On the morning of Thanksgiving 1941, I had a lot to be thankful. My name is Robert Lee Peters. I hailed from a poor family in South Carolina. There were two boys. I was the youngest. I knew from a very young age that the only thing that would raise me up from this poverty was education. I attended a one-room schoolhouse and was fortunate to have a teacher who took an interest in me. My ability to comprehend everything taught to me amazed Miss Wright (my teacher), and I became a special project for her to see succeed.
The one-room classroom only educated children to the 8th grade. When it was time to go to high school many of the children discontinued their educations. They went to the farms to help their families eke out a living. Miss Wright spoke with my parents. She pleaded with them to support me while I attended high school. She told them that someday at the end of my studies, I would return to the family farm and help them in more ways than they could ever imagine. I finished high school in three years.
Mr. Bradley my high school counselor wrote a letter of introduction to a previous classmate of his at the University of South Carolina. He made arrangements for me to take a scholarship examination. The rest was history. A month after the exam, I received a letter from the university offering me a four-year scholarship that included room, board, and a stipend. I was going to college.
At the beginning of my first year at the university, I was required to take as one of my studies Army OCS or Officers Candidate School. One of the up-sides for taking this military training was to receive the monthly salary that it offered the participants. I knew that when I graduated, I would have to serve four years as an officer in the United States Army.
Every summer for the first two weeks of my vacation, I would be training at a military base and learning all its fundamentals. I would spend the remainder of the summer months helping my family on the farm. And then at the end of the summer, it was back to Columbia and my studies.
I remember the 20th of November 1941 as if it were yesterday. My roommate, John Major came bursting into the room to begin packing to go home for the Thanksgiving holiday. As he was putting some clothing into a suitcase, he inquired about my plans.
“I intend to spend Thanksgiving here. I was told that they are serving Turkey for the students who will be remaining on campus.”
He stopped packing his suitcase and turned toward me. “Why don’t you come home with me? We have a big house and plenty of room. My little sister Julia is always pestering me to introduce her to one of my friends at the university. She’s very pretty and I think you might like her.”
“Are you playing matchmaker?” I inquired.
“No, Robert! I’m inviting you to my house to have a Thanksgiving dinner not to meet my sister. But, it’s like I said, she is very pretty.” He opened his wallet and showed me a photograph of his family. There were his mother and father in the middle, John was to the right and Julia, his sister was to the left. It was a recent photograph taken just before he returned to the university this semester. And it was as he said, she was strikingly attractive. John stands six feet in his stocking feet and comparing her height to his, she must be five six or seven in stature. John once told me that his family origins originated in Demark over a hundred and fifty years ago. That would explain why Julia appears like a Viking Queen, standing there with her long blond hair draped over her shoulders and hanging down halfway toward her waist. It accentuated her chiseled good looks and slender body. She truly was a sight to behold.
I told John that I would accept his invitation to have dinner with his family. But, before we could leave, I explained that I had to contact my parents and wish them a happy holiday.
There was a pay phone in the hallway of our dormitory. Mother answered the phone on the second ring. I explained to her that I had semester examinations in a few weeks. It was essential that I study over the weekend. After exchanging a few other comments, I assured her that I would be thinking about her and the family this Thanksgiving. With the words “I love you,” I hung up the receiver.
I put the few decent clothing I owned into my suitcase, closed the lid and headed for the door with John in pursuit.
John had a car parked a few blocks from campus at a service station. We loaded our suitcases into the trunk and began the two-hour drive to John’s family home.
We drove north for about three hours and I enjoyed the country-side of South and North Carolina. The foliage had already had changed for the fall season, but much of its color was deposited on the forest floor. John said that growing up in North Carolina was every kid’s dream. He had attended a private high school and rubbed elbows with some of the States wealthy. What I knew about John in the three and half years we shared a room, he was in his element.
John’s parents had a home about an hour’s ride outside the city limits of Raleigh. As we drove along the private road that led up to the homestead, I got the message that it was more like an estate. There was a twenty room mansion with stables and surrounded by a hundred acres of beautiful fields and virgin woodlands.
About three-quarters of a mile from the main road, we parked between the stables and the mansion. Riding toward us from one of the many fields that surrounded the structures was a woman dressed in riding gear. She was riding what John described as an Andalusian. He said that when the family was vacationing in Spain a few years ago, Julia had rented a horse to ride. When she saw a grey Andalusian, she begged her father to purchase it for her. After an expensive financial transaction, the animal was shipped to their home in North Carolina. The thought crossed my mind this young lady is somewhat spoiled.
We got out of the car; Julia dismounted her horse and walked toward us. She was strikingly beautiful. The photo that John had previously shown me didn’t completely reveal her good looks. As she extended her hand, she said, “You must be Robert? John has spoken of you often.”
“Yes. John and I have been sharing a room at the university for three and a half years. John says that you are attending the University of North Carolina. What is your field of study?
“At the present time, I am majoring in Animal Husbandry. That may change, however, when I attend graduate school”. She hesitated and looked around before she said, “I have to put the horse into the barn and feed him. I’ll see the two of you in the house in a half hour or so.” She turned and walked the horse toward the barn door.
John and I walked slowly toward the house. As we stepped up on to the porch, the front door opened and a man dressed in formal wear welcomed us.
“Good afternoon, Bentley. How have you been? John said in a friendly voice.
“I’ve been well, sir. Please come in.” as he motioned us into the interior.
John said in passing, “Bentley, this is my roommate from the university, Robert Lee Peters.”
“It’s a fine old southern name, sir. It’s an honor to make your acquaintance.”
“Bentley, Robert and I are going into the library and have a drink. Is the father home from the office yet?”
“No sir. However, I am expecting him home momentarily. He mentioned this morning as he was leaving that he wanted to spend some time with you before the Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Please tell my mother that I arrived.”
“Yes sir, I will!” Bentley ascended the winding stairs as John and Robert enter the library.
John walked directly toward the large liquor assortment displayed on a large mahogany table. Pointing to a small refrigerator, “We also have a variety of white wine, if you prefer.”
I sat down in one of the expensive leather chairs that decorated the room. “A glass of white wine will be fine.”
John took a bottle of wine from the refrigerator and began to remove the cork with a screw he located in a drawer of the table. Once the bottle was open, he poured a glass and handed it to me. Crossing to the table, he opened a bottle of Scotch and poured an amount into the glass he had previously filled halfway with water. Then he crossed to another leather chair opposite me. The conversation turned to the property that John’s family owned and what his father did for a living.
“This property has been in the family since just after the Civil War. My grandfather was an officer in the Union Army. When the city of Raleigh was captured by Union forces on April 13th, 1865, my grandfather was in charge of setting up a headquarters there. After a few weeks, my grandfather and a few of his soldiers began surveying the county side around the city. He came across this house, its stables and fields. The story goes that he inquired as to who owned the property and was told by some of the locals that it had been originally owned by a Confederate Colonial who had been killed at the battle of Antietam. The colonial didn’t have any living relatives, so his property reverted to the State of North Carolina. When grandfather returned to his headquarters, he checked the records and learned that the property was available for sale by the State. He waited a few months before making an offer to the State of North Carolina for the purchase of the property. A year later, my grandfather moved his family from Massachusetts. Our family has been living here ever since.”
He took a slight pause before he continued. “After moving here, he practiced law in Raleigh until his death in 1916. My father was sent to be educated at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. After receiving his law degree, he decided not to practice law. With another classmate as a silent partner, they began a company manufacturing automobile tires. After a few years, my father bought out his silent partner and he is now the sole owner of the business. The company provides tires to all the automobile manufactures in the country. I intend upon graduating next June to go to work at the company.”
John took a short pause and stood. He took note of my empty wine glass. “Would you like another drink?
“Yes, thank you,” I replied.
John crossed to the refrigerator and removed a bottle of opened white wine. He poured a glass, crossed to the table where the other alcoholic beverages were displayed and fixed himself another scotch and water. He handed the wine to me just as Julia entered the room.
“What are the two of you doing getting ready to have a party?” she exclaimed.
“Julia, sit down and engage in the conversation. I was just telling Robert the family history.”
“Tell me, Robert, Do you have any specific plans after you graduate?” she inquired
“My plans are predestined. I’m in my fourth year of OCS. In June, I will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. I have a 4-year obligation to serve my county,” I said with a certain amount of resolve in my voice.
“What is your field of study?” she inquired.
“My majors are mathematics and chemistry. I plan to continue graduate education once I fulfill my military obligation,” I responded.
John crossed to Julia and handed her a glass of wine. Julia continued her cross-examination. “Is there a special lady in your life, Robert?”
Quite frankly, Julia, that’s none of your business,” John said in a firm voice.
“I don’t mind answering her question. I’m on a full scholarship. I’m required to work ten hours a week in the student dining room to offset some of the tuition expenses. Therefore, I don’t have time to court a young lady.”
I took a slight pause and then I said, “I’m looking forward to graduation and beginning my military obligation. I will be receiving a monthly salary and living expenses. Maybe then, if I meet someone special, I can court her in a proper fashion.”
Julia took a sip of her wine as she studied me.
It was becoming obvious that upon this first meeting, Julia was becoming interested in this young man from the other side of the tracks.
The closing of a door in the other room startled the three. After a moment, John spoke. “That must be my father. When I spoke to him on the phone yesterday, he said that he was planning to arrive home early today for Thanksgiving.
The door opened and John Major Sr. entered carrying a briefcase. John and I stood to greet him. “Dad, this is my roommate, Robert Lee Peters.”
“It’s very nice to make your acquaintance. John was telling me about his roommate when he was home a month ago. It’s nice to put a face to a name.” He took a slight pause and looked in the direction of the bar. “Please sit down; dinner won’t be served for about a half hour. This will give us some time to talk.” Mr. Major crossed over to the bar and began to fix himself a drink. As he was putting ice into a glass, he directed his question to me. “Tell me, Mr. Peters, what are your plans after you graduate?”
“Well sir, for the next four years I will be serving my country. I am due to be commissioned immediately after graduation.”
“I wanted John, Jr. to take OCS as an elective, but he didn’t want to make the commitment. Now, Congress has passed a law that all healthy young men will be required to serve at least one year in the Army. So, instead of being an officer like you, John will begin his military obligation as a private.”
“Sir, I was required to take the OCS program. It was one of the requirements of my scholarship,” I said.
“What is your field of study at the university?” Mr. Major asked.
“It’s a double major, sir, in mathematics and chemistry,” I responded.
“Are there any young ladies in your life?” Facetiously, he said, “We’ve been looking for someone for Julia to have as a bow, but so far no luck.”
Both John’s laughed at the joke, but Julia doesn’t get the humor. “Daddy, please! You’ll give this young man the wrong impression.”
“I was only jesting, Robert. Julia is a very attractive and educated young woman. There have been several young men, like you, who have called within the past year.”
“Daddy, may we please change the subject,” she pleaded.
“Of course my dear the subject is closed.” He took a sip of his drink before he said, “So Robert, what do you think of the world situation?”
I had been staring into my glass and looked up. I took an awkward pause before I spoke. “I don’t know sir. I’ve been so busy with my studies. I haven’t had a lot of time to read the news.”
Mr. Major continued, “The Army has just placed a large order for tires. The Japanese are ravaging China and America is sending a wide variety of supplies to assist them in their resistance. I’m afraid that the United States will soon be drawn into a war soon. Since the Japanese have invaded China, they are now testing the waters in the Pacific. In Europe, the Germans are overrunning that continent.”
“The little I know about it, sir, I’m afraid that you may be right. The word among the officers at OCS is predicting a war as well,” I said in my low voice.
A lull fell over the conversation. The three men took sips of their drinks as I attempted to change the subject. “So tell me, Julia, what are your plans when you graduate?”
Taking a pause and looking at her father she said, “Daddy wants me to come to work in his office where he can keep an eye on me.”
Immediately responding to her comment, Mr. Major said, “I want to take advantage of her education. There are far fewer women today with college degrees. One only learns theory in college; it’s in the real world where one gets their education. After a year or two working in my company, Julia will be much more rounded and ready for the real world.”
The maid knocked on the door and entered. “Sir, the dinner is served.”
We all stood and followed the maid into the dining room. Already seated at one end of a large rectangular table was Mrs. Major.
John spoke first. “Mother, this is my roommate from college, Robert Lee Peters. Robert, this is my mother.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Peters,” she said, as I shook her hand. “Please be seated. Dinner is about to be served,” as she pointed to a chair in the center of the table. Mr. Major sat at the other end opposite Mrs. Major. Julia crossed around the table and sat in the middle of the table across from John and me. The maid wheeled in a large serving cart with a variety of food dishes and began to place them in the middle of the table. She was assisted by three other young women. Once all of the dishes were placed, she briefly left the room and returned with a large turkey and placed it in the center of the table. The turkey had been sliced in portions. John began to pass the various dishes around the table until everyone had a plate full of food. Before we settled down to eat, Mr. Major led a short prayer with everyone at its conclusion repeating “Amen.”
For the first few minutes, everyone sat quietly eating their meal. Mrs. Major was the first to speak. “Mr. Peters, what kind of work does your father do?”
Looking up from my plate, I took a few seconds before I responded. “My father is a ‘Sharecropper.’ I come from a very poor family down south. I was very fortunate to have a teacher in high school who took an interest in me. He pulled some strings and got me a scholarship to the university. I’ll always be grateful to him.”
Mr. Major spoke next. “I’m always impressed when I see someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s people like you Robert that made this country what it is today. You should be very proud of your accomplishments so far.”
“I’m very grateful for opportunities that have been made available to me. Maybe someday, I will be in a position to help someone as I have been,” I said.
Julia spoke up. “Where do you plan to live once you graduate?”
“That will be up to the Army. I haven’t received my orders yet. I understand that I will be issued a MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and in my orders will include the base to where I must report. I’m scheduled to receive those orders just before graduation. Hopefully, it will be one of the military bases nearby.”
“If you’ll send me your address once you graduate, I would like to correspond with you,” Julia shyly said.
“Hopefully, I’ll see you at the graduation when I come to see John receive his degree,” Julia suggested.
“Maybe we can all get together and have dinner before we go our separate ways,” I added.
“Once you complete your military obligation, if you need a position young man, I want you to contact me. I’m always looking for young people with an education that can help our company grow,” Mr. Major said as he helped himself to another helping of the mashed potatoes.
Silence fell over the table while everyone enjoyed the Thanksgiving dinner. Finally, Julia spoke. “Mr. Peters, will you be spending the weekend with us?”
I looked up from my plate. “I don’t have any plans, but it depends on John and if he has to get back.”
“My original plan was to spend the weekend. I’m not going to have a chance to come home again until the Christmas break,” John said as he helped himself to another helping of turkey.
The family eventually finished the dinner and the team of workers came into the room and cleared the table. Then they served ice cream and cake as dessert. Each of their wine glasses was refilled as everyone engaged in small talk.
After another hour, the group retired to the library for additional drinks and conversation. Mr. Major questioned John about his standing at the university and his grades. John boosted that his overall academic average was a 3.6 and he was heading for the Dean’s list. Mr. Major congratulated him and then turned his attention toward me. “And you young man, what is your overall academic average?”
I put my head down as I would rather not answer the question. I reluctantly offered a response. “Sir, my scholarship requires that I maintain a 3.8 overall average.”
“Have you managed that average in the past three and half years?” he prodded.
“Yes sir, I have,” I admitted.
“My curiosity is getting the best of me, so I have to inquire. What is your overall average?” he continued.
With my eyes cast down, since I usually don’t like to speak about my accomplishments, I said. “My overall average is currently a 4.0, sir.”
Mr. Major laughed and facetiously said, “You’re hired!”
Julia spoke up and joined the conversation. “That’s very impressive, Mr. Peters.”
“Mrs. Major spoke next. “You’re the nicest young man John has brought home from the university so far. He has a tendency to gravitate toward the athletes. Although they appear to be getting a university education, none of them thus far seem to have the academic accomplishments as you. I must say, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance.”
Mr. Major and John made a Strawberry Daiquiri for Mrs. Major, orange juice and Vodka for Julia and scotch and soda for the men.
After a few moments of silence, Julia inquired again if I was planning to spend the weekend.
John responded to her question. “As I said before, Julia, that’s the plan. Robert is not familiar with this part of the country. I wanted to show him around. Tomorrow, I thought that we would go into Raleigh and tour the historical sites.” He sensed Julia would like to accompany them. “You’re invited as well, Julia. It will give you a chance to show off your knowledge of the Civil War.”
Looking for a reaction from me she slyly asked. “Would you mind if I tag along tomorrow, Robert?”
I felt slightly embarrassed by the bantering between John and Julia. “No, I would be delighted to have you come with us. John mentioned to me once that you were an amateur historian.”
“Then that’s the plan, John said. Tomorrow, immediately after breakfast, I will call my girlfriend Lauren and invite her to go with us to tour Raleigh.”
The rest of the evening was spent having a casual conversation and discussing plans for the next day. Mr. and Mrs. Major eventually excused themselves to retire for the evening. The young people had a few more drinks and eventually retired for the evening as well.