Margaret Truman's Launderette

So long, Harry Truman, goddamn it's hard to find an honest man.
(Danny O'Keefe)

Mother considered a press conference on a par with a visit to a cage of cobras.
(Margaret Truman)

Foto: T. C. BreuerThe fact is, Bess Truman is pissed. Never ever will she get used to this new habit. Who does the old feller think he is all of a sudden, putting a cigar in his face every night? It sure won't make him a Churchill. I'll have to cure him of this boastfulness straightaway. The stink alone! The poor curtains! And what are the neighbors going to say.... Bess Truman startles: there are no neighbors anywhere near the White House. That's the crux of it - the seclusion, although you live right in the heart of the city, and the loneliness that goes along with it. So different from back home in Missouri. No wonder that you become a little peculiar in the course of time. All presidents became bizarre over the years. This isolated life is anything but normal. Simply unworthy of a human being. Even their everyday life in the Little White House, their summer residence in Key West, is endangered. The security guys want to build a wall around this beautiful site now, which sent her off besieging Harry: "Harry," she said sharply, "no wall, never. And since we're already at it: I absolutely want a launderette, like the one Aunt Hattie had in Independence." Harry, in his usual way, just nodded for the time being.

Snorting with rage, she plows her way through the kitchen, her heels detonating on the stone floor. She comes to a halt in front of the sideboard, crushes a lace mat with the sheer force of her hands and then, clack, clack, clack again, continues over to the window, followed by small explosive charges. She tears the window open and eagerly inhales the sweet fresh air. Of course there had been a small skirmish over the windows with the security chief a while ago: Open windows ... they never had that ... against all reason ... whether she was aware of the danger, etc. But little did he know Bess Truman! Folks from back East are no match for a woman from Missouri. A hundred years ago, Missourians held their ground against Indians and tornadoes, against cattle thieves and railroad magnates. "Rubbish," she just said and that was the end of that. Since that day, the windows could be opened without any problem, at least as far as the second floor was concerned. It's true that it is unusually cold in Washington for the end of November, but the icy temperature is incapable of cooling Mrs. Truman down. Tiny little clouds gather in front of her mouth, and her rage crystallizes when the thick clouds emanating from the Rey del Mundo waft again from behind over her shoulders. In D.C. in 1945, the procurement of genuine Havanas is no problem yet. She folds her arms, pumps fresh air into her lungs for a last time, spins on her axis and then starts screaming for all she is worth - worse than she screamed back when her sister Marge wanted to take the swimming belt away from her. "Harry Stonewall Truman!", she yells, causing the security chief's blood to freeze in his veins, Harry to drop his precious cigar from his mouth and both to shoot from their beloved smoking room, where the President was preparing himself for a meeting with the Turkish ambassador, into the kitchen. Naturally, the kitchen had also been a concession. So far, each and every President of the United States has tried to leave his own mark on the White House. These days, we all know about George Bush's "Horseshoe Pit" where he indulged in the thoroughly Texan passion of throwing horseshoes. Bill Clinton's legacy is the "Jogging Course" and various other things that come to mind whenever somebody mentions his name. What has not been confirmed yet are the rumors about Ronald Reagan's make-up room. Without hesitation, Bess Truman had insisted on their own private kitchen even before they moved in, one with a corner seating unit where you can have a halfway normal chat. And this is where Harry S. is running to now, with his coattails flying and the security chief at his heels, who is no less breathless.

"Send this person out," she says in a strangely quiet manner. "What I have to tell you is entirely private." Mr. Blade, the security chief, has already preferred to come to a standstill at the threshold of the kitchen door. He doesn't close the door, however. Those who have to guard the most important man in the western world have to be prepared to guard him even against his own family members if necessary. "You instantly refrain from burning those hideous poison sticks or I'll pack my things and be in Independence before you can whistle the dogs up!"

"My dear," Harry lifts his hands as a pacifying gesture and repeats mechanically: "My dear. There is no way I can respond to your request. Surveys have revealed that, by smoking cigars, I have the aura of a man of the world and also of drive, energy, resoluteness and, er ... hem, well ... you certainly didn't fail to notice, er ... how can I put it ... manly.... He doesn't get any further because at this moment, Bess has already lifted the fat pumpkin from the kitchen table and heaved it in his direction. Harry doesn't get as far as mentioning the considerable funds that the tobacco barons from both Carolinas have signaled they would provide for the election campaign in two years. And the security chief has no opportunity to intervene either because the pumpkin is gaining speed fast. Bess has always had an inclination to find a solution for differences of opinion by taking direct action. For this purpose, for example, she has deposited God's written Word all over the second floor where the Trumans have taken up their private quarters, at places chosen with strategic expertise. These printed works are feared by the security staff as so-called "Bible projectiles". In fact, in the course of their marriage, the Trumans sent quite a number of things efficiently through the air.

The pumpkin flies past Harry, with a perfect spin on it, in order to disappear in the late-afternoon blue of the Washington sky, pausing vaguely in mid-air for a brief moment before it falls prey to the laws of gravity, following an almost elegant elliptical orbit. A subsequent moment of silence is then replaced by an infernal gobbling - utterances exclusively reserved to turkeys - which is accompanied by a wild beating of wings and, thank God, drowns out the hissed "Spare me these blasphemous habits once and for all!" The security officers, who were able to witness this drama through the half-open kitchen door, cough with embarrassment. It's no coincidence that Mrs. Bess's nickname is "Lady No Comment". Harry S. doesn't say anything. Instead, a voice can be heard from down below in the yard: "Er ... Excuse me, Sir?"

The President, as white as a sheet, rushes to the window, the very same one, by the way, through which Grover Cleveland used to relieve himself on particularly harsh days, and leans out. "Good Lord!" Beads of sweat instantly gather on his forehead as he looks down to the garden which, it goes without saying, is also a result of one of Bess's whims. "Harry," she had said right after the election, "I want to live a halfway normal life in this house. I need my roots. After all, I married you for life and not only for lunch."

"Mr. Twilley," Harry now whispers while he reaches for his handkerchief. "What in the world are you doing down there?"

"They sent me to the side entrance because there is some construction work at the main portal. But what in the world are you doing up there, Sir?" This imposing gentleman who, in spite of his considerable size of almost six foot six and a back as wide as a Kentucky hickory whiskey barrel, one of which he might have already emptied in his life, looks a little forlorn standing next to the poultry pen, dabbing away the sweat on his forehead with his handkerchief. In the meantime, Bess too has come to the window, adjusting her glasses. "Mr. Twilley, I'm delighted to see you! You must have a feel for the right moment. Your timing is impeccable!"

Spooner Twilley III is a reporter with the Evening Post which sent him to write a feature on the Trumans' private life during their first year in Washington. Right now, he looks pretty stunned, and for a reporter that really means something.

"You just witnessed an old tradition from Missouri." She eagerly chatters away now. "Every fourth ... er ... Thursday in November we throw a pumpkin out of the window and, depending on how it hits the ground ... er ... now this is a little difficult to understand for someone from ... where are you from, Mr. Twilley?"

"Delaware. Round the corner so to speak."

"Delaware, I see. No, I'm sure they don't know this custom there. Basically, what it's all about is that ... you have to imagine this as an oracle. The way the pumpkin spreads on the ground is supposed to show us how ... er ... the next harvest is going to be. But you can also take other aspects into consideration such as the surface condition, the scattering effect, it's like the New Year's Eve custom of fortune-telling by pouring molten lead into cold water. It's just that the little lead we have in Missouri goes all to the factories these days." Although she seems to loose her thread here and there, she speaks with such ease and persuasiveness that would have made Harry speechless if he hadn't been already as a result of the previous attack. And, on top of all, she lectures without blushing. 'That was a slick move if I ever saw one,' he thinks, utterly amazed.

"Here ... er ... is a dead turkey," Mr. Twilley says tonelessly.

"This is most interesting!", Bess replies with a frown. "I would regard this as a sign from the Lord recommending the folks down there in Missouri to switch to crop farming next year rather than breeding poultry. Maybe there will be epidemics. Or too many predators. You never know. But get yourself up here now!"

The White House garden had turned out pretty small. There is only a handful of flower beds and vegetable plots and the tiny pen where the turkeys are packed like sardines. Since it is right beneath the kitchen window, it was practically impossible for Bess Truman not to hit a turkey.

"And bring the bird with you!"

A couple of minutes later she will tell him that it is a traditional method in Missouri anyway to dispatch turkeys by means of a pumpkin and that a lot of good fortune will be granted to those who succeed in bagging a turkey with only one throw. Mr. Twilley takes the liberty to comment that this isn't any different from golf, but one glance from Bess Truman is enough to silence him. By no means of course, she continues, should this tempt anybody to feel any overweening pride because this is something that the Lord would regard with utmost displeasure and disapproval. Especially in the White House, she deplores, one easily runs that risk because it is difficult to stay in touch with the real world anyway, and this is why she insists on opening up a launderette in Key West, their summer residence, because there was no better place to learn what the man in the street thinks. While she is rattling on about all this without a pause, she continuously fills the honorable Mr. Twilley's glass with her elderberry wine, which might contribute to the fact that Twilley is buying her story with hardly any reservations. At least he likes it. At any rate, his article, equipped with the usual embellishments and misrepresentations is published about two weeks later in the Evening Post, and America bestows its undivided affection on this tough and brave little woman who has to carry the burden of being a public figure.

The story behind the turkeys is a completely different one, of course. Bess is a Wallace by birth, a clan which is downright notorious in Independence for its sense of family. Her sister Marge is married to a poultry farmer from Purdy, down in the Ozarks, whose sluggish business requires new markets. For the upcoming Christmas season, they now want to test the market in the Capital although Bess strongly advised against it: "At Christmas, this city is like a ghost town!" "Well, that's something you'll have to show me first!" Marge replied and, somewhat brusquely, added: "I wouldn't know where to go. We have nobody else! And besides, I'm sure there's a whole bunch of business dinners and parties here in the weeks before Christmas! So please do something, my dear!" And her husband, with his face as red as a beet, threw into the bargain: "Dear Bess, it was no less than Benjamin Franklin who once emphasized how much he deplored the fact that the bald eagle had been chosen as our country's national emblem. In his opinion, the turkey was a much more respectable bird and, moreover, a genuine native inhabitant of America. Yes, no other than Benjamin Franklin himself!" Marge struck the same chord: "According to him, the eagle has a bad character, not unlike a cheat or a robber! And besides, it preferably feeds on carrion." The two of them are a perfect team that works excellently together, which rewarded their mission with success and also resulted in the fact that at the moment, there is a particularly large number of animals in the small pen.

Bess has no idea how much she is helping her brother-in-law with this "pumpkin incident", not only to get out of his financial plight, but even to achieve the most meteoric upswing in sales that will ever be recorded in the commercial books of the Ozark Mountains. Her outburst turns her private kitchen into the epicenter of a quake that shakes an entire nation in its customs and traditions. All of a sudden, turkeys experience being very much en vogue. (Not that they are getting much out of this for themselves.) Suddenly, the whole nation wants to make oracular prophecies with turkeys. And besides, these birds are simply delicious. Likewise, the pumpkins are collared by the millions in the fall ever since. The watermelons can consider themselves lucky. Of course, as an honorable woman, Bess refuses to profit from her relatives' favorable business situation. Harry would never permit any wheeling and dealing. Only when Marge transferred the launderette in Key West to her, which her husband had secretly acquired, did Bess turn a blind eye. After all, it's only for the sake of maintaining their roots, for a good cause so to speak, a small victory for normality. She names it after her aunt Hattie who went the way of all flesh the year before. But it is in particular her daughter who loves this plain barracks of a building on Highway 1, not least due to its informal atmosphere which enables her to make acquaintances that would be impossible to make in D.C. This is why in the late seventies, after a night of boozing it up in the Chart Room, the city council of Key West unanimously christened it "Margaret Truman's Drop-Off Launderette" and is pleading for it to be included in the register of national monuments. The proceedings are still pending.

Spooner Twilley III, with his sensitively written story, captured the hearts of the entire nation. His legendary handkerchief can still be admired in a glass showcase in the entrance area of the Post. It has never been proved whether he ever believed as much as one syllable of what Bess Truman told him, but he always had a nose for a good story. Not to immediately try to exploit the matter commercially would have been un-American. And although the pumpkin episode wasn't exactly what you would call a lucrative pool of topics, it sure was a perfect opportunity to establish a proud commemoration day. In the following year already, the demand for turkeys far exceeds the supply. In the Ozarks, people rub their hands. And it is Bess Truman again who gives the incident its name: "Thanksgiving!", she christens it without thinking when a reporter for the Omaha Omnipresent asks her about it. She spices the whole story up with a rural mix of gratitude, fear of God, tradition and the obligatory declaration of belief in a simple life, without forgetting to mention that her husband is the first president of the United States to obtain this responsible office without having a college degree. A remark that causes her spouse to painfully distort his mouth into a crooked smile - and not for the first time either.

It is only the people from Missouri who are a little surprised but, without a murmur, accept their new custom and from now on throw pumpkins out of their windows like good boys and girls, for no way do they want to compromise the Trumans in the faraway Capital. God knows, it happens only once in a blue moon that one of them makes it to the very top. To be precise, Harry is only the third Missourian, after Mark Twain and Jesse James to get there. This is why anything and everything in Missouri is named after this triumvirate: the Truman Center for Meleagristic Studies in Independence or the Mark Twain Family Restaurant in Hannibal or the Jesse James Savings Bank in Poplar Bluff.

Of course, people no longer throw pumpkins at turkeys, the animal lobby would never tolerate that. This is why a new legend had to be invented for the pumpkins, but that's another story entirely. Since then, however, Thanksgiving has blossomed into the most important holiday for the Americans, and this and no other is the true story of its origin. You don't need to have any qualms about forgetting the rubbish people tell you about the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower in 1620. That's just typical New England trash. By the way, the first entry on Harry Truman's list of good intentions for 1946 is: No Cigars!

© 2002 Thomas C. Breuer
Ins Englische übertragen von Sabine Goodman

© Thomas C. Breuer Rottweil
2.7.2012 - 00:00