Sorry, it’s late and I forgot to do this earlier, so I’m just going to post the rest without bothering with photos . . . let me know what you think! – Matt
While Grandpa’s letters contain a trove of valuable information about his college history, there is another perspective that may give it some additional context and color: my own. In 1946 SMSTC shortened its name to Southeast Missouri State College, and in 1973 it rechristened itself as Southeast Missouri State University. This was the school’s name when I matriculated there in 1999. Now often referred to as SEMO or just “Southeast,” the university is no longer just for teachers or officer trainees. Its larger mission today is to serve as the preeminent educational, intellectual, and cultural institution for Southeast Missouri, long considered to be the most economically disadvantaged region in the state. But it is also a great alternative for many St. Louis-area students who, like me, could not get into a more prestigious school and who were turned off or intimidated by Mizzou’s sprawling campus community.
As I went through his letters from Cape, I noticed many 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, and the mysteriously (almost suspiciously) high quality of the dorm food. 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 especially late at night – or 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 the Towers dormitory complex after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers announce the beginning of their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things more often, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.
Of course, we did compare notes occasionally. Like Grandpa, I spent most of my weekends in Cape, which is not well known for its nightlife (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). While the town was big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, it was too small for a pub crawl. 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 roadtop 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.
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 hardwood 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 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, 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 has been nearly twenty 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 omelets 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.
Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as beautiful 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. On the college campus, leaves congregate on Normal and Henderson Avenues, shirts begin to seek cover under sweaters and jackets, and cool winds from the north and west begin to overpower the Gulf moisture from the South. Today, October comes during the midway point of the semester, and despite the increasingly comfortable climate students are often weighted down by anxiety over midterms. For V-12 students, however, October brought the end of the semester as well as the end of summer. And like boiled eggs cooling in a pan of water, students were unburdened for a short time with both the pressures of school and the soupy humidity of a Cape summer.
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 could not enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that would largely define for him his time at SMSTC. 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 aggravated 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. But Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about causing his mother any more anxiety. 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. Elmer waited to 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.”
Although Grandpa was able to get his hernia fixed, the second medical problem issue he faced was an intractable and, as far as the Navy was concerned, far worse for his prospects as an officer. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision exam. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer originally enlisted. The older test that Elmer took did not detect any problems with his color vision, but since a new physical examination was required prior to Elmer matriculating into the V-12 program he had to take the newer diagnostic. But after reviewing the results, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the updated vision assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was not severe enough to send him home, but it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program. He was ordered to return to active duty and allowed to retain his previous rating.
Once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He broke the disappointing news to his parents and then boarded a train south toward 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, but it was not yet winter, either. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. Just the Louisiana air, thick and steamy as a pot of bouillabaisse.
He mailed his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before his procedure. He did not have much to say: “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.
After Halloween she looked it up.
The news deeply 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 vision exam 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. And therefore, with the stroke of a pen, Elmer’s college career was over.
Grandpa told me this story years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime had passed. I detected more than a twinge of disappointment, even though he had since lived his best life. One time when I was a kid, I also 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 informed me that he had learned to tell which light was illuminated, which after 25 years of driving is still something I have to think about for a second. This made me admire him even more. 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 one bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another exhibited enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third determined that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.
Years later, not long after grandpa died, I found a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother) as I was going through some of the papers he left behind. When I opened the envelope a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and self-published (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed. Seemingly more disposable was the program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony, which was carefully tucked away behind all the other childhood detritus. I do not even know where mine is today – I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. 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 presumably felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been prouder of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.
I knew the honors distinction made him happy, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter. Although my grandpa did not choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I know he was pleased that I chose to follow his footsteps there, even if I never did join the Navy. And while I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, my grandpa left college with honors as well. Mine were published in a commencement program, while his were pinned to his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.