Read Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip Online

Authors: Matthew Algeo

Tags: #Presidents & Heads of State, #Presidents, #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #General, #United States, #Automobile Travel, #Biography & Autobiography, #20th Century, #History

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip

BOOK: Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
5.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Praise for
Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure

“Utterly likable.” —Christopher Buckley,
Washington Post


“A lively, humorous glimpse into an unlikely presidential vacation and a vanished era.”


—History Magazine


“Brassy, bright, energetic, brief, and declaratively American.”


—Washington Times


“An engaging account…. Well-researched.”


—Wall Street Journal


“This very readable book takes us back to a country quite different in many ways from today. Readers will feel almost like they’re sitting in the back seat of the 1953 Chrysler, enjoying the trip.”




“Algeo chronicles this unlikely excursion in great and wonderful detail…. [An] enchanting glimpse into a much simpler age.”


—Library Journal


“Charming.” —
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


“Engaging.” —


“With deliberate detours, this book is a portal into the past with layers of details providing unusual authenticity and a portrait of the president as an ordinary man.” —
Publishers Weekly


“An absolutely wonderful book.” —


“Now, this is what’s called a road trip.”


—In Transit, New York Times
travel blog


“With this excellent road story, Algeo has helped preserve the essence of a great man.” —
Free Press


The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Algeo, Matthew.
Harry Truman’s excellent adventure / Matthew Algeo. — 1st ed.
    p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-1-55652-777-7
ISBN-10: 1-55652-777-2

1. Truman, Harry S., 1884–1972. 2. Truman, Harry S., 1884–1972—Travel—United States. 3. Automobile travel—United States. 4. Truman, Harry S., 1884–1972—Finance, Personal. 5. Presidents—Retirement—United States. 6. Presidents—United States—Biography. I. Title.

E814.A75 2009


[B]                                           2008040136

Cover design: Visible Logic, Inc.
Interior design and cover layout: Jonathan Hahn
Front cover photo: AP/Wide World Photos
Map design: Chris Erichsen

© 2009 by Matthew Algeo
Afterword © 2011 by Matthew Algeo
All rights reserved

First hardcover edition published 2009

First paperback edition published 2011

Published by Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
814 North Franklin Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610

ISBN 978-1-56976-707-8

Printed in the United States of America
5  4  3  2  1

To Allyson, the best girl ever.


I like roads. I like to move.


—Harry S. Truman



  1  Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 1953

  2  Independence, Missouri, Winter and Spring, 1953

  3  Hannibal, Missouri, June 19, 1953

  4  Decatur, Illinois, June 19–20, 1953

  5  Indianapolis, Indiana, June 20, 1953

  6  Wheeling, West Virginia, June 20–21, 1953

  7  Frostburg, Maryland, June 21, 1953

  8  Washington, D.C., June 21–26, 1953

  9  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 26–27, 1953

10  New York, New York, June 27–July 5, 1953

11  Pennsylvania (or, Abducted), July 5–6, 1953

12  Columbus, Ohio, July 6–7, 1953

13  Richmond, Indiana, July 7, 1953

14  Indianapolis, Indiana, July 7–8, 1953

15  St. Louis, Missouri, July 8, 1953









n the afternoon of July 5, 1953, a slightly bored state trooper named Manley Stampler was patrolling a lonely stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the town of Bedford, about one hundred miles east of Pittsburgh. Around three o’clock, Stampler spotted a gleaming black Chrysler ahead of him in the left lane, with a line of cars behind it. The Chrysler was blocking traffic. It wouldn’t move over to the right lane. Pennsylvania law required—still requires, in fact—that traffic keep right, except to pass. Stampler zipped up the right lane, pulled alongside the Chrysler, and motioned for it to pull over. It was, in the trooper’s estimation, as routine as a routine traffic stop could be.

The Chrysler obediently moved to the right shoulder and slowed to a stop, its tires crunching on the loose gravel. Stampler passed the car and parked in front of it. He stepped out of his cruiser, adjusted his wide-brimmed hat, and slowly strode back toward the Chrysler. When he reached the driver’s window, he bent down and peered inside. Behind the wheel was a white male, mid-to late sixties, round face, big round-rimmed glasses, close-cropped gray hair. Seated next to him was a matronly woman, presumably his wife, looking slightly perturbed. Stampler immediately recognized the couple as Harry and Bess Truman. Until very recently they had been the president and first lady of the United States of America. Now they were in the custody of Trooper Manley Stampler.

“Shit,” Stampler thought to himself. “What am I gonna do now?”

Harry Truman was the last president to leave the White House and return to something resembling a normal life. And in the summer of 1953 he did something millions of ordinary Americans do all the time, but something no former president had ever done before—and none has done since. He took a road trip, unaccompanied by Secret Service agents, bodyguards, or attendants of any kind. Truman and his wife, Bess, drove from their home in Independence, Missouri, to the East Coast and back again. Harry was behind the wheel. Bess rode shotgun. The trip lasted nearly three weeks.

One night they stayed in a cheap motel. Another night they crashed with friends. All along the way, they ate in roadside diners. Occasionally mobs would swarm them, beseeching Harry for an autograph or just a handshake. In towns where they were recognized, nervous local officials frantically arranged “escorts” to look after the famous couple.

Sometimes, though, the former president and first lady went unrecognized. They were, in Harry’s words, just two “plain American citizens” taking a long car trip. Waitresses and service station attendants didn’t realize that the friendly, well-dressed older gentleman they were waiting on was, in fact, America’s thirty-third president (or thirty-second—Harry himself could never understand why Grover Cleveland was counted as two presidents).

Everywhere they went, the Trumans crossed paths with ordinary Americans, from Manley Stampler to New York cabbies. But their trip also took them to the upper reaches of society in mid-twentieth-century America. In Washington, Harry had lunch with two young up-and-coming senators, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and ran into the new vice president, Richard Nixon. Bess had tea with Woodrow Wilson’s widow. In New York, the couple took in the most popular shows on Broadway, and Harry appeared (albeit quite by accident) on a new television program called the

It was a long, strange trip, and, after nearly eight hard years in the White House, Harry Truman loved every minute of it. As one newspaper put it, he was “carefree as a schoolboy in summer.” It would stand out as one of the most delightful and memorable experiences in his long and exceedingly eventful life. It was also an episode unique in the annals of the American presidency, and it helped shape the modern “ex-presidency,” which has become an institution in its own right.

Today ex-presidents get retirement packages that can be worth more than a million dollars a year. When Harry Truman left the White House in 1953, his only income was a small army pension. He had no government-provided office space, staff, or security detail. Shortly before leaving office, he’d had to take out a loan from a Washington bank to help make ends meet. One of the reasons he and Bess drove themselves halfway across the country and back was that they couldn’t afford a more extravagant trip.

Harry and Bess Truman’s road trip also marked the end of an era: never again would a former president and first lady mingle so casually with their fellow citizens. The story of their trip, then, is the story of life in America in 1953, a time of unbridled optimism and unmitigated cold war fear. It is also the story of the monumental changes that have occurred since then.

Between fall 2006 and summer 2008, I retraced the Trumans’ trip in stages, sometimes alone, sometimes with my wife, Allyson. I drove where the Trumans drove, ate where they ate, and slept where they slept. I saw the sights they saw and, whenever possible, met with the people they met with.

In the following pages, I have included stories from my travels if, in my estimation, they help illuminate my account of the Trumans’ trip. I have also included a few stories from my travels simply because I find them interesting or amusing. For this I beg your indulgence.

Like Harry, I crossed paths with ordinary Americans everywhere I went. None but a very few refused my requests for help. Many have become my friends. I have used their real names. For reasons of privacy, however, some surnames are omitted.

Also like Harry, my travels took me to the upper reaches of society. I stayed in some of the country’s most exclusive hotels. I met a former president of the United States. I even made my own appearance on the

Most important, by retracing his trip with Bess, I discovered a Harry Truman not often found in the pages of history books. A Harry Truman who drove too fast. A Harry Truman who was a pretty good tipper. A Harry Truman who loved fruit. I mean, he really loved fruit. And Bess might have loved it even more.

But enough with the preface already. Let’s hit the road with Harry and Bess!


Washington, D.C.,
Inauguration Day, 1953


n January 20, 1953—his last day in the White House—Harry Truman awoke at five-thirty, as usual. He skipped his customary morning walk and, after breakfast, attended to the final business of his presidency. His last official act was the signing of a letter to James A. Campbell, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the federal civil service system. (The system was instituted after one of Truman’s unlucky predecessors, James Garfield, was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, the proverbial “disappointed office seeker.”) In the letter, Truman decried what he called “recent reckless attacks” on civil servants, referring to Republican charges that the federal bureaucracy was infested with communists.

At 8:45, the president began saying good-bye to the White House staff, bounding from room to room, shaking hands with every stenographer, cook, maid, doorman, secretary, mailroom clerk, and telephone operator. The good-byes were heartfelt. Few presidents were as beloved by the White House help. Truman remembered their birthdays. He called them when they were sick. “He has been a wonderful guy to work for,” one unidentified White House employee told a reporter that day. “You just wanted to do things for him.”

Around eleven o’clock, Truman retired to the Red Room. An eighteenth-century French clock on the mantelpiece loudly ticked off the seconds as Truman and his wife, Bess, waited for his successor to arrive. The Trumans had invited Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower to join them inside the White House for coffee before riding to the inauguration. It was a tradition that stretched back nearly 150 years, to 1809, when Madison called on Jefferson. It wasn’t always convivial or comfortable, particularly when the presidents were from different parties, but it symbolized, palpably, the peaceful and democratic transfer of power.

BOOK: Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip
5.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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