Sunday, August 4, 2013

President Eisenhower, Wild Bill Hickok, a Little Girl, and Some Bees

Mack Hall, HSG

President Eisenhower, Wild Bill Hickok, a Little Girl, and Some Bees

Corn.  Lots of corn in Kansas.  Kansas bills itself as The Sunflower State, but truly there is much more corn, corn for humans and for animals, and for clotting the innards of our cars and other machinery.  Cornyhol, or whatever it’s called, is about as useful in a gas tank as a sandwich.  Not so long ago, adulterating gasoline was a crime; now it is mandatory.  Corn is food, and corn from Kansas helps feed the world.  Cars don’t much like it, though.

Abilene is famous as one of the Old West shoot-‘em-up towns and as the boyhood home of President Eisenhower.  Ike’s mother died shortly after World War II, and the house was immediately taken over by a foundation.  Nothing about it is a reconstruction; it is as it was in 1947 and much as it was a century ago.  The docent on the occasion of our little group’s visit was a cranky old man with that flat, annoying Midwestern voice one associates with cranky old people from Iowa and Illinois, and he and another cranky old man with a flat, annoying Midwestern voice disagreed with each other and got into a flat, annoying Midwestern voiced so-there match, which was an entertaining conclusion to our tour of the Eisenhower home.

The second flat, annoying Midwestern voice belonged to the owner of a Studebaker Avanti, one of the most elegant cars ever made, and he was happy to show it off to Texans.  Yes, it bore Illinois plates.

President Eisenhower’s home, museum, library, fake chapel (much confusion about what Ike believed in matters spiritual), and gift shop occupy beautiful grounds in what used to be a residential neighborhood.  One wonders what authority urged or required everyone else to move in order for their homes to be demolished and replaced with the complex.  The concept of people being forced to move from their homes so that a monument to freedom could be built would be ironic.

The Eisenhower museum features an excellent collection of exhibits from the early 19th century until the death of Ike in 1969.  The World War II displays by themselves would make a stand-alone museum for the interested amateur and for the professional historian.  All sort of objets d’morte have found their way to the plains: a Norden bombsight, an Enigma machine, the uniform of a soldier from Toronto, maps, charts, models, firearms, Ike’s Army Cadillac, a Jeep with the hog-catcher up front, an armored car, personal items that soldiers carried, some personalized writing-paper that Hitler doesn’t need any more, and on and on.  The exhibits feature Canadian, English, French, German, and Russian gear, and memorabilia from the home front.

There are numerous photographs and paintings, and four statues: one each of a British, an American, a Russian, and a German soldier, not in heroic poses but as weary 19-year-olds during a pause in the fighting:  the Tommy, in desert kit, drinks from his canteen while keeping his Number 1, Mark III Lee-Enfield ready.  A close inspection of the rifle reveals that it is a real Lee-Enfield, covered with thick white paint.  You don’t suppose the curators also mummified a real Tommy, do you?

The Russian soldier, glorious in his Hercule Poirot-ish moustaches and wearing something like a carpet on his head, gazes searchingly into the distance, perhaps thinking about Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov.

The American soldier drinks from his canteen cup (Betty Grable for him), while the German soldier smokes a cigarette and sneers at the other fellows. 

The 1950s exhibits, too, would make a museum in themselves: television sets and Mixmasters in pastel colors, a living room featuring the subdued colors, horizontal stone facings, and modern (for the time) furniture and lighting and bric-a-brac, and kinescopes of The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Howdy Doody, and Lucy flickering on the television in the corner.

There are grimmer sets and models: a fallout shelter and guided missiles, and an old Constellation airliner.  Eisenhower was the first president to be lavished with his own airplane for unnecessary look-at-me-and-the-stuff-I-got travels and his own helicopter for trips to the golf course, and these extravagances, more appropriate for a raja or an oil sheik than for an American, set an unfortunate example for subsequent leaders.  When we vote ourselves a president who will sell off these expensive toys and get down to the business of serving the people, we will know the country has begun to right itself.

President Eisenhower, his wife Mamie, and a child who died young are entombed in the not-a-chapel, and the reek of decay reflects poorly on a nation that owes much to Ike.  Even poor Private Eddie Slovik rests in more dignity than this.  In the gift shop one can buy cute tee-shirts and posters and made-in-China trinkets, but only a few steps away the stench of the remains of a president fouls the air. 

A street away from the Eisenhower grounds the old Rock Island railway station still stands, and fronting it is a bogus “western” street.  One building is advertised as “Hickok’s Cabin,” and the inside is fitted out as a jail.  A charming little girl wearing a Little House on the Prairie costume and speaking as rapidly as Anne of Green Gables cautioned me several times that there was a swarm of bees on the back door and so I should stay away from the bees because bees are good but they will sting you if you get near them and that’s a really big swarm and it wasn’t there yesterday but it’s there today and the bees will sting you if you go near the back door because they’re at the back door so you should stay away from the back door where the bees are. 

And I did.

And we left Abilene, which is rather a nice little town, and sped north through the cornfields.


The Little Bighorn and a Pocket Knife

Mack Hall, HSG

The Little Bighorn and a Pocket Knife

One of the most poignant artifacts to be seen at the museum / gift shop / ticket booth / visitors’ center at the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is an ordinary pocket knife with a yellow bone handle.  Although buried for decades, it looks as if a little penetrating oil and a few turns with an Arkansas stone could set it right.

This knife, in style similar to the modern stockman or congress, reposes beneath glass along with another pocket knife, buttons, a wedding ring, watch parts, coins, pipes, combs, and other personal items of the sort carried by men in 1876 and now.  All these things, and thousands more, have over the years been discovered in the earth of grassy hills which, except for one terrible day in 1876, have always enjoyed quiet and relative isolation.

In a battlefield museum one expects to see weapons, uniforms, and other bits of militaria, but the non-reg gear reminds us that battles are not fought by keyboard commandos, recruiting posters, or propped and padded geriatric actors with bad wigs and obsequious staffs, but by 19-year-olds who miss their moms and dads.

This pocket knife was probably carried by an ordinary soldier, a private or a corporal.  Sure, it might have been owned by an officer or by any of the lads who won the day; after all, in 1876 many of the Cheyenne and Sioux carried far more modern rifles than the government-issue, and a man who could buy or trade for a good new Henry repeater could also buy a good American or English pocket knife.  But the chances are this knife was owned by a trooper, a G.I.

No man is fully dressed without his pocket knife.  A soldier now known but to God used his good little pocket knife to work his horse harness, repair clothing and equipment, skin and gut small critters, cut his food, cut a fishing pole, sharpen a pencil, open a letter from home, cut rope and string, open boxes, dig for splinters, clean his teeth and fingernails, clean a fish, shape wood, and split kindling, and for therapy whittle a stick around the evening campfire while having a smoke and talking with his messmates. 

And then one day our soldier, exhausted and terrified, was killed in an hour of racket and chaos, along with lots of other young men, both Yanks and Indians, because an American government decided that a treaty between two nations meant only what the president thought it should mean on any given day.

And so our soldier’s pocket knife, along with D-rings, tobacco pouches, shell casings, eyeglasses, belt buckles, arrowheads, horseshoes, and saloon tokens, was left in the soil of Montana.  So were the bone, blood, and flesh of the soldier.

It’s a nice knife.  Useful.  Modest.  None of the “tactical” gimcrackery so fashionable just now.  It’s a knife for honest work, not for show, though our soldier must have been proud of it.  He made a good, sensible purchase at the sutler’s or in a hardware store all those years ago. 

Too bad his leaders, both in Washington and on the ground in Montana, couldn’t have made similarly sensible choices.