34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower farm (October 5, 2008)
You can't always connect with a president from visiting their home -- you can guess what they were like, but in the case of the really old guys, they grew up in a totally different era. Anyone who never enjoyed indoor plumbing will always be a bit of an enigma to anyone who did. The modern guys, though, are a little different.
That's the home of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower in Gettysburg, Pa., the one place they were actually able to settle down after years of globetrotting in defense of the free world and that sort of thing. Ike liked the area (he was stationed there early in his career plus he was a Civil War buff), it wasn't too far from Washington, and he had friends who lived nearby, so they bought a few hundred acres. It's modest, kind of charming, and straight out of the 1950s. Me and my (pretending to be sullen) friends stopped in, and I'm happy to report: It's your grandparents' house. Or it would be, if your granddad had personally defeated Hitler.
You get there via shuttlebus from the Gettysburg battlefield visitors center, and if you're lucky (like me and my friends) you'll get a briefing from one particular park ranger on your arrival. He won't tell you much about the Eisenhowers, but first, after asking every single person in the tour group where they are from and trying to make small talk about each location, he will relate a story from 1961, when his parents finally decided to "introduce him to the American Civil War." Apparently, this is a decision all parents make, like when to have the sex talk or explaining that you're adopted. Driving to the battlefield in an Impala they passed Eisenhower's driveway, his dad proudly barked (and the ranger does the voice), "That's where General Eisenhower lives!" As an 11-year-old, he did not appreciate how momentous this occasion was at the time. If you're bored by this story, please bear in mind that we had about an hour to visit the house before we had to catch the bus back, and my blood pressure went up about 20 points with each minute. The highlight was the ranger asking a question of my roommate:
RANGER: In 1961, something happened, and Eisenhower became just like you and me, do you know what that is?
MICHAEL: Why don't you tell me.
And then I had a rage-induced stroke. It was awesome! Once you're inside the house, things are much better. They give you a brief orienation speech in the living room -- probably the least lived-in room of the house (Eisenhower found it "stuffy") but the one filled with all the gifts Ike got as president or was able to loot from Nazi treasure troves. And it still has the old folks touch: there's a baby grand piano with a ton of pictures on top of the closed lid. It made me laugh.
After that you get a brochure and you're turned loose (within reason, you can't try on Mamie's bathrobe). It's a big house, it's not a luxurious mansion by any stretch. There are a few guest rooms, and a nice dining room, but beyond that it's all functional: smallish bedrooms, normal bathrooms, cushy den chairs with afghans draped over the back and that sort of thing. Their favorite room of the house was the back porch: white cushions on the furniture, a driftwood lamp, and most important, the radiation box.
Ike and Mamie liked TV, and why not? After commanding NATO for a few years and ruling the free world, why not relax for an hour or two a night? Together, they watched "I Love Lucy" (the cast came to the White House for a state dinner); Ike watched Westerns; and Mamie loved soaps. Apparently, she enjoyed "As the World Turns" so much that if she couldn't watch, she had a Secret Service agent take notes on the episode.
You can also spot the easel in the corner where Ike liked to paint. And he wasn't bad! He did paintings of his grandkids, landscapes, and flowers ... not what you'd expect from a guy who in his spare time liberated Europe from the iron grip of fascism. Mamie has her flourishes all over the house, too: The upstairs bathroom and the master bedroom are pink (her favorite color); the wallpaper in the entrance hall is a pattern she picked out of a catalog that has the seals of all 48 states and the territory of Hawaii (though as First Lady she was able to get a customized color scheme more to her liking); there's a kitchen she almost never used (Ike was the better cook, she said she could only make mayonaise and fudge).
There are some historical points. Eisenhower recovered from a mid-preisdency heart attack in the home, making it a temporary White House of sorts; he had a very tiny office off his den where he got the first calls about Gary Powers being shot down over Russia. (VERY tiny -- it's a mud room, but with two book shelves and a replica of George Washington's desk, and it was the de facto Oval Office. He signed bills in a mud room. Crazy). All the books around the house were owned by Eisenhower, and the guy had a taste for paperback Westerns, among other things.
If all that isn't enough for you, the place was a functioning cattle ranch and farm, and apparently a pretty good one. Like fellow ranch-owner LBJ a few years later, Eisenhower would take visitors (everyone from Churchill to Nehru) out to tour the stables, or work in the fields -- whatever tickled their fancy (in Churchill's case, getting drunk and shooting at Civil War reenacters). Eisenhower would poke his favorite steer in the butt with a shotgun until it stood up, a display that apparently became very popular among guests and very unpopular with the Secret Service, which had to study ways to apply sleeper holds on Angus cattle. The view here is from inside the no-longer-fucntional show barn.
It's a pretty spread, with mountains or rolling hills in every direction. A special treat for any visitor to the farm would have been a stop by the outdoor cage where Eisenhower kept the captive Adolph Hitler.
The story spread to the public was that Hitler had committed suicide in a bunker as the Allies approached Berlin, and that his body was recovered by Russians who secretively hauled it back to the Soviet Union. But in fact, Eisenhower managed to arrange the capture of the German leader, who was then held in this simple pen not far from the show barn. High-ranking visitors could squirt Hitler with a hose, yell names at him, blast non-stop klezmer music or force him to wrestle Eisenhower's prize cattle. Also, Mamie had his moustache dyed pink.
Not many things make me laugh to the point of tears, but this concept did. You are probably scratching your head, and this is why the tentative title of my autobiography is, "I Guess You Had to Be There." Regardless, the Eisenhower farm is astoundingly neat.
FUN EISENHOWER FACTS!
Smallville (May 9, 2010)
Childhoods matter. If you grew up in this tiny house ...
... with eight other people, you'd be a logistical genius too. Figuring out supply issues for the house's only bathroom, Dwight Eisenhower undoubtedly acquired the skills that allowed him a far more ambitious amphibious adventure years later. And if that photo isn't enough to convince you, Eisenhower himself always copped to the importance of his upbringing. Getting a hero's welcome in New York, he made sure to plug Abilene: "I'm just a Kansas farm boy who did his duty."
It wasn't much of a farm, though. Abilene was a cow town -- Bill Hickok was a marshall, back in the day. The Eisenhower property was under 3 acres, on the wrong side of the tracks (literally, you can throw a rock and hit the tracks) and just a few blocks from main street. They had the house, a barn (now gone), a garden and a few other outbuildings -- enough to stay self-sufficient but not exactly Mount Vernon. Dad worked for a creamery and mom kept the house.
But they did right by their kids! Usually with a family that size, you're going to have a few duds. Someone is going to rob a bank, or kill a hooker, or end up as the bass player in a tribute band. Not the Eisenhowers -- Dwight was a great general, Milton became a super-wonk and university president, and the rest seemed to have pretty decent lives. They were hell-bent on education; Dwight actually worked out a deal with his brother Edgar, where they'd take turns going to college and working to pay for that college. Edgar went to school first; Dwight got a job at the creamery. He eventually let Edgar off the hook by going to West Point, which was free. Me, I'd force a sibling to work in a sewer if it meant keeping things square, because I am a jerk. But that's what made Dwight great.
It really was an All-American upbringing, between the farm chores and the public schooling and playing baseball and football with his brothers in the yard. Everyone had to take piano lessons (the piano is in the parlor) and there was a healthy midwestern smattering of Jesus. Most important, they loved their momma -- when Ida died in 1946, the brothers all got together to preserve the house as a museum of their parents; it's the reason you can still visit it today. Love your momma hard enough, and Hitler is toast. USA! Some of the details of Eisenhower's youth actually line up with Truman's -- they grew up just 150 miles apart in similar cultures -- so it's sort of surprising that they ended up hating each other. History is hilarious that way.
Abilene isn't just about the house (which takes about five mintues to see). Eisenhower never came back there to live after leaving for West Point, but it had enough of a place in his heart that he put his library there, thereby assuring that generations of nerds would bolster the local economy by flocking there with research requests in hand. The home is part of a campus now, so once you wrap up there you're just a short stroll from a museum dedicated to Dwight. And I gotta say: meh.
It's not bad, since it walks you chronologically through his very interesting life. But it's just not personal enough. The WWII section is huge, but it's more of a blow-by-blow accounting of the major battles. You can get that anywhere. It's nice to know that the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had some ideas about attacking the Nazis from the north; but it's fascinating to know that Ike did not like Monty, considered him a glory hog, hated most of his plans and ultimately had a very hard time controlling him. That strained relationship had profound effects on the course of the war and thousands of lives, but you won't learn about it in the museum.
Another example: most of the Mamie section is about the dresses she wore. That's fun, to some extent, but not as intriguing as how she handled wandering the globe and years-long separations from her husband. They have every surviving letter that Dwight wrote, about 300 feet away in the library; it's not like they don't have access to this sort of info. The museum can do better (like the Truman and Ford libraries). But on the positive side, they did have Ike's staff car! VROOM! VROOM!
I also sort of liked seeing his inaugural suit, a recreation of his post-presidency office at Gettysburg College, the class ring he used to propose to Mamie, and the severed head of Joseph Goebbels. But whether you like the museum or not, you can get some closure, since Dwight and Mamie are resting nearby. There's a little chapel set up -- the sign says it's a "place of meditation" -- and even with its distinctly 1970s feel I liked it. The happy couple (and a son who died very young) are under simple slabs, set a bit below floor level. There's a fountain and some flowers, and the walls have a few quotes from the general about humility and the need for peace. If you want you can sit in a pew at the back of the building, where light comes in through some simple stained-glass windows. There's a constant hum of climate control to go with the fountain noise, but you can definitely park it for a few minutes and meditate, assuming gum-snapping teenage girls don't come in and start texting while you contemplate one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. If those girls depress you, never fear. You can also drive down Buckeye Street a few blocks, to contemplate at the interesting mural of Eisenhower on the side of a building. Your meditation will be helped by the fact that the building is a liquor store.