Mills Lane IV would often send basically the same letter to several people. Sometimes Mama and Papa would receive a specialized letter replete with requests, but often family and friends would receive versions of the same script.
As he prepared for Navy Officer Candidate School in 1966, Mills shared nightmares about the coming military duty with the requisite hyperbole.
“It is a woeful tragedy when such unsullied, innocent, and talented youths … just fresh from their ark protection of their mother’s womb, must go off to battle. I have been dreaming … I saw a Navy barber with menacing clippers dangerously near my shaggy head.… Another night I dreamt I was fighting a fierce pitched battle on a hillside… set-up like a movie theatre.… The enemy was rushing in from the back exits and we were hiding behind the last row of seats so we could shoot them from behind.”
He grew nostalgic about his last posting for the C&S Bank in Macon.
“Everyone at the friendly C&S Bank has been very kind; my relations in Macon – the Comers and Trains – have been more tolerant and patient than relatives should be.”
He was especially proud of his last production for the bank when branch openings were celebrated with great fanfare.
“We reopened our Ingleside branch, on George Washington’s birthday.… It was elaborately remodeled and refurnished, and we called attention to the extravagant expense by celebrating George Washington’s 234th birthday. We had four high school brass bands playing Sousa very badly, but marching down Ingleside Avenue each time in a sensational promenade.
“We had 3,000 cherry tarts, 2,000 portraits of George by Stuart flown to us from the Fine Arts Museum (guess whose idea that was), and an old-fashioned cherry pie baking contest, judged by the Mayor and Chamber of Commerce president. Their skill was demonstrated by their choosing a pie baked by a lady who had won a national 4-H Club competition with the same recipe. I have become a card-carrying member of the Chamber; Sinclair Lewis would condemn me, but David Riesman would understand.”
That extravaganza drew rare praise from his father. Mills IV also showed gratitude to his parents by hosting a surprise 25th wedding anniversary celebration for them at the Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta.
On his own drive up the east coast through Charlottesville, Williamsburg, Richmond, Washington, and Boston he “played ardent Jeffersonian, American colonialist, independent confederate, loyal patriot and Harvard intellectual on successive stops.”
“My last week in Boston was great fun, and I had a better time than I ever had during my four years at Harvard.”
He hosted his own farewell dinner party with friends at Locke-Ober. Between Pouilly-Fuissé 65, lobster bisque, and Chicken Richmond, they toasted pastoral Macon and his cousin Mary Comer. He asked the waiter for a butter knife to give to her and said in a letter that he hoped she would use it “to butcher cheese in my absence.”
As he started his training with the Navy in Newport, he reflected on the differences between his education at Harvard and OCS and took comfort in figuring out the system.
“Newport is a little like Harvard. No good Harvard man will admit how easy his college can be; and no good Navy man will readily admit how easy OCS can be. Especially compared with the immense possibilities for harassment and terror, our treatment has been mild.”
He wrote on his embossed Mills Bee Lane IV stationery to his parents who were sailing through the Greek Isles:
“There is a straight and narrow path to tread, once you know where it is, and academic material is just fed to you. At Harvard part of the process was to have a student read and discover important and significant material for himself; here you are given a brazen outline of the modest material you are expected to know.”
But he was grateful for the physical training.
“At OCS it is good to have self-improvement thrust on you. Last week I swam competitively: you know it would not be a virtuoso performance, but it was exhilarating and fun. There is also a certain perverse pleasure to find out each day what new devilments our PT instructor has found for us to perform. I’ve taken the OCS opportunity to diet, making PT easier and letting me leave Newport both brawny and boney. Classes and subjects are interesting; teachers are almost all petty officers and experienced seamen, spouting profanity and facts with equal vigor and expertise.”
And he loved learning the ways around the rules.
“The decks (floors) are to be kept always spotless and glistening; this impossible directive is easily fulfilled by the simple expedient of never wearing shoes in the halls, only rubber sandals. Blankets must be folded in a very precise way, but all you need do is just never use them, so they are always perfectly folded after the first day. Knowing that things are relative, that rules are only an arbitrary framework, makes it easy to get through. The phrase used up here is ‘Just float,’ which means, I suppose, take everything conscientiously but not too seriously.”
Part of the training was learning group dynamics.
“Our section of twenty-three men organizes itself and gropes its away around, finding out by error: clearly, this is part of the educational process at OCS … four-months of preparation for sea duty, where we will find taut discipline, real responsibility, and find out how ignorant and untrained we really are. OCS is just giving us an outlook and a vocabulary: we’ll really learn about the Navy when we board ship and find that regular seamen and non-commissoned officers know far more than we punk freshman Ensigns.”
He noted changes in himself and others.
“Entering together two weeks ago, we all lost our identity, our clothes, our haircut, and our confidence. Now these are beginning to return.”
Mills carefully thought about his weekend escapes, especially the food. “My plans for solitude and a delicatessen lunch of hot pastrami are taking on an almost sensual, excruciatingly delightful aspect.”
He was already the architecture critic, recommending to all a visit to the cliff of Newport to see “the grand, gaudy, gorgeous summer houses.”
“The Breakers is, of course, the most famous, but two others, the Elms and the Marble House, are also open and much finer to my tastes.”
“Local people say that these houses represent Late American Renaissance. Really, though, they are so extravagantly done that they are almost tasteless. It’s all right for European palaces where elaborate rococo work was the style, but in [a] Newport ‘summer cottage’ it is all affectation. At the same time these houses represent dramatically an age of innocence and isolation in this country, before social legislation and world dependence.”
He asked friends and family to keep the letters coming “to the lowly seaman and lonely seafarer.”
As he signed off one letter to a friend: “Some lobster bisque, sweetbreads, and macaroons later, with a long pause, for the benefit of my mental health, this galley slave wishes you ship ahoy, matey. As the boys write home from their first year of summer camp, I just LOVE letters.”
Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.
For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.