A View of History from the Front Porch
I was eleven years old in March 1945 when we moved to 600 West Van Horn in Independence, Missouri. Like many Kansas City area homes built in the early days of the twentieth century, ours was made of native stone. It was not a large house, but had a porch across the front, from which my family watched a bit of history in the making.
From the porch, we could see across the street the side yard and screened back porch of Harry S. Truman, who had just become Vice President of the United States under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Only weeks into President Roosevelt’s third term in office, the nation was saddened and stunned by his untimely death. I remember a lot of excitement in my school, however, over the fact that Independence was now home of the President of the United States, which was certain to put our small town on the map and bring changes to the community.
Work crews started putting a fresh coat of white paint on the old Victorian home that would be called the “Summer White House.” An impressive iron fence was erected around the property, and a small structure was built behind the house for Secret Service men who would be on guard 24/7.
At that time the narrow road in front of our house was paved with black oily asphalt. Soon the city widened the street, paved it with cement, and changed the name from Van Horn to Truman Road. We lost two big shade trees and some front yard in the process but it was worth it to live across from President Harry S Truman!
Whenever “Harry” (as he was affectionately called in the neighborhood) came home from Washington D. C., people crowded the sidewalk up and down our block to welcome him. Since our porch was four or five feet above ground level we could see over the heads of spectators on the sidewalk and invited as many as our porch would accommodate to join us. A rush of excitement went through the crowd when Secret Service men spread out and began to make signals to one another.
“Shouldn’t be long now!” “Here they come!”
People on the sidewalk moved closer to the curb trying to catch a glimpse of the President’s limousine and his entourage as they approached from the west, crossed Delaware Street which ran in front of the President’s house, then came down and turned into the driveway behind his house. Those of us watching from our porch had a perfect view of him and his party as he stepped from the limousine waved and disappeared through the back door.
After the crowd dispersed, my parents, my younger brother, and I sat on our front porch late into the evening watching for glimpses of our nation’s First Family. Back then windows and doors were kept open wide on summer evenings, and often we heard the President playing the piano and daughter Margaret singing.
Early mornings we watched as the President and his personal body guard left for his daily walk around Independence where he greeted anyone he met with a big friendly smile and many with a warm handshake.
Even when the President wasn’t in town, a Secret Service man in civilian clothes stood on the corner watching his house. Others were always in the building in back. We kids in the neighborhood discovered that when we stepped on certain paving stones in the public sidewalk around his house, lights hidden in the bushes came on signaling our presence to the Secret Service men on duty. We must have been a nuisance to them but none of them ever said anything. In fact the man on the corner was quite friendly.
When Harry Truman left office, he came back to Independence where he and his wife, Bess, were loved by the citizens of the town. During May of 1993 I stayed in my mother’s home to care for her during the illness that led to her death. My dad had already passed and, of course, so had Harry and Bess. I sat on the front porch one evening remembering the thrill of having my President live across the street and recalled the voices, piano playing and singing that penetrated the quiet night air so long ago.
During Harry S Truman’s lifetime, he came across as a rather commonplace man, but he was one with an uncommon destiny as president of the United States during a difficult time in American history. It was an honor to be his neighbor
Kansas City, Missouri
May 13, 2008