At least two Boxwooder readers were at Morehead State College when I entered it in 1940. Blaine Lewis was a student, and Bill Wineland was teaching physics there.
How I Went To College
IN HIS Beyond Dark Hills, Jesse Stuart describes his applications for college entrance in terms that must be nearly incomprehensible to people who know that college entrance is a matter of SAT tests and committee screenings. Jesse’s method was to present himself at a college and ask that he be allowed to attend. That’s more or less the way I successfully applied to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, but by that time I had the GI bill to support me and it was nothing to compare with my first entrance into college, just before World War II.
When I was graduated from high school in 1939, the country was still in the throes of a bitter depression. The war in Europe had not begun to have any major influence on our economy and the job situation was grim. I wanted very much to go to college, but there seemed no possible way I could do so. Even my soda-jerking job had disappeared so that the immediate problem was eating.
My mother obtained a live-in job caring for a sick woman, and we were forced to give up our rented house. I went to a neighboring town to stay with relatives. There I found another soda-jerking job that paid 25 cents per hour, the minimum wage rate for women and minors. (There was no minimum for men.) This was the highest salary I had ever earned. My former employer had simply ignored the minimum-wage law and had paid approximately 15 cents per hour.
I had no difficulty seeing that I was in a dead-end situation but could not see how to get out of it. I was aware that I was not going to be able to save enough money from my salary to go to college. It would be nice now to be able to say that I was determined to fight my way out, but the truth is that I felt the odds were too much against me, and I felt hopeless and resigned.
Sometime in December, 1939, my mother suggested that I go to see a state senator who lived in our town to see if he would help me. It was quite unlike her to suggest such a thing, and I never knew where she got the idea. My family had no political influence and were not even of the same party as Senator Thomas. The notion sounded insane to me, but I had to agree that I had nothing to lose.
So, wearing whatever were my best clothes, I called on the senator the next day at his home. I was immediately shown into his study. He conducted a brief quiz to find out who I was and then asked what he could do for me. I have no idea what I told him, but I’ll always remember his reaction. He said, “What kinds of grades did you make?”
“Good ones,” I said.
“Well, A’s,” I told him.
“Well, except in conduct.”
“Good Lord, is Prof Martin still grading seniors on conduct? I had a little trouble with that in my day. Would Morehead be all right? I think I can get you into Morehead.”
“Of course,” I said. I don’t think I even knew that people chose colleges; I thought you just went to college. I certainly didn’t care where I went as long as it was college.
“Well,” he said, can you go up there today? Can you go right now?”
“Yes,” I said, “but how?” The college was 22 miles away, and I had no way to get there except by bus.
“I’m going to take you to see President McVey,” he said. “I’ll just telephone his office to tell him we’re coming.”
Morehead State College was one of four state teacher’s colleges in Kentucky. I knew a few people who had gone to the University of Kentucky, and, as in Faulkner novels, there was a family or two that sent their sons to Harvard, but to most people in my hometown, college meant Morehead. Essentially all the city and county school teachers had obtained their degrees or certificates there.
When we arrived at President McVey’s office, we were told to go right in. Senator Thomas and President McVey exchanged small talk for a bit, and then the president said, “What can I do for you?”
“I want this boy to go to school here,” Senator Thomas said. “He doesn’t have a dime, so he’ll need a little help.”
The president looked less than overjoyed. He was a pudgy man of medium height, and his smooth face, bald head and rimless glasses gleamed in the light as he turned to me. He asked me a number of questions about my family, jobs I had had, and my grades. He turned to Senator Thomas to ask, “Did you check his grades?”
“No,” said the senator. “I don’t reckon he’d lie about them. Would you, boy?”
“Well, of course we’ll have to have his high-school records but assuming his grades are good, then I suppose we can give him a workship.” He turned to me. “Would that enable you to go to school?”
“I don’t know what a workship is,” I said.
“You work for the school, two or three hours a day, in the cafeteria, or doing janitorial work in the buildings. Some job like that. Your pay is room and board – equal to $5 a week. Now, Senator, all our workships are filled at present but there’s a good chance of a vacancy in September. I think we can promise him one then.”
“This boy ought to be in school,” said Senator Thomas. “I’d like to see him start in January at the beginning of next semester.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. As I say, all our workships are filled.”
“Well, then I hope you can squeeze him in somewhere. I want him in school in January. I mean it.”
There was a good bit of tension in the air between them as they stared silently at one another. Finally, President McVey grimaced and said, “All right, we’ll work him in somehow.” He turned to me. “There’s no tuition, as such, here, but the registration fees run to about $30. And, of course, you’ll need money for books – say about $20. Do you have $50?”
“No, sir,” I said.
President McVey sighed. He looked at Senator Thomas who grinned at him. “He’ll find the money somehow,” the senator said.
When we arrived home, he said, “I’ve done my part. Now it’s up to you to find the money. Let me know how you come out.”
I was both elated and apprehensive. I knew I had seen political power exerted on my behalf to bring a favor that I could hardly believe, but I still had a sizable problem in the necessity of finding $50.
I decided to talk to a former teacher, Mr. Raschi (I have forgotten his first name.), about going to Morehead because I knew he had been graduated from there. He was a young man who had taught a couple of years in my high school, and then by some unknown maneuver had become superintendent of the school system. He said that if I could manage the money for the first semester that afterward the school would allow me time to pay, and that as long as the fees had been met by the end of the semester, it would be all right. He said he would sign a note at the bank for me and hope that I’d be able to pay it off. It was actually repaid by my mother from her minuscule earnings.
This is how I started to college in January, 1940. Morehead was a far cry from a first-class college, but it was the door through which I could enter a different world.
The whole business seems more remarkable to me today than it did then. Whatever led Senator Thomas to use his clout for a deed from which he could expect no return, and whatever possessed Mr. Raschi to guarantee a sum of money that must have meant a good bit to him?
The Last Good War
ONE DAY, about ten years ago, I was visiting a navy officer in the Pentagon and had to wait for a few minutes while he discussed something with his boss. His secretary, a woman of perhaps twenty years of age, stopped her machine-gun typing and began proofreading the result of it. She said, “This is for Captain Hanson to give at his Toastmaster’s meeting tomorrow. Do you know what it is?” She read a few lines of the paper to me.
“Of course,” I said. “I remember when it was made. I listened to it on the radio; it’s King Edward VIII’s abdication speech.”
She stared at me open mouthed as if I had said that I had participated in Noah’s flood. “When was that?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Sometime shortly before the war.”
“Oh,” she said, “what war was that?”
Now it was my turn to stare with dropping jaw. Though I was certainly aware that the United States had taken part in at least two wars since World War II, it had never occurred to me that “The War” was in any way ambiguous. When I told a friend, whose age can probably be guessed, about this experience, he said, “Everyone knows World War II is The War – the last good war.”
I was strongly reminded of his statement when recently I had a letter from a Vietnam veteran who said, in effect, that he was still in a quandary about the war in Vietnam. If it had been an immoral war, then he felt he had committed heinous crimes, and he was having difficulty facing up to this. I have an inkling of how he feels because of an experience I had. Usually I am quite willing to assume anything as a matter of argument, but a year or so ago I was discussing war in general with a woman who claimed there had never been a “moral” war. When I brought up our participation in World War II, she claimed we fought it for purely political reasons and that our motives had nothing to do with stopping the evil that Germany was spreading over Europe. For once I found myself unable to consider calmly a viewpoint. Even after all these years, I have too much at stake emotionally to be willing to entertain this possibility.
But, in any case, no American who participated in that war had to worry at the time that he was performing an immoral deed. That the U.S. has fought some immoral wars is unquestionable. The one that always struck me was the war against the Filipinos, following the Spanish-American War. Until Vietnam, however, the idea that a soldier might bear a real responsibility for the morality of a war was unheard of. We did not even blame German soldiers for their fighting though some of their leaders were prosecuted. Also our usual immoral war was against a weak enemy and was over before the public had time to understand the situation.
The Korean war became the first really unpopular war, but there the question of morality did not arise. The immoral part of the Korean war was, I thought at the time, that an intolerable burden was being placed on a group of young men, and the rest of us took no share of it. But the crime, if any, was committed by the rest of us, not by the men drafted to fight the war. In the latter years of the Vietnam war, I thought how terrible it must be to be drafted into participating in a war one thought was wrong.
I cannot but think that my correspondent is worrying himself unduly. It is almost impossible in this world to do the right thing even when you know clearly what the right thing is. One cannot, and should not, hold himself culpable for acts that later appear to have been wrong. Further it is too much to expect that soldiers be responsible for judging the morality of wars they are forced to participate in. Wars are fought by children, remember? Old men decide wars should be fought, but children fight them, and the judgment of the morality of a war cannot, in all justice, be added to their already disproportionate burden.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is Graphic Light; initial is Lombardic. Text paper is Hammermill Ledger. Edited and published by Jake Warner and 470 copies printed by him on a 10 x 15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt MD 20770.