June 1, 2022

A Memorial Day Cheer for Wartime Yearbooks

By Stuart Mitchner

Ho for Kansas, land that restores us
When houses choke us, and great books bore us!”

—Vachel Lindsay, from “The Santa Fe Trail”

The singing poet had a special place in his heart for the Sunflower State. Early in “Walking into Kansas,” the third chapter of Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914), Vachel Lindsay writes: “I have crossed the mystic border. I have left Earth. I have entered Wonderland. Though I am still east of the geographical center of the United States, in every spiritual sense I am in the West. This morning I passed the stone mile-post that marks the beginning of Kansas.”

Lindsay dates his crossing June 14, 1912. L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had been published in 1900. In those days it wasn’t “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Kansas was the state of the open road, the place to go “when houses choke us, and great books bore us.”

Time Capsules

I’m in Kansas right now because of the four Allagaroos I found while cleaning out the labyrinth of my closet, a monumental task I’ve put off for years. An Allagaroo is not a fantastic creature hatched from the dust of manuscripts and memorabilia, it’s the name of the Hutchinson Kansas High School yearbook. These particular Allagaroos belonged to my father, who taught English, creative writing, and directed plays at the school from 1940 through 1943.

I’ve spent the past week compulsively exploring the Allagaroos for 1942 and 1943, drawn in and held by haunting images of students and student life at the dawn of World War II. A closer look also revealed some insights into my father. The admiring, appreciative inscriptions he received from seniors, and the fact that he signed his full name on the title page (“This book belongs to Robert W. Mitchner”) suggests that he may have viewed the yearbooks as a personal time capsule (he died in 1986), to be opened on some fitting occasion, like Memorial Day 2022.

“On the Alert”

The foreword of the 1942 Allagaroo puts special stress on alert — a “five-letter word that didn’t mean so much a few months ago … today it means everything! That’s the way the ‘42-ers leave the old school …. alert! Come what might, the word is “alert” !!!”

The photo section for seniors (“They’ve Earned Their Wings”) is bordered by a graphic of fighter planes and parachutes. Arranged in eight rows of three to a page, the men in jackets and ties, women nicely groomed, the seniors look less like “boys and girls” than adults ready to take on the world. While I may be reading the foreword’s message into their expressions, the stress on being alert reminded me of the urgency infusing Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, as in the opening of “I Sing the Body Electric,” where he charges “the armies of those I love … full with the charge of the soul.” A few stanzas later I found the line referring to firemen “listening on the alert” with “natural, perfect, varied attitudes.”

A Nazi Melodrama

The 1942 Allagaroo’s section on school plays covers the standard high school fare until you get to Incognito, “a thrilling Nazi melodrama,” which was directed by my father, who must have found it a challenge. I’ve been unable to locate any reference to plot or author online. In a yearbook where the buzz word is “Alert,” you see photos of high school students with swastika arm bands giving the Heil Hitler salute, one of them a girl in saddle shoes and bobby sox.

“On to Victory”

The war is front and center in the 1943 Allagaroo, with a cover of 48 blue stars against a white background framed in red. This time my father appears among the “Staff Sergeants,” as sponsor of the Student Council, which besides engineering several large scrap drives, promoted war bond sales and held a dance where the cost of admission was a defense stamp. The next page, headed “On to Victory,” includes a photo of students at a dance buying stamps and bonds captioned “A stamp a day keeps the Axis away.” Another photo shows a student donating his rifles (“sacrificing a few pleasures to help win the war”). A third image is of a mass of scrap metal — bed springs, jalopy parts, buckets, and stove pipes — to be used for the making of bombs, ammunition, tanks, and guns, proof that students “are no slackers when it comes to the war effort.” 

Letters to Lucerne, another school play with wartime resonance, is about six girls of different nationalities adjusting to life at a boarding school in Switzerland before the outbreak of the war. Things don’t go well judging from a photo that shows two of them fighting; it’s captioned, “He’s a murderer!”

The Artillery Queen

The student editors of the 1943 Allagaroo played on the war theme, with sketches of uniformed girls “on Parade” and of boys as paratroopers, plus a sports section opening on a full-page photo of male students in street clothes clambering and tumbling over an obstacle course as if they were marines in basic training. Two pages later there’s a glowing, softly lit, full-page close-up of the “Artillery Queen,” who, when asked what she wants to be, says, “an English teacher,” an answer that must have pleased my father, who supervised her in student council and directed her in Letters to Lucerne.

Memorial Day Ritual

After a quick check online I found that none of the seniors in the class of ‘43 died in the war, although I did see, as I knew I would, the name of my Uncle Bob, killed in a training accident in February 1944. I think of him every Memorial Day, hang his dog tag around my neck and take a few puffs on a 78-year-old Camel from the relatively intact pack that was found on his body. Every time I perform this ritual I think of my mother, a two-pack-a-day smoker who saved the dog tag, the cigarettes, and the battered lighter. On Monday, May 20, 1940, in a daybook she kept, she wrote, “War news is dreadful — makes me want to cry to think of the people hurt, homeless, dying or dead.” I was there four years later when the woman from the Red Cross came to the door with the news about her brother.

The youngest of my mother’s brothers never graduated from H.H.S., so I was surprised and amused when C.A. showed up in the 1943 Allagaroo, one of two seniors who had joined the Navy before graduation. It was fun to find him again in the Hollywood-themed 1941 Allagaroo, with his girlfriend in a photo spread about couples called “Double Features.”

Salt City

The peacetime theme of the 1940 Allagaroo, before the war captured everyone’s imagination, was salt, Hutchinson’s most famous product, thus the salt-white cover showing a salthawk, wings spread, proudly astride a hunk of salt meant to represent the globe. The Hutchinson teams were the Salthawks, after the state bird, the Jayhawk. Known as Salt City, Hutchinson was the home of brands like Carey and Morton, which inspired some unsung Don Draper to dream up the “When it rains it pours” girl with the yellow umbrella. Due to its salt mines and its location in the center of the U.S.A., then numbering 48 states, Hutchinson serves as the nation’s temporary undergound capitol in Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie’s novel When Worlds Collide (1933), a precursor to 2021’s Don’t Look Up! Excavated portions of the salt mines are now used for the archival storage of film and television masters, currently housing classics like Gone With the Wind and, yes, The Wizard of Oz

All About “Allagaroo”

Searching online I learned that when CCNY won both the NIT and NCAA basketball championships in 1950, the fans’ battle cry was “Allagaroo-garoo-garra!” The website barrypopik.com reports that Hutchinson High School has used an “Allagaroo” cheer since 1901. The 1941 yearbook includes the yell in full, which is too long to quote here. Imagine a football game in the fall of 1942, the cheerleaders, both arms raised, chanting, leading the yell: “Allagaroo-garoo-garoo! Wah, Hoo, Bazoo, Hicer, Picer, Dominicer …. Ishabacka, Ishabacka Boo! … Boom skit a rat trap, See, Si! Boom! … Bigger’n a cat trap … Chica! Saw! Daw! Hutchinson High School Rah! Rah! Rah!”

Whether Vachel Lindsay inspired the Allagaroo yell or heard it when he passed through Hutchinson on one of his cross-country walks, the “Walking Through Kansas” chapter of Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty includes numerous variations on what he calls “The Kallyope Yell,” to be sung with “a leader, college yell fashion.” As in “I am the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope tooting hope, tooting hope.”

Forever Baseball

Like Walt Whitman, who was born May 31, 1819, baseball has a way of showing up on or around Memorial Day. By all rights the game would have no place in a column about wartime yearbooks, except for the May 20 death of the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, author of The Summer Game. Writing in the New York Times, Dwight Garner remarked on Angell’s alertness to “what he called the ‘substrata of nuance and lesson and accumulated experience’ beneath baseball’s surface.”

Among the faces of seniors in the 1943 Allagaroo, not many appear contrary to the general impression I had of Whitman’s “armies of those I love … full with the charge of the soul,” like firemen “listening on the alert” with “natural, perfect, varied attitudes.” Out of  all those seniors, the one who looked profoundly unready for the world, lost, out of it, simply not there, the very opposite of Whitman’s firemen, was Jack Banta. Four years later he was pitching for Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers and was on the mound in the 10th inning, the winning pitcher in relief when the Dodgers clinched the 1949 pennant, beating out the Cardinals by one game. In those days closers were called “firemen.” 

Every Memorial Day you can count on finding baseball, like Walt Whitman, alive and well in the “substrata of nuance and lesson and accumulated experience” beneath the surface of the holiday.

The Walt Whitman Initiative (WWI) has announced New York’s 19th annual marathon reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which will be held on Sunday June 19, 4-7 p.m., on Zoom. Anyone interested in joining in as a reader should sign up by 5 p.m. June 12. For further information, contact songofmyselfmarathon@gmail.com.