Friday, October 30, 2009

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure

So, this book (subtitled "The True Story of a Great American Road Trip") is a good example of why we watch Book TV when we can (unfortunately, we only get it on C-Span on weekends): it introduces us to books and authors we might otherwise never come across, since they're on topics far from our usual interests (e.g., Tolkien).

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure, by Matthew Algeo [2009] is a case in point: a delightful, interesting little book about a lost piece of Americana. It tells the story how one day in June 1953, a few months after leaving office, Truman decided to pack a suitcase, get in his new Chrysler, and drive (with his wife Bess watching the speedometer) from his home in Independence Missouri to New York City (where their daughter Margaret lived) and back. After years of being shadowed everywhere he went by Secret Service agents, and only two years after being the target of a major assassination attempt in which two people died (one of the gunmen and one of Truman's guards), he wanted to be just folks again. He and Bess would enjoy the scenary, stop in diners along the way, sleep in whatever motels took their fancy, visit with old friends, and generally enjoy themselves.

And, in the end, it kinda turned out that way. His desire for anonymity quickly went awry, since he and Bess were recognized most places they stopped (though usually not right away -- more like people at the next table looking over and saying hey, that can't possibly be . . . can it?). A few times they succeeded (as marked by gaps in the historical record), but by and large the longer Truman stayed in a place, the more likely it was that someone would recognize him and blow his cover -- especially after word got out and reporters started to cover the story and be on the look-out for the ex-president.

Algeo has also done a good job telling the story, retracing the Trumans' route, recounting local newspaper coverage at the time, and revisiting places they stayed. He even talked to a dozen or so people who met Truman during that trip. I think the most charming story is of the little girl who was working at her father's ice cream stand near Hannibal who always had to keep a sharp eye out for people parking in front of their stand and then going over to the cafe next door. Hence she saw the Trumans arrive, and recognized them at once:

"Dad," the twelve-year-old shouted,
"Harry Truman's out in front.
Do you want me to have him move his car?"

He thought she was mistaken, of course,
but when Bud looked for himself,
he saw that it was indeed Harry Truman.

Bud told Toni to call her sister . . .
and to tell her to bring a camera.

--The upshot of the story was that the Trumans had lunch, and only got recognized by folks in the diner as they were paying the bill, by a former colleague of Harry's from his county judge days ("Why, there's Judge Truman!"), after which he shook hands and signed autographs. Algeo even includes the photograph the twelve-year-old girl took of Truman in his white suit in her father's parking lot about to get into his big black Chrysler and drive off.

The book is full of little stories like that, which don't just show how down-to-earth Truman was (doing his own driving, carrying his own suitcase, chatting with folks he ran into) but how much ordinary people liked him, even when he'd just left office with one of the lowest 'approval ratings' in history (mind you, I think some of our earlier presidents were lucky there weren't pollsters in their day). Even (most of) the various bits of trivia Algeo put in were interesting, like his account of the first fatal traffic accident in the U. S. (Harry Bliss, who was run down by an electric taxi in New York City on Sept 13th 1899 and died the next day), or just how rude Eisenhower was to Truman on the latter's last day in office. The various ups and downs of the Truman/Hoover relationship were also interesting, as was the apocryphal quip about Truman, Hoover, and MacArthur running into each other in a New York elevator:

MacArthur: It's a small world.
Truman: How's the fade-away business?
MacArthur: You should know!

Janice read this one a while back on Kindle, and I just got to it last Friday and Saturday (in a book book, borrowed from our local library), as book #II.2807; highly recommended.


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