As one who was a very young neighbor of Gen. John J. Peshing during the really olden days, I'm fascinated with the new Pershing Square on Pennsylvania Avenue that is to be dedicated on May 14. It is a friendly square of flowing steps and flowing water, flowered trees and a baroque food kiosk, where one will feel comfortable sitting in the shade and eating a bag lunch. The eight-foot bronze statute of the general is still being cast by sculptor Robert White, but should be ready for us on Nov. 11, the 63rd anniversary of the World War I armistice. It will stand in the southeast corner of the square before two huge Dakota mahogany granite slabs, one engraved with Pershing's tribute to the 2 million officers and men of the American Expeditionary Forces, the other detailing in map and story the famous Meuse-Argonne campaign and America's role in the war.
The general, holding field glasses, will face west, looking directly across 15th Street at the mounted William Tecumseh Sherman. I fancy that if they could converse, Pershing would say, "General, when I was a cadet at West Point, you were my idol. Once I walked a good mile out of my way just to salute you."
Sherman would reply, "Well, I probably did hand you your diploma. Remember, for years I handed out all the diplomas at graduation."
"General, I seem to recall that you had some of the same problems with reporters that I did."
"Son, I know you were put out when that Heywood Broun compared you with 'Papa' Foch and wrote, 'They'll never call him "Papa Pershing."' But that was trivial. Our Civil War reporters were spies and liars. They printed our troop movements; they persuaded people I was going crazy. I threw some in jail, and one I had court-martialed. They let him off, damn it. I wanted to see him hanged!"
After the war, while Pershing was Army chief of staff, he rented the Corbin estate from Gen. Corbin's widow, a large house on about 25 acres at 33rd and Rittenhouse streets. I lived nearby on 33rd, and on my way home from school always stopped by the stables on Stuyvesant Place at the rear of the estate. I forget how many horses he had, but Old Bent would remember. He was a friendly black man who let us slide down the haystack, pat the horses and even take a ride around the stable yard on some of them. But not on Jeff, the immense chestnut the general rode in parades, and not on Kiedron, the general's favorite.
"Black Jack" Pershing (pronounced Purshing, not Per-zhing) had a well-deserved reputation for being stern, stiff, humorless, a tough disciplinarian. As an officer, he expected absolute, instant obedience; in fact, he once felled with a hard right to the jaw a soldier who seemed to be dragging his feet. The cadets in his classes during his stint at West Point hated him and thought him a complete martinet.
Yet this man also had many human, even endearing, qualities. As a West Point cadet, he may not have inspired affection, but nonetheless he was elected class president every year. After graduating in 1886, he was commissioned a second lieutenant and sent out to subdue Indians at a time when Geronimo was in action. He learned the Apache dialect as well as the standard Indian hand signals. He also gained a reputation for taking good care of his troops by getting every single man and horse through a devastating blizzard that decimated other units.
After the Indian fighting, the Army assigned him to teach military science at the University of Nebraska. He took those country boys and whipped them into a unit that won a national competition. They adored him.
While at Nebraska he studies law and passed the bar. Here he met a young lawyer who was destined to be his friend throughout life -- the unconventional, irrepressible "Hell 'n Maria" Charlies Dawes, who later became Cal Coolidge's vice president. Most evenings they ate together at a 10-cent pancake house run by Don Cameron. Years later, during the war when Pershing had put Dawes in charge of the Army Purchasing Board, the two were guests at a formal dinner in an imposing French mansion. Thinking to embarrass his friend, Charlie said, "Jack, tell your friends about that great Spanish nobleman we used to dine with, Don Cameron." Jack just chuckled and extolled the virtues of the 10-cent pancakes.
They were bound together by memories of terrible sorrow. Dawes' only son had died young, and Perhsing had lost his adored wife and three small girls in a fire; only Warren, age 6, survived.
While still a teacher at West Point, Pershing happened to sit in a box at a Madison Square Garden Wild West show with a voluble character who shared his interest in the West and in Indian dialects. They also both loved a fight, and within a year they were both in Cuba, Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill leading the Rough Riders and Jack Pershing at the head of his beloved 10th Cavalry of black troopers. They did him proud, and all his life Pershing praised the fighting qualities of the black soldier.
Sent to the Philippines, Pershing fought brilliantly, but also won over many Moro guerriallas by building them schools, speaking to them in their own language, playing chess with them, inviting them to camp parties. When he came home a hero, his old friend Teddy, now President Roosevelt, assured his career by promoting him from captain to brigadier general. Then during World War I Pershing discovered George Catlett Marshall, promoting him from captain to brigadier. In turn, Marshall, during World War II, discovered Dwight D. Eisenhower, advancing him in one year from major to major general. All from a Wild West show!
What a fine figure of a man he was, "Black Jack" Pershing. I can see him yet, striding down the long, long lawn of the Corbin estate, handsome, tall, square of shoulder and square of jaw. The trouble was that he was headed for a row of his apple trees that ran along 33rd Street while my sister and I were up in one of them, happily munching on Albemarle Pippins (and a better apple never was bred). I dropped to the ground and ran like blazes. Pausing at a safe distance, I turned to see small sister Peggy slide down the trunk, right into the arms of the general, who hugged her close, kissed her and told her he didn't in the least mind sharing his applies with her. And that is how close I came to meeting the great man.