I entered Sterling College at age 17, waiting for the time I would join the army, having vowed to do that when I was 18. My father always kept close watch on European affairs and shared with the family his concerns. He once said that if Adolph Hitler should ever become Chancellor of Germany, there would have to be a war. If Dad said so, I believed it implicitly, and awaited the inevitable from 1933 onward.
But college in the fall of ’41 arrived as a minor shock, for when I was a high school sophomore my Dad and I agreed that he would pay all my expenses in high school, and I would take care of myself in college. Had I accumulated any cash for college? Well, a little but we were not that far out of the depression, and a dollar was a dollar!
Tuition at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas, was $85 per semester. My room at a house where a number of students lived cost $5 per month and meals at the college cafeteria were such that I could get by, barely, on $3.06 per week, with help from Aunt Ella. We had meal tickets, costing $3.00 plus tax, and I strove to use only one each week. Aunt Ella ran the cafeteria, favored boys, and gave us extra large helpings without any extra cost. It was possible to get by, though eventually I went to work at the college cafeteria for 20 cents an hour.
In October I bought an engagement ring for Addie Leah, starting on a path that still climbs heavenward more than six decades later.
Well, the war happened, and everything was altered forever on December 7, 1941. That Sunday I was on my way back to Sterling College, having spent the weekend at home, when the news broke. We heard the news on the car radio within minutes of the first strike at Pearl Harbor. I can still remember the stretch of road south of Sterling where I first heard the news.
The main building on the college campus was Cooper Hall, and the physics lab was on the fourth floor. There was a shortwave radio there, and that became a principal habitation in the early months of 1942, when the war was going very badly indeed. Prior to Pearl Harbor Kansas was almost entirely isolationist, but I saw with my own eyes a complete reversal of public opinion on December 8, 1941. My recollection is that all recruiting organizations were completely swamped with volunteers from December 8th onward. Since then I have been convinced that public opinion can change suddenly and permanently with sufficient incentive, though I am continually surprised at the number of our citizens who like to think of other things when it comes time to make tough decisions.
The war had now begun for the high school class of 1941. I still intended to enlist, but wanted to do so while maximizing time in college.
It was during my student days at Sterling that I took a calculus class from Prof. Talman Bell. He was in his 50th year of teaching, could barely get around, and occasionally would even fall asleep while we were putting problems on the blackboard. We were all properly protective of his right to sleep in class if he needed to, and took measures to bother him as little as possible on these occasions. Gently clearing our throats was about as far as we went in getting things back on track.
One week Prof. Bell asked us to return the next Monday with a good problem illustrating the need for calculus in the outside world. I happened to go home that week end, and Dad of course wanted to hear how things were going in calculus. Now it happened that my father had also taken that same calculus course from Prof. Bell when he went to Sterling in 1918. He told me that they had had the same assignment, and that he well remembered the problem he had taken in. It was a very complicated one, involving an officer riding his horse from the rear to the front, and back again, of a long column of troops, who were marching and resting. That was the real world, perhaps, in 1918, and who could say it was irrelevant in 1942? So I went back to college with the problem firmly in mind. On Monday, my turn did not come, but on Wednesday, there it was. "And what problem did you bring us, Mr. Brownlee?" Prof Bell usually, when awake, crossed his legs, and allowed the top one to move rhythmically. As my problem unfolded, his leg ceased to move. His eyes were closed, and when I finished, he was completely silent for what seemed like a long time. As was our custom, we said nothing. Finally, opening his eyes but staring only at the ceiling, he said something like this. "I'm trying to remember when this room was wired for electricity". Now I was certain he had finally drifted into the senility that was surely inevitable--he was very old!
"It was either in 1917, or 1918". Long Pause.
"It was in the spring of 1918, Mr. Brownlee--and that was the year your father brought in that problem!"
My respect for ancient, doddery, sleepy Prof. Bell is still intact. What a memory! No wonder we never saw him open his calculus book as he assigned lessons, complete with complex problems for which he seemed to have total recall. I've now forgotten the details of the marching army problem, but Dad probably hasn't, and neither has Prof. Bell, though he has been dead now for 6 decades.
In the 1930’s it was completely safe to hitchhike, at least in Kansas. During the depression most everybody walked—to school, to the neighbors, to take care of the cattle, to and from the tractor in the field, wherever. We walked from point A to point B in straight lines across the fields, and used the road if that were the most direct way. What is more, if somebody did happen along the road, he gave you a ride. This made it possible to hitchhike to and from town or to other more distant sites. Usually if you were walking along the road, you were expressing willingness to be offered a ride.
I started hitchhiking pretty regularly in high school and did a superb job of it when I was in college. In my cousin Don’s book “This Side of Heaven”, he has an account of one of our outings.
Bob Brownlee, Bob Thompson, and I roomed at the McKee house when we were attending Sterling College. Just for the fun of it, we went out to the edge of Sterling to hitchhike. We did not care where we went; so we would stick out our thumbs in the direction of the oncoming car. If the car was going north, we would thumb north; if the car was going south, we would thumb south. We caught a ride with a man who was going to Wichita and we told him that’s where we wanted to go.
After having a good time in Wichita we caught a ride in an old clunker which was going in the direction of home. But it did not take us long to discover that the driver was drunk. Our lives were in his hands, and we thought we would crash any moment. Finally he pulled into a filling station and we jumped out as fast as we could. We ran over to the highway and immediately caught another ride. What a joy to ride with a sober man. We glided along in sheer luxury.
You can see how it was done. Occasionally I would decide to take a couple of days off and hitchhike to Denver, and distance of about 450 miles. The conversations were always lively, you were able to meet marvelous and passing-strange people. It was good fun, and educational too.
Another of our extra-curricular activities came about because Bob Thompson was the chauffer for the college President, Hugh Kelsey. Whenever he had to take President Kelsey to an airport, or wherever, I was permitted to go long in order to provide company for Bob. This gave us many opportunities to discuss common classes, Presbyterian doctrine, some of it from Bob’s father who was a Minister, or travel—a subject in which we were both much interested.
In March, 1942, on my 18th birthday, I became eligible for the draft. It was certainly clear by that time that the war would last until I got there! Shortly thereafter, several of us at Sterling College decided to join a new army program designed to add to your college credits by staying a college a bit longer. We then enlisted at Ft. Riley, Kansas.