Pals by Mike Wilson

Truman walked around town all the time after he came home. His morning course was always different. Some mornings he could be seen walking down south of town near the train depot, sometimes alongside the tracks even, and other days he was spotted as far north as Kentucky Road, all the way up near the river. But by mid-morning he’d always end up back in the middle of town for lunch. His favorite place to eat was the Courthouse Exchange. He’d eat there every day. He was always seated at the same table in the back corner of the restaurant. At this particular time of day he was never too hard to find.

He ordered something different every day for lunch; he often joked that this habit was something he picked up from Stalin at Potsdam. He folded his napkin under his plate the same way every time when he was done. He left the same amount of tip to the same waitress. He was quiet. He always wore white. If you looked at this old man, a man who was my oldest friend, you would never guess that at his behest 105,000 people were once vaporized half a world away.

He ate by himself. Rarely did Bess accompany him. He would stare out the window and, every so often, fidget with his cane. He would eye this cane as he ate because the bustle of the dining room would jiggle it against the unoccupied chair. The cane would almost fall before he would reach for it with a certain tenderness and urgency — as if it would detonate the A-bomb again if he allowed it to fall. He used to grip this cane so hard when he walked that if you got close enough to it you could see tiny grooves from where his nails dug into the balsa handle. He told me once that he felt like Titus Cincinnatus when he carried this cane.

Folks approached him all the time. They shook his hand while he was out for a walk around the square or they brought a note pad over for him to sign as a memento. He was never rude to people if they came up for an autograph or a handshake. He never feared assassination or rebuke, even after Kennedy, though he also told me one time that he wouldn’t be surprised if one day he ended up like Julius Caesar, stabbed to death one morning below the local statue of Andrew Jackson. I told him he was obsessed with the Romans. “You’re right about that,” he said.

Sometimes folks would walk up to him and shake a fist at him as though he was Ted Williams at bat or something, as though they were cheering him on. This always amazed him, this enthusiasm. People would come right up to him and say, “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” just to be able to say they said this to Harry Truman. This was something people would say to him back when he was going for re-election, and back then it almost excited him physically to hear it. Now this was something he seemed annoyed by, but he’d wave anyway to whoever said these words, and he’d say, “Okay, okay. Okay, sure.”

Halfway through his stroll around the square he’d find a bench to sit on. If it was after lunch he’d say this rest was necessary to let his food settle. He’d usually sit near the old statue of Jackson; he liked this seat near Jackson, he said, because it was at a high enough elevation that he claimed he could see all the way to the south Grandview farmland where he grew up. He’d let out a belch or else relieve himself of some gas, and he’d always be embarrassed when people chose this time to seek an autograph or handshake. “I’m no flower,” he said to me often.

Soon Truman began taking his walks at night instead. He still went for lunch and he still had his stroll around the square but he cut it short, abbreviated it, and saved the steps he used for clearing his head for times in the quiet of night when no one else was out. He used to say he could get some real thinking done this way. Some nights he would slip out in the earliest hours of the morning, just after midnight, and he would say it was the only time of day when he knew he wasn’t being watched. I asked him if this meant he didn’t want me to join him on these strolls any more. “That’s not what I mean,” he said, “we go way back. We’re Independence boys — we’re pals. You help me clear my head, help remind of the good times, the old times.”

We’d amble through the dark. One time he led me away from the sidewalks of the square through the muddy fields of a short cut up to Highway 24. We stopped in a glen where we could smell the pores of the earth opening up from the spring rains. I stood behind him. His white slacks had droplets of mud on the backs of the thighs from us sloshing over the soil. He pointed across the way. “See it?” he said. From there we could see the outline of the construction of his presidential library. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. So I told him good job, and I meant it, but he said I was being a smart ass. Then I asked him. It was the only time I ever asked him about his presidency because I knew that it was all anyone ever asked about.

Harry had known for a long time the kind of trouble I was in. Any time I’d talk to him about it he’d only say, “I don’t know how you could have ever gotten caught up in something like that.” That night, looking across the highway with him, I told him that I had stood in front of the mirror the night before and my reflection wouldn’t move. I would step left and right and would bend my knees up and down but my reflection stayed right there. I asked him if he’d ever had anything like that happen to him when he was president. And then Truman was laughing. I was laughing, too. When we stopped laughing I clarified. “I’m being serious,” I said. “I was moving all around but my reflection inside the looking glass wouldn’t budge. I was just standing still from inside there. I couldn’t make my reflection move at all.” I asked him to use his relationship with the mayor to see if there was something wrong with the drinking water. He laughed harder when I said this. Even today I can still hear him laughing at my words, that laugh of his, like two bricks rubbing together inside his throat. He was laughing that this experience had only just now come to me.

 

 

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