One would expect a book titled, “Dress Gray: The life and times of a West Point Cadet,” to be about West Point, right? It’s much more than that, if you’re William Ekberg and have a daughter, Susie Ekberg Risher of Fargo, for a co-author.
For the most part, “Dress Gray” is a love story. The majority of the book is love letters that Bill Ekberg sent to his girlfriend, Marietta Meyer. Bill and Marietta meet on a blind date at a football game, where Bill must sit with his West Point company, and Marietta must sit elsewhere.
Bill, a plebe at West Point, writes a nice letter introducing himself to Marietta, a student at Wellesley College on the same coast. Most of the letters are ones that Bill sent to Marietta — obviously she saved her letters from Bill. We have a few rough drafts of letters she sent him, which are hard to decipher since they’re reproduced as is.
Almost all of “Dress Gray” is formated like a scrapbook, with most of Bill’s letters retyped for ease of reading. A graphic artist used cartoons taken from a West Point publication that are used throughout to wonderful effect.
Although Bill includes a glossary of terms used at West Point, there are a few he has to translate for us along the way, and a few that remain a mystery. Just as the younger generation has its own shorthand — LOL, BFF — Bill’s generation had its own slang. Most of it is explained — OAO is an exclusive girl- or boyfriend — “One-And-Only.” While we use “cool” and “neat,” they used “swell” and “keen.”
A few of the letters are letters home, in which Bill describes West Point daily life. His report cards sent home are also reproduced. (The academy misspells Ekberg as Ekburg!) Some readers will be mystified at some of the letters which begin in third person. Apparently that was another affectation of the day.
Although this was wartime, Bill and Marietta go on several dates — to hops (dances), football games, and plays. Some of the dates were weekends to New York, where they saw “Kate” Hepburn on the stage, and Noel Coward’s play, “Blithe Spirit.”
We see the fine art of flirtation in the letters, and then about midway throught the book, Bill uses the L-word. He’s generous with the terms of endearment and starts his own shorthand in the letters. And in some of his letters home, Bill describes Marietta most lovingly.
Pictures from the era are generously scattered throughout in scrapbook fashion. They were fond of taking pictures of one another — they didn’t have Facebook. They had to send the film to be processed, and then wait for the pictures to be returned.
All of this activity was more difficult since cadets were not allowed to have money at the academy. The thought was that some cadets could purchase favors from others. So, just like millions of students away from home, Bill had to write home for money now and then.
Bill and Marietta met whenever they could. His weekends were sometimes tied up with track meets or other activities. Last minute changes in their travel plans were made by telegraph. No texting back then. A few of their wires are also reproduced.
Bill and Marietta do end up married, and they travel to Japan at the end of World War II. Not much is said about what he did there, and by the time Marietta joins him, he is transferred stateside again.
“Dress Gray” could have been a much shorter and cohesive book if it had started and ended with Bill’s West Point years. Unfortunately, the co-authors included Bill’s early years along with his later career in television. His TV years could have been its own book all by itself.
Bill’s West Point years would have been plenty. More telling is what is left out. We only see glimpses of how hard life was when he tells Marietta that her letters give him something to look forward to. “It gives you kind of a cubbyhole to crawl into when some other cadet isn’t being very nice to you.”