The little man in the little derby hat
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 5:00 PM
LINDEN, Texas - We were sitting in class in a two-room schoolhouse in Imlay Nev., a long long time ago. I was in the "big room," waiting for my best buddy Dale Austin to get back from lunch. Dale had permission from Miss McClurkin, our big room teacher, to take extra time at lunch to deliver the Nevada State Journal (Reno) around town. About 200 folks lived there, mostly S.P. railroaders and their families. Imlay was a railroad town in northern Nevada on the Southern Pacific railroad line.
Dale came in the room and he was distraught, very near tears. He showed us the newspaper headlines in very big print, "President Roosevelt is dead." We were stunned. The leader of our country, who is fighting the Greatest War of all time, is dead. We have Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini to whip up on. This can't be happening. The story explained that the Vice President Harry Truman would be our new President. My classmates and I had never heard of Harry S. Truman. Now he was our main man.
The war ended, and President Truman was running for re-election as president. Mr. Truman did what became known as "whistlestop" campaigning, speaking from a rear platform on a special built passenger car pulled around the country by huge steam engines. He had his own private car, and he was going cross country to California on a few weeks long campaign trip.
At every terminal stop, the steam engines had to take on water and fuel oil. The terminals were about every hundred and fifty miles, and he came out to the rear platform and talked to the townspeople. We were elated. Ours was a terminal point town on the S.P. Railroad system, where crews changed and the steam engines took on fuel and water.
It was a cold October evening, and the train was scheduled to arrive about 5 p.m. A few of the town's adults and most of the kids were there and waiting well before time for the trains arrival. We walked out to the edge of our small town, knowing about where the end of the train would be. Then we waited and waited and waited. No train. Most of the womenfolk left after dark, then most of the men and kids. Many hours later, we learned that the train was late because of an unexpected delay in Salt Lake City.
About 9 p.m. the train rolled into town. The machinist helper (that was my big brother Jess, who was home from Europe, after whipping up on Hitler and his cronies) started filling the fuel and water cars, and the machinist (that was my father, one of the round house mechanics) was greasing the big driver wheel's journals. This process usually took about fifteen minutes.
The minutes ticked by, and no one appeared on the platform. We started trying to look into the president's car through the windows. Finally, one of the men went up onto the platform and knocked loudly on the door. A man came out and said, "I'm sorry, but the President has retired for the night."
The local man, father to one of my school buddies, was seriously agitated with the turn of events. He became irate, and explained to the Secret Service man that "these kids have been standing out here in the cold for four hours to see the president. This just ain't right." The S.S. man said, I'll see what I can do. He went inside, closed the door, and we knew we would never see the president. A few other people left, but I was one of about 10 who stayed.
The engineer gave the signal (by the steam engine whistle) that the train was ready to leave. Usually, the train started moving about two minutes after the signal. The S.S. man stepped out the door onto the platform, with a smallish man behind him, dressed in pajamas, a silk robe, and a small derby hat on his pumpkin head. The president of the United States was within a few feet of us, waving and talking, though I could barely hear him because of the steam engine blowing steam, getting ready to pull out. Mostly he was apologizing to us for being late, and thanking us for waiting to see him. He talked for about 60 seconds, then said his goodbye.
As the train started moving, Mr. Truman remained, grinning and waving at us, though by then we could barely see him because of the dim lights. Then he was gone, and we stood and watched as the train was disappearing into the night.
In our small crowd, there was just silence, no talking at all. The train whistled out west of town at the last crossing, then it was gone. Yes, Mr. Truman did win the election, and he proved himself a great man to me, that cold night in October in a small Nevada town a long long time ago. How times have changed, and not for the better.
Here is today's "Wit and Wisdom of the Presidents:" Is it any wonder that I chose something about President Truman.?
"We have found that it is easier for men to die together on the field of battle than it is for them to live together at home in peace." -Harry S. Truman, 1946.
As children reach a certain stage, they begin to wonder what brought their parents together. One day, a wife had been griping freely at her husband all the blessed day. That evening, their six year old asked, Daddy, how did you meet Mother? "I took a thorn out of her paw," the father growled.
Roy Bale can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.