Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gettysburg, Day 2: I Like Ike

Saturday, August 8. Of course, the only real reason to get out of bed is breakfast. And since we’d left The Avenue with unfulfilled yearnings the morning before (not for the fried pickles, but now I’m regretting not sampling those with my pancakes), the family mutually agreed to return to the same diner that Saturday morning, although much earlier than the day before.

The place very busy with locals and sightseers reading battlefield guides, but we got seated after a short wait. The day before Herr Doktor had been coveting one of the homemade banana muffins listed on the menu, but I talked him into the sweet potato pancakes instead. I felt I owed him, so we did one of our usual split breakfasts where he ordered eggs, I got a muffin and we shared, washed down with my vacation treat of a bottomless cup of decaf.

What can I say? The Pennsylvania Dutch know how to do carbs in a mighty tasty manner. Most banana muffins are made with puree and walnuts, like a banana bread, but this beauty was a light, moist muffin base with chunks of real banana blended in. The banana chunks were a bit discolored, but the fresh flavor more than compensated. And the omelet was nostalgically dry, just like mom used to make (no runny French style eggs for my family, you cooked those things into submission and I was happy to see the cook at The Avenue was on board!)

Fortified by a good country breakfast, we headed back to the visitor’s center, which was totally mobbed on a Saturday morning (including some people dressed in Amish clothes which we couldn’t quite believe were real). Fortunately we were bound for a far less popular destination: the farm that Dwight Eisenhower and Mamie called their only private home. While hoards of tourists were waiting for the battlefield tour, the Eisenhower shuttle bus held a mere forty or so fans of the Fifties. While waiting, I read through the National Park Service’s brochure on the general and his life. He was actually a very handsome young man—did you know that? My image of Ike is as an old bald guy, but really he was quite a dashing young soldier.

But enough about historical figures on their own merits—what about Ike and me? Well, the thing that freaked me out about the Eisenhower Farm was that he was living there in retirement for many of the years I’d have been visiting Gettysburg (pronounced “Get-us-burg” by the locals) and I never had a clue. Of course, my family and extended family were all Democrats, back in the day when working people voted for that party based on their economic policies. FDR was a god and picture of JFK walking beside the Pope had pride of place in my grandmother’s kitchen (a pairing that was no doubt comforting for her, disturbing for the less religious, I'm sure). So maybe Ike wasn’t mentioned because he was a Republican. But a great many important things happened just down the road. Ike received the news about Francis Gary Powers being shot down over Russia at the farm. He recuperated from his heart attack there. And he often went into Gettysburg surrounded by his Secret Service Agents.

But I never knew this until just recently. Weird, huh?

To get to the Eisenhower estate, you need to board a shuttle bus at the visitor’s center. The drive led right through the field that witnessed Pickett’s Charge and it was impossible not to glance over at the Confederate starting point, then back to the wall where the Union riflemen lay in wait, and wonder how the hell a man could start off on that mile-long hike, pretty as the stroll would be today, knowing what awaited once he got into range of those rifles. (I know this act of courage or madness was made by thousands of Civil War soldiers on both sides, but Pickett’s Charge seems especially iconic and let's face it, the South may have lost the war, but they are still leaders in the myth-making of that time.) Incidentally, I learned on my trip that my brother-in-law’s great-great grandfather was a 19 year-old blacksmith from near Appomattox, VA, who served as a soldier in Armistead’s brigade. Yes, he was one of the few to reach the “high water mark of the Confederacy” and more amazing still, one of the fewer to make it back alive—proof being that he didn’t have any kids before he left home. So in a way I was related to someone who made that incredible journey and survived.

I mean it is all fantasy, pure concept in way, but still, it made me feel closer to history.

But back to another war. We arrived at the Eisenhower Farm and were welcomed by a peppy college student guide who told us a cheeky story about Mamie and Ike’s first meeting. Mamie was the belle of the town in Texas where her family wintered and somehow Ike was giving her a tour of his camp and the barracks. He warned her not to look around too much because the young men might be in a state of undress. Sassy Mamie stopped, peered to the left and right, and declared there was nothing she saw that she didn’t like.

This month’s Cosmo claims men like women who challenge them, so I guess it was true even then.

Ike immediately fell in love, but he could not get a date with Miss Doud because she was booked up for weeks. So he came up with his own strategy to win that war by dropping by to visit with her family regularly to show what a great guy he was even as she was squired around town by others. He always managed to stay late enough to say goodnight to Mamie after her date had dropped her off. His persistence charmed her and They were married within the year.

He was really cute in his engagement picture, too. I don’t know why I keep mentioning this, it was just a surprise. I could even see using Ike for a celebrity erotica story one day. Surprising is sexy sometimes.

Anyway, enough about sex, this was definitely a vacation of museums, and one of the things that occurred to me is that a museum is like a story. The curators and historians make all kinds of choices about what to display, how to describe lives in brochures, how to give the tours, and how to shape the information in all sorts of ways. So seeing a museum is like reading a text—you can just go with it or challenge it or let it take you on to new and perhaps unintended insights.

The Eisenhower years are known as a bland and boring phase of American history, or at least a big thick layer of white pie crust masking a seething stew of racial and sexual discontent and revolution. But Ike and Mamie's relatively modest house—preserved as it was when they lived there--was actually a pretty interesting glimpse into the Fifties.

The first room you enter after the entry way is formal living room where the tour group received one last mini-lecture from a guide. He pointed out the many art pieces, carpets and furniture that the Eisenhowers received as gifts from heads of state in thanks for his services as general. There was also the “pouf,” a round velvet Victorian-era conversation seat Mamie had enjoyed at the White House. She wanted one for the house, but Ike thought it was too “pouffy.” Mamie finagled one from her wealthy mother as a gift. Indeed the entire house was split into his and hers quarters. Pink and pouffy for Mamie. Manly wood paneling and rustic décor for Ike. Very gender divided, just like the Fifties.

The most lived in part of the house was the TV room—again, very Fifties. The Eisenhowers had one of the earliest remote control TV’s and the couple usually ate dinner there on TV tables. “I Love Lucy” and “Gunsmoke” were mutual favorites. Mamie liked “As the World Turns.”

There are also two bedrooms: one manly one where Ike napped and slept when he was recovering from his heart attack. It definitely has a spare, military feel. The master bedroom was Mamie’s domain, all pink and fancy. Mamie believed that once a woman reached the age of 50 she was entitled to stay in bed until noon. So I have two years and three months to go! Apparently, she did all her lady-of-the-house duties in the morning propped up on pillows. The curators placed some of the items that she would have had on the night table, all homey things like candy and Kleenex in an old-fashioned box.

I was starting to feel as if I were in my grandmother’s house. The hit of familiarity was incredibly strong—I could almost smell it. This was middle class America in the Fifties, a certain essence of the time, which most Americans shared, a communal set of “values” that hasn’t really survived (although I’d argue the conformity was not all good). Herr Doktor described the same feeling more eloquently later. He mentioned that he was used to touring historic homes from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, where the way of life was so different from ours, it was almost impossible to imagine. But the Eisenhower house was like a bridge—both historic and intimate, approachable as lived experience, at least for our generation. It was indeed like visiting Grandma. We got to wondering what the Obama house museum would be like with its quaint flat-screen TV and Michelle’s exercise equipment, back when female arms had to be sculpted and buff.

Since we’re winding up our Spicy Sunday blog tour with a special finale this week, I thought it appropriate to include a photo of the Eisenhower kitchen. Very homey, isn’t it? Most of the meals were made by the wife of Eisenhower’s African-American valet who followed him to Gettysburg from the army, but Ike himself liked to grill Angus steaks made from the cattle on the farm and do Amish style breakfasts with punhaus (minced pork product) and eggs.

I had to include this close up of the spices on hand. Just like we were all talking about, eh, Neve? Salt, pepper, chicken bouillon, oregano, some garlic salt—nothing too fresh or challenging, that’s for sure!

After a quick stop at the Secret Service’s monitoring center (a preview of Washington, D.C.’s Spy Museum), we headed to one of the barns for a docent’s talk on the D-Day soldier. I thought the boys might be interested, but my older son was having a teenage moment and sulkily sat alone on one of the benches at the back. This probably saved him from being recruited for a beach landing, because the chatty docent chose young men from the audience to wear all the gear—but he wisely shied away when we joked that my son was part of our family but didn’t want to be near us. Definitely best to avoid the rebels in the group.

Moving from the Fifties to the Forties, we got to handle the gear and clothing a soldier who landed on a Normandy beach that fateful June day might have to deal with. GI issue scratchy wool pants, smoother underwear. Bullet belts and gas masks (most discarded on the beach). Badly designed life belts. Rations of various sorts—the foul-tasting protein bars made by Hershey where apparently thrown at the heads of soliders who tried to barter them as chocolate bars to French farmers. I’d have to say the docent was a little too fond of center stage and he definitely liked to “involve” the audience in sometimes challenging ways, but it was the perfect lesson for the setting. Still, we slipped out of the talk early to catch the 12 o’clock bus back to the visitor’s center, and then back to our hotel for a picnic lunch of cottage cheese and fruit from the local supermarket. We had to get our strength for the next adventure of the day, truly one of the high water marks of the vacation.

That's when we not only hopped into a time machine back to 1863, we got to be our own great-great grandparents. So put on your hoop skirt or your Union cavalry private’s jacket and get ready for the ride. I’ll see you in pictures tomorrow!


Jeremy Edwards said...

He was really cute in his engagement picture, too.


Donna said...

LOL, Jeremy. There is a story here, isn't there? I mean, the bangs worked much better in her youthful days, plus she sounds like quite the appreciator of male flesh.

Politics is a problem though. I hear Adlai Stevenson was quite the ladies' man, though, in spite of being an "egg head." Or because of it ;-)?

Erobintica said...

Delightful accountings, Donna. It's so interesting reading about your trip, since we somewhat followed - doing Gettysburg on the following Monday and doing Dc this past weekend. (Can't wait to compare notes on the Spy Museum!)

It always makes me smile and "feel good" when I hear some story like the one of young Ike and Mamie.

Looking forward to reading more!

neve black said...

Jeremy, you crack me up!

Yes, Ike was a real handsome devil. Feverish for Mamie too, cheeky or not. I like that intrepid quality in a man.

You know, whenever I read about people that winter here and summer there, I'm just letting everyone know, including the universe that this something I'd like to happen in my next life. ;-)

I love following along here with you, Donna. Great trip notes!

Donna said...

Yes, it will be fun to compare experiences, Robin! And Neve, I really don't know much about Eisenhower, but was he hot for Mamie? Gee, maybe there really is a story here, the pulsating sexual hunger behind the proper appearances, even at our nation's highest levels. I mean, I know Ike had an affair with his British driver during the war and Mamie didn't like it, but that's all I know about their sex lives.

Maybe I like Ike more than I knew?

Emerald said...

I indeed find that interesting about Ike appearing handsome, as that had not really occurred to me either. And I much enjoyed the "cheeky" story about him and Mamie!

And lovely pictures! Thanks again for sharing so much about your travels, Donna.

Craig Sorensen said...

Fascinating stuff. While I have spent a fair bit of time in g-burg during my years living in the area, I've never been to Ike and Mamie's place.

They certainly were a handsome couple, weren't they?

I have a friend who is a local (from the same town as your family, by the way) and she says that growing up, there were two spices: Salt and Pepper. And they didn't use very much pepper.

So Ike and Mamie were quite adventurous with their seasonings, and other things too...

Donna said...

Well, Craig, Ike and Mamie's is definitely an under-visited site, just tucked away there right next to the battlefield. But there's really so much history there, too. Certainly more than I never knew about, lol.

Salt and pepper are definitely the flagship seasonings for McSherrystown, but don't forget the aging tin of cinnamon for the rice pudding!