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.

Do Your Bit! Women on the Home Front



W. T. Benda, “You can help–American Red Cross,” 1918. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-9645

The King City Chronicle announced in its September 14, 1917, issue that the national Red Cross had granted King City permission to form a local branch. The first meeting, to be held a week later, would show ways to “be better enabled to ‘Do Your Bit’ to aid in the great cause . . . for the rights of humanity and of nations.” Businesses were asked to close during the time of the meeting, between 2 and 3 pm.

King City wasn’t alone in setting up a Red Cross chapter. After President Wilson established the War Council for the American Red Cross in May 1917, the relief organization mounted an impressive campaign to win public support in raising money, volunteering, and producing items “for the benefit of soldiers.”

The campaign succeeded. Between 1914 and 1918, Red Cross chapters grew in number from 107 to 3,864, and membership swelled from 16,000 to over 20 million adults, plus an additional 11 million children in the Junior Red Cross.*

Within weeks of that September meeting in King City, residents had formed committees and started to work. The Military Relief Committee oversaw the kind of work my family did–knitting, making hospital supplies, comfort kits, and–here’s a surprise–“snipping.”  (My mind swerved over to “snippy” as I wondered why there was need to organize that activity.)  The Chronicle ran a special explanation.


King City Chronicle, October 19, 1917.

My family certainly “did their bit.” Grandma, her younger sister Mary, and their mother made over 200 garments, most of them sewn, for the Red Cross and other agencies, according to an account of my great-grandmother. Many of these pieces were bandages needed in hospitals, here and abroad, for injured soldiers. Just as my great-grandmother kept track of what they’d made, so did Red Cross chapters. On November 23, 1917, the Chronicle ran a first-page story, noting “King City Chapter has turned out more knitted garments than any other chapter in the County.”

Grandma parlor?

I imagine settings like this, in a farmhouse parlor, where women gathered to work on wartime projects. From our family collection of photographs, undated and women unidentified.

Down the road about nine miles, residents in Union Star (population 400, then and now) had also been busy knitting, sending articles to Camp Funston. Grandpa reported he didn’t receive any, as the captain thought him “rich.”

Union Start Red Cross rec

Letter to Grandma, January 4, 1918

In tiny Amity, Missouri, where Grandpa was born and about 100 people lived at the time of the war, residents sent fruit. On November 17, 1917, Grandpa wrote, “we Dekalb co boys got a barrel of pears from Amity.” The next day, while his group was under quarantine for illnesses, he reported they had made preserves with the pears, adding “the Livingston co boys got a barrel of canned fruit and we served it for dinner, was fine, several kinds of fruit.” Other delicacies from home included homemade candies and cakes.

The generosity of the folks back home often exceeded the needs of the soldiers. Trench and Camp, the weekly newspaper at Camp Funston, ran a column before Christmas, 1917, asking “thoughtful ones at home” not to send food in holiday boxes. “Men receiving foodstuffs nibble between meals; stomachs get upset, and where the sender of foodstuffs started out to be kind and thoughtful, they may be the cause of sending a loved one on ‘sick report.'” In short, the U.S. Army was serving enough food.

And those knitted articles being made at home? By the end of 1917, Trench and Camp reported that Camp Funston had distributed “35,999 sweaters, 25,737 pairs of socks, besides many helmets and wristlets.” And, by the end of March 1918, the growing supply of knitted articles, mostly from the Red Cross, led–as reported in Trench and Camp–to an order that required an inventory, a system of equitable distribution in accordance “with actual needs,” and a monitoring plan “to see to it that they are not sold or otherwise indiscriminately disposed of by enlisted men.” (As a knitter, I laughed and sighed at what I know is true: men don’t always like sweaters knitted with love. So, knitted hats off to the Army to control this behavior!)

Even as friends and families “did their bit” to keep up the spirits of their soldier boys, the hardships of training and war found their way home. There were personal costs. One showed up in letters Grandpa wrote his “dear girl” in early 1918.


*The Red Cross includes these statistics in their history of the Red Cross in World War One, at




Was it Spanish Influenza?

After my post on illness at Camp Funston, some of you wondered whether my grandfather was witnessing the Spanish flu. Ever since I began reading his letters, especially the ones from the fall of 1917, I’ve wondered the same.

In writing about the Spanish flu, I realize I belong to a generation that may be the last to know firsthand about this worldwide pandemic of 1918. Many of our grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and their friends fell victim to this virulent form of influenza. In my family, my great Aunt Gene suffered poor health most of her life. Mother told me this was due, in part, to the lingering effects of the Spanish flu.

Influenza had been known for a long time, but was considered a seasonal condition that was largely an irritant, like a mild cold. It could be deadly, but usually only among older patients whose immune systems left them vulnerable to bronchitis or pneumonia.

The Spanish flu was something different. It attacked young adults. The virus often moved directly into the lungs, suffocating and quickly killing its victims. The mobilization of millions of troops to crowded camps in the U.S. and then to the front lines in Europe certainly spread the virus, as did international travel and commerce.

The Spanish flu followed a cyclical path, beginning in a mild form, retreating for weeks, and then returning in ever more lethal forms. John M. Barry has written about the pandemic in his book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, 2004. Recently, he penned an article, “Journal of the Plague Year,” which ran in the November 2017 issue of Smithsonian. (Thanks, Charlene, for the tip.) Barry has concluded that Camp Funston was the site of early cases in the United States, citing March 4, 1918, as the date of the first reported case. (p. 36) He believes that the virus came to the camp from people either visiting from, or called to service from, Haskell County, in southwestern Kansas. That’s where a doctor noted, in January 1918, a number of severe illnesses that couldn’t be identified. (p. 34)

This takes the story of the great influenza back to January 1918. But were there earlier, milder outbreaks, perhaps during the fall of 1917?

The U.S. Army assembled a group of doctors immediately after the war to contribute to the monumental review of medical practices and diseases known during what they called the “world war.” This study, The Medical Department of United States Army in the World War, Washington: U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Office, 1923-29, is available online (My thanks to Jonathan Casey at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City for calling this to my attention.)

In Volume IX, Chapter 2, “Communicable Diseases,” attention is paid to the general topic of influenza. The authors conclude that “It appears . . . that evidences of epidemic waves of influenza during the war period were noted for: (1) April, 1917; (2) December, 1917, to January, 1918; (3) March to April, 1918; (4) September to October, 1918; (5) January to February, 1919; (6) June to July, 1919.” (p. 84).

But were all these waves the Spanish flu? Barry and these medical writers from the 1920s agree that the answer remains elusive, in part, because different names, in different places, were recorded as the cause of an illness. And, complicating an understanding today, the term “Spanish flu” wasn’t introduced until the middle of 1918. That’s when a major outbreak in Spain, in May of 1918, infected their king (who survived). After that, the illness was popularly known as the Spanish flu.

So, what exactly caused the illnesses that my grandfather witnessed at Camp Funston? It remains a mystery, at least to me. Certainly it was terrifying. Grandpa referred to illnesses and quarantine in almost all his letters from November and December, 1917. He wrote about his buddies running high fevers, one being unconscious, and of watching them be taken to the hospital.

Red Cross new

November 16: “The DeKalb [county] boys that were taken to the hospital Monday was a Castor boy from Wetherby and Hawk(?) boy from Osborn. I was out at the Red Cross wagon when they left. I sure felt sorry. The Castor boy was just a little over 21 years old, and a good boy.”

 He reported the many times he was tested for meningitis, which seems to have caused the most alarm. It may be what is referenced in a letter from a friend back home, to which Grandpa responded:

Victims of Funston 11-13

November 13: “He wanted to know if our co [company] had got that awful disease yet, I think we are the victims of Funston.”

Maybe because he was a company cook, he kept careful note of how many men to feed. At one point in November, a quarter of his company had been taken to the hospital, a drop from 196 to 145 men in a matter of weeks. (Most would return.)

Rumors spread through the camp, and this may have been one.

75% nov 15cropped

November 15: “They say about 75% of the camp is quarantined and lots dying, the ambulances sure are hauling them out of here fast.”

Between November 26 and December 7, Grandpa didn’t send any letters. The last one, excerpted here, provides a window onto his fear and a prelude to what lay ahead for him.

Scared to death 11-26

November 26, ending with: ” and if the boys isn’t sick they are almost scared to death.”

Did he feel that way when he was taken away, soon after Thanksgiving? Identified as a germ carrier, he spent freezing cold nights in an outdoor tent before being sent, on December 7, to the Base Hospital at Fort Riley.

No Furlough, No Corn-Shucking, No Thanksgiving

It’s the Monday before Thanksgiving, and I’m thinking about the special dried corn Grandma made each year for the holiday.

A hundred years ago, in 1917, quarantined in his barracks, Grandpa was thinking about corn, too. He’d entered the service as a farmer, and wanted to get home to help with the fall harvest and shucking (or husking) of corn. Family, neighbors, and farm hands gathered on Midwestern farms to remove the husks from corn before storing it over the winter as food for the animals.

Grandpa in Garden, corn

Grandpa, 1962, tending corn in the garden near their home in Effingham, Kansas.

His younger brother Marshall had secured the necessary affidavit for Grandpa’s furlough. But he never made it home. The Monday before Thanksgiving, on November 26, he wrote, “I still am doubtful about the furlow for corn shucking.” His correspondence stopped that day, picking up a week later from his hospital bed. No furlough, no corn shucking, and no Thanksgiving at home, either.

“I guess you are preparing for Thanksgiving,” he wrote in that same letter, “wish I could eat with you, but guess I will spend the day in Funston.”

If he’d made it home, I’m guessing there would have been dried corn on the table. This delicacy was a tradition in Grandma’s family. When she shared memories with my father, probably in the 1970s, she talked about the way they dried corn on their King City farm—the sweet variety, I presume, and not the field corn intended as animal feed.

We cut it off the cob, in two or more layers. At home we would first heat it in the oven, then spread it on a clean sheet and put it on the porch roof to dry. I no longer do it that way. I dry it in the oven. For several days I heat it to help to dry it faster—but spread it out in pans. While it is in the oven, it has to be watched carefully, so it does not burn and spoil the pretty golden color.

As kids, we enjoyed watching corn grow in our grandparents’ big garden. On long summer vacations, we were allowed to pick the ears of corn and shuck them in the evening on the wide, outdoor porch. Grandma would remind us to start slowly at the top, and pull back the husk and silk in one smooth movement. “Otherwise,” she’d say, “you’ll have a mess.” She probably had a mess cleaning all the silk we’d failed to pull away. Some of that corn became her famous dried corn.

If you’ve never had dried corn–and now I’m talking about the dish made from those carefully dried kernels with their pretty golden color–imagine a nutty flavored, creamy, sweet delight. Not having her recipe, I try my best to make something similar for my family. I rehydrate the dried kernels in milk overnight, and then slowly heat them on Thanksgiving day, adding enough butter, cream and sugar to bring back sweet memories from my childhood.

Grandma, Marcia and me, 1954

My older sister Marcia, Grandma and me in our neighborhood, Lawrence, Kansas, 1954.


Between the Lines

One hundred years ago, in October 1917, my grandfather began his service in World War 1. Thomas William Alderson, age 26, left his Missouri farm for Camp Funston, Kansas, where he trained. Months later, he sailed to Europe and fought in the final battles of the war, sustaining an injury. This blog follows that journey. It recounts his own personal story, with its mix of duty to country, steely determination to face the fears that hounded him, and also the heartbreak he endured upon his return home. I have based the account on the letters he sent to his sweetheart, a young woman named Inis (EYE-nis) Dykes, who would become my grandmother.

They exchanged letters on a regular, sometimes daily basis.  Grandma kept his letters the rest of her life, in a small shoe box. They don’t provide a complete picture, and so I’ve had to read between the lines to better understand the experiences my grandparents had, both on the front lines of war and back on the home front.


As a child, I never knew about the letters. I certainly knew Grandpa had been in the war. Sometimes, over a Sunday dinner, he’d remind us that he’d taken a bullet to his arm. Then he would lift the injured arm with his “good” arm and turn it over dramatically, all the while smiling and winking. And, as part of this family ritual, Grandma would quickly suggest seconds of her famous fried chicken and gravy. That was it. I knew nothing more of his experience during the war, or of Grandma’s, either.

Effingham dinner

My sister, Grandpa and Grandma, me, my mother and brother gather for Sunday dinner at their  home in Effingham, Kansas. Daddy, their only surviving child, took this photo in the early 1960s.

The letters and what they reveal might have been lost, were it not for my mother’s role as the keeper of our family’s memories. It was a role thrust on her by the untimely death of my father in 1981, and the cluster of deaths at this time of other members of his family, including Grandma and her two sisters. Mother collected what they had saved—a mountain of old letters, photos, and various other materials important to them. Mother, a young woman at this time, stored these materials in our family home in Lawrence, Kansas. As the dozens of boxes began to swallow up hallways, and closets, and the spaces under beds, we began to suggest she get rid of them. She refused. Someday, she was certain, there would be time to sort and decide what to do with what she’d kept.

For me, that day came twenty years ago when I was visiting her. I asked what was in the boxes.

“There’s a small box of letters,” she said, “that your grandfather wrote your grandmother during World War 1.”


I’ve lived with those letters for years now, reading and re-reading them. I learned to decipher Grandpa’s sometimes messy scrawl. I found obvious places where I needed to read between the lines, to understand what Grandma had written to him (her letters didn’t survive) or in his letters from the front, which were censored. This collection of letters has rekindled memories of my grandparents, whom I adored. They have also caused me to reflect on what my grandparents experienced during a war neither of them could have imagined. And they have invited my consideration of how Americans, over time, have viewed patriotism. I share the letters as a way to honor Grandma and Grandpa, and my mother, too, for her part in saving them. I dedicate this project to her.


MotherBetty Whitney Alderson has devoted her long life to her family, her career as a pharmacist, and to the many communities she has enriched with her passions for responsible local government, good public schools, a vibrant church, social justice, historic preservation, and a variety of student and alumni programs at the University of Kansas. She rarely misses a meeting of her bridge club. I admire the way she has conducted her life. And I am so grateful that when people said, Betty! Get rid of those boxes! she stubbornly refused.