It was a changing America that Richard L. Strout found on his cross-country odyssey 40 years ago. What we now call the Sunbelt was experiencing the influx of wartime industry and its effect on local traditions and mores. Vast tracts of mobile homes sprouted near defense factories. Mechanization on America's farms was proceeding apace - a trend that would turn the United States into the world agricultural giant it is today. Yet another generation of Americans was coming face to face with Europe - with Britons training for war in the United States. The nation's young men were again having to cope with the issue of the draft.

In some cases, the changes were two-edged. While mechanization of agriculture fed the nation's people and industry more efficiently and inexpensively, it threw many farm laborers out of work. And the changes in America had yet to erase the images of poverty and dispare etched into the faces of many Americans by the depression and the dust bowl. Some of these economic refugees found their way to the new jobs opening around the country. Others were forced to wring out a living any way they could - wherever their job-bound autos ran out of gas. Last of three articles

You are standing beside the brick administration building at a Southern primary aviation school, and a line of men is drawn up smartly before you and the sun is sinking. Standing with you is the administrative officer, a reserve lieutenant who has been snatched from his law practice to give some idea of military discipline to potential American flyers. But these youngsters aren't Americans, they are Britishers, Englishmen, dropped suddenly into the lap of this commandant, who was educated in this town and who has never been out of the South, and whose passionate loyalty to the region surpasses that of clansmen to their clans.

This commandant is already a bit put out by the young men under him, there is hardly a Southerner in the batch. ''Foreigners'' they are to him, from outside the South. He lets slip a comment on ''Yankees'' and apologetically alters it and then shrugs and helplessly wonders if Northerners can even understand the Old South. One of the young British cadets landed at Montreal a week ago and as innocent of American concepts and outlook as a babe, advances to you.

He advances straight forward, halts, brings his black British boot to a grinding click, snatches his right hand back to a side-of-the-head British salute, and waits before you and the embarrassed American lawyer-officer. You suddenly see that he is only a lad and recall, with a queer feeling, that 30 weeks hence he will be flying in mortal combat over Britain in the cockpit of a screeching Spitfire.

The commandant says ''At ease'' and introduces you; and when it is over and he is dismissed, the boy unexpectedly says, ''Well - Carry on, Sir!'' and marches off under his own power. He leaves you and the American officer a little uncertain who is to do the carrying on. And so the commandant suddenly has not only ''foreigners'' to contend with but Britishers, too. And he makes up his mind, as a Southern gentleman should, to see the job through, as Jeb Stuart would have done, or Marse Robert (Robert E. Lee) himself. He hopes his Southern boys will get the same treatment wherever they are, and is pretty sure they will.

Meanwhile, the new draft act has gone into effect. This queer, half-formed, impromptu Army of America is just finding itself. It is an odd army. In 1917 there was a declared war, there were patriotic slogans, speeches, bands, bunting; everybody stood up in the movies for the National Anthem. It is oddly prosaic today without fanfare, let alone a declaration of war. Selectees were told it would only last a year, and then the period was increased. He gets $21 a month for the first four months and then $30. Many Americans, even now, are not convinced that a real emergency exists. Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff, argues that there is now sufficient equipment for training purposes.

War industries have made acute housing shortages. At San Diego Mrs. Pauline Kensinger and Mrs. Elvira Eddy with their four children live in two medium-size two-wheel trailers. The government has sponsored the first experimental trailer community here at Consolidated Aircraft, with others to follow - 146 of these gray and silver affairs on one side of the park, comfortable ''San Diego Defense Dormitories'' for 680 single men on the other side - at $5 a week, or $3.50 if two share a room. The stiff palm leaves click overhead like porcupine quills.

''May I come in?'' I asked. They said I might. So many odd things had happened to them since they set up living in a government bus that the arrival of an out-of-town correspondent seemed comparatively trivial. They were young and merry. You could see it was a bit of a lark. Every once and while, Mrs. Elvira explained, she would catch her husband's eye and they would laugh for no good reason.

Where did the children sleep? In the other room.

The other room? Why yes . . . those closet doors came out and snapped together, dividing the diminutive apartment into two smaller sections. The kitchenette seats unfolded into a Pullman bed and the children slept there. The sofa came out into the other end of the trailer into a bed, too, for the grown-ups. There was a gasoline cooker, a sink, a small kerosene heater for winter and any spare space turned into ingenious drawers and closets. Outside the glorious California sky made all the outdoors your living room. Mrs. Elvira explained that her husband was a carpenter at Consolidated. Buddy was seven and Jerry would be six - tomorrow. There was one disappointment at the trailer though, she said. There wasn't enough electricity to ''pull'' a waffle iron though it would ''pull'' a toaster all right. . . .

I looked back as the screen door slammed behind me. Elvira Eddy's rubber-tired edifice sat under a palm tree which rustled in the breeze like a big feather duster. Outside it looked ridiculously small. . . . And yet, inside, it hadn't seemed so. I couldn't figure it out.

Two months before Pearl Harbor in 1941 America churned with preparedness, with shortages, and also with the poverty left over from the Great Depression and dust bowl. Eleven Mile Corner, Ariz.

The Reeds started out for California recently, but turned back. They burned out the carburetor of their 1932 Chevrolet and felt they couldn't risk the desert with a baby. Migratory farm labor averages about $1.50 a family at the cotton fields for a 14-hour day. Now they pause at the Farm Security Administration migratory labor camp here. Farm machinery has wiped out thousands of jobs. There are 1.5 million tractors in use in America now (six times as many as 1920) and nearly every one has pushed a family off a farm.

Any account of ''Inside America'' in this historic summer of 1941 must mention them, and migrants like the Reeds, and squatters' shacks, made of tins cans and plywood, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

''Hit was the droughts that finally dusted me, and after that I couldn't git a-holt,'' Ralph Neal tells me, a slim, quiet little man with a sun-baked neck. He looks like an etching by Thomas Benton. He married at 23 and has five children. As we talk we see a dingy old car plugging past, pulling a trailer filled with household goods, bedsteads, mattresses, a dog and other important matters, rolling along between the ranches, following the crop season. The temperature is 100 in the shade as you chop cotton in the San Joaquin Valley now , but the tops of the Sierra Nevadas are snow-capped. Ralph Neal tells me that the Bentonville, Ark., bank failed. He owned 50 acres and rented another 250. He lost the farm, sold most of his household goods, paid most of his debts, and had

''So I paid a feller $30 to git me to Arizony,'' he said. As I start to leave , he volunteers: ''There was a piece about me in a paper back East. Is there a paper called 'Life'? Yes, that's hit; I gis remembered the name. Five years ago come this fall.''

LLoyd Vye, assistant community manager at the government facility is surprised to learn that he has a celebrity in camp and says he will put a notice of it in the camp weekly. Junction, Ala.

Now we are waiting at a crossroads on a hot night in Alabama. There are 15 of us and we are silent and sullen. The Birmingham bus is an hour and 20 minutes late. . . . Saturday night traffic. This broken down sofa on which I sit, outside the one pump gasoline station, holds three men. The others look at it jealously. A girl inside sells soda pop.

Up the road, out of the dark, pushed by two Negroes, comes a battered Plymouth. They dig their toes in and when they reach the pump stand panting. We don't say anything. The girl comes out. There is a glass jar on top of the pump with an electric light on it and beetles zooming around. She pulls a lever back and forth slowly and the red rises in the jar. She fills it. Then the level slowly drops. One gallon. That's all. Twenty-one cents. No word is spoken; it might all be pantomime. Now it's time to start. One man sits inside and the other pushes. Now! There is a puff, an explosion. But it stops. A stage car could not hang fire so dramatically. Suddenly it begins to pop. The man swings in. It goes off, exploding noisly into the night, like a stuttering machine gun.

Nobody in our crowd laughs. Nobody comments. One-gallon customers are common. All Americans aren't prosperous, are they? Wonder when that bus will come? Shasta Dam, Redding, Calif.

I wish you could see this dam now. It may be completed in 1944. It is one of the breathtaking spectacles in America: set down in mountains, groined into bedrock amid manzanita bush, digger pine, and scrub oak. This is the old gold-rush country and you can still see men panning in the icy clear ripples further upstream. The gravel plant here has a gold-saving device.

Aluminum is probably, at this moment, more important than any other single metal in the world. After the war it will still be important. The agonizing race goes on between Hitler's armies and American engineers trying to get more electricity out of the waters. You can't have airplanes unless you have aluminum and you can't have aluminum unless you have power. There is a shortage of aluminum pots and pans at stores. There has been a collection of old aluminum all over the nation. Instead of a fancied annual requirement of 400 million pounds, the present goal is 1.4 million. This scarcity is an index of the rapid rate of expansion of the defense program, which seems to take the experts so by surprise. . . On board train, eastbound

I never knew a time when people would talk more willingly about public affairs. It reflects the national mood. America is making up its mind. You get the sense of it everywhere. It is like being in a room with a ticking parcel. America has seen its industrial life transformed, its sons taken to camp, its everyday life altered. . . . Silk stockings, and aluminum, and gasoline, and jobs. And now there is suspense. What will Roosevelt do? Will he take us in? It seems to be taken for granted that he can ''take us in.'' Not very much is said about Congress. Congress always tends to lose importance in national emergencies.

With Britain threatened, a good many Americans who scoffed at Wilson are now seriously wondering, for the first time, whether America can live apart from the rest of the world.

Could the United States, for example, watch Great Britain slowly strangled and without its fleet? It seems unlikely. So there the matter is. Maybe America will go on eating its cake.

Which side will win? That, I suspect, is the chief struggle that is going on now - Inside America.

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