Monday, May 18, 2009

Grandpa Truman

Harry Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, wrote an article for Prologue that contains his reminisces of his grandfather. I found this a fun portrayal of President Truman.

He starts by saying that his parents actually hadn’t told him that Grandpa Truman had been president until someone brought it up to him in school at age 6. He said that Grandpa Truman was someone who either got a lot of respect or you avoided completely. You avoided him because he “had some very odd ideas about how children should spend their free time.” He recounts this story:
My younger brother William and I were the first ones down one morning, and as we reached the bottom of the stairs, we saw what looked like the New York Times with a pair of legs, sitting by itself in the living room. We knew who was behind the paper, so we started to tiptoe past him to get to the den where my parents kept the television set. Grandpa lowered the paper to turn the page and caught us.

"Where do you think you're going?" he asked.

"Into the den to watch TV," I said.

"You don't want to do that," he said.

I'm thinking, "Yeah, I do. That's why we were tiptoeing."

"I have a better idea," he said.

With that, he stood, walked past us into the den, and reached up to the top shelf for a book.
"Come on out here and sit by me," he said.

You didn't argue with him, so we sat down and he opened the book and began to read. About 20 minutes later, Mom came downstairs, her eyes half open and her hair standing on end, and stopped cold at the sight in her living room—her two small boys, sitting stock still on either side of her father while he read to us from a book that had absolutely no pictures in it.

"What in God's name are you reading to those two?" she demanded.

He held up the spine of the book so she could read it. It was Thucydides, Greek history, at 6 o'clock in the morning, to a four-year-old and a two-year-old. I went home a few years ago to visit my mother and thought that if Grandpa considered Thucydides so important, I should have another crack at him. I found the book—it's actually Thucydides/Plato from a boxed set—opened it long enough to read the first half-page and put it right back on the shelf. Even at 47, it was tough going.

Clifton Daniel also notes that his grandfather was the last “truly accessible” ex-President and relates this story:
When he retired, the Secret Service protection vanished. It was not extended to ex-Presidents until after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. There is a five-foot steel fence around the house, put up by the Service in 1947, but from 1953 to 1964 it wasn't locked. Anyone who wanted to could walk up and knock on the door.

My favorite story is about the man whose car blew a tire on Delaware Street, right in front of the house. Not knowing where he was or whose house he was approaching, the man walked through the unlocked gate and up to the front door where he rang the bell. Grandpa answered in his shirtsleeves.

"Can I use your phone, please?" the man said. "I have a flat."

"Sure," Grandpa said. "Come on in."

The man called a local mechanic, who said it would take 20 minutes or so to get to him.

"I'll wait outside," he told Grandpa.

"Nonsense," Grandpa said. "Have a seat. Relax."

As far as we know, they spent the next 20 minutes chatting amiably in the living room. When the tow truck arrived, the man stood, shook Grandpa's hand, and thanked him for his hospitality.
"Not at all," Grandpa said, showing the man out. "It was nice talking to you."

The man got halfway down the front steps before he stopped and turned.

"I hope you won't take offense," he said. "But you look a lot like that son of a bitch Harry Truman."

"No offense at all," Grandpa said with wide grin. "I am that son of a bitch."

I hoped you enjoyed this personal look at Truman. You can access the full article for more stories from Mr. Daniel.

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