Yesterday's Magazette

11 – My Train Ride With Mr. Truman

My Train Ride With Mr. Truman

By Kirsten Russell

Looking through my father’s correspondence with his parents, I found a letter Dad had written about a train trip our family had taken from central Missouri to New York City in June, 1957. YM:TrumanKirsten age 9

“On the train out of St. Louis,” the  letter began, “we had a most interesting experience: we met Mr. Harry Truman. We rode with him as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he got off to make a hundred-dollar-a-plate speech to some local Democrats.

“I found Mr. Truman far more intelligent than he’s commonly presumed to be. He seems to enjoy every minute of conversation with ordinary people. He talked to anyone on the train who would talk to him, including the porters and waiters. He asked me many questions about my work, and he seemed very pleased when I credited him for having started the technical assistance program.”

Back in January 1949, in the radio broadcast of his inaugural address, President Truman had inspired Dad to work for that technical assistance program, which would later evolve into the U.S. Agency for International Development. Dad’s first foreign post under the program was Tripoli, Libya, North Africa, where my family moved in 1952. When we met Harry Truman in 1957, we were returning to Tripoli for Dad’s third tour of duty there.

By that time I had grown into a maladjusted nine-year-old girl, alienated from my parents. At that age, I couldn’t understand why my parents, in the past year, had turned impatient and punitive toward me. Years later, when I would inherit many of their letters, I would begin to see the problems my parents struggled with in Libya. By the time we had taken our 1957 home leave, Dad was hovering near burnout, and Mother was sunken in depression. Our spring visits with relatives and friends in Missouri lifted our family’s spirits somewhat, but my parents and I remained barely civil with each other. I was the last person you would have expected to play a part in Dad’s meeting with Harry Truman.

When I first saw Mr. Truman in the lounge car of the train, I didn’t know who he was. My family was sitting around a table when he appeared at the opposite end of the car, wearing a light gray suit, surrounded by dark-suited men. His white hair and spectacles reminded me of my paternal grandfather, although Granddad Russell didn’t look so dapper as this man who noticed me watching him. He gave me a smile and I smiled back.

Dad recognized him immediately as former U.S. President Harry Truman, but none of us ventured to approach him. After my family left the lounge car, we split into separate groups in two private sitting rooms that later turned into our bedrooms. I took a seat beside a window. I expected to spend the rest of the afternoon simply watching the constantly changing scenery and listening to the continuous drumroll and the rhythmic click of the train wheels riding the rails.

Then a strange man’s voice prompted me to look away from the window.

“Hello,” he said.

In the open doorway stood one of the dark-suited men I’d seen earlier with Mr. Truman. I don’t recall now which of my siblings were in the room at that moment, but I remember wondering why the man wasn’t looking at anyone else in the room except me. He entered and sat beside me.

“The former President of the United States would like to meet you,” he said. “Would you like to come with me to the lounge car and say hello to him?”

The sudden proximity of this pleasantly scented, handsome stranger alarmed me. I managed to reply, “I’d better ask my parents.”

He followed me to the room occupied by my parents, and he spoke to them in a more matter-of-fact tone than he’d used with me. Dad perked up at the news that Harry Truman wanted to meet me. “I’ll come along,” Dad said.

Mr. Truman remained seated as I stood before him in the lounge and said hello. Then Dad took over the conversation. I stood by mutely while Dad talked and talked. Years later, I would understand why he needed to talk to the president who had inspired him to join the foreign service–why he needed to talk about his successes in his work, about his good experiences with the Libyan people, about the progress of the technical assistance program in Libya.

Mother and my three siblings gathered in the lounge while Dad and Mr. Truman kept talking. Eventually, Mr. Truman said hello to Mother, twelve-year-old Karen, six-year-old David, and two-year-old Rebecca. I felt sure he’d lost interest in me.

But then he turned and spoke to me alone.

“Do you like school?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said nervously.

“What grade are you in?”

“Fourth. Well, I just finished the fourth grade.”

“Well, then, you’re in the fifth grade.” YM:TrumanHarryTruman

After our talk, he decided to give me a keepsake of our meeting. On a sheet of Pennsylvania Railroad stationery, he wrote, “I rode in the Lounge car no. 322, next to Ex Pres Harry S Truman,” and he instructed me to copy the words on the same sheet.

After I grew up I forgot my meeting with Harry Truman, and I didn’t recall it until after Mother died. Looking through a logbook that she had kept of my childhood, I found a yellowed sheet of paper inserted between two pages.

I was glad she had saved the Pennsylvania Railroad stationery sheet marked with Mr. Truman’s handwriting and mine. It brought back memories for me of my train ride with Mr. Truman.

Kirsten Russell’s online publications include a nonfiction story at American Diplomacy and a concert review at Echoes: The Bernard Herrmann Society Journal. “Meeting Harry Truman on a Train” is adapted from a book she is completing, Tales from Tripoli, about her childhood in Libya. She lives on the Florida Space Coast, where the winters remind her of Libya’s coastal winters.


1 Comment »

  1. my dad was on that train!

    Comment by Bob — January 18, 2011 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

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