GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #11
My sixth grade teacher looked like a Russian Bolshevik. She stood out because she weighed about 250 pounds, and she had the hairiest lip I've ever seen. She was as nasty as they come, and she wasn't impressed at all that I was Roy Rogers, Jr. Never once did she let me get my own way. She helped me learn to develop self-discipline by making me do things I didn't want to do.
For Christmas she decided that all of us should make angels for our mothers, and I dawdled my time away because I didn't want to do it. One day, just before Christmas vacation, Mrs. Burke kept me in from recess.
"You know something, Dusty?" she began. "I really don't care if you finish your project or not. It doesn't bother me. But your mom is going to be very disappointed. All the other mothers will have a beautiful angel; your mom will just sit in the corner and cry!"
It had never occurred to me that my mom would want something I made, even though she always fussed over everything I brought home from school. I kept thinking of Mom sitting in a corner and crying, and I finished that angel in two days! I felt good about my present for Mom. I wrapped it in white tissue paper at school and hid it under my bed when I got home.
Christmas vacation! What kid doesn't like it? For us, it meant a long and joyful celebration, beginning with the selection of our tree. That was a production in itself.
There was no way to put our entire family and a Christmas tree into the station wagon, so we took two cars and headed out to our favorite tree lot in the San Fernando Valley. With nine of us, there were always at least nine opinions about what kind of tree we should have.
"Are we gonna get a tall tree this year, Daddy?" Sandy asked.
"I think we should have it flocked, so it looks like snow!" Mimi suggested.
"It should be pink!" Dodie added.
"Yuck!" I moaned. "Pink is for girls!"
"Can we get a blue spruce this year, Dad?" Mimi threw in.
In Mom's car the conversation was probably much the same. To flock or not to flock, tall or short—those were the questions. Every year we did it differently from the year before, so we all got our chance to have it our way. The scene at the tree lot must have resembled a Keystone Cops film. Sandy and I went in one direction, Dodie and Debbie in another. Debbie was the extrovert, always seeking new adventures, and Dodie tagged along behind her. The older girls all went their separate ways, too.
"Look here!" Cheryl called. "I found one!"
"So have I!" Mimi called.
"Keep shouting! We'll find you!" Mom hollered. We looked at plenty of trees, and then Dad spotted the biggest, fullest tree we had ever seen.
"Oh, Roy, that's too tall!" Mom said.
"Nah. The ceiling in the den is 14 feet. It'll fit."
"Look how full it is!" Linda added.
"I've never seen one that full," Mom mused. "I wonder why it's ..."
"It's pretty! Let's have it flocked!" Mimi said.
"We can put red balls and red ribbons on it," Linda suggested.
"No, let's leave it green and put gold balls and gold ribbons on it," Cheryl put in.
"Well, are we all agreed that this is the tree?" Dad shouted above the argument. When we all shouted our approval, Dad bought the tree and tied it on top of the car. We decided to leave it green.
At home Dad dragged the tree off the car and took it in the house. That's when we found out why the tree was so full. The owner of the tree lot had drilled holes in the trunk of the tree and stuck branches in to make it full. When Dad dragged it into the house, all of the branches fell out!
Mom put Christmas music on the record player, and I made a big bowl of my famous popcorn while Dad struggled with the lights. Those were the days when, if one bulb burned out, the whole string went out, and each bulb had to be tested separately. It always seemed that the tree lights took the longest time to do, and if anything could ruin the holidays, I think it would have to be those lights!
We spent the evening decorating the tree and sharing memories of Christmas-past.
"Remember the tree we had in Hollywood Hills?" Cheryl asked. "You knocked it over, Dusty."
"I did not!" I protested.
We had the tree up in the family room that year. Joaquin and Lana loved to come inside and be with us. I went downstairs early one morning before anyone else was up. It was a day or two before Christmas. I opened the door and Joaquin tore in. He started skidding across the tile floor, slid onto the Navajo rug and kept on sliding until he hit the tree. The whole tree came crashing down! You could hear it all over the house, and it woke everybody up. Dad jumped out of bed and tore downstairs with the rest of the family hot on his trail.
Dad was so mad he started yelling at Joaquin. "Get out of here you fool dog before I kick you all the way to Ohio!" Dad grabbed a newspaper to spank Joaquin, and chased him outside, still yelling.
"A little while later you came limping back into the house, sputtering and mumbling a whole string of naughty words," Cheryl reminded him.
"Well," Daddy explained, "I was barefooted, and the ground was covered with rocks and pebbles. I was so mad, I didn't notice, at first—but then I started to feel the pain! I could have wrung your neck, Dusty!"
We all laughed, and then Sandy said, "You were sure lucky to have a Christmas tree. I never had one 'til Mama and Daddy brought me here."
"No tree, Sandy? That's awful!" Linda was horrified. "But you did get presents, didn't you?"
"We always got a fresh box of cereal that hadn't been opened yet. Usually there was a prize inside, like you get with Cracker Jack."
"That's all? A box of cereal and a little prize?" Mimi said. "We got more than that in the orphanage. We used to get presents, and an orange, too!"
The first year Mimi lived with us, all she wanted was a bag of oranges. She couldn't believe it when she saw the oranges on the ground under the trees outside. Mom saw to it that Mimi got oranges for Christmas every year after that. The year Debbie came we had a real adventure that could have been a tragedy. The week after Christmas, Dad was out of town hunting ducks. One night Mimi stayed up late, and she was the last one to go to bed. Although she checked the doors and turned out the lights, she overlooked a candle that was burning on the television. The candle burned down and caught the ribbons and
other decorations on fire, which then melted the television set. It wasn't a big flame fire, but a slow, smoldering one that worked its way across the carpet and started on the piano. Cheryl and Mimi were sleeping in the room directly adjacent to the den, but the wall between the two rooms was made of stone, and they didn't smell the smoke. It was Betty who woke up and smelled the smoke. Frantic, she called Cheryl and Mimi on the intercom. "Cheryl! Marion! Wake up! The house is afire!" "Don't panic, Betty," Cheryl said. "Did you wake Mom?"
"No! She'll get all upset! Oh, Cheryl!" Betty screamed.
"Be quiet!" Cheryl hissed. "Call the fire department and I'll get everybody up!"
When Cheryl called Mom over the intercom, Mom thought Cheryl was getting her up to drive us all to school. But the whole house was filled with cherrywood and redwood smoke. As soon as Mom realized what was happening, she was terrified. She had no idea where the fire was, and she didn't know how she was going to get all seven of us out. Mimi and Cheryl woke Linda up, and they got the little girls out while Mom hollered for James. James woke Sandy and me up, and we all ran outside in our pajamas. Outside, Mom asked James where the fire extinguisher was, and he started jumping up and down and rattling off a string of sentences in Filipino. Suddenly he took off, running, and soon returned with the fire extinguisher. James and I went back into the den and tried to get the fire extinguisher going, and I stepped on a hot coal. In the meantime, we could hear the sirens. The engines were going up and down the street looking for us. Betty had given them an address that didn't exist! All she had to do was tell them we were right next to the cemetery, but not Betty! She would never admit to living next to "dead people." She wouldn't even go down to the mail box because it was too close to the cemetery!
Cheryl, Mimi and Linda, still in their pajamas, climbed into the jeep and drove down to the gate to find the fire department. When they finally arrived, they didn't even check to see if the front door was unlocked. They simply chopped their way in with an ax! By the time they put the fire out, there was serious smoke damage everywhere. Mom and Dad had to replace the television and the piano, the front door, and the carpet in the den, the dining room, and in Sandy's and my room. The entire house had to be repainted.
That was quite a Christmas. It almost never snows in Chatsworth, but that year it did. Debbie's eyes were like saucers. I don't think she had seen snow since she left Korea, and these snowflakes were as big as silver dollars.
"It's not fair!" Debbie protested when we reminded her of it. "I don't remember it. Wouldn't it be fun if it snowed this year?"
"I had all the snow I ever wanted to see when I grew up in Ohio," Dad said. "I've been out here so long that my blood's too thin!"
"Tell us about your Christmas, Daddy, when you were little." Debbie went over to where Dad was sitting and began to muss his hair. Playfully he pretended to bite at her hand. She squealed and jumped back, laughing.
"Well, li'l darlin', when I was your age, all I got for Christmas was an orange, like Mimi, and an apple and a pocket knife. It's all my parents could afford."
"Poor Daddy!" Debbie stroked his face.
"Oh, Honey, in those days, Christmas wasn't like it is today. 'Most everyone was poor, and we didn't think about lots of presents. Sometimes today we get so caught up in all the presents that we forget about the little baby in the manger, who only had straw to sleep on."
"But didn't Santa Claus bring you any toys?"
Dad coughed a bit and looked at Mom.
"Speaking of Santa Claus," Mom said, "guess what? Daddy talked with him today—all the way to the North Pole!"
"Did you Daddy?" Dodie's eyes widened.
"Yep, I did. And he said, 'Well, hello there, Roy. How are you?' And I said, 'Pretty good, Santa. I want to thank you for that pocket knife you gave me when I was a little boy. It helped me learn how to whittle!' And then Santa said, 'You're welcome! What can I do for you?'"
Debbie and Dodie were amazed. Daddy had actually talked with Santa Claus!
"Well, we talked back and forth like that for a little while, and then I said, 'Santa, do you know that Christmas is on a Sunday this year? I was wondering—do you suppose you could come by earlier on Christmas Eve—in the afternoon sometime? Christmas morning's pretty busy, and we don't want to miss church."
"What did he say?" Sandy shouted.
"He said he would! Now let Mama read us the Christmas story from the Bible, and then it's time for bed."
When Christmas Eve came, we were all excited. The little girls wondered if we'd get to watch Santa Claus put our presents under the tree. Debbie spilled her milk twice at lunch, and Dodie could hardly eat. Then Mom laid it on us. Due to all of the excitement, and because we were going to stay up late (and it was the only way she could figure out how to get the presents under the tree), everyone had to take a nap!
Sandy and I looked at each other and nodded. The same thing had happened a couple of years earlier. We'd gone, protesting, to our rooms, which were right off the den. We could hear Dad and Mom talking to each other and putting out all the presents. Santa was a myth! But we never breathed a word of it to Debbie and Dodie.
When it was time, Mom and Dad called us out. I don't think Sandy ever got over his astonishment at receiving presents on Christmas. It never mattered to him what we got. No one was ever more wide-eyed or thrilled with Christmas than my brother was. One Christmas, Dad bought us a gas-powered go-cart with two engines. It was probably the most expensive toy he ever bought us. He picked it up about two weeks early and hid it in the barn. He rode it around every day "just to test it out." Sandy and I found it and rode around on it whenever he wasn't home. He had no idea we knew about it. By Christmas afternoon the novelty had worn off, so Sandy and I crawled into the big boxes from Christmas and began rolling around on the lawn. Dad came outdoors to see what we were up to, and he started jumping up and down and waving his arms at us.
"You kids! What's the matter with you? I buy you this beautiful go-cart and what are you doing? You're out here playing with a bunch of cardboard. Next year all you're getting is the boxes!"
Whether we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, Christmas afternoon meant more presents from friends and family who came to visit. Mom sat near us with a notebook and a pen, faithfully recording every gift we received. During the next two weeks, we wrote thank-you notes to everyone who remembered us. Because there were so many toys, many items were boxed up and given to orphanages and children's hospitals. I don't think it bothered any of us, though. Because of Robin, we understood that children who are ill need extra cheering up during the holidays. Sandy and Mimi had shared enough about life in an orphanage that we had developed a strong sense of compassion for impoverished children who have no one to love them.
During the weeks between Christmas and New Year's we enjoyed our time at home. The girls were dating by that time, and Sandy and I loved to tease them— especially Cheryl. Sometimes they'd be in the den, playing pool with their dates, and Sandy and I would run in, screaming. Other times we'd go outside and sit near the window. Every once in a while we'd raise up and put our noses on the window, making faces and staring at them. If they started kissing, we'd tap on the window.
"Two little lovers, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G," we taunted. "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Queenie with a baby carriage."
"Prince! You and Sandy stop that!" Cheryl yelled. "Mama! Make Sandy and Prince go away. They're being jerks again!"
Mom would chase us away, and we'd go out and play army with our 10-cent army men. Mom had a big cowbell Dad had picked up at a rodeo, and when it was time to come in, she'd go out in the backyard and swing it as hard as she could. You could hear it all over the ranch. Mom didn't need the cowbell, though. Her years in show business had served her well. She could project well enough to be heard even from the rocks high above the house. In later years she got a megaphone, and we could hear her from almost anywhere on the ranch: "Now hear this!" she yelled.
Before we knew it, Christmas vacation was over. New Year's Eve was Mom and Dad's anniversary, and since they were never the party type, we always celebrated at home with friends. I would pop the popcorn and we'd all sit around watching Dad's old movies. Although New Year's Eve belonged to us, it was never a late night because Mom and Dad were usually a part of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena the next morning. Sometimes they rode Trigger and Buttermilk, other times they were featured on floats, and a couple of times they took their custom-made Bonneville. The hand-tooled leather interior had 339 silver dollars imbedded into the upholstery. Twenty-six miniature guns replaced the usual door knobs, wiper blades and ignition keys and other items inside and outside of the car. Dad used to use it in his parades and shows, but when vandalism began to ruin it, he put it in the museum where it could be protected.
Although it seems like Pasadena puts on her best weather every year for the parade, in truth it was often cold and rainy. To keep the flowers fresh, the floats were—and still are—built in large barns with no heat. One especially cold year, the float Mom and Dad were riding was huge, and they were to sit high up top, riding on horses made of flowers. They never rode prettier horses. Mom and Dad had to be in place on the float before the flowers were put on, so they arrived at the building at four in the morning. A cherry picker lifted them to their places on the bare frames of the horses. Once settled, they could not get down. For three hours they sat in that cold building while volunteers decorated the horses. Every once in a while someone took pity on my freezing parents and came up in the cherry picker to bring them a cup of steaming coffee. Just before it was time to move the float into position in line for the parade, that coffee hit my dad's kidneys.
"Dale!" he hissed. "I've got to get down. I have to use the rest room."
"Oh, Honey, you can't! You'll crush the flowers on the horse!"
"But I've got 20 cups of coffee to get rid of!"
One of the people who was working on the float overheard them. "I'm sorry, Roy," the worker said, "but there's no way to get you down without messing up that horse. We don't have the time or the flowers to redo it. Mrs. Rogers, you'll have to hand me your coat now. No one will see your costume if you wear it."
Dad looked at Mom. "I do't know, Mama," he said. "I don't know what I'm gonna do."
"Try to think of something else!" Mom suggested as she reluctantly parted with her coat.
The parade started and Mom kept looking at Dad. She could tell he was uncomfortable. The rain had begun to fall softly when they were inside, but now it was coming down hard. Dad gave Mom another miserable glance.
"Just smile and wave!" she said.
They rode on for 15 minutes or so, and then Mom glanced over at Dad again. He was grinning, and steam was rising up from where he was sitting.
"Roy!" she said. "You didn't!"
"Well, what the heck!" he answered. "It's pouring down rain and I'm already soaking wet. Nobody will ever know the difference!"
That year the rain served a useful purpose, but most of the time it was a nuisance. Rain is especially hard on silver, and Dad didn't like to take his silver saddles out in it. One year he decided he didn't want to do it again. He phoned a saddle maker in Wyoming and ordered a plastic yellow saddle, decorated with red roses especially for the parade. That New Year's morning dawned bright and sunny—the best weather Pasadena had seen in years!
Winter gave way to spring, and like Christmas and New Year's, Easter was a major event for our family. Mom and Dad were usually part of the sunrise services at the Hollywood Bowl, so they got up early and went there. Granny Minor made sure we were all ready for church when they got back. We always had new Easter outfits, and the girls had fancy hats to wear. Every year the magazine photographers arrived bright and early to take our pictures.
"Okay now, Dusty," Mom would say, "you grab Sandy's hand there. Dodie and Debbie, you too. Cheryl, fix Dodie's hat, will you please?"
"Can't we go hunt for eggs?" I asked.
"As soon as we get our pictures taken, Dusty," Dad answered.
We'd line up and walk down the driveway, and the photographers would shoot away. Then they followed us around when we looked for the eggs. That was a mad scramble! We really battled it out to see who would get the most.
Dad raised rabbits, and one year he decided to let a bunch of little rabbits loose. It was a zoo! All seven of us were running around, screaming like Comanches and falling all over the place as we tried to catch the bunnies. Rabbits run in circles when they're scared, so the rabbits were all running in circles and we were running in circles and the photographers were running in circles behind us. It was great fun.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing and eating jelly beans and Easter eggs. By afternoon Mom and Dad were ready for naps, so it was a lazy day. We always enjoyed it.
Spring goes quickly, I think, and before long, June was upon us. As hard as Mrs. Burke worked with me, by the end of the school year she decided I just wasn't ready for junior high school.
"I think Dusty needs an extra year to mature, Mrs. Rogers," she told my mother. "I'd like to keep him back. I think it would be best for him in the long run." So I spent another year in the sixth grade. Then Mom and Dad decided that Sandy and I were ready for another go at military school.
TO BE CONTINUED