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By John Wukovits
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 John Wukovits
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"Kansas Isn't the Whole World"
Ironically, Dwight Eisenhower's ancestors came from a region of the world whose destruction he would later so capably orchestrate. Family stories reveal that centuries before, Eisenhower's relatives from Bavaria served as medieval warriors for the famed local ruler, Charlemagne. Over the years pacifist tendencies tempered the clan's militaristic leanings to such a degree that in the seventeenth century some, who then spelled the last name Eisenhauer, a word meaning "iron cutter," fled to Switzerland to escape the ravages of the Thirty Years' War.
In 1741 Hans Nicholas Eisenhauer transplanted the family to the New World, moving first to Philadelphia and later settling near present-day Harrisburg. Several Eisenhauer boys served in the Civil War before Dwight's grandfather, the dynamic Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, uprooted his family from Pennsylvania and headed toward the lush prairies of Kansas. He purchased 160 acres of farmland 12 miles south of Abilene, determined to combine a lucrative career in raising corn and breeding animals with his love for delivering thundering sermons.
Jacob's interests did not extend to his son, David, born in 1863. Quiet, scholarly, and without ambition, David preferred the quiet realm of books and thought to the rigors of the fields or the gregarious world of the pulpit. While attending Lane University in nearby Lecompton, Kansas, David gazed up from his books long enough to catch sight of Ida Elizabeth Stover, a strong-willed, yet lovely, pacifist. The two fell in love and were married on September 23, 1885.
For some strange reason, David, who had no sense for business, opened a general store in Hope, Kansas. Three years later, with his farmer clients wallowing in the midst of a suffocating drought and unable to pay their bills, and with David spending more time studying classical literature than his accounting books, David closed the store. While Ida tended to their two sons, Arthur and Edgar, David headed to Texas to look for work, then sent for his family in 1889 after landing a job with a railroad company in Denison, Texas.
There, in a dilapidated shanty on the wrong side of the tracks, David Dwight Eisenhower was born on October 14, 1890. His mother, hating the notion that her son would be referred to as "Jr.," quickly reversed the names so that the child would be called Dwight David.
David, still uncomfortable with having to put down his books and work, failed to earn much money in Texas. When his brother-in-law offered him a job in Abilene in 1891, David, with $24.15 in his pocket, collected his family and his few meager possessions and returned to Kansas, hoping this stint would be more productive than his first.
Hope as he might, David lacked the burning intensity to ensure that his family enjoyed even a modest standard of living. For six years Ida tended to the children in another run-down structure, this one standing beside the Union Pacific railroad tracks that divided the wealthy residents of Abilene from its less fortunate citizens. Finally, in 1898 David's brother rented him a small, two-story, white frame house, an improvement for the Eisenhower family but still far from what their neighbors possessed across the tracks. The irrepressible Ida, however, made things work, and there she raised six strapping young boys (Roy, Earl, Milton, Arthur, Edgar, and Dwight — another brother, Paul, died within ten months of his birth).
The Eisenhowers never thought of themselves as poverty-stricken. Crops grown on a family farm supplemented whatever David brought home, while Ida's ingenuity and love supplied the rest. Dwight and his brothers lived a carefree life of sports, hunting, fishing, and swimming naked in a nearby pond, as if Huck Finn had been transplanted to the Kansas prairie. They fought and argued like most brothers but banded together when threatened by outsiders.
Dwight early exhibited a gift for independence. During a family reunion held on a farm shortly before his fifth birthday, Dwight encountered an ornery goose that kept charging the boy whenever he walked into the barnyard. The boy's uncle, Luther, gave him a broom handle, showed him how to swat the goose, and turned him loose. Little Dwight marched into the barnyard, stared at the offending animal, then forced it into a hasty retreat with a few well-aimed smacks with the broom. When reflecting on the incident years later, Eisenhower wrote, "This all turned out to be a rather good lesson for me because I quickly learned never to negotiate with an adversary except from a position of strength."
Thus emboldened, over his childhood years the boy reenacted countless battles involving the United States cavalry and the ferocious Indians, which he inevitably won as the cavalry officer, or celebrated duels between Wild West marshals and notorious villains of the day. He read Westerns and especially adored learning about Wyatt Earp and the legendary Abilene marshal, Tom Smith. Eisenhower frequently visited Smith's grave to read the soul-stirring inscription:
A Fearless Hero of Frontier Days
Who in Cowboy Chaos
Established the Supremacy of Law.
When war flared in 1898 between the United States and Spain, Eisenhower closely followed the exploits of Admiral George Dewey, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, and the other heroes of that brief clash. He and his brothers took to nearby hills and rises, where they pretended to fight with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders as they annihilated the hated Spaniards.
Despite their martial spirit, the boys could not eliminate another enemy — chores. Each boy had his own to complete, such as tending the garden or chopping wood. As a reward, Dwight and Edgar could take produce grown from their own tiny gardens to the wealthier side of town, where they earned a small income selling tomatoes and corn.
The Eisenhower boys, particularly Edgar and Dwight, upheld both family honor and bragging rights against more well-to-do students in a series of bare-knuckled bouts at Garfield Junior High and Abilene High School. The pair never wearied of fighting, and they never allowed an insult from other students to go unchallenged. The two quickly earned the reputation as the best scrappers, especially after Dwight quickly dispatched the class bully. One day on the playground the student started swinging a rope with a metallic bolt attached, then dared any student to come forth and stop him. Eisenhower immediately stepped out of the throng of classmates, tackled the bully, and sent him on his way. "From that time on whenever there was any kind of trouble on the school grounds [the students] always wailed 'Ike, Ike, Ike,'" said classmate John Long.
Eisenhower began attending Abilene High School in September 1904, but had to repeat the year when a life-threatening knee infection, the result of an injury from a fall from a wooden platform, caused him to miss a large portion of the school year. He returned with renewed vigor — not so much for books and knowledge as for the sporting activities he had missed. The avid football and baseball star considered school's primary importance was the opportunities it gave him to smash opponents on the football field or defeat them on the diamond.
Never one to study late into the night — or even into the early evening, for that matter — Eisenhower relied on innate ability, inquisitiveness, and intelligence to cruise through his classes. One classmate explained that he had "never heard him say, 'I don't know,'" to a teacher's query, and brother Edgar added, "His curiosity is inexhaustible. It always was."
Eisenhower preferred an independent realm of thought and discussion to the classroom, where rigidly defined studies tended to bore him. He read histories and biographies whenever possible, from which he analyzed the talents and daring of men like George Washington, Hannibal, Caesar, Pericles, and Theodore Roosevelt. Instead of discussing books and ideas with a teacher, he introduced himself to Charles M. Harger, the editor of the Abilene Daily-Reflector. The editor discovered a bright mind in the young boy, who studiously listened to the editor's words and asked penetrating questions.
"Coming to high school age, Dwight was a natural leader," explained Harger. "He organized groups and was popular with teachers. He was no miracle child; he was just a strong, healthy boy with a serious mind, who looked upon the world as waiting for him — in what capacity he did not know."
Eisenhower illustrated his natural leadership the time his football team traveled to a nearby town for a game. When the Abilene team arrived, some of the players objected to the fact that a black athlete would take the field. Eisenhower berated his teammates for their insensitivity and threatened to leave the team if they did not play. His teammates backed down, and after the game Eisenhower made a point to walk over and shake the black athlete's hand.
That Eisenhower reacted in such a manner is no surprise in light of the influences that fashioned him. Individuals from real life and from his extensive reading provided models of behavior that the young Eisenhower absorbed. The qualities for which he admired certain people as a schoolchild would later appear in his own handling of situations and headstrong associates.
Two of the historic figures he hoped to emulate offered lessons in determination, single-mindedness, and patience. He praised George Washington's absolute belief in his cause and in his actions during the American Revolution, even though the odds had offered convincing reasons why he might be wrong and confidants had suggested alternative courses. As he wrote in his memoirs, Eisenhower admired Washington because of his "stamina and patience in adversity, first, and then his indomitable courage, daring, and capacity for self-sacrifice."
At the same time, Eisenhower never forgot the story of General George G. Meade at Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, with the critical phase of the famous Civil War clash staring him in the face, General Meade rode about the terrain, alone with his thoughts and doubts, formulating the plans for his encounter with Robert E. Lee. "For Meade," Eisenhower later wrote in his memoirs, "this was the moment of truth when all within him, particularly his moral courage, had to bear tough and strong on the problem ahead. No council of war could be called. No delay for leisurely study would be permitted by Lee. The decision had to be made. And the decision was solely Meade's responsibility."
Once Meade had decided on a course of action, he quietly rode toward his aides, issued his orders, then waited for the battle to commence. Meade's calm assurance in the propriety of his course of action, done without histrionics or drama, impressed Eisenhower, for Meade faced that decision with "only the loneliness of one man on whose mind weighed the fate of ninety thousand comrades and of the Republic they served. Meade's claim to greatness in that moment may very well be best evidenced by the total absence of the theatrical."
Three Abilene residents influenced Eisenhower as well. Every town resident knew Bob Davis, a man who typified the city's Wild West heritage. He taught Eisenhower how to fish, hunt, shoot a gun, and adapt to the rigorous outdoor environment of the Kansas plains. More importantly, he imparted the ability to quickly evaluate people and situations and react accordingly. Eisenhower's legendary skill at poker, for instance, in which he studied both the cards already played and his opponents' habits, was taught to him by Davis as they sat around a campfire at night.
In addition to Charles M. Harger, Joseph Howe, a local businessman who had traveled extensively and owned a huge library of great literature, opened a world beyond Abilene for the high school student. While some of his classmates were content to grow up and live within a thirty-mile radius of Abilene, Eisenhower yearned to see more of the world. "I like to read what's going on outside of Kansas," he told Howe. "Makes me realize that Kansas isn't the whole world." Harger and Howe strengthened Eisenhower's belief that the way things were done in Kansas or the United States did not necessarily mean that other systems were wrong.
When it came to parental influence, one person dominated. Eisenhower's sullen, withdrawn father rarely played a role in his son's life, mainly because he usually was not present. David Eisenhower left early for work, came home for dinner, and then immediately retreated to his room and books. The only time the sons interacted with their father was when one needed to be disciplined.
Ida more than made up for her husband's shortcomings. "Mother was by far the greatest personal influence in our lives," Eisenhower stated years later. She imparted discipline with fairness. For instance, to avoid partiality she set up the weekly chores, such as feeding the chickens or milking the cows, on a rotating basis. Each boy not only learned how to perform the task, but also knew he would soon be relieved of any he considered distasteful. If two boys argued over how to divide a cake, she told one to cut the cake and allowed the other to select first.
The mother, a firm pacifist and reader of the Bible, delivered a stream of aphorisms as guidance to her growing sons. She had a list ready whenever one or more were faced with a difficult situation; the boys just did not know which of her favorites she might employ. "The Lord deals the cards, and you play them," or "Sink or swim. Survive or perish" vied with "Nothing comes easy in life." Ida wanted her boys to be independent instead of looking to their parents for salvation. She explained that a person should do what was right, not from fear of punishment but because it was the right thing to do. She encouraged them to develop dreams and told them that they could accomplish anything if they were willing to work and sacrifice. Above all, she wanted her boys to accept their successes with humility and to realize that a poverty-stricken individual has as much worth as a king.
Lessons came even with punishment. When his parents told the ten-year-old Eisenhower he could not go out with his older brothers on Halloween, Eisenhower rushed outside and pounded a tree until his fists bled. After his father punished him for his tantrum, Ida walked in, sat on his bed, and told Eisenhower that he would never succeed until he controlled that fiery temper. "He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city," she admonished her son. She added that anger and hatred hurt only the person grappling with those emotions, not anyone or anything they might be directed against. "I have always looked back on that conversation as one of the most valuable moments of my life," Eisenhower wrote after serving as president.
He also learned a lesson in diplomacy by watching his mother. One time Ida mentioned to her husband that he had to fix a broken window shade. The sullen man replied he did not have to do anything and headed for his room. A few days later Ida walked up to David and said, "Dave, I wonder if you could do this: I can't seem to get it done. "With that less-threatening tack, David repaired the shade.
* * *
On May 27, 1909, Eisenhower graduated from high school. According to the school prediction, he was headed to Yale as a history professor, but he and brother Edgar made their own plans. Lacking money for both of them to attend college simultaneously, Dwight remained in Abilene and worked for a year while Edgar enrolled in law at the University of Michigan. They intended to reverse roles each year until, after eight years, both had graduated. Eisenhower shared one goal with each of his five brothers — he wanted to leave Abilene and avoid being trapped in his father's world.
Close friend Everett E. "Swede" Hazlett Jr. offered a possible remedy. Hazlett, who had received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, urged Eisenhower to seek his own appointment so they could attend together. Eisenhower felt he had nothing to lose by following Hazlett's advice, and on August 20, 1910, he sent a letter to Senator Joseph L. Bristow. "I would very much like to enter either the school at Annapolis, or the one at West Point. In order to do this, I must have an appointment to one of these places and so I am writing to you in order to secure the same."
When he learned that at age 21 he would be too old for Annapolis, Eisenhower pinned his hopes on West Point. He placed second in the qualifying examinations, but became Bristow's choice when the top-ranked candidate failed the physical exams. Thus, accepted as an alternate candidate, Eisenhower received orders to report to West Point on June 14, 1911. Eisenhower beamed at the prospect of attending a renowned institution at taxpayer's expense and of playing football for West Point.
Excerpted from Eisenhower by John Wukovits. Copyright © 2006 John Wukovits. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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