A Shared Place: My Grandpa, My Alma Mater, and Memories of Cape Girardeau

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.

Image result for leming hall
Leming Hall, Elmer’s dorm while at Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College

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.

Interior hallway, Marquette Tower. The Marquette was built in 1928, and gave the growing river town a brand new art deco-style hotel. It has recently been renovated and reopened. Photo by M. Luckett

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.*

A wreck on the old Cape Bridge – c. 1966. Notice how narrow it is. Photo source: http://www.capecentralhigh.com/cape-photos/crash-on-the-bridge/

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.

Cape Rock is where the shenanigans happened . . . or so they tell me. Photo by M. Luckett

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.

A much younger, thinner me doing a little jig or something in the University Center at Southeast Missouri State University.
My friends Bryan and Jordan laughing at something or other in my freshman dorm room (Towers East).
Me and my grandpa sometime during my college years. He used to come over Sunday nights and have dinner with us. Sometimes when I’d visit Affton over the weekend I’d stay until after grandpa left on Sunday evening. The night drives back to Cape were always worth the extra time I spent with him.

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.

Conversion Experience

After spending more time than I care to admit searching for software for my old Ion Video to PC converter hardware, I caved and bought a new Roxio VHS to DVD 3 conversion kit. It was $40 at Best Buy. So far it is worth the purchase – the software is more intuitive, the resolution is superior, and the setup is streamlined.

Like many children of the 80s, I grew up watching movies taped onto dozens upon dozens of VHS cassettes. Some were recorded from HBO and basic cable, but the really interesting ones in my opinion were the ones we taped from the broadcast stations. These movies contain commercial breaks, which provide a fascinating snapshot into the 90s and not a small amount of nostalgia. In addition to these films we have several home movies, including this gem from 1988 . . .

I am in this one, of course – I was seven at the time – and so is the rest of my family. I digitized this and the rest of of our home movies a few years ago, and if you are a member of the Smith Family you can check out a few others I’ve uploaded. Just go to the Smith Family Videos YouTube channel.

Anyway, I’ve recently started converting some of the movies as well. Obviously the vast majority of these films are better viewed on DVD, Blu Ray, Amazon Prime, or virtually any other platform created during the last twenty years. But I have selected a handful of tapes to convert that meet one of the following criteria: 1) they’re sufficiently rare or unavailable to stream, 2) the movies were filmed during a specific period of time (e.g. the Flood of 93, Desert Storm) and thus have commercials or evening news updates of historical value, or 3) I have seen the movie enough times to be able to play and ignore it as I write.

Right now I am copying Stephen King’s The Langoliers, which is a solid Made-for-TV miniseries from 1995. Most of the films I choose, however, are in the third category – movies like The Wizard and Major League. So it is easy enough now to open the VHS-conversion movie in QuickTime on my iMac, place a shrunk-down window in the corner of my screen, and then work on whatever it is I have been trying to avoid (like writing this Monday blog post . . .). It’s weirdly comforting to have movies like this on while I work. I will maybe look at the screen only once or twice while getting things done, whereas if the movies are not playing I am more liable to be distracted by Facebook and other things. Soon I will have a nice little rotation of movies ready to go for those late nights.

This tool has one more benefit: it helps me covert tapes containing movies, interviews, news reports, and other videos relating to Dr. Iben Browning’s ill-fated 1990 New Madrid earthquake prediction. As many of you know, I am working on a documentary, entitled Earthshaking, that explores the prediction and the mass hysteria surrounding it. Given the time period, much of the material we are seeking is only available on VHS. Check out this earthquake preparedness video below, which was produced by Southeast Missouri State University in order to raise awareness among its students about the possibility of a major quake striking the region:

This is the Reefer Madness of earthquake disaster videos . . . enjoy!

My parents are planning on getting rid of their VHS tapes. I cannot say I blame them. It’s so easy nowadays to stream films on demand, or to order 4K Blu Rays on Amazon. That’s probably why my folks let me take their VHS player to California with me, which is the first one I have owned since I sold my last one in 2005.

But I wonder how many VHS tapes out there contain videos that cannot be replaced or that have not yet been digitized. Many of these are still sitting in libraries, Goodwill stores, landfills . . . or perhaps you own a few yourself. If so, then what are you waiting for? They are not getting younger, and every year that passes, the tapes continue to degrade further. Digitize the ones you want to keep, or that might otherwise be irreplaceable. If you don’t want to do it yourself, there are plenty of services that will do it for you, including Legacy Box. But if you’re like me and you’d rather do it yourself, well . . . you cannot go wrong with the Roxio kit at Best Buy.

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.