"Just a few lines to a very swell girl:" The First Letters to Grandma

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.

A photograph of Elmer and Rose from early in their courtship.

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!

July 1943: The Obstacle Course

Elmer quickly found himself busy once classes started on July 6th. “Same routine,” he wrote two weeks later. “Exercise, chow, classes, chow, exercise, classes, study, chow, study, and then sleep. What a day!”

His mornings started at 6am, when he would get up and begin his physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training, and although he often complained about it in his uncensored letters home, he did not question its necessity. “I’m tired,” he reported on July 12th after finishing his workout for the day, “but this is good for me.” Several days later he elaborated: “my physical drills tightened my muscles up and made me stiff – especially in the stomach. But it proves that it is doing good.” On the 21st he told his parents he was “wore out” after completing the obstacle course. “It’s a killer,” he wrote.

By 8am he was in class. For the next nine hours it was coursework, study time, and more physical education. He was enrolled in seven classes: Physics, American History, Naval History, American Literature, Physical Education, Engineering Drawing, and Psychology. Of all those subjects, “Physics seems to be the toughest subject for all the fellows.” He apparently held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”

Naval Students at Brown tacking an obstacle course. Physical training was a central component of the V-12 Program.

The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there was a silver lining to his new posting: “they really can serve chow here.” The food on campus was “the closest to home cooking I have ever had,” he reported, and the chicken dinner he had on the Fourth of July was “perfect.” In addition, the dorms were a nice change of pace after spending two and a half years on a cramped ship. “The lounge has really nice over-stuffed divans, chairs, a radio, and such lovely carpets, drapes, etc. It really is swell here, folks.”

But the best part was the people. He became close friends with Hal Spiner, a fellow Cleveland High School graduate and a fellow resident in his dorm. On July 16th he interrupted a letter home by announcing that Hal had walked in and asked him to go out; when he picked it up the next day he described a double-date with Hal and two local girls, Ruthie and Hettie Jean, who worked as waitresses on campus. They drove up to Cape Rock, which apparently was just as frequented by couples in the 1940s as it was in the early aughts. But he quickly added, probably to short-circuit any worrying, that Cape Rock was also “the spot where some frenchmen landed back in 1733.” He was taking American history, after all.

Evenings were just as busy as the days. Elmer and his classmates visited the Rainbow Room, a local bar, and attended a dance held by the school. But the nights were hot in other ways as well. “Even at night you perspire a great deal,” Elmer wrote of the summer heat in Cape. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”

The Rainbow Room was located inside the Hotel Idan-Ha, which burned down in 1968.

Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did make an effort to go home occasionally. Usually his visits were brief: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening and head back Sunday afternoon. The visits were not long, but they were pleasant. “Good to be home,” he wrote after a visit. “The good old home-cooked food hit the spot.” Although he could not make it up for his mother’s birthday – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And Elmer took advantage of that most hallowed and time-honored tradition among college students: bringing the laundry home over the weekend. After one visit his mother had shipped him his uniform, which she had generously cleaned and pressed for him. It’s “in perfect shape” he announced – “‘just like taking it out of a drawer.’ Thanks, you’re a dear.”

Elmer had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of the month, he announced his intention to visit. But he would not spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.