A few weeks ago I started going through some of my grandfather’s papers again. It’s been a slow, plodding effort – not all of it is that interesting, and I stay pretty busy both professionally and at home with my family – so I’ve tackled it in fits and spurts. This particular time I was going through a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother). When I opened it a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and “published” (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed.
Another item was a program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony. I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. If only I hadn’t gotten those two Cs in French, I kept telling myself . . . 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 felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been more proud of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.
I had graduated cum laude from Southeast Missouri State University in 2003 with my BA in history. That was the same school, since renamed, that my grandpa attended for the V-12 Program sixty years earlier. But due to circumstances beyond his control, my grandpa never finished. I knew the honors distinction made him proud, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter.
Although my grandpa didn’t choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I had known for a long time that I wanted to go to SEMO. I went to the campus several times for Model UN competitions, and although I was also accepted into Mizzou I opted to attend a smaller college, one where I could get to know most of my professors and never feel physically lost. The surrounding town is like that as well – then and now, Cape Girardeau is big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, but too small for a pub crawl.
Cape is a classic river town, and its 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’ll grab some gumbo or gator etouffee at Broussards, which keeps the heat inside. It is also isolated for a city in the Midwest: St. Louis is 100 miles to the north, Memphis is twice as far to the south. For me, going to a school located 90 minutes from where I grew up turned out to be a wise decision: it ensured easy access to home while giving me the chance to find my own path away from it.
I spent most of my weekends in Cape, but sometimes the nightlife was lacking (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). 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 road 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.
As I go through his letters from Cape, I notice other 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. 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 really late – or less 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 Towers after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers start their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.
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 wood 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 actually 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 (does anyone reading this remember Circle of the Blessed Moon? I do . . .), 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’s been almost 17 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 omelettes 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.
I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, but my grandpa left college with honors as well. While mine were published in a commencement program, his were emblazoned on his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.
* The old Cape Bridge closed about six months after I graduated in 2003 and was replaced by the much larger, safer, and more architecturally stunning Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. It was demolished the following year.
July 1943: The Obstacle Course
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