In 1953, when Harry Truman left office, neither a pension nor a Secret Service detail was provided for ex-presidents.
So when he and his wife decided on a road trip from their Missouri home to Washington, Philadelphia and New York (and back again), they did it on their own - just two supposedly ordinary citizens, side by side in Harry's brand-new Chrysler New Yorker, stopping at diners and hotels or staying with friends along the way.
Despite continuing fondness for our 33rd president, this part of his life was not well known.
Matthew Algeo's new book "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure" is a lovingly researched, beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing account of the Trumans' trek.
Though Harry and Bess hoped for a peaceful trip without fanfare, they were recognized nearly everywhere - often by folks lustily greeting the former president from sidewalks and passing cars.
Truman's approval rating was an abominable 22 percent when he left office - yet it's clear most Americans still had an unparalleled personal affection for the man himself.
It's tough to think of another ex-president whom even total strangers felt compelled to greet by his first name.
Truman's jolly, irrepressible personality comes pouring off the page in every chapter - particularly his ability to strike up conversations with just about anyone, from toll-takers and cooks to bigwigs like Dean Acheson, Herbert Hoover and even staunch political opponents - including his successor in the Oval Office, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In addition to engaging portraits of the Trumans and their affectionate marriage, Algeo gives us a broad sense of American life in the 1950s - because on their trip the Trumans crossed paths with so much that was going on at the time.
Whenever they do, Algeo provides terse but fascinating detail on such key issues as the United Nations, the burgeoning Holiday Inn franchise, the Ku Klux Klan, the Roswell incident, the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy hearings and particularly the development of the U.S. highway system and automotive industry.
To top it all off, the book actually encapsulates two road trips in one: While conducting his research, Algeo himself retracing the Trumans' travels in his own Toyota Corolla, doing his best to drive where they drove, eat where they ate and sleep where they slept; so his book includes tidbits from that trek as well.
He even managed to speak with a couple of people who met Harry and Bess on that particular trip.
Folks older than 50 must surely remember the wave of Truman nostalgia that swept America in the 1970s - with Merle Miller's bestseller "Plain Speaking," James Whitmore's one-man stage show and Chicago's 1975 pop hit "Harry Truman."
Algeo's book is unlikely to revive this mania - but it sure made me remember those days; it's like a trip through the '50s and the '70s at the same time.
"Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure" is a perfect last-minute gift for older folks who fondly remember the beloved commander-in-chief.
It's also a great place to start for youngsters who know nothing about him.
"Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure" is $24.95 and is available at Otto Book Store, 107 W. Fourth St.