October 1943: Doctor's Orders

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.

According to Elmer’s physical examination upon entering the Naval Reserve on October 1, 1940, his color perception using existing criteria was judged to be “normal.” This changed with the introduction of the American Optical Company vision test that same year, however.

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.

Elmer sent this postcard to his parents upon arriving in New Orleans on October 26, 1943.

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.

After Halloween she looked it up.

One of Elmer’s friends mailed him a “report card” with his final grades for the term he completed. As his friend suggests, these are “good grades” – Elmer was taking 20 hours worth of courses (the usual full-time load is 15) during an abbreviated semester, and unlike many schools today the professors at Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College did not believe in grade inflation.

August – September 1943: Everything’s Shipshape

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.

View from Cape Rock (1943). Photo by Elmer Luckett.
The view from Cape Rock (2018). Not much has changed in 75 years… (photo by Matthew Luckett)

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.

But that would soon change.

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.

May – June 1943: Two Homecomings

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.

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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.

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Academic Hall, Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College, c. 1940. Digital image from Southeast Missourian: https://www.semissourian.com/photos/14/03/51/1403513-A.jpg

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.