November 1942: Stateside

On October 31st, 1942, the Chew accompanied a small convey out of Honolulu and escorted it East. Eleven days later, the ship reached its destination: San Francisco. It was the first time Elmer and many of his shipmates had seen the North American mainland since they left for Hawaii nearly two years earlier.

No one knew how long they were going to be in town, but on the same token no one knew when they would be back on North American soil. Some of Elmer’s shipmates, including the Grossmans and Ozzie, immediately seized the opportunity to contact their parents. Elmer hesitated, however, believing that his parents would be heartbroken if they were to come out to San Francisco and arrive only after his ship had departed.

Elmer usually liked to send postcards back home of the places he visited, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find one of San Francisco. So here is a representative non-tinted postcard from the 1940s. “The Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco and the Redwood Highway,” by photographer Alexander Zan #1532.

This point soon created minor controversy in Elmer’s family, since Jack and Harold Grossman’s mother, as well as Ozzie’s mother and wife, were all able to make the trip out to California to see them. Rose Luckett registered her disappointment with her baby boy. “As you say I should have contacted you as fast as possible,” he wrote. “But I was so doubtful as to what the future was, I hesitated.” Elmer did get to speak to his parents on the phone, however. The long-distance, wartime telephone call took three hours to connect, and the conversation itself only lasted for a few minutes. But it brought some relief after nearly two years of separation. While in town he also went to a photography studio to fulfill his mother’s request for a portrait.

Ironically enough, once Mrs. Grossman arrived with her daughter, Dot, Jack and Harold could not get off the ship for liberty. But Elmer was off that day, so he took their mom and sister out for lunch. “We talked about you and home, and everything in general,” he recalled in his letter. Mrs. Grossman also volunteered to deliver his photo to his mother. “[She] is taking some gifts home for me, also the two photos I had taken,” he wrote. “She sure is a swell person. They liked the photo very much. One is plain, the other tinted.” The Grossmans were on their way to visit family in Bakersfield, Elmer reported, but once they were back in Saint Louis they would deliver the photo to his parents. Later on he met Ozzie’s mother and wife as well.

Elmer did not just spend his time in San Francisco hanging out with his friends’ moms. “I’ve been having a very good time here,” he reported. “This town has everything in the line of entertainment and amusement that a person could want. I even did some dancing after being away from it for so long. Wish you could see the bridges they have here. You probably heard of them.” Elmer spared no expense during this “so-called vacation.” After spending nearly two years in Oahu or at sea, Elmer was excited to spend some time – and money – in a different place. The trip ended up costing approximately $130, he calculated the following month, “but it was worth every penny and more.” Ultimately, it was a “rather expensive vacation, but it’s our chance to have a good time.”

Elmer’s visit to the States coincided with an important milestone in the war: Operation Torch. On November 8th, 1942, American and other Allied forces landed at several points along the North African coast, thus starting on a long, circuitous path that would ultimately take them to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and finally Germany itself. The United States Navy also won a major battle against the Japanese off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco Examiner headline the morning of November 17th read, “Japs Licked in Showdown, Lose 30 Ships, 30,000 Men!” As usual, though, Elmer was cautiously optimistic. “The news has been looking good over the past week,” he wrote, but “don’t get too optimistic.”

nov17 -
The front page of the San Francisco Examiner on November 17th. Elmer, a voracious news junkie, might have read this edition of the paper when he was in town.

After thirteen days in San Francisco, the Chew departed on its return trip to Pearl Harbor on Monday, November 23rd, just three days before Thanksgiving. As he digested his holiday meal (“roast turkey, sweet potatoes, Irish spuds, asparagus, dressing, soup, cranberry sauce, salad, pie, cake, coffee, candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. My what a list!”) Elmer sat down to write his first post-San Francisco visit letter home to his parents. He was in a reflective mood:

Although things aren’t looking as bright as they could be, with the war etc., we do have so much to be thankful for today . . . good health, perfect family, and the consolation that our country is fighting on the right side for the right ideals. Not that all is perfect with US and our people, but we can’t doubt that our cause is a just one. Thankful to know, that in my own small way I’m making or help[ing make] our people safe in their homes – while all over the world so many innocent people must be destroyed in their homes. This is no speech, nor intended to be anything in that sense, but just a thought. [I] wonder how many people realize how fortunate they are today?”

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Luckett, 26 November 1942

I’m not sure what Elmer was referring to when he wrote that the United States isn’t “perfect.” While that is hardly an arguable statement (or, one would hope, a controversial one), it is a more critical opinion of America than either Elmer or many Americans in general were accustomed to offering during the war. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, the bullying of Latinx Angelenos by American servicemen that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, or anything else of that nature. I suppose that is a question I could have asked him during our interview, but I did not.

At any rate, Grandpa thoroughly understood that, in spite of America’s flaws, it was on the right side of history in this conflict. Which, again, is a virtually inarguable proposition, at least as far as I am concerned.

San Francisco offered Elmer and his shipmates a much-needed break from the monotony of escort duty and life in wartime Hawaii. But it also reminded them of exactly what they were hoping to protect by fighting in the war.

Research Trip

Hi folks,
Sorry for being tardy and not posting for a few days. I usually schedule all my posts well in advance, and I left this week free so that I could blog from the road. But if past experience is any guide, research trips are very busy affairs. I haven’t had much time to post since leaving town Monday, and even though I’ve thought of a lot of things to say this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything down.

I have been collecting research material for the Grandpa’s Letters project. Compared to my last major project (Never Caught Twice, which will be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press), the research paradigm for this one is relatively easy. Rather than having to reconstruct the history of a notoriously under-reported and over-exaggerated crime across half a state and half a century, my current book’s source base is already well-established: my grandpa’s letters, along with my oral interview, other family documents, and several albums full of photographs. I also have my dad and Uncle Richard to fill in the gaps, which is a resource I did not have when investigating nineteenth-century horse stealing. This is a solid, if not excellent, foundation for a compelling historical narrative.

But this source set by itself isn’t enough. For one, I should have my grandfather’s official military personnel file from World War II. It contains a great deal of specific, well-documented information about every aspect of his service record. While getting that, I might as well get the service records of some of his friends on the Chew as well, so that I can give a broader perspective on St. Louis-area reservists before, during, and after the War. Speaking of the Chew, I should have more information on that as well, especially since Grandpa was barred from discussing his ship’s position and activities after the Pearl Harbor attack. I should also do the same thing with the Mink as well, Elmer’s ship from January 1944 until his discharge from the Navy in October 1945.

That is what this trip was all about. On Tuesday I visited the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis and scanned my Grandpa’s service record. I also scanned several others, including a couple of people I’ve discussed before on this blog. This took more time than I thought since these were large files, and since I only allocated a day for this I barely beat the clock to finish the job before closing. But I found a lot of fascinating information . . . stay tuned.

As soon as I was finished at the NPRC I had to Uber back to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore, where I rented a car and drove to College Park, Maryland. Then on Wednesday I started collecting ship records at the National Archives facility at College Park. Like in St. Louis I’ve been scanning everything I can get my hands on, which is slightly more cumbersome here given that all scans have to have a declassification tag. That said, I’ve collected not only everything I could find on the Chew and the Mink, but after reading the other personnel files in St. Louis I decided to expand my strategy a bit and collect information on those ships on which Elmer’s friends on the Chew from St. Louis later served.

Although this is more work, I am really excited about where this is taking me . . . one of his friends participated in the invasion of Okinawa, while another one helped rescue sailors after the Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-Boat. Yet another served on a ship which played an important role in Operation Magic Carpet, the United States military’s massive post-war plan to bring hundreds of thousands of servicemen home in a matter of months. Of course this project will continue to revolve principally around my grandpa and his experience (which is exceptionally and uniquely well-documented given his letters), but my intention was always to bring other people into the story as well. I believe this is a great way to do just that.

I still have a few things to look for tomorrow, and I should have a few hours to spare. I hope to spend any extra time I have poking around some other collections and otherwise ensuring that this is the only trip out here I have to make for this book (as I promised my family . . . I visited the National Archives in DC several times for the first book). But so far this has been a successful trip.

Given both the blog and a history methods class I am teaching at Sacramento State this spring I may have more to say about both archival visits, what I found at each, and my strategy for tackling the archives. Since I will soon have to lecture my students about this very process it makes sense to start crystallizing my thoughts now while I’m in the trenches, so to speak.

Anyway, I need to get some other things done before I go to bed, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, here is an out-of-context page from grandpa’s service file at the NPRC in St. Louis. This is an important document, all things considered:

Book Review: Pearl Harbor

I apologize for not posting any book reviews for a while. The end of the fall semester is usually tough sledding, especially when one’s family spends their Thanksgiving in the Sierras during a winter storm. But I certainly did not improve matters when I chose my next book: a thick, authoritative, and in every conceivable way complete history of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Author Craig Nelson’s appropriately-named Pearl Harbor: from Infamy to Greatness charts the history of the attack from the beginning . . . in fact, the book covers the 1869 Meiji Restoration in Japan and the original settlement of Hawai’i by Polynesian seafarers. The tome continues in thorough, if sometimes tedious detail. While this is not necessarily bad, the publisher’s curious selection of a small typeface for the book makes each already-long chapter look deceptively short. I have a fair amount of practice reading history books, and frankly this one took me a while.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Roads to War,” explores the various historical, political, geopolitical, and cultural factors that put Japan and the United States on a collision course. While this narrative is thickly told and makes no attempt to spare any details, Nelson does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the fulcrum points leading to the Japanese attack. He convincingly argues that it could have prevented at several different points, including in early December when FDR made a last-minute appeal to Emperor Hirohito himself. Nelson does not pull any punches when describing either Japanese complicity in attacking Hawai’i or the complete and utter unwillingness among Americans to anticipate or prevent such an attack, but he does provide essential contest and nuance when discussing both. Not surprisingly, the lead-up to war was complicated: Japanese Army hardliners won out over the objections of the Navy and civilian authorities, while FDR’s full embargo of oil to Japan backed the expansionist nation into a corner. Few people on either side seemed to want a war. But war is what they got, especially when Japan famously underestimated the American response to the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Part II (“Strike!”) covers the raid itself, providing a minute-by-minute account of the hostilities. Nelson does an admirable job of covering the devastation wrought outside the especially infamous explosion on the Arizona, including a chapter on the raids against Wheeler, Hickham, and other Oahu airfields. Two chapters on the two successive waves to hit the harbor tell in detail what happened to the Pennsylvania (in dry dock), the Utah (anchored on the opposite shore of Ford Island), the Nevada (which beached itself after failing to escape the harbor through its narrow entrance channel) and various other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that suffered damage or were destroyed. This is the meat of the book for Pearl Harbor history aficionados, and they will not be disappointed by the detail or the energetic prose.

Finally, Part III tells two different stories in three chapters: the Doolittle Raid and the public memory of Pearl Harbor after the war. Chapter Eleven, “Vengeance,” provides an excellent history of the Doolittle Raid, and the next chapter cleverly intertwines a summary of how the Pacific War was won with the stories of the Doolittle Raider POWs in Japanese custody for the duration of the conflict (or, in three cases, until they were executed).

Nelson’s Pearl Harbor is a sweeping, even-handed history of a complicated, yet critically important event in American history. It largely avoids the triumphalist rhetoric of less-reflective World War II books (like The Greatest Generation), but Nelson does argue that Pearl Harbor not only awakened Americans to the dangers of fascism, but that it helped steer the course for its postwar contributions to world peace. Of course that last point is debatable, but given the last few centuries of western history 75 years without a World War III is certainly an achievement. And that achievement would not have been possible without America’s military might, economic dominance, and diplomatic acumen.

I think I am going to write a separate post on how this book (and, if I’m being honest, This American Life) has made me rethink the contours of this project somewhat. That will come probably early next week. Meanwhile, if you were to purchase only one book on Pearl Harbor and had enough free time to soak up an exhaustive, single-volume account of the attack, its origins, and its consequences, then I cannot recommend this book enough.

What I’m Reading: The Greatest Generation

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

Image result for the greatest generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 1941: Our Boys in Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plan for December and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best,
Matt

An Interior Border Love Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tragically Hip, “At the Hundredth Meridian”

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

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