Monday, July 23, 2012

Dwight David Eisenhower

Most of us are too young to remember that when Dwight David Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 his fans wore buttons saying "I like Ike".
The Old Man just finished reading Stephen E. Ambrose's biography Eisenhower, Soldier and President. The Old Man chose to read this book for many reasons. First, if you want to be good and great, read about the lives of the good and great. Second, the Old Man likes military history. Third, the life of Dwight David Eisenhower was like that of the Old Man's own father and grandfather.

Both the Old Man's father and grandfather were lifelong career military officers. James Madison Pearson, the grandfather, was born the same year as Eisenhower, 1890. Eisenhower was born in Denison, then a small town in Texas, but grew up in Abilene, Kansas. The grandfather was born in Dadeville, Tallapoosa County Alabama and grew up in Montgomery. After World War I, both of them spent most of their adult careers waiting for the next war. In 1941, when war arrived, Eisenhower, who missed out on the action in World War I, was ready for action. The grandfather, who fought in France, was now the father of three young girls. He had his fill of death. So, he remained stateside, commanding Fort Dix, New Jersey, a major staging area for soldiers going into combat and where German prisoners were kept stateside.

Both men lost their first born sons to disease at an early age. In 1920, Eisenhower's son Icky died from scarlet fever. In 1922, the grandfather's son William died during an influenza epidemic. One never gets over the death of a child and one always assumes that the death was preventable. Naturally, the parent assumes some part of the blame. This was the case for both Eisenhower and the grandfather. The Old Man heard stories later about the depression that set in after the young son's death. How someone can cope with such tragedy, the Old Man can only imagine.

To the Old Man, Eisenhower is a physical reminder of his own father. Both were a similar height and build. Both were trim and physically active. Both were balding and yet unbothered by the fact. In a crowd, both men would seem average in appearance. They stood out because of their confidence and demeanor. The Old Man's father served in the Pacific as first a platoon leader in the Philippines, and later, in post war Japan. It is unlikely that he crossed paths with the older Eisenhower because of age, rank, and distance.

The good and the great all possess similar characteristics. First, is a love of humanity. Second, is a natural curiosity about the world. And, third, is the confidence and will to want to make a difference. Of all Eisenhower's attributes, the one most recognized was his ability to lead men, both in war and peace. Good leaders do not become bad because they make mistakes. The Good Lord knows that we all make our share of mistakes. No, good leaders are good because they have the self-confidence to respond to the situation. This self confidence is born of the fact that leaders are smarter than other men, they know more, have studied and read more, understand and think things through. And when they make decisions they project an air of confidence that that can be felt by others.

Historians have been unkind to Eisenhower as president, but history will, in time, will recognize him as one of the greatest. He kept us out of war, a remark that can be said of few modern day presidents. And the opportunities for conflict were perhaps greater during his eight years of office than at any other time since World War II - China, Korea, Berlin, Greece, Turkey, Vietnam, Algeria, Egypt. At one time or another all of these regions were flashpoints at which the war hawks were demanding the United States intervene by force. Eisenhower chose wisely to use diplomacy and patience to handle the situation. Eisenhower knew from his experiences in Europe during World War II that aggression is met by an ever accelerating aggression, unless a cooler head prevails.

In war and peace, Eisenhower lived by three precepts: never fight unless you have to; never fight alone; and never fight for long. It was a concept he learned early in life from a mentor, General Fox Connor, a man the Old Man's grandfather also served with on the battlefields of France. In Eisenhower's presidency, this advice kept him out of China, allowed him to settle the Korean conflict without resort to the use of atomic weapons, accepted Berlin as a divided city and not a casus belli, armed and fed Greek and Turkish citizens in their own struggles for Independence from communism, scolded France for its continuing colonial occupation of other countries, and even took the side of Arabs and Gamal Abdul Nasser in the Middle East when the British, French, and Israelis decided to go to war over the Suez Canal. Eisenhower knew that hearts and minds are won not with war but with ideas. For this reason he was a proponent of the Marshall Plan to feed and help a struggling post war Europe. He recognized that foreign aid paid more dividends to the United States than it cost. He knew that paying attention to our own infrastructure, building the interstate highway system, would benefit the American people. He was also a fiscal conservative who believed that a strong economy demanded a balanced budget. It is no wonder that it was said at his death that "Everyone likes Ike."

Oh, if only modern day presidents would follow this advice.

Friday, July 6, 2012

George Champlin Sibley

I envy the explorers, the first men who saddled up, rode out and explored new lands and people. They knew not what they would find and what dangers they would face.

George Champlin Sibley (April 1, 1782- January 31, 1863) was one of the lesser known explorers of the American West. He was born in Massachusetts, but spent time growing up in Rhode Island and North Carolina. In 1808, through friends such as William Clark and connections to Thomas Jefferson, he got a job as factor at Fort Osage on the frontier of western Missouri, near present day Kansas City, Missouri. In 1821, the Mexican War of Independence opened up trade between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Missouri. Charles Bicknell is credited with being the first to establish trade, hazarding both the difficult passage, the weather and the Indians along the way.

Because of the many Indian tribes hunting and living on the route, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton petitioned Congress to survey the Santa Fe Route and establish treaties with the Indians guaranteeing safe passage. And, in 1825, because of his experience with the Osage Indians near Kansas City, George Champlin Sibley was put in charge. The task lasted two years.

So it was, that I crossed paths with George Champlin Sibley on Old Highway 81, just south of Elyria, Kansas. Near here, on August 16th, 1825, Sibley met with Son-Ja-Inga and other Kaw Indian chiefs.

Dry Turkey Creek

The site for the treaty was under an oak tree along the Dry Turkey Creek. The location is south of the Santa Fe Trail by a mile or so and about 37 miles from the Kaw Indian village. It was chosen because, in a mostly treeless prairie, this was one of the few spots where a grove of trees managed to escape the prairie fires that swept the plains.That there was an oak tree is all the more remarkable, for cottonwoods, cypress, and mulberries were the hardier stock that eked out a living along the creeks.

Grass near Dry Turkey Creek

Monchousia by Charles Bird King, image from Wikipedia

The Kaw were a distant branch of the mighty Sioux Nation. They had established a village on the Kansas River at present day Manhattan. Their living came primarily from hunting the buffalo and trading with French traders.

In 1822, President Monroe had a delegation of seventeen Native Americans visit Washington. Charles Bird King was hired to paint portraits of the delegation members. Monchousia, one of the delegates, wears a colorful turban, wampum necklace, mollusk shell earrings, and a peace medal given to the delegation by Monroe. Although Monchousia was not present at the 1825 meeting with Sibley, he prominently figured in many Kaw Indian matters.

As I said, I envy the excitement that Sibley must have felt meeting with the Kaw Indians. The clash of cultures must have been eye-popping for one used to houses, roads, and "refined living". It is the chance to test oneself against the elements that we aspire to. Truly living means to get away from civilization. What better way than to experience the thrill of the buffalo hunt, the danger of the prairie fire, and the vastness of the plains which stretched on to the horizon.

Then reality sets in. George Sibley, speaking of the practicalities of travel, described it this way:
"... with difficulty and embarrassment, arising chiefly from the annoyance of the green flies of the Prairies, which obliged the Party to travel much in the Night, frequently leaving the direct route in order to find Shelter from the flies during the day, in the Small groves that are Seen here and there Scattered like little green Islands."
And anyone today who has felt the annoying bite of the tic and chigger in the tall grass, the painful irritation of brushing against stinging nettle along the banks of a creek, or the swelling that comes from contact with poison ivy that populates the verge between forest and field, knows that travel can be down right discomforting.