What I’m Reading: The Greatest Generation

As if our political differences were not enough, the last few months of 2019 have reintroduced inter-generational conflict into the culture wars. This time the insults come with a new menu of pejoratives, including “OK Boomer” and “Karens” in reference to Gen-Xers. Meanwhile, Generation Z begins to find its voice as my own micro-generation, the Xennials, struggles to break free from what we see as the narrow-mindedness of GenX and the Millennials’ over-dependence on technology. These divisions are somewhat arbitrary and are mainly cultural constructs, but they sure do feel real. I still get defensive whenever people call me a Millennial, even though I technically am one.

Image result for the greatest generation

As I read Tom Brokaw’s seminal The Greatest Generation, however, I get the sense that just about everyone – including the Greatest Generation folks themselves – understood this cohort to be both above the generational fray and also deserving of their superlative epithet. In effect, that is Brokaw’s thesis – this generation was, quite literally, the greatest. All us whippersnappers should learn something from these folks and try to be less disappointing.

Let’s address that claim in a moment. First, the book itself is extraordinary: it is comprised of dozens of stories from those who served during World War II. From the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy to the women who assisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff in DC, Brokaw casts a wide net and defines the word “service” broadly – and rightfully so. He interviews Japanese internees and African American men and women who served their country despite their nation’s scorn, as well as mechanics, Presidents, and everyone in between. Readers come away with a sense of just how much work, blood, and sacrifice this conflict required. Although the United States was separated from most of the fighting by two vast oceans, Brokaw shows how every nook and cranny of the nation was affected by the conflict. Its urgency was both pervasive and universally compelling, and winning this war was existentially vital to virtually all Americans. It is hard to imagine such a mentality now, but Brokaw manages to convey the mindset through his stories and his brisk prose style.

However, as one might imagine, the book sometimes devolves into hero worship. All of the stories are framed in terms of personal sacrifice, and many of the chapters end with a lament of one sort or another, often about how things in general have changed in the decades since the war. Some complain about “kids these days,” citing how things were “before the war” and what not. Sometimes Brokaw even gets in on the action, asserting at one point that Catholic kids back in the 30s would have been slapped around by their nuns and then by their parents if they had the temerity to complain, but with barely concealed approval. While Brokaw is savvy enough to argue that much of this generation’s good qualities can be attributed to environmental circumstance – namely being raised during an era when good old fashioned family values, Depression-era frugality, and wartime sacrifice were tattooed onto everyones’ conscience – his narrative often circles back to the inherent goodness of the people who served their country during the War. And as a historian I get hives at the mere thought that some special, indefinable quality somehow made anyone born between Armistice Day and Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic superior to all who came before or since. After all, even Greatest Generation Americans were human . . . they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.

This criticism should not imply that the “Greatest Generation” was not great, or that its members did not deserve such high praise. After all, I am writing a book that, if I’m being honest about this project, is going to heap a great deal of praise on my WWII-veteran grandfather. Much of that praise, though probably not all of it, will be warranted. But the difference between history and hagiography bears consideration: the former explains, the latter venerates.

Perhaps in some ways the “Greatest Generation” motif is the logical result of our very opposite view of Nazis, who are and who remain (at least for most of us who don’t lead sad lives complaining about girls on the dark web in our mothers’ basements) history’s greatest villains. Certainly no other generation of wartime opponents is more deserving of everlasting contempt than the Nazis. It makes sense, then, that only an incorruptible and selfless Greatest Generation could beat a Third Reich with no moral scruples and a nine-year head start. I don’t believe this means we need to abandon our judgments about Nazis and start saying nice things about them*, but we should remind ourselves that just as there were probably some bad Americans who fought the good fight, there were probably also Germans who made terrible mistakes out of self-preservation and cowardice.

In any case, I don’t believe that this book’s epilogue has been written yet. At some point humanity is going to have to contend with the consequences of climate change, and the longer we all collectively wait, the worse it is going to be for our future selves and our descendants. It already seems increasingly unlikely that my daughter will ever see a glacier south of the Arctic Circle, enjoy a river cruise through the Amazonian rainforest, or visit Manhattan’s Battery Park without scuba gear. She is going to have to deal with some stuff, while all the Boomers and Karens and Oregon Trail-obsessed Xennials decompose in cemeteries that should probably be trees and homes. I don’t envy her, and for that same reason I don’t envy the Greatest Generation. They did what they had to do for their country and for freedom, without complaint, and without expectation of reward, and we will forever be in their debt. Accordingly, at some point climate change will stop being something we “should” act on, and will quickly and inexorably morph into something that requires action and mobilization if we are to survive. I hope that Generation Z and whatever-letter-we’re-up-to-now generation my daughter belongs to rises to the challenge, because folks my age and above sure aren’t. And when they do, I hope some future Tom Brokaw writes a fawning book about them, too.

If I’m alive to see it, I promise I won’t argue, and will quietly go back to dying of dysentery in Oregon Trail for the 10-millionth time. Meanwhile, if anyone today is looking for an instructive or inspirational example of what an entire generation is capable of when they collectively put their minds towards doing something, this book will do the trick.

*The Autobahn, a Nazi Germany invention, is the only thing I can think of . . . but it is significant enough that I immediately thought of it. Since I enjoy driving fast when trying to cross vast stretches of nowhere, I admit to my shame that I am thankful for this one silver lining.

October 1941: Our Boys in Blue

By October, as the Chew underwent the final stages of its rehabilitation, the World War I-era destroyer began to look more distinctive, more modern. Elmer related what he could to his parents back home. She “looks like a new ship,” he reported on October 19th. Much of the machinery was updated or replaced, while the old paint on the hull was painstakingly removed with pneumatic chisels so that the ship could be repainted. The entire crew was involved in the former effort. “It is one of those dirty jobs that just has to be done,” he lamented. By the time the crew moved back into the ship at the end of the month, it had new “tables, chairs, fans,” and other comforts. Even the mattresses were deep cleaned and repacked. Overall, the overhaul was “an experience in itself,” and throughout the process Elmer learned what he could.

As exciting as these upgrades were to the young men living on an old ship, Elmer did not relish a return to patrol duty. “I would like to go somewhere else for a change,” he wrote on the 11th. “You know a place becomes stale after you see all the sights and places. I have seen most of the places of interest.” Elmer was not alone in his boredom. After several months in paradise, many sailors began to yearn for the comforts of the mainland. Honolulu in 1941 was still a small city, with 180,000 people to Saint Louis’s 820,000. In terms of size it was like Worcester, Massachusetts, but with beaches and nicer weather. It was also expensive, with many of the restaurants and shopping destinations well outside of the Fireman 2nd Class’s budget. Even haircuts were four times as much in town than they were at Pearl, he complained at one point. It should come as no surprise why Elmer spent so much of his time at the Y.

Elmer also attributed his ennui to itchy feet. “The old urge to move and see more of the sights on this Earth has got me,” he reported to his parents. After all, the desire to see the world was one of the reasons why he joined the Naval Reserve in the first place. But Honolulu was smaller than the hometown he had left. Pearl was smaller still: an island within an island. It was time to venture forth and see more of what the world had to offer.

Yet for the time being, Hawai’i was also one of the safest places in the world. Much of the planet was engulfed in war as China and the Soviet Union fought for their right to exist, while Nazi boots kicked up dust as far west as the Bay of Biscay and as far east as the Black Sea. The Third Reich took an increasingly aggressive approach to American merchant and Naval traffic on the North Atlantic as well, (correctly) ascertaining that Roosevelt’s actions belied his supposed neutrality. On the morning of October 17th, 1941, Americans woke up to the news that a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the U.S.S. Kearny, a Clemson-class destroyer, in the North Atlantic. The explosion killed eleven sailors, rattling the nation and heightening fears that war was imminent.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) following the repair of her torpedo damage in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (USA), on 31 March 1942. USN – Official U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships photo 19-N-28745 available at Destroyerhistory.org

The scare was not lost on Grandpa. In his October 29th letter to his parents, Elmer Luckett put on a brave face for his folks. “We have little to worry about,” he assured them. “Our duty don’t [sic] take us from Pearl Harbor. And you know Pearl Harbor is the strongest naval base in the Pacific – probably in the world. So don’t let the newspaper stories worry you folks.” For his part, Luckett told his parents he was unafraid. “I wouldn’t mind” being in the Atlantic, he told them. “I am a fatalist in that sense, if a thing is going to happen nothing can stop it. People take a chance every time they cross the street. There is no use to worry about such things.”

These sentiments were easier to express when the action was taking place nearly ten thousand miles way. However, the immediacy of the dangers surrounding the United States Navy might have contributed to his decision to send his parents a poem, “Our Boys in Blue.” Although the work shares the same name as a World War I-era tune, the lines bear little resemblance to one another. Whatever its origins, the poem might have been distributed to the sailors aboard the Chew during the Navy Day ceremonies on October 27th.

Of course, Elmer’s parents certainly did not need to be reminded that “these boys in blue, they’re very much worth while.” They wrote him regularly, and that month they also sent him a box of cigars, while his sister Irene mailed him cookies and candy. As he wrote his letter on the 26th, he reported that he was smoking one of the Chicago MC cigars they had mailed him, and “as they say in the Navy, ‘it’s right on,’ meaning its swell. Thanks again folks.”

But the poem also warned that “when dangers [sic] threatens, may I say (and it’s more apparent every day), they stand first, in blue or white, to adjust and make it right.” Perhaps this was the main message Elmer wanted to impart to his parents: that while the world’s troubles were beginning to close in, he and his shipmates were prepared to meet those challenges and dangers head on. His parents might worry about his safety, but they need not concern themselves with his preparedness.

Sure enough, on October 31st, just as millions of American kids were dressing up as ghosts and witches for Halloween, and as the Chew finished its own costume changes in advance of its service in a second World War, one hundred boys in blue died when a U-Boat torpedo attacked another ship, the USS Reuben James. This time the vessel sank into the cold depths of the Atlantic. Only 44 survived.

Like the Chew, the Reuben James was also a Wilkes-class destroyer from World War I. But no new paint job could save it from its fate.

“Our Boys in Blue,” a poem Elmer mailed to his parents on October 29th, 1941.

The Plan for December and Beyond

We are now nearing the end of our month-by-month letter analysis series. In fact, next Wednesday’s post on November 1941 (just in time for Thanksgiving!) will be the last for a while.

I am going to change things up a bit for December: instead of posting my writing based on the letters, I am going to post the December 1941 letters themselves, on the days when they were written (e.g., a December 17th letter will be posted on December 17th). On the morning of December 7th I will post an excerpt from my book project in which I describe the attack on Pearl Harbor and Elmer’s recollections from that day. Later in the month (after Christmas sometime) I will write a December 1941 post reflecting on the attack and on the days that followed, and on the 31st I will post about Grandpa’s 1941 Near Year’s celebration in San Diego, which was eventful and interesting for a number of reasons.

I am still working out how to approach this material in the new year. I plan on immediately diving into Elmer’s 1942 correspondence, but the pacing will be different because his letters following the attack on Pearl Harbor are much shorter. This is not for want of things to talk about, but because Naval censors took seriously the old warning, “loose lips sink ships.” Then sometime around Valentine’s Day I will begin introducing you all to a tranche of letters I have barely even touched yet: Elmer’s love letters to his future wife, Rose, and the letters he received from her in turn.

In addition to all that, I hope to have news to report about my forthcoming book on horse stealing, including cover art, during the first few months of the year. This summer I will begin to pivot more towards that project as its release date gets closer. I also hope to have some exciting updates about my documentary project, Earthshaking.

In the meantime, my winter break is coming up, and I am very much looking forward to having some time to catch up on project reading and also crank out some writing for this manuscript. That means more book reviews are coming.

Thanks for your patience . . . and thank you as always for reading!

Best,
Matt

Movie Review: Midway

It was about 9:40pm when I approached my wife. I had just woken up from a 90 minute nap (which happens when your 2-year-old daughter demands that you lie down near her in the adult-sized daybed as she is trying to sleep), so I was already groggy when I told her that I was going to attend a 10:25 showing of Midway that night. “OK.,” she chuckled.

“I’m doing it for the blog!” I maintained, perhaps a bit too insistently.

She laughed again. “Sure.”

I had already asked her a few days earlier if she would want to see it with me, and based on the conversation that followed it seemed that neither one of us expected a whole lot. After all, Roland Emmerich isn’t exactly known for his artistic nuance. Watching aliens blow up major cities in Independence Day is one thing, but trusting him with a war epic and perhaps the single most important naval battle in American history? That’s a tall order for anyone. Nevertheless, I wanted to see how the guy who blew up a scale model of the White House with a spaceship would treat four ill-fated Japanese carriers.

Image result for midway theater poster

For starters – and perhaps this comes as a disappointment to some of you – I cannot comment too readily on the film’s historical accuracy. There are two main reasons for this. First, my “expertise” does not encompass the Battle of Midway, and most of what I know comes from general descriptions of the battle. Secondly, I decided to suspend disbelief early on, once I realized that the Japanese torpedo bombers attacking Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor (the December 7th attack is depicted within the first five minutes of the movie) were moving in from the southwest, and not from the northwest and due north. I also noticed that there were no ships anchored where the Chew and the Allen were supposed to be located – an omission that rankled me a bit (and which, understandably, would have upset my grandfather). Once the film moved past the events of December 7th and into 1942, I figured that the movie would be more easily digestible if I watched it as it was probably intended to be seen: as a “based on a true story” Emmerich disaster flick, and not as a documentary.

When seen on its own merits, Midway holds up fairly well as a war movie. For one, Emmerich’s ensemble cast of characters (including Admiral Chester Nimitz, Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Lt. Commander Richard Best, and Rear Admiral Edwin Layton) are all compelling in their own right and could easily inspire their own biopics. As for the plot, Emmerich is smart to begin the movie with the attack on Pearl Harbor and to end it with Midway. While I don’t think the script properly conveys just how poorly the war effort had been going for the United States throughout the first half of 1942, in general it does a good job of narrating the sequence of events that span the United States military’s failure to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor with its inspired and fortuitous counterstroke at Midway.

More importantly, I think Emmerich recognized a problem that many war movies about air raids have, which is that they often occurred so quickly that it would be impossible to make a movie about them without including lots of filler. This issue has plagued film reenactments of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which in real time lasted less than two hours from start to finish. Tora! Tora! Tora! tried to solve this problem by devoting most of its screen time to the events leading up to the attack, while Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) focused primarily on a love triangle. Neither film successfully balances the intensity of the attack with the relative quiet of the days, weeks, and months preceding it. In Midway, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor provides exposition, not climax, while the namesake battle begins at the start of the screenplay’s third act. This was a clever way to frame the film around its comparatively short action sequences.

That being said, the dialogue could use a lot of work. Most of the characters speak like, well, the people in Independence Day. There are lots of New Jersey accents, platitudes about duty and winning and what not, and an endless stream of tropes (like references by Japanese commanders to being ordered to stand “like samurai.”) The characters just don’t seem to talk like normal people. In fact, I’m positive that Admiral Halsey spent a lot more time complaining about his shingles than he let on in the film.

Also, as other reviewers have stated, the film’s use of CGI is a bit overwhelming. It is one thing to depict a ship blowing up; it is another thing entirely to have Best fly his bomber through the explosion caused by one of his own bombs. These whiz-bang moments don’t really add much to the drama, but instead muddle the narrative with endless special effects distractions. Perhaps this is where Emmerich’s resume becomes a liability. History, when told truthfully and with an ear for good storytelling, does not need disaster filmmaking to engage the audience’s interest.

Aside from these concerns, however, the movie overall was pretty good. While it does not compare to more inspired war films in recent years (like the masterful Dunkirk), it is a classic action war movie. I enjoyed it, and if you plan on seeing it, I would definitely recommend checking it out at the theater. Even if you can only make it to the 10:25pm showing, and you have to grab a cup of coffee first to get through it.

September 1941: More of this World

In September 1941, the sound of wedding bells filled the air. Elmer’s best friend, Osie, decided to marry his fiancee in Hawaii on the 10th. Like with many young couples, a twinge of uncertainty surrounded the proceedings. “They hope it works out OK,” Elmer wrote. “I hope he has good luck.” Back in St. Louis, Elmer also received word that some of his old friends were getting married as well, including his “old flame” Lorraine Wolf. He told his parents that he was not interested in marriage, at least for a while, and insisted that he was “entirely too young to settle down.” But his protests seemed slightly too much. “Bachelor Luckett – that’s me,” he wrote, not for the last time that month.

However, the biggest engagement news came from Pat, who announced that she had agreed to marry a man from Texas. Elmer, who only a week earlier counseled his parents to not worry too much about his long-distance courtship with Pat before announcing that he had started a “marvelous friendship” with another pen-pal suitorette, Irene Skyler, did not seem overly concerned. “This simplifies matters for me,” he announced, noting that Pat must have sensed some distance on his part and so began looking for another beau. But the sudden turning of the tables was not without some shock. “It was sort of a surprise,” he admitted, “but that’s all.”

Yet later that month the tables turned again, and Pat wrote Elmer to let him know their engagement was off, and hinted at wanting to get back together. Evidently the Texan proposed under false pretenses, and led Pat to believe that he had money. Once it became clear that was not the case, Pat decided to make nice with Elmer again. He would not have it:

“Well, you know me mom. I wrote her a letter telling her that under the circumstances we better call it quits. I would be a fool to take her back. She is just young enough and foolish enough not to know what she wants. I really ‘read her off’ in the letter. But I think I am justified in doing it. She must think I’m an easy mark. I’m thru with women for good. Ha. Ha. At least for several years.”

And that, as Grandpa might say, “is pretty much the story on that.”

Courtships like this are common among those who have been dating long enough to accumulate their own relationship history, and the happy endings belong to those who knew enough about themselves (and their partners) to call it quits early. But whether or not one would wish to argue that Elmer “dodged a bullet,” as my friends might say, there were other factors in play that kept him from wanting to commit for several more years. The most important one underlay his decision to join the Naval Reserve in the first place: a desire to explore. When explaining that the Chew was likely to go back to patrolling the harbor after spending at least another month in the Navy Yard, Elmer expressed mixed feelings. Although harbor patrol was “really a snap job,” he wanted something more. “Between you and me I would like to travel – anywhere. I would like to see more of this world.”

It is fascinating to look back at these letters. In three months he would watch the world change around him on the deck of the Chew as the Japanese attacked Battleship Row, and in three years he would join the American military push across the Pacific, into Oceania and Asia. Before the war was over he would go on to see much more of the world. But he would meet the love of his life sooner than he had planned as well. Love is like a lightning bolt: it is hard to know when or where it is going to strike, but when it does it delivers 1.21 gigawatts of pure electricity.

In Honor of Veteran’s Day

Hi folks,
Today is Veteran’s Day, so I would like to give a shout-out to all of this blog’s readers and to everyone else who has served our country.

In particular, I would like to thank my dad, brother, and uncle, who all served in the United States Navy. With my grandpa, that makes three generations of Luckett sailors. Thanks also to my uncles on the Smith side who served in the Air Force, and to my cousins on both sides who have served, including my first cousin once-removed Logan, who is now at Marine boot camp. I am sure I speak for the rest of a grateful nation when I say thank you for your service.

If anyone is interested in the history of Veteran’s Day, here is a great article on the subject: https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp

Also, if you are in a giving mood this Veteran’s Day, please consider donating to one of the many fine charities that helps veterans and their families. This year I made a donation to Give an Hour, which connects veterans and other trauma survivors with mental health professionals. The idea is to give veterans, shooting survivors, and others who need it access to free professional mental health, and in the process destigmatize counseling and psychiatric services. If you are interested in checking out what they do, please visit their website at https://giveanhour.org/. You can easily make a donation through their website.

Anyhow, I hope that everyone is having a great Veteran’s Day!

Best,
Matt

An Interior Border Love Song

Between travel and midterms grading I will not be able to post a book review this week. Instead, I have posted the talk that I gave a few weeks ago at the Western History Association Conference in Las Vegas. It was for a panel discussion of Jon Lauck’s The Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains, for which I contributed a chapter (you can check out the book on Amazon or at the Center for Great Plains Studies Online Shop). I hope that no one minds the gratuitous references to early 90s music or cow butts. Have a great weekend! – Matt

This past summer marked the 25th anniversary of the album Purple by Stone Temple Pilots. This was one of the cornerstone albums of my youth, so I’ve been thinking it about it some over the past few months. My favorite track on the album, and probably one of the most popular songs from the 90s overall, is “Interstate Love Song.” While the lyrics themselves are about, according to Scott Weiland, “honesty, lack of honesty, and . . .  heroin],” the song’s title in my fourteen-year old brain became associated with . . . well, the Interstate. And the specific image it brings to mind for me is from a road trip my family took in the spring of 1995. My brother and I piled into the backseat of my parent’s Ford Escort – not the best car choice in the world for a family with two teenage boys, but it wasn’t my call – and we drove from our home in St. Louis to Colorado Springs. I had never traveled west of Springfield, Missouri before that trip, and I’d never seen what folks in the West would call “mountains.”

Anyway, while my parents kept scanning the radio dial for the strongest oldies stations, I fortunately had a Walkman, and a mix tape I made from the radio which had, among other tracks, “Interstate Love Song.” And now, as I think back on that song, and as much as that song and that album for me provided the soundtrack for my early teenage years, the first and last image that comes into my mind when I hear it today is this: the flat, level horizon of the west Kansas prairie along Interstate 70. And me thinking that, somewhere between Topeka and Hays, we had entered someplace new. The rolling hills of Missouri and eastern Kansas were gone. The trees were gone. The curves in the road were gone. And I remember just staring at that distant green horizon, knowing but not quite understanding either the song lyrics or the fact that we had left the Midwest and had entered the Great Plains. 

Kansas from a car window, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

This nebulous, invisible border between the two stands in stark contrast to what we found when we arrived in Colorado: the Rocky Mountains rising abruptly and sharply from the prairies below. Flying over the Front Range, you can even see the sudden uplift of the first foothills beginning in peoples’ backyards!

Front Range, Colorado Springs, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

But for most people traveling east to west, the eastern border of the Plains is less perceptible. It was even less so for the hundreds of thousands of migrants who made the trip on foot, on wagons, or on horseback. The border was experienced and usually noticed after the fact: alkali water, less interesting terrain, less shade, different animals, taller grass, even more annoying insects. Trail diaries and memoirs are a fantastic resource for getting a sense of where migrants believed this border lay. Of course, these recollections lack the specificity and certainly of Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition report in which he infamously characterized Nebraska as a “Great Desert,” or John Wesley Powell’s claim in 1878 that the 100th Meridian provides a clean and intuitive border between the arid Plains and the more agriculturally suitable Midwest. Many Western Historians – including me – have satisfied ourselves with these so-called official explanations, and have used them to frame both contemporary experiences as well as our own, making them more intelligible and perhaps less surreal. But trail diaries and official reports both lack a broader, dynamic sense of not only where this so-called border lies, but how it changes over time, and how the ecological, agricultural, and geographic borderland it anchors between the two regions affects the evolution and development of communities, institutions, language, and even the stories we tell about how we won the West. 

Selfie from one of my more recent journeys (2016) through the Great Plains. Taken at the 100th Meridian line in Cozad, Nebraska. Photo by M. Luckett

This book, Interior Borderlands, goes a long way in expanding the ways in which we think about this border by treating it as a borderland zone in its own right. And borderland zones are both fascinating and essential in that they force us to think critically and creatively about how borders and transitional zones affect historical change. This book and the breadth of ways in which its authors approach and treat both the border’s definitions and its impact on surrounding peoples, cultures, and economies has already influenced at least one historian’s approach to the middle border: my own. 

Of course, credit for this change lies outside of my own contribution to the volume. The chapter I included for this book utilizes several advertising tracts I found at the Huntington while researching my book on horse stealing in Nebraska These brochures were created by ranch and railroad companies trying to sell off their massive Great Plains land holdings. These tracts were fascinating, providing a wide variety of exaggerations and distortions about the arability of the lands for sale. Yet unlike Scott Weiland in “Interstate Love Song,” who expresses genuine remorse for misleading his girlfriend about his heroin habit, these pamphlets almost exulted in their lies. As a result, the growing desperation and hyperbole that characterized land sales in western Nebraska created a kind of real estate borderland there, where the aridity of the climate in that region forced sellers to either oversell the land’s benefits or, in the case of some less unscrupulous sellers, propose practical solutions to maximize profit, like growing alfalfa or supporting bonded irrigation districts.

Welcome sign at the Grant County, Nebraska border. Grant County is unapologetically and unambiguously ranching country. Photo by M. Luckett

But while I confess to using some of my unused dissertation research for this chapter, once this book came out earlier this year it spurred me to think differently about my research on horse stealing in western Nebraska along the 100th Meridian. Specifically, it helped me recognize a fact that has eluded me for ten years: that the interior border between the Plains and the Midwest not only affects the distribution of stock grower associations and anti-horse thief associations, but the absence of the latter west of that border dramatically impacts how farmers view the morality and necessity of violent vigilantism. 

Stock grower organizations brought self-imposed regulation to the once wild-and-wooly range where ranchers could steal from one another, but could not chase rustlers far beyond their own territory. Unlike the homesteaders and settlers who employed vigilante rhetoric to make up for the perceived inadequacies of law enforcement, ranchers relied on an individualistic, libertarian ethos and rhetoric that fought federal range regulation on the one hand, while promoting advances in veterinary science on the other. Much of this stemmed from the ranchers’ original goal of banding together and busting up the gangs of horse thieves and cattle rustlers that once preyed on their ranches.

Art by H.M. Wilder from the eBook THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP by Hayden Carruth. Taken from https://equinequickresponse.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/the-anti-horse-thief-association-circa-1863-1939/

While the inspiration for stock-grower associations came from Texas and Mexico, farmers’ organized responses to horse stealing could be found further east. After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of farmers across the Midwest joined local, state, and even national anti-horse-thief societies. Similar in organization to stock-grower associations, these groups usually collected dues for income, relied on an executive committee to disseminate stolen horse information and pursue thieves, and often filed articles of incorporation and formally adopted constitutions with county and state authorities. 

Unlike their western counterparts, however, anti-horse-thief associations borrowed heavily from the Freemasons. Members usually gathered in secret and often incorporated rituals into their meetings. These societies grew quickly and over a wide area because anti-horse-thief societies were a tailor-made response to horse stealing. They channeled the concerns of worried farmers across the Midwest, alleviated anxieties over inefficacious law enforcement, and in general expressed the precariousness of the postbellum agricultural economy. 

Despite the popularity of anti-horse thief societies across the Midwest, western Nebraskans expressed little enthusiasm for the idea. This was likely because the conditions that made homesteading in western Nebraska so difficult overall—namely poor rainfall—prompted many sodbusters to leave the state before they had firmed up their land patents. Farmers often moved into and out of townships, creating demographic and population turnover and resulting in the more economically successful and socially connected people in most communities throughout the region being ranchers, not farmers. Homesteaders in Nebraska had common cause with one another, but because too few people stayed on their claims long enough to build stable communities they could not effectively direct their anxieties into productive group-building. This explains why stock-growers’ associations were the primary organizational tool in the region for combatting rustlers and horse thieves, as well as why homesteaders and other farmers in western Nebraska often embraced violent solutions and rhetoric when dealing with horse thieves. 

Anti-horse Thief Associations were typically governed by constitutions and other documents. Some even filed articles of incorporation. From Kansas Historical Society (https://www.kshs.org/km/items/view/226300)

At any rate, in spite of both my own participation in this project and this book’s influence on my own work since it came out, I don’t really believe that the book satisfactorily answers its own question of where this middle border lies. But I don’t think it needs too. Perhaps the interior border is, above all else, impressionistic, biographical, even visceral. The very amorphousness of it demands that we interpret it experientially, though the prism of our own stories and aspirations, which in turn gives it power. It’s why the legendary Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip’s aptly-named song “At the Hundredth Meridian” conjures up such vivid imagery in its lyrics: 

Driving down a corduroy road (crashing through the window)
Weeds standing shoulder-high (through the window)
Ferris wheel is rusting off in the distance
At the hundredth meridian
Where the Great Plains begin

The Tragically Hip, “At the Hundredth Meridian”

And it’s probably why “Interstate Love Song” resonates with me so many years later. Not because of the topical appropriateness of the lyrics I heard through my headphones, but because of the strange, sublime, incomprehensible, and unforgettable beauty of what I was seeing for the first time outside my car window. 

The giant cow outside the Sirloin Stockade in Abilene, Kansas. Photo by M. Luckett
When I was 14 I thought that this was hilarious for some reason. And considering how expensive film was back then, I guess it still is. Photo by M. Luckett.