A Vintage Ride


Somehow, when he’s not hosting PBS NewsHour, Jim Lehrer has found the time to write 20 novels. His latest is a mystery called Super, which takes place in 1956 aboard a luxury train called the Super Chief.  Clark Gable and President Harry Truman are on board, as well as a reporter, A.C. Browne.  Eventually, the ride becomes deadly. The book’s plot is based on real events, which gives Lehrer a chance to imagine conversations between historical figures that could have actually taken place. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Mr. Truman decided to take his chances with the passengers and other members of the public who might be around the Albuquerque station. He needed some exercise, some fresh air.

So did A. C. Browne. And, suddenly, there they were together walking along side by side. Neither said a thing at first except in body language, to welcome the other’s company.

Nobody bothered them. Some waved and nodded but they left the thirty-third president of the United States alone to talk with his friend, whoever he was. A. C. Browne provided him cover—a form of protection.

“How have you occupied your times since we last spoke?” Truman asked.

“Banging away on a typewriter, sir.”

“What kind of scary television story are you writing, Browne, if I may ask?”

“It’s about how television programs are beginning to affect movie making since the war. I got the idea from Jimmy Stewart. He was a friend of my father’s and we’ve remained in touch. I’m going to stay with him while I’m in California, in fact.”

“If you want to know what I think, there aren’t enough television sets out in the country to amount to an effect on anything,” said Truman, using his walking stick to dismiss the thought.

“But maybe one day there will be. You can quote me on that, if it will help your story.”

“Speaking of quoting you, Mr. President,” said Browne, carefully.

“That was a joke, Browne, for god’s sake. I don’t know anything about movies or television and don’t give a damn about finding out.”

“I was thinking about doing another piece instead of the TV one,” Browne said. “I was wondering what you would think if I wrote about what we’ve been talking about, Mr. President … not only nuclear testing but the other things as well. A kind of ‘Conversation with President Truman on the Super Chief’ story. I’m sure Reader’s Digest or one of the other magazines would jump at it …”

Truman stopped abruptly, looked at Browne and then strode off as fast as before.

A. C. Browne had had a sudden flash that Harry S Truman might whack him across the head with his walking stick.

“Permission denied, Browne.”

“I certainly wouldn’t write it without your permission, that’s for sure,” Browne said. “But you’ve known from the beginning, Mr. President, what I do for a living.”

“What’s the penalty for killing a son of Albert Roland Browne?”

“Same as it is for killing a son of anyone else—unless you do it in Kansas.”

“What do you mean?”

“In Kansas it means automatic hanging without a trial. You would be taken directly to the nearest tree, strung up and lynched.”

“Where are we now?”

“New Mexico.”

“What would happen if I beat you to death here?”

“You would get a trial before they hanged you but only before a jury full of Republicans.”

“You’ve got quite a mouth on you, Browne.”

“Thank you, Mr. President.”

“I didn’t mean the way your mouth looks.”

A. C. Browne laughed, out of nervousness and confusion as much as anything. This was a most interesting man, this Harry S Truman. How much of what they had just said to each other was simply fun talk? No wonder Truman was successful at politics. Keep them smiling, keep then guessing.