Skip to main content

The Rocking-chair Man

May 2024
1min read

Every day throughout my summer vacation of 1960, I would walk around the block—no matter how many times it took—until I saw him. I didn’t know who he was, mostly because my grandmother’s quiet little town respected his privacy, but I knew there was something different about this old man at the house surrounded by the high wrought-iron fence that I tried climbing more than once. I was much older and far from Independence, Missouri, when I learned he had been President the year I was born, 1951.

To me, he had been the character who always waved but never spoke, who sat with a blanket on his lap in the summer while a mysterious shadow of a man stood behind him. I had decided the shadow man was not a black servant like those at my great-grandmother’s in Savannah but a silent protector whose only job was to watch over the old man sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch.

Toward the end of that summer, my father received priority orders to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, where turmoil reigned under Papa Doc Duvalier. My vacation was cut short. By my last day in Independence, I was obsessed with getting the old man to talk to me. I made ten trips around his block while he sat on the porch. He waved to me every time but never said a word. So on my tenth trek, when he waved, 1 called out, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“I know,” he answered as he motioned behind his back. I was excited that he had answered me but also a little frightened when the shadow man stepped off the porch and walked toward me. Curiosity kept me frozen to the spot. When the shadow man reached the gate, he passed an envelope through to me and said, “He hopes you have a safe trip, Miss Savoy. Run along now.”

Hearing my name so startled me that I ran all the way to Grandmother’s pecan tree and climbed as high as I could before ripping open the envelope. Inside was a brand-new silver dollar and a hand-written note: “Be a good girl in Haiti. From your summer friend, President Harry T.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.