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Chemist and the Farmgirl, The
By Alan Cook
Posted: Saturday, November 08, 2008
Last edited: Friday, January 29, 2010
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.
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           >> View all 26
Two struggling graduate students meet at the University of Michigan during the depression.
For more on Gerhard and Lura, see "How My Parents Got Rich--And How You Can Too" in Articles.

           Thoughts of romance had plenty of competition with more pressing needs for Gerhard in the fall of 1933. A graduate student in chemistry at the University of Michigan, he struggled to make enough money to keep himself from becoming a skeleton through starvation.
Losing money in a bank that had closed was only part of the problem. He had also lost a teaching assistantship from the previous year, and had it replaced with a minor lab assistantship paying only $50 a semester.
            Still, man does not live by lab experiments alone, and he was 26 years old. Just over a week ago he had started taking dancing classes at the Michigan League. On this particular evening near the end of October, he attended a meeting of the Graduate Outing Club. Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn’t yet penned their classic song, “Some Enchanted Evening,” for South Pacific, but Gerhard did see a stranger “across a crowded room,” and for him the evening became enchanted.
            She was beautiful—quite tall, with short brown hair and inquisitive eyes, although he couldn’t see their color from a distance. He was too shy to approach her, and he didn’t learn her name. But at least he knew enough about her to believe that he would see her again.
            Lura was struggling not only with financial problems but also with sleep deprivation. She too had lost her savings in a bank closure, which had almost killed her plans for getting a master’s degree in history after teaching for two years.
            Fortunately, family connections had landed her and her younger sister, Joyce, the joint job of housemaid for a men’s rooming house. It involved making the beds of the other roomers, cleaning the house and washing dishes, and taking the owner, Miss Crocker, who had locomotor ataxia, for walks.
            The downside of this was that Miss Crocker had an eye for handsome male students, and while Lura and Joyce were steering her erratically along the sidewalk she would often plant herself on a corner and ask a passing man to help her cross the street—as the sisters stood and fumed.
            They rated the men they met, from washouts up to footsweepers (capable of sweeping a girl off her feet). They warned each other about wolves—who, unfortunately, might also be footsweepers. But at the age of 22, Lura wasn’t ready to settle down.
            Saturday, November 25 was a brisk autumn day, but it hadn’t snowed yet, and so it was a good day for a hike. The Graduate Outing Club was walking to a Boy Scout camp on the Huron River, a distance of about ten miles, staying overnight, and returning to Ann Arbor the next day.
            Gerhard went with his friend, Headlee, a teaching assistant in chemistry. He kept his eyes busy, scanning the faces of the other walkers. His wish was granted—he spotted the girl he had seen at the meeting, walking with another young woman. He took a few minutes to get up his courage, then nudged Headlee, and they joined the ladies.
            They introduced themselves. Lura gave them her name. Her friend was Anne. They walked the rest of the way to the camp together, chatting pleasantly about this and that. Gerhard found Lura to be charming, just as he had imagined.
            The sleeping arrangements at the camp were primitive. They slept on the floor of a building wrapped in blankets, and of course the men were separated from the women. The next morning, when it was time to start on the hike back to Ann Arbor, Gerhard found out that Lura was riding back on the truck.
            Lura and Anne liked the men well enough.
            “But they’re not footsweepers,” Lura said, and Anne agreed as they returned to Ann Arbor in the truck.
            Lura wouldn’t have minded walking back with them, but her feet were so sore she could hardly hobble. She wasn’t used to this kind of walking.
            The following Saturday night Gerhard went to the graduate dance, hoping to see Lura. Sure enough, she was there with Anne. He danced with her, and was determined to walk her home. His persistence paid off; he walked her back to the rooming house in the moonlight.
            Lura enjoyed Gerhard’s attention, but rued the day that she and Joyce had purchased one pair of dancing shoes for both of them. Their feet were different sizes and shapes, and the shoes pinched both their feet.
            On Friday, December 8 Gerhard and Lura had their first real date, a dance at the Michigan Union. They entered the building through the side door, because women weren’t allowed in the front door. A few days later they went to a Katharine Hepburn movie together. Gerhard felt good about the progress he was making.
            Lura’s schedule became busier, because of papers she had to write, and she didn’t have a lot of time for dating. In addition to Gerhard, she also dated an engineer several times whom she found attractive.
Gerhard was handsome , but he always looked so thin to her. She wondered if he ever got enough to eat. He told her that he would receive a lecture assistantship in chemistry, starting in January 1934. That should help his meager finances.
            During the winter, they sometimes went to Lura’s rooming house for refreshments after a date. Joyce now had a steady boyfriend, Lou, and the four of them got together at the rooming house.
On January 21, Gerhard and Lura braved the winter chill and took a long, delightful walk along the Huron River. Lura told Gerhard that she was 22 years old. A few weeks later they went ice skating at the skating rink where Michigan played its hockey games. Afterward, they went to Lura’s rooming house and made a fire in the fireplace. They lay in front of the welcome warmth, talking until 1 a.m.
Gerhard loved to sing and play the piano. He sang with the Choral Union and rented a piano for an hour a day. He played for Lura. It meant a lot that she was willing to listen to him play, because she was tone deaf.
Their dates didn’t cost much money. They went for walks or danced. They took time out from dances to walk across the campus, eerie with nighttime shadows, to the chemistry building, so that Gerhard could check on his experiments with heavy water.
On April 1, they went for a walk in the evening. Gerhard got up his nerve to kiss Lura for the first time. The next day he sent her a red rose.
On April 6, they went to a dance at the Michigan Union. Gerhard was nervous because of what he was about to do. When he took Lura home he asked her to marry him.
She should have seen this coming. Lura was fond of Gerhard, but marriage didn’t fit into her plans. During the depression, marriage and a career were incompatible for women, because married women couldn’t get jobs. Lura had long planned to go to the Philippine Islands and teach. She didn’t want to hurt him, but there was only one thing to do. She turned him down.
Gerhard was devastated. It took him a few days to recover from Lura’s rejection. He had part time use of a canoe on the Huron River. He invited Lura to go canoeing with him on May 7. But things only got worse. He tried not to show how upset he was when she brought her sister, Joyce, along. Obviously, this romance was going nowhere. He had wasted enough time on her. He decided not to date her anymore.
That decision lasted for only a couple of weeks. Gerhard had a friend at the Triangle Fraternity. He invited Gerhard to come to their spring formal and bring a date. In spite of still being mad at Lura for bringing Joyce on the canoe trip, he asked her and she accepted.
Lura would never forget the exact moment she fell in love with Gerhard on May 25, 1934. They danced to the romantic music until intermission. Then they strolled into the garden. The garden path was lighted by a full moon, and the air was heavy with the scent of lilacs. Suddenly something dissolved inside her, and she turned her face to Gerhard. He kissed her.
The walk home was sheer magic. When she went to bed that night she said to herself, “It’s just the music and the moonlight and the lilacs. I’ll get over it in the morning.”
But she didn’t get over it in the morning. The following night they went to the Lambda Chi Alpha spring party, courtesy of one of the roomers at Lura’s house. Gerhard was feeling the magic also. Ann Arbor was full of bridal wreath. The small white flowers gave off a wonderful aroma that engulfed them as they walked home.
A few days later they went canoeing beneath the moon, which was still close to being full. Gerhard had taught Lura how to paddle. One thing that impressed him about her was that she was willing to help carry the canoe during the portages. On this particular night they didn’t portage. They went as far as the first portage, and then sat on the bank for an hour. She called him “Honey” for the first time.
Lura’s brother, Arthur, had ordered a new Ford car to be delivered to her. It would be picked up by a friend of his and driven to Colorado where he was stationed in the army. On Sunday, June 10 Lura drove Gerhard to Wampler’s Lake for a swim. She swallowed some of the contaminated water and became extremely ill with an intestinal infection. She wrote her last exam in a kind of yellow haze.
The infection produced a cyst on her ovary, and she was confined to the University hospital for two weeks. Her graduation day, when she was supposed to receive her Master of Arts degree, was spent in the hospital. Gerhard visited Lura daily in the hospital and sent her flowers. Then she went home to her family’s Harbor Beach farm on Lake Huron to recover with complete bed rest for six weeks.
These were the days before penicillin. The cyst, which she named Edgar, gave her trouble for years.
On July 1, Gerhard had his own problem. He was working in the chemistry lab when a glass flask with alcohol vapor in it exploded while he was doing some glass-blowing, filling his chest and right eye with glass. He had to go to the Health Service to be treated. He picked glass out of his face for a long time.
During the summer, Gerhard was able to hitch rides to Harbor Beach to visit Lura on weekends with Lura’s father, Burr, who was working in Lansing, the Michigan state capital. On August 4, 1934 a bedridden Lura agreed to marry Gerhard. On August 15 he bought her a diamond ring in Ann Arbor. With the parental permission of Burr, Gerhard gave her the ring two days later.
In September, Gerhard and Lura spent 10 days together in Harbor Beach. They had a wonderful time. He liked to sing to her. The family collie, Mac, would listen to him sing for a couple of minutes, and then break into a mournful howl. They both caught colds, and Lura had to go back to bed.
Gerhard bought his father’s eight-year-old Chevrolet for $40, less a $5 gift from his father, who was living in Grand Rapids, and named it Octavia. This made his commute to Harbor Beach, which was close to 160 miles, easier.
Lura was well enough to work by October. She got a job teaching at the Harbor Beach Freshman College, sponsored by the University of Michigan, for $15 a week, fulfilling her desire to teach at the college level. She taught English, history, and mathematics, and saved up the harder math problems for Gerhard to help her with when he came to see her. She was named director, and her salary was bumped up to $18 a week.
Gerhard went to Harbor Beach for Christmas, taking Joyce and Lou, and Lura’s youngest brother, Jim, who was now attending the University of Michigan. On their way back to Ann Arbor, the car slid on the ice into a ditch, breaking the bumper.
Jim was taking a freshman chemistry course, and was afraid he was going to flunk it. When he went to Gerhard for advice, Gerhard said, “Only a moron would flunk freshman chemistry.” Jim, who was on the football team, arranged for a tutor, and managed to avoid flunking chemistry.
During the first half of 1935, Gerhard and Lura visited back and forth. They started planning their wedding. Gerhard would get his Ph.D. in chemistry in June, and wanted to teach at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland starting in the fall. He also lined up a teaching job at Michigan for the summer.
During discussions with the department head at Case, Gerhard was offered $1600 a year. The position was for a single instructor. When he insisted that he was getting married, the offer was raised to $1700. Lura, as a married woman, would have no prospect of working, except perhaps at a temporary job at Christmas.
Gerhard and Lura set their wedding date for June 14, 1935, Lura’s parents’ 29th wedding anniversary. The wedding would be held at their Harbor Beach farm with the blue waters of Lake Huron in the background. Joyce would be the bridesmaid and Gerhard’s friend, Herman, the best man. Gerhard’s father, a minister, would perform the ceremony.
Lura had a long, filmy white dress that she had bought in Ann Arbor to wear at dances. She decided to use that as a wedding dress.
On June 13, preparations for the wedding were in full swing. A turkey was roasting in the oven. Lura and her family were awaiting the arrival of Gerhard and his sister, Brunhild, in Octavia. The telephone rang…
It was Brunhild. Gerhard had been ailing for a week with a low fever and upset stomach. When he went to Health Service and told the doctor he was about to get married, the doc decided that he was nervous.
But, as he was getting into the car with Brunhild she noticed that he had broken out in a rash. She rushed him back to Health Service. This time the doctor said, “Oh, of course. You have measles.” He promptly put Gerhard to bed under quarantine.
A flurry of telephone calls cancelled all the wedding arrangements and informed prospective guests that they should stay home. Lura, who was facing the role of an unwed bride, shed some tears and briefly considered taking off for Africa, perhaps to join the French Foreign Legion. She certainly didn’t want to be seen in Harbor Beach.
When she calmed down, she decided to go to Ann Arbor. Her father drove her there, and Gerhard’s landlady, Mrs. Benz, graciously offered to let her stay in his room.
Each day, Lura walked to Health Service where she sat in the hall near the open doorway to Gerhard’s room and talked to him in a loud voice. She wasn’t allowed any closer. He was quite sick and miserable, and they couldn’t make any definite plans.
Finally, on June 18, Lura and Gerhard were told that he would be released the next day. Lura rushed back to Mrs. Benz’s and called her parents and his parents. Mrs. Benz offered the use of her parlor for the wedding, and baked a wedding cake. Lura ordered a bridal bouquet.
The next morning, Lura drove Octavia to the hospital and sprang her shaky bridegroom from his confinement. They invited friends and relatives who were close enough to come. They wandered about the campus and picked wildflowers to decorate the parlor. They ran into a chemistry colleague of Gerhard’s who agreed to be the best man.
Gerhard’s father presided over a beautiful ceremony. Afterward, they took a few snapshots with a Brownie camera. By this time, Gerhard was completely wiped out. Gerhard and Lura said goodbye to the guests and drove a few blocks to the apartment they had rented for the summer. Their married life had begun.
They found their love when life was spring.
Exciting as a roller coaster ride
It soared to highs and crashed to lows,
But side by side
They laughed and clung, and sealed it with a rose.
In summer's heat their love was candy.
Delicious, sweet, they always wanted more.
Like rock, this candy, hard and strong,
With solid core;
It wouldn't melt, sustained by many a song.
In autumn's frost their love stayed warm,
A gentle warmth that welled from deep within
Each soul, and then combined to grow,
Through thick and thin,
And light their faces with a radiant glow.
When winter came their love remained,
Although one slowly, slowly slipped away.
But such a love, beyond compare,
Will always stay,
And those who love will find it everywhere.
Based on autobiographical material by:
Gerhard Albert Cook 1907-1993
Lura Lincoln Cook 1911-2005

Web Site: Alan Cook, mystery and walking writer  

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