassical behemoth built in 1906 from limestone and capped with a copper dome, Academic Hall looms like a stately courthouse over the rest of the campus and the surrounding town. While figuratively it was an ivory tower, the dome itself was made of thinly hammered copper.
On June 26th, Elmer hopped a train from the Pacific to the Mississippi for the second time in as many months. After four days, Grandpa arrived in Cape Girardeau, Missouri at 3:15 in the morning. The moon was only a sliver in the sky, and the disembarking passengers immediately found themselves surrounded by pitch black floodwaters. Cape Girardeau’s railroad is so close to the Mississippi that it practically kisses the riverbank. “The train tracks had about a foot of water over them,” he reported the next day, “but all was well.” Elmer and the other arrivals grabbed their bags, splashed across the submerged platform, and ducked into cabs for the short ride to campus. They only had a couple of hours to sleep before reporting in at 8:30 that morning. But despite the inauspicious beginning, Elmer was excited to start. “I like it here and this is really an opportunity to attend college first class,” he reported. “I think we will be able to get home over weekends once we settle down.”
Elmer quickly found himself busy once classes started on July 6th. “Same routine,” he wrote two weeks later. “Exercise, chow, classes, chow, exercise, classes, study, chow, study, and then sleep. What a day!” His mornings started at 6am, which began with physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training. “I’m tired,” he reported on July 12th after finishing his workout for the day, “but this is good for me.” Several days later he elaborated: “my physical drills tightened my muscles up and made me stiff – especially in the stomach. But it proves that it is doing good.” On the 21st he told his parents he was “wore out” after completing the obstacle course. “It’s a killer,” he wrote. By 8am he was in class. For the next nine hours it was coursework, study time, and more physical education. He enrolled in seven classes: Physics, American History, Naval History, American Literature, Physical Education, Engineering Drawing, and Psychology. Of all those subjects, “Physics seems to be the toughest subject for all the fellows.” He held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”
The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there were rewards to his new posting: “they really can serve chow here.” The food on campus was “the closest to home cooking I have ever had,” he reported, and the chicken dinner he had on the Fourth of July was “perfect.” In addition, the dorms were a nice change of pace after spending two and a half years on a cramped ship. “The lounge has really nice over-stuffed divans, chairs, a radio, and such lovely carpets, drapes, etc,” he noted. “It really is swell here, folks.” But the best part was the people. He became close friends with Hal Spiner, a fellow Cleveland High School graduate and a fellow resident in his dorm. On July 16th he interrupted a letter home by announcing that Hal had walked in and asked him to go out; when he picked it up the next day he described a double-date with Hal and two local girls, Ruthie and Hettie Jean, who worked as waitresses on campus. They drove up to Cape Rock, which was just as popular among couples in the 1940s as it was sixty years later. But he quickly added, probably to short-circuit any worrying, that Cape Rock was also “the spot where some frenchmen landed back in 1733.” He was taking American history, after all.
Evenings were just as busy as the days. Elmer and his classmates visited the Rainbow Room, a local bar, and attended a dance held by the school. But the nights were hot in other ways as well. “Even at night you perspire a great deal,” Elmer wrote of the summer heat in Cape. As all longtime Missourians know, the state’s weather is in a perennial crossfire between Gulf of Mexico heat waves and Hudson Bay cold snaps, but Cape is noticeably closer to the former than St. Louis. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”
Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did try to go home regularly. Usually his visits were brief and hurried: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening, stay the night, and head back Sunday afternoon. The trips were short but pleasant. “Good to be home,” he wrote after a visit. “The good old home-cooked food hit the spot.” Although he could not make it up for his mother’s birthday on July 24 – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And while Elmer did not get to experience the Animal House lifestyle while on campus, he did take advantage of that most hallowed and time-honored tradition among college students: bringing the laundry home over the weekend. After one visit his mother had shipped him his uniform, which she had generously cleaned and pressed for him. It’s “in perfect shape” he announced – “‘just like taking it out of a drawer.’ Thanks, you’re a dear.” Elmer enjoyed seeing his parents and getting his laundry done, but had had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of July, he announced his intention to visit. But he did not plan to spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.
Back at Cape his studies went well, though his course load was heavy enough to cause considerable and daily stress. Physics continued to be the worst culprit, though he had begun showing improvement in that class as well. On September 1st he reported earning an 80% on his latest physics exam, which was a marked improvement over the 55s and 60s he usually received. He excelled in his other courses, and even ranked 2nd in his psychology class.
Sometimes that routine was interrupted, like when the students who waited his table had left for a short summer break (the new girls were “not as good as the old ones” he uncharitably announced on August 14th), or when he made trips up to Saint Louis to see his folks. Before leaving he’d request his favorite foods, including chicken and dumplings on two occasions, plus pie for desert. The following month he received a visit from Bud Tanner, who traveled down to Cape to see his old friend. They hit the town and saw the sights, including Cape Rock.
Every now and then Elmer’s letters offer refractive clues about what his parents were thinking at the time. Forrest Luckett complained that White Castle hamburgers had declined in quality since the start of the war (“this war has effected [sic] everything, no doubt,” Elmer replied blandly), and kept Elmer up to date on a recent workplace injury. Meanwhile his mother asked if Elmer’s chaplain friend on campus drank at all (“every now and then”), and bombarded him with questions about Miss Bedford, an art professor who often hosted Elmer and some of his friends for dinner and card games. She frequently appeared in his letters, but mostly on account of her hospitality and her prowess in the kitchen.
While his love for Miss Bedford was clearly platonic, he continued to flirt with a revolving cast of women throughout the country. Shirley Ryder wrote him from Michigan and Rose Schmid announced that she would be moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department. In the meantime, Elmer dated a couple of girls in Cape as well. As always, his mother was still his “number one girl.”
The pace of this routine – classes, drills, nights on the town, alternating weekends in Saint Louis – make these letters seem more perfunctory than usual. As almost anyone who is or has ever been busy will attest, there is both more going on and less to talk about. But there are thoughts and feelings sprinkled here and there. For instance, on September 16th Elmer expresses his gratitude that he had restarted his college career later on (“This college life is really OK and I feel it is doing me much more good than if I would have just continued a complete college program after high school”). Although gap years were not yet invented and would have certainly not been filled with surprise air raids by design, Elmer clearly benefited from the time off from school. But he was also sentimental about some of his relationship prospects, particularly Rose Schmid, who while traveling to California for a week while on vacation did not write to him. And Elmer, despite his long bachelor call sheet, noticed the lack of mail from her.
In any case, time flew by, and for the time being Elmer was in a great place. “Everything’s shipshape,” he reported, despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean-going vessel.
Hi folks, First off, thank you to everyone who has reached out to me here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and offline to express their well wishes with respect to my post on Saturday about pursuing a Masters in Counseling. I cannot tell you how much it means to me, especially after months of waiting for admissions decisions, taking psychology prerequisite courses while teaching full-time, and wondering more than once what people would think once they learn about this shift in direction. At the very least, since beginning this process nearly a year ago, I have not yet felt like this has been a mistake. But all your kind words have alleviated much of my anxiety about this process, so thank you.
Of course, having the freedom and privilege to make such a professional change is no small thing in many places, and impossible in others. Here in the United States, both of these words have been hotly contested over the past year, from the George Floyd protests to the Capitol Insurrection and beyond. A lot of these conversations are not only necessary, but long overdue as Americans finally begin to reckon with a history that is far more complex and morally ambivalent than we’d probably like to believe. But I also believe that Memorial Day should cut through the noise and stand on its own merits as an opportunity to pay our respects and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even birthplace, gave their lives in defense of our country.
This is not to say that we cannot relax during a much-deserved day off, eat some barbecue, or enjoy a quiet morning bike ride with virtually no traffic (as I did). We certainly don’t need to spend the entire day flagellating ourselves in prayerful penance for the dead. But hopefully we can all find some way today to express our appreciation for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, including their families.
Talk to you again soon—I’ve missed this whole blogging thing—and take care.
Hi folks, I apologize for being so negligent over these past few months in writing or contributing to this blog. It’s been an interesting few months here in Orangevale, and for all of us I suppose. What’s up with you all? Well, on my end, let’s see . . . I built a fence, I lost a little weight, I was diagnosed with a hernia (the same kind my grandpa had!) and will need a surgery for it soon, I taught several classes, I took two more, I got vaccinated, and I turned 40. Clementine and I traveled to St. Louis for the first time in over a year, which was nice (my dad hadn’t seen his granddaughter since late 2019), and I made my first trip to LA since the pandemic started. Like everyone else, the pandemic has affected me in ways that I’ve barely even begun to appreciate. It has been both disruptive and transformative, scary yet hopeful, stultifying yet revelatory. But now that my wife and I are vaccinated, we are looking forward to hopefully enjoying some semi-normalcy in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
The pandemic and the quarantines have helped guide and inspire me to make some changes, however, beginning with this: starting next fall, I will be studying for my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Counseling at California State University East Bay. After I finished my PhD, I swore up and down that I was done with graduate school. A terminal degree is a terminal degree, after all. But I also told myself that if I ever did decide to go back to school, it would be to get a Masters in Counseling. That way I could maximize my opportunities in higher education administration, earn a degree that immediately qualifies me for a wide range of other jobs, and perhaps one day open my own private practice.
I promised myself (and my family) that if I were to get another gradate degree, the program would have to be nearby, convenient for working adults, affordable, and well-established. CSU East Bay checks all the boxes. It isn’t exactly down the street, but with classes meeting only two days a week I can commute via Amtrak and get some work done on the train. The program itself is well-regarded, so I feel like my cohort and I are in good hands going into the fall. And it is affordable, which means . . . no student loans! But even if I did have to take some out, the degree itself would cost considerably less than the new Subaru Forester I bought a few years (and have since paid off).
Regardless of the program’s good fit, I realize it is still a big leap. Yet it makes sense. On the one hand, although I was in no rush to do this before the Pandemic, the switch to online teaching forced me to reevaluate my career trajectory. For instance, what I missed the most about teaching in a traditional setting was the impromptu, one-on-one meetings I often had with students who wanted to talk about school, history, and whatever else. Moreover, I had the creeping feeling that my teaching load in the future will continue to be, one way or another, increasingly virtual. While I am reasonably well-versed in online teaching (I’ve been teaching online for years), I am happier in a classroom. History is a narrative art, and I prefer telling my stories in person. Finally, I do not want to spend the rest of my professional career teaching courses as an adjunct. Like many other contingent faculty over the past year, I’ve come to terms with the stark realities of the tenure-track job market and the demands of tenure-line labor. Not only is it exceedingly unlikely that I will get a tenure line job, but it is even less likely that I will get one in a place that I like more than where we are in Northern California, or that I would come to enjoy working 60 hours a week for not much more money in exchange for job security. If I’m stagnating as an adjunct and no longer interested in finding a tenure-line position, then I need to reconsider my path.
On the other hand, I am genuinely excited about becoming a therapist. I’ve always wanted to hang my shingle someplace and be my own boss. I’ve always wanted to have a career in which I am able to help people, but with more impact and immediacy than what I have as an instructor. And I’ve always believed that I do a better job of helping people find their best versions of themselves than of constantly fighting the worst versions of people. That might be a controversial declaration these days, given our nation’s deep cultural, racial, economic, and political divides, but I know where my strengths lie. As a therapist and as a member of my community, I believe I can make a tangible difference helping people becoming more accepting of themselves, and therefore by extension helping them become more accepting of others.
Since it’s Memorial Day weekend, it’s also a good time to mention that one of the populations I’m most interested in working with is veterans. We have a lot of veterans in my community, many of whom do not seek treatment for one reason or another for PTSD, depression, and other issues. I’ve posted on this blog before about Give an Hour, an organization that gives veterans, disaster victims, and other at-risk persons with free counseling while simultaneously destigmatizing mental illness in the community. I’ve been happy to donate to this organization and write about it here, but I want to play a more active role in this important effort. Unlike my grandpa, dad, and brother, I never served in the military, but I hope that by doing this I will be able to offer a different kind of service to my community and country.
As I prepare to go back to school (again!) and start my 40s as a college student, I hesitate to frame this next step as a decision to “leave academia.” Like so many other contingent faculty across the country who have already left or who are in the process of leaving academia, I am wary of spending the rest of my career teaching without a true professional home, or teaching for less money and nearly no security compared to my colleagues who have the same credentials I do. However, I still do want to teach, albeit less. I want to be able to teach because I decide to teach a class or two, not because I have to teach four or five.
I also want to continue to write and create. I loved writing my first book, I am enjoying the process of writing the second one even more, and I eventually want to write enough books of my own to fill a small satchel bag. Again, though, I want to want to write. I don’t want to have to write, if that makes any sense. And if I could make those things that I like—big writing projects, small teaching loads—orbit around a new professional home, my private practice, well . . . then I’d be living the dream. In any case, it will be interesting to see how my new professional path informs my historical scholarship. Considering that I’ve already been writing quite a bit about paranoia (e.g., vigilante responses to horse thieves, collective freak-outs over prophecized Midwestern earthquakes, etc), I believe my new intellectual curiosities will remap, rather than erase, my preexisting ones in novel and hopefully interesting ways.
More to come in this space, both with respect to my research/writing and to other things happening in my world. But for now, thank you all for coming here and for reading my little blog, and take care of yourselves!
You probably don’t need a reminder from me, but 2020 has been a tough year. As both a historian who values hindsight and as a human being who simply wants things to get better, I will hold off on judging this past year too harshly until I know what the coming year has in store. But I don’t think that most people are going to miss it.
Of course, this has not been a bad year for me professionally. Last month I became a published author when my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890 was released by the University of Nebraska Press. Moreover, I finished telling my grandfather’s World War II service story, in blog form, only a few days earlier. Yet the latter news begs the question: what am I going to do now with this blog if I am not posting regular Grandpa’s Letters updates? After thinking through the possibilities over the past two months, I have made a couple of decisions with respect to my writing and research. I am excited about them, and both will mean more material for this website.
First, the pandemic and the constant disruptions to our lives that have resulted from it have reordered our daily priorities, and striking the right balance in this shifting landscape of daily routines can be tough. For instance, in my situation, not having the option to travel, go to restaurants or coffeeshops, or teach in a classroom has forced me to rethink how I spend my time and get my work done. It has also left me with a lot of energy that I usually expend in the classroom. As a result, over the past few months I’ve embraced cycling as an outlet for that energy, and as I gradually build better eating habits as well I’m definitely in better shape now than I was at the start of the pandemic. However, because of the demands of constantly having to create new online courses, I am not reading nearly as much as I would like.
Since I would like to hold myself accountable for my reading goals, remain engaged in my discipline, and continue working my way through the stack of books I have yet to open for my World War II research, I am going to start blogging history book reviews again. This time, however, I aim to review one book a week for the next year. I will select books that I plan on reading anyway for my book research, as well as other monographs that will help keep me current in the discipline. I am also including books on a wide variety of historical places, peoples, and periods throughout the world, given the frequency with which I teach world history at Sierra College. Out of those 52 books, I am breaking it up as follows: approximately 12 World War II books, plus ten on the American West, ten on other United States history topics, ten on world history subjects before 1500 CE, and ten on world history subjects after 1500 CE. If you have any suggestions for good books in any of these categories, particularly in world history (hardly my specialty), please leave me a comment!
Second, as you might have noticed, I have taken a little break from the Grandpa’s Letters project. I am still working on it and have no intention of not completing it—I took several little breaks with Never Caught Twice, and that was a much more ambitious project with respect to the research required—but between the election, the conclusion of the fall semester, course prep for the spring, and several house projects that need to get done, it has not been on my radar these past few weeks.
However, one reason why I needed a break was because I had hit a bit of a snag in my narrative. I wanted to better incorporate my grandmother’s letters into my Grandpa’s Letters manuscript, and I even planned on dedicating a whole chapter to her story. But her letters deserve more than that: they are funny, incisive, observant, and overall excellent pieces of writing. I feel like I would be doing her a disservice by spending so much time on my grandpa’s letters, as opposed to hers. Yet her letters are also a fundamentally different kind of source: there are fewer of them, they can be read in sequence and in their entirety, and they can provide a stand-alone narrative (unlike grandpa’s letters, which are exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting). Moreover, my grandmother’s story as a young Midwestern woman who moved to Washington, D.C. during the war to take a job as a civilian bureaucrat is less often represented in World War II literature. As unique as my grandfather’s story is, we have not yet spent nearly enough time listening to the women who helped win the war, both at home and overseas. Giving my grandma just one chapter would simply perpetuate the idea that my grandpa’s service, and thus his memory, was inherently more valuable.
Thankfully, over the past month I have realized what I need to do: publish two books!
The Grandpa’s Letters book will be largely unchanged, though it will no longer include the planned chapter about my grandmother. As you’ve seen throughout my blog, this manuscript uses the 500+ letters my grandpa wrote to tell his story, but apart from a generous selection of quotations the book is mostly my own work. I base my story on his letters, but the book is not so much a published reader of his writing as it is a standalone historical narrative composed in my own voice and with the aid of hindsight and supplemental research. In other words, I treat his letters the same way in the book as I do in the blog.
I will not be doing something similar for my grandmother’s letters. Instead, I will publish them as a standalone letter collection. Tentatively, the project is entitled Miss Schmid Goes to Washington. Although I will compose a prologue, some chapter introductions, topical transitions, and an afterword, the bulk of the writing will be my grandmother’s. I believe that this is a fitting and logical way to divide their individual efforts and celebrate their separate wartime careers, while still playing to each letter collection’s strengths.
Starting this spring, I will start working on this project by posting a letter every week or two, along with some analysis by yours truly. In this way I hope to use the blog to get people excited about it while also writing much of the first draft in the process. My goal for 2021 is to finish both manuscript drafts by the end of the year.
Anyway, stay tuned in 2021 for book reviews, letters from my grandmother, and probably some additional essays if and when I feel like writing them. In the meantime, thank you so much for reading, and I hope that you and your loved ones have a safe, happy, and successful New Year!
Today is the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, for many of us our minds are elsewhere this week as COVID continues to ravage the nation.
In fact, statistically we are well past the point where each day represents a larger death toll than that of some of the deadliest days of American history, including Pearl Harbor:
It’s not just Pearl Harbor, either. On December 2nd, more Americans died of COVID than from enemy fire during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. At least 53 days have been deadlier than April 15th, 1912, on which morning the Titanic sank. And if current trends continue, the IHME projects that the United States will hit 2,971 deaths on January 13, 2021, which would make it deadlier than any single day during the Civil War, with the exception of the Battle of Antietam.
While these numbers are accurate and striking, they need to be properly contextualized. When my grandpa woke up on the morning of December 7th, 1941, neither he nor anyone else under the Stars and Stripes knew that a war was going to break out before lunchtime. No one on the USS Arizona could have guessed that their ship would explode within a couple hours, bathing hundreds aboard in burning fuel and showering them with white hot shards of metal. None of the other American ships or planes or sailors or soldiers had that quiet Sunday circled on their calendars in bold red ink as a day that would live forever in infamy.
Meanwhile, thousands will die today, thousands more will die tomorrow, and thousands more the next day, and so on, and so on, and probably through Christmas. In all probability, the next few months will make clear that our annus horribilis did not begin on January 1st, 2020, but on St. Patrick’s Day. By the time we slice into our corned beef this coming spring, half a million Americans may be dead.
To be sure, no one, not even the most stubborn anti-maskers or the most oblivious and aggressive huggers, deserves to die from this awful disease. But it is certain that no one woke up this morning without having had the opportunity to learn about and understand the risks associated with contracting COVID. Many people, especially front-line health care workers, emergency responders, and even fast food and grocery workers, have little choice over whether or not they will contract it because their jobs put them into regular contact with those who already have it. For the rest of us, however, we knew what was coming, even if we did not want to acknowledge the coming tsunami of sickness. Imagine if FDR had know about the Japanese sneak attack all along (and to be clear, no, he did not), from the planning meetings that summer to the Task Force’s launch on November 26th. Would we have ever forgiven him for sitting idly by in the White House, thinking that sooner or later a stray sub or destroyer would happen upon the convoy and scare it away, like a spider retreating through a crack in the wall? Probably not.
But it’s a moot point. FDR did not see the attack coming, and while a few people in the War Department had their suspicions, the sailors, soldiers, and Marines in Hawaii were none the wiser. And even if they knew – some, like grandpa, suspected that a war was going to start soon, but assumed that both sides would have the common courtesy to declare it first – then what was their alternative? Should they desert and hide out someplace? Sleep with a gun under their pillow? Spend all their nights off-ship and on land? Not even that was a guarantee for safety – while most of the USS Arizona’s survivors spent the previous night in town or in the barracks on Ford Island, both men from the Chew who died had slept elsewhere and were caught in a bomb blast while trying to put out fires aboard the USS Pennsylvania. The common denominator for most of those who were caught by surprise that morning was that they chose to be there. While they did not sign their enlistment papers with the foreknowledge of this attack, they also knew that to some extent they did not know what they were signing up for, so to speak. Their oaths and their duty kept them where they least needed to be when the war broke out.
Another thought comes to mind when I reflect on another deadly day in American history that has been frequently invoked in comparison with the daily COVID death tolls: September 11th. When I compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor over a year ago, I argued that Americans more effectively (if not more equitably) processed their anger following the latter than they did after the former, and that as a result September 11th has festered like an open wound over the past two decades. Yet the most obvious trait that the two events have in common is also the most powerful: both days delivered nothing less than a sudden, profound, and existential shock to the American people that resulted in a wave of patriotic fervor and a newfound appreciation for the fact that no nation is immune to exogenous violence. While one could argue that both events represented the inevitable culmination of American diplomatic and military interventions elsewhere in the world, Americans writ large did not spend a great deal of time worrying about those policies or their repercussions in either case. As I argued last year, shock value does not merely characterize an event. It is foundational to understanding that event’s legacy and memory in history. After all, the JFK Assassination was also a shocking, transformative event whose effects continue to ripple into the present, but if judged by its death toll alone it would barely make the front page in many American newspapers in 1963, or even today.
COVID, on the other hand, is no longer shocking. It is more like a bad roommate than a late-night burglar: its presence does not come as a surprise. Instead, it malevolently leeches away our energy, health, and happiness, and makes us aware of its presence even when we are thinking about other things. COVID is simply exhausting. It is wearing away at us, and even though a vaccine may only be weeks away, each day until that happens is a challenging slog.
One of the benefits of writing is that it helps us work though what we are thinking. And as I look back on what I’ve written so far, it seems like what began as a post asking readers not to underestimate the Pearl Harbor attack with respect to daily death tolls is turning into something else: a plea to understand what we are going through now on its own terms. On the one hand, Pearl Harbor was a bad day in American history. An event that mostly occurred within the span of a couple of hours cast a long, dark shadow over the following years and decades. The death toll that day was certainly and inarguably tragic, but the costs were much higher. Tens of thousands of others were injured or scarred in less obvious ways, and countless Americans back home waited weeks with stones in their stomachs waiting for news about their loved ones. As for my grandfather, who could not simply unsee the Arizona exploding a few hundred yards away, memories of the attack stalked him for the rest of his life. This multifaceted and terrible toll transcends and multiplies exponentially the sorrowful calculus baked into that four-digit number we see in the above tweet.
On the other hand, the same logic applies to the drumbeat of COVID daily deaths we see in the newspapers. Too many Americans today continue to dismiss those numbers, playing fast and loose with peoples’ lives and their true impact on those around them by speciously seizing on arbitrary and misleading statistics, like the fact that it “only” kills 1% of infected victims, or that on most days heart disease kills more people. How inured are we to sickness and premature death to not empathize with the millions of people in our own country who not only grieve lost loved ones, but who in most cases did not get to say goodbye, or even bury them? What about the millions of others who recovered, but who are now facing the debilitating downstream effects of their COVID fight? How much shorter will their lives be as a result?
Yet because COVID is no longer a shock comparable to that of an enemy bombing or a terrorist attack or a mall shooting, its effects are muted in real time, even as our loved ones – or as we ourselves – suddenly join the ranks of the infected. Just today I learned that one of my students has it and one of my ex-girlfriends may have it, just as half of the State of California goes on stay-at-home lockdown as of early this morning. But apart from the hundreds of thousands who died and the millions more who suffer from its effects, there are the countless other downstream effects: businesses closed, weddings and graduations cancelled, children robbed of a year of their lives . . . it is impossible to quantify them.
So, on this Pearl Harbor anniversary day . . . don’t just remember the victims. Think about the fact that it is now 79 years later, and that we are still remembering the day itself. Think beyond the cumulative toll of all the lives lost that day . . . why was that event itself seared so terribly into our collective memory? And why are so many Americans today so oblivious to the gargantuan tragedy – not just the daily death counts, but *waves arms wildly in all directions* all of this – unfolding around us?
COVID does not make the Pearl Harbor attack any less tragic by comparison, nor is our collective remembrance of that day somehow unjustified if literally more people die today from COVID than from the actual event we are remembering. But both events are historically massive, albeit for different reasons: one killed a few and shocked many, while the other shocked few but killed a great many. Both count as transformative tragedies, yet only one was immediately and universally recognizable for its terribleness. Hopefully, as we reflect on the horrors of Pearl Harbor for the 79th year, more of us will begin to recognize, anticipate, and mourn the horrors of the other.
Thirty years ago, on December 2nd, 1990, a massive earthquake was supposed to strike the New Madrid Fault in southeastern Missouri. Iben Browning, a climatologist-turned-disaster prophet who some believed had successfully predicted the Loma Prieta Earthquake the previous year, stated that there was a 50% chance of a major earthquake hitting that day. Soon, David Steward, a seismologist at Southeast Missouri State University, told the press that the prediction needed to be taken seriously, and before long many in the media took his advice. When the sun dawned across the glimmering Mississippi and over the town of New Madrid on the morning of December 2nd, dozens of satellite trucks and hundreds of reporters and photographers stood around in the small community, waiting for the world to end.
I remember these events well. I was nine years old at the time, and I remember my parents dismissing the prediction while many of the other kids and parents in my suburban St. Louis community anxiously fretted and, in some cases, made plans to stay home from work or school that day. The school bus that morning was largely empty, I recall, and several kids I expected to see get on the bus at various stops were not present when we arrived.
For me, the prediction and the hysteria it caused was formative: it made me interested in how the public responds to imaginary events, and in some ways I think that experience later helped shape the way I write about horse thieves in Never Caught Twice. More directly, it inspired me to create a documentary based on the subject. We’ve conducted a handful of interviews thus far, and have produced a teaser video for the project:
For those of you who have been following or involved in this project . . . it is still happening! COVID-19 has slowed – actually, frozen – our fundraising efforts, and both Mario and I have been busy with competing projects this past year. We are hopeful that 2021 will be a safer year for the kind of in-person, less-socially distanced work that documentary production often requires. In the meantime, if you wish to support our work, you can follow our Facebook page, and if you have any stories you’d like to share about that day thirty years ago please Contact Me and tell me about it!
The ironic thing about COVID’s impact on our production schedule, however, is that in many ways I believe this film would have been a warning against the kind of conspiratorial, unobjective thinking that has led to the pandemic becoming so severe in the first place. The year 1990 offers some critical and timely lessons in how to respond to “fake news,” as it were, and perhaps that term would be a particularly apt way to describe the overall panic surrounding Iben Browning’s infamous prediction.
Lesson Number 1: Don’t just listen to what one scientist says. Listen to what most scientists say. If you are not a scientist yourself, you should defer to the consensus.
A few months before the predicted earthquake along the New Madrid Fault was to occur, NBC aired a prime time, made-for-TV disaster film entitled The Big One, starring Joanna Kerns (the mom on Growing Pains). In it, Kearns plays a seismologist whose warnings about a coming quake are all but ignored.
A similar trope persists in other disaster movies: some lone scientist predicts disaster, no one takes them seriously, and then a bigger-than-they-feared disaster suddenly strikes.
While it may be a stretch to say that movies like The Big One have sewn doubt among the American public about what the consensus of scientific experts has to say about a topic – just look at the role social media has played in generating mistrust towards vaccinations – it is emblematic of the larger problem.
Most people are not scientists, and even scientists are usually limited to being an expert in one or maybe two fields. This means that the rest of us are reliant on what the community of experts says. In 1990, social media did not exist and web browsing was in its infancy, but the hysteria surrounding Browning’s prediction provides a case study in how it only takes a couple of trusted “authorities” on a subject (Stewart and Browning) to undermine the cacophony of thousands of other scientists stating the opposite.
Fast forward to 2020, when Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist, became President Trump’s primary advisor on the COVID-19 response. Although not a trained epidemiologist, his pronouncements on the inefficacy of mask-wearing undermined the efforts of countless doctors and scientists to encourage broad use of facial masks and social distancing.
Lesson Number 2: If it bleeds, it leads. News organizations are bound by ethical conventions to report the truth, but they are still the gatekeepers of content. And those content decisions are not always made in the public’s best interest.
One of the things we’ve discovered with our documentary research is how reckless some media organizations were when covering this story. They would continually quote either Browning or Stewart, followed by one or two scientists peaching caution, and then conclude that the matter was unsettled. This phenomenon is called “false equivalence.” It happens when the opinion shared by a small but vocal minority of an expert community is treated with the same amount of deference as the much larger scientific consensus.
Of course, there is nothing new about this. Check out the segment from FOX 2 St. Louis below, which concludes that “St. Louis could be severely damaged [while] Memphis could be wiped out” in the event that a major earthquake strikes. The tone throughout is slightly ominous. What is interesting, however, is that most of the images used in the segment come from Northwestern geology professor Seth Stein’s book Disaster Deferred, in which his principal thesis is that the fears of a New Madrid earthquake are actually overstated and present little reason for residents of the region to worry.
More recently, news organizations have spent a great deal of time and attention covering small anti-mask protests across the nation, while devoting comparatively fewer resources to covering the 270,000 Americans who died of COVID since March, the 86,000 patients currently hospitalized with it, and the countless physicians and nurses who care for them.
Lesson Number 3: The scariest threats are often not the worst, and the worst threats are often not the scariest.
There is no doubt that a major earthquake along the New Madrid Fault would be devastating to the region. Two major metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Memphis, would be directly in its crosshairs, and if reports from the 1811 and 1812 Earthquakes are any indication, then a repeat event on the fault would do a lot more than collapse chimneys in Cincinnati and ring church bells in Boston.
However, as someone who not only grew up in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but who then spent nine years living in Los Angeles (including 7 years in an apartment that sat literally 100 feet from an active, if minor, fault line), I don’t believe that the risk of an earthquake should prevent me or anyone else from living someplace. If an earthquake along an established fault is going to happen, it’s going to happen. The only thing I can really do about that is prepare: make an emergency supply kit, map out a safety plan for me and my family, and take proactive steps to ensure that furniture is affixed to wall and small objects won’t fall on me or anyone else in my household.
Yet the New Madrid earthquake prediction inspired many people to act more rashly in response. As mentioned above, many folks stayed home from work or school. A small number even left the region, according to sociologist John Farley in Earthquake Fears, Predictions, and preparations in Mid-America. Just as the hype over the prediction drew dozens of media organizations to New Madrid, the same hysteria caused others to run for their lives.
Was their response warranted in retrospect? Certainly not. But it is equally true that St. Louisans have also underestimated other dangers. Just two and a half years later, the Great Flood of 1993 killed dozens across the region and displaced thousands. Later, in 2011, a tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, killing a staggering 161 people and shocking a region that had long treated tornado warnings with a mix of humor, annoyance, and complacency. More recently, as of this writing, COVID has killed at least 4,183 Missourians, including over 1,000 in St. Louis County. While that might seem like a drop in the statistical bucket, St. Louis County has 19 municipalities with populations of 1,000 people or less. Imagine an entire neighborhood just disappearing.
Yet COVID, unlike earthquakes, does not inspire the same kind of dread in most people, especially after nine months of living through a global pandemic. We are all tired and anxious to get back to our routines, to reunite with family and friends, to go to bars and concerts and restaurants again, to travel and take cruises and visit beaches and take so many other things for granted again. And last week, many Americans let their guard down for a day and traveled to see loved ones for Thanksgiving.
My intent here is not to shame people for their decisions this holiday season. This is hard on all of us, and as someone who feels a special urgency at the moment to go and see his family in St. Louis for the holidays, I understand as well as most the cost-benefit analysis involved. But there’s a broader point here that is worth underscoring: 30 years ago, on December 3rd, everyone knew the danger had passed. Kids went back to school, parents went back to work, and journalists found something new to write about after the earth remained still.
We don’t have anything like that with COVID. There won’t be a single day when we all wake up to realize together and at once that the danger has passed. But until then, there will be many dangerous days ahead. And the Mississippi River, with its cold, gray waters and short, rippling waves, will continue to plow quietly southward towards the Gulf, oblivious to the silent, invisible virus that surrounds it on all sides.
I recently had the honor and privilege of talking about Grandpa’s Letters with Dr. Samantha Cutrara on her Imagining a New We video series. During the show we chatted about Veteran’s Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada), the advantages of using family letters in a history classroom, and the joys of writing.
In addition to discussing the letters, I also mentioned a few additional sources that I use to add context and detail to Grandpa’s Naval career. Unlike the letters, which are not only a treasure trove but a treasure in their own right, many people know that a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent served in World War II, but they have few documents or heirlooms to reveal more. This is particularly true for servicemen who died or went missing in action, and for countless others whose letters, journals, or other artifacts were lost, destroyed, or discarded for one reason or another. Where would these people start their historical journey of learning more about a loved one in the service if that loved one left little evidence of their service behind?
Well, consider this a down payment on what I hope will become a separate chapter in my book. Here are explanations and links to (most) of the sources I mentioned in the video, along with some information on where to get them and how to use them. Note that while these are Navy sources, other branches of the service were similarly dedicated to ample and redundant record-keeping (my horse stealing book, in fact, relies heavily on Army sources).
Personnel records are the most fundamental source to acquire in your journey. Get these first. They contain essential documents for each service member, including enlistment paperwork and exams, orders, various commendations and citations, and discharge papers. Most if not all vital data points can be found here.
Right now these papers are hard to get. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis contains virtually all of these files, and under ordinary circumstances researchers have the option of either making arrangements with the NPRC directly and visiting the site in person to review requested documents, or they can order a digital scan of the file. However, due to COVID the facility shut down during the spring and summer, and is only now beginning a phased reopening process. There will likely be a substantial backlog of requests once it is fully reopen, so I would personally wait (and, incidentally, I will wait because I still have additional requests of my own) until the COVID crisis has passed to make an inquiry.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the pages from Grandpa’s file. Please note that while I have digitized the entire thing, I will not post it anywhere. This is because these files contain a lot of sensitive and personal data, up to and including physical examination reports. Also bear in mind that I am photo-scanning this manually. Since most of it is bound together I am holding it open with one hand (very gingerly, so as not to damage it), while photographing it with the other. It doesn’t produce publishable files, but it gets the job done (pro-tip: bring a tripod, plus extra batteries and a larger-than-you-need memory card).
One thing to note: the term of service for the requested person needs to have ended before 1957, or else federal privacy laws prohibit accessing the record without additional permissions and documentations.
Personnel records are fantastic sources for filling out your loved one’s biography, but what about their ship (if they were in the Navy)? Ship records are fantastic for understanding the setting, as well as whatever actions in which your loved one was involved. When combined with personnel records, any existing oral or written reminiscences from the crew, and secondary sources, you can get an excellent idea of exactly what transpired on and around the ship.
Deck logs are probably the most data rich source of information about ships, their crews, and almost every other conceivable variable. You can track things like temperature and wind speed, the ship’s geographic location throughout the day, and even the amount of ice cream consumed aboard. For instance, check out this page from the Chew’s deck log on December 7th, 1941:
This page tells us a story: the Chew’s Sunday morning started out like any other, with the ship taking aboard ten gallons of milk and 4 1/2 gallons of ice cream. But then at 7:57am everything changed, and suddenly the crew found itself in the middle of a war. Deck logs contain narratives of all the major stuff happening on board, as well as much of the minutia. They also contain information about the weather, the location, and other details. If you want to picture what it felt like in Pearl Harbor immediately before the attack started, check out the following table in the Chew’s deck log:
For instance, the barometric pressure hovered just above 30 inches (Hg) for most of the morning . . . until 8am, that is, when it was broken by gunfire.
These records can be found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Learning how to request, access, use, and photograph takes a little bit of time, so if you go be ready to give yourself a few hours to learn the ropes and request the documents (and be careful not to schedule a plane trip immediately after working hours, like I did back in January), plus a few more hours to review and possibly photograph them for future use. If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher to request and photograph the files for you. It will cost a little money, of course, but if you are only requesting a few things it is a lot cheaper to do this than to travel to Maryland for two or three nights. Also, because of COVID and the NARA closures these folks are hurting right now . . . they can use your business!
Like the deck logs, the war diaries can be found at the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Unlike the deck logs, war diaries are much shorter, more compact documents that communicate a brief day to day log of where a ship has been and what it did on any given day. They contain a lot less information overall, but they also contain just enough. If you just want information on where a ship was and what it was doing, ask for the war diaries. If you want as much information as possible, use the war diary for context and the deck log for everything else.
Here’s a page from the USS Mink’s war diary from October 1944. Notice how the ship relates a series of geographic coordinates for several days, and then finds itself in action on October 24th:
The Mink was part of a task force that set sail for the Philippines. Once it got there it would play a role in the largest naval battle in human history: the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
One good thing about the war diaries is that many, if not most of them are available online. In fact, the above-cited war diary for the Mink (10/1 – 10/31 1944) can be found here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/78665385
It might take a while to figure out what you want and where it is located, but once you spend a little time noodling around with it you will find what you need. Just be patient: NARA has literally millions of records, so if it feels like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it is because you are! But NARA also employs a lot of people whose jobs revolve around helping the public find what they need, so be sure to ask for help if you need it.
The last type of document I mentioned is the action report, which is an official report following any kind of naval engagement. Action reports flush out many of the details that are missing from war diaries, but are specific to the engagements themselves. They chronicle what guns were used, how much ammunition was expended, what they were targeting, etc. You could write action sequences based on these reports. Here is an excerpt from one from the Mink in January 1945, which related what occurred when a kamikaze attack targeted the Mink’s convoy while en route to Lingayen Gulf:
The action reports are physically long and thus difficult to present digitally, but this snapshot gives you a sense of how detailed they are. If you want to see the whole thing, you can see it online. Like the war diaries, many (though not all) action reports have been digitized by NARA and can be found on their website. Here’s the link to the one above: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/139885506
I was very lucky to inherit so many letters from my Grandpa. Not only did those letters survive intact and in great (i.e., readable) shape, but Grandpa was an intelligent commentator and a lucid writer. It’s rare to find a correspondence trove in which the letters appear with great frequency, regularity, over a long period of time, with readable writing, and with so many things to say. My Grandpa might not have realized it, but he had the soul of a historian.
That being said, World War II – and modern wars in general – are richly detailed affairs, with a lot of granular and unit-level reporting. Most veterans have detailed files, even if they are not yet publicly available, and for most of them you can get information on where and how they served, what they saw, and where they fit into the overall scheme of things. In other words, you don’t need a box full of letters to find a lot of this stuff out . . . just a bit of shoe leather and some resourceful online searching will get you there. Hopefully for those of you with WWII American Navy veterans in your family, the above resources will help you find more information.
And as I state in the interview, World War II is rapidly disappearing from living memory. Of the 16 million men and women who served in the war, only about 325,000 are still alive today. If you know one of them, please reach out to them and ask if they are willing to share their story with you. They might not, and that is OK, but if they do then all you need is a smart phone with a recording app. For more information on conducting oral history interviews, check out UCLA’s Center for Oral History page on the subject. I trained there while in grad school, and they know what they are doing.
A couple of other things: I’ve heard from family members of a few of Elmer’s shipmates on the Chew and the Mink. If someone you loved was on either of these ships during the war, please feel free to reach out to me on my Contact page! I would love to talk to you sometime and, if you’d like, interview you for my book project. Although my grandpa’s story is at the center of this narrative, I want to also use the opportunity to talk about the other men who served on these ships. Neither the Chew (a destroyer) nor the Mink (a Liberty Ship tanker) are frequently mentioned in the annals of World War II Naval history, yet the war would not have been won without their efforts and sacrifices, nor those of thousands of other ships that have not yet had movies made about them.
Also, thanks again to Dr. Samantha Cutrara for inviting me onto her show to talk about my project. Please check out her YouTube channel for more interviews with scholars, teachers, artists, and others across both Canada and the United States.
Finally, today is Veteran’s Day here in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. It is November 11th in both countries because 102 years ago, on November 11, 1918, the Allied and Central Powers agreed to an Armistice which ended World War I. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that November 11, 1919 would “be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” every year on that date henceforth. So while it is entirely appropriate and highly encouraged to thank the millions of Americans today who have given their service to our country, do not forget that we share these burdens with Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other allies over the past century and more whose own veterans have fought alongside Americans for the free peoples of the world.
And if you are in a giving mood and would like to more than just saying “thank you” to veterans on social media, consider giving some money to a charity that serves veterans and their families. There are many charities out there that do this, but my favorite is Give an Hour. It raises money for mental health counseling and therapy for veterans, as well as victims of disasters. Help make this vital care available to the people who need it while destigmatizing mental health care by making a gift today: https://giveanhour.org
OK . . . that’s all. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I’m going to take a week or two off, then I will post a couple of stories about Grandpa’s time in the Philippines, including the story of how he met my great Uncle Danny . . . in Manila. I’m going to shoot for posting that one on Thanksgiving.
After cruising around New Guinea and the Philippines throughout most of August, the Mink finally set anchor in Manila Harbor at the end of the month. It would spend the next several weeks there, fueling a wide variety of ships and smaller craft. “This bay is covered with ships of all descriptions,” Elmer wrote on September 9th. “Really a sight to see so many ships.”
Elmer was less than impressed with Manila. “There isn’t much to do around town after you’ve looked it over,” he wrote. “Plenty of liquor stores and places to dance, but the prices they charge are highway robbery. Everything you do or buy costs about three times what it is worth. Not much in supply and a lot of demand, so they really ask plenty for everything.” You can’t really blame the locals for trying. Business tanked during the Japanese occupation, which brought its own fresh set of horrors, and the sailors and Marines streaming ashore were often flush with cash. In addition to that, the Philippines faced the heavy task of rebuilding after over three years of brutal occupation. “[Manila] is in ruins,” he wrote on the 9th. “Not many buildings missed being shot up and bombed out. A city of ruins!” But the chow hound’s mind immediately turned to his stomach. “No good places to eat, except at the Red Cross or Army Snack Bars,” he opined. “You must be careful of the food and water you drink due to unsanitary conditions.”
Price gouging did not stop Elmer from buying some souvenirs for his loved ones, however. “I got Rosie a pair of wooden slippers, an oriental design and very fancy,” he admitted. “They cost six dollars.” Meanwhile, he was saving money from not buying gifts for – or writing – his other pen pal flames. “I don’t think [Rae] will write much more, if at all. She knows I am interested in someone at home. I don’t care much about writing other girls anyway; Rose is the one that counts.”
Elmer did not want to buy too many things in any case. He mailed his mother a package containing the sweater that Rae made him, some wool socks from Rose, and other odds and ends from his travels. He knew the trip home would be long, and it was not as if he could hop onto an airplane and take a nap while flying directly back to the states. The journey would be convoluted, involving boats, trains, and eleven time zones. And he would have his sea bag with him the whole way. On September 9th he also sent a $100 money order home, believing that he had enough cash and not wanting to risk losing it on his way home.
But Elmer knew that he might have to wait weeks, if not months, to go home. “With the war over and my duty done, I want to get back to civilian life. This waiting now will seem the longest because the war is over and everyone wants to get out. But I will try to be patient as always.” However, Elmer did not generally communicate his disappointments to his parents, which put Rose in the position of providing emotional support. “Rosie wrote a letter to cheer me up about not having enough points to get out,” he wrote on the 9th. “She said she will be waiting for me with open arms – and I know she will. I’m really in love with that girl and I have all the confidence and faith that she loves me as much as I do her. So much for my sugar.”
At the very least, while he waited Elmer would be able to write without fear of someone else reading his mail. “Don’t think I mentioned it yet, but our censorship of letters and packages has stopped. They just stopped it a couple of days ago. Really swell to write a private letter again.” Elmer then took the opportunity to talk a bit more about his ship, something he was not able to do earlier due to censorship and distance from home.
“Our ship is sort of a station tanker and we handle diesel fuel for all the diesel propelled craft,” he explained. “Mostly LST’s, LCI’s, LSM’s, and other types of amphibious ships. This has been our job for many months now. At first we carried high-octane gasoline while operating around New Guinea, Admiralties, and Biak; this was early in 1944 when things were a little hot down there. We also carried 80 or low octane gasline for awhile. High octane is for airplanes, and we supplied advance air fields with fuel. the low grade gas was usually for Army use. So much for an idea of our past work.
Elmer to his Parents, 9 September 1945
Elmer made one other note about their previous job, one which undoubtedly gave them pause when learning of Japanese kamikaze attacks on other tankers. “Personally I don’t like carrying gasoline of any grade, so I was pleased when it was changed to diesel fuel. The whole crew was pleased. Ha! Ha!”
Regardless of the changes in his and his ship’s jobs over the past year and a half, one thing was clear by September 12: his job was almost done. The Navy decided to grant credit for overseas service, which raised Elmer’s point total to 55. This qualified him for a discharge. “Of course,” he noted, “until they release me from the ship to return to the states, it may take awhile. But according to the plan I should get out within the next four months. Some of the fellows with enough points will leave soon. But they can’t take everyone, because some must be relieved before they can leave the ship. So we will hope for the best.”
His situation was clearer by the 16th. All rotation leaves were canceled, and servicemen with 18 months of continuous overseas service (like Elmer) who were eligible for discharge were to be simply relieved instead. “Sure glad I have enough points to get out,” he wrote. “I feel fairly sure that I will be off the ship in another month. May be sooner, but it’s hard to figure just how fast they will get men aboard for our relief. So we will hope for the best. Chins up!”
Turns out it would be sooner. “I hav some good news I feel sure will interest you,” he wrote on the 20th. “Yesterday evening four new engineers reported aboard ship. And they will permit the relief of men eligible for discharge. At present four of our old gang of engineers have enough points for discharge . . . I am at the top of the list.” His Chief Engineer told him that he would be able to leave “by the middle of next week.” At that point, “I should be transferred to the shore station here, probably Cavite, in a week’s time. Of course, how long I must wait around for transportation to the states is another question. But there is a lot of shipping coming and going all the time, so it shouldn’t take long. How’s that for good news? I’m as happy as a lark.”
Elmer laid out his communication plan for the journey home.
“When I leave the ship I will write and tell you so. You can stop writing me then because all the while I am traveling back I will not get mail. And it will only be sent home again after I leave. I will keep writing as much as possible. When I hit the states I will send a wire or call home. I promised to call Rose or send her a wire also. You can tell all the folks at home I’ve quit writing as of now, that is, Aunt Frieda, Chick, Jeanette, and the others. The only ones I will write are Rose and my Mom and Dad. So much for letter writing.”
Elmer to his Parents, 20 September 1945
He talked over some of the other implications of his leaving so quickly. “Mom, you won’t have to send me any more Christmas packages,” he pointed out. “This year it will be Xmas together, God willing. That will be a wonderful feeling.” He also sent a few reflective words to his father. “Yes Dad, so much has happened the past years . . . it will be so good to get home and see you all again. And settle down as a civilian. We can talk again, Dad. I’m so tired of writing letters.”
He still had a couple more to write. On the 23rd he mentioned having to “break in” the new engineers, and predicted he would be able to leave in “3 or 4 days.” He also discussed how much he enjoyed spending time with his future brother in law, Dan, who was about to leave for Tokyo the following day. And he commented on the rain in Manila: “This is the rainy season in the Philippines . . . I’ve never seen so damn much rain.”
His September 25th letter was shorter. Elmer was busy packing. “Tomorrow morning I will leave the ship and begin the long voyage and journey home.” He informed his parents that he had to wait at Cavite for a ride back to the States. “Just how long that will take is hard to predict,” he admitted. “But I will get back as soon as they can get me there. You can stop writing me letters now.”
Elmer’s last letter is below. It was postmarked September 28th, 1945, and mailed from the Cavite Naval Station:
Just a few lines before I leave to go aboard ship. Only have time for a few lines now. Big rush here. It may be two weeks or more before you hear from me. But I am on my way. Don’t worry about me. That’s all for now.
Your loving son, Elmer Hugs and Kisses
P.S. They are really rushing us to the states. Hot Dog!
Elmer to his Parents, 28 September 1945
That’s the last letter Elmer wrote his parents during his Naval service. During our interview, we spent some time talking about his adventures on the journey back. I may write about those for the book. But for now, this seems like a fitting place to close.
He arrived back in St. Louis on October 27th, and received his official discharge on the 29th. After nearly five years of duty, Elmer’s job finally came to an end. He was home.
This is not the end of his documentary record. My files are full of wedding invitations, postcards, a smattering of letters across the decades, and other pieces of paper that neither he nor Rose threw away. This is also not the end of his story, since the last chapter of the book I’m writing will cover Elmer’s journey after the war and how his Pearl Harbor experience shaped that.
However, these boxes of letters . . . these were a gift. When Grandpa first told me that he was going to leave them to me, I felt a little confused and maybe even slightly annoyed at having to take care of them. When I received them after he died, I was working on other things and reluctant to begin going through them. Once I started working on them, I was motivated by the idea that I was doing something historically cool (I still think that, actually). But over the last few months of reading through them, I’ve realized that they have a much deeper significance for me.
I knew my grandpa for 36 years, which I realize is a blessing for most people. Yet I never really knew him. We did not talk all that often, apart from us updating each other on our lives, and that oral interview was probably the longest we had ever talked. So these letters were a window into the life of a man whose universes and multitudes, to borrow from Walt Whitman, were always kept pretty close to the vest. I saw bits and pieces of myself in these letters, as well as bits and pieces of my dad, my uncle, and my brother (all Navy veterans, incidentally). But I also saw a lot of him: his willpower, his commitment to service, his idealism, his passion for adventure, and his love for home and family.
My grandpa was the quintessential Taurus: he enjoyed the beauty of the world, but he preferred the warmth of home even more. It was also funny to read about his appetite, which even in his last years was never easily satisfied (“Good supper, Phil!” he’d tell his daughter in law during his last years). And I have barely started going through my grandmother Rose’s letters – not because I haven’t had the time, but because I don’t really want to rush the job. I never had the chance to meet her, so I am looking forward to getting to know her. And I sincerely hope, if she was still around, that she would have been proud of me.
Anyway, if this blog/book does anything, I hope that it tells a much more multifaceted story about my grandpa’s war experience than most of us ever knew. He mentioned Leyte Gulf a few times, and talked a little about the vision test that booted him out of the V-12 Program, but for most people (including me) his story began and ended with the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, that’s the story people wanted, including the news organizations that would show up and interview him each year on the anniversary. Which was great, by the way – he loved the attention and never tired of telling the story. But his experience, which spanned the entirety of America’s involvement in the war, was so much more. It is a war story, a narrative about personal growth, and a romance as compelling as any you would see in one of the movies he had watched on the deck of the Mink.
As this narrative becomes a book, I hope to do it justice. But it is important to note: these letters, with all of their ups and downs, ARE his story. It is a lot more than Pearl Harbor. And yet, somehow, it is also a lot less. That’s what makes his experience so relatable.
These monthly letter posts have reached their conclusion, but please stick around. There is still a lot of work to do, and I hope to share it with you as I make progress on this project. So stay tuned . . . you haven’t heard the last of Elmer Luckett. And that’s, I think, how he would have wanted it.
I delivered this paper on October 17, 2020 at the online Western History Association Conference. Parts of it were taken from my Marquette University MA Thesis, which is entitled “In the Name of the Law: The Pine Bluff Detective Association and the Anti-Horse Thief Movement, 1885-1916” (2005).
This conference paper brings my research on extralegal responses to horse stealing full circle: it started with anti-horse thief associations in Wisconsin, and culminated most recently in my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. I don’t know if or when I will continue working on this subject (I have some ideas), but for now this feels like a good way to put a pin in it.
In the popular mind, vigilantism is most often associated with the frontier. One might think of Montana and California, where angry lynch mobs often wielded the hangman’s noose and where the lines between civil and legal authority were visibly blurred. Even though vigilante groups have appeared throughout the United States, some of the most spectacular – and memorable – movements have associated vigilantism with the San Francisco Committee of 1856, the Montana vigilant societies in 1864, and the Nebraska Niobrara during the 1880s. However, throughout the mid to late-nineteenth century, the vast majority of vigilante organizations never tied a noose or fired a shot. These groups, known as anti-horse thief associations, could be found throughout the Midwest, from Ohio all the way to eastern Nebraska. But for some reason these organizations, much like the rain, seemed to dry up at the 100th Meridian.
In my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, I discuss the role that vigilantism played in local efforts to mitigate horse theft. I argue that while there was relatively little vigilante activity directed against horse thieves in the area, homesteaders, small ranchers, and newspaper editors often invoked the threat of lynching as “the old system of justice” for dealing with thieves. They did this because a dearth of law enforcement, the sheer financial and utilitarian value of horses, and the almost non-existent borrowing market for acquiring new ones rendered them vulnerable to theft. Horse thieves became a bogeyman for all their problems as a result, and by the time people started stealing cars instead the horse thief figure had already entered Western mythology as a villain who, in the words of Nellie Snyder Yost, was “never caught twice.”
In this context, I wondered about the absence of anti-horse thief societies from Western Nebraska. They seemed ubiquitous farther east, and the loss of a horse was magnified on the Plains by the sod, aridity, long travel distances, and lack of cash, so why aren’t there more in that region? To answer this question, look to the Pine Bluff Detective Association, which was an anti-horse thief association based in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin.
Pine Bluff was (and remains) a small hamlet about ten miles west of Madison. It was, in many ways, an idyllic, tranquil farm community. Industrious farmers made up the majority of the population and the town itself had a relatively low crime rate among its own citizenry. These conditions, however, did not guarantee citizens’ safety. For one, gangs of criminals were notorious for stealing horses in one community and then bringing them to another state for sale. Their actions precipitated an endless series of crime waves throughout the country that resulted in rising tensions among potential victims. Horse stealing was particularly feared – horses were essentially the most valuable pieces of property that farmers owned, with the exception of their house and land, and the horse market was so large and diverse that, depending on the time and place of the sale, thieves could usually sell their stolen goods for a high price. Fortunately for horse thieves, the high number of horses in agricultural areas such as Pine Bluff offered a steady supply.
In the spring of 1885, several horses were stolen in Middleton, a village between Pine Bluff and Madison. A series of thefts elsewhere in the area prompted Sheriff William Pierstorff to call for local communities to “organize for their own protection” in May. Apparently, the call was heeded. As panic began to grow within the farming communities of Dane County, the citizens of Pine Bluff and the surrounding villages united in June to form an anti-horse thief society, the Pine Bluff Detective Association. Anti-horse thief societies were generally nonviolent organizations that attempted to protect members’ property by facilitating local law enforcement and creating a “neighborhood watch” of sorts. “The people have become excited over the matter,” wrote William Dunn, the Pine Bluff correspondent for the Madison Democrat who would eventually become a member himself. He predicted, “Societies will be formed in nearly every town in this part of the county.” He also warned, “Suspicious characters traveling about will be roughly handled.” Although nobody from Pine Bluff seemed to have been directly affected by the outbreak of horse thefts, locals were already willing to mobilize and intimidate “suspicious characters” with vague threats.
What is more surprising is that these organizations were a common occurrence throughout the nation, especially the Midwest. Richard Maxwell Brown has hypothesized that hundreds of thousands of men and women were members of these societies during the latter half of the nineteenth century in an area stretching from Texas to the Great Lakes.
Before proceeding with the discussion of the P.B.D.A., however, it would be helpful to further frame it within the context of vigilantism. Consideration should be given to Wisconsin during the late nineteenth-century – was it a hotbed of vigilantism or a relatively quiet area? Although far from quiet, it was generally stable. Initially settled in the 1830s and granted statehood in 1848, Wisconsin had long ceased to be a frontier by 1880. In fact, in Brown’s lengthy catalog of the hundreds of known vigilante movements that have occurred throughout the United States, only one from Wisconsin made the list: the La Crosse Vigilance Committee of 1857, a short-lived organization created by the local population to help control a prostitution ring and other vices. Ultimately, an angry mob ended up burning down a local bordello. However, on the whole, Wisconsinites only lynched six men between 1882 and 1968, all of whom were white.
Despite these occurrences there was a much larger trend towards nonviolent, supplemental law enforcement in Wisconsin during the 1880s. Not only were horses extraordinarily valuable, but police were not yet technologically or institutionally able to proactively protect private property or investigate theft with forensic methods. This put the onus of private property protection on the private parties themselves. Between 1880 and 1890, anti-horse thief societies were founded in Waukesha (1881), Fulton (1884), Dayton (1884), Beloit (1887), Racine (1889), and Rock County (1890). Meanwhile, detective associations were founded in Dodge County (1881), Whitewater (1885), Palmyra (1888), and Ashland (1889). The Whitewater and Beloit societies had memberships numbering nearly 200, and the Ashland society published a polite, if stern, letter for a local murder suspect to leave the county. These, in fact, were only the larger societies and the ones that managed to file articles of incorporation, a procedure which actually gave these organizations the right to exercise constabulary powers and make arrests.
For the PBDA, historians can review its constitution and meeting record book at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Aside from the standard executive committee – president, vice president, secretary and treasurer – it also allowed for the creation of a vigilance committee. This was the enforcement arm of the organization, and could be called upon in an emergency to assemble and hunt for any suspected thieves. However, the size of the organization probably allowed a great deal of informality among the members. If there was a situation, it was probably expected that most members would come to the aid of the victim and search for the thieves. At any rate, the vigilance committee and the president were responsible for the conduct of any searches. In 1887, a measure was passed allowing officers to draw $2 a day for expenses when conducting a search.
The members themselves reflected the diversity of the community’s social and economic strata. The P.B.D.A.’s first president, James Quigley, was born in Ireland in 1846. He settled in Springfield as a young man and learned the carpenter trade. His family, the Quigleys, were known at the Fourth of July picnic games for their brawn, which may or may not have helped James Quigley obtain his office as the leader of a vigilante group. He owned a farm of about 200 acres and had a wife with 2 children. However, he died in 1890 of appendicitis and was succeeded by James Bonner in 1891. Matt Anderson was perhaps the most prominent man to join the society. He served as a state assemblyman in 1871 and was a state senator from 1879- 1883. He owned a substantial dairy farm and, as mentioned above, retired fairly wealthy. Another prominent member was the Rev. Joseph Hausner, the pastor at St. Mary’s from 1905 until 1917. The latest in a long line of German priests dating back to the first mass at Johann Kalscheur’s home in 1852, Hausner continued to help hold his ethnically divided parish together. William Dunn had very positive things to say about him: “He was a good preacher . . . I can never forget his kindly Christian character and his exemplary life as a priest.” Like his predecessors, Hausner continued to help promote good relations in the community by refusing to condemn Protestantism, and he helped build a $5,000 parochial school during his first few years in the parish.
It is interesting that Hausner joined the P.B.D.A., especially since he did not hold property in the area or operate a farm. However, it is conceivable that he did so to promote crime awareness or facilitate, perhaps even join, what was at time a social organization. By promoting crime awareness, it is clear that his presence further distanced the organization from violence. Perhaps more importantly, priests in small villages such as Pine Bluff were active in building good community relations and promoting organizations that enabled farmers to get together with one another and socialize.
The most important source of information about the members comes from William Dunn, who wrote a memoir of his life in Pine Bluff. At 80, Dunn remembered a great deal about his past. Curiously, though, he mentions nothing of the P.B.D.A., despite describing the work of local pickpockets on three different occasions. Why wouldn’t he – or anyone else – have any reason not to mention or at least remember such a group, especially since it was clear that they were not a secret society? It is conceivable that it simply was not a big deal in the minds of the members.
This hypothesis is especially interesting in light of the apparent inactivity of the organization. There is no record of the P.B.D.A. doing anything other than issuing a couple of $25 rewards in two separate years. For one thing, dairy farmers were exceedingly busy people. Add on the burdens of having a family, participating in church, and having other social, civic, and recreational preoccupations, one may ask just where the dairy farmers would have found the time to make patrols and hunt down criminals. The annual meetings did not meet their quota during certain years. This possible lack of interest may be related to the fact that there is no known evidence of any manhunts or captures during the society’s 31-year existence. It seems as though the executive board had little more to do than pass bylaws and call meetings.
This would all be irrelevant if their organization was something more than a sleight of hand trick to make gangs of horse thieves think that the countryside was more mobilized than otherwise thought. That’s what many locals later believed, anyway – according to a reporter who interviewed the P.B.D.A.’s only surviving member in the 1950s: “it is possible that the knowledge of such a body was enough to put the quietus on horse and cattle stealing.” Since horse thieves were well aware of what vigilance societies were capable of once riled up – note Dunn’s remark that “the people have become excited over the matter” – it would have served the P.B.D.A. well to have only created a caricature of vigilance, if not an actual instrument of such. Their use of rewards for the capture of thieves might have reinforced this system, though it is not known why the two rewards issued by the society were given.
Caricature or not, it lasted for 31 years. Towards the end of that span, it ceased to be useful, although it did amass 67 members by 1916. In the twentieth century, the organization often met at a tavern in Pine Bluff, in a building known for its entertainments as well as its political assemblies. There is not a whole lot to say about the organization between 1890 and 1916, although the seeds of its dissolution were sewn well before the turn of the century. By 1916, most of the founding members were either dead or too old to participate. The need for anti-horse thief societies had passed, as had their founders.
When I first researched the Pine Bluff Detective Association some 15 years ago for my MA, I gave the organization the benefit of the doubt. I was reluctant to accept that the group was more of a social organization than a neighborhood watch. And my research on horse stealing in Western Nebraska bolstered, if anything, the notion that horses were important enough to late-nineteenth century Americans that they felt the need to protect them by any means necessary. But something stands out for me now that did not stand out nearly as conspicuously 15 years ago: Pine Bluff was, by all indications, a stable community. People raised their families there, and now many of their descendants continue to live in the immediate area. Dunn, Quigley, and Anderson were invested in this place. So too was the priest, Hausner, who likely would not have joined an organization whose members intended to murder wrongdoers.
The comparative rarity of lynchings in Wisconsin in some ways justifies the idea that most anti-horse thief societies were non-violent. After all, it makes sense to think that a well-organized and disciplined group of community watchers could successfully reduce crime to a point where it would no longer justify more rash vigilante action. But perhaps it’s actually the opposite: maybe the large number of thriving, longstanding anti-horse thief societies actually led to fewer lynchings. The history of vigilante violence elsewhere in the country seems to suggest this. Southern lynchings were a byproduct of white terrorism, not vigilantism, while farther west the largest vigilante movements occurred in relatively new communities with immature and graft-prone civil institutions. Anti-horse thief societies in this respect may actually act as emotional sponges, places where horse owners could express their fears and organize an active response to a disastrous outcome, like the loss of a horse, that would otherwise lie beyond their ability to act. In other words, rage does not necessarily lead to helplessness, but helplessness can easily lead to rage. Anti-horse thief organizations may have preempted that rage by giving an outlet to that helplessness. They might have even facilitated community organization, thereby promoting stability and peace. The fact that many other anti-horse thief societies were modeled after the Freemasons, with initiation rites and sacred insignia, suggests as much.
More research on these groups as community organizations, rather than as vigilante sleeper cells, is needed. In the meantime, my more recent research on western Nebraska can provide a brief counter-example. In this region, stockman’s associations, rather than anti-horse thief associations, were the primary organizational tool for locals wishing to combat horse and other livestock theft. These organizations were primarily formed and controlled by ranchers who not only excluded but sometimes acted in concert against Homesteaders, farmers, and small-herd owners. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s involvement in the Johnson County War is surely the famous and most notorious example, of this. But we see similar machinations within the Northwest Nebraska Stockman’s Association, a smaller, regional cattlemen’s association based in Hyannis. Not only did the organization preclude farmers, but one of its executive members, Perry Yeast, was accused of running a rustling operation in the early 1890s and later convicted of fencing public lands in the early twentieth-century. Local homesteaders, meanwhile, had a much more difficult time in western Nebraska proving their claims and creating economically viable farms than farmers further to the east. Many left within five or ten years. Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers both chronicle the instability of these farming communities on the Great Plains, and a growing historical literature, including David Wishart’s masterful Last Days of the Rainbelt, is deepening our awareness of what can only be described as a failed frontier.
The farmers who persisted did so in spite of these circumstances. And those who did seldom prospered. Communities, rather than building up and out, instead came and went. Civil institutions remained immature. Neighbors who could be relied upon to help in times of crisis might leave at the drop of a hat. Yet the need to protect their animals remained. If anything, the lack of generational wealth and only moderately rising property values magnified the losses farmers incurred whenever their horses were stolen. In this socially dystopian landscape, farmers organizations like the Anti-Horse Thief Association could not thrive. Instead, farmers felt their feels with little support, little help, and few people to whom they could complain at the local tavern.
When we imagine vigilante organizations, we tend to think of the ones with the highest body counts. Yet quantitatively they were in the minority. Most organizations might not have even been organizations at all. They were groups where, in the evening, after the many tasks of the day had been concluded, farmers could sit and commune over their anxieties which never seemed to go away. They could aggressively make plans against actionable threats that jeopardized their lives and communities, like horse thieves, while raging against those threats that – like locusts, drought, bad weather, railroads – only demonstrated their helplessness in the face of unending economic precarity and danger. By turning their helplessness into rage, and then their rage into bonding, they could learn how to explode.