Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Funeral of Harry Truman

 As I have mentioned in several stories, there weren't a lot of things for young adult males to do in and around Crockett, Texas. After my friends and I went off to college and were exposed to campus life, it was even worse when we were home in Crockett for any length of time. We would get together and circle the strip and whine about the lack of activities.
In December of 1972 former President Harry S. Truman passed away at his home in Independence, Missouri. You might be wondering what prompted a couple of East Texas college students to drive 700 miles to a funeral. Here is the reasoning behind it all.
Eugene May, Bruce Bennett and I were riding around and generally bitching about being in Crockett for several weeks. I was constantly changing radio stations for something that would come in for more than two minutes. The only local station on that time of night was KIVY-FM, and it didn't offer anything of interest. I stopped on KLIF, a radio station in Dallas, which happened to be in the middle of the news. They were running a report from Kansas City, Missouri. President Truman's casket was on display in his library in Independence. The funeral services were to be held the following afternoon.
A shuttle was running throughout the night from the parking lot of Arrowhead Stadium to the library for people who wanted to file by the casket and pay their last respects.
In March of 1972 the basketball team from Stephen F. Austin was in the national tournament in Kansas City. After they won their first couple of games it appeared they might make the finals. Eddie Driskill, my roommate from Crockett, and I made the trip to Kansas City and attended their quarterfinals game. We spend one night in Independence and drove by the stadium complex a couple of times. Before leaving Nacogdoches we had stopped by to ask Eugene if he wanted to go with us. He had refused. We had a great time and had come home with many great tales -- a couple of them true. We had given him hell about not going and he had been regretting it ever since.
While KLIF was reporting the activities in Independence I was again telling Eugene what he missed by not going with us. Then, for some unknown reason I said, "We should go to Harry Truman's funeral!" Eugene and Bruce just gave me a disgusted look and the subject was dropped.
A few minutes later Bruce said he needed to go home, so we dropped him off. He asked if I wanted to play tennis the next day and I said okay. Eugene and I continued to ride around.
We were so bored we stopped at the Pit Grill for a cup of coffee. It wasn't a safe place to eat unless you had at least three beers in you. A chicken fried steak could be lethal unless there was a little alcohol in your stomach to kill off the parasites. We were at our lowest point when we resorted to a visit to the Pit Grill.
It was then I started in on Eugene about going to Harry Truman's funeral. After five minutes of prodding he changed his mind. I went to the pay phone and called Bruce and asked him to go with us. For some reason he thought we must have consumed a few beers after taking him home. He just laughed and declined. We were off to my house to tell my parents.
I woke up my parents and told them our plans. They loaned me some money and told me to be careful. They were used to my impulsive trips. Telling Leonard May was going to be another matter.
Eugene was supposed to help his dad with a painting job the next day. His dad was not going to take the news of our trip very well. We stood in Eugene's kitchen for a few minutes while he tried to work up the courage to tell his dad. He finally chickened out and decided to leave a note. The note said simply "Gone to Truman's funeral, be back Thursday. Eugene." He decided that would be a satisfactory explanation when his dad had to do the job by himself the next day. He stuck in on the refrigerator with a magnet and we were on our way.
We decided to take Eugene's Chevy Impala. It was a tank and a gas hog, but gas was 30 cents a gallon at the time. It would be a more comfortable ride than my Pinto. It was nearly midnight when we left Crockett.
Even though it was December, the temperature in Crockett was very mild. Since we were heading so far north I picked up a heavy coat before leaving my house. In his haste to get out of his house Eugene grabbed a lightweight jacket out of the closet. It was little heavier than a lined windbreaker. He would be sorry later.
We drove north through Dallas, Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kansas. We then turned northeast and headed for Kansas City. The weather was getting progressively colder and there was snow along the ditches and under the trees. We made it to Kansas City, Missouri in the middle of the morning. It was cold and miserable.
We stopped to eat just east of Kansas City, then drove a short distance to Independence. There were signs along the interstate giving directions to the Truman Library. It was apparently the number one tourist destination in town.
The actual funeral service was private and attended only by family and a number of dignitaries from around the world. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the walls that surrounded the library and lined the streets on all four sides. We could only imagine how many people would be there if the weather hadn't been so nasty.
Eugene found a spot to park about half a mile from the library. We put on our coats and started walking down the street. At that point Eugene began to realize he had picked the wrong coat in his haste to get out of the house. He was shaking like a wet dog. The service was underway by the time we got to the street in front of the main gate of the library.
Unbelievably we were able to go to the front of the crowd with no trouble and stood at the barrier across from the main gate. There were television cameras on top of the wall to get shots of the mourners as they left the service.
We stood at the barriers for about twenty minutes freezing our asses off. Just about the time we thought about heading back to the car, limos began to line up across the street. Within a couple of minutes the doors of the building opened and people started coming out. Bess Truman and other family members got in the first car. Next came General Omar Bradley in a wheelchair, being attended by at least six other generals. A few more people we recognized came out; followed by many we did not. As usual, I didn't have a camera with me. A little old lady was standing a couple of rows behind us. She tapped me on the back and asked if I could take some pictures for her. I told her yes, and I then took a couple of dozen shots with her camera. She thanked me and when I said "you're welcome" she immediately asked me what part of Texas we were from? I told her we had driven up from Crockett to attend the funeral. She turned and started telling a bunch of other ladies in her group where we were from. After the story made it to the back of the pack it had turned into us riding to Independence on a motorcycle. She got my name address and said she would mail me copies of all the pictures. It has been over thirty years and I'm still waiting.
We turned and headed for the car in a dead run. I was very cold, but Eugene had to be near hypothermia by then. We turned up the heater all the way and headed out of the neighborhood ahead of the crowd.
We consulted the map and decided to drive directly south along the western border of Missouri and Arkansas to East Texas. As we crossed under Interstate 70 we stopped at a Stuckeys for lunch. We had been up for well over twenty-four hours and we were getting tired. We bought a box of No-Doze and hoped they worked like it said they would on the box.
Eugene was dating a girl from Lovelady, Texas named Becky Driskell. While at Stuckeys he decided to call her. She answered the phone and immediately told him she had tried to call him that morning. He told her he was in Independence, Missouri with me and we had just been at the funeral of President Truman. She said something like "Bullshit!" Then she said, "You are at the Dairy Queen aren't you? Don't go anywhere, I'm coming to town." She hung up the phone. I'm not sure she was ever convinced of the story until after we returned home and Eugene explained it all to her. Of course, she was a high school student and also lived in Lovelady. At that time of her life the world felt like it ended at the Trinity and Neches rivers.
We picked up a few trinkets that said Kansas City, Missouri on them, and also a copy of the Kansas City Star newspaper. I wish I had kept something to remember it by. I think Eugene turned his over to Becky as proof positive he actually went. We drank a couple of cups of coffee each to fight off the fatigue and hit the road.
The drive through western Missouri and the Ozark Mountains is probably a beautiful one if it isn't cloudy and overcast and it isn't going back and forth between rain and snow. Before we got to Joplin, Missouri, it was dark and still raining. The only thing noteworthy was when we passed through a little town called Tipton Ford. Since the Ford dealership in Nacogdoches was Tipton Ford, we decided it would be neat to steal the city limit sign and take it home with us. Eugene had a crescent wrench in his trunk, so we went to work on it. It was so cold and messy we were making no progress at all. A car passed by and we ran to the ditch and pretended to piss. We gave up and continued our drive south.
The drive through western Arkansas was even more wet and nasty. The narrow mountain roads were muddy and slushy. We stopped on more than one occasion to wipe the crud off the headlights so we could see the highway. Being scared for our lives at least was keeping us awake.
We pulled into Crockett around 6 a.m. on Thursday. Eugene took me home, then headed for his house. He was hoping to get home and into bed before his dad woke up. He had missed work the day before and knew his dad wasn't going to be happy. I wished him luck.
I woke up in the middle of the afternoon and drove to Eugene's house. He had just gotten out of bed. He had put the copy of the Kansas City Star on the table along with some other items of proof we brought home. About that time Leonard May walked through the door. He stood and glared at us for what seemed like an hour. He then told us what was the funniest part of the tale.
When he got up on Tuesday morning he saw Eugene's note on the refrigerator. He read it a couple of times. He kept thinking, "Who does Eugene know named Truman?" He never had a clue that it was Harry S. Truman. He was a little pissed that Eugene wasn't home, but he had never suspected where he was. He went to work, and in the middle of the morning he took a coffee break at the Royal Café.
Now Crockett is a small town and stories tend to travel around at lightning speed. Mr. May was sitting at the Royal working on a cup of coffee when two ladies walked in and sat down nearby. One was looking at a newspaper, and naturally the headline was about the funeral of President Truman. She turned to the other lady and said, "Can you believe Jimmy Beasley and Eugene May are at Harry Truman's funeral right now?"
Mr. May nearly spit coffee all over himself. He said when he realized who Truman was he walked straight to the door and left the café before anyone recognized him. He said, "I didn't want anyone to know that my son and his idiot friend were stupid enough to drive to Missouri to a funeral!"
Apparently Bruce Bennett and Smitty Dean had stopped by my house earlier that morning to see if I still wanted to play tennis. When my mother told them I was with Eugene at Harry Truman's funeral Bruce realized I wasn't kidding when I called him the night before. My mother was in town later in the morning and told a few people, and Bruce and Smitty spread the word as well. By the time Leonard May took a coffee break later that morning half the town knew where we were.
Mr. May stood there looking irritated while we started giving him a fast version of our trip. We would laugh about things we thought were funny, but his expression never changed. After we finished he continued to stare at us for another minute or two. Finally he shook his head and said, "Well, I hope like hell Nixon doesn't die!" With that he left the room.
LBJ died the next month. We stayed home.

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