Abilene, Kansas

December 31, 2006
Filed under Travel

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President Eisenhower is buried here at the Eisenhower Center, not far from the home where he and his six brothers grew up. He, his wife, Mamie, and their first-born son, Doud Dwight, are interred in the small “Place of Meditation.” Of course, the word “center” suggests a hub of some doings or another. And although the Eisenhower Library and Museum are here, it’s really a grand and sprawling park — 22 acres of well-kept lawns, wide sidewalks and big shade trees, offering the restful serenity you would expect on the Kansas prairie. The “Place of Meditation” appears as a small chapel, complete with a steeple. It was Eisenhower’s wish that there be an area for reflection and meditation, but the interment site is its focus. It’s framed on three sides with panels of travertine marble.

When I was there, late in the day, their mirror-like surfaces reflected the muted colors — projected by the sun — of the building’s stained-glass windows. Engraved on each panel are words taken from Eisenhower’s speeches. Some I shall not forget bear the date June 12, 1945. It was almost one year to the day — June 6, 1944 — when allied forces, under thecommand of General Eisenhower, crossed the English Channel for the invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe at Normandy Beach. Taken together, more than 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed or wounded in the Battle of Normandy.

Allied casualties alone totaled 209,000, which included 37,000 ground-force troops and close to 17,000 airbornetroops killed. On that day in 1945, the people of a grateful World War II ally were honoring General Eisenhower in London. He said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.” And in 1956, President Eisenhower said, “The only way to win World War III is to prevent it,” — words of a soldier, perpetuated here for eternity. Eisenhower got the nickname, “Ike,” when he lived here. His high-school yearbook identifies him as “Little Ike.”

His older brother Milton was called “Big Ike.” The nickname stuck with him, and was a definite asset in his two campaigns for the presidency. Who doesn’t remember the “I love Ike” slogan? (Exempting those, of course, who also don’t remember hula hoops, Sputnik I, the Edsel, Milton Berle, Mario Lanza, Senator Joe McCarthy and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.) Born in Denison, Texas, in 1890, Dwight D. Eisenhower grew up here in Abilene, almost in the exact center of the country. His father was foreman at the local creamery. He went to public school and then to the Military Academy at West Point.

From 1915 on he was a professional soldier. Ida and David Eisenhower raised their sons in the simple clapboard house here that the General would later remark had less floorspace than his office suite at the Pentagon. The family moved here when Ike was 8. Ida Eisenhower lived in it until her death in 1946 at age 84. Her sons gave the house, fully furnished and on its original site, to the Eisenhower Foundation. In 1996 it was given to the federal government. The Center is built around it. The house has three bedrooms. It had four, but in 1909 one was turned into a bathroom. So, for his last two years here, before leaving for West Point, Ike and his family had the luxury of indoor plumbing.

A docent at the house told me that Ida Eisenhower made 30 loaves of bread a week for her family. “There were usually nine around the table for dinner, as grandfather was here too,” she said. The clocks in the house, all original, still work. At least one was a wedding present given to the senior Eisenhowers. The Eisenhower Library and Museum are both massive, windowless buildings of native limestone. The Library is a repository and research center used mostly by academics. The museum depicts President Eisenhower’s life and career from his early childhood through his two terms in office as Chief Executive.

Five galleries include exhibits ranging from presidential gifts from the world’s heads of state, to highlights of Mamie Eisenhower as First Lady, to the simple artifacts of everyday life of the Fabulous Fifties. Abilene is off Interstate 70, 25 miles east of Salina. Though its name is of biblical origin, it was once one of the unholiest and wildest towns in the West. Its unsavory reputation grew along with the town, as hundreds of trail-hardened cowboys came through here between 1867 and 1872. They arrived on the historic Chisholm Trail, along with 3 million Texas longhorns that were headed east. Abilene was the rail hub for cattle from all over, but most came from Texas.

“Wild Bill” Hickok, whose deadly accuracy with two pistols was as legendary as his icy willingness to use them, was the town marshal in 1871. Hickok had been marshal elsewhere in Kansas, but after his stint in Abilene he hung up his badge and signed on to tour the East Coast for a couple years with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Abilene today, with a population of 6,500, is a pretty town with some things to see, besides the Center.

One is the Greyhound Hall of Fame, which celebrates a dog with a pedigree that goes back 4,000 years. Its displays of racing Greyhounds run from ancient times to the present. When I told the ladies working there that I traveled with a dog, they invited Rusty in. They even had a snack for her — Midwest hospitality wins both of us this time. Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, (877) RINGIKE, eisenhower.archives.gov

Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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