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In the summer of 1953, five months after leaving the White House, former President Harry Truman and his wife Bess set out on a road trip from their home in Independence, Missouri. It was, to put it mildly, a different era. The Trumans took their own car—a black 1953 Chrysler New Yorker—and they had no Secret Service agents or other assistants. They were private citizens now, and though the notion that they could drive across the country incognito proved to be wishful thinking, they certainly attracted a lot less attention than they would have in today’s world of 24-hour cable news and cell-phone cameras.

Their itinerary was based around three destinations, all in the East: Washington, where the ex-president “reconvened” his old cabinet for dinner at the Mayflower Hotel and addressed the Senate in the Capitol; Philadelphia, where he delivered his first major speech since leaving office; and New York, where the couple visited their daughter, Margaret. But much of the trip’s quirky flavor came on the road itself, and has been captured by Matthew Algeo C’88 in Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, published this year by Chicago Review Press. Below are some excerpts.


As Independence faded in his rearview mirror, Harry Truman might have been the happiest man in Missouri, if not all forty-eight states … He always preferred the freedom of the road to the plush confines of a Pullman car. Even when he was president, he would occasionally take the wheel of his limo, much to the consternation of his Secret Service agents.

Driving not only satisfied his need to keep moving; it also helped him gauge the country’s mood. “You have to get around and listen to what people are saying,” he said.

He fancied himself an excellent driver, naturally, but in reality, riding shotgun with Harry Truman could be a hair-raising adventure. As his longtime friend Mize Peters once told an interviewer, rather diplomatically, “I have driven with him when I was a little uneasy.”

By far his biggest vice was speed. Bess was right: Harry drove too fast.


Bess, of course, had made Harry promise that he would drive no faster than fifty-five miles per hour, even though the speed limit on many highways at the time was sixty or sixty-five—and in some places there were no limits at all. (In Missouri, for example, drivers were merely required to maintain a “reasonable and prudent” speed.) But, owing to his lead foot, Harry found it almost impossible to keep that promise. Just a few miles outside Independence, Bess turned to him and said, “What does the speedometer say?”

“Fifty-five,” Harry answered.

“Do you think I’m losing my eyesight? Slow down!”

Harry obeyed, and soon everything else on the road was passing the decelerated Trumans. “Not only that,” Harry remembered, “but since we were going so slowly, they had a chance to look us over. Pretty soon the shouted greetings started: ‘Hi Harry!’ ‘Where are you going, Harry?’ ‘Hey! Wasn’t that Harry Truman?’”

“Well,” Harry said to Bess, a bit of I-told-you-so in his voice, “there goes our incognito—and I don’t mean a part of the car.”


On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Harry Truman must have found it extremely difficult to abide by his wife’s prohibition against speeding. To his credit, he did—yet he still got in trouble.

Harry was in the left lane, cruising along at fifty-five with a line of cars behind him, when Pennsylvania State Trooper Manley Stampler pulled alongside him and motioned for him to pull over. (At the time, state police cars in Pennsylvania had no emergency lights.)

Harry later claimed the only reason the trooper pulled him over was to “shake hands.”

That’s not how Manley remembers it.


July 5, 1953, began as a “typical day,” Manley remembered. He was pulling an eight-hour shift on the pike. When he saw that big black Chrysler blocking traffic in the left lane, he had no idea who the driver was. He only knew the law was being broken.

When he realized he’d pulled over the former president, Manley was flabbergasted. He hadn’t heard about the Trumans’ trip. “I just couldn’t believe that I had pulled this man over.” But he had a job to do. He gave Harry a brief lecture, the same one he delivered to countless other motorists.

“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.” Truman was smiling, Manley remembered. “He was very nice about it and promised to be more careful.” Bess leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, Trooper, I’ll watch him.” With that, Trooper Stampler told the former president and first lady they were free to go. The stop had lasted only about two minutes, though to Manley “it seemed a long time.”


Back at the barracks at the end of his shift, Manley casually said to his desk sergeant, “You’ll never guess who I pulled over today.” The sergeant excitedly phoned the Bedford Gazette, and the next day the story appeared in newspapers nationwide. The press had a field day. “From the standpoint of the personal safety of one of America’s two living ex-presidents,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial, “we hope Mr. Truman will exercise greater care in the future. Fortunately Private Stampler was forbearing. He didn’t give the ex-president a ticket. But the next time—who knows?”


Reprinted by arrangement with Chicago Review Press from Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, by Matthew Algeo. Copyright © 2009 by Matthew Algeo.


 


 
     
  ©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/26/09