During the next several months Elmer and Rose saw a lot of each other, at least given their distance from another and Grandpa’s service obligations. As mentioned in a previous blog, Elmer did not have a lot of time to spend in St. Louis when visiting, so he would take the bus to the city on Saturday and return promptly on Sunday afternoon. After eating dinner with his folks, he would head out to go meet Rose, who was usually out and about with her friend Dot Wehking and Dot’s boyfriend, Marty. Elmer also received two longer leaves during this period – one after his studies ended in October, and another in November that coincided with Thanksgiving – which provided the young couple with more opportunities to get to know each other.
But during the long weeks of waiting in between dates Rose and Elmer used letters to communicate. Elmer told her about school and his experiences in Cape. Rose told him about a trip she took to visit Pasadena, California. Elmer teased Rose about her handwriting, and in November Rose teased Elmer about writing his letters in bed (she apologized and wrote that she had no idea, but he laughed it off). They also passed specific requests to one another – Elmer badgered her about a picture she mentioned of her wearing a sarong (she repeatedly refused to mail it to him), and Rose asked Elmer for matchbooks from New Orleans to add to her collection.
As all couples in the process of getting to know one another do, they shared their interests and dislikes. Both claimed that history was their favorite subject. Both apparently hated taking the train through Kansas (“I didn’t think much of Kansas, either,” Elmer opined. “It’s entirely too flat and not enough trees to suit me.”) Both enjoyed poker and pinochle and photography.
Beyond that, there is not much to say about these letters. They illuminate a budding, but not yet blossoming, romance. There is teasing and flirting, but not a great deal of intimacy. He still saved those words and feelings for his parents, even though he was not always forthcoming with them. And there is another issue, of course: I only have one side of the letter exchange, at least for this time period. I’m really excited to read Elmer and Rose’s letters to one another together, side by side.
In any case, more serious matters soon intruded. Elmer told Rose about his hernia surgery via post two weeks after it happened. Rose announced to Elmer that she accepted a job offer to work for the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. They continued to flirt and show their affection for one another, but with Elmer’s uncertainty about where he would end up after being released from the V-12 program and Rose’s upcoming move to the East Coast it was clear that there were a number of elephants in the room. Some of these issues likely came to a head while Elmer was in St. Louis for Thanksgiving.
Elmer wrote his first letter to Rose less than a day after arriving in Cape Girardeau. He had not heard from her since sending her a postcard ten days earlier, although he had spent four days in the interim on a train from California to Missouri. He once again apologized for getting sick on their most recent date. “I don’t understand what happened to me, but it sure did.” Alcohol may have played a part: “Don’t think that I drank enough to warrant such a result. But so much for that.”
With that business out of the way he quickly pivoted to his other agenda items: asking whether Rose had “[taken] care of the swim trunks” someone had placed in his bag “by error,” stating that their snapshots had turned out “very well” (he enclosed a couple), and that he was already busy getting situated down in Cape Girardeau.
He also asked her out. Anticipating the possibility of going home for the weekend, he wanted to know if they could “go on dates” when he was in town. “Needless to say I enjoyed your company and think we had great times together. Don’t you?” He wanted a prompt answer, even if that answer was “no.” “Be sure and write me a letter very soon,” he urged, “and give your reaction to my suggestion. You can be frank.”
Apparently he received a favorable response, although Rose was evidently worried that she hadn’t written him sooner. “You said you thought I was angry with because you didn’t write sooner. How could I get angry with such a cute trick and good sport as you are. But I hope you write me very much in the future.” Rose also sent some snapshots in return from their outings together, and Elmer responded by sending her his negatives. “I intended to write you sooner but work on my studies is monopolizing my time.”
Elmer’s tendency to repeat or reference what his correspondents wrote in previous letters gives us some sense of what they had to say. Rose was not only worried about not having written him sooner, but also about whether or not her writing was up to snuff. “Your letter was very good honey,” he wrote reassuringly, “and no excuses about how bad you think it is. I’ll be the judge.” She also told Elmer that she and several friends had been rolling bandages for the Red Cross. He applauded her effort, but also indicated that he “would love to see you in your little outfit.”
Elmer’s next letter on July 23rd was slightly less dismissive of Rose, who sincerely wanted to contribute to the war effort. “Say, you really are doing your part in this war,” he exclaimed after learning about her second blood donation. “You deserve a big kiss.” But then Elmer echoed Rose’s preference for a particular school subject. “So history is your favorite study also,” he wrote. “I took all the history I could at high school.”
Grandpa wrote one last letter than month – a short note on the 29th announcing his intention to go to St. Louis that weekend, and announcing his hope that they would be able to get together that Saturday night.
As it turns out, she was free, and they had a great time.
I was a little trepidatious about reading and writing about my grandparents’ love letters. Not enough to just file them away in a closet and give them to my more emotionally and generationally removed daughter, but enough so that these were the last items I started to scan and review for this project. I mean, who really wants to read about their grandfather seducing their grandmother?
However, as I start to read through this other correspondence, I begin to see another side to Elmer. He was dashing, flirty, persistent when appropriate, and apologetic when necessary. He was a man of the world, a person who had seen things and was going places. Elmer was a smooth letter writer: he knew the right things to say, and was prepossessed enough of his talents to be able to say them to several different bachelorettes at the same time.
One thing to keep in mind is that Elmer did not commit to Rose Schmid until early 1945. Until that point he maintained several different correspondences with several different women. In 1943 Elmer mostly wrote about another girlfriend, Shirley Ryder, in his letters to his parents. Although Ryder lived in Detroit during the war she seemed to be Elmer’s most frequent non-parental correspondent.
That is not to say that Elmer modulated his language or his aspirations in his letters to Rose. “Don’t give me that ‘girl in every port’ story,” he wrote at one point, responding to Rose’s charge (whether it was real or imagined by him) that he had a date waiting for him whenever he set foot on land. “You know what girl I’m interested in. And don’t ever forget it.” But he could also be solicitous, as when he not-so-casually mentioned his favorite card games. “Sometimes we will play ‘strip-poker,’ it is loads of fun. Did you ever play?”
Now you can imagine why I was so anxious to start this part of the project.
Anyway, it is not hard to imagine Elmer writing letters similar to the ones he sent Rose to other women throughout the War. However, I doubt whether any of these other letters still exist.* Eighty years is a long period of time: things get lost, things get thrown away, people move, people die, households downsize, attics and basements get cleaned out, floods and fires indiscriminately strike . . . letters usually only survive such a long period of time when they are well-cared for and set aside as treasured belongings. There is little reason to believe Elmer’s letters to other women would have survived their subsequent attachments to other men, particularly those resulting in marriage.
Elmer did not even keep all of his letters from Rose. His letters from her date start in 1944, and continue on through the end of the war and beyond. And we will get to those in due course . . . but just as he did not keep all of Rose’s letters, he also threw out virtually all of his letters from his other girlfriends. I have nothing from Pat, and only a short note or two from Shirley. It is clear that Elmer did not make an effort to start permanently holding onto Rose’s letters until he decided that he was willing to date her exclusively.
Perhaps it is telling then that most or all of Grandpa’s letters to Rose seem to be intact. By keeping his letters to her, even after she had moved from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department, she may have known something that Elmer did not: that they were meant to be together.
*If anyone reading this blog happens to have any letters from Elmer Luckett, especially those addressed to a woman with whom he may have been romantically involved, I would love to hear from you!
That’s my dad, Steve, commenting on one of the non-Pearl Harbor-related stories my grandpa liked to tell about the War. My grandpa was never really much into guns, at least as far as I know, and my dad has a deadpan sense of humor. But to tell you the truth I never really thought of Elmer as the kind of guy to step onto a train, in uniform, like an Old West sheriff, with a .38 holstered to his hip.
But that’s what he did on Thursday, December 16th, 1943, during his brief tenure as a Master at Arms in New Orleans. On that day he was given a special assignment: take the train up to Shreveport, Louisiana, and bring back a deserter who was currently in police custody back to New Orleans for court martial. He hopped an overnight train that evening, with a pistol at his side and handcuffs in his pocket, and after a sleepless night he rolled into his destination. With the sun rising above the glimmering Red River, Elmer stepped out of the station and into the cool morning. Nervous about the task at hand, he began to walk straight ahead, resolved to complete his assignment and bring justice home.
OK, OK – I might be getting a little carried away here. I do study horse thieves, after all. As far as historical subjects go the stories I tell can get a bit animated at times.
So here’s what Elmer wrote to his parents about the trip:
I left New Orleans on Thursday night, arriving at Shreveport Friday morning. Good traveling by Pullman Sleeper. Got to spend about four or five hours looking the town over. And left with my prisoner in the afternoon, and reached New Orleans late at night. The prisoner was just a kid about 17, who ran away for seventy some-odd days. Didn’t have any trouble at all. The trip was something new and I enjoyed it.
Far from being a hard-boiled, bayou-noir escapade, the scene somehow seemed so quintessentially grandpa: a leisurely trip, a nice breakfast, some exploration of the town, and a nice chat with a new friend. He even sent his parents a postcard in which he alludes to “picking something up.”
Yet it’s exactly this kind of adventure that I find so enrapturing about both these letters and my grandpa’s Naval career as a whole. Elmer’s War experience truly ran the gamut, from moments of sheer terror to peaceful evenings under the stars surrounded by hypnotic seas, from gunnery practice on Shell Beach and escorting prisoners in Louisiana to studying physics in Missouri. As historians we so often focus on those moments of terror, and perhaps rightfully so – it is important to write widely and often about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and so many other moments of dramatic decision. But war was much more than those flashpoints. Sometimes it was getting to where you were going. Sometimes it was killing a few days before moving on to a new assignment in a distant corner of the world. And sometimes it was just sending one’s parents a quick postcard to let them know they’re OK.
As the United States once again learns what it is like to face a critical and existential crisis both at home and abroad, it would do us well in the future to not just remember the virus, the pandemic, the sick and the death, COVID-19’s domino impacts on our world, and its ability to creep into seemingly everything (like, admittedly, this blog), but also the time we spent at home with our families, the books and the Netflix, the walks and the bike rides and the spring gardens outside, the connections we made and remade over phones and chatlines, and the many little misadventures along the way. As we all push against the present and future darkness together, we cannot cede to it control of the past.
Anyway, I’d tell everyone to stay healthy, but since that is now a hackneyed saying, I’ll put it like this: try not to shoot your foot off.
Hi folks, So far I like taking a month-on, month-off approach to my posts about Elmer’s letters to his parents, so I think I am going hold off on talking about 1944 (which was a VERY eventful year for Elmer) for at least a couple of weeks. But in the meantime I have started scanning and reviewing my grandparents’ correspondence with each other, which starts in summer 1943 with Elmer’s letters to Rose and in summer 1944 with Rose’s letters to Elmer. The latter will be a nice change of pace, I am sure – while Elmer’s letters are observant and contemplative, Rose had a sharp wit and a more playful writing style. They wrote very different kinds of letters, but each kind is fantastic in its own way. For April, I have written four posts that chronicle the first few months of their courtship. Although I briefly introduce Rose here, I’ll save most of her story for when I begin discussing and analyzing her letters. And her story is extraordinary.
Although I will be writing about these letters well into the summer, there will be a few other things going on as well. Barring any COVID-19-related disruptions I am still expecting my forthcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, to be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press. I will begin using this space this summer to promote that book as well as tell my grandpa’s story, so expect some weird pivoting between horse thieves and World War II sailors. But I have some fun things planned, including some interesting stories that did not make it into the book for one reason or another, so once again please stay tuned.
Some other notes:
In case you haven’t noticed, I have programmed the Grandpa’s Letters posts to drop on Monday and Thursday mornings at 10am Pacific Time. I will do the same for the above-mentioned posts coming up about other Grandpa’s Letters-related documents. Posts on other subjects (like this one) may pop up at other times during the week.
Once again, if you have not subscribed yet, please do so! It would be a big help to me, even if you sign up using a spam email account or something similar that you seldom check. But it’s also great for work accounts, because, let’s face it, sometimes you need a five minute break from the grind.
Thanks again for reading along, and please don’t hesitate to share any posts you like on social media to help me get the word out.
When Elmer arrived back in New Orleans after his Thanksgiving leave, he still had several weeks ahead of him in Louisiana before he would be able to join his new boat. But now work, training, and preparation, rather than bedrest, prevented him from more thoroughly enjoying the French Quarter and its many old buildings.
Elmer spent the first four days of the month working at the Naval Air Station as a Master-at-Arms. While the rating itself has a long history and intensely professional tradition, his commanders at the barracks threw the relatively healthy and warm-bodied Elmer into what may be best described as a temp job. “My job as a Master-at-Arms is a snap,” he wrote. “A little walking here and there, and a night duty now and then. But we have a ‘pie truck’ (police wagon) for many jobs. And every night off except when you get the duty.”
On December 5th, he led a dozen other sailors assigned along with him to his new ship to gunnery school at Shell Beach. Located southeast of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake Borgne, the Anti-Aircraft Training School introduced students to the guns the Navy used to take down enemy aircraft. For six days, sailors assembled, reassembled, and learned the ins and outs of the Navy’s 20mm and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. And then they learned how to shoot them. “Personally, I don’t think I’m much of a marksman,” he admitted to his parents, “but it’s all new and only practice makes perfect.” Sometimes the practice was enjoyable, especially with the 20mm guns. “It’s fun to feel that ‘baby’ spit hot steel and tracers from the muzzle,” he wrote, as if channeling Rambo. The 3″ gun was a little different, however. Elmer was “a little nervous” about firing it, but so were his crewmates. Overall, he believed that “we did fine [despite having] such little training.” When practicing their firing, they would train their guns at a “sleeve towed by an airplane.”
There was little else to hit in Shell Beach. “Well, here I am after three days of gunnery practice. What a life! What a place?” Tucked deep as it was within Louisiana’s bewildering maze of brackish swamps, canals, and rivers, the question mark after “place” seemed oddly appropriate. There were few towns or villages around the area, just the beasts of the bayou. “[There are] plenty of mosquitos, fog, and bugs and bunks with boards instead of springs,” Elmer complained. They also could not rate liberty or receive mail. Shell Beach was just a place to go and shoot guns for a few days.
Elmer did have one interesting encounter while at the gunnery school. There he met several Russian soldiers who, for one reason or another, were also there to learn about the Navy’s anti-aircraft guns.* Elmer got to know some of his allied comrades at the facility. “They are really big, husky boys,” he wrote his parents. “They like Americans and our movies, chow, and about everything. They can speak very little English, but [they] try so hard to learn more.”
Elmer was happy to return to the comforts of New Orleans on December 12th. On the 13th, he resumed his Master of Arms duties at the barracks.** But the most exciting news was that he finally had a new ship: the USS Mink (IX-123). The Mink was an Armadillo-class tanker that could store and deliver nearly 65,000 barrels of crude oil, aviation fuel, lubricant, or other essential materials. One of eighteen tankers of this class, the Mink helped the United States Navy build up its auxiliary fleet in advance of its planned invasions of the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. While the United States was inching closer to Japan proper, its ships and planes were also creeping farther away from established supply lines, thus necessitating the use of mobile tanker ships that could resupply other vessels on the open sea or while anchored offshore.
Elmer was excited about his new assignment, especially when he learned about the sleeping arrangements on the ship. “They say we have excellent living quarters [aboard the Mink],” he wrote on the 19th. “Four men to a compartment with big upright lockers and even reading lights on the bunks. Some job, eh dad?” He also geeked out over the ship itself, and recited the ship’s statistics to his father. “It is a big tanker, about 436 feet long by about 50 or 70 feet broad. Good duty. Weight or displacement about 14,000 tons.” Overall, the new ship pleased Elmer. “I’m well satisfied with the set up.”
But not every one was looking forward to serving aboard a tanker. Some of the senior officers on the Mink declined to attend its commissioning ceremony, thinking that it was a powder-puff assignment and that perhaps serving on the Mink was somehow an indictment of their courage or character. Elmer elaborated on this somewhat in his oral interview:
They had a regular commissioning ceremony [on the Mink.] I’ll never forget that. There was quite a few young guys that just came into the Navy boot camp . . . Anyway, two or three of them didn’t even show up for their commissioning date. They didn’t want to go do duty on a tanker.
At least on a destroyer, like the Chew, ostensibly the primary function by definition was for it to destroy things, whether they be submarines, mines, or other ships. But while the Chew was certainly not representative of all destroyers in the Pacific Theater, it completed the war with only one Battle Star to its credit, which it had earned following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like a boxer waiting for their next fight, the ship paced around the Pacific with her full compliment of deck guns, escorting numerous ships to safety but finding little danger on her own.
Meanwhile, the Mink, a glorified gas station with a rudder and a few anti-aircraft guns bolted onto the deck, spent less than two years refueling bigger, stronger, and faster ships that were on their way to the fighting. But tankers were major targets of opportunity for Japanese ships, airplanes, and kamikaze pilots, who only had to detonate the highly flammable fuel inside to destroy both the tanker and anything located in its vicinity, particularly other ships in the process of being refueled. By the time the Japanese surrendered, the Mink had earned three Battle Stars of her own. Elmer was there for all of them.
1944 was going to be a very different kind of year.
*If anyone has any information on Russian soldiers or sailors training on American military equipment, please let me know.
**Elmer had one especially interesting adventure as a Master of Arms which frankly deserves its own blog post. I will publish it in the coming days. Stay tuned!
Elmer had his hernia operation on October 27th. It did not take long for his mother to find out about it, and she expressed her disapproval for being kept in the dark in her November 2nd letter to Elmer. “Mom, I’m glad you know about my operation,” he wrote on November 5th. “I didn’t like to keep it secret from you, but it was for the best I’m sure.” He asked his mother to forgive both him and his dad for not informing her of it. He also complimented her detective skills for apparently learning about it before either he or his father said anything: “Mom sweets, I figured you would suspect something from my address using ‘dispensary.’ You’re a regular eagle eye.”
His mother forgave him quickly enough, and began peppering him with some medically specific questions, such as whether or not they gave him a generalized anesthetic. She also sent “a sweet poem” to Elmer, and asked her oldest son Bud to travel down from Chicago to New Orleans to visit him. Bud could not make the trip, and when Elmer found out about his mother’s request he wrote his brother to let him know he was off the hook and that Bud didn’t need to make the trip. Whatever her faults might have been, and in spite of Elmer’s sometimes dismissive language, Rose Luckett was an attentive, loving, generous, and empathetic mother to her four children.
Elmer’s surgery was a cinch, but the recovery required two weeks in bed. He could not get up for any reason (at one point he mentioned hating those “blasted bedpans”), and by the end of the second week he began to go stir crazy. “A bed is for rest, but after 2-3 weeks it becomes tiresome,” he philosophized shortly after leaving his. But Elmer made the best use of his time by reading voraciously and writing letters. He got to know his ward mates pretty well, as well as his physician, who seemed to take a shine to Elmer. The doctor sympathized with his recent disqualification from the V-12 program. Elmer wrote that he was a “very fine man.” He also wrote about a “sweet red-headed nurse who takes extra good care of me.” While this characterization leaves much to the imagination, a couple of lines later he mentioned that he thinks about her “like a sister.”
While in the hospital Elmer heard from several Navy friends. Ozzie reported that most of “the old gang” on the Chew had by then transferred to other ships or programs, and his college roommate Jim wrote the names of fourteen students in their cohort who had flunked on the envelope of his letter, which also contained his grades for the term. “Guess Jim wanted me to know who they were,” he wrote. Jim probably wanted Elmer to feel better after being disqualified from the V-12 program. But failing a vision test is nothing like failing a physics exam, and grandpa well understood the difference.
By November 11th, exactly twenty-five years to the day after an armistice between the Allied and Central Powers ended World War I, Elmer was up and ready to go back to war. He was allowed to exit his bed the previous day and was “surprised by how good [he] felt . . . of course, I’m taking it easy now, and I won’t be able to lick my weight in Japs yet. But it sure [is] good to be back in circulation again.” He was not yet “in circulation” just yet, strictly speaking – he had three more days of recovering at the hospital in front of him – but the only real question at that point was where he would end up once he was discharged.
The New Orleans Naval Station was sort of a human clearinghouse for sailors. They came for training, medical care, and reassignment, and left with orders sending them to ships and stations throughout the world. One of Elmer’s friends in the hospital, Johnny, was shipped off to New York with orders almost as soon as he had recovered. After checking on his pending orders, all Elmer knew was that he would be assigned to a new ship to help run its engines as a Master Mechanic 2nd Class, his former rank on the Chew. He also learned that his ship would not be ready for several more weeks.
After a rigorous semester in Cape and a fortnight in bed, Elmer was ready to go back to sea. But he wanted to see his family one more time before shipping out again and rejoining the war. He told his parents he was optimistic he could get a leave on account of the fact that his new ship was not yet ready, but he also indicated that it was no sure thing. “I’ve been really fortunate to get home as much as I have the past year,” he wrote on the 14th. But his reasons did not necessarily involve eating more of his mother’s chicken and dumplings. “I would just like to get home and show you I am in shipshape again. They say to look at me you couldn’t tell I’ve been operated on. And I don’t feel like it.”
Elmer did not write another letter until December 2nd. Shortly after sending his parents his letter on the 14th, he received several days of leave and headed north to Saint Louis. He could then celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.
In many ways 1943 did not turn out the way he thought it would. But that year Elmer discovered, despite his recent setbacks, that he had much to be thankful for.
Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as nice when the leaves change. Flaming oranges, reds, and yellows polka dot the thick green forests across the Mississippi Valley, crowning the river bluffs with wreaths of gold and crimson. The region’s myriad apple trees sweeten the scene, and pumpkins are never hard to find. As the V-12 semester at Southeast began to wind down, Elmer welcomed the dipping temperatures. After spending two autumns in the tropics he was ready for cool nights and hot cider.
But he wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that had dogged him for the majority of the semester. The first was a hernia that, as far as Elmer could tell, he had suffered while completing one of the obstacle courses sometime during the first two weeks of the term. It pained him enough to limit his activity, but not enough to warrant taking him immediately out of school, so he gutted it out. His commanding officer allowed him to put the surgery off until after the semester concluded, since it would also require two weeks of subsequent bedrest. Doctor’s orders.
Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about worrying his mother. On one of his trips home he confided in his father, letting him know what happened and what he expected to happen next. With respect to everyone else, however, mum was the word. He even kept the news from Rose, and did not read her in until he wrote her on November 9th, after nearly two weeks in the hospital. “I kept my condition a secret from just about everyone because I didn’t want my mom to know,” he explained. “She is a very high-strung and emotional person.”
Yet Elmer could not hide what was, as far as the Navy was concerned, a much more damning problem, even if it was one that Elmer had dealt with for his entire life up until that point. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision test. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer enlisted. After reviewing the results, however, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program, but, evidently, not bad enough to discharge him. He was to return to active duty and could retain his previous rating.
Needless to say, the news disappointed Elmer, who apparently did not discover his condition or his fate until he received his transfer orders in mid-October. His letters up until that point make no mention of the results, and at several points in his letters to Rose he expressed his excitement over being done with “this term,” as opposed to school overall. There is no sense of impending finality in his letters. One letter is written in Cape; the next is a postcard from New Orleans.
He told me this story many years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime. I don’t know if he regretted that decision or not, but clearly it wasn’t something he had power to change. And I know he knew that in spite of any lingering disappointment he may have had.
One time when I was a kid, I think I asked my mom about this. I wondered how grandpa could drive if he could not tell the difference between red and green. After all, what would happen at a traffic light? My mom told me that he had learned to know which light was illuminated, which after twenty-two years or driving is still something I could not tell you without looking at one. That made me admire him even more, I think. And while I am not privy to the optical demands of the World War II Naval officer corps Elmer’s color perception deficiency never seemed to hinder him in the engine room. But just as some bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another had enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third had apparently judged that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.
Anyhow, once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He then boarded a train south towards New Orleans, where he was to be operated on before resting for two weeks and awaiting orders that would presumably send him to a new ship. When he arrived on October 26th, his autumn was officially over. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. He sent his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before undergoing the knife.
He did not have much to say when he wrote a more substantial note later that day. “Didn’t see much of New Orleans yet, it is an old city. I noticed how old so many buildings were as we traveled from the Union Station to the Naval Station.”
He sent his next letter on October 30th. “Hi you dad! Still at the job. Had that little matter taken care of that we talked about at home. Everything is fine and working out swell. Thought you would like to know.”
Father and son kept mother in the dark about Elmer’s condition. But Rose Luckett, who may well have been “high strung and emotional,” was by no means dumb. She wondered what the word “dispensary” meant when she saw it on Elmer’s new mailing address.
Within a month of arriving in Cape Girardeau, Elmer had established a routine. Sleep. Chow. Exercise. Class. Rinse. Repeat.
His studies went well, though his course load was heavy enough to cause considerable and daily stress. Physics continued to be the worst culprit, though he had begun showing improvement in that class as well. On September 1st he reported receiving an 80% on his latest physics exam, which was a marked improvement over the 55%s and 60%s he usually got. He excelled in his other courses, and even ranked 2nd in his psychology class.
Sometimes that routine was interrupted, like when the students who waited his table had left for a short summer break (the new girls were “not as good as the old ones” he uncharitably announced on August 14th), or when he made trips up to Saint Louis to see his folks. Before leaving he’d request his favorite foods, including chicken and dumplings on two occasions, plus pie for desert. The following month he received a visit from Bud Tanner, who traveled down to Cape to see his old friend. They hit the town and saw the sights, including Cape Rock.
Every now and then Elmer’s letters offer refractive clues about what his parents were thinking at the time. Forrest Luckett complained that White Castle hamburgers had declined in quality since the start of the war (“this war has effected [sic] everything, no doubt,” Elmer replied blandly), and kept Elmer up to date on a recent workplace injury. Meanwhile his mother asked if Elmer’s chaplain friend on campus drank at all (“every now and then”), and bombarded him with questions about Miss Bedford, an art professor who often hosted Elmer and some of his friends for dinner and card games. She frequently appeared in his letters, but mostly on account of her hospitality and her prowess in the kitchen.
While his love for Miss Bedford was clearly platonic, he continued to date a revolving cast of women throughout the country. Shirley Ryder wrote him from Michigan and Rose Schmid announced that she would be moving to Washington,. D.C. to work for the Navy Department. In the meantime Elmer dated a couple of girls in Cape as well. Of course, his mother was still his “number one girl.”
The pace of this routine – classes, drills, nights on the town, alternating weekends in Saint Louis – make these letters seem more perfunctory than usual. As almost anyone who is or has ever been busy will attest, there is both more going on and also less to talk about. But there are a few thoughts and feelings here and there. For instance, on September 16th Elmer expresses his gratitude that he had restarted his college career later on (“This college life is really OK and I feel it is doing me much more good than if I would have just continued a complete college program after high school). Although gap years were not yet invented, and would have certainly not been filled with attacking Japanese planes by design, Elmer clearly benefited from the time off from school. But he was also sentimental about some of his relationship prospects, particularly Rose Schmid, who while traveling to California for a week while on vacation did not write to him. And Elmer, despite his long bachelor call sheet, noticed the lack of mail from her.
In any case, time flew by, and for the time being Elmer was in a great place. “Everything’s shipshape,” he report, despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean-going vessel.
A few weeks ago I started going through some of my grandfather’s papers again. It’s been a slow, plodding effort – not all of it is that interesting, and I stay pretty busy both professionally and at home with my family – so I’ve tackled it in fits and spurts. This particular time I was going through a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother). When I opened it a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and “published” (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed.
Another item was a program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony. I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. If only I hadn’t gotten those two Cs in French, I kept telling myself . . . but when I peeked at the program my grandpa saved he had circled my name, and in margin he wrote “cum laude = with honors!!!” It was both touching and telling that he felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been more proud of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.
I had graduated cum laude from Southeast Missouri State University in 2003 with my BA in history. That was the same school, since renamed, that my grandpa attended for the V-12 Program sixty years earlier. But due to circumstances beyond his control, my grandpa never finished. I knew the honors distinction made him proud, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter.
Although my grandpa didn’t choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I had known for a long time that I wanted to go to SEMO. I went to the campus several times for Model UN competitions, and although I was also accepted into Mizzou I opted to attend a smaller college, one where I could get to know most of my professors and never feel physically lost. The surrounding town is like that as well – then and now, Cape Girardeau is big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, but too small for a pub crawl.
Cape is a classic river town, and its location on what many Missourians would consider to be the state’s border between its Midwestern and Southern regions gives it a special flavor of its own. Residents prefer northern red brick buildings over plantation-style wooden frame homes, which do a better job of keeping the cold out. But at dinner time they’ll grab some gumbo or gator etouffee at Broussards, which keeps the heat inside. It is also isolated for a city in the Midwest: St. Louis is 100 miles to the north, Memphis is twice as far to the south. For me, going to a school located 90 minutes from where I grew up turned out to be a wise decision: it ensured easy access to home while giving me the chance to find my own path away from it.
I spent most of my weekends in Cape, but sometimes the nightlife was lacking (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). At least the Illinois side of the river had the Little Vegas Strip in East Cape Girardeau. Anchored by the Purple Crackle, a “supper club” which regularly featured big bands, for generations it was the place for students to go on a Friday night. But there was a rub: the Cape Girardeau Bridge, which was long, narrow, frightening under even the best of circumstances, and utterly terrifying under the worst. Cars passing each other only had a few feet of clearance on either side (the road was only twenty feet wide), so each party going east across the river to visit the Crackle had to come back with at least one driver who was sober enough to safely make the trip back west. That wasn’t always a sure thing.*
Decades later, after dinner one Sunday evening my grandpa asked me if the Crackle was still there. I quickly glanced at him and we shared a knowing look, hopefully without my mother noticing.
As I go through his letters from Cape, I notice other little things that tied our experiences together: afternoons at Capaha Park, evenings at Cape Rock, cool nights spent smoking under the stars, hot days spent seeking relief from the sultry Gulf heat that somehow always stretched its way up the Mississippi. When he first mentions Cheney Hall a rush of memories come flooding back, reminding me of all those times I’d walk from Cheney back to Towers late at night after seeing my girlfriend, passing the blinking power plant and the brooding soccer fields, hearing nothing but the tinnitus-like ringing of Missouri insects screaming from the trees and soft winds blowing a long arc from the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic. If it was really late – or less early in the morning – I could hear the first songbirds serenade each other from the Spanish oaks and sweet gum trees. Sometimes I would stand outside of Towers after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers start their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.
Despite these commonalities, many things have changed since then. When I attended Southeast Missouri State University from 1999 to 2003, Cheney Hall was the oldest and most highly desired dormitory on campus. It is a gorgeous building, and its rooms have beautiful wood floors and classic radiators. But like all older things, it was not always so. Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College constructed Cheney Hall in 1939 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, so by the time Elmer arrived on campus in 1943 it was actually one of the newest buildings on campus. Meanwhile, Elmer’s dorm, Leming Hall, was already a couple of generations old, having been built in 1905. It was used for seventy years, setting the scene for generations of students’ memories. But while this spot lived on in my grandpa’s recollection of the campus, the building that came after that – the University Center, built in 1975 – became a special place for his grandson in turn. I spent a lot of time there: club meetings (does anyone reading this remember Circle of the Blessed Moon? I do . . .), my first student conference, BBQ sandwiches in the cafeteria . . . so many things come to mind. The buildings were different but the geographic coordinates were exactly the same.
It’s been almost 17 years since I graduated college, and the memories return in fragments. There are fuzzy mental snapshots of reading history books, looking at microfilm, taking notes, talking to professors, buzzing around Carnahan Hall, making friends, eating burgers and omelettes in the cafeteria . . . typical college stuff. But my mind also plays 4K videos me of going to New York on a Greyhound with my best friend, falling in love for the first time, watching 9/11 unfold on a break room TV screen at work, reading Hunter S. Thompson while sitting next to the river as it rolled forever by, racing down two lane roads in old cars covered in band stickers and then drunkenly eating pancakes with groggy truckers at the Scott City Huddle House . . . College was such an indispensably formative time for me that I cannot imagine who I would be without it. Meanwhile, the four years I spent at Southeast were the only frame of reference I have for my grandpa, whose own four formative years were mostly spent aboard Naval ships in war zones. But his residency in Cape Girardeau at least offers an intersection, a shared place, a series of moments that spanned decades of time.
I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, but my grandpa left college with honors as well. While mine were published in a commencement program, his were emblazoned on his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.
* The old Cape Bridge closed about six months after I graduated in 2003 and was replaced by the much larger, safer, and more architecturally stunning Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. It was demolished the following year.
Elmer did not write his parents another letter until June 18th. He did not have to: at 2:15 PM on May 11th, Grandpa arrived at Saint Louis Union Station. His parents were waiting.
After such a long absence, Elmer really enjoyed being back home with his family. His mother cooked his favorite meals, he and his father discussed politics in the den, and old friends and family popped in and out of 550 Eiler Street to visit. His friend Bud Tanner loaned him a late-model Ford to use during his time back in Saint Louis, so he was able to get around town as well.
Needless to say, this 43-day leave represents a 43-day gap in his letters. Since many of the specifics that inform this narrative come from his letters (which, of course, he did not need to write – he and his parents were under the same roof) and his service record, we don’t have a great deal of additional information. However, Grandpa did talk about this trip back home during his oral interview. Here is what he said about it:
So, actually, I got off of the Chew in Seattle, and I took a train home, and stayed at home here for the delayed order’s time. That’s when I met Rose, while I was home. Actually ended up going with some gal here, and she was committed to somebody or engaged. Anyway . . . I went downtown and met her at her lunch. She worked at Gaylord Container. Anyway . . . I guess the most important thing I did on the 43-day delayed order.
Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview, December 31, 2014
We will learn a lot more about Rose Schmid in the coming weeks and months.
She was my grandmother.
Time flies. June came before he knew it, and his 43 days were up.
“That month at home was heaven,” he wrote his parents after arriving at San Diego on the 15th. “Mom dear, I sure miss that home cooking of yours. Our food is good, but it just don’t compare with yours.”
His train deposited him in San Diego early. Once again, he had several days to kill in California. He spent them with a couple of friends he made on the train west. And by the time he reported for duty on June 18, he received some unexpectedly good news: he would be attending the Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College in Cape Girardeau.
Like many Saint Louisans, Elmer did not know much about the city, which he spelled “Cape Guardeau” (though he did add to his parents, rather sheepishly, that he “spelled wrong, I think – but you know where I mean – don’t you?”). He also did not know quite where it was, suggesting to his parents that “It shouldn’t be more than 300 miles from home,” even though the town is only about 100 miles south-southeast of downtown St. Louis. But he would get to know it soon.
On June 26th, Elmer took a train from the Pacific to the Mississippi for the second time in as many months. Four days later, Grandpa arrived in Cape Girardeau, Missouri at 3:15 in the morning. The moon was only a sliver in the sky, and the disembarking passengers immediately found themselves surrounded by pitch black floodwaters. Cape Girardeau’s railroad is so close to the Mississippi that it practically hugs the riverbank. “The train tracks had about a foot of water over them,” he reported the next day, “but all was well.” Elmer and the other arrivals grabbed their bags, splashed across the submerged platform, and hopped a ride to the campus, which was located on a slight hill overlooking the river about a mile away. They only had a couple of hours to sleep before reporting in at 8:30 that morning.
Fortunately, the excitement of the moment quickly replaced the fatigue. “I like it here and this is really an opportunity to attend college first class,” he reported. “I think we will be able to get home over weekends once we settle down.” Despite not having known much about his new city only a week earlier, he was more than ready to trade engineering on the Pacific Ocean for college studies alongside the Mississippi River.
Elmer had another surprise in store for his family.
As the United States dove headlong into the biggest war in human history, its Navy began to grow dramatically in size. Despite the losses suffered during the Pearl Harbor attack, America was primed and ready to build thousands of ships and enlist millions of men for sea duty. However, leaders were harder to come by, and the Navy and the Army both needed more commissioned officers. Colleges, for that matter, needed students. The Navy responded by establishing the V-12 program in 1943, which sent 125,000 men to 131 colleges across the United States for technical, academic, and leadership training. Once they had a BA in hand, they would be as qualified as their Annapolis-trained brethren.
Although many of the cadets for the program were selected from graduating high school seniors, active Navy personnel were allowed to apply as well, so long as they were under the age of 23 and unmarried. Destroyer COs were allowed to recommend two men – a seaman and an engineer – to join and receive a free college education, courtesy of the United States Navy. Needless to say the program was competitive, which is why Elmer was thrilled when the Captain endorsed his application on April 25th to represent the engineers aboard the Chew.
Elmer was indeed “well qualified” for the program. In addition to progressing through the fireman ranks faster than his shipmates and performing well on the advancement tests, he attended St. Louis Junior College for a year prior to the war, where he majored in chemistry. Before that he had graduated from Cleveland High School in 1938 with honors. The V-12 program was made for candidates like Elmer: Navy sailors and engineers who possessed an acumen for their work and showed enough promise to become commissioned officers.
Although the program would take these men out of the war for a couple of years and station them in the relative safety and comfort of America’s college towns, it was not a typical university experience. According to one historian of the program, “V-12 participants were required to carry 17 credit hours and nine and one-half hours of physical training each week. Study was year-round, three terms of four months each. The number of terms for a trainee depended on his previous college background, if any, and his course of study” (Caroline Alison, “V-12: The College Navy Training Program”). Today in higher education we would call this an “accelerated program,” which is designed to pack as many units and courses into as short of time as possible in order to minimize time to degree. Naturally, this was an important consideration during the war – after all, the program would not be much use if the Navy ran out of officers before its candidates started to graduate, or if the students took so long to graduate that the war would be over before they left.
Elmer was excited and ready to embrace new opportunities and new adventures. Once the ship reached Washington State, Elmer was given 43 days of leave and ordered to report to the Naval Training Station in San Diego afterwards, where he would then be transferred to his new school.
Elmer left the Chew for the last time on May 7. It was his birthday. He then began the four-day long rail journey home to see his parents for the first time in two and a half years. It was worth the wait.