From the author of Undaunted Courage and D-Day comes this celebration of male friendship, taken both from the pages of history and from Ambrose’s own life.
Acclaimed historian Stephen Ambrose begins his examination with a glance inward—he starts this book with his brothers, his first and forever friends, and the shared experiences that join them for a lifetime, overcoming distance and misunderstandings. He writes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had a golden gift for friendship and who shared a perfect trust with his younger brother Milton in spite of their apparently unequal stations. With great feeling, Ambrose brings to life the relationships of the young soldiers of Easy Company who fought and died together from Normandy to Germany, and he describes with admiration three who fought in different armies on different sides in that war and became friends later. He recounts the friendships of Lewis and Clark and of Crazy Horse and He Dog, and he tells the story of the Custer brothers who died together at the Little Big Horn.
Comrades concludes with the author’s moving recollection of his own friendship with his father. “He was my first and always most important friend. I didn’t learn that until the end, when he taught me the most important thing, that the love of father-son-father-son is a continuum, just as love and friendship are expansive.”
About the Author
Stephen E. Ambrose was a renowned historian and acclaimed author of more than thirty books. Among his New York Times bestsellers are Nothing Like It in the World, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, D-Day - June 6, 1944, and Undaunted Courage. Dr. Ambrose was a retired Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans and a contributing editor for the Quarterly Journal of Military History.
Date of Birth:January 10, 1936
Date of Death:October 13, 2002
Place of Birth:Whitewater, Wisconsin
Place of Death:Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
Education:B.A., University of Wisconsin; M.A., Louisiana State University, 1958; Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, 1963
Read an Excerpt
Father and Son
I've waited until the end to write about my friendship with my father. The joy of discovering male friendship is clearest in that friendship because it took a lifetime to appreciate it. A father is not a pal he is the figure of authority and stability. For my part I was lucky that mine lived to see me into adulthood, and that together we found we shared interests and forged a genuine friendship.
Dr. Stephen Hedges Ambrose was above all else a public servant. My brothers and I never knew that we found out only later. In the late 1980s, when I was fifty years old and living in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast and close to Interstate 10, near various places where many mid-westerners came for a winter vacation, those from Lovington, Illinois, or Whitewater, Wisconsin, where my father had been a general practitioner of medicine from the early thirties to 1963, would see my name in a local phone book and drop in for a quick visit.
Always, they wanted to tell me what a great man my father was. No one else in the world except his patients knew that he never made a lot of money, or invented a new drug, or pioneered in medicine, or taught a young genius, or had done anything worthy of note. But old women would tell me, "He delivered my children and grandchildren." Usually in the middle of the night, at the patient's home. After a 12:30 A.M. or a 2 A.M. phone call, he would dress and then drive out to the patient's farm, relying on the compass he had on his dashboard to keep him headed straight. And her husband would show me a finger and say, "Doc sewed that on for me." Inquiry would reveal that the patient had lost his finger in a combine or tractor accident. I would ask how much Dad charged. "A dollar per stitch," the farmer would say, beaming.
Some of the visitors would be middle-aged, graduates of the local university (then Whitewater State Teachers College, now the University of Wisconsin Whitewater), where Dad served as doctor, treating the students without charge, sometimes in his office, sometimes at our home, sometimes in their dorm room, always without pay. They, too, thought of him as the finest doctor there ever was.
So do I. When as an eleven-year-old boy I had rheumatic fever, a heart disease that often kills, he kept me in bed all summer and fixed it just as he always fixed everything. I know farmers who had not just fingers but toes, ears, noses and other body parts sewn on successfully by my dad. I know women who were delivered by Dad whose children and grandchildren he also delivered.
But to me in childhood he was less a saint or hero, more an ordinary guy with too many faults. He approved of nothing that I did, disapproved of almost everything, and let me know in a loud voice where and how I had let him down. As he was also strikingly handsome, soft-spoken (generally) and a volunteer doctor for the high school football team on which my brothers and I played his responsibility included examining some thirty boys to make sure they were fit for the sport and being at every game to treat their injuries I could be nothing but respectful to him.
Still, none of his public service made much difference to me. I wanted him to be like the other fathers in town, with plenty of toys and encouragement for his boys. It wasn't like that in the Ambrose household. If we wanted to ice-skate, we learned by ourselves. So, too, if we wanted to hunt, or play basketball or football. If we wanted to watch TV we went to a neighbor's, at least until 1952, when he finally got a tiny set.
But if we wanted to be big men honest, trustworthy, capable of doing what we said we were going to do why, we imitated him.
Because he was busy growing his income (which he never did to any considerable degree) he had little time for his boys. For our part, we respected him as an officer in the Navy, a doctor, a man everyone in town admired, the man our mother, Cee Cee, worshipped. Like many of the men of his time and place he was a stern disciplinarian with impossible-to-reach standards. From the day that we moved into our new house he put us boys to work mowing the lawn, shoveling the walks and weeding the garden, which meant every grass blade cut and swept up, all the walks free of snow of any kind, and every weed but no vegetables removed from the garden. Further, we should study in school. He insisted that we get straight As, that we take Latin, learn to type, play an instrument in the band and participate in all the extracurricular activities, including sports. He was old-fashioned in every way, including keeping up the lawn, the hedges, the trees, the garden and the driveway in the approved and finest manner possible which meant we had to work harder. We did it all, and today we agree among ourselves that these were the best things we ever did.
We had his guidance, complete and without question, as long as we did what we were told, but what we never felt we had was his friendship. Whitewater in the late forties and early fifties was an ideal place for fishing and hunting pheasants, rabbits, ducks and geese, but we did those things on our own or with our classmates. In high school we played football, basketball and track, and Dad would come to the games, not so much to see us play as to be present in the event that someone got hurt. He didn't much care about how well we did in sports our mother, who never missed a game, did but he always insisted that we took the toughest academic classes and did well in them.
Except for his medical journals, he seldom read. Cee Cee read constantly, historical romances that she got out of the library. With no encouragement from either of them or from my brothers, I spent much of my time in the local Carnegie Library, reading history books, especially about Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Mother and Dad had a casual interest in Wisconsin history and on occasion I'd get them to take me to historical sites.
From the time we moved to Wisconsin, we lived for the first summer at the log cabin on our own pond, without electricity, in northern Wisconsin with Mother, who had inherited eighty acres and the cabin from her father (by 1945 a dead U.S. Army colonel who had no extra money to pass along) while Dad did the carpentry to restore the house in Whitewater. He would come to the cabin for weekends; otherwise we had no car (or phone, not to mention electricity). We all loved it, beyond words. Dad went there each fall for deer season. From the time I was fourteen years old he would take me with him. Often we would go with a group of hunters, who were all veterans. That was one of the great experiences because among many other things, I got to hear them talk about the war. Those were my first war stories, and enthralling. (I played pickup basketball with a bunch of ex-GIs GI Bill students at the local college, living near us but they never talked about the war.)
As I got ready to graduate from high school, in 1953 at age seventeen, Dad very much wanted me to major in pre-medicine and then go on to the University of Wisconsin medical school and finally take up his practice in Whitewater. This seemed like a reasonable and logical choice to me. He also wanted me to pledge his fraternity, Psi U, and live in the Psi U house.
At the cabin that summer I promised my father that I would do what he wanted. He was as pleased at this news as I had ever seen him.
But none of it happened. Psi U had no spaces available in the fraternity house, so I joined Chi Psi, which did have a room available in what they called their Lodge. Dad war greatly disappointed. He never approved of Chi Psi. We were now past the point when he would kick or spank me, so he let me know how he felt verbally. I had promised, and he had told my mother and a few of his friends. Now he was humiliated. Still, it was my life and I could lead it the way I wanted but my way wasn't his.
Even though I was still in pre-med, the decision turned out to be the beginning of my scholar's life. In my sophomore year I took a course in American history required by the University of Wisconsin, even for pre-meds. My professor was the renowned William B. Hesseltine, a superb teacher. He told us that in his course we would be doing research on a Wisconsin nineteenth-century figure, writing up his or her biography, making him or her into a subject to be included in the dictionary of Wisconsin biography he was working up for the State Historical Society. Instead of just repeating what we had learned in three or four books (as we did in other courses), he said, we would be doing original research and adding to the sum of the world's knowledge.
The words caught me up. It had never before occurred to me that I could do such a thing as add to the sum of the worlds knowledge. At the end of that lecture I went up to Professor Hesseltine and told him that I wanted to do what he did for a living, and asked, "How do I do that?"
He laughed and replied, "Stick around and I'll show you."
Right after, I went down to the registrar and told him that I wanted to switch to a history major. He said that was fine with him, so long as I wanted to go on to graduate school in history. Fine with me, I said.
That evening I called my dad to tell him what I had decided. He was angry, hurt, disappointed. I told him what a great man Professor Hesseltine was. He grunted. I now realize he must have felt that as I had chosen another older man to be my leader, I had rejected him. But he didn't say that. Instead he took a breath and said I could do whatever I wanted to do.
My brothers didn't help much. They, too, found pre-med to be not to their liking, all that chemistry, physics and the like. Harry went to Dartmouth, where he, too, rejected Psi U and majored in business. Bill came to Wisconsin, where he joined Chi Psi and majored in accounting. That left Dad without a successor.
I stayed at Madison through the next three years of my undergraduate work. I went home to Whitewater and lived with my parents through the summer, as I worked to make some spending money. I also talked to Dad about the Civil War and got him interested. He, too, began reading after all, his grandfather was in the war and he had been born and raised in Illinois, the home of many famous regiments and of Abraham Lincoln. In the summer of my junior year I very much wanted to take a couple of weeks to see some Civil War battlefields. I was determined to ride my bike to Shiloh, in southern Tennessee, where U.S. Grant had his first battle. One of Dad's patients was a truck driver who was on his way to New Orleans, and Dad arranged for me to ride with him to near Shiloh. I slept on the battlefield and rode all around it. After I rode back to Wisconsin, I had several long discussions with Dad about what I had seen and experienced.
The next summer he suggested and I agreed that we take a drive down to Springfield, Illinois, to see Lincoln's home there. I'll never forget the trip. We had both read Carl Sandburg's biography and two or three others. We talked Lincoln the whole way. I told Dad on that trip that Mr. Lincoln had made me believe in God because Abraham Lincoln could not just have died, that he had to be up in heaven somewhere. My father, who never talked about religion with me or anyone else, replied that he agreed with me. We went on down to Mississippi to visit Vicksburg, where we saw all the sights and then went to the magnificent Illinois monument, where my great-grandfather had his name on the wall. (Many years later I reprinted in an article on Vicksburg, in American History Illustrated magazine, a letter my great-grandfather had written his wife on July 4, 1863 the day Vicksburg surrendered to Grant. This greatly pleased my father.)
By this time it was clear to me that he knew more about the Civil War than I did. On his own, he had embraced my interest and read deeply about the war. His newfound support of what I was doing was the most important thing in my life. Dad became a founder of the Civil War Round Table in Madison (still an ongoing organization; I have spoken to it many times in the ensuing five decades, until the 1980s with Dad in the audience). He became a friend of Professor Hesseltine. And we spent much time at various Civil War sites.
I was now hooked on the American Civil War, and beyond that on American history generally. My father was, too. And he was the only friend I had who was. He knew what it meant to me; I was overjoyed that it meant so much to him, thanks to my interest. He loved the subject as much as I did, and neither of us could ever see any reason for me to have ally other profession. He had not just resigned himself to my doing what I did, but he participated in my life's work with me and grew as I did.
As I began visiting World War II battlefields, he was always willing to come along, even though I went to Europe, never to the Pacific where he had served. Together Dad and I went to Omaha Beach, to Utah Beach, to the Battle of the Bulge and to many other World War II sites. Together we visited his great-great-great-grandfather's grave in Chilton-Foliat in central England. In his own way, and without ever insisting on it, he made me into an historian, something I'll never be able to repay him for. Just as he became my friend in some ways my closest friend in my adult years.
He had always been somewhat rigid, insisting that his boys do as they were told and toe the line. I was keenly, gratefully aware that he had made an exception for my embrace of history. By the late sixties, after his boys had all left home and graduated from college and were making their own living, Dad took care of the odd jobs that we boys had done around home (it would be a disgrace for any man to hire out such work).
But he did not overcome his prejudices against women working. My mother, Cee Cee, was desperate to work in anything that she found interesting that came her way. He said absolutely no. The wife of the town doctor was not going to work at anything. He wouldn't have it. Cee Cee drank too much, smoked too much, had too many friends and was deeply involved in local politics, including being an elected member of the Walworth County Board and the Whitewater School Board. He didn't really approve, but allowed it.
Finally, in 1974, he allowed Mother to work in the travel agency next door to his office. They could drive to work and home again together. She loved it. A veteran traveler, she had planned many trips she never got to take (because Dad had a patient who was sick or who was pregnant and due to deliver on the date she had picked), but still she made Dad come with her on some trips to this place or that, which to the people of Whitewater seemed exotic.
That my mother should do whatever my father said seemed entirely natural to me; that she should not work seemed entirely normal, as for the life of me I couldn't see why she needed either the experience or the money. But she was great at the job and much appreciated by the owners of the business. One day that summer, 1975, however, she returned from lunch, hung up her jacket, announced "I'm back" and fell down, dead. The others in the office rushed next door to get Dad, who came, examined her and could do nothing (he later blamed himself for her death).
I was working on a book about Crazy Horse and Custer that summer and was camping out in Wyoming with my family. That evening a state trooper pulled up to our tent and escorted me over to a farmhouse that had a telephone. I called home, as instructed by the policeman, and talked to Dad, who gave me the news I couldn't believe. I protested that I had just seen Mother a month before and she had been in good health. He assured me it was true, and that the funeral would be in three days. So in the morning I packed up Moira, the kids and the dog, and we set out in our VW bus for Wisconsin, where we arrived two days later. Dad had seen a lot of death in his lifetime, and he didn't show how this one affected him. My brothers flew to Chicago and came to Whitewater, and like me they were more or less devastated by Cee Cee's death. Somehow we all got through the funeral and the burial. Harry and Bill flew home. Moira, the kids and I took Dad up to our cabin.
I could never get him to cry. When I asked him why, on the trip or at the cabin, he replied that crying was just feeling sorry for yourself. I said that was just silly, I had interviewed many wives of veterans who told me they had cried for their husbands when they got the telegraph from the War Department, and that their tears seemed to me to be entirely appropriate. He said that such tears were for women only.
We had a pretty good week together, fishing, hiking, driving through the woods. I couldn't see any change in him brought on by the death of the only woman he had ever loved. We spent much time talking about American wars and American history generally, as we always did. We never talked about my mother, although I wanted to, for many obvious reasons, but most of all because I lived at this cabin with her and my brothers in the summer of 1946 and had many memories. But he just would not allow it.
Then, after a week or so, Moira went down to the pier to peel some apples. The bluegill gathered under her, to eat the apple peels she was depositing into the lake. This was one of my mother's favorite things to do at the cabin. Dad took one look and began to weep. It was the first time I'd ever seen him cry. He insisted that we go back to Whitewater the next day so that he could go back to work.
He worked until he died. During his final illness, cancer, I would fly to Chicago fairly frequently to rent a car and drive to Whitewater for a visit, as would my brothers. But in his last few weeks it was Moira who was there constantly, a companion, someone to cook and clean up for him, a steadfast friend. He died in 1983. He was my first and always most important friend. I didn't learn that until the end, when he taught me the most important thing, that the love of father-son-father-son is a continuum, just as love and friendship are expansive.
Copyright © 1999 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
Table of Contents
Brothers: The Ambrose Boys
Brothers: The Eisenhower Boys
Brothers: The Custer Boys
Friendship for Life: Crazy Horse and He Dog
Peers: Eisenhower and Patton
Nary a Friend: Richard Nixon
A Lifetime of Friends
Faithful Friends: Lewis and Clark
Combat Friends: The Men of Easy Company
Father and Son
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