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The last normal year: A Carl on ‘42

<ing Spring Term of my freshman year, I took a class called “The History of Modern Europe.” After studying WWII history, I wondered what it would have been like to attend Carleton during the war. My grandfather, Robert C. Morrison (Class of '49, Studio Art), attended Carleton for the school year 1942-43, before enlisting and serving in Europe. After the war, he returned to Carleton to complete his degree, where he met my grandmother, Berta McPike (Class of '49, Zoology), and fell in love. I wrote him, asking for his thoughts on being a Carl during WWII. He responded with the following letter, reprinted here with his permission.

Dear Will-
Here are some thoughts about what was going on at Carleton during the early years of World War II. It’s hard to organize my memories of that place and time after some 65 years, but I hope this rapid outline of events and activities may be of some help in your writing. It is information from the school year 1942-1943, my Freshman year at Carleton and the one year I was there before entering the army in July of 1943. There are probably many things that are not mentioned or that I have forgotten, but perhaps you can fill in some of the blanks. (I did get some help by going through the Algol of 1943, where the thoughts of that day’s Carletonians were often put into words and pictures.)

“The last normal year” was how 1942-3 was described by one Algol writer, and in my opinion that phrase sums up a general feeling throughout the college community. It refers of course to the ongoing war in Europe and in the Far East, and to everybody’s uneasiness about what might happen to our quiet life in Northfield if sooner or later we didn’t manage to come out as victors. The first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack came and went and didn’t help to buoy anyone’s feelings either.

There were 121 seniors graduating in the Spring of 1943, and about half of those were men. Possibly 90 percent of the men went into military service right away. The draft was in force, and its rule was that a student could complete his present college year, after which he was considered A-1 and sent into the military. A good many Carleton men left college at mid-term before they had finished their college year, so as to be able to enlist in their preferred service without being drafted.

The year became decidedly un-normal in January of 1943 when about 200 army men arrived on campus and took over Davis Hall to live in. They were pre-meteorologists, in training to become weather observers for the Air Force. They followed Army regulations, wore Army uniforms at all times, and had their own separate schedules, not mixing with the regular students in classrooms, study rooms, or dining halls. They worked a strenuous schedule during the week, but no rule prevented them from making friends with other Carleton students, both women and men, if and when they could find the time.

These meteorologists were clearly members of the army – regimented in that they had no choice about the content of their classes, and required to march in step and in formation between class sessions. Their reveille was at 5:45 a.m., class sessions were from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. And after that came military drill and physical training. They addressed their professors as “sir” and used the Carleton Library for study whenever they could. Lights-out and “bed check” were at 10 p.m. With no exceptions. All of this “army stuff” was looked at by regular Carleton students as an interesting view of what they might themselves be facing in time – interesting except for the weekly haircuts (each soldier-student was required to submit to a “feather-cut” every week without fail – that term was a euphemism for what was later called a “butch-cut”).

Looking on at some of these milder forms of army discipline was of no great importance for the regular men students of Carleton, but what really set the community astir was the necessary crowding of dormitory rooms in order to empty Davis Hall for the meteorologists. Where two room-mates had shared a room, now three or four men were packed into the same space, in bunk beds rather than in their former comfortable single cots, and now 30-some men were using the lavatory down the hall, instead of the 10 or 15 of earlier times. But all was accepted with good will, and the common response to a complaint was, “There’s a war on, don’t you know?”

Some changes in the activities of Carleton’s extra-curricular organizations were less upsetting to the normal college state of affairs than the military presence on campus, but even these slight changes gave evidence of widespread attitude of uneasiness. “Buckle your belt,” “watch your step,” and “look before you leap” were heard more often than in earlier years.

There were 16 or more clubs and societies, mostly made up of students who were interested in or majoring in a special curriculum subject; but trips or tours by those groups were a thing of the past – gasoline was expensive when it was available at all, and conventions or conferences were frowned on for that reason as well as for national safety concerns.

The managers of the food services and dining hall kitchens took great care in continuing to furnish healthful and tasty meals, but those meals were often less interesting than before, in their looks if not in their nutritive value. Even on special days there were no more “special meals” with imported spices and exotic meats or pastries.
Clothing stores in the Twin Cities as well as in Northfield had a very limited supply of quite usual things: footwear of all kinds was at a premium price when available at all, and any “sweets” were hard to buy.
Changes reflecting the world situation were noticeable also in the number of foreign students who made their way to the rural environment of south-central Minnesota. The Cosmopolitan club, composed entirely of foreign students, had members from Greece, France, China, Iceland, Poland, Germany, England, as well as from Hawaii and the Canal Zone. Most of them had parents or relatives in their country’s diplomatic service (one student was the son of the Greek Prime Minister) and probably would have been more at home in New York City or Washington DC, but as far as other students knew, they were all in love with Minnesota.

Along with these changes, big or small, there were others being made quietly and not always consciously by individual students, as a response to the awkwardness of living within a small community during wartime. Carleton students began to be more active in the outdoor surroundings of the campus. “The Arb” became a focus for walks, either alone “just to get away from the classroom for a while,” or with a friend or friends “to get better acquainted with Nature.” (If the walkers were a boy-girl couple there may have been less gazing at the beauties of the Arb than at each other.)

As winter snow closed in, skating or sledding and skiing on nearby hills attracted more than a few students. And at almost any time of year a hayride or sleighride was available to a group or club from a local farmer whose animals needed some exercise.

All of these amusements, in addition to frequent dances in the gym, were a good and inexpensive way to make lasting friendships and to keep up old College traditions, without feeling guilty at being in peaceful Minnesota rather than fighting in North Africa, Italy, or Southeast Asia.
Hope this is of some use to you –

Love, Grandpa

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