When an ex-president gets behind the wheel, the destination is Adventure!
You’ve just wrapped up the most demanding job on earth. For nearly eight years you were President of the United States. You used the atomic bomb for the first time, transitioned the economy from war footing back to a peacetime free market basis (including managing the tsunami of millions of men and women rushing home from World War II, each impatiently demanding a job and a place to live), helped create the United Nations, and stood up to Communist aggression in Korea.
So, what do you do next?
You hit the road, of course.
July is peak summer vacation season. Chances are you probably know someone who’s enjoying a getaway in the family jalopy right now, which makes this the perfect time to revisit one of the unlikeliest getaways of all time.
To fully appreciate this story, you must first understand that except for being a politician, Harry Truman was one of us: a levelheaded, down to earth middle-class guy who struggled to pay his bills, cherished his wife and daughter with all his heart, and enjoyed a snort of good Kentucky bourbon and a friendly game of poker from time to time.
And like most of us, Harry loved cars.
He’d grown up seeing the original horseless carriages chugging down country roads. In fact (again like so many of us) he loved his first car more than any other. A 1911 Stafford, hand made in Kansas City – one of only 350 cars the company produced that he bought used in 1916. It was fancy, too: a five seater, four cylinder with steering wheel on the right side and enough brass to make a marching band jealous. Harry’s mother gave him the $650 to buy it … an enormous pile of money for a farm family that was up to its ears in debt. But she had a mother’s heart, and she knew the Stafford would make it easier for her son to court Bess Wallace, who lived 20 miles away in Independence, Missouri.
Over the years, Harry developed a thing for Chrysler products. The day after his re-election to the U.S. Senate in November 1940, he splurged and bought a Plymouth Royal Club Coupe and a Plymouth Windsor sedan. One for him, the other for Bess. Total price for both vehicles: $2,708 (after trade-in for two older cars.)
The Trumans drove those cars in Washington. They still had them when Harry unexpectedly became president upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 … and they were waiting in Independence when the Trumans left the White House in January 1953.
The folks at the Chrysler Corporation heard about Harry’s remarkable customer loyalty and gave him a brand new 1953 Chrysler New Yorker in appreciation. (Believing even a former president shouldn’t be beholden to a corporate giant, Harry insisted on paying $1 for it, so it wouldn’t be a gift.)
That big, shiny black New Yorker had Harry itching to hit the road, and he knew just how to persuade Bess to go with him. They could drive it to visit their daughter Margaret in New York City. What mom could say no to that?
Harry was up at his usual 5:30 a.m. on Friday, June 19, 1953, and not long after sunrise he personally loaded eleven suitcases into the trunk, scooped Bess into the passenger seat, and headed east. There were no Secret Service agents tagging along (they wouldn’t be assigned to ex-presidents until after JFK’s assassination a decade later). Just a former president, a former first lady, a full tank of gas and plenty of highway maps in the glove compartment.
They were much like any married couple on the road. Harry tended to have a lead foot, Bess scolded him to slow down, and he silently fumed. (It must have been hard for a guy who had negotiated with Churchill and Stalin to have the Mrs. constantly reminding him to take it easy on the gas pedal.)
The Trumans headed to Washington, DC first. They knew the way by heart from their many trips during the Senate years, and like all veteran travelers in that pre-McDonald’s drive-thru era, they had favorite places to grab a bite to eat along the way. First stop was a diner in Hannibal, Missouri, where they both had fruit plates and iced tea.
Congress wouldn’t grant former presidents a pension for several more years, so Harry had to count pennies. They were no-frills travelers anyway; they shelled out $5 for a room in the Motel Parkview in Decatur, Illinois (which currently enjoys a new lease on life as a work-release prison.)
Ever spent the night with friends while traveling? So did the Trumans. Late one night young Claire McKinney, whose dad had been Democratic National Committee chairman, tried to tiptoe unnoticed into her family’s Indianapolis home, only to find Harry tickling the family piano’s ivory in the living room.
Harry and Bess went whole hog at Frostburg, Maryland’s Princess Restaurant – two chicken dinners for $1.40, plus tip. When word got out the former president was eating there (a plaque now marks the booth where they sat) the Princess quickly filled up. Harry later said, “I had been there before, but in those days they didn’t make such a fuss over me. I was just a senator then.”
Stopping later at a gas station for a fill-up and a Coke, the owner asked him to give his mechanic a hard time for being a Republican. Harry’s response: “It’s too hot to give anybody hell.”
His return to Washington, where Harry was finally a private citizen again after 18 years as senator, vice president and president, was a triumph.
But it was nothing compared to their time in the Big Apple. Harry and Bess painted the town red. A suite at the Waldorf Towers, two Broadway shows, and even dinner at the trendy nightclub 21, where the maître d’hôtel pulled off a geographic miracle by seating them far away from Governor Thomas Dewey, the man Truman had kept out of the White House in the famous 1948 presidential upset.
The trip’s highlight came on July 5 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during the drive home. Ironically, Harry was -for once- obeying Bess’ scolding and was driving 55 miles-per-hour, her preferred rate of speed. The problem was the Turnpike’s speed limit was higher, and Harry was poking along in the left lane, forcing a line of cars to build up behind him.
Without having any idea who was driving, Pennsylvania State Trooper Manley Stampler pulled alongside Harry and motioned for him to pull over. (Pennsylvania’s state cop cars didn’t have flashing lights back then.) Imagine Stampler’s shock when he saw who was behind the wheel. Here’s how he recalled it: “I told him what he had done wrong and he said he didn’t realize it—that it wasn’t intentional. Then, I told him how dangerous the Turnpike is and … wouldn’t he please be more careful. He was very nice about it and promised to be more careful.” Bess chimed in, saying, “Don’t worry, Trooper, I’ll watch him.” Stampler added the two minute encounter “seemed to last a long time.”
The press found out at about the incident and had a field day. Harry shrugged it off, claiming the trooper had pulled him over only for the chance to shake hands.
This story sounds charming because it is so totally impossible today. Can you imagine any of our four living ex-presidents answering the call of the open road, free to go wherever the four winds happened to blow them? In this Age of Terrorism, could they do it even if they wanted to? Probably not.
A final note: author Matthew Algeo (to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for uncovering details about this remarkable trip), eventually tracked down Harry’s 1953 New Yorker. After trading it in for a new Chrysler in 1955, it changed hands a few times until a Kansas farmer eventually bought it in the 1970s. The poor car sat neglected outdoors for 25 years, exposed to the elements, until it was eventually hauled inside a barn in 1998.
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