Road Trip!

Spirits were high, Grandpa reported, as the troops left Camp Funston, May 23. They spent five days on the train, stopping along the way to march in towns and listen to patriotic speeches. Grandpa sent a map to Grandma, on which he marked the places they stopped. You may be able to blow up this map (which was one side of a train schedule) and see the “x’s” he wrote in pencil.

Train to NY, partial schedule

Detail of map. New York, the destination, is on the right. On the left is the border of Illinois, which they crossed on Day 2, Friday May 24.

Day 1, Thursday May 23


First card from the road, May 23.

By 9 pm, they were moving through Kansas City. “Every one jolly” he scribbled on this card.

Day 2, Friday May 24

Just leaving Hannibal, crossed the Mississippi into Illinois. “The boys have a little slogan like this (is Company C downhearted)–then all yell (Hell, no!).” They rode in Pullman cars, “lots better than I thought,” Grandpa wrote. About that writing–not easy on a moving train.

train rolling

May 24.

Later that day, he sent this postcard.

NY-springfield image

NY-Springfield, note

Another letter from that day included this: “The way we mail our letters is to hand them to someone along the side. We are not allowed to get off.” Also along the side of the train tracks were people who came waving flags, some handing them candy and tobacco. Red Cross volunteers also showed up with coffee and refreshments.

In Springfield, they brought a stray dog on board.

Day 3, Saturday May 25

Approaching Detroit. “I am feeling fine also enjoying myself.” And a favor, “When you talk to Mother tell her how to address my mail.”

Later, they crossed Lake Erie on a boat.

Sounds like the troops were a bit punchy by Day 3. They started yelling out the train window at startled passersby. A sergeant put an end to that.

NY-hollering out the window

Seems like good advice, to “quit hollering out the window.”

Day 4, Sunday May 26

Nearing New York, and it was raining, a lot. But the views were nice. “We had some fine scenery coming through the mountains.”

That dog from Springfield, well, they lost it. “We got another one, a big bull dog. When we go through the towns he gets up and looks out the window.”

“We will get to camp some time tonight, and I hope they have some water there as I and all the rest are getting dirty as can be.”

Day 5, Monday, May 27

“We are sixteen miles from New York city.” When they arrived at Camp Mills, Grandpa received some mail. “Mother talks real reconciled in her letter and it makes it a whole lot better on me when she is. Of course she will worry some. I don’t want you to worry but to think I am doing a noble thing as I could have been exempted if I had tried as hard as some of the rest. But wear your star of honor.”

Camp Mills, Long Island

After they settled into camp, their tents and spirits withstanding days of rain and mud, the troops awaited the ship that would transport them abroad. “We might be here 25 days yet,” Grandpa wrote. In fact, they would leave the next week.

But that week in New York held some pleasures. They went into the “big” city. “It would take me a year to tell you what I saw,” he wrote on May 31, including “most of the large buildings.” He’d been there the day before, on May 30, which was what Grandpa knew as Decoration Day, the forerunner of Memorial Day. “The crowds of people on the streets were something awful. I never saw as many children and never will again. They were like bees . . . ” (Readers, any ideas on the word describing those bee-like children?)like bees

Finally, Grandpa wrote about something remarkable, “aeroplanes.” “They are just like birds flying over our head. The factory where they are built is only about a mile from us.”

And through it all, the train trip and the stay in New York, Grandpa found comfort in the company of a dog. “We still have the dog, he sure is a dandy, we are going to try to take him to France.” That plan changed the next day, when the dog ran off. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine an army company smuggling a dog on the ship. Then again, it’s hard for me to imagine any of this, the crazy lead-up to being shipped off to war.

NY-Co C stamp




June 1 is National Donut Day!

donuts croppedIf you love donuts, and love free donuts, look for specials in your town this Friday, June 1 (2018). And remember my grandfather, who made donuts for the troops in World War 1–both at Camp Funston and in France. Remember the Salvation Army women, too, who bravely served along the front lines in France, serving up donuts and coffee to American soldiers who were exhausted and homesick for something familiar–like a donut.

Donut Girl cropped

Poster designed by J. Allen St. John, 1918(?). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WW1 Posters, [LC-USZC4-3172].

While you’re at it, remembering what deserves remembering, think about the Chicago chapter of the Salvation Army. In 1938, during the dark days of the Depression, when many Americans needed comfort and a helping hand, they started National Donut Day to raise money for their social programs. Here’s a link to their site, should you want to dig into the history of Donut Day as you dig into your free donut:

And for more reading, I really recommend this book, which refers to the donut story (and much more): Diane Winston, Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army.



Trainloads of Troops

The Army didn’t announce when the 89th Division would leave Camp Funston. But Grandpa understood the clues that signaled their transfer. No more passes home. No leaving the barracks during the day “or more than an hour at night,” to be ready to go at any time. And then there was the demand to cut hair, “the order is to cut it to an inch on top.”

Transfer, haircuts cropped

May 21, 1918 letter to Grandma.

The arrival of trains was perhaps the most obvious sign of the upcoming transfer. From his barracks, which lay in the center of camp, Grandpa must have heard the sound of the approaching trains—their horns blaring ever louder as they pulled into the station, clattering to a noisy stop. Maybe he walked over to watch what he called “most all the heavy stuff” being loaded. Maybe that’s when he took note of the empty passenger cars, the ones that would take the troops to New York, where they boarded ships for England, and later to France.

“There is at least one hundred fifty passenger cars on the switch down by the Depot,” he wrote on May 21.

I can picture my grandfather counting the cars. That’s what he and Grandma taught us to do when we were kids visiting them in Effingham, Kansas. The train tracks for the Missouri Pacific lay on an elevated bed just a block from their home. When we heard the distinctive sound of the train’s horn, low and melodious to my childhood ear, we would rush to the porch to count the number of cars on the long trains that, during the summer months, carried grain from western Kansas to mills in Kansas City. “Twenty, twenty-one,” we’d announce, then fifty-four and fifty-five, until, on a good day, we could shriek in delight, “One hundred cars, we saw one hundred cars!” I doubt our counting was that accurate, only that we knew that one hundred was a big number and the mark of a very long train.

Did Grandpa really have the leisure to count train cars that day in May 1918? I doubt it. But I’m sure he knew a big number meant a long train that would carry thousands of troops. In fact, in the same letter describing the clues of his departure, he answered a question Grandma had asked about the number of men at Funston.

Number in Division

Letter, May 21, 1918.


My California tribute.

Over this Memorial Day weekend, I’ll think of my grandfather setting off for war a hundred years ago. But I’ll also remember, as is the custom in my family, all the members of our family who have died. We decorate graves as a way of honoring them. I can picture my mother picking peonies from our garden, putting them in empty coffee cans filled with water, and handing them (complete with ants) to my brother, sister and me to hold on the long car ride to King City, where we set them out on the graves of my grandparents’ families. Grandma and Grandpa joined them, years later, in this peaceful place, and so has my father.

King City flags 2 cropped

Cemetery in King City, Missouri, photo taken last year by my brother.

No Way to Say Goodbye

“I received one of the biggest disappointments tonight that has occurred since I have been here,” Grandpa wrote Friday night, May 17. That’s when he learned there would be no more passes issued, no more trips home, no way to say goodbye to Grandma before he was sent overseas.

5-17-18, no passes, 1

Letter to Grandma, May 17, 1918, the first of four pages.

He ended with a reference to a letter from Grandma. “I sure got a good one from you, saying you were longing for the time when we could be together all the time. I sure am the same way and worse, as I think more about it every day.” He then rehashed the misunderstanding from his last trip home, and wrote about his regrets. “Nevertheless if it was to be done over I would . . . ”

5-17-18, no passes, 4 cropped

Letter, last page, May 17, 1918.

He continued to express this “maby never” fear in his next letter, writing on Saturday, May 18, “I want you to do just as you feel. I know you are for me and true as can be . . . but I don’t want you to stay too close. Go when you can and enjoy your self. And say to your self (I have a man someplace somewhere that is thinking about me) that is doing his duty.”

Reading these sentiments, a hundred years later, I’m saddened at the burden my grandfather carried, as he prepared for the uncertainties of battle. He could imagine never seeing Grandma again. He wanted to encourage her to enjoy herself, make the best of a situation neither of them had wanted, neither could control. Of course, he wasn’t alone in his dark musings.

One of his friends, a man named Wayne, “is sure worrying his head off about his wife and parents,” Grandpa wrote on Tuesday, May 21.

5-21-18 edited cropped

Letter May 21, 1918.

What was coming next was the transport of nearly 50,000 men from Camp Funston. Grandpa was one of them, “in that same box.”

Next post: Trainloads of Troops


Mother’s Day 1918

“Today was Mother’s day,” Grandpa wrote on May 12, 1918, “and we got the word that Gen. Pershing said for every boy in American army to write to his mother. I told the boys that I didn’t need much of such a suggestion as I hardly ever miss, and you as well.”

It’s true. Every day, almost without fail, Grandpa wrote to his mother and his “dear girl.”

Grandma Alderson

Grandpa’s mother, a woman we knew as Grandma Bean. This undated family photo was taken along a country road near King City or Stanberry, Missouri, probably around 1950.

I don’t have any memories of Grandpa’s mother, only that she had the name “Grandma Bean.” We tend to call all relatives who achieve grandparent status—regardless of the generations of separation—as Grandparent + last name. Bean was the name of her second husband.

Her given name was Viola Filer. She married her first husband, William Alderson, in 1888. She was 19, and he 41. They had three children–Ethel, Grandpa, and Marshall. She was widowed in 1930, and, in 1940, married Charley Bean, a farmer.

Recently, I asked my mother about Grandma Bean. She remembered that Grandpa helped build a small house for her on the north side of the park in King City.  “And I think she did laundry for others to make money to live on.  She often befriended Mary Jean if she needed something during her high school years, or so I understood.” Mary Jean was my father’s cousin.

I asked my sister, four years older, if she remembered Grandma Bean. No, not really, or perhaps: did she live in Stanberry? Mother answered that question. “We did visit her and Charley Bean at their small trailer home on a farm north of King City, and I think at a care home in Stanberry,” a little town nearby.

Grandpa’s family lived simply on farms in northwest Missouri. They were active in the Christian Church. Like many families in their communities, they willingly sent their sons to fight in World War 1. But they did so at a cost, losing young men who tended the fields and cared for the animals, which brought in critical family income. On Mother’s Day, the Army encouraged everyone to honor the sacrifice of the mothers, for whom this war was being fought, or so they argued . . .

Mother's Day T:C cropped

Trench and Camp, May 4, 1918, with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

When Grandma Bean died in 1958, I was only five. My mother recalled the funeral. “That may have been the first funeral that you attended.  It upset you to see your grandfather grieving.  But you were too young to understand.”

The obituary for Mrs. Viola Alderson Bean ran in the local paper, Tri-County News. They described her as a “devoted wife and mother and person of great industry, always busy when her health permitted.”

Worth remembering, on Mother’s Day in 1918, and today.

After We Are Gone

1-6 envelope, cropped 2

Letter to Grandma, January 6, 1918.

This letter, from January, captures the pervasive fear that settled over Camp Funston during the winter and spring months of 1918. Just when would the troops be sent overseas? And, what would happen–to Grandpa, his family and his dear girl, “after we are gone?”

The specifics of deployment were kept under wraps, understandably. But the unknowns of time and destination and assignments fueled rumors and contradictory information.

January 14, 1918

A French officer said in his speech at the Auditorium a few nights the war would last not longer than four more months.

Only a few days earlier, Grandpa had been asked if was ready to go.

January 11, 1918

The captain ask me today if I wanted to go to France. I told him I wanted to when Co. C went, but did not want to be transferred from this co.

What wasn’t said was clearly seen. In February, he described the departure of a large group, ending with a common refrain, “they say” . . .

Feb 26, carloads

Letter to Grandma, February 26, 1918.

Over the months, troops left, new recruits arrived, speakers filled auditoriums as they offered upbeat reports, or grim predictions about a war that might drag on for years. Training continued. But so did another part of camp life: leisure activities. In January, Camp Funston opened what they called an amusement zone, soon known as the “Zone.”

Zone T:C cropped

Trench and Camp, March 2, 1918, with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Grandpa could walk a few blocks from his barracks to the Zone, which stretched nearly a quarter of a mile and offered a theater, movie house, pool hall, cafes, stores, banks, and wide sidewalks to amble along.

Trench and Camp reported that the architecture followed the “usual World’s fair style” and mimicked Broadway’s “Great White Way,” so named for the street lights that cast a white light in the evening. It was privately funded and, according to Trench and Camp, the Zone was “the only city ever built within an army camp.” (January 26 and March 30, 1918, issues)


There were other activities at camp, presumably to keep up morale and distract the soldiers from their mounting anxiety of what would happen “after we are gone.” Grandpa reported on a well-attended musical performance by the Shriners from Kansas City’s Ararat Temple on May 5. Their 50-piece band and 50-member chorus belted out patriotic and popular songs, concluding with George M. Cohan’s Over There, “Send the word, send the word over there, that the Yanks are coming,”

That was the goal, sending American soldiers over to win the war. But many of the soldiers Grandpa knew, dreaded the assignment.

February 10, 1918

Some of the boys, in fact most every one here, says they would take a discharge on anything. I tell them I don’t want to quit until it is over because I am no slacker. But every one knows that, don’t they, and I also tell the boys and the world when I come home I want to come home with honor.

slacker, cropped

Among his contemporaries, “slacker” referred to a man unwilling to serve. Where is the slacker? Look for a lonely man on his front porch. That’s not the man Grandpa wanted to be. From Trench and Camp, September 28, 1918, with permission of the Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Rumors of war and deployment and abstract notions of service and courage roared through camp like a dust storm across the Kansas prairie, exhausting the thousands of soldiers training at Funston. I think about this and how unsettling it must have been. But soon it would become real, the battles of war. And Grandpa admitted to Grandma that he was afraid. “I drempt that I was in a battle on the western front,” he wrote on April 23, “I was a little scared when I woke up.”

He was worried about his mother, too.

5-21-18, rosey

May 21, 1918.