GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #10
We all had our own problems adjusting to school, especially when the other kids didn't really know us. Their expectations of us, like the public image of our parents, were larger than life. At dinner we sometimes complained about the way the other kids treated us.
"I was going down the stairway," Mimi said one night, "and I heard some kids say something about Roy Rogers' daughter being a creep. I couldn't believe it!" Mimi took an angry bite from her carrot stick.
"I can believe it," Cheryl said. "No matter what people decide about us, I'm never surprised anymore. A couple of weeks ago I overheard a girl say she'd been going to school with me, and that I'm nothing but a stuck-up bitch!"
I thought Mom was going to have a coronary right there. "Cheryl! You don't have to give us a direct quote!" she said.
"Mama, I've never even met that girl! She didn't have the slightest idea who I was!" Cheryl retorted. "Oops. There goes Debbie's milk again." Cheryl jumped up and ran into the kitchen for a towel. I don't think we ever got through a meal without Debbie dumping her milk.
"I know it's not easy for you kids." Mom said. "People watch everything you do, and it's hard to measure up to their expectations."
"It's not just hard, it's impossible!" Cheryl retorted.
"It's bad enough when kids treat you that way, but grown-ups can be worse!" Linda added.
"I'll say!" Cheryl put in. "Remember when I was a freshman and I went away to that Episcopal boarding school in Wisconsin?"
Cheryl thought it was a great school. She loved the nuns, and most of the kids were friendly. The freshmen weren't allowed off the campus without a nun to escort them, and wherever they went, they were always in uniform. They wore wool skirts, blazers, hats, gloves—the whole works. One day Cheryl and her roommates were walking along the sidewalk in front of the school, and a woman approached them. Looking directly at Cheryl, she asked, "Do you know the Rogers girl?" Cheryl said yes, and then the woman said, "Well, she was here at a party on New Year's Eve, and she was drunk!" One of Cheryl's roommates told the woman that Cheryl had been out of town over the holidays.
"Oh, you girls always stick together, don't you?" the woman retorted. Cheryl asked her what the "Rogers girl" looked like. "Well, she's about 5'6" and she's got long, straight, bleached-blonde hair," the woman replied.
"Well, I'm in her class," Cheryl said, "and she's no taller than I am. Her hair is curly and short like mine, and she's a brunette like me. You must have confused her with someone else!"
"Nope," the woman insisted. "I was at a party and she was there and she was drunk!"
When Cheryl finished her story, we all just sat there for a minute. "Why didn't you just tell her who you were, Cheryl?" Linda asked.
"Because she wouldn't have believed me anyway. She wanted to believe that Roy Rogers' daughter was a bleached-blonde lush. I could have had every one of the nuns attest to my innocence, and it wouldn't have made a shred of difference to that woman. She'd already made up her mind. People believe what they want to believe, whether it's true or not."
But strangers weren't the only ones who could be unkind. As careful as Mom was about the people she hired to care for us, one time she made a mistake. After Pearl left and before Granny Minor came, Mom hired a little slip of a woman to be our nurse. Because this woman was a Christian, Mom thought her faith would be a positive influence on us. But in spite of her religious beliefs, we all thought this nurse was mean. She didn't like Mimi at all, and Linda and I were obviously her favorites. That was because we were Roy Rogers's "only real children," as she put it. I guess the rest of us were not "real." This woman used to make us pray a lot—not just during devotions. One time she drove us to the movies, and she made us kneel in the backseat all the way to the theater. We all had to thank God that we were able to go to the movies and that we were lucky enough to be living with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. It wasn't that we were supposed to thank God for parents who loved us, but rather, because such famous people would take us in.
One day, the nurse was especially cross with Mimi, and Cheryl made her back down. The nurse hit Mimi with a ballet slipper. It might seem as though a slipper wouldn't hurt, but the wood in the toe left a mark. When that happened, Cheryl saw red. She ran over and grabbed the slipper out of the nurse's hand, saying, "Mimi hasn't done anything wrong, and if you ever hit her again, I'll kill you!"
As soon as Cheryl told Mom about the incident, the nurse was given her notice. Mom and Dad were horrified when they realized the pressures this woman had placed on us. They never expected us to live up to those kinds of demands.
"You are more important to us than what other people think," Mom often told us. Because of the pain of her early years in show business, she was especially aware of the temptation of trying to live a life that pleased only the public. One night she shared those feelings with us.
"It was terrible for Tom when he was a little boy, before your daddy and I were married." Mom shook her head sadly. "When I came to Hollywood, my agent said I couldn't tell anybody I had a boy Tom's age. My contract would be cancelled. So I had to pass Tommy off as my brother when I introduced him."
"But Art Rush is a Christian!" Mimi protested. "Why would he encourage you to lie like that?"
"Art wasn't my agent then—he was Dad's. And I wasn't a Christian then, either. But it broke my heart to do it, and I know now that I shouldn't have. But I kept telling myself it would help pay for Tom's education. That wasn't true either—I wanted to prove something. So I asked him if he minded.
"Tom said just what you might think. He said, 'Mom, you do what you have to do, but don't ever ask me to lie for you. If you have people at the house, I'll just leave. And that's the way it was, for several years."
Grandma Smith had taken care of Tom during his formative years, and she helped him to understand what it means to live for Jesus. He became a Christian as a young child, and he didn't live with Mom permanently until he was 12 years old. Some time later, when Tom was drafted into the Army, the news that Dale Evans had a grown son hit the newspapers. Mom was relieved to be free of that awful lie. She had paid a dear price for it.
It hurts a mother when her child hurts, and Mom knew that Tommy was deeply wounded by her choice. Her grief over Tom's painful childhood never went away completely. Although part of the reason Mom had made her choices to work was because of the necessity of earning a living, she continued to feel bad about it. Tom forgave her long ago, and although she has also forgiven herself, to this day she has never forgotten the painful consequences of putting her career ahead of Tom.
Because Tom had become a Christian while growing up, he continued to share Christ with Mom, and later, with Dad. When she married Dad, Mom made her own commitment to Christ.
"When I gave my life to Christ," Mom says, "I asked one thing of Him. I asked Him to let me live long enough to see each of my children accept Him as Saviour. If you don't have Jesus, you don't have anything."
Because Mom and Dad were concerned about our spiritual welfare, they wanted us to understand the difference between living to please God and living up to an unrealistic public image.
"Remember," Mom would say, "your life is the only Bible some people will ever read. What really matters is that you live lives that honor God."
"Yeah," I said one time, "but sometimes, kids of famous people are real jerks."
"That doesn't mean you have to be one," Dad said.
"It's always hard for the kids of famous people—or people who aren't famous but are in the public view, like missionaries and ministers," Mom added. "You're right, Dusty, some of them are real stinkets. I think they make unhappy choices, and sometimes they even ruin their lives because they can't stand the pressures. Daddy and I don't want you to make those kinds of choices, even though it's hard."
"It's not fair though," Cheryl protested. "Some people don't like your choices even when they are good. They think we have to be just like you and Dad."
"No, it isn't fair," Mom agreed. "People don't mean to be hard on you, but I know they are. It's important for you to be yourself, Cheryl." Then she turned to me. "Dusty, you can't be like your father. There is one Roy Rogers, and there is one Dusty, and I'm glad. There's only one of you—each of you is different."
"Yes, Mama, we know," Mimi said. "It just makes us mad sometimes, that's all. Oh, Sandy, you ate the last of the potatoes again! By the way, Mama, you have to drive me over to the library."
Mom sat there for a few seconds, and then she looked at Dad. He raised his eyebrows a little, but he didn't say anything.
"Things have changed a little since you were little. I'm as busy as I ever was, but now it seems like I'm always on the run. You all expect me to cart you around at your convenience, and I scarcely have time to breathe!"
"But that's what you're supposed to do," Mimi said.
"Who says so? With seven of you to keep track of, I'm running all the time. It's exhausting," Mom countered.
"I've had a little chat with Mama," Dad put in. "And I told her that I'm going to be here long after all of you are married and on your own. I want her to get some rest and to spend a little time relaxing with me! You girls are big enough to get around on your own. You can't expect Mama to be your taxicab any more."
"It's bad enough that you have to live in a fishbowl," Mom added. "I'm not willing for you to be spoiled on top of it!"
That ended the discussion. It wasn't as though the girls couldn't get around; they had all learned to drive on old Nelly Bell, the jeep from Dad's television series. And Cheryl used the money she'd earned from television commercials and from our summer tours to buy her own car.
If the big girls were having their problems, Sandy and I weren't faring much better. I was five months older than Sandy, but I was two grades ahead of him in school. Because he was having so much trouble with his learning disabilities, Mom sent him to the Mariane Frostig Remedial School. I ended up at Chatsworth Elementary.
Like the girls, I heard kids saying unkind things, and my solution was to withdraw. At school I became my own best friend. When you are your own best buddy, you learn to entertain yourself and to be creative. I don't remember feeling lonely, but I did spend a lot of time alone. While Sandy played with his army men and read books about the Civil War, I built models, and I could be happy sitting out on one of the rocks at the ranch. After Dad gave me my first gun, I spent hours hunting squirrels and birds. I found a lot of contentment in just being alone with myself. At school the other boys didn't want me on their teams for dodge ball, kick ball and other sports like that. I never really understood why, but I suspected it had to do with my being Roy Rogers, Jr. Because the other boys wouldn't play with me, I played jump rope with the girls, or I played tetherball. I used to beat the heck out of that thing.
I was glad when we could all be home at the same time, especially on birthdays and holidays. The time around Halloween was especially fun because my birthday came on the 28th. Mom's birthday is Halloween, and Dad's birthday is the fifth of November, so we had nine days of celebration.
Mom always fixed fried chicken and mashed potatoes for my birthday, and she made her own special cornbread in a skillet. She never bought our birthday cakes at a store—they were always homemade from scratch, and hand decorated. If she absolutely couldn't be home to make the cake herself, Leola made it.
Mom and Dad were never big on parties, but for my second birthday, they put on a large one. It was my first birthday after they were married, and maybe Mom wanted it to be extra special. I wore a little purple western suit—which I still have—and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy entertained us. Kathy Lee Crosby and Candice Bergen were there, along with Art and Mary Jo Rush's kids. When it came time for the cake, I dove into it with both hands!
As we got older and could make decisions about what we'd like to do, Mom let us choose the way we were going to celebrate. It was always a family thing—a barbecue in the backyard, or a trip to Griffith Park in Glendale, where we'd spend the day at the zoo. They had the best merry-go-round in the world there. For Mom's birthday Dad always took us over to the drug store where we would buy her a pretty card and some little gift, and we'd dress up and go trick-or-treating. We knew everyone in our neighborhood, so we felt safe going door-to-door. Some people served us hot apple cider or popcorn, and then we came home with our loot. Dad never wanted birthday cake on his birthday, so Mom always made him a butterscotch pie. He loves gadgets and unusual toys, so that's what we've always given him. One time I bought him an executive fly swatter that looked like a gun. He thought it was great! Another time Cheryl found him a strolling bowling game. When you pull on a little handle, the pins stand up. The little bowling ball has feet on it. When the toy has been wound up, the ball strolls down the little alley and knocks the pins over. Every time anybody came over to the house for the first few weeks after his birthday, Dad had to show off his toy. It's in his museum today.
Autumn gave way to Thanksgiving, and we always had a big family celebration. Everybody had to come. Tom and his wife Barbara came down from northern California with their children, close friends of my parents came, and of course my grandparents came.
When Mammy Slye was older, her leg gave her too much trouble, and so a few times we went to their place. But most of the time Thanksgiving was at our house. We'd set up big tables all over the lawn, and Mom would cook turkeys and hams. Everyone would bring something, and we'd feast for hours. With so much food, there would be leftovers for a day or two. Although everyone else called her the Queen of the West, we used to call Mom the Queen of the Leftovers because she never let anything go to waste. Of course there was never much danger of that with Sandy around.
One time Dad decided to invite Gabby Hayes over to join us a few days after Thanksgiving. Gabby's wife had recently died, and they had no children, so Dad thought it would be a good idea for him to be with us.
"Gabby says he doesn't feel up to coining," Mom said as she put the telephone receiver back in its cradle.
"Well," Dad grunted as he pulled on his boots, "we'll see about that. I'm going to drive over and see if I can talk him into coming. We'll stop off and do a little shooting if I can talk him into it." Sandy and I hoped Dad would be able to bring Gabby back with him. We all liked him. Gabby was tall and striking when he was dressed up. With his hair and his beard combed, and his dentures in his mouth, he resembled the fine, polished Shakespearean actor he really was. But when he slipped his old rumpled hat on and took his teeth out, he became Dad's old sidekick—a different character altogether. With us, he was always gentle and kind and friendly. He loved to tease Mom. "Come on, Butter Butt," he'd say to her. "Give us a hug!" I don't think she was too surprised when he came in with Dad later that afternoon. They'd done some shooting, and Gabby was perky and full of fun. He wrestled around with Sandy and me for a little while, and then we sat down to dinner.
As usual, once grace was said the table was chaotic. Sandy, Mimi and I were all fighting over the potatoes, Debbie dumped her milk, and everyone was talking at once. Suddenly we realized that Gabby was sitting there sobbing. Tears were streaming down his face.
"Gabby, honey. What's the matter?" Mom got up and went over to him, putting her arm around his shoulder.
"You okay, Pappy?" Dad asked, his face creased with worry.
"You don't realize how lucky you are, Buck," Gabby said.
"What do you mean?" Dad asked.
"You know, Mom and I never had any kids. Just look at this beautiful family of yours."
None of us ever forgot that day. I don't think my Dad ever had a friend who meant more to him than Gabby did. Not long ago Dad, Mom and I were making a record album together at the old Capitol Records building in downtown Hollywood. At lunchtime we headed out for a bite to eat. Gabby's star is on the sidewalk right in front of the recording studio, and Dad paused there for a few moments, lost in thought. Suddenly he looked up and saw me standing there.
"We made more than 60 pictures together, old Gabby and me," Dad said. "He was probably one of the main reasons I became number one in the box office. He taught me so much. People loved Gabby—they loved us together. I'm so thankful, Dusty, that he was my friend. He was a good friend. He was my father, my brother, my buddy and my pal, all rolled into one." Dad's eyes misted. "There isn't a day goes by that I don't think of my old friend, not a day."
TO BE CONTINUED