“Uncle Jack’s Ike"

Fiction by Kat O’Neill

“Eisenhower was the best general we ever had.” 

“Oh please,” barked Martha, “He never even fought. How do you get to be a general without ever leaving the States?” 

“He tried to fight,” replied Elliot. “But they needed him back home to train the tank force.” 

“How was he even qualified to train a tank force when he never used a tank in combat?”

“Why do you ask such ridiculous questions, Martha? Jack, did you know that Ike was the only 20th-century president who was bald?” I shook my head, even though that was easily the 10th time he’d told me.

“You don’t understand, Martha. Eisenhower had a lot of setbacks. At West Point he didn’t make the baseball team. That was one of the greatest disappointments of his life. And then he hurts his foot playing football. Men have dreams, dreams of greatness.”

“Oh,” replied Martha. “And women don’t?”

Elliot slammed his empty glass of whiskey down. I started to refill it. Mid-pour he grabbed my wrist and whispered, “Dreams of greatness, Jack. Dreams of greatness.” 

Martha reached for the nuts. Elliot slid the bowl down the bar before she could make contact. She slammed her empty glass of whiskey down. I started to refill that, too. Mid-pour she grabbed my wrist and whispered, “Jack, don’t listen to anything he says. Eisenhower was a narcissist with extremely bad taste. Just look at what he did to the presidential retreat. F.D.R. and Truman named it Shangri-La. That’s nice, right. It makes you feel good. Like you’re in some Himalayan paradise. Like you’re special. A person of importance. Eisenhower shows up and names it after his grandson. Even Khrushchev thought it sounded like a place where stray dogs were sent to die.”

“Oh so now you’re quoting Khrushchev? Don’t worry, Martha, give it a month or two and we’ll be calling it Camp Donald.” 

Martha let out a moan so loud that it gave the fly buzzing around her head a heart attack. Or at least it appeared that way as the fly fell to the bar followed a second later by Martha’s hands and head. 

“He hated squirrels, too. How’s that for a judge of character, Jack?” barked Martha without lifting her head off the bar. 

“Everybody hates squirrels,” replied Elliot. 

“Not everybody asks their valet to shoot them,” yelled Martha. “Not everybody has a valet. If I had a valet let me tell you squirrels aren’t the only things I’d have him taking shots at. And besides they were ruining his putting green. What the hell else was he supposed to do?”

Elliot grabbed his whiskey and stood. Martha lifted her head up. “Where do you think you’re going?” 

“Once we’re dead I am happy to spend the rest of eternity with you. But I ain’t dead yet.” And with that Elliot headed to a table in the back. He sat with his face turned toward the window. Martha seemed lost without her sparring partner. She glanced over at Elliot. He was smiling at something. Martha turned to look out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of what Elliot found so amusing but nothing showed and Martha eventually turned back to her whiskey. 

Martha and Elliot have been married for over 50 years and have been arguing even longer. They never had any children. I’m not sure if they ever wanted kids but since it was just the two of them they carved out a life based mostly on evaluating other lives. There were about fifty topics they focused on, give or take. Besides Ike they had Elizabeth Taylor, circus performers, the Civil War, westerns, the automotive industry, baseball players, and I forget the rest. But no matter how heated the arguments got they never left angry. I suppose that’s a kind of love. 

Just when Martha thought she might have to go and provoke Elliot the door opened and in came an extremely well-dressed older man. He walked with the air of confidence that only comes from a life of privilege. 

“Maker’s Mark, on the rocks, please.” He took out a folder and began to go through a stack of papers, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. Martha stared at him nonetheless, thinking he had to look up at some point. 

“Hey,” Martha finally called out. He pretended that the call-out was not for him. 

 “Hey you, with the fancy suit reading those papers and drinking Maker’s Mark on the rocks!” Martha wasn’t taking any chances of further confusion. Slowly, he looked up. 

“What did you think about Eisenhower?”

“President Eisenhower?” 

“No. Eisenhower the butcher.”

He smiled softly. “Well, I thought he was impressive both as a general and as a president but mostly as a man.” 

Martha’s eyes lit up. She could not believe her good fortune as she leaned forward and belted out, “Are you crazy?! The only good thing about Eisenhower is that he kept Nixon out of office for a few years!”

The well-dressed man laughed. “You don’t like Nixon either?” 

“Who does?” laughed Martha. “And don’t you dare bring up that opening of trade relations with China crap. It would have happened with or without him. He just got lucky.”

“Perhaps,” replied the well-dressed man. “But many scholars believe that. . . .”

 “He was always crooked. Me too. How about that scandal over whether he had used campaign funds for personal expenses?”

“Yes, that was particularly embarrassing because of Eisenhower’s promise that his administration was beyond reproach but Nixon answered the allegations in. . . .”

“That dumb ‘Checkers’ speech. How low to use his daughters and a dog,” replied Martha. 

“It kept him on the ticket. And Eisenhower won in a landslide.” 

“That’s only because he didn’t play fair. Eisenhower never mentioned his opponent by name, like Stevenson didn’t even exist. He just kept attacking Truman. Korea, Communism, and corruption. That’s all he ever talked about.”

The well-dressed man eased back on his stool. “You can’t deny that it was a smart and effective strategy, even if mean-spirited. But Eisenhower had a softer side, too, an artistic side that few people knew about.”

“Oh please, don’t start with his artwork. It stunk. It was all Mamie, Washington, and Lincoln. With a few mediocre landscapes thrown in.”

The well-dressed man laughed. “You know they were shown at a museum in Manhattan.”

“Shit shows in Manhattan every day. Even Eisenhower said they were crap, that they would have been burned long ago if he weren’t the president.”

The well-dressed man laughed again. “You know Eisenhower did make a few good moves. He was the first president to ride in a helicopter, saving future presidents thousands of hours in limousines.”

“Well, that’s true. I will give you that. Not that a limousine isn’t a hell of a lot nicer than a city bus or a subway but it still doesn’t make up for the fact that he campaigned with McCarthy.” 

“He only stood next to him at a campaign stop so he could praise his friend General Marshall, who McCarthy had denounced as part of a communist conspiracy. But, at the last minute, his advisors told him not to defend Marshall. He always regretted that decision.”

“See. He cared more about advancement than principle and loyalty. That is not a sign of character.”

“Perhaps,” replied the well-dressed man, “but the United States is still essentially operating under the Eisenhower doctrine.” 

“Trust no one and build up defense. Sounds like North Korea.” 

The well-dressed man stood and smiled softly. “Sad but true.” He tossed a twenty on the bar and said, “I never did get your name.” 

“Martha.”

“Well, it was very nice conversing with you, Martha.” 

“Oh don’t go,” urged Martha. “I could uh, I could re-arrange a few things so we could talk, I mean converse some more.” 

“That is most kind of you. I wish I could be the beneficiary of such generosity but, sadly, I have an appointment.” And with that the well-dressed man was gone. Martha watched as he slid into the limousine that was waiting out front. 

Elliot watched as well. He came back up to the bar after that, just for a refill, he claimed, but I think he was a little taken aback. This was the first time in many, many years, that Martha had held the attention of another man. Elliot sat on a stool closer to Martha this time and he went out of his way to slide the bowl of nuts in her direction. 

A week goes by and a package arrives addressed to Martha. A few days later Martha and Elliot show up, this time arguing about who was more virile, Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. 

I brought out the package. It had been a while since Martha had received anything. She stared at the box for the first two minutes and then shook it. After that she slowly pried open the ends and slid out a painting. It was a portrait of Mamie Eisenhower. On the bottom left corner, painted in red, was “DE.” Also in the box was a note that read, “I hope you agree that his paintings weren’t all bad and neither was he. Kindest regards, David Eisenhower.” 

Martha laughed. “No wonder he was defending Nixon, too.” She stared at the portrait for a few minutes and then threw back her drink and left, saying, loud enough for all in the bar to hear, that the painting was going straight to the dump. 

“In fact,” she added, “I cannot get it there soon enough!” 

But “the dump,” Elliot reported a few weeks later, “must not be taking garbage anymore because Mamie’s still hanging over our bed.”


Kat O’Neill is a photographer, playwright, and fiction writer whose short stories about Uncle Jack have previously appeared in The Star.