Do You Like Ike?

I visited Abilene to go to the Eisenhower Museum and Presidential Library.Eisenhower Museum seen through library entrance Abilene Nov 2009 When I think of Dwight David Eisenhower, I think first of termination and relocation, the Indian policy that was designed to move Indians from the reservation into urban life. It affected (afflicted?) a few tribes and was generally considered a failure by the 1960s, but I don’t believe the policy was reversed until the 1970s.

And when I think of Eisenhower, I think of his command of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and of NATO after the war. The other day, just as I was pondering what to write in this post, I came across this New York Times opinion, “How World  War II Wasn’t Won.” David P. Colley essentially blames Eisenhower for the Battle of the Bulge. Anyone out there agree? Disagree?

At Ike’s museum (much smaller than the library and in need of expansion, I think), I discovered his personal life. When he was courting Mamie Geneva Doud in 1915–1916 at Fort Sam Houston, Abilene Ike and Mamie Nov 2009Pancho Villa was raiding along the border. About 3 years earlier he had graduated from West Point, which he attended to get a free education and where he got lots of demerits.

As far as I could tell from the exhibits about his military career, he never saw combat until after he became a general in 1941. He was valued for his organizational and leadership skills.

Making sense of history, even the small slice of history presented in this one museum, is like braiding together several hanging threads. There’s the thread of the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library in Broomfield, where I live. There’s the thread of her hats, Abilene Ike's museum Mamie's hats Nov 2009which remind me of my grandmother, Dode. There’s the fact that Mamie attended a finishing school in Denver.

Those details are unimportant to anyone but me—they help me place her history in the context of my life and thus help me remember it.

I went to the museum twice, late Sunday afternoon and Monday morning. Even so, I couldn’t manage to absorb it all. I watched a film about D-Day that made me cry. I discovered that Eisenhower built the interstate system Abilene Ike's museum Interstate exhibit Nov 2009in part because of a work-related trip he took across the United States after World War I. He said then that the roads needed improvement.

When I think of the interstate system, I think of how it encouraged the car culture and sprawl and discouraged the use of public transportation. I think of how it damaged the economies of small towns, many of whom are struggling to come back now. And, of course, I think of how I use it on a regular basis. It’s good to know that it was a response to the bad roads of interwar America.

A few more random notes from the museum:

1. Mamie like to stay in bed all morning, reading and writing letters.

2. Eisenhower was elected president at age 63. He had a heart attack and stroke while in office.

3. Abilene is located at the confluence of the Smoky Hill River and Turkey Creek. Until 1860, the area was a hunting ground for various Indian tribes.

4. As part of the exhibit, “Ike’s Abilene, 1890–1910,” you can hear him telling stories. His voice is slow and gravelly.

5. Ike and Patton visited Gotha concentration camp after the end of the war in Europe. That part of the exhibit mentions the deaths of 11 million Jews. (At least, that’s what I wrote down. Perhaps that number also included Russian prisoners of war, for example.)

6. Eisenhower founded People to People, an ambassador program for ordinary people. The museum said it was headquartered in Kansas City, but the website gives an address in Spokane, Washington.

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After I left the museum Monday, I ate lunch at Kirby House in downtown Abilene. Abilene Kirby House exterior Nov 2009Although Abilene’s downtown is smaller and less nice than Salina’s just a few miles to the west, it seems more real. Abilene downtown WB Auto adjusted Nov 2009It has more shops that cater to people’s everyday needs instead of a bunch of cutesy tourist traps.

I was delighted to learn about Rivendell Bookstore, but it was closed.Abilene Rivendell bookstore Nov 2009

Kirby House is on 3rd Street, a block off the main drag. It’s beautiful from the outside and quite a sight on the inside. I assume it has been restored to approximate the period (1885), so all I can say about the room in which I ate lunchAbilene Kirby House room 1 Nov 2009 is that it puts the Brown Palace in Denver to shame. Perhaps the crazy patterns motivated the couple next to me to blather all through my lunch. Finally I got up to take pictures in self-defense.

I had vegetarian quiche (sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, Swiss cheese) with a salad and coconut-walnut bread. Abilene Kirby House salad and quiche Nov 2009The bread was toasted and had a slightly sweet flavor, as did the celery seed dressing on the salad. If you want a light(er) meal, I recommend the Kirby House. There aren’t too many other places to eat in Abilene: the Brookville Hotel, near the Holiday Inn Express north of I-70, has been serving family-style chicken since 1915, and Mr. K’s Farmhouse offers such entrees as chicken fried steak, stir-fry, pan-fried catfish, and jumbo fantail shrimp.

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Besides the Eisenhower complex, Abilene offers the C. W. Parker Carousel, Lebold and Seelye Mansions, American Indian Art Center (quite small from the outside), Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad (3 months of the year), and several other museums. The Museum of Independent Telephony closed just as I got there at 3, so I tried the Greyhound Hall of Fame instead.Abilene Greyhound Hall of Fame exterior Nov 2009

The Talented Mr. Ripley was old and didn’t much enjoy being petted, despite the ads encouraging me to do just that. Abilene Greyhound Mr Ripley Nov 2009I had mixed feelings about this museum, mostly because of the annoying video that played endlessly while I was trying to enjoy the exhibits in the central hall.

If you’re a fan of greyhounds, however, by all means visit. The woman at the front desk said Mr. Ripley is more energetic and friendly in the mornings, and the other dog was comfortable with visitors. After watching a film, you can peruse the historical panels Abilene Greyhound skeleton Nov 2009and find your favorite racer in the hall of fame.

I didn’t know, for example, that greyhounds were one of the first dogs to be selectively bred (as sight hounds), or that the Celts sacked Delphi in 600 BC (from the discussion of Irish wolfhounds), or that greyhounds could be owned only by the rich at certain points in history, or that there are two greyhound tracks along the front range (Cloverleaf Kennel Club in Loveland and Mile High–Wembley Park in Commerce City).

Sometimes I wonder why I seek out these tiny museums. Inevitably, all the minutiae fritzes my brain, but then the next one entices me. I suppose it’s the joy of discovery—each museum, even the last in a long string of tiny historical museums, has something I can’t find anywhere else.

Perhaps it has to do with getting older, and watching my father age, and realizing that no matter how many of his stories I write down, I will never know the entirety of his life. I can’t even remember my entire life. Perhaps postmodernism was right to privilege ludic deconstruction over summation, wholeness, the real story. So I go to these museums and look for some fact that makes me smile.

That’s a Virgo’s idea of play.