Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Independence

Just back from Independence, Mo., a little town outside Kansas City, once the starting point of several westward trails and home of Harry S. Truman. You may know him as 33rd President of these United States. It's a nice little town - really not so little, I suppose, but we were downtown and there it had a small-town feel. Old brick buildings in the central business district, the massive courthouse on the square, built in the days when Truman ran Jackson County, wooden houses with plenty of shade trees in quiet neighborhoods. We stayed in an old Victorian house converted to a B&B and filled with antiques. M loved it. There was a festival going on downtown, so we spent an afternoon wandering around that. It was the kind of downtown festival you'd find in any small American town - the arts & crafts set selling their wares, local organizations selling hot dogs and lemonade and cotton candy and funnel cakes, county political parties handing out bumper stickers, local businesses, local bands - all the things you'd expect. You could have been anywhere, but it was Santa-Cali-Gon Days and you were in Independence, Mo.

We were pretty well off the grid there, by choice. Oh, the B&B had wireless internet - a concession to the modern age in which we live, I guess - but we didn't expect it and even if we had we wouldn't have brought our computers. This weekend wasn't about that. It was about getting away, seeing something different, forgetting the outside world. No computers, no TV, no cell phones, no nothing. It's liberating, walking out the door with nothing but the room key in your pocket. The world could have ended while we were there and we wouldn't have known about it if it didn't happen in Independence. We took long walks, asked locals for directions, and didn't have a care in the world. Being connected takes many forms, and sometimes it's nice to just unplug and walk away.

The evening we spent at a concert by an Eagles tribute band. I don't know if it's the family atmosphere of the festival or the fact that the people who liked the Eagles when they were first around are now middle-aged and older - probably both - but there was an awful lot of gray hair in the seats. But I like the Eagles too, and the band played all their hits and did a bang-up job, including a spectacular rendition of "Hotel California" as their grand finale that had everybody out of their seats and singing along. M spent most of the concert laughing at me for being so into it, but that's okay and we had a good time.

Monday we spent as tourists, visiting the Truman home and then his presidential library and museum. It's a nice old wooden home the Trumans had in one of those quiet neighborhoods. 219 North Delaware Street. It was his wife's family home, and it became theirs for most of their life together. And it was a long life together, from their first meeting as children in 1890 to their marriage in 1919 that lasted until Harry's passing in 1972. In the museum there is a picture of them taken on the front steps of their home, probably in the late 1960s. They are looking into each other's eyes - the cute old married couple still very much in love.

Truman had one of the more challenging presidencies of the 20th century - inheriting the job upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, completing the victory in World War II, the beginning of the atomic age, demobilization, the beginning of the Cold War, the Korean War. For the most part, the museum does a good job presenting his life and times both before and during his presidency - what he did, why he did it, and the larger global and political context in which these actions took place. I was, however, disappointed in the museum's treatment of the decision to drop the atomic bomb - I thought the display took a decidedly anti-nuclear slant, one that I don't think Truman himself would have liked. His view, both in 1945 and throughout his life, was that using the atomic bomb was necessary, that there was no other way to force Japan's surrender. It is unfortunate that museum has chosen a display that downplays Truman's rationale and emphasizes the views of his critics, essentially editorializing on a controversial topic where they would have done better to have presented both sides in a more even manner.

I have long viewed Truman as the last great Democratic president. I'm sure that, had I been around at the time, we would have found much to disagree about, but for all that I think that his presidency must be counted an overall success. He brought a rapid end to World War II, an end without which I - whose grandfather was on Okinawa in 1945 - might not be here. He built much of the framework around which US policy in the Cold War was built - containment, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Berlin airlift. He fought the Korean War - although it can be argued that a more robust postwar defense policy might have prevented that conflict from ever taking place, or at least from taking the form it has for sixty years. So I'm glad we went and got to know a little bit more about our 33rd President.

The drive back featured some nice two-lane roads through the hills near the Missouri River. It was a beautiful evening for a top-down drive, and I think I only scared M once. We eventually picked up the interstate, and I was reminded of another difference between the East Coast and the Midwest: on Labor Day weekend back East, the highways are jammed with travelers, the highway patrol is everywhere, and the airwaves are full of shrill warnings from the talking heads about the danger of it all. But between St. Joseph and Omaha there was no traffic to speak of, we were in no hurry, and there was no problem.

Sometimes I think that the amount of stress in your life is directly proportional to your distance from the I-95 corridor, and here I am a thousand miles and more away. I've driven it a million times and I know it like the back of my hand, but it all seems very far away now, and that much, at least, I don't miss.

So back to Omaha, but this time refreshed. And I think, maybe, we could all do with a little more Independence in our lives.