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Truman's charm shines in letters

I think I am in love. A hopeless case - for the object of my devotion has always been thousands of miles and dozens of years beyond my reach. I lost my heart to the young Harry S. Truman as soon as I started to read his letters to Bess - and got so caught up in them I almost forgot they were written years ago to another woman. They are full of the kind of delightful, dry wit and homespun philosophy I associate with Maine. As for his love for Bess, though he rarely puts it into words, it shines through every line of Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959 (W. W. Norton, $19.95).

In letters written during his farm days (1906-1917), he talks of hard, hard work, of being late to bed and early to rise, of being hard-driven by his father: ''(Papa) would rather yell at a cow than eat a meal. I would rather eat.''

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I like his no-nonsense expressions: ''There's nothing better than cake but more cake''; ''I'll be so disappointed I won't know straight up from crossways.''

I admire him for retaining a keen musical ear even while he is putting rings in pigs' noses ''on a day when the mud is knee deep and about the consistency of cake dough. Every hog's voice is pitched to a different key and about time you get used to a squeal pitched in G minor that hog has to be loosed and the next one is A-flat. This makes a violent discord and is very hard on the nerves of a high-strung person. It is very much harder on the hogs' nerves. . . . I don't like to do it.''

But life is not all hard work. He sacrifices sleep to visit Independence (the town where Bess lived), or Kansas City, and he attends concerts, opera, barn dances, church picnics, neighborhood parties - often in the company of Bess, whom he had loved, he says, ever since they were children. In his letters he discusses Dickens and Mark Twain (''my patron saint in literature''), and boasts of memorizing a whole book while plowing.''

There are glimpses here of a forgotten America, when the phone was a novelty and the horse still king. He describes the perils of driving home late on Sunday night: ''Country boys always tie the lines to the whip and let the horse drive himself home. They know very well that the old man is going to make them arise an hour earlier on Monday than usual so they put in the time going home in sleep. I have had to get clear of the road several times to keep from dislocating a wheel.''

And almost every letter voices his determination to earn enough money to pay off his family's debts and entitle him to ask Bess to marry him. Prospects certainly weren't rosy, but one of Harry Truman's most valuable gifts was the boundless optimism so obvious all his life:

''I am thankful,'' he writes, ''that we have an immense pile of wood already sawed up, have some coal, hogs enough to eat all winter, about 2 bushels of debts to pay (they say debts give a man energy - I ought to be a shining example of that quality if they do), and numerous other things too small to mention. . . . I believe that if a person cannot be happy in his present condition, he'll never be in any future one he may be in on this earth.''

In those farm years he was, of course, a textbook case: any American boy, provided his circumstances are humble enough, his spirit gutsy enough, can become president. In his determination to succeed, Truman added to his already incredible schedule, taking on partnership first in a lead and zinc mine and then in an oil company.

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But it wasn't until World War I, when he joined the army, eventually being sent to France as a lieutenant, that his real talent for leadership showed up.

''You know,'' Captain Truman tells Bess on November 15, 1918, ''it is the hardest job a man ever undertook to be absolutely square and just to 194 men when you have good ones and bad ones (very few bad), smart ones and dull ones. I love 'em all. . . . I have succeeded in doing what it was my greatest ambition to do at the beginning of the war. That is to take a Battery through as Battery commander and not lose a man.''

At last on June 28, 1919, he married his beloved, but his wooing never stopped.

An impressive record, but here I must make a confession. My romance with Harry S. Truman began to cool about the time he joined the army. Not that I ever found Truman anywhere near perfect, you understand - some of his strangely insensitive racial epithets grated on my ear. But once he left the farm (and particularly after he married), his letters no longer poured out of him in a flood. They became more factual, less charming and far less interesting. After all, he had few occasions to write to Bess. Letters from Senator and President Truman contain no surprises. If he wanted Bess to know, for instance, how he felt about dropping the atomic bomb, he must have told her in person.

But ''Dear Bess'' is still worthwhile. After all, the pre-army years alone fill enough pages (215 of them) to make an average-size volume. (The whole book is a hefty 593.) And the editor, Robert H. Ferrell, has done an admirable job putting the letters into perspective.

Best of all there are passages in these letters that give an idea of the way Truman's mind worked:

''Success seems to me to be merely a point of view anyway. Some men have an idea that if they corner all the loose change they are self-made successful men. Makes no difference to them if they do eat beans off a knife and not know whether Napolean was a man or a piece of silver.''

''It would be about as easy to believe Greek and Roman mythology (as theosophy). I guess I'll have to plod along with the four gospels as my foundation for a while longer. They are the best yet.''

Then in 1943, when he was President, he wrote:''I'm opposed to backward views , . . . except as examples. We looked back in 1920 and that's what's the matter today. Lot's wife looked back, and see what happened to her. At that, she was a jewel compared to old Lot.''

And for me one line written in 1916, when the zinc mine was tottering, sums up the man's whole attitude to life: ''If I lose . . . I'll take a whack at something else.''

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