Help From On High


We were forty-eight students: we had to have some leverage somewhere. But where? I had never before had the occasion to petition my governmental representatives. I wasn’t even sure who they were. By now it was well past midnight, but the hope lingered. I began my efforts at political influence by calling the mayor. No one answered. I called the Chicago Tribune to find the names and phone numbers of my state legislative representatives and called them. No one answered. In the middle of our second bottle of wine I realized that Washington was the answer; that’s where the CAA was.

At 4:00 A.M. the long-distance operator dialed the White House for us. On the third ring a man answered in a slow voice with an unmistakable accent.

Back to the Tribune for more telephone numbers. Operators deflected the calls to my congressional representatives and instructed me in polite detail how to reach them in the morning. Then, in a moment of slightly drunken inspiration, I came upon a solution that matched my desperation. I’d call the President! Even though it was about 4:00 A.M. Washington time! So what!

I’d made all my calls through the same person-to-person, long-distance operator, and by now she had become involuntarily involved in our plight. When I rang her once again and told her I wanted her to reach President Harry Truman, I was heartened by the fact that she didn’t ring off immediately. Dutifully she called the information operator in Washington to get the telephone number of the White House, then dialed it. I held my breath and at the edge of my mind registered surprise that the call wasn’t answered on the first ring as had been the calls to Congress. On the third ring a man answered in a slow, deliberate voice that twanged with an unmistakable Midwestern accent.

Operator: “This is the long-distance operator in Chicago, Illinois, with a person-to-person call for President Harry Truman.”

“This is Mr. Truman. Who is it that is calling?”

“Mr. Justin Simon, in Chicago, Illinois.”

“What is the nature of Mr. Simon’s business?”

Me: “Operator, tell Mr. Truman that I need his help. Forty-eight ambassadors of good will, college students from across the country, are stranded in Chicago because the CAA has denied permission for our chartered airplane to land here in Chicago and take them off for the summer in Europe.”

“Operator, ask Mr. Simon why that happened. Well, Mr. Simon, since you’re on the line, you can just tell me. Why did the CAA do that?”

“That’s why I’ve bothered you in the middle of the night, sir. I’m terribly sorry to have bothered you, but we can’t find out why the CAA did that. We’ve tried everything we can to find out what the snag is, and we can’t. All these students are stranded here and most of them can’t hole up for very long, and we just have to get our airplane or a whole lot of plans are about to be ruined, and lots and lots of American good will aimed for Europe will go down the drain.”

“Well, I don’t much mind that you’ve called me. I was up anyway. 1 don’t know anything about this, but if you’ll call Mr. Rogers in my Department of Transportation at eight-thirty Washington time”—he gave me the phone number—“I’ll do what I can to see that he can tell you something. Well, it might be best if you didn’t call him until about a quarter to nine. He’ll know something by then.”

“Thanks, Mr. President.”

“Oh, you’re welcome.”

Sleep was out of the question. The call to Mr. Rogers at the appointed time rendered the news that all the problems were resolved and the airplane was on its way. I called the passengers and then met them at the airport, and we watched together through a chain-link fence as a dot in the western sky grew into our airplane. It landed and then carried us to Europe. Our relief and elation were unbounded, but the enduring effect of the crisis was the one created by Mr. Truman. This is what responsive and responsible governance is all about, but in a detail so miniature as to be far beneath the call of presidential duty. But not the way Mr. Truman defined it. He not only saved our summer, he also instilled an optimism about government that resides in my heart to this day. I’m deeply grateful for both gifts.

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