November 1944: Pet Theories

The Mink remained in San Pedro Bay throughout November, where it continued to refuel ships as part of the 77.7.2 Task Force. On the 9th it replenished its own cargo with 277,788 gallons of diesel and 152,587 gallons of bunker fuel from the USS Suamico (AO-49), a fleet oiler capable of holding 30 times the amount of fluid it discharged to the Mink. Both were important, if differently sized, links in the distribution chain that made a mostly amphibious invasion on the far side of the Pacific possible.

The surface to air combat continued weeks after the initial landings on Leyte Island. On November 12th, 24th, and 28th the ship’s gunnery crew opened fire on passing enemy aircraft as they attempted to bomb the shore installations on Leyte Island. But just after noon on the 27th a Japanese bomber targeted the Mink itself while it was at anchor, strafing the ship as it approached the tanker’s port side. After flying within a few hundred feet of the Mink the plane reversed course and banged a U-turn away from the ship. Meanwhile the Mink’s 3″50 cannon jammed up, which its crew tried to clear out by using a short cartridge case to discharge the shell that had lodged inside the gun. The hero of the day, however, was the Oerlikon 20mm antiaircraft cannon. The gunner who manned the comparatively ancient yet ubiquitous 20mm cannon shot down the bomber from about 1000 yards as it streaked away. No one on board the ship was injured, and the ship notched its second kill.

Elmer’s letters were mum about the operation – loose lips sink ships, after all – but on November 7th the Naval censors gave the men permission to mention the invasion and their whereabouts. Apparently the first thing Elmer did after receiving this news was sit down and write a letter about it. “Have a little news I can reveal now, so I’ll write a few lines this afternoon. It’s only Tuesday, and my regular writing day is tomorrow, but here it goes. Our ship participated in the operation and invasion of Leyte in the Philippine Island group.” Elmer noted that his parents had probably read about it and stated that he was proud of his ship’s crew for their work. He also hoped that the news would not come as too much of a shock. “I wouldn’t write this news if I figured it would cause you to be more uneasy and worried. I want you to know that we are doing our share.” Elmer also went into a few specifics about what he and his crew mates had seen over the past two weeks. “We have seen quite a bit of action in air raids. Our ship has shot down a Jap plane already. It’s really a sight,” he added somewhat ghoulishly, “to see those sons-of-heaven go down in flames.”

Elmer sitting on the deck of the Mink, which was usually covered with barrels. Elmer Luckett Collection.

Elmer’s letter was not entirely full of bravado. “Guess you wonder if I am scared or worried,” he wrote. “To be frank I was a little scared at first – you know I haven’t been bombed for some time. And everyone gets a little uneasy when it’s coming in ‘hot.’ But we are regular veterans now and it’s just another job. Don’t let your imagination go to work and worry about things that aren’t as bad as they sound.”

Indeed, no one on the Mink was harmed during these incidents, which is more than what sailors on some adjacent ships could say (e.g., the U.S.S. Panda, the Mink’s sister ship, shot down five planes that month, but Japanese pilots also successfully strafed the ship, injuring eight). But the crew faced a variety of other hazards this month. On November 8th a typhoon hit the Philippines, forcing the ship to “steam dead slow ahead” in order to relieve the tension on the anchor chain caused by the storm surge and the 80 mile per hour winds. It was the second storm to hit since their arrival. “We did witness a typhoon some time ago,” Elmer wrote in reference to the first storm, “and it is something to behold. Often seen movies showing such a storm and wondered how one really looked . . . everything worked out OK.” Later, two days after second the gale, the U.S.S. Quapaw hit the Mink on its port side, just below the main deck. No injuries were reported, but the damaged ship immediately proceeded to an open berth. As the ship was being repaired it continued to fuel other ships and, on certain days, fire upon attacking Japanese aircraft.

The Leyte Gulf has had more than its share of storms. Super Typhoon Yolanda made landfall just south of Tacloban City, Leyte Island on November 7, 2013. The storm killed 6,352 people, with over 1,700 still missing. Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas, Wikicommons.

Despite the occasional flashes of war, storms, and colliding ships, Elmer and his crew mates found things to do, despite the temporary moratorium on ship movies due to the unstable military situation. Trading with the locals became one favorite pastime:

The natives I talked about trading with are Filipinos from villages around here. Most have been educated somewhat in speaking English and we get a lot of stories from them. They are hard up for clothes and trade us mats, knives, and bananas for old dungarees and shirts. The money I sent home already is Jap invasion money bills used by Japs to buy food and stuff from the Filipinos. Many of the Filipinos hide out in the hills. The Jap money wasn’t any good to them because they couldn’t use it for anything. Japs had nothing to sell in return. Makes a good souvenir anyway.

Elmer Luckett to his parents, 7 November 1944

The crew did not only acquire mats and fruit from the Filipinos and other islanders, but animals as well. “Don’t know if I told you about our pets aboard ship,” he wrote on the 29th. We have a little monkey with a stub tail . . . and she is quite a show climbing around in the ship’s riggings. She has been spoiled by the executive officer and will hardly go to another person aboard.” In addition, “we had another monkey but the fellows that owned it traded it for a baby kangaroo. They are called ‘wallaby’s’ as they are a smaller species of the kangaroo family.” Both animals were originally purchased with a few articles of clothing, but the wallaby came from another ship, whose crewmen swapped it for the other monkey aboard the Mink. “So much for our little friends.”

A blurry shot of Elmer riding a bull while smoking during one of his shore excursions. Elmer Luckett Collection.

While the trade in exotic animals helped compensate for the lack of ship movies, it still left a lot of unfilled hours during the day. Elmer filled them by being proactive in the engine room and curious in the library. “Been keeping busy with little jobs around the engine room,” he wrote on the 29th. “You can generally find something that should be done. That is, if you can muster up enough ambition to do it.” Beyond that, one finds “their diversions in reading, writing, and conversation. We have some dandy library books now, and I’ve been going at them whenever possible.” Incoming letters were his favorite reading material, however. He would grow annoyed whenever his correspondents seem to lag in their writing. He was especially anxious to learn about his sister Irene’s new baby, his niece Ruth Ann. “Still waiting to hear about Irene and the blessed event,” he wrote on the 19th. “Hope everything was OK. My next batch of mail should have the news.”

The extended time at sea was beginning to get to Elmer. He started attending church services whenever he could, for one thing – although he told his parents that he attended for spiritual reasons (which might have been true, given the war unfolding around him), he made no secret of the fact that the boat trip to the hosting ship was pleasant and cool. The different surroundings helped stave off any cabin fever. By the middle of November the situation had cooled enough for Elmer and some friends to leave the ship. “Got a chance to make a boat trip ashore and and see how the people live in their villages. And did a little sightseeing.” Their experience was instructive. “The same day I went to the largest city on an island near us [Tacloban]. We didn’t stay very long but we got a glimpse of the place. The stores had little or nothing to offer for sale. And it reminded me of a rural small town in a bad run-down condition.”

Elmer was heartened by recent developments overseas and at home. The Philippine liberation was progressing rapidly, Allied forces were racing across western Europe, and talk of “finishing” the war began to replace the more guarded discourse over “winning” it. The groundswell of good news was enough to carry President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to victory on November 7th, earning him an unprecedented fourth term. “Well Dad,” Elmer reflected on the 12th, “the election is all over now and F.D.R. will be in to finish this war and help make the peace. May it come to a speedy finish followed by a lasting peace.”

1944, like 2020, was an election year, and FDR’s campaign urged voters to choose him for a fourth term in order to finish the war. Unfortunately, even though his pitch worked, he died 82 days after Inauguration Day.

Despite Elmer’s optimism that the war would end within the next few months he was slightly more pessimistic about his chances of getting home any time soon. “It’s been a year since I’ve seen you all. A long time. I hope that this war is over before my eighteen months are up.” Elmer then explained the Rotation Plan for granting sailors regular (if infrequent) leave. “The idea (and hope of every man over-seas) is that after 18 months oversea’s you back home for a leave. It’s called the rotation plan. Too bad they didn’t think about it before I put 30 months overseas last time. Guess the patriotic service before the war don’t count.” At any rate, “if the war’s not over by next July we all ‘hope’ for a leave back home. That finishes 18 months.” He then added, “one happy thought is that its [sic] always possible the ship may go back to the U.S. for some reason or another, and that would be fine. All this adds up to my pet theory, you never know where you stand while in the Navy.”

Later that month, as the holiday season began, Elmer sounded a little less ebullient. “Thanksgiving Day is tomorrow,” he wrote on the 29th. “One of them was a week ago. One F.D.R. or Roosevelt Thanksgiving, the other the traditional one. Guess it doesn’t make a difference either way.” While Elmer and his crew mates succeeded in making the Mink more homelike over the past few months, no amount of fresh paint or hot chow would change the fact that home was on the other side of a planet rocked by war.

History Mystery: Was Horse Stealing a Capital Crime in Texas?

Well, folks, I’m back . . . as in, back on Twitter. You can follow me at @luckettdr. I’m not going to sweat out my follower count too much – I like being able to opine freely, and lately that has been on politics – but I am trying to make an effort to bring more research-relevant content to my timeline. For my purposes, that means searching for tweets about horse stealing.

And after a couple of days doing just that I realized pretty quickly that there is a gaping hole in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. Although I talk at length about horse stealing in Nebraska, including its status in the penal code, I don’t mention similar or comparable laws in Texas. While that makes sense, obviously, given the title, the myth that horse thieves were lawfully hanged in Texas remains strong:

This one is my favorite:

My guess is . . . no, I don’t think anyone should be worried about being hanged for horse stealing. This is not to say that horse stealing is not still a problem (because it is), and the fact that people are bringing up hanging at all when referencing modern horse thieves speaks both to the gravity of the problem and the power of the myth itself. But is it actually a myth, or can horse thieves face the death penalty in Texas still?

Let’s find out!

The first thing we need to do is research what the laws in Texas actually were and read what they said about horse stealing. Since we are looking for a Texas state law, and Texas state laws were published, all we need to do in theory is consult the Texas penal code. The earliest digitized copy of Texas criminal law currently available through the Texas Law Library is the 1879 Penal Code of the State of Texas. Passed by the legislature on February 21, 1879, the code superseded preexisting Texas law and exhaustively laid out what was against the law in Texas, and what the prescribed penalty should be for each offense. Since this is a text-searchable PDF, all we need to do is hit Ctrl-F and search for “horse” until we get to the appropriate law.

If you want to skip the searching, you can find the relevant statute on page 97, in Title XVII, Chapter 11:

“If any person shall steal any horse, ass or mule, he shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary not less than five nor more than fifteen years.”

Here’s a screenshot of the law:

Notice that the punishment for stealing cattle was two to five years in jail, as opposed to between five and fifteen. Cattle were valuable in Texas, but apart from commodity production and pulling draft they had little utility. The difference in punishment between the two underscores how important horses really were, even if horse thieves did not necessarily face the death penalty for their crimes.

This seems pretty conclusive, right? It would be, except for the fact that the above law is from 1879. Texas established its independence from Mexico over three decades earlier, and the United States annexed it in 1845. Needless to say, a lot of violence occurred in Texas during the preceding thirty years: the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, a generation of warfare against the Comanches, and the explosion of Texas cattle ranching across the Plains. Wouldn’t it be more likely for horse stealing to be a capital crime during this era, as opposed to 1879, when things presumably cooled down a little bit in the Lone Star State?

To check the law even earlier, we will have to exit the Texas State Law Library and head over to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas. This is where we will find a PDF copy of The Penal Code of the State of Texas adopted by the sixth Legislature, passed into law and published in 1856. This volume represents a codification, rather than a revision, of existing laws – meaning that the laws inside were already on the books in one way or another, but had not yet been incorporated into a single body of legal code.

Once again, it does not take long to find out what the punishment for horse stealing was in Texas in 1856:

“Article 765. If any person shall steal any horse, gelding, mare, colt, ass, or mule, he shall be punished, by confinement in the Penitentiary, not less than two, nor more than seven years.” Here is a screenshot of the law from the book itself:

One difference that should immediately stand out is that the punishment for horse stealing was actually more severe in 1879 than it was in 1856. Why was that? There are a lot of reasons for this (I talk about them in the book, of course), but one important factor bears mentioning here: horses were more valuable after the Civil War than before. The massive herds of mustangs were declining or moving north, growing ranches required enormous numbers of horses for their remudas, and urbanization elsewhere pulled horses out of rural markets. There was more competition for horses during the late 1870s, and as demand and prices for horses rose so, too, did their role in society. They were used for transportation, plowing, pulling draft, and countless other applications. This made them more ubiquitous and more essential to everyday life.

Yet despite their critical role horses were subject to a host of maladies, from epizootics to snake bites to lighting strikes to old age. They were expensive and virtually uninsurable, and people without the funds to buy multiple horses often overused the ones they had, leading them to age rapidly. Thus, of all the possible problems to plague horse owners, horse thieves shouldered much of the burden, as they were easily scapegoated and could presumably be controlled more easily with threats and punishments than lighting strikes or poisonous snakes.

One of the most famous horse theft hanging scenes can be found in the popular miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989). Shows like Lonesome Dove continued to propagate the belief that horse thieves were legally hanged. Although this is clearly a vigilante execution it is also apparent in the series that there will be absolutely no consequences for these actions.

Naturally, one possible punishment for horse stealing was hanging, and the popular mythology around hanging horse thieves was just as strong in the late-1870s as it is now. The question of whether or not vigilantes frequently hanged horse thieves in Texas is a separate question that deserves a separate answer, but if we assume that it was a strong possibility, then the harsher punishment prescription in 1879 makes a lot of sense. Texas levied five to fifteen year prison sentences against horse thieves not only in order to disincentivize the stealing of an incredibly valuable and uniquely indispensable form of property, but also in order to convince would-be vigilantes that the state was serious about punishing horse thieves.

This post just scratches the surface of what I’ve come to believe is a fascinating, multilayered story about horse theft and its vastly unappreciated and misunderstood role in shaping our laws, politics, culture, and history. It is a story I try to tell in my book. And even though my focus is on Nebraska, there are a LOT of parallels here between Texas and Nebraska law with respect to how they contend with horse stealing.

In the meantime, though, it seems as though our mystery is solved: horse stealing is not, and so far as I can tell never was, a hanging offense in the Lone Star State. Case closed.

Now comes the hard part: convincing everyone on Twitter.

October 1944: The Fighting Mink

On December 27, Elmer sent his parents his latest – and last – Christmas menu from the Mink’s official holiday dinner. It contained the usual fare: roast turkey, candied sweet potatoes, blueberry pie, and of course cigarettes. “We had a lovely dinner,” Elmer wrote, “and it sure went over good. Enclosed you will find the menu.” But the paper he sent had an additional bonus as well. “Also on the menu is our ship’s insignia – note the mink with the boxing gloves. I thought it very good.”

The USS Mink’s insignia, which Mink commander W. J. Meagher included on the ship’s Christmas menu. Elmer Luckett Ephemera Collection.

The insignia was certainly appropriate, and well-earned, given the Mink’s activities over the past two and a half months. Like hundreds of other ships, Elmer’s tanker participated in both the reconquest of the Philippines and the largest naval encounter in world history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Although the Mink was not a warship, the massive armada that closed in upon America’s fallen colony in late 1944 would not have traveled far without extra diesel and gasoline fuel on hand, so it and other oil-bearing ships were there to keep the invasion vessels going. But it would not be easy going. The Japanese understood why the tankers were there and diverted some of their limited air resources to bomb them. They, probably more than anyone, understood the importance of having a reliable fuel supply.

The Mink spent the majority of October in New Guinea, where it discharged oil and gas in Humboldt Bay from the 1st through the 18th. Elmer’s letters during this time, like the Mink’s operations, were business as usual. He reported to his parents that he was still receiving backlogged mail from his Australia trip and hinted that he missed his latest squeeze, Rae. He described her a bit more for his folks: she was 26, had reddish-brown hair, and was 5’5. The description was not entirely flattering. “Not a beautiful girl,” he recalled, “but pleasant, nice disposition, and a lot of personality.” Overall, though, it appears that Rae’s inside beauty more than made up for her outward appearance. “You weren’t worried about me with those Aussie girls, were you Dad? Ha! Ha! You know I can take care of myself, but they aren’t hard to fall for.”

Shirley apparently took Elmer’s relationship with Rae about as seriously as Elmer himself:

“[Shirley] asked what power I had over women, because Rae wrote you a letter. Ha! Ha! She is a good kid and understands about me going out while on leave. And I’m glad she does because I’ve told her I write other girls also. But she was first on my list at all times. (now you’re probably jealous, mom – but you’re still my best girl.)”

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 11 October 1944

While Elmer’s intercontinental correspondence with a growing list of ladies would soon require its own rolodex, the bonds he formed with his fellow servicemen were both enduring and elastic. However, they were also harder to maintain, since naval personnel tended to change addresses frequently as their assignments and whereabouts changed. He was thrilled when he received a postcard from Ozzie Gray, who was awaiting orders in New Jersey and would soon rejoin the war in the North Atlantic. His last letter to Gray, which he had addressed to the Chew, was returned to him via post. Besides Gray, Elmer regularly corresponded with his friends from his time on the Chew, who like him were themselves now stretched across the world, fighting a global war. But they would always share a common bond, a steely heritage forged via months of living on the blue water but baptized by a morning of fire. “Guess most of that old gang is gone by now,” he wrote wistfully on the 15th. “The good ‘ole Chew.”

Ever conscious of the censor’s requirements, Elmer filled his pages with topics he could talk about, like his living compartment. “Wish you could see our quarters,” he beamed. “We have a nice desk in our room. It folds up against the bulkhead when not in use . . . The bulkheads are light blue, overhead is white enamel, and the lockers and bunks a dark blue” He appreciated the set-up. “Most Navy ships don’t offer these accommodations . . . we can’t kick about conditions. Especially when you see how men live on the beach in this neck of the woods.”

Point of comparison to the Mink: Photo of USS Hornet (CV-12) enlisted bunks. Stan Shebs, 2005, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Hornet_enlisted_bunks.jpg.

He also transacted the regular business of birthdays and holidays, mentioning that he purchased a stack of birthday cards in Australia to send out over the following months but could not find any for Christmas, which were not available yet. However, he did ask his folks what he should get them, and probably intended to have one of his siblings arrange to purchase the items on his behalf. He would certainly have the resources to make such arrangements: on October 8th he sent a $70 money order home to be deposited in to his account. Now that his leave was over he was back on the ship, flush with cash but with nowhere to spend it.

By October 15th his tone shifted slightly. He knew that he was about to leave again. He told his mother that he attended church that day aboard another boat, and he once again sent his usual disclaimer for those times when he knew he might be incommunicado: “I’m in shipshape and good spirits. Don’t forget if at any time my letters are late, no news is good news, and they may be a little longer reaching you . . . and I wanted to let you know now.” He wrote again the next day, indicating that it might be his last letter for a few weeks. He did not have much to say after the previous day’s letter, so he talked movies. “No, mom, I didn’t see Bing Crosby in Going My Way,” he replied in response to some question about the most commercially and critically successful film of 1944. “Our movies aren’t very new out here. But I see many that I haven’t seen before.” He mentioned that the crew did watch Dixie Dugan recently, which had come out the previous year.

Elmer, along with 200,000 other naval personnel, were about to move ever farther away from where all the good movies were made. Their next stop was the Japanese-occupied Philippines. The grand operation, codenamed King Two, was comparable only to the D-Day landings in Normandy in terms of both scale and self-satisfaction. In particular, General Douglas MacArthur was eager to fulfill his promise three years earlier to his men trapped on the archipelago behind enemy lines that he “shall return.” The successful liberation of the Philippines would also put an American wall between Japan and its oil supplies in the Dutch East Indies, finally cutting the island empire off from its remaining fuel reserves and potentially forcing a rapid conclusion to the war.

Episode 18 of the famous 1951 Crusade in the Pacific series covered MacArthur’s epic return to the Philippines. He splashed ashore Leyte Island on October 20th, 1944, only a short distance away from where the Mink would sail four days later.

As Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkade, commander of the Seventh Fleet, set up his chess board for the coming assault he had many assets at his disposal. The Mink was assigned to Task Force 77.7.2, which was a group of mostly service vessels under the command of Rear Admiral R. O. Glover. They were to support the Seventh Fleet in the coming battle to liberate the Philippines, starting with Leyte Island. The Task Force also included five other tankers, plus seven oilers, nine ammunition ships, three destroyer escorts, two hospital ships, and even a floating dry dock. While not as powerful, deadly, or sexy as the cruisers and destroyers that made up the primary Seventh Fleet combat units, the ships in the 77.7.2 service force symbolized America’s resourcefulness. After all, it was one thing to build carriers or battleships to keep pace with an enemy navy, but it was quite another to have enough material and industrial capacity left over to also build tankers, hospital ships, and a floating dry dock. The service fleet was both an integral part of American naval strategy in waters nearly seven thousand miles from the mainland United States, and an extravagance that the Japanese could ill-afford to duplicate for themselves.

On October 18th, at 5:12 in the morning, the Mink got underway for the Philippines. The rising sun was still below the horizon in the east, while in the west the Empire of the Rising Sun was retreating north towards the Japanese home islands. It was a six day sail until the task force arrived in San Pedro Bay; Elmer took the time to write some letters.

He penned one to his parents during the trip, on October 22nd. There wasn’t anything unusual about it – he told his dad that he probably wouldn’t be “kicked up” to a new rating anytime soon since enlisted men were getting fewer of them. “I’m not worrying about it,” he told his dad. “The main thing is to get this war over with.” He also wondered why Shirley Ruth and so many of his friends wanted to move to California. “Most people are taken by the beauty of the state at first,” Elmer mused. He had no way of knowing that someday a majority of his descendants would live there.

As Elmer finished his letter, the Mink glided across the sapphire ocean below. Other boats in the 7.7.2 task force could be seen in the distance. For the time being, the only dangers surrounding them were sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, and other wardens of the deep, and their appetites were easily drowned out by the rolling waves of the endless, unscathed sea.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte, Philippine Islands on October 20th. U.S. Army Signal Corps officer Gaetano Faillace. Wikicommons.

The Mink arrived in San Pedro Bay at 10am on October 24th. The Japanese immediately began to attack the arriving task force from the air, which lay a protective smoke screen around the Mink and other auxiliary ships. By 1500 hours the smoke had cleared enough for the ships to proceed to their anchorage.

October 25th was a long day, starting with an air alert at 0715, followed by an all clear at 0930. But then two hours later the Mink officially joined the battle after a second air alert that morning sent the crew scrambling to general quarters. With its bow facing seaward, just before noon a crewman noticed a wave of incoming Japanese dive bombers just ahead and off to the starboard side. The planes took direct aim at the shore facilities then being built in order to support the invasion. Most were outside of the Mink’s reach, but whenever they wandered into the range of the Mink’s 3″ and 5″ guns they swung into action, and fired on the dive bombers as they screeched toward the ground. The guns lowered their angle of fire as they tracked the bombers downward. According to the subsequent action report the Mink’s 3″50 caliber gun scored one direct hit, and reported it as a “Sure” when they saw the bomber fall out of its dive and crash onto the beach. The air alerts continued throughout the rest of the day, and were punctuated by the occasional roar of the Mink’s anti-aircraft guns. The ship was not secured until 7pm that evening.

The next day the Mink began dispensing diesel, gas, and lubricating oil to the surrounding armada. Meanwhile, as it discharged its precious cargo, it continued to discharge its guns. The crew fired on at least four dive bombers over the span of about 12 hours as columns of smoke billowed into the hot lead air over Leyte Gulf. Although it did not score any “sure” hits in its action report the ship was in the thick of the battle. “There were many planes,” the report noted, “therefore no accurate report can be submitted.” It fired nearly 400 rounds of 20mm ammunition at the passing planes, as well as 17 3″ and 5″ shells.

Two Coast Guard-manned LST’s open their great jaws in the surf that washes on Leyte Island beach, as soldiers strip down and build sandbag piers out to the ramps to speed up unloading operations. 1944. WikiCommons.

The 27th was quieter, but not without incident. The Mink fired at three Japanese plans flying across her stern toward the shore.

Elmer wrote his parents a letter that day. He didn’t let on that the Mink was in the thick of the war – not that he would have been allowed to do so at any rate. But he did talk about the Filipinos he and his crew-mates encountered over the last few days, even if he could not mention where they were or whether this group was different from the last one. “Got more Jap invasion money,” he reported. “Natives come out in their outrigger canoes and trade with us. They want cigarettes and old clothes for Jap money and bananas.” Later, Elmer directly alluded to the horrors that unfolded around him over the past few days: “Little incidents like these help break up the monotony and routine each day – we have had other things breaking the monotony, but I’ll tell you about that some other time.”

During the next several days, the Mink continued to fuel various craft while sounding out air alerts every few hours. One came at 9:20 in the evening on October 30th. The frequent alerts and the long-running battle in the skies above took their toll on the sailors there, both on the Mink and on other vessels. Nerves were on edge, tempers flared. In fact, the only time the Mink was hit came on October 31st, when a friendly 50 caliber shell hit the aft living compartment. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged, but it was certainly not the way anyone on board wanted to celebrate Halloween that year.

Grandpa’s Letters Update

Hi folks,

I am excited to announce that the Grandpa’s Letters series will resume next Monday, August 10th, at 10am Pacific Time with my “October 1944” entry. I will then post weekly updates every Monday, with the “finale” post scheduled to drop on November 30th (a week before Pearl Harbor Day).

Although my summer work duties have been time intensive, a big part of the reason for the delay up to this point has been strategic: with my book release coming up this November and a growing slate of promotional opportunities between now and then, I’ve been waiting for the right time to start writing and posting about the last year of my grandpa’s service. And I promise you, it is one hell of a story.

In addition to the weekly updates, I am still planning on posting some cool horse thief-related stuff over the next few months, including some images from the book. Those posts will come primarily on Thursdays.

Anyway . . . Thanks for your patience, and thank you always for reading!

Matt

Movie Review: Greyhound (spoiler-free)

I’ve heard a lot of great things about Greyhound, the new World War II Naval drama starring Tom Hanks and, I guess, Elisabeth Shue (more on that later). I read that it was the most realistic naval war movie in years, if not ever, and the fact that it takes place on a Fletcher-class destroyer makes it even better. Talk about a movie tailor-made for this blog! So, naturally, I had to see it.

Since this is an Apple TV movie, I had to sign up for a free trial for the Apple TV service in order to watch it. Five bucks a month isn’t a terrible price as far as streaming services go (it is a lot less than Netflix) but it all adds up after a while. I will surf it some in the next few days, and if you have any recommendations for what I should watch on there, please leave a comment and tell me!

Anyway, once the trial was set up, I queued up the film and sat back with some chips and a beer ready for a show. Then I looked at the runtime: one hour and 31 minutes! This is definitely a one-beer film. And even that is generous, since the interminably long credits start to roll with 12 minutes left in the film, effectively making this a 75 minute movie.

75 minutes? Tom Green’s movies are longer than that. The Love Guru, possibly the worst film ever made, clocks in at 84 minutes. Even Uwe Boll can crank out 100 minutes of whatever the heck it is that Uwe Boll makes when he points a camera at something. Why is Greyhound so short?

The answer to that question, I think, is key to figuring out this movie.

Let’s go back to the resounding praise most folks seem to have for the film’s accuracy. Greyhound speaks the language of a Tin Can deck. Officers and crew are constantly barking out and then repeating orders, sonar readings, sub sightings, etc. The word “bearing” is probably shouted at least 200 times. Director Aaron Schneider revels in this staccato dialogue, which realistically conveys the urgency Commander Ernst Krause and his crew felt during those long hours while escorting a large convoy across “the Black Pit” without the aid of air cover during the Battle of the Atlantic. Both the dialogue and the editing come at breakneck speed – I found it helpful to watch with closed captioning – which underlines just how quickly a battle with a U-boat can turn in real time.

Without moving into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Schneider fits a lot of stuff into 75 minutes. And the film’s pacing is deliberate enough that I come away from it thinking that if it were to run any slower, with those long deliberative character pauses that we see in films like Hunt for Red October, then it would just be another hackneyed Naval combat movie. I applaud Schneider for not embracing that schtick, since if he were to do that, with Tom Hanks as the lead no less, he still would have made a fine – if not great – movie.

But I don’t think that this movie is great, either, precisely because the entire film seems to channel 1917 and Dunkirk in making a real time-conscious war movie. When successful, the real time effect, pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock and popularized by the Fox series 24, accentuates the heart-pounding drama of the story minute by minute. Greyhound cannot truly hew to this format, however, since the action takes place over two days (each sequence is preceded by a title card indicating the name of the corresponding watch period). As a result, the film is a stream of crises, one after another, boom boom boom. By way of comparison, it is not unlike an edited YouTube video, in which the narrator’s pauses are cut, thus resulting in a continuous if visibly disjointed presentation. While that is not necessarily bad in and of itself, Schneider’s commitment to accuracy and the resulting jargon-laced dialogue makes the pacing frenetic and, at several points, tiresome. It’s a bit like listening to air traffic controllers for a hour on end, but instead of listening in on the radio transmissions, you’re standing in the middle of the tower at 9am on a Friday at JFK. The chatter soon turns into a cacophony.

The film is not totally robotic – Hanks is fantastic (as always) and there are some genuinely emotional and even solemn moments in the movie. However, it needs to be diluted a bit. Elisabeth Shue’s character is in the movie for about three minutes, and then she is gone (presumably to go babysit some mischievous kids in a Chicago suburb). Why is she even in the previews? Her disappearance five minutes in hints at a larger indictment: that there is almost zero character development. We learn three (mostly spoiler-free) facts about Commander Krause: he is devoutly religious, he drinks a lot of coffee, and his shoes may be a size too small. Schneider and Hanks lionize, rather than humanize, his character, and in this sense Krause is basically Captain John Miller in a different service uniform. With the recent trend in war movies to make protagonists into regular, flawed humans (see The Pacific, Band of Brothers, The Hurt Locker, etc), and not Greatest Generation caricatures, this seems like a misstep. It would not have taken a lot of money or time to shoot a few extra scenes in the San Francisco hotel where the movie opens and add some backstory, some flashbacks, some flash-forwards, or just something to break up the flow.

Apart from those criticisms, however, Greyhound is a fast-faced, entertaining, and perhaps even instructive war movie. It is definitely worth watching.

But is it worth subscribing to Apple TV? Well . . . I just discovered that every episode of Fraggle Rock is on there, so I suppose the question is now moot, at least for me.

OK, Apple TV, I’ll bite . . .

Another History Mystery (and a Happy Birthday to the Greatest Great-Grandma in the World)

Now that my classes are winding down I’m starting to work on the Grandpa’s Letters project again. But since I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to have unfettered access to Ancestrylibrary.com (i.e., institutional access without me having to personally subscribe to it) I’ve been filling out Grandpa’s genealogy on MacFamilyTree. It is a good way to lay out all of the evidence I’ve accumulated, retrace my steps, and document the connections I’ve made.

Some of my grandpa’s genealogy is settled fact. The Lucketts have a long history in North America that dates back to before the Revolutionary War. There is even a “Luckett Hill,” which is a small cemetery plot full of our fore-bearers on a wooden knoll in Lincoln County. However, we know much less about my Elmer’s mother’s line. When I asked my Grandpa during his oral interview whether or not it was true that his mother was German, here was his response:

Yeah, her name was Schroeder, S-C-H-R-O-E-D-E-R, Schroeder. Yeah. Now, Rose Phillippine … And the thing that got me, I later on found that Rose Phillippine was a Saint in the Catholic church. But I kind of wondered whether my mother could have been from a family that was Catholic. But she was born … my mother was born in this country. But her family was from Germany, her mother and dad and her sister. And her mother and dad died, evidently, when she was quite young. And my sister, Frieda … or her sister, Frieda, more or less raised her. She was a few years older than my mother, and they were the only two children there.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

There is a lot to unpack here, but what strikes me the most was his uncertainty about his own mother’s origins. He and his family were close to Aunt Frieda and her kids, and Grandpa wrote them all frequently during his time in the service. However, it was almost as if their family history began Ex nihilo in Saint Louis. Rose, who was born only a couple of years after her parents and sister arrived in the United States, only knew Missouri. And despite being born in Hamburg and having German as her native language, Frieda had few memories of her own of her homeland. Unfortunately, the death of their parents made it nearly impossible for them to learn much else about their origins.

Not surprisingly, circumstances such as these make it difficult to pin down her own family line. After all, Schroeder is a common name, and ship logs and Ellis Island registers are full of Schroeders traveling to America on a one-way trip. But researching a genealogical mystery is like tugging on a sweater thread: the more you pull at it, the more it unravels. With that in mind, the best place to start is not with Rose herself, since she was born in St. Louis, but with her sister Frieda.

Who was Aunt Frieda? She married several times, which makes things a little more complicated, but once we learn what names she has and at what times she had them it is fairly easy to reconstruct her documentary history on Ancestry.com. For instance, when she passed away her full legal name was Frieda Albina Aschenbrenner. With that information in mind we can look up her Social Security application and her death certificate.

This is the text record of Aunt Frieda’s Social Security application. I photographed the copy I printed out a while back along with the original annotations I made on it. Note the misspelled last name. Despite that discrepancy the rest of the information (birthday, given name, parents’ names, birth country) corresponds with information elsewhere.

Taken together, her Social Security application and her death certificate corroborate one another. They also provide or confirm some vital facts, specifically her birth date (July 6, 1879) and her country of origin (Germany). But while her death certificate lists her parents names as “unknown,” her Social Security application (which she completed herself – she obviously could not fill out her own death certificate!) lists them as Charles Schroeder and Anna “Wonnerrow.”

These documents from near the end of Aunt Frieda’s life tell us much about her, but what about those documents from the beginning? Armed with her full name, her birthdate, and her country of origin, I started to hunt down her birth certificate. Thanks to the magic of Ancestry.com, it did not take me long:

Frieda Schroeder’s birth certificate. From Ancestry.com. Hamburg, Germany, Births, 1874-1901 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.

Although the document is in German, Ancestry.com translates the particulars (since these are standard forms there is not a lot of extraneous context that prevents the site from automatically generating translations of these documents). It shows that Frieda Alwine Sofie Johanna Schroeder was born on July 6, 1879, in Hamburg, Germany to Anna and Friedrich Carl Schroeder. This is almost certainly Aunt Frieda’s birth certificate.

So now the question is, who was Anna Schroeder? For that we need to search Ancestry.com’s German language documents for information using both her married name and her maiden name (Wonnerrow, or some variation thereof).

One possible candidate is Anna Christina Elisabeth Wohrenow. She was born on August 19th, 1849, in or near Blücher, a village located about 60 miles southeast of Hamburg in the Mecklenburg region. She was baptized four days later at the Evangelische Kirche Blücher, or the Blücher Evangelistic Lutheran Church. The baptismal document lists her parents as Johann Heinrich Friedrich Reinke and Cathar Elisabeth Wohnerow. The baby received her mother’s family name, however, since the parents were not married. Thus Anna’s birth was categorized by the church as being Uneheliche, or illegitimate.

Anna Wohrenow’s 1849 baptismal record from Germany.

Frieda’s documents virtually prove that Anna Schroeder was her mother. For one, Frieda’s Social Security application lists “Anna Wonnerrow” as her mother, Germany as her country of origin, and July 6th, 1879 as her birthdate. These details can also be found on her German birth certificate from Hamburg, which also includes her father’s full name in German (Friedrich Carl Heinrich Johann Schroeder).

The original Blücher Evangelistic Church was replaced by this newer building in 1875, about 25 years after Anna Wohrenow’s baptism.

As for her sister (and my great-grandmother) Rose, we can also cross-reference her Missouri birth registry record with her death certificate, which both state that she was born in St. Louis on July 24, 1887. The former document also lists Anna Schroeder as her mother, although curiously the death certificate lacks any information about her parents at all (was Forrest Luckett too distraught to provide this information, or was it possible that he didn’t know?)

Now that we’ve tracked down Anna Schroeder, we can fill in some of the missing pieces and prove that she was Rose and Frieda’s mother, that she was the same Anna Wohnerow born in Germany, and that she did not live long after her youngest daughter’s birth. To do that, we can look at her death certificate. It contains several important pieces of corroborating information: she was born in Germany, had lived in St. Louis for ten years (which suggests she arrived in 1885), and resided at 2430 Lemp Ave. It also reveals a somewhat morbid fact: she was 45 years, eight months, and one day old when she passed away. Since the death certificate states that Schroeder died on Saturday, April 20, 1895, where would 45 years, eight months, and a day place her birthday? August 19, 1849.

That’s the same date listed on her baptismal record.

Anna Schroeder’s burial certificate.

There is still much to learn about Rose’s little family. Who was Charles (or Carl, or Friedrich) Schroeder? When did they come to America? What happened to Rose and Frieda between 1895 (when their mom died) and 1898 (when Frieda married Max Meinelt and established a new household that included young Rose)? So far the answers are elusive, at least on Ancestry.com. Once the COVID-19 emergency lifts and we’re all able to freely travel again, I think the next step would be to go to St. Louis and do some detective work there. One place I would like to visit is Anna Schroeder’s grave in St. Matthews Cemetery, just off Morganford Road. Are there any other Schroeders buried nearby? The cemetery isn’t mapped, so I will need to visit the place myself (or perhaps get a family member to do it? . . .)

I don’t really know how much of this will go into the book. What I do know, though, is that I did not learn about the Schroeders growing up. Nor did my dad, so far as I can tell. I don’t even think my grandpa knew all that much about his mother’s family. Yet when Anna Wohrenow came to the United States with her daughter, it was surely a fresh start. She would no longer be an Uneheliche in Mecklenberg, a notoriously conservative corner of the reich, and her children would go on to live comfortable, productive, and successful lives.

However, most of the family history stories I heard growing up revolved around Seneca Luckett, my great-great grandfather, and his ancestors in Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. We would even make the occasional family pilgrimage to Luckett Hill. It was great to learn about these ancestors who tilled the soil under our feet and whose early wanderings across the continent followed Daniel Boone across the Cumberland Gap over 240 years ago. But now that I know that six of my great-great grandparents were born in Germany, I am curious to learn more about them as well. I’m even thinking about flying to Hamburg so that I can visit Anna’s birthplace, and lay my eyes on the foundations of the church where she was baptized some 170 years ago.

That trip will have to wait, though, just like all the other ones I plan to take (thanks, COVID-19!) In the meantime, I’ll continue tumbling down Ancestry.com’s endless warren of genealogical rabbit holes searching for more distant German relatives.

Of course, there is one last piece of business: today is my Great-Grandmother Rose’s birthday. She was born 133 years ago. And while it would be unrealistic to expect that she would still be around after all that time to celebrate, her death on March 7, 1946 at the age of 58 ensured that she would not be alive to meet Elmer’s children. In fact, Elmer had only been home from the war for five months when his mother fell ill and died of a pulmonary embolism. Sadly, it is clear from his letters that he thought the world of his mother, and losing her after being gone for nearly five years while serving in the Navy must have been a crushing blow.

Anyway, as Elmer might say, happy birthday to the greatest Great-Grandma in the world!

My Grandpa Elmer Luckett and my Great-Grandmother Rose out on the town. Shopping maybe?

Stress relief

Hi folks,
I’ve decided to deactivate my Twitter. There are a few reasons for this . . . first of all, it was driving me bonkers. My blood pressure is high enough.

Secondly, as a self-promotional tool, it is egregiously flawed. The followers to followed ratio makes it so that it is nearly impossible to follow a bunch of people without being seen as a spam bot, which means that each account needs a net positive followers to followed ratio, and thus it is mathematically impossible for all accounts to possess a net positive ratio. This zero-sum game results in a lot of duplicitous behavior, like “Twitter churn,” which is the process of following people and then unfollowing them a few days later after they’ve followed you back. It’s all nonsense, and I’m not going to engage in that kind of behavior.

Yet Twitter rewards exactly that kind of profile, since it bestows legitimacy on those accounts with large followings and casts suspicion on those without an aggressively large following. In theory this promotes the marketplace of ideas by making it easy to follow and unfollow people, but in practice it elevates a small number of voices and empowers a tsunami of bots and trolls who can follow each other over a couple of days, creating algorithmically beefy accounts and thereby bypassing Twitter’s supposedly impartial terms of service.

Have you ever seen the Meow Meow Beanz episode of Community?

Twitter is basically that.

Anyway, if you need up-to-the-minute updates on what I’m doing, you should sign up for this blog! Or if you’re one of the few people on Twitter I’ve met over the past few months, please follow me on Instagram (lucketthistory), send me an email (my IG username @ gmail), Facebook me, or heck . . . follow this blog!

In the meantime, my wife seems to do a better job of not getting too engaged when on Twitter. Maybe she’d be willing to open an account for me and run it on my behalf?

Honey?

The Chew Deck Logs (1941)

One of my favorite aspects of military history is the availability of documentation.

Militaries are big things, indeed. They have lots of soldiers, lots of vehicles, and lots weapons that vary in size and lethality. They also have support staff, logistical supply chains, doctors, nurses, engineers, ditch diggers, builders, movers, doers, and even dreamers. They are everything a human being needs to be trained and housed and fed and dressed and armed and cared for while in the States, as well as everything needed to ship that person across an ocean and then train, house, feed, dress, arm, and care for that person while on deployment. And that’s just the Army.

In order to make such a large, complicated entity that culturally thrives on exactitude run like clockwork, militaries in general and Navies in particular require a great deal of data collection and record keeping. Today that burden is eased thanks to computers and smart devices, but back during World War II those processes requires lots of paper, pencils, typewriters, and people to jot down all those things that needed to be jotted down.

Deck logs were indispensable record-keeping devices for ships. They recorded all sorts of things, from the windspeed at different times of day to the ship’s location and speed. They also contained a narrative of the day’s events. Most of these were mundane – who boarded and left the ship, details about food and fuel deliveries, inspection reports, etc.

This is a page from the Chew deck log on January 1st, 1941. (National Archives – College Park)

The food deliveries are especially interesting, since they give us a sense what (and how much) all those sailors ate (they sure loved their potatoes):

The logs provide additional threads to pull, which reveal about not only the ship and its crew, but the wider community that surrounded and interacted with them. For instance, the Chun Hoon Company supplied many of the ship’s vegetables and fruits. The company’s namesake founder immigrated to Oahu in 1887 at the age of 14, and after starting out as a vegetable peddler Chun Hoon became increasingly successful as a vendor and then later as a grocer. Although he passed away in 1935 his sons took over the business, and in 1939 they opened a brand new supermarket at the corner of Nuuanu and School Streets in Honolulu. By 1940 the Chun Hoon Company was a major player in local business and a substantial benefactor for several local schools and charities.

More broadly, Chinese-Americans found and took advantage of the opportunities they found in Hawaii, which offered a space of relative refuge from persecution when compared to the post-Chinese Exclusion Act United States mainland. Of course, Hawaii itself was not annexed by the United States until 1898, by which time nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants had relocated to Oahu. But by that time, Chinese-Hawaiians were already well-integrated into the island’s economy, and immigrants like Chun Hoon continued to thrive despite the changing of the flag. His company was an institution by 1940, and while the Chew and the United States Navy were important customers for the business, they were by no means the only ones.

I had no idea about the Chun Hoon Company before looking at this specific page in the Deck Log. I have several hundred more pages to go. What other secrets do they hold? What other connections do they suggest? What was the weather like at 7:30am on December 7th, 1941? Where was the ship located the next morning at 9am? Deck Logs can help us answer these questions and more . . .

To find Deck Logs for other ships, you will need to do one of two things: you can go directly to the Archives II NARA reading room in College Park, Maryland and request them, or you can hire an independent researcher in the area to scan the ones you want. You will have to wait until NARA facilities reopen after the COVID quarantines lift, and once that happens there will likely be a considerable backlog of folks like me who are clamoring to begin or continue ongoing research projects. But the staff there is very helpful, and the materials themselves are easy to access.

Book Launches in the Time of COVID-19

Hi folks,
I received some news yesterday that was not unexpected: the 2020 Western History Association Conference will be conducted entirely online. The good news here is that the entire conference (including both of my panels) will be held digitally, and all panels will be recorded and uploaded for future viewing. It will also be free to all WHA members, so if you’re interested in checking out what the Western History Association does . . . why not kick a few bucks their way to support historical scholarship on the American West and join? You’ll get a quarterly journal and a really nice tote bag (I have a collection of them from past conferences). Anyway, given the number of conferences canceled over the spring (including another one I was supposed to do in Michigan), I am relieved that the WHA 2020 will be a sure thing this fall.

Of course, that’s the good news. The bad news is that none of us will be meeting in Albuquerque this October, or for that matter probably leaving our houses. No evening drinks with old friends and colleagues. No New Mexican-style food or dinner at Papa Felipe’s (which in my opinion is the best regional cuisine in the United States . . . no contest). No annual UCLA alumni brunch. No face-to-face networking. No chance encounters with world renowned scholars. And no book launch parties, complete with warm brie and autographed copies of my new book.

Conferences are an integral part of any academic book launch. Attendees usually hang out in “the book room,” which is a large gallery of various publishers and other groups who set up tables containing the latest and greatest books in our field. During my first few years going to conferences, they were a place for me to chat with editors and senior historians. During the last few years, they’ve become a place to bump into friends I’ve made over the years, while still making time to catch up with various editors and others. And this year, I was looking forward to seeing my own book on the table, and possibly taking some time to “officially” launch it. Conference-goers get a hefty discount on all the books there, and people attending my panels would no doubt learn about my book once I start to talk.

However, like the WHA Conference itself, I will not let COVID-19 get in the way of me celebrating the publication of my book, which was the result of a lot of hard work on my part and the publisher’s. So, to that end, I am exploring some alternative possibilities for getting a bit more exposure, including the possibility of a “virtual” book launch. Do YOU have any ideas for what I can or should do? Please leave me a comment or some other suggestion!

One thing I will do, starting right now, is begin planning an online exhibition of some of my Nebraska and Great Plains photography. Since my book will not have any full color photos, I will include those photos that I have taken here in color, along with a little bit of narration about the photo and what I was doing or where I was when I took it. I am also doing this because I am canceling my planned flight to Nebraska to take and document a “Horse Thief Road Trip” through some of my favorite sites in Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. I was really looking forward to the journey, and to being able to fly my drone around the Plains . . . but, alas, it would not be safe, advisable, or even kosher at the moment to make such a gratuitous trip. But I do have a ton of photos from my previous trips to the Plains, and a place to showcase them. I will begin making these posts in September, in advance of the book coming out, but in the meantime here is one of my favorites:

Buffalo Bill Cody Cutout at Fort Cody. Photo by M. Luckett.

This is a photo of the towering Buffalo Bill cutout at Fort Cody, a tourist attraction glorified gift shop along Interstate 80 in North Platte, Nebraska. It’s worth a visit if you’re ever passing through the area . . . that’s where I bought my dad a roll of John Wayne toilet paper. But they have more than just souvenirs, including a miniature, animatronic Wild West show with a cast of thousands of individual pieces. It’s a cool thing to see, especially after driving across the Plains for several hours.

Anyway, this shot isn’t my best (e.g., it does not follow the rule of thirds), but to be fair this cutout is absolutely enormous. It towers over the parking lot, much like how the man it depicts towers over Western culture and the Western genre itself. And I love the bright blue sky behind it . . . imagine that slightly marshmallowy azure extending toward the horizon in every direction, above a grassy and barely peopled land, and you can imagine yourself in the Great Plains.

Hopefully enough people buy the book so that there will be a paperback edition to hawk, thus giving me another legitimate, professional excuse to visit this surreal, sublime place. And if that happens, then next time it will be the book launching me . . . perhaps back to North Platte, or to some other place under that endless sapphire Nebraska sky.

Winner!

Good news: the Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains has just won a Midwest Book Award for Best General History. I’m honored and privileged to have had the opportunity to submit a chapter to this exemplary collection, which was edited by Jon K. Lauck. The whole book is wonderful, start to finish, and if you have any interest in the Midwest or the Great Plains it is worth a read.

You can get it on Amazon, or you can give Jeff Bezo’s share directly to the Center for Western Studies at Augustana University, which published the book: http://www.augie.edu/center-western-studies/shop/interior-borderlands-regional-identity-midwest-and-great-plains.

Congratulations, Jon!

Relearning How to Teach (and How to Speak)

Hi folks,
Sorry about the lack of posts this past week. One reason is because I’ve been busy with the three courses I’m teaching this summer, as well as spending time with visiting family. Another reason is that I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, and I need to review every word of it to make sure that the printer has correctly set the type (which looks gorgeous, by the way).

But a third reason is algorithmic: suddenly, due to both changing accounting measures at WordPress and Google Analytics, as well as too-rosy-to-be-true assumptions on my part, my day to day site traffic plunged this week from what I thought was a few hundred views a day to about a dozen. While that realization this week did not necessarily cause me to not want to blog anymore – after all, I’m not doing this to be a social media influencer or a professional blogger, but to give my actual writing and teaching work a virtual home base for both new and existing readers of my work – it has reduced the urgency I feel to produce filler content when not blogging about my Grandpa’s Letters (which, as mentioned elsewhere here, is the basis of my current book project).

I say that partly in exasperation over the sheer amount of work it takes to obtain a blogging audience, but also because I want to say a couple of things about online teaching, and while this might not be one of those promised album reviews this blog is the best place for me to do it.

First of all, teaching on Zoom in my office is more difficult and much less fulfilling than teaching in a classroom. It’s easy to understand the “less fulfilling” part: I am a bit of a ham when I’m in front of an audience (a few of you may remember me “acting” in my high school’s plays during the late 90s), and even on days when I don’t feeling like teaching a class for whatever reason the time seems to speed by when I’m in a classroom. I love the energy, the forced extroversion for an hour and a half, the campus atmosphere. I love the libraries, the manicured lawns, the trees when they explode pink and green during the spring and burn crimson and yellow in the fall. I love the ritual of grabbing a pre-class coffee, and I love it when students approach me on campus with a question or a comment. I miss all that. There’s nothing Zoom or Canvas or any other online intermediary can do to make those things better, unless they combine their AI and invent a vaccine for this ghastly disease.

Then there’s the job itself. I love telling stories. I’m thrilled that I have found a way to make it my job to tell stories. Have you ever watched Moana? In some ways I believe the historian’s job is not unlike that of Moana’s grandmother: she is both an educator and a keeper of the island’s lore and legends. She is the keeper of the island’s past and its secrets. She knows where the skeletons – and the boats – are buried. But she also loves the island and its people. History is not just a growing collection of books and vast archival holdings. It is tactile, visual (hence the debate over statues), and interpersonal. Human connection and lived experience are history’s emulsifiers. Unfortunately, these things are largely if not wholly absent on Zoom. If history was born around a campfire, it will someday die on a closed browser tab.

If you’re a Moana fan, there’s a ton of backstory in the deleted scenes . . .

Of course, Zoom and other intermediaries are necessary at the moment, especially given the sudden rise in new COVID-19 cases throughout the United States, including here in California. And we are all learning how to navigate these new challenges throughout the world of education . . . in fact, my grievances hardly compare to those who are now tasked with teaching Kindergarten and First Grade online. But those challenges do seem to exist across the board, including for those of us who already have some online teaching experience (like me).

One of those challenges is my tendency to say “um” a lot. Weirdly enough, this is something I don’t do in class, since part of my theater and speech training was to excise such filler words from my vocabulary when speaking to an audience. However, when speaking on Zoom, I am sitting down and talking to a webcam, which is not even close to being the same thing. Suddenly, my lectures are full of “um”s, whereas when standing up and giving a lecture I will typically pause when I am thinking and, if necessary, fill the time with a sip of coffee (another great reason to bring coffee to class!).

In an effort to make my lectures more accessible, I started taking the sound files and mixing them into podcast episodes. That way students can listen to their lectures on the go or while doing other things. While this was a good idea, I think, the execution sounds very different in that I realized just how many filler words I use now:

17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II Horse Thief Historian

The 17B Lecture Series is a repository of my summer 17B Zoom lectures for my HIST 17B: United States History from 1865 to the present. In this episode we review WWII and I defend my native son attachment to Harry S Truman. Note: all episodes are labeled "explicit," not because there is an overabundance of cursing, but because a curse word does sometimes slip out every now and then.
  1. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II
  2. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 9: The New Deal
  3. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 8: The Roaring 20s and the Beginning of the Depression
  4. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 7: World War I
  5. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 6: Progressive Era

Practice will make perfect, and now that I am aware of the problem it is something I can begin to work on. One thing that I think will help: I just bought a nice, entry-level microphone for my broadcasts. It is not unobtrustive . . . like many broadcast mics it is inconveniently large. But I hope that, in addition to dramatically improving my sound quality, it will also trick my brain into believing that I’m actually behind a podium, and not my desk.

Speaking of my desk, I built the top out of oak and attached it to a standing desk base. Maybe my lectures would be a good time to dispense with the desk chair and start standing again.

In any event, although the podcast is a fun way to distribute lecture content, I’m not a podcaster at heart. Unlike with my recent blog analytics, I won’t be bothered by the fact that I can count the number of downloads on one hand. I can’t, ummm, imagine having to do one of those podcasts, ummm, regularly, you know? But my new microphone does look pretty cool.

One corner of my table-sized desk, complete with a picture of my kid manhandling my guitar, a Buffalo Bill mug with a bunch of pens and probably more scissors than I need, a set of horse coasters I bought in Kentucky (where else?), and my new Blue Yeti microphone. And yes, I need to clean my desk.

Ads, Albums, and Almosts

Hi folks,

You may have noticed that there are now ads on the website. That’s on me . . . this is not a free account, and I have my annual site renewal coming up, so every little bit helps. Anything above what it costs to run the site will naturally go towards my research and historical work, which as one might imagine is also expensive. I greatly appreciate your patience with this transition, and please do let me know if the ads become a hindrance to your ability to enjoy or read the posts here.

Also, as I wrote last week the final year of letters is going to take more time to produce, if for no other reason than there are twice as many letters for this period! Which is exciting, obviously, but it also means I’m going to need some time to review and write about them.

So what will I do in the interim?

First of all, I’m bringing back the book reviews! Since I have a stack of books about World War II, I might as well get started and update you on how that’s going. Since Friday is a good day for those, I will try to keep posting those each Friday, starting with this one.

In addition to that, one of my buddies from grad school recently posted a series of posts on Facebook about his ten most influential albums. I thought that was a pretty cool concept, but Facebook being what it is, I didn’t want to place my content there . . . so why not blog about them? I spent some time thinking about it, and I’m going to share them with you over the next few weeks here, along with some stories, some historical context, and a little bit of musical criticism.

Of course, those of you who know me are probably aware that I never really put away my flannel shirts and Smashing Pumpkins CDs, so I narrowed my choices down to a wide variety of albums that reflect a broader range of interests and (as the list would imply) influences. Not necessarily my Desert Island albums, but those albums that challenged me, that opened me up to new worlds and pushed me in new directions. There’s some Johnny Cash, some Curtis Mayfield, some Sleater-Kinney, some . . . well, you’ll just have to stay tuned! And as I go through the list, I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Do you like these albums? Hate them? What should be on this list that isn’t? Please let me know in the comments!

Finally, a bit of good news: on Saturday I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. The book itself is gorgeous – the type, the font, even the title page . . . it all looks fantastic. The University of Nebraska Press does a fantastic job with all of their books, but I really love how they produced mine.

My job now is to review the proofs for typographical and layout errors over the next couple of weeks, and then send it back to be printed.

In other words: it’s almost done.

-Matt