Monday, August 20, 2018

Letters from Abroad: McIver’s Trip to Europe, Part 2

McIver chose the Hamburg-Amerika line for his transatlantic crossing
As the S.S. Blucher started its ten-day voyage across the Atlantic, Charles Duncan McIver and James Joyner explored the ship and began their individual routines. McIver enjoyed daily walks on the deck and was thrilled when he glimpsed “large fish and sea animals” in the waves. His letters to Lula expressed excitement about the trip and the beautiful weather, as well as his relief at not becoming seasick like many of the other passengers. He reported that the food was excellent onboard ship and although he had been given “instructions from home” to watch his diet, it was becoming increasingly hard to do so. The elaborate first class menus included rich German dishes and the sumptuous desserts were difficult to resist. McIver spent the first days of his cruise with little to do but “loaf, tell yarns, [and] eat 5 times a day.” He wrote Lula that he was enjoying more “rest and freedom from care that [he] had in a long time.”

Joyner and McIver on deck of the S. S. Blucher, 1905
As one of the main reasons for the trip was to improve his health, McIver found his way to the gymnasium and made exercise a part of his daily ritual. He was amazed to find that the training equipment ran on electric motors, including a machine that took the speed of either a horse or a camel, and a massage apparatus with a belt that moved from the shoulders to the waist.

Entertainments were also a favorite part of his day, with music on the deck every morning and concerts held for the first class passengers in the evening. McIver was particularly charmed by the sounds of informal accordion music and dancing that wafted up from the lower steerage decks.

Dancing aboard the ship
There was much to tell, and McIver continued to write Lula even though he knew that he would not be able to mail his letters until the ship reached its first stop in Plymouth, England. He pined for his little family and took time each day to look at their photographs and write letters. Joyner missed his family as well and wrote his wife constantly. McIver even suspected he was writing Mrs. Joyner poetry! In a romantic flight of fancy, the two men decided to send their wives “love message[s]” from mid-ocean on the Marconi, a recently invented system of wireless communication using coded signals.

When they arrived in Paris, Joyner had correspondence waiting for him at the Grand Hotel, but there were no letters for McIver. His next note to Lula chided her for not sending mail and newspapers. When he finally received a letter from her, he was “dee-lighted!” He continued to write and chronicle his trip from France, to Germany, down the Rhine River, to Brussels, and finally to England.

During his travels, he received letters from his family, as well as his colleagues at the college. A birthday telegram was delivered from campus physician, Dr. Gove, and professors Gertrude Mendenhall and Viola Boddie, and steady correspondence was received from his administrative assistant, Miss Coit. A letter also arrived from the college’s African American facilities manager, Zeke Robinson, who had worked for McIver in his early years at Peace College and later joined him at State Normal. Zeke wrote “It is useless for me to try to tell you how much I have missed you, for you know that already.”

A letter to Lula dated September 28, 1905

By early October, the traveling companions began the last leg of their European trip. McIver had enjoyed France, Germany, and Brussels, but he really seemed to hit his stride in England. He marveled at the country’s history and monuments, and he attempted to see all the sites of London, including the British Museum and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then they traveled throughout the English countryside, visiting Kent, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford. McIver and Joyner also took every opportunity to see plays and productions, ranging from variety shows to more serious plays such as Louis XI starring Henry Irving (a week before his death). McIver wrote Lula, “I was impressed more than ever by the tremendous greatness of the English people and the civilization for which they are responsible.”

McIver especially loved the Lake District. Yet it was at this “ideal spot” that he lost a treasured personal possession. In a letter dated October 6, he told Lula of his heartbreak at losing his locket which contained her picture. While he knew he could purchase another when he returned to North Carolina, he grieved the loss of such a sentimental object.

The travelers’ final stop was Scotland where the beauty of the scenery and tales of Culloden and Mary Queen of Scots did not fail to impress them. McIver also tracked down several of his Scottish relatives and paid them a visit. Although the men had a wonderful time in Scotland, as they made their way south to catch the ship to America, McIver’s letters reflect his desire to “start straight home … and fly all the way.” The fall semester at the State Normal was underway and he missed his family – he was ready to go home. As he boarded the ship at Dover, he summed up his adventures to Lula, “This has been a good trip, full of interest, instruction, and pleasure, but this is the happiest day I have spent abroad because I’m starting toward you and our dear children.”

The McIver home on the State Normal Campus

By all accounts, McIver had enjoyed himself immensely, yet what was planned as a relaxing excursion, had quickly transformed into an extensive and grueling tour. He admitted to his wife, “Our trip has been more strenuous than I expected it to be.” It certainly did not give him the much-needed rest he required and once he returned home, his schedule remained as hectic as before he left.

In subsequent months, McIver’s fast-paced, stressful life began to catch up with him. Less than a year after his grand European trip, Charles Duncan McIver was dead. He suffered a stroke ten days before his forty-sixth birthday. Lula saved his letters from Europe, as well as much of their other personal correspondence, which can now be found in the archives of UNC Greensboro.

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