November 10, 2022
Editor’s note: Dr. Charles Moore made his first-ever visit to the Culver campus in early October 2022, some months after publishing World War I journals and original photos by his father, Paul Handy Moore, Culver Class of 1916.
The book, "Brancardier, Section 646", contains essays by Paul Moore on his Culver cadet years and their influence on his war experience, as well as firsthand accounts of his losing his best friend, fellow 1916 Culver graduate Charles H. “Willie” Ulmer.
During his campus visit, Dr. Moore – whose chosen profession as a reconstructive surgeon was significantly influenced by his father’s accounts of driving ambulances during the war – sat in on a Culver class focused on World War I, spent time at Culver’s museum and archives, and toured the campus, learning of the notable impact of the war on the campus itself.
What follows are Dr. Moore’s reflections upon his Culver visit, following his return to his home in Florida.
Let me not cavil; nor split hairs either. I am little enamored with the concept of a ”bucket list.” It is an itemization both too smug and too insistent that, for some reason, one should necessarily be obliged to see old Vesuvius erupting, or swim with the penguins in Patagonia or, kicking aside the detritus left by other climbers, climb Mount Everest blindfolded.
No, it is not for me, or rather not for me until, for the first time in my 88 years of never climbing Mount Everest, I came to Culver. As I laid my first eye on this place that you readers know so well, I saw float before me, plain and clear, if hitherto submerged in a low level of my consciousness, my very own bucket list. There was only one bold entry, which read, “visit Culver, from whence your dad graduated in 1916.”
No sooner had I seen that list of one than with an imaginary pen, for this was all in my mind’s eye, I ticked it off, for I was indeed there, standing in front of the Memorial Building to salute the star that was at my feet.
Believe me, please, when I say that I felt myself on hallowed ground, even as I stood there in the midst of a cheerful flow of chattering students, the boys under their caps, the girls in their plaid skirts. And about us all, though only I to know it, the ghost of my dad simply everywhere. Before that fact and feeling, no volcano, no highest mountain or pride of penguins could compete. My bucket list of one, so quickly conjured, and so instantly fulfilled, required no more.
It may be wondered, of course, how in what some might dare to call the sere of my years I found myself there. It had never dawned on me that I should visit the school where my father had received what proved to be the highest degree of his formal education.
I had decided by gradual processes that my father’s little day-by-day journal, and the photographs he had taken of his experience in World War One, driving an ambulance for a regiment of the French army, Le Soixante-seizième Chasseurs Alpins,” deserved some form of preservation. I had determined to give the originals to our state historical society, but which would then leave various offshoots of our family essentially bereft of them. So why not pat the copied images and entries together into a book, with a foreword, an afterword, an appendix and even footnotes? Why not indeed? And so I did, calling it "BRANCARDIER: SECTION 646" by Paul Handy Moore. And as a graduate of Culver, 1912-1916, should not Culver have a copy?
Of course it should, so off it went, prompting in return a response from Jeffrey Kenney, Culver Archivist, etc., so enthusiastic that it came close to overshadowing even my wife’s response when, years ago, I gave her for Christmas a surprise “Avanti” convertible.
Jeff and I talked on the phone, and it seems to me that he rather more than halfway extended me an invitation to come visit. Perhaps I might even find a few words to say in a history class that by the end of September was to complete their study of World War One.
The decision to go was vastly easier than that required when confronted by, for example, a three-page menu in some three-star restaurant. As if I needed any further encouragement, my wife…who understandably can quite enjoy two or three days home, alone…said, “My dear, if not now, when? When you are 104?”
By which means I embraced my marching orders, and spent two glorious days on the Culver campus, sweetly housed in the Culver Homestead cottage. Little did I guess that by the end of those two days, in fact by the end of the first, I would award myself with an honorary degree from Culver, grateful not only for all it had taught me, but as well for the profound influence it had had on my life.
“What,” you say, “how is this possible?”
Let me tell you of at least four different means.
The first relates directly to my father. As I wrote in a foreword to his autobiography, an item my sister and I forced him to write in the late 1960s, his was “a minor life, greatly lived.”
From Culver he was off to a real war in France, and saw more of mayhem, death and injury than he was ever quite willing to describe in detail. In the nineteen twenties he had a considerable position with ESSO in the oil fields of Venezuela. In the thirties he sold bulletproof cars to gangsters in East St. Louis.
In World War II he served in the South Pacific, and was discharged a Commander, U.S.N.R. He had a family with two “sprouts” that he sent to the best of schools, if not Culver. I now see, nonetheless, that his attitude towards life, his ideals, his willingness to handle lightly and well hard work, and the hardest challenges, derived from Culver. Integrity, honor, duty done in the face of some very hard times were integral to his being, in his very bones, and all the better expressed by way of an ever light-hearted good humor. Is that not Culver? And could I, myself, just possibly have absorbed something of that through him? Let me, now that I have been there, believe I did, and grant me my two-day diploma.
Secondly, allow me also to relate how the Culver I never attended so influenced my choice of a professional career. How? By way, I can truly say, of World War I.
I grew up in awe of my father’s nicely dented WWI French helmet painted in that famously beautiful cerulean, or powder blue; my dad’s Croix de Guerre; and believe it or not in our library four thick volumes, clad in green leather of Ludendorff’s memoirs. I knew my dad’s WW I photographic album almost by heart, but was timid to touch it lest I might accidentally tear the pages growing brittle.
In brief, as with many a boy in those times I was enamored with the horror and “romance” of that war, one to which the lives of some 86 Culver students had been lost. By these reckonings it does not surprise me that as a second-year medical student I found myself so fascinated by the work of Sir Harold Gillies, OBE, FRCS, who was charged with the formidable task of devising reconstructive surgical methods to restore those thousands of young men whose faces had been blown off in the trenches and “no man’s lands” of The Great War. You may believe me when I say that through WW I, by way of my father, who was by way of Culver, I became professionally what I have been as a reconstructive plastic surgeon.
The third fact of my Culver belonging involves a ghost, one that I have known from remarkably early memory. It is the ghost of a young man who, as my mother would herself attest, was the dearest, closest friend my father ever had.
His name was “Willie” Ulmer, also Culver class of 1916. Look in that yearbook, and you will see that he was Captain of Company F, and my father his 1st Lieutenant. Look on the plaque in the Legion Memorial Building honoring the Culver graduates who lost their lives in WW I and you will find his name. In a remarkable way, though spoken of only occasionally, his spirit lived amongst us as a lost, heroic member of our family. His name was kept alive, I might almost say, reverentially. He was a model not only to my father, but second hand to myself. He died, a captain in the Marines, early in July 1918 while commanding a machine gun squad in the vicinity of the bridge crossing the Marne at Chateau-Thierry, not so many miles from where my Father was serving on the Aisne.
As my father wrote in his journal on Sunday, July 21, 1918, “Today I heard some news that hit me harder than if I had been hit by a shell. Old Willie Ulmer has been killed, my old Culver Pal. The way I got the news was from Jack Schneider, a classmate too. Dog-gone it, my blood just fairly boils…”.
If I joined my father for two days in Culver, I joined also Willie, their spirits in the very air, and I breathing it wonderfully in, a cloudless sky above. As I walked the path in front of Chateau-Thierry, dodging students, I thought that if in this present moment so much is granted to them, let me also bear glad witness to the care and respect Culver equally grants the ghosts of its proud past.
Fourth, and finally, I would have you know, you graduates who may accidentally read these words, I have felt not only so much pleased to walk about your beautiful campus, but beyond that uplifted.
How heartening, or in fact heart-warming, was my attendance at a history class taught by Gary Christlieb. In the nick of time I had arrived just as the class was finishing its study of WW I before moving into the future. Could I not have been other than delighted to see that Gary bore in hand, with sticky notes sticking out from all over it, the book, BRANCARDIER: SECTION 646? And did I not hear my dad’s voice in the high distance uttering a deep “guffaw” that he, who may have known the bullring better than the classroom, was now found worthy in Anno MMXXII of himself being taught.
But there he was, projected onto a screen and lurking about in each of the student’s computers.
“Let me give you a few minutes,” Gary said, “to read an excerpt of what it was like to have been at Culver in 1914…what do you think?…how many demerits for using profanity* might some of you have received, then to walk off at 5 AM of a cold, snow-blown morning, carrying full pack and gun?”
Were those groans I heard? But never mind, onwards and upwards from thence to discuss various generals, Pershing and so on, their rivalries, their conflicts, and how they dealt with them. And then, with a sort of elegant nonchalance, Gary sat down in a comfortable green armchair beside his desk. From generals lost in time Gary turned to these Culver students so lively in their moment and posed a great question: how did each of them resolve, or not, a conflict? Each gave their well-spoken example, while we all listened. If “conflict resolution” is an attribute of “leadership,” how deftly, how suavely, one of my ears whispered to the other, is it yet taught at Culver.
Not quite finished, Gary then turned to me, and addressing the class introduced me as possibly capable of making a few remarks as an actual living person who very nearly knew first-hand a Spad from a Spitfire, and whose toes were once stepped on by Eleanor Roosevelt. Thus I got to say a few words of my own, which met with at least that modicum of success demonstrable by the fact that everyone more or less laughed when they were supposed to (editor’s note: a video of those remarks can be found here.)
Have I ever enjoyed a better 48 hours? Surely, but don’t ask me when. It was an extraordinary trip that taught me a great deal about Culver, both then and now, and as well quite something about my own self. Yours is a school for the ages. I departed full of admiration. Nor can I quite find the words to adequately express my appreciation for the hospitality I was shown.
BUT YET ALLOW ME, by way of ending, to express my particular gratitude to Jeffrey Kenney, Culver’s resident archivist, who knows the intimate details of every brick and bit of mortar that makes up the school, and sees to its preservation with such enthusiasm and care; to Chris Miller, who picked me up at the SBD airport, and later held me rapt over a snifter of excellent bourbon from 7 to 11 one night discussing, as no one else I have ever imagined could do, the most refined subtleties of everything WW I; and beyond which even my great (b. 1835) grandmother’s handwritten will, which he had found on the Internet and I had never known existed; and to Jerry Ney, class of 1957, with whom I dined one night and who, after being everywhere in the world, returned to Culver to both retire and volunteer; and certainly to Gary, who allowed me so kindly to participate in his class; also, yet if only in passing proudly, to have had the pleasure of shaking hands with Jim Henderson, a gentleman whose name for good reason resounds among the halls and walls of Culver; nor to forget, finally, Theresa Hudson, who served me a snack at the Shack where I finally found my way after having got lost on the old Indian path running from town centre to the school, just in the nick of time as the day turned into a black, if starry beautiful, night.
*I found it interesting to note that even in the extremity of my father’s learning of Willie’s death his exclamation amounted only to “Dog-gone it.” He learned that particular Culver lesson well. I never heard him use any form of vulgar or profane language. Nor have even I, having derived it from him; and so, yet again, most probably traceable back to Culver. Your school is a part of me, in even this minor example. Furthermore, I can come close to believing that my daughters, who are pretty good about their language, at least around my wife and me, might unbeknownst to them also carry within themselves the dim specter of that bull ring.
Charles Edwards Moore, M.D., ASPS (ret.)
Dr. Moore summarized his Culver impressions in a short video shot at the Culver Academies Museum, which can be seen here.