YORBA LINDA, California (CNN) - We were staying in a hotel the next town over, and all through the night I heard train whistles.
In the morning I flipped through the local-attractions guide on top of the desk. One item caught my eye, and suddenly the nearby train whistles became more than a pre-dawn irritation.
I remembered Richard Nixon's famous words about his sleeplessness:
“As a young boy in Yorba Linda, I never thought of becoming President of the United States or even entering politics. My goal was to become a railroad engineer. Sometimes at night I was awakened by the sound of a train whistle and I would dream of the faraway places I wanted to visit someday.”
The hotel-room guidebook said that the Richard Nixon Library, Museum and Birthplace was just a few miles away. That afternoon I stepped away from thoughts of Campaign 2008 and caught a cab over there.
There were few visitors. I heard my own footsteps and then I heard Nixon's voice. It seemed like an illusion, but I turned a corner and found its source.
“I bet the ten dollars - the maximum...” Nixon said.
There was a little theater and no one was in it and he was up on a video screen. I sat down, an audience of one.
An electronic board displayed the question that, at this moment, he was addressing: “What Was Your Greatest Poker Hand?”
Nixon's voice: “…I flipped over the ace…”
I listened for a few minutes, then resumed my exploration. I found his elementary school diploma, and, in a schoolboy's handwriting, an essay he had written about his own life. He had misspelled the heading; he called it his “Autobiorgraphy.”
He wrote: “I was born on January the ninth, nineteen thirteen in the town of Yorba Linda, California. The house that I was born in was a big two story building in the southwest part of town.”
I saw a Valentine's Day card he received in the 1930s from Pat Ryan, whom he would eventually marry. I don't know how many people save such cards, but Nixon had, and here it was. There was a drawing of a girl in a scout uniform, and the message: “If you'll be my Valentine we could hitch-hike to-gether.”
I encountered a man in a blue blazer with an American flag lapel pin, a white shirt, and a Nixon Library tie. He was Philip Harford, 68, a retired local banker who was a volunteer docent. We stood near a chocolate-brown easy chair and ottoman, adjacent to a table with a pair of Nixon's reading glasses resting upside-down. “Those books are his,” Mr. Harford said. There was something by Tolstoy. Mr. Harford leafed through a reference guide, reached the page he was looking for, and informed me: “Tolstoy was his favorite author.”
For one of the candidates caught in the frenzy of the current campaign, a place like this will one day, after all the ambition and all the anguish, be what is left. The victorious person - we don't yet know which one it will be - will be dead, but a building will remain. I found some gifts that some of Nixon's fellow citizens had sent to him: a signed racing helmet from Bobby Unser; a rock painted with Nixon's likeness from a woman in Yoakum, Texas, identified as Mrs. Tom G. Carlisle; an etched silver plate from Liberace. There were keys to cities: Titusville, Florida; Coronado, California; Johnson City, Texas; Akron, Ohio. And a book autographed for him, in 1956, by a senator he seemed to know: “To Dick Nixon, with the highest regards of his friend, Jack Kennedy.”
Out back on an expanse of lawn was the house of his boyhood, from where he had heard the train whistles. Five tourists from Japan and I walked through. The bedroom in which he was born was to the left; in the living room was a piano. He had loved music; he learned to play not only the piano, but the violin, the clarinet, the saxophone and the accordion. His elementary-school-essay description of the house - “a big two story building” - was from a child's perspective; it was in fact tiny and cramped, claustrophobic, constructed by his father from a mail-order kit.
Back in the main museum there was a wall of Time magazine covers - he was on more than 50 of them - and in the gift shop were Richard Nixon signature golf balls, T-shirts featuring a color photo of him bowling, Nixon teddy bears, a Nixon baseball cap with a cardboard tag that said: “Warning: Studies show that wearing this cap can have a powerful effect on the opposite sex.” It was a warm afternoon in Orange County and somewhere in the country candidates were campaigning and as I left a clerk in the gift shop straightened a shelf of presidential shotglasses.
Bob Greene is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.