Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bess rode shotgun (Summer reading #1)

Whether you've got big plans for a summer vacation or just plan to sit poolside and soak up some sun, you've got to have something to read, right? To me the quintessential American vacation is the road trip, but that might not be so attractive an idea with current gas prices. So if you've decided to just stay home why not read about a great American road trip?

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road TripWhen Harry Truman left the White House in 1953 he went home to what he anticipated would be normal life in Independence, Missouri. That summer, however, he and his wife, Bess, returned to Washington for a speech and decided to make it a road trip and drive themselves in his new Chrysler - no secret service, no reporters, no fanfare. Even though Truman left office with an abysmal 22% approval rating he was recognized and enthusiastically greeted at almost every stop (more recent presidents with such problems could take note). Police chiefs and sheriffs sometimes assigned protection while the Trumans were in their county and Harry was pulled over a number of times (sometimes because of his lead foot and sometimes just because he was the former president). They stayed in motels and were hounded for autographs and photos by diners in restaurants, gas station attendants, and the press. Harry graciously obliged them all.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo is a fun little book (only 230 pages and loaded with photos) that retraces Truman's route with numerous detours to explain the politics, geography, and social conditions of the time. Algeo also recounts his own adventure following the route - what restaurants and hotels are still there and what they're like now or what's replaced them, and his experiences visiting some of the same people who greeted Harry along the way (some even invited him to eat and spend the night in their homes). This isn't serious or heavy history - it's a light-hearted and short diversion - so it ought to be perfect summer or vacation reading. It's amusing and insightful and offers a window into a more quaint and friendly era.

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