Monday, April 06, 2009

Summer '53

Sunday's New York Times had a fun column by Matthew Algeo on Harry and Bess Truman's post-White House road trip in the summer of 1953.

A few graphs:

In Truman’s time, things were quite different. When he retired, 10 years before the Kennedy assassination, former presidents had no Secret Service protection. Nor were they entitled to pensions. Truman’s only income was an Army pension of $111.96 a month, and he refused to “commercialize” the presidency by accepting lucrative business offers or extravagant speaking fees. Like his hero Cincinnatus, the Roman leader who forsook power to return to his farm, Truman believed he could easily make the transition from leader of the free world to, as he put it, “plain, private citizen.”

So, that first summer after leaving the White House, Truman and his wife, Bess, did what ordinary Americans do every summer: they took a vacation. For 19 days they drove around the country, from their home in Independence, Mo., to the East Coast and back again.

Harry and Bess Truman were frugal travelers. They ate a lot of fruit plates at roadside diners. In Decatur, Ill., they stayed at the Parkview, a motel on Route 36 where rooms cost about five bucks a night. (That motel is now a prison for work-release inmates.)

And like countless other road trippers, they crashed with friends. In Indianapolis, they stayed at the home of Frank McKinney, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and his wife, Margaret. When the McKinneys’ daughter Claire came home late from a night of dancing, she found the former president banging away on the living room piano.

In Frostburg, Md., the Trumans stopped at the Princess Restaurant, where they splurged on chicken dinners (70 cents each). The cook, George Pappas Jr., a World War II veteran, recognized his old commander in chief right away. Telephones all over town started ringing, and soon business was booming at the Princess. “I had been there before,” Truman wrote, “but in those days they didn’t make such a fuss over me. I was just a senator then.”

A little farther down the road in Frederick, Truman stopped at Carroll Kehne’s Gulf station for gas and a Coke. When Kehne asked him to give his mechanic, Albert Kefauver, a hard time for being a Republican, Truman declined. “It’s too hot to give anybody hell,” he explained. After Kehne died in 1994, his son found Truman’s Coke bottle and donated it to the local historical society.

Read the entire column here.

The NYT illustration above is credited to Brian Cronin.

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