Whistle Stop

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During the golden Indian summer of 1948, I was an eleven-year-old aspiring journalist in Shell Lake, Wisconsin. My parents owned the local weekly newspaper, the Washburn County Register . I was the sports editor, printer’s devil, and errand runner. We had received an unending barrage of press releases from the local Democratic party proclaiming that President Truman would be in Spooner, whistle-stopping on his campaign across the Midwest. Mv father, a staunch Republican, refused to print such rubbish, claiming that he would not allow his paper to provide political propaganda for a discredited administration. Somehow my mother and I persuaded him that the President’s visit in a town only six miles away was a genuine news event. He insisted on rewriting the press releases, but in the end he ran the story on the front page under big headlines. Then, to our surprise, Dad announced that we would cover the President’s speech. He had been convinced by our argument that history should prevail over partisan politics.

As we drove north to Spooner in our ancient Model A Ford (the weekly newspaper business was not exactly lucrative), my father regaled us with his familiar repertoire of Truman insults, from “To err is Truman” to “bankrupt haberdasher.” In those more casual times press credentials were nonexistent, but fortunately the station agent recognized us and directed us to a choice spot right along the railroad tracks. The train of course was late. To an impatient rookie reporter the delay seemed like hours, but it may have been only forty-five minutes. As we waited, the crowd grew steadily larger. The party faithful later estimated it at ten thousand people; my father saw fewer than twenty-five hundred.

At last the great moment arrived, the high school band played “Hail to the Chief,” and the President appeared at the back of the train, looking remarkably similar to his image in the Movie Tone newsreels. I couldn’t see over the heads of the adults who pushed forward, so to my mother’s consternation I climbed up a nearby coal pile for a better view. The speech was short and incisive: Truman blasted the do-nothing Republican Congress and the selfish Wall Street capitalists and urged us to turn these rascals out. His constituents applauded loudly and exhorted him to “Give ‘em hell, Harry.” After one final swipe at those rich robber barons and their Republican cohorts, the President introduced his daughter, Margaret, and the “Boss,” his wife, Bess. The train was ready to head north for Superior when Truman pulled a note out of his pocket, glanced at it, and then raised his hand to quiet the crowd. In his Missouri twang he thanked everyone for coming and said he was astonished that so many people had turned out. “I would particularly like to thank the Sheas, who featured my stop here in the Shell Lake Register . Would they please step up here so that the Truman family can thank them personally?”

Who cared if he didn’t get the name of our paper right? My parents waved me down from the coal pile, I tried frantically to brush off the black dust, and we boarded the train. Father explained that the story was my idea. “Well, I have two Shea votes, young man, but you’ll have to wait a few years,” Truman said. “I think I can carry Wisconsin with your help.” He shook my hand, Bess hugged me, and I think Margaret may have kissed me on the cheek. The crowd cheered (not really, but memory is not an exact science). Mother was ecstatic, although she worried that the President might have gotten coal dust on his hands.

An aide gave Mom a small package, we stepped down off the platform, and the train thundered out of Spooner on the most successful of all whistle-stop campaigns. The package contained an autographed Truman photo and a pair of presidential cuff links. I don’t remember what happened to the cuff links, but the photograph was still in Dad’s office when he sold the newspaper years later.

Fast forward to 1965, the year before my father died. Despite my promising debut, I had abandoned both journalism and politics and gone to law school. Dad, still a skeptical newsman, was asking my opinion of the Warren Commission, saying, “John Kennedy was far too liberal, but I thought an Irish Catholic should have the chance. He was the only Democrat I ever voted for.”

“What about Harry Truman, Dad? You and Mom seemed awfully happy when he beat Dewey.”

Dad just smiled. “You don’t think I would be persuaded by an old pol just because he invited us onto his railroad car and gave me some cuff links, do you?”

I still think my father voted for both Harry Truman and John Kennedy.