Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 24, 2017

Our neighbor to the south

It’s not unusual for us to hear “booms” that rattle the walls of our home. If one happens when people new to the area are visiting and it is a cloudy day, some assume a thunderstorm is coming. On clear ones, they just look bewildered.

Most days, husband Art and I barely notice. We straighten pictures knocked askew and put knick-knacks back in place. For us, it is just the way things are.

This is not to say we never notice. The occasional helicopter passing over our home or hovering above a nearby field still garners our attention. A flare hanging over a nearby hill can be quite pretty on a dark night.

It’s all because we have an unusual neighbor just south of our home - a neighbor who arrived in 1853.

Fort Riley, home of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division - “The Big Red One” - was originally established as a supply headquarters. Its location made it a focal point of activity during the Indian wars of the post-Civil War period. Its main function soon became organizing and drilling troops.

During World War I, Fort Riley was a major training post for the infantry and is often cited as the place where the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 began. During World War II, it was also used as a prisoner of war camp for German and Italian soldiers.

But for us, it has just been our “neighbor.” And for years, we could drive through the post freely, although it was necessary to watch our speed as we knew the MPs (military police) were on the lookout for speeders. That changed after Sept. 11, 2001, when it was decided that access to all of America’s military installations should be better controlled. People now have to make arrangements in advance, must have a reason for being on post and must provide enough lead time that background checks can be conducted.

So in recent years, despite the fort being our neighbor, we never go through it. Our connection has been largely limited to the moving china brought on by artillery practice or watching helicopters completing night flying drills from nearby Marshall Army Airfield.

I do have one connection that most people do not. I often have personnel from the post’s Public Affairs Office come to my journalism classes at Kansas State University to discuss the relationship between the media and the military. Through their presentations to my classes, I’ve learned some military jargon, military ranks and a bit about Fort Riley’s community life and history.

One person I rely on heavily is Deb Skidmore, who worked at Fort Riley’s PAO office for 30 years and who now teaches Military Public Relations and other classes in my department. Deb takes her students to the fort to see military equipment, participate in flight simulations and learn about the post’s history. I’ve frequently thought it would be fun to tag along with her and her students, but somehow never took advantage of the opportunity.

But a week ago, I decided to join them. Deb said it would include a lot of history, and I definitely was agreeable to that.

A person tends to be drawn to the unusual and the memorial for Chief certainly qualified. He was the last cavalry horse to be carried on Army rolls. He died in 1968 and was buried standing in a special casket constructed by Fort Riley’s engineers. He is even saddled and bridled and “ready to ride,” Deb said.

Chief is interred at the foot of Old Trooper, a fiberglass statue based on a Frederic Remington work. Nearby is a memorial to the horses and mules killed in the Civil War. It was constructed “In memory of the one and one half million horses and mules of the Union and Confederate armies who were killed, were wounded, or died from disease...”

The Custer House was also interesting. The original that had been lived in by Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Libby, had burned. But the Historical and Archaeological Society of Fort Riley restored the remaining officer’s quarters whose architecture and style closely resembled the original. Furnishings from the 1870s and 1880s complete the setting. Period rooms include a front parlor, dining room, kitchen, servant’s room, family room and upstairs bedrooms.

One student asked what the white gauzy covering on the dining room table was. Our guide explained that it was cheesecloth used to keep flies off the food. Other interesting features included fireplaces, an old wood-burning stove in the kitchen, quilts, old photos and toys - including a small brown bear and a “creepy-faced doll” that is stored in a dresser drawer.

We walked by other limestone homes currently occupied by officers. The wide tree-lined streets were quiet. Many of the houses were still decorated with Halloween pumpkins and other autumn decor. Some trees still carried their fall foliage.

We saw somber sites as well, including the post cemetery and a monument dedicated to those who have “mobilized and deployed through Fort Riley in support of The Global War on Terrorism.” The twin black “towers” of the monument are etched with the names of those from Fort Riley who have died in that war - a war that continues.

The fort first became a small part of Art’s family’s life when his brother Tommy was stationed there during the Korean War. It became a part of mine, as we Freelands attended the nearby university and heard the distant shelling and saw soldiers on Manhattan streets. Then, almost 30 years ago, the fort became my southern neighbor. But the tour caused me to see it from a different perspective. As we moved from homes to monuments and back again, I was struck with how past and present were woven together. My appreciation of the important role our neighbor plays grew, and now I feel just a bit more connected to it.

Left: monument to Chief (photo from Fort Riley website); middle: "Twin tower" memorial for soldiers who have died in the "Global War on Terrorism;" right: guide Tricia Verschage informs us about one of the fort's sites.

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