A concerned brow forms on Lynn Alperin’s face. Her petite stature holds court in the Galveston District Headquarters executive office where she scans the room and everything in it. Her tour guide, the office administrator, and even the deputy district engineer all give way as Alperin quietly examines the rows of bookshelves lining the room. They listen attentively as she relays a story about the last time she set foot in a district building. She doesn’t find what she’s looking for.
“It’s not here,” she says to herself, with a tinge of disappointment. “I just can’t leave knowing you don’t have one.”
Alperin is referring to her 1977 book Custodians of the Coast, which—according to previous district commanders and employees—has been heralded as the definitive history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s (USACE) presence in Galveston, Texas.
The retired medical writer recently gifted Galveston District’s historical archives a signed copy of her book after learning there weren’t any copies left in its libraries. For a long time, Alperin’s book was considered required reading for incoming district commanders. She didn’t just write the book on the Galveston District; she also coined its longstanding nickname—as seen in the book’s title.
Alperin recounts the story of how fate would see her as the unofficial chronicler of the Galveston District.
Spark of interest
It all started in the early 1970s with a chance encounter at the Temple B’Nai on Galveston’s Avenue O. Alperin was a member of the choir. The temple’s organist, Niels Nilson, also happened to be head of the Galveston District’s Personnel Office—today known as Human Resources. He told Alperin about USACE needing to produce written histories of its districts and divisions for the upcoming U.S. bicentennial. Alperin had been recently unemployed after her funding source at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurology was discontinued. Nilson suggested Alperin talk to the district’s historical committee about it.
“I knew almost nothing about the Corps or engineering, but I agreed to talk to them,” said Alperin, whose background was in literature and history. She talked to the district’s chief of procurement and supply about the project, but had some initial doubts as to whether she was right for the job. After some further thought, Alperin made a proposal.
“I said to them, ‘Let me go to the district library, see what I find, and I’ll see if I can do it.’”
Alperin perused the archives for about a month and began to find herself pleasantly surprised with the information they contained.
“I was so fascinated by the letters the District Engineers sent to [Washington] D.C., that I agreed to do it,” she recalled.
And with that spark of newfound interest in the Corps, Alperin signed a contract and began researching, interviewing, and digging through files for the next four years.
Alperin had never worked for the government before. As a newly minted USACE historical contractor, she was going to need some help in translating all the “Corps speak.”
“It was like a foreign language,” she said about all the new acronyms and abbreviations she had to learn. However, being around engineers and their technical way of communicating wasn’t too much of a stretch for Alperin, who spent time editing medical texts before working for USACE. “I found that I really liked working with the engineers.”
There was no shortage of help when it came to writing Custodians of the Coast. Many Galveston employees would come to her aid, including: A.B. Davis, who guided her through the whole process; and Polly Young, the personnel secretary who typed the clean copy of the book “several times,” according to Alperin.
“The entire District was interested in the book, which made it really nice,” Alperin said.
Alperin even traveled to Baltimore, Md., and met with historians in the Chief of Engineers’ Office of History to gain some more insight for her writing. She also searched the National Archives seeking information to add to the book. The endless aisles of boxes at the archives were intimidating, Alperin recalled.
“I took one look at all those boxes and said to Jesse Remington, the chief historian, ‘May I go home now?’” Though she spent only a few hours digging through the archives, she did manage to find several interesting and relevant historical documents to support her story.
Labor of love
Writing and putting the book together was no easy feat in the days before computers.
“This was all done on a typewriter with much revision,” she said.
On top of writing roughly 280 pages of text, Alperin also had to write an extensive bibliography. As luck would have it, that same year the Chicago Manual of Style—the most widely used writing style guide at the time—changed their bibliographic format. “I had to go back and redo all of it,” she said wincing at the thought.
Besides writing the content, Alperin meticulously looked through files and old photos for the best images to accompany her words.
Once the writing was done, it was time to lay out the format. “I laid out the book myself,” she said. “It’s a cut-and-paste preparation that must be done sending it to the printer.” The tedious procedure of “imposition” saw her cropping images and sizing fonts with nothing but her hands, scissors, and glue: a process now done with software.
Printing the book was eventful. “I was getting ready to take it to Dallas to meet with the Government Printing Office personnel, when a hurricane formed suddenly in the Gulf,” Alperin said. With a major storm looming, she rushed to Hobby Airport to get to Dallas and just made it in the nick of time. She was very distressed when the airport confiscated her scissors, which she insisted were “government property.” She spent that weekend cutting and pasting in the Driscoll Hotel after borrowing scissors from the reception desk.
“We had our exciting moments for sure,” Alperin smiled.
Researching the book brought to light a lot of stories Alperin wasn’t expecting to find.
“I was excited about many things I learned writing the district’s history,” she said.
Alperin discovered a rogue’s gallery of interesting personalities and characters who once called the Galveston District home. People like Henry Martyn Robert, who spearheaded design of the Galveston Sea Wall, made for some fun reading, she said. Roberts also published Robert’s Rules of Order, which remains the go-to reference on how to conduct business in general and official assemblies.
Leslie Groves, an Army officer stationed at Galveston who would eventually work on the Manhattan Project and direct construction of the Pentagon, also gets a shoutout in Alperin’s book:
“In the middle of this decade [1920s], a young lieutenant was assigned to the Galveston District. Twenty years later, he would profoundly affect the course of world history. While attached to Galveston, Leslie R. Groves served a tour of duty on the Harrisburg quarterboat, for a duration considered ‘too long’ by the other men aboard the vessel. This man, who in 1942 was pegged to direct the development of an atomic bomb, was unsurpassed at getting the job done, but he lacked those qualities that would have endeared him to his fellow workers. One day he was out with a crew working in the bay when the weather became very rough. The captain of the vessel decided it would be wise to return to shore, but Groves disagreed and ordered him to keep on going. As the weather continued to worsen, the captain asserted that as long as they were afloat he was in command and that once they were safely ashore, Groves might exercise his authority. Whether Groves was more influenced by this line of reasoning or by the crew member who stood ready to throw him overboard remains questionable, but he did acquiesce.”
“It was really fun to humanize this story,” Alperin said.
Custodians of the Coast was published and debuted to much acclaim. In fact, the USACE Office of History praised it as one of its three favorite written histories of any district or division across the enterprise.
Throughout the process, Alperin was looking for the humanity in Galveston’s story. The human element, she said, gives the story character. She sums her philosophy to the book with a quote she came across recently: “Stories are the currency of our lives, the measures of our days.”
“People seem to like this book—I think—because that’s kind of the way I approach history,” she said.
Almost 55 years after Custodians of the Coast premiered, the book, its creation, and the slice of history it captured still evoke fond memories for Alperin.
“I was very proud of this book,” Alperin said with quiet sincerity. “It was my opus.”
After living on Galveston Island for nearly 60 years, she and her husband will be leaving Texas in the late spring.
True to form, it’s the people and the stories she’ll miss.
See 'Related Document' below for a digital copy of 'Custodians of the Coast.'
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