Friday, July 15, 2011

W-b-N American History, Part A

May 24, 2011

In a church parking lot across from the Eisenhower Memorial Museum and Library, waiting for a violent storm to pass.  I’m glad I decided to do dishes this morning, which delayed my departure; otherwise I would have been caught on the high plains in this storm, wind whipping across the the prairie with nothing to stop its force.  The sky is a dark, roiling gray and rain pelts the fiberglass roof of the RV, an occasional, syncopated clunk-click of hail accenting the steady tattoo of the rain. Yesterday, the sky wore its most peaceful, innocent blue after an angry gray the day before, which had spawned a tornado that devastated the town of Joplin, MO, just a hundred miles south of Blue Springs.  Yesterday, after I made it through Kansas City, the driving was easy and pleasant, and I was able to pick up PBS all the way to Abilene, where I visited the Eisenhower museum.

This has been an American history itinerary so far.  I spent three nights in in Blue Springs, MO, parked by the home of my ex-sister-in-law, Judi, with whom I am on good terms.  Judi and I went to Independence, MO my first day there, where we visited the Three Trails museum that celebrates the American expansion westward via the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Sacramento Trail.  The Missouri River was the jumping-off point for many of the pioneers and speculators who settled the western half of the country and, in the process, drove out most Native Americans.

We also went to the Truman Library in Independence, which was fascinating and informative.  I hadn’t realized how much Truman had done during his (nearly) two terms in office.  Besides ending WWII, he fostered the Marshall plan that allowed Europe to recover from the devastation of war with amazing speed.  He instigated the Berlin Airlift; he oversaw the Korean Conflict; he recalled General McArthur (a wise and courageous act); and he fostered the move toward desegregation in this country after African Americans had served so selflessly in the Second World War.  Although his reputation as a president was low when he left office, it has grown steadily since then.
As a bonus, in the basement of the Truman Library is an exhibit of paintings, mostly by George Caleb Bingham, that depict life in the mid-west in the mid-nineteenth century, American frontier paintings that give the flavor of the people and towns that existed then and there.  And Bingham was a master craftsman.  His paintings are not spectacular, but they deserve careful scrutiny; his attention to detail and mood is marvelous.
The next day, Judi and Danny (her husband) and I went to the World War I Museum in Kansas City.  With its phallic tower, I expected some rah-rah male war tribute.  It was anything but that, beginning with an anxious walk across a field of poppies.  Apparently it has been recently renovated and Judi and Danny hadn’t visited the memorial since then.  We originally intended to spend about two hours there, but finally left after four hours, not because we had seen everything we wanted to see, but because we were suffering from fatigue and information overload.  It was frankly the best cultural museum I have ever visited, and very informative.  It tried to make sense of the web of alliances and cultural tensions that resulted in  the virtual inevitability of the “Great War.”  Several exhibits described, in chilling detail, the horrors of trench warfare, which made that war a nightmare beyond anyone’s imagining.
After the WWI Museum (and a quick lunch in the snack-bar there), we visited the Kansas City Art Museum (Nelson-Atkins), where we saw Monet's water-lily triptych, then went upstairs to the older part of the museum and spent an hour or so viewing the American collection.  There, again, were Bingham paintings and sketches, as well as a large collection by Thomas Hart Benton - dramatic and quirky in style, but evocative of the American (especially frontier) past. They also had on display a couple of Winslow Homer paintings and a few works from Hudson Valley painters, which I enjoyed, as always.

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