Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Road Trip with Harry

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

If you’re looking for a fun read that’s chock full of historical facts you probably never knew, check out “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip” by Matthew Algeo.

After he left office, President Truman and his wife Bess took off on a road trip from Independence, MO to the east coast with no Secret Service detail, no bodyguards and Harry driving. Former presidents at that time were not assigned a security detail. Harry and Bess liked it that way.

President Truman loved cars. His new 1953 Chrysler was not equipped with seat belts—American auto makers didn’t think the public would go for something that “frivolous” and Harry scared Bess quite often because he had a “lead foot”.  Seat belts, by the way, were the innovation of Robert McNamara when he worked for Ford prior to becoming Secretary of Defense.

Both of Truman’s grandmothers had migrated from Kentucky to western Missouri and it was this facet of his family tree that led Truman to become the president of the National Old Trails Road Association in 1926. The group advocated for a transcontinental roadway along the routes of historic trails. Along those trails you will find statues of pioneer women named “Madonna of the Trail”. The DAR erected these statues in 1928-29 in tribute to the women who followed their “crazy husbands” (per the website www.roadsideamerica.com) west. The website describes the statues as:

“… a pinkish, stony-faced pioneer Mom, in long dress and bonnet, strutting westward with a rifle on one arm, an infant on the other, and another little cruncher grasping Mom's skirt.”

One of Truman’s favorite authors was Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain. Twain helped Ulysses S. Grant out, when, after leaving office, he was close to being penniless and fighting throat cancer. Truman, too, was struggling financially because ex-presidents at the time had no pension and so he and Bess lived on his Army pension and what monies they could bring in. Truman’s favorite Twain quote was:

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

He had a framed copy of the quote on his desk in the Oval Office.

Because of their financial woes, the Truman’s tried to save money on the trip as best they could. One way was to spend the night either with friends or in a motel—a relatively new aspect of American travel in the early 1950s. The motel was “invented” in 1925 as the popularity of the automobile picked up pace. Typically a motel was a series of bungalows with attached garages that were owned by individuals, not huge corporations. By the 1930s, motels had gained wide appeal with gangsters who found their out of the way locations ideal for “hiding out”.

In 1951, Memphis businessman Kemmons Wilson and his family traveled to Washington State, staying in motels along the way. Wilson was more than a little disgusted with the accommodations they endured and went on to found the Holiday Inn.

Travel across out continent was not a new thing for Truman’s family. His grandfather, Solomon Young, made a small fortune moving merchandise via wagon train from Missouri to Utah and California but lost all of his money in the Civil War. A typical wagon train consisted of forty to eighty wagons pulled by oxen teams. The roads, if you can call them that, were not good and wouldn’t be until a new mode of transportation—the bicycle—came along. The bicycle craze of the 1880s created a desire and lobby for paved roads.

Truman, in many circumstances, kept his mouth shut about how he felt the Eisenhower administration was handling world affairs. He loathed Richard Nixon but in public was known to shake his hand and smile. Eisenhower snubbed Truman on the former general’s inauguration day and Truman remembered this for a long, long time. But the purpose of the road trip was not only a vacation but to visit former members of Congress and make a speech about our country’s national security to the Reserve Officers Association convention in Philadelphia. Truman was heartily opposed to Eisenhower’s plan to trim back the defense budget. He was also the first ex-president to address the Senate since Andrew Johnson in 1875. Johnson was the only former President to be elected to the Senate and served less than five months before dying. Truman had been one of Missouri’s senators before being tapped as a vice presidential candidate. 

Knowing Fort Wayne’s link to the invention of the television, you’ll be glad to know Truman was ahead of his time when it came to this medium. He didn’t care for the way television turned politicians into “play actors” but he understood how important television was going to be in the future. On August 13, 1943, he declared, “Television is on the threshold of great development….It is true there are many technical and commercial difficulties that must be overcome. But the day cannot be far off when our homes, schools, offices and automobiles will be equipped with television sets. We will see news and sporting events while they are actually happening.”

Wonder what he’d think of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter?

Most of us know of Air Force One but did you know that FDR was the first president to fly while in office? And did you know his plane was dubbed the “Sacred Cow”? Truman also used the plane and for multiple purposes—you’ll have to read the book to find out but one of them involves our neighboring state of Ohio. The “Sacred Cow” was replaced by the “Independence” which was painted to resemble an eagle. Truman flew more than 135,000 miles while in office, taking 61 trips. Eisenhower’s plane, a new one because he didn’t want to use Truman’s hand-me-down, was dubbed the “Columbine” after Mamie’s home state of Colorado flower. The Air Force called it AF8610 but when it entered the same airspace as Eastern Airlines flight 8610, the Air Force changed the name to Air Force One and that’s been the name of the President’s plane ever since.

On July 7, 1953, Truman and his wife spent the night in Richmond, IN. The chapter on this Indiana community was a real eye-opener to this Indiana transplant. Suffice it to say there have been some pretty dark times in our state’s history thanks to the Klan. Truman himself was once a Klan member because it was one thing you had to do in Missouri to get elected. But when he was told he couldn’t hire Catholics and be a Klansman, he withdrew his application and got his money back. He’d commanded too many Catholics in WWI to put up with this.

Books like “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure” are a wonderful way to study history beyond what you get in a classroom. Our presidents, their spouses and others in the public eye become real human beings and that only adds to the fun of studying history.

If you have a favorite history book, send me an email at nancy.mccammon-hansen@fwhistorycenter.com and tell me a little bit about it. We just might share your enthusiasm for the work on our Facebook page or in another blog post!

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