Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

April 3, 2005


Ambrose makes journey of Lewis and Clark come alive


          Strange it is the discoveries we make as we grow older. In my 70th year by chance I picked up a book by Stephen Ambrose. The book was titled To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, published ironically the year Ambrose died, 2002.

          I was immediately attracted to the man and his writing. The more I read, the more embarrassed I felt for having been ignorant of his books for the past 35 years. The reason for my ignorance was no mystery. As a pastor my reading had focused almost entirely on theology. Now I am the poorer for my tunnel vision.    

          I never met Stephen Ambrose but I wish I had.  He made history come alive for me like no other writer. For that I am in his debt.

          Last week I finished Ambrose’s excellent account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage. Since I am not a fast reader, I was on the journey with Lewis and Clark for many weeks. My ritual was to read a few pages every night.

          Earlier I had enjoyed reading Wild Blue: The B24s Over Germany, 1944-45. I had hoped Ambrose might have mentioned my Uncle Luke Johnson who served as a B-24 pilot, but his was not among the names included. Still the book is a fascinating account of those unsung American heroes.

          Ambrose is best known for his histories of World War II, especially

Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.

            He wrote several volumes on Eisenhower and Nixon that were well received. I plan to read them after I finish my next selection: Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869.

            Another title that interests me is Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. That has to be a good one.

          Every American owes it to himself to read about the courageous journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It is truly a remarkable story that tells of the expansion of the United States from “sea to shining sea.”

          The author gives us a fresh appreciation for Thomas Jefferson, the man responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. Ambrose says this was “surely the best thing Jefferson ever did as president.”

          If I were a younger man I would try to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark, sit by some campfires in Montana and Oregon, and read again the account of their adventures.

          Lewis and Clark enjoyed a marvelous friendship and an undying respect for each other. They complimented each other and worked as one in every major decision. Clark, however, never managed to share Lewis’ love of barbecued dog. Lewis admitted liking dog more than venison.

          Through the eyes of the two men we see the west as it was only 200 years ago when it was the home of thousands of Indians, buffaloes, beavers, deer, and elk. Startling for me was learning how many different tribes of Indians possessed the land until they were pushed aside by the frontiersmen.

          Lewis was the greatest of all American explorers, a splendid company commander, and a truly gifted leader of men. He was gifted at identifying and describing plants, trees, and animals. Both he and Clark were good at mapping the rivers and streams.

          Unfortunately, Lewis was done at 33. He failed as a politician, unable to handle the honor Jefferson gave him of serving as governor of the Territory of Louisiana. Heavy drinking may have influenced his decision to end his life by his own hand.

          Only once in the story is God mentioned. If Lewis and Clark loved God, they forgot to speak of it. The only reference to God in 484 pages comes at the end when Lewis commits suicide. A woman hears him cry out, “O Lord!” after shooting himself in the head.

          Undaunted Courage is a book every American should read. We have a great heritage and we owe a lot to Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson. + + + +