President Harry Truman made his first major campaign speech of the 1948 presidential campaign in September at the National Plowing Contest in Dexter, Iowa. The site for the demonstrations, where entrants whipped up and down the rows with tractors and plows, trying to beat the time clock, was good black Midwestern topsoil. The machinery stirred up a good deal of it, and the steady wind on that particular day caused everyone and everything to be coated with a fine layer of dirt.
The president was scheduled to speak to an anticipated crowd of about 75,000 people. Attendant hoopla was modest compared with the fuss created by the networks of the 1990s when they cover a presidential appearance.
National Guardsmen with weapons at the ready and a few Secret Service personnel were all that protected the president, making it possible to see him at close range.
My parents arrived early and staked out a position directly in front of the speaker's platform. A barrier had been erected to restrain the crowd, which stood behind a woven wire fence in the sun and dusty wind for three hours waiting for the speech.
My father and President Truman were both Missourians. They had both grown up on a farm. They shared a birthday, both having been born on May 8. They were both Democrats. My father took it as a sign: This was a man in whom he could place his confidence.
All the civic organizations in the little town of Dexter set up booths selling hamburgers and soft drinks. My own part in this was small but important. I worked for the bank that was to handle all the money. Coin counters may have been invented by then, but our bank didn't have one. Every employee, including the vice president, stood ready and armed with boxes of tubular coin wrappers. At about 3 o'clock, change began to pour into the bank in canvas bags, grocery sacks, and tin boxes. Most of it was in coins, and each coin was covered with a fine film of Iowa topsoil. Before long, so were we.
Counting coins by hand is drudgery, but it requires alertness, accuracy, and coordination. Coins are counted off a deal plate by twos into the upturned left palm. A little wiggle of the left hand will line them up in a row that leans slightly backward. The right hand grabs a tube, pinches it open, swallows up the row of coins, turns down the ends, smacks each end on the deal plate, and starts another count.
We balanced out at 10 o'clock that night. We were all grimy, tired, and footsore. We had wrapped thousands of dollars in quarters, dimes, and nickels, with a few gritty dollar bills here and there. The money would be sent to our correspondent bank in Des Moines to be distributed to other banks across the state and country. The good topsoil of a farm in Dallas County, Iowa, went with it.
The next day, the front page of the Des Moines Register displayed a panoramic photo of the multitude. There, directly in front of the president, leaning against the fence, were my father and mother.
President Truman said that as a boy he had plowed the straightest furrow in Missouri. He referred to a walking plow, of course, which involved aiming at a distant fence post, keeping the horses moving along by jerking the lines tied behind his back, and regulating the depth of the furrow with the pressure of his hands. It was an appropriate metaphor, and the symbolism was not lost on my father, who had done considerable walking behind a plow and team of horses himself. If they had met and talked, they would have understood each other.
None of us at the bank were able to see the president. We were disappointed, but our drudgery was necessary to the day's success.
The past half century has done away with a great deal of tiresome and repetitive labor. When it was part of our daily work, however, we learned patience and endurance. We gained pride in the skillful handling of simple things, whether they involved manipulating a roll of pennies so they didn't spill or stepping along behind a team of horses and walking plow with hands and arms regulating the depth of the furrow.
It was a time when people still remembered that if small things are done well, then the larger ones will turn out all right. It wasn't a bad way to run a country.
My father and President Truman were both Missourians. They had both grown up on a farm.