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.
So, if you did not get into Harvard of Yale, or your parents cannot afford to sneak you into USC as a fake member of its rowing team, do not be dismayed. I received an excellent, memorable, and valuable education at Southeast Missouri State University, and I look forward to receiving one at CSU-East Bay as well. Go Redhawks, and go Pioneers!
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.
To be Continued: Part II posts next Tuesday!