I want to begin this post with an explanation of my absence. We’ve been fixing up our old house. My thoughts (and sometimes my laptop) disappeared into the dust and chaos that disturbed our lives for weeks. Grandpa would have understood. I remembered these old photographs and realized what a metaphor it offered for the thoughts I share below.

Effingham house 1952

My grandparents’ home in Effingham, Kansas, 1952.

In 1952, Grandpa and Grandma fixed up this house in Effingham, Kansas. It’s the house I associate with them and all the many wonderful days I spent there. Next to Grandpa is a workman, and on his other side, my mother, Grandma with me as a baby, and, in front, my brother and sister. At the time, my grandparents ran a lumber yard. They knew their way around construction. They knew how to fix things up.

These were the kind of skills they needed in 1919, after Grandpa came back from war. Their wartime romance was falling apart and, I suspect, they didn’t have the tools they needed to repair it, at least not initially. In my last post, I introduced Stanley Brown as one possible cause for the tension. Here, I want to explore another, namely Grandpa’s need to make sense of his war experience. He wasn’t the same man who had left this small town 17 months earlier. My grandparents couldn’t build a life together, I think, until Grandpa rebuilt his own. He did that work, in part, by going public with his stories of war.

Grandpa returned to King City on April 9, 1919, arriving unannounced. “I don’t want the people to make a fool of me at the train,” he wrote Grandma in a letter dated April 5. He succeeded in staying under the radar, but only for a short week.

On Friday, April 18, word spread through King City that Maurice Sealy—one of Grandpa’s war buddies—was arriving on the evening train. A band assembled at the station. Rufus Limpp, a prominent businessman, arrived in his “big truck” (so named by the newspaper) and drove Sealy through cheering crowds to the reception up town. Judge Sullinger was providing welcoming remarks when someone interrupted him, pointing to Grandpa in the crowd.

This young man came forward and was invited to take his place on the truck that he, too, might be given a recognition even if a little late. Then three hearty cheers were given for the returned heroes. . . The talks by the returned soldier boys were listened to with marked attention and interest. We hope to hear from them again. King City Chronicle, April 25, 1919, p l.

That impromptu talk was the first of several Grandpa gave that spring and summer. On May 2, after the morning train delivered “professor” Finley, a high school teacher, the ritual repeated itself, with the band playing patriotic songs and Rufus Limpp providing transportation in his “big truck” to the site of the reception, this time the auditorium of the high school. Returning soldiers Finley, Ferris Keys, Paul Turner, and Grandpa were all invited to speak. After the others declined, Grandpa took the stage and stole the show.

Thos. Alderson made a splendid and much appreciated talk, giving quite an outline of his war experiences, and it was listened to very attentively. He told the story so interestingly that we wish thousands could have heard it. Chronicle, May 9, 1919, p 1.

As the “presiding officer” at the 4th of July festivities, Grandpa spoke on behalf of the soldiers in attendance. Grandpa Alderson“Thomas Alderson always pleases his audience and he did so again on this occasion.” Chronicle, July 4, 1919, p. l.

I sense from these newspaper accounts that Grandpa enjoyed telling his war stories to the people he knew around town. He also–and perhaps unwittingly–participated in government efforts to get these same people to pay war debts. In May, for example, he agreed to give a talk at “Victory Day,” a fund-raising event for the fifth and final Liberty Loan drive. Here’s an ad for that campaign. Grandpa’s name appears, lower left, on the list of “reported wounded.”

May 1919 liberty loan ad

Chronicle, April 18, 1919, p. 3.

I try to picture my grandfather as a small-town celebrity. Did he enjoy that attention? It’s hard to say, but maybe he did. I wonder, though, if he really liked being cast as a hero. How did he respond to the patriotic language used in this ad?

Sixty thousand Americans died in this war. The bravest and the best we had. They gave all they had for their country. Our country. They gave it gladly. It is our sacred duty to see that these dead shall not have died in vain. We must carry on the task they left for us. We must pay our share of the cost of Victory. Their share is paid.

More certain to me is Grandpa’s affection for the men he served along in battle. On June 4, he went to Kansas City to attend what the Chronicle called the “great home-coming welcome and reception” for members of the 89th Division. Grandpa wrote about this trip in the one surviving letter I have from this time.

6-7-19 envelope6-7-19, 16-7-19, 2

Kansas City, Mo

Sat morn

My Dear Inis, I know you think I am mean the way I am staying away, and I kinda think so myself, I intended coming home today but they talked me in the notion of staying over until Mon as my co will be here then with the 356th Inf. I am not doing much running around just taking it easy, am going to the ball game this afternoon. I hope it has dried up at home by now, or by the time I get there. I stay in St. Joe Wed night and Thurs. Saw Lieut. Carson on the street was glad to see him, also heard that Harry Carder was in the states. Well I think I will be home Mon or Tues and I will try and get down and fuss with you as I believe you were feeling that way when I talked to you Wed, from town.

so I close with Love


This letter suggests to me that Grandma felt over-looked. Grandma WartimeShe wanted “fussing,” Grandpa’s word for paying her some attention. While Grandpa was making sense of his war experience through speeches and reunions, I imagine Grandma was sorting out her own feelings, including her expectation that they would been engaged by now.

One day, or maybe over a couple of days, those feelings came back to her in an unexpected and haunting way. In the mail, she received two letters she had written Grandpa in February, when he was still in France. Those letters, which I posted on March 9, 2019, had gone to France and then come back to Camp Funston, Kansas, in search of Grandpa. He never read these letters, but now she would, again.

returned envelopes

Two letters came back to Grandma, one (above) postmarked June 20, from Junction City (Camp Funston) and the second (below), postmarked on reverse, June 19, also from Funston.

Grandma wrote in one about her friends’ happiness when a boyfriend or husband returned. “Believe me it is one happy one I’ll be when you come home too.” She wrote about how busy she was with her mother away. “But any way I like it, the experience I’m getting.” Grandma was ready to welcome Grandpa home, and start housekeeping. That’s how I understand these passages.

In the other letter, written just two days later, she referred to something Grandpa had written.

16 Feb 19, Gma, 2 cropped

16 Feb 19, Gma, 3 cropped

February 16, 1919 letter Grandma sent to Grandpa, returned mid-June.

In your letter you spoke about taking a sleigh ride or that a Ford wouldn’t be bad. Well so far as that is concerned it wouldn’t make any difference how we were going just so it was you I was with, or whether we were going any place at all.

She folded the letters and slipped them back in the envelopes. She put them in the box with all the others, tied with a string. Did she feel sad at these memories, so sweet, so certain? Or did anger cloud her feelings at a time she felt he was pushing her away? In less than two weeks, on July 3, Grandpa would make what he later described as “the mistake of my life.” The damage would take months to repair, and require tools to understand how the war had changed them, as individuals, and changed the kind of  future they dreamed of building, together.


Photo by Charlene Reichert.

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The Little Knife

One of the joys of this project is reconnecting with my grandfather. Small details in his letters bring back vivid childhood memories. That’s what happened when I read about the “little knife” he received in the Christmas box from home. I’ve already posted this letter, but want to call out the section that begins with “I got my Xmas . . .”

Little knife, cropped

From a letter he wrote Grandma, dated February 1, 1919.

My grandfather loved a good pocket knife, and I wonder if that’s what he meant by “little knife.” He found utility in a small knife that could be tucked in his pocket–to cut string or open letters or pry open boxes or carve out a plug of watermelon to see if it were ripe or help in any number of important tasks.

And he thought a child needed a knife, too.

I’ll never forget the day he gave me my first pocket knife, which may be this one. I found it at my mother’s last summer. knife-open-cropped.jpg
I remember a small knife, about 3 inches long like this one, brown with a mottled surface, and featuring 2 blades. I was looking for details on it to help me date it. All I found was the mark of the J.A. Henckels company, in Germany, with the distinctive “twins” logo they used between 1900 and 1969, when they added a red background to the logo and coincidentally stopped making pocket knives.logo 2

The day Grandpa gave me the knife, I was staying at their house in Effingham, Kansas, a little rural town of about 500 residents. Every summer, as a special treat, my brother, sister and I individually spent a week with our grandparents, enjoying their full attention. They let us work in their giant vegetable garden, ride in the back of Grandpa’s 1950 GMC pickup truck, squealing in delight as it bounced over the train tracks a block from their house. We walked “to town” with Grandma to get the mail and the latest gossip. Grandpa let us hang out in his lumberyard, and later, after he retired, in the poultry house, where I remember carefully gathering eggs from grumpy hens he kept in the back room.

Effingham lumber yard

Undated photo of the lumberyard in Effingham, Kansas. Grandma and Grandpa stand behind the counter. Mr. Demmon, whom I don’t remember, stands in front.

I never felt like a child during the visits, even though I was very young. Somehow, my grandparents created a magical space where I was an equal player in their charmed life. That meant, when it came to the little pocket knife, that Grandpa saw me as a mature and capable little girl, ready for a knife.

One morning, I was surprised to hear them discussing whether I was old enough to have a knife. I must have been 9 or 10, I’m guessing, placing this memory in the early 1960s.

“She’s too young,” I heard Grandma said. “No, every child needs a knife,” Grandpa responded. “She’ll cut herself,” Grandma offered, but with no success. I listened in, from a distance, excited to be at the center of such an important decision.

Grandpa gave me the knife. Maybe he opened it, and showed me how to use it. I can’t remember. At some point, I found a twig and began to whittle away the bark. And, no surprise, I cut myself.

Grandma calmly took care of the injury. I don’t recall if she scolded Grandpa (maybe he’d gone off to work) or lectured me about knife safety. She quietly opened the metal cabinet in the narrow hallway between the dining room and kitchen, a cabinet that smelled (badly) of ointments and medicines. I stood still while she cleaned and disinfected the cut before putting on a band-aid. And then we turned our attention to something else.

There was no discussion of taking back the knife. It was mine, and I treasured it for years, both as the handy tool Grandpa intended and also as a marker of the confidence he had in me.

Of course I wondered, as I read Grandpa’s wartime letter, with the reference to the “little knife,” and held my own, if the knives were one and the same. I would have liked that. But it seems, after a brief look online, that my pocket knife is typical of ones made closer to the second World War. It doesn’t matter, which knife is whose. The childhood memory is what I value, and also the thought that Grandpa, after fighting in a horrible war and being badly injured by a German machine gun, could find pleasure in the receipt of a little knife for his Christmas in France.


Christmas with Grandpa

Christmas postcard

Postcard sent to Grandma, December 1918.

Christmas brings back lots of memories for me. Today, I’ll remember three memorable Christmases that feature my grandfather–1918, 1943, and 1960.


Christmas 1918, France

Grandpa spent Christmas at a hospital south of Paris, recovering from the injury he sustained in battle, just days before the Armistice. Although he couldn’t identify the location, other than “some place in France,” most likely he recuperated at the Mesves Hospital Center, in the Loire Valley. The clue to his location can be found on the other side of this Christmas card. Christmas card, addressThe number 798, stamped in the upper right corner, is the APO (Army Post Office) for village of Mesves-sur-Loire, a detail explained to me by a researcher at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial (Kansas City). (1) Hospital buildings stretched between the two small villages of Mesves and Bulcy. In November 1918, more than 20,000 American soldiers were hospitalized in this area. Grandpa scribbled a short note on the card:

Dec 26

Just a word to let you know I had a Merry Xmas and am feeling fine am still in the Hospital will write soon.



On December 23, Grandpa sent a letter to his parents. I found it printed in the King City Chronicle, February 7, 1919. Mail from France usually took 4 – 6 weeks to arrive.

Some Place in France.

Dec. 23, 1918.

Dear Folks:

I am still in the hospital but am just like a well man, feeling fine, have plenty to eat and sleep good. I am working in the diet kitchen about six hours a day, and that is just enough to make it interesting for me.

I think I will go over to the town tomorrow, as we boys have all pitched in and are going to buy the two nurses in our ward a present, as they are awfully nice and are working hard to make Xmas pleasant for us. We have our ward all decorated and are going to have a Xmas tree. The Red Cross is working hard getting ready for Xmas. I saw what they were fixing. This afternoon they are taking a pair of new socks and filling them with nuts, candy and cigarettes for each soldier.

I don’t think I will be able to get my package from you as my mail will go to the Company and they are so far off.

In fact, Grandpa didn’t receive any mail for months. All letters and packages went to his “official” address, to the location of the remaining members of his Company C, 356th Infantry, 89th Division. Most, he would learn, were in Germany, along the Rhine, as part of the Army of Occupation.

But even without incoming mail, Grandpa kept writing and managed to send one small gift to Grandma–a silk-embroidered postcard. Handkerchief with full borderThese cards were especially popular during the war. (2) Some were hand-embroidered on a mesh support (here, the area of the flowers), others by machine. Some had only embroidery and others, like this one, featured a pocket to tuck in a card and/or a handkerchief (this one is too small to be anything other than a suggestion of a usable handkerchief). After being embroidered, the piece went to a print shop in Paris to be attached to a cardboard frame that served as a postcard, with a mailing address on the back. Grandpa chose to put this one in an envelope, postmarked December 12, 1918.

silk border card insert

On the back of the small card, he wrote, “Dec 10. Dear Inis. How are you? I am getting along fine but still in the Hospital. As usual it is raining today. Hoping this reaches you O.K. Lovingly, Tom”

Grandpa reported on the festivities of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a December 29, 1918, letter to Grandma, which included “we had a splendid Xmas” . . .

12-29-18,1 cropped

12-29-18, 2 cropped

Portion of letter he wrote on December 29, 1918.

We had a splendid Christmas had a tree and we decorated the ward so things had a real Xmas spirit. About nine o’clock a bunch of nurses mixed with a few male Voices went through all the wards singing Xmas carols which was very nice. Then after that the Red Cross workers went through and put out the stockings, which were filled with nuts, candy and cigarettes, and after we had our Santa Claus and giving the presents to the nurses and our ward surgeon which we boys bought, we sang a few songs and went to bed.

Then the next day we had a turkey dinner, then in the afternoon we were given candy, nuts, apples, oranges and white grapes. Then that night we had a Minstrel show in the Recreation Hall put on by a bunch of engineers (3) and they were good.

I carried a fellow that was crippled over on my back to see the show.

Christmas 1943: Nortonville, Kansas and King City, Missouri

Grandpa and Grandma were living in Nortonville, Kansas in 1943. They may have had Christmas there with my father, home from college (University of Kansas). There’s a better chance they celebrated the holiday with their families in Missouri. In any case, Grandma and Daddy had some fun at Grandpa’s expense. I know about this joke because  the Associated Press circulated the story on their wire. And I know about that because Grandma’s sister, my great Aunt Mattie, contacted the AP with what she considered a funny Christmas prank.

Same Shirt

My great Aunt Mattie glued clippings of her published newspaper stories in a scrapbook. She carefully annotated each one.

What Aunt Mattie hadn’t imagined (couldn’t have imagined) was the appearance of the article in a newspaper in Springfield, Missouri. That’s where a World War 1 buddy of Grandpa’s, a man named Clifford Melton (Ozark, Missouri), saw it.

Same Shirt, follow-up

From Aunt Mattie’s scrapbook. She taught English and journalism at Northwest Missouri College (now Northwest Missouri State University).

Christmas 1960: Lawrence, Kansas

Christmas memories from my childhood include my grandparents, who would load up their car (or pickup truck) in Effingham, Kansas, and drive to our home in Lawrence.

Pink Lady, 1960

Christmas in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960. My first bike, from Grandma and Grandpa.

Christmas Eve that year, if my memory is true, I checked out the presents under the tree and didn’t see much for me. As we opened gifts on Christmas day, I went to bed a bit concerned. But that mood changed in the morning when I saw what Grandpa and Grandma had brought–a bicycle named the Pink Lady. The frame was pink. Shiny fenders framed whitewall tires. A little medallion at the front featured the “pink lady.” I was eight that Christmas, maybe a bit young for a big bike. Mother recalls that Grandpa thought I was ready for a bike, as my older brother and sister already had theirs. He and Daddy assembled it, but not properly. It landed in the bike shop not long after Christmas! But the Pink Lady saw many good years of service. I still have her.

Pink Lady, detail

Older, but still fine, the Pink Lady mostly stays in the garage. Occasionally we go out for a spin.

Merry Christmas! I hope the holiday is filled with your own fond memories of family!



(1) The National World War 1 Museum and Memorial has been so helpful to me.

(2) I like the overview of the silk embroidered postcards at this site from the Netherlands. Click on each picture and learn more:

(3) By engineers, I presume he means men serving at the Mesves complex as construction and repair specialists, men who had done important work at the front in creating and maintaining roads, rail lines, water supplies and mechanical equipment.


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.

Marriage Deferred


© Charlene Reichert, photographer

Back at Funston after his Christmas furlough, Grandpa resumed letter-writing. And he and Grandma resumed a discussion that surprised me. “You spoke in today’s letter. . . ”

1-15 exempt letter

Letter, across two pages, to Grandma, January 15, 1918 (written on older paper printed with the year 1917)

Two days after that initial letter, Grandpa wrote, “I hope you understand . . .”

1-17 exempt letter

Letter to Grandma, January 17, 1918

That one line, “if it had not been for you holding out I would have been classed as a married man,” upset me. Did he really want to stay out of the army? Was he blaming Grandma?

Reading between the lines, I’ve tried to piece together this story of a marriage proposal, both its timing and its purpose. At some point, my grandfather asked his dear girl to marry. She said no. Later, in these letters, they discussed that decision and its implications.

This might have remained a private conversation between two young people–they were both in their mid-twenties–sorting out their future in their own way, along their own timeline. But a distant war interrupted that possibility.

First came the draft. Grandpa registered on June 5, 1917. Had he asked Grandma to marry before registering? Did he believe marriage would give him a deferment or exemption? If he did, I doubt the marriage would have mattered. The 1917 Selective Service Act identified men for Class I–the category making them “eligible and liable for military service”–as both unmarried and “married men with independent spouse  . . . with sufficient family income if drafted.” The local draft board in King City would have known Grandma’s family and known that they would have cared for her.

I’ve wondered, too, how long my grandparents had dated before Grandpa floated the marriage idea. There’s no record of the year they met, only Grandma’s recollection that she and her brother had seen him on the road “one rainy, muddy night” after the “Corn, Poultry and Dairy Show.”  I’ve found mention of annual shows like this around King City being held in December. That would put their initial meeting, I presume, in late 1916, and their courtship lasting only a few months before that June registration date. Was this long enough for Grandpa to think about marriage, but maybe not for my grandmother?

The January 1918 letters re-opened this old question of marriage. But why did it come up? I’m guessing something happened over Grandpa’s ten-day Christmas furlough. After weeks of being ill at Camp Funston, Grandpa came home, looking worse for wear. The King City Chronicle even mentioned his appearance in their December 21, 1917 issue. “Thomas is looking rather thin, but is in good spirits and says he will now fatten up. He has been indisposed and unable for very active duties some weeks, but thinks he will soon recuperate now.”

The distant war had begun to take its toll in ways this small, tightly knit farming community couldn’t ignore. Some of their “soldier boys” had already returned home for burial, victims of illnesses rampant at Funston. And young men like Grandpa showed the physical toll of being in the army. Maybe Grandma imagined a different outcome for him, if she had agreed to marry.

But the letters only tell the story the way Grandpa saw it. He had, by this time, accepted his obligation to serve, reframing it as an opportunity to improve himself. His notion that Grandma might have been his ticket out of the army also changed. In the last letter on the subject of being exempted through marriage, he wrote, “I will just say . . .”

1-28, both wife and sweetheart

Letter to Grandma, January 28, 1918

Their relationship would endure more heartbreak in the months to come. But in time, my grandparents found a way to be, as Grandpa imagined, both spouse and sweetheart. At least, that’s how I remember them, partners in what I saw as a charmed life.

Here they are in the 1960s, outside one of the businesses they ran in tiny Effingham, Kansas. I loved collecting eggs in the back room of what we called the Produce House, watching Grandpa repair furniture in the middle room, and–best of all–sitting up front when his old buddies gathered around a warm stove to talk politics and tell off-color jokes. “Now stop your cussing!” he’d say when things got rowdy. “My granddaughter’s in the room!” That was the Grandpa I loved–that “better man” he wanted to become after the war, the one “respected by everyone.”

Effingham Produce House

Grandma and Grandpa outside the Produce House, Effingham, Kansas, 1960s.

And Grandma? She lived to be 95, passing on when I was just starting my own family and not much older than she had been during the war. I knew her as a strong, industrious and independent woman, fiercely loyal to her family and stubbornly private. I loved her for that, and for the way she made me feel when I was with her, that I was the only person worthy of her attention. Any sadness and regrets she accumulated over her long life were tightly held. Did she regret that marriage decision in 1917? I’ll never know. She didn’t talk about the war years, at least not to me.