By Alan Axelrod
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Alan Axelrod
All rights reserved.
When he was 25, John Smith Bradley, a teacher at the Fairview School near Higbee, Missouri, fell in love with one his pupils, 16-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Hubbard. He married her on May 12, 1892, and, nine months later—to the day—Omar Nelson Bradley was born. It was, Bradley pointed out in his autobiography, Lincoln's birthday. He did not presume to push the coincidence of dates too far, but he did observe that he was born in the very place in which his parents had been married, the home of the Hubbards, "a crude three-room log house."
The point Bradley wanted to make was not that he was a second Lincoln, but that, like Lincoln, he was a rural Midwesterner, a boy of most humble origin who would rise to singular prominence. The point, in fact, was less about Lincoln or Bradley than it was about America, because only in America could boys such as these rise to prominence in the service of their country. The point was also about roots, about sturdy stock, about character, about good, noble, hard qualities that seemed to grow from the very soil of the heartland.
George Smith Patton Jr., who would serve with Bradley first as his senior and then as his subordinate, reveled in the role of spiritual heir to romantic Revolutionary and Civil War commanders, all chivalrous, well-heeled, and nobly self-sacrificing, whereas Bradley celebrated the grit and poverty of his decidedly common ancestors.
The Bradleys had come to Madison County, Kentucky, from the British Isles during the mid-1700s, then moved early in the nineteenth century to what would become Missouri, settling on small farms in the middle part of the state, near the agricultural village of Clark and the coal-mining town of Higbee. Bradley's grandfather, Thomas Minter Bradley, was a Confederate private who, after the war, married Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, daughter of a poor Clark farmer, and raised nine children, of whom the future general's father, born February 15, 1867, was the oldest. Sarah Elizabeth Hubbard, Omar Bradley's mother, called Bessie, came from a poor farming family in Clark, a background almost identical to that of her husband, except that her father had served in the Union Army.
John Smith Bradley was "the first Bradley to break out of the mold." He started out like everybody else, a sodbuster, but, after educating himself as far as he could, he enrolled in a local school and emerged just two years later qualified as a rural schoolteacher. "My father was a curious blend of frontiersman, sportsman, farmer and intellectual," Omar Bradley proudly observed. He was "powerfully built and fearless," the best marksman in Randolph County, who became a rural "pioneer in baseball," carving his own bats, teaching himself the art of the curve ball, and organizing a series of local teams—on which he was always the stand-out player. During the school year he taught, and in the summer he worked as a farmhand or sharecropper, but, whatever season, he always found time to read and to pass on his love of books to his family as well as to his students.
The portrait Bradley painted of his father was not larger than life. It was, rather, life size. Bradley saw his father as an extraordinary ordinary man. Molded of the Missouri soil, he broke out of the mold, and, in doing so, created the very mold from which his son was struck: a small-town athlete, a crack shot for whom baseball became a passion, a keen student, a soldier, a teacher of soldiers, and a leader of soldiers. Abraham Lincoln traveled far beyond his Kentucky and Illinois roots, but it is a key to the truth of the Lincoln mythology that he never really left those roots behind. So, too, with Bradley, whose career would take him a long way from rural Missouri, but not so far that he ever really left it behind. His first name may have evoked the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the exotic book of Persian verse universally popular in Victorian England and America via Edward Fitzgerald's translation, and his middle name Lord Horatio Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar. But they had, in truth, the home-liest of origins. Omar D. Gray was a local newspaper editor John Smith Bradley admired, and Nelson was "the name of a local doctor."
Before he turned four, Omar made way for two new additions to his family, seven-year-old Nettie and six-year-old Opal, the daughters of his mother's older sister, who succumbed to tuberculosis. In February 1900, when Omar was seven, Bessie Bradley gave birth to another boy of her own, Raymond Clavert, who died of scarlet fever just days before his second birthday.
* * *
Although Omar Bradley's youthful world was local, concentrated in and around Higbee, it was also peripatetic. As his father moved from one rural school to another, so Omar moved from school to school, and because the Bradleys could not afford a horse and buggy, he and his father walked to and from the classroom every day, father setting "a hearty pace—seventeen minutes to the mile." It was ideal preparation for military marching.
With the physical conditioning of a rigorous life lived largely on foot came a growth of mind and emotion. Omar often found the long march to and from school hard, but he relished the hours spent alone with his father, regarding them as an early lesson in leadership and morale. He learned to read very quickly, his father teaching him to devour books, especially history, and in particular accounts of the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the Civil War. Omar would act out whatever battle he read about, using dominoes to build forts on the parlor rug, hollow elder-berry reeds for artillery, and empty .22 cartridges to represent soldiers.
Omar Bradley had no shortage of "soldiers." Empty cartridges abounded in the Bradley household, as his father was an expert marksman with a .22 rifle as well as with a 12-gauge shotgun, which he used to bag "almost all the meat mother put on the table." John Smith Bradley gave his son a pump-action BB rifle when he turned six. The boy accompanied his father on hunting trips, and although he could not kill any game with a BB rifle, he learned how to walk with a hunter's stealth, and he learned how to handle a rifle competently, confidently, and safely. Off on his own, he would shoot frogs, which he contributed to the family's meals. Later, when Mr. Bradley presented his son with a Stevens .22 rifle, the boy felt he had achieved manhood. Yet it came with a lesson in humility. "I saw a squirrel in the top of a tree and signaled to my father. He went to the opposite side of the tree, forcing the squirrel to my side. As carefully as I knew how, I shot three times. The squirrel never moved." The senior Bradley examined the rifle and, discovering that the sights were out of line, he adjusted them, raised the weapon to his shoulder, turned to his son, and announced, "If I don't knock his eye out, something is very wrong with the sights." With that, he planted a single shot in the animal's right eye. "That was the last time I ever fired a rifle with the sights out of line," Bradley recalled. Firearms became a way of life for Omar Bradley, as important and as real as books.
When he was 12, the Bradleys moved into the town of Higbee itself so that Omar could attend the public school there. This meant that Mr. Bradley had to walk as much as seven miles each day, every day, to and from the rural schools in which he taught. To help pay for the house Mr. Bradley purchased at a sheriff's sale, Omar, his mother, Nettie, and Opal added to the family income by taking turns operating a switchboard for a 90-telephone rural system. The boy deeply appreciated the sacrifices that were being made to educate him, and he excelled at his classes in Higbee, earning in his first year a 94 grade point average that put him at the head of his class.
Study and shooting were not all that consumed the young man's life. He imbibed from his father a third passion, baseball, which swallowed up summer after summer. And always in the background—distinctly in the background—were two more pastimes: religion and politics. John Smith Bradley had been raised in the Church of Christ, Bessie Hubbard in the Baptist Church. After marriage, she converted, and the Bradleys worshipped every Sunday at the local Church of Christ. As for politics, the family was naturally Populist, siding with the likes of William Jennings Bryan and against the "big trusts" and the "robber barons."
The life into which Omar Nelson Bradley grew was as hard as it was simple, but it was leavened by the satisfaction of achievements in school, on the hunt, and on the baseball diamond and not least by the camaraderie of a loving family—of a loving mother, of cousins who were really adoptive sisters, and most of all, of a father, a stern, strong, yet gentle model of manhood whom young Bradley unabashedly "idolized."
At the end of the school year in 1907, Omar Bradley's average grade was 98.66, putting him again at the top of the class. But the winter of 1907–1908 was very hard, and it was especially hard on John Smith Bradley, who walked a six-mile round trip to Ebenezer School and came home one January evening deathly ill. Pneumonia, the doctor said. He took to his bed, a few days passed, and at four o'clock on a morning two weeks before his forty-first birthday, Omar Bradley's father died.
The Higbee Weekly News mourned: "No better citizen ever lived among us." And it celebrated: "The world is better for his having lived in it, and although he is gone from among us, his life was such that it will have influence for good years to come." In these words printed about the end of his father's life, there was for Omar a lesson about the purpose of life—though, doubtless, the fifteen-year-old was himself too sick (he had a bad cold the day his father died) and too shattered to take it in immediately. He would soon appreciate the legacy left to him, which lay not in a heavily mortgaged house, but in a determination to continue his education, to make something of himself, to love the outdoors, and to embrace a catalog of homely, noble virtues, a list anyone destined to serve with or under General Bradley would have recognized as perfectly characteristic of him: "A sense of justice and respect.... Integrity. Sobriety. Patriotism. Religiosity."
* * *
If the death of his father diminished Omar Bradley's world, it also broadened it. Unable to carry the mortgage payments on the Higbee house, Bessie Bradley rented it out and moved the family to Moberly, which Bradley described as "a big new city about fifteen miles north, home of the Wabash Railroad and the Brown Shoe Company." She rented a house on the city's South Fourth Street, took in two boarders, and set up as a professional seamstress. Omar earned a little money delivering the Moberly Democrat and enrolled in Moberly High School, whose administration, apparently unimpressed by his outstanding record in a rural school, admitted Omar as a sophomore instead of a junior. Undaunted, the young man threw himself into sports as well as academics, joining informally organized track and baseball teams and becoming a self-confessed baseball nut.
In addition to high school, Omar attended the Sunday school of Central Christian Church. Classes were taught by Eudora Quayle, a widow with two teenage daughters, Sarah Jane and Mary Elizabeth, the former two years younger than Omar and the latter six months older than he. That turned out to be a problem, because Omar Bradley was instantly drawn to wide-eyed, petite Mary, but, since he had been put back a year, she was in the junior class ahead of him. Moreover, she was already being squired about by an older boy, who had already graduated. Quiet and shy, Omar was reticent around girls, perhaps self-conscious about his awkward, gangly looks, long arms, huge hands, and heavy jaw. He did not date Mary, or anyone else, the whole time he was in high school, but through his faithful attendance at Sunday school and church, he "came to know all the Quayle women quite well."
In the fall of 1909, he began his junior year at Moberly High, but, at midterm, school authorities suddenly reversed their earlier decision to hold him back, and Omar found himself catapulted from the class of 1911 into the senior class of 1910. It was Mary Quayle's class—and yet Omar never felt that he was accepted by her classmates, "a closely knit, clannish group that had been together since grammar school days." Except for his baseball team mates and Mary herself, Omar "did not get to know any of them well ... and remained the 'loner' or 'outsider' from Higbee."
Shy, awkward, fatherless, and lonely, Omar met with what he called "an absolutely catastrophic accident" in the winter of 1909 while skating on a frozen lake in a city park at night. He collided with another skater, smashing his teeth against the other boy's head, knocking most of them loose and damaging his gums. Because he knew that his family could not afford to send him to a dental surgeon, Bradley suffered in silence. For years thereafter, his teeth and gums were a source of trouble and pain, both physical and emotional. "I never smiled when my picture was taken, but rather closed my lips tightly to avoid there being any permanent record of that jumbled mess."
When he graduated in 1910, Bradley's Moberly grades were somewhat lower than they had been in Higbee: grades of 96 and 94 in science and math, respectively, and 90 and 85 in English and history, making a cumulative GPA of 91.4. For no reason Bradley himself could fathom, the editors of the school yearbook placed his senior picture alongside that of Mary Quayle.
Graduation left open the question of career. Curiously enough, the reticent Bradley, significantly better in math than in English, decided on a career in law, but, without enough money to go to college, and reluctant to deprive his mother of his help, he decided to return full time for a year to a job he had held part time during the summer. He hired on as a laborer in the locomotive shops of the Wabash Railroad, first in the supply department and then in the higher-paying boiler shop, where he earned 17 cents an hour, 9 hours a day, 6 days a week.
Putting off college was not the only hardship Bradley endured after graduation. Mary Quayle left for classes at the State Normal School in far-off St. Cloud, Minnesota, where her aunt was on the faculty. Mary planned to spend two years there in the hope that her family's finances, only marginally better than those of the Bradleys, would permit her transfer to the University of Missouri. Omar would see little of her for the next several years. In the meantime, however, Bessie Bradley—who was now only 35—met John Robert "Bob" Maddox, "a poor farmer, very hard of hearing," recently widowed and left with a two-year-old and a seven-year-old son to care for. Bessie married Maddox on Christmas Day 1910, he and the boys moved into the South Fourth Street house, the boarders moved out, and Bessie Bradley let the Higbee house go to sheriff's auction, where its sale price of $441.20 satisfied the mortgage. With that financial burden lifted and with a man in the house, Omar now felt free to enter the University of Missouri in the fall of 1911. He would study to become a lawyer.
* * *
So the matter was settled—until a conversation one day with John Cruson, the local Sunday school superintendent.
"Why don't you try for West Point?" Cruson casually suggested.
Young Bradley had read enough history to make the name familiar, but he had also read enough to respond almost mechanically: "I couldn't afford West Point."
Perhaps amused by the young man's naïveté, Cruson assured him that not only was the academy free, but that, wonder of wonders, cadets were even paid a modest stipend while they attended.
For Omar Bradley, West Point was at this juncture neither more nor less than a free education—even better, an education that paid a little something. This was enough to send him talking to his mother, who was at first reluctant to allow her son to try out for the academy. Unlike the pacifist Mennonite mother of another West Point hopeful, a Kansas boy named Dwight David Eisenhower (he, too, aspired to join the class of 1915), Bessie Bradley's objections were not based on religion conviction. The prospect of her son training to become a warrior and a leader of warriors did not bother her nearly so much as the fact that West Point was a very long way from Moberly. Omar prevailed, however, and composed a longhand letter to his congressman, soliciting nomination as a cadet.
Congressman William M. Rucker responded promptly to Omar Bradley's letter requesting nomination to West Point. At the time, each of the nation's congressmen and senators was permitted to nominate one West Point cadet every four years. Rucker's reply explained that his current nominee was in his third year at the academy, so it would be a full year before Bradley could apply—and even then, of course, there would be no promises. Other candidates appealing to Rucker might be more qualified.
A full year—that seemed to settle the matter once and for all. Bradley again decided to apply to the University of Missouri. But then Congress intervened, voting, in the spring of 1911, to amend the law so that representatives and senators could appoint a cadet every three years. Accordingly, on June 27, Bradley received another letter from Representative Rucker. The good news was that the law had changed; the bad was that Rucker had already nominated one Dempsey Anderson, a boy from his hometown of Keytesville. By way of consolation, Rucker offered Bradley the dubious honor of becoming his alternate candidate. He would take the same physical and academic examinations Anderson took, and if Anderson happened to fail but Bradley happened to pass, the nomination would go to him. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Bradley by Alan Axelrod. Copyright © 2008 Alan Axelrod. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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