Saturday, June 28, 2008 -- near Edwardsville, IL
Traveling and touring have taken most of my energy the past few days, but I now have a little time to get caught up on the blog. So here' goes.
We left the Omaha/Council Bluffs area this past Wednesday and made the easy drive down to the Kansas City area. As much as I don't like big towns we surely seem to be gravitating toward them during this part of the trip. Why Kansas City? It's on the Missouri River and if we're going to follow the L&C Gang back to their starting point we've got to be close to the river. But there really isn't much Lewis & Clark stuff here in the immediate KC area, so we shifted gears a little and decided to spend one day visiting the Harry Truman Library and Home in Independence, MO, now part of the bulging Kansas City Metroplex.
I found an RV park right in Independence called the Campus RV Park. It turned out to be the perfect place to stay... just an easy walk to the town square, Harry & Bess's home at 219 N. Delaware, and the Truman Library. We'd stay here again if we're back in the area. This was a short stay -- only two nights. As we near Wisconsin the bus-house is "smelling the barn".
About 10am on Thursday I found myself standing in Harry and Bess's home at 219 N. Delaware. It's been frozen in time, preserved by the National Park Service, pretty much as it was during their last years. An image I'll remember forever is the kitchen. I think more than any other room, the kitchen told me volumes about Harry. Even for the 50's and 60's, it was extremely unpretentious... the old green shiplap wainscoting, the wallpapered walls and ceiling, the single dim circular fluorescent light in the middle of the ceiling... the old kitchen sink with the drainboards on either side... the lack of counter space... the little table pushed up against a wall between two windows, just enough room for two, where they had breakfast and lunch every day. On that table was a toaster and a set of metal tongs.. the story goes that Bess never liked Harry using metal tongs to pull toast out of the toaster, for fear of electric shock. So she'd regularly replace the metal tongs with some wooden ones only to find the metal ones back a day or two later. The linoleum flooring was separating at a seam... right in the middle off the room. Instead of replacing the floor, Harry used roofing nails to stitch and secure the ragged edges.
Despite sounding like the simple life of a President prior to his public life, this was the life of Harry and Bess after Harry returned to Independence to live his last 20 years. After all the trappings of the Presidency, the most powerful leader in the world, hanging around with heads of state, Kings, Queens, traveling the globe, state dinners, having people ready to do anything he asked, go anywhere he asked... after all this, here's Harry and Bess, having breakfast in their little kitchen, Harry tugging a piece of toast out of the toaster with his metal tongs while Bess shakes her head.
When his stint as President was over in 1953 he said, "I tried never to forget who I was and where I'd come from and where I was going back to.... After nearly eight years in the White House and ten years in the Senate, I found myself right back where I started in Independence, Missouri."
Unlike some recent vacatees of the White House with big heads and inflated egos, who seem to believe that it was all about them personally, not the office of the Presidency, and have parlayed their public service into a personal wealth accumulation program, Harry wanted to go back to his previous life -- the life he valued more than any other.
Every day, Harry would take his morning constitutional... his legendary daily walk around the town of Independence. Every night, after dinner, he'd sit with Bess in their home library and read. There was a TV in the home, sort of tucked off in a corner, with no chairs facing it, and it was rarely used. He was a voracious reader; his home library is packed with books, as is his office at the Truman Library. After the Truman Library was finished in 1957 he'd walk to his office there most days. That office is still maintained as it was when he died in 1972.
We walked the streets of Independence that day, did the walking tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Library and Museum, had an ice cream cone at the Clinton Drug Store where Harry had his first job. It was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling days we've spent recently. It isn't often you get this kind of glimpse into the life of someone that did what he did.
Days like today inspire me to read and learn more about people and events in history. I think we'll delay the Direct TV subscription another year.