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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The special train rolled through the dark vastness of West Texas toward the coming sunrise along the mainline of the Southern Pacific. Speeding through the night, the train raced through Sanderson, across the Pecos River high bridge, past the ghost of old Langtry and Judge Roy Bean’s Jersey Lilly saloon, and in and out of the border town of Del Rio.

Awakened by daylight or wind-up traveling alarm clocks, the passengers in the Pullman cars alighted from their curtained berths and began a new day with steaming coffee served by black porters. A few others, riding in a private car, also began to stir. Soon came breakfast ladled from the steam trays in the train’s dining car, though some of the train’s occupants had their morning meal brought to them.

One of the men on the train was Merriam Smith, ace reporter for the old United Press news service. Also on board were top dogs with the Associated Press and International News Service. All three were keeping a very big secret.

In his memoir, Smith later remembered Sept. 27, 1942 as a quiet, hot day. When the special pulled into the small Uvalde depot about noon that Sunday, only one man in town, and only a handful in Texas, knew why the train had stopped or who sat in one of the cars.

Smith set the scene very well:
“White-haired and then 73 years old, [John Nance] Garner drove from his ranch to the little, deserted railroad station in his rattletrap 1929 roadster. The train arrived ahead of him, but a few minutes later his little car pulled up in front of the Casey Jones Café just across from the depot.”

The veteran wire service reporter watched as “Cactus Jack” ducked to walk under a sign boasting of Uvalde’s self-proclaimed distinction of being “The Honey Capital of the World” and hurried down the tracks to board the train. Waiting in a heavily armored special car sat his former boss, President Franklin Roosevelt.

The two had not seen each other in person in two years, Garner having been laid off by Roosevelt as vice president and replaced by Henry Wallace when Roosevelt ran for his unprecedented third term. But as Smith later reported, none of that friction was evident that morning on the presidential train as the two Democrats greeted each other.

“Well, what do you know?” Roosevelt said to Garner.

“God bless you, sir,” Garner said as he approached Roosevelt. “I’m glad to see you.”

The president put his arms on the old man’s shoulders and held him off at a distance to take a good look at him.

“Gosh, you look well,” Roosevelt said as Smith scribbled the quote in his notebook.

They talked briefly about Texas politics.

“How are things going around here?” the President asked.

Garner took his cowboy hat off and slapped it against his leg. “They’re 100 per cent for you,” he said loudly.

The two men, a salty Texan and a patrician New Yorker, joked for a few minutes and politely asked about each other’s wife.

With a final handshake, Garner got off the train. Their visit had lasted six minutes. Walking back to his old car, the former vice president saw Dr. Ross McIntire, the President’s personal physician.

“Keep that man in good health and all the rest will take care of itself,” Garner told him.

The doctor managed to keep Roosevelt going until the spring of 1945, the war finally nearing an end. And the three wire service reporters on the train honored their agreement to keep the President’s cross-country trip a secret until he got back to Washington.

Plenty of people recognized a special train when they saw one, but no one outside of a few railroad officials and the key players in his administration knew about the President’s trip. The President’s next stop came at San Antonio, where he inspected Kelly Field and Fort Sam Houston. From there, the special train moved up the tracks to Fort Worth, where Roosevelt stopped by an aircraft manufacturing plant and later visited his son, Elliott.

Finally back in the Capital on Thursday, Oct. 1, Smith let loose with 18,000 words of copy devoted to the trip, much of the verbiage sent in special reports to the various places the president had visited, including Uvalde. The story of Roosevelt’s chat with Garner appeared on page one of the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers on Oct. 2, five days after the fact.

Many newspapers, while acknowledging that presidential security was certainly important in war time, complained about the delay in reporting Roosevelt’s defense inspection tour. The president, of course, continued to operate as he pleased.

As for Smith, one day he’d cover another presidential visit to Texas. He traveled to the state in the fall of 1963 with the White House press corps when President John F. Kennedy came on a purely political visit – a trip far from secret. Soon after Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president in downtown Dallas on November 22, Smith got into a fist fight with the AP’s reporter over who would get to use the radio telephone in the chase car carrying wire service reporters.

Smith had the phone first and he kept control of it. Only nine minutes after the assassination, the UPI man dictated a bulletin that shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade and within moments the whole world began to find out what had happened in Texas.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 18, 2007 column

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