GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #12
At first Sandy and I were apprehensive about going back to military school. Mom explained that the school was in Woodland Hills—close enough for us to come home every day. Dad's director, Bill Witney, was sending his son John there, too.
Ridgewood Military Academy was a school for boys from first through ninth grade. The well-kept buildings were inviting, and the lawns and hedges were perfectly manicured. Palm trees and oaks and other greenery gave the school a warm and friendly look. Parents were always welcome, which made Sandy and me glad.
Colonel Metcalf, the Commandant, was a friendly man with glasses and a ready smile. His wife was the office secretary, and everybody liked her. A married couple did all the cooking, and the food was good. The teachers all believed in scholastic excellence, but they also encouraged us to excel in athletics and to develop leadership qualities. By the time I graduated, I had advanced to the rank of major.
A lot of the boys stayed at Ridgewood throughout the week and went home on weekends. As good a school as it was, Sandy and I felt sad when we saw the little first and second graders away from home for such a long time. I didn't think it right for such little fellows to be away from home for a week at a time.
As I grew older and could assume more responsibility, I was in charge of some of the little guys. Sandy and I both tried to encourage them and to be like big brothers to them. More than once I told myself that when I grew up, I'd never send my children away to boarding school.
At Ridgewood I found it a bit easier to make friends. In seventh grade Pat Notaro, Keith Keener and I really liked each other, and we played football together. I made captain of the team, and in our final year we were five and one for the season. But I didn't stop with football. I went out for basketball, volleyball, wrestling, baseball and track, as well, and Keith and Pat were on all the teams with me. We were also together on the yearbook staff. Keith was the editor-in-chief, Pat was the activities editor, and I was the art and advertising editor. Keith and Pat were the leaders of our battalion, and during our last year, they were the commanders who led our battalion to a 99.9 percent on our annual inspection. The California Cadet Corps sponsored the inspection, which was conducted by a team from the National Guard.
During my last year in military school, we had a blue and gold military prom. Everyone had to come, and we all had to invite girls—no stags allowed. The academy had a deal with a local private girls' school, and for those of us who needed a date, one would be arranged.
I didn't know any girls except my sisters, so I filled out a questionnaire to help the girls' school arrange for my date. I had to tell my name and my age and my height, so I could be matched. When the girl was selected, I was given a phone number to call. All of us lined up at the pay phone at school to make the dreaded telephone call. I was so bashful, it took a lot of prodding for me to pick up the phone. My date sounded really nice, which was a relief. I told her my mom and I would pick her up. Mom made me buy her a corsage, and on the way to pick her up I sat in the back seat of the car wanting to die. We pulled up to the girl's house, I went up the walk and rang her bell. When the door opened, I just stood there. My date didn't match me at all! She was at least a foot taller than me—she had to be seven feet tall! She had the biggest chest I'd ever seen, except for Leola, and her gown was low cut and strapless. I stood there holding that corsage, wondering where in the world I was supposed to pin it!
"Here!" I finally gasped, and I shoved the corsage into her hand. At the dance, I never danced once with her. She didn't suffer from it, though, because all the other guys wanted to dance with her. I spent most of the evening in the rest room.
I was so grateful for the weekend! I needed some time to run off steam and to enjoy being a boy. When Dad was home, Sandy and I could hunt on the ranch. But when Dad wasn't home, we weren't allowed to hunt because of the danger.
Dad had strong feelings about gun safety, and for that reason he hated BB guns. A lot of the other guys had them, and Sandy and I decided Dad was just being stubborn about it. One day I faked a note to the local toy store, saying it was all right for Sandy and me to buy ourselves BB guns. After that our pals George and Elton White came over often with their guns, and we roamed the ranch, shooting at squirrels. Sandy always managed to get shot in the arm or the back at least once, but in spite of the pain and heedless of my Dad's warnings, we never once considered the danger.
One of the barns was a storage place for Dad's museum things. I went in and found a big case of old 78 records. There were records by the famous opera star Enrico Caruso and some by Guy Lombardo, as well as some of Dad's and the Sons of the Pioneers. I had no idea how valuable they were. I found a chipped record, and tossed it. The record sailed through the air like a condor. We took a whole box of them out into a pasture and let them sail, shooting at them. If Dad had ever found out, I'd have bit the dust right then.
Sandy and I liked target shooting with our BB guns. One day we bought a new supply of army men, and we went out into one of the fields to shoot them.
"Okay, Sandy," I said. "Let's line them up."
"Let's tie string around little pieces of wood and bury them in the dirt. Look!" Sandy worked feverishly with several pieces of wood and string. He buried them and set army men on top of the dirt, then backed away.
"Pow! Pow!" he yelled, making all kinds of explosion sounds. He jerked on the strings, and puffs of dirt flew up as the men toppled over. Then we lined up the soldiers again, backed away and shot them down. So intent were we on our army maneuvers that we never noticed Debbie and Dodie, who had come to the pasture to see what we were doing. I shot at one of the army men, and the BBs bounced off. Suddenly Debbie started screaming and jumping up and down, holding her face.
"Oh, no!" I yelled. "Debbie, what happened? Debbie! Debbie!" She just kept screaming and crying, and she wouldn't pull her hands down from her face.
"I'm gonna get Daddy!" Dodie cried, and took off down the pasture. "Daddy! Daddy! Dusty shot Debbie!"
Debbie finally calmed down enough to speak. "Dusty, you b-b-broke my tooth!" she sobbed.
Mom and Dad came running into the pasture. Mom was screaming Debbie's name, and Dad's face was drained of color. "Debbie!" he called. "Are you all right?" He grabbed her and checked her over carefully.
"She's okay, Mama. Broke her tooth, though," Dad said. Relief was written all over his face as he hugged her.
I expected both Mom and Dad to rage at me, and I knew I had it coming. I felt sick inside.
Dad stood up. "Dusty and Sandy, give me those guns," he said slowly. His voice was strangely calm. "Now come into the house."
We followed along. Dad told us to go to our rooms while he and Mom took Debbie to the dentist. Later on they called us into the den.
"Sit down here, boys," Mom said. "We want to talk to you."
"You know," Dad said, "I've taught you boys both about gun safety from the time you were little tykes. I've spoken about how dangerous BB guns are until I was blue in the face. And now, Dusty, you have maimed your little sister for the rest of her life."
How those words cut me! I knew they were true, and I felt awful.
"That tooth you shot out," Mom said, "was Debbie's permanent tooth. It can never be replaced. The dentist can cap it with an enamel one that will look almost real when she is older, but until she stops growing, she'll have to have a silver tooth right there in front.
"Sandy, you are just as responsible as Dusty is," she continued. "Every time Debbie smiles at you, you're going to have to live with the knowledge that you did it."
That was it. No anger. No punishment. They were both visibly upset, but there was no yelling, no lengthy lecture. I'd have felt much better with a whipping, but they were right. The consequences of feeling responsible every time Debbie smiled at me, or seeing that silver tooth in every picture of her after that, always tore me up.
Sandy and I tried hard the next few days to make it up to Debbie, and I think she enjoyed the extra attention, but she didn't seem to hold a grudge about it. She was such an extrovert and so friendly that she didn't let anything bother her much or interfere with making new friends and trying new things. The older girls were making new friends and trying new things, too. It seemed like we never saw them much anymore. Kids never think time is passing quickly, but I'm certain Mom thought it was running away from her when all three of my big sisters decided to marry within a few months of each other. She and Dad both thought they were too young, and urged them to finish college first, but young love is often impatient. It wasn't long before there were only four of us kids at home.
Sandy and I both had jobs in local supermarkets. I worked at Ralphs and Sandy worked at Hughes, because the stores all had policies against family members working together. One night at dinner we got to talking about the craziness at work, and laughing about the extra money we were making because of the extra hours we were putting in.
"You should see the people, Mom. They're buying everything in sight!" Sandy said. "I wonder if they're even looking at the labels!"
"At our store, too," I added. "All the canned goods are going fast—and bottled water, too."
"Well, son, people are a bit worried these days," Dad explained. "We just don't know how things are going to work out in Cuba; Kennedy's made a strong stand. We just can't have those missiles aimed at our military bases here in the States."
"There's so much sabre rattling going on!" Mom said. "So much talk of war."
"In the Civil War they really did have sabres," Sandy put in. "I'm starting a collection!"
"Maybe we should have had a bomb shelter built on the property, Honey," Mom said.
Debbie started wriggling in her chair, and her eyes were getting wider and wider.
"Hush, now. Look at Debbie. You're scaring her!" Dad said.
Suddenly Debbie jumped up from the table and ran into the den, shouting, "No! No! I don't want a war! The guns are loud and people get hurt and there's nothing to eat and—" she began to sob. Dad hurried to comfort her. Debbie had been so tiny when she came from Korea that we had no idea how much the war had etched itself on her mind. She was always so pleasant and happy, and she never talked about it, so we had thought she had no memory of the horrors of the first two-and-a-half years of her life.
As the missile crises settled down, Debbie was soon herself again. In the meantime, Sandy and I were ready for our own turns at learning to drive, and like the girls, we had our first lessons on Nellie Bell. That old jeep was a real family friend, all right.
Dad had a special reason for including her in the cast of his television program. During World War II, he had noticed that when children saw an army jeep coming down the road, they dropped everything and ran to the curb to watch it go by. They were fascinated with jeeps. When the series went into production, and Pat Brady was chosen to be Dad's sidekick, Dad decided to put him in a jeep instead of on a horse. The jeep had to have some kind of personality, so Dad began with the name. At that time, Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob were very popular with the children all over the country, and Clara Bell the clown was Howdie Doody's sidekick. Nellie Bell was a similar name with a funny ring to it, so Dad and Pat settled on that.
In order for the jeep to have a personality, she had to have a mind of her own. Dad had someone cut a slot just below the windshield, and a stuntman would lie across the front seat and drive her, looking through the slot so he could see where he was going. That way it looked as though she were driving herself. I can still see Pat Brady with his face all contorted, moaning, "Woah, Nellie Bell!"
When the series ended in 1957, Dad brought her out to the ranch. She still wore her sign and bags on the side, and we all drove her everywhere. It didn't matter where we drove her on the ranch, she'd get stuck in places. A few times we rolled her over or got stuck up in the hills on large boulders, and Dad had to haul her out.
After Sandy and I learned to drive, Dad took her out to his other ranch in Thousand Oaks, where Trigger lived. Some of the men were using her to pull out an old tree stump, and the chain broke. Nellie Bell lurched forward and hit the tree, totally demolishing her front end. Every time we'd go out to the ranch to see Trigger, we'd see old Nellie Bell, lying there in a heap, rusting.
"Can't we fix her, Dad?" Sandy asked.
"Oh, Sandy, I don't think so. I don't think it's worth it. She's pretty well worn out."
One day some fans came out to the ranch to see Trigger, and Dad took them on a tour. One of them happened to own an auto body shop.
"Roy, that isn't Nellie Bell!" he said.
"Yes, I'm afraid we had an accident. That's all that's left of her."
"Oh, I can't stand to see her like that!" he said. "Can I send my guys out to pick her up? Maybe we can do something with her."
Dad agreed, and a few days later a wrecker went out to Thousand Oaks and picked her up. Some weeks later they brought her back, all painted and dent-free. It was like having an old friend back. She's in the museum today, just like new.
After I learned how to drive on Nellie Bell, I asked Dad if I could buy my own car. I'd graduated from the military academy and was getting ready to start school as a sophomore at Chatsworth High.
"Have you got one in mind?" he asked.
"Yeah. It's a nice one—a '56 Chevy."
"Do you have enough money?"
"Not really, Dad. I've been saving a bit from my job, and put together with what Mom has saved from the commercials and the summer shows, I have about half. But I have to start school in a few weeks, and I'd like to be able to drive myself."
"Half, huh?" Dad mused. "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll pay for half of it, and we'll cover your insurance. I'll give you enough money for one tank of gas each week, and if you have any mechanical problems, you take it over to that car dealership I own down on Ventura Blvd. We'll give you a discount. Any other expenses, you have to cover for yourself. It's the same rules I made for your sisters. Just be sure you live up to your reputation!"
"I'll try, Dad," I said. I knew he was referring to my being named "Most Reliable" at Ridge wood. "Thanks!"
A few weeks later it was time to start my sophomore year in high school. Chatsworth was a brand-new school with about 700 students. The year before, Dad had dedicated the school, and he told everyone I was coming.
"Next year my son will be coming here," he said. "He's 6'4" and weighs about 210 lbs., so he'll probably be on the football team."
When I drove into the parking lot that first day, there must have been 200 kids waiting there for me. I slipped in, driving my seven-year-old Chevy, and stood around with the rest of the kids for awhile. They didn't even know I'd shown up. That afternoon I told Mom about my day.
"The kids were all asking each other questions like, 'What does he look like?' 'Do you think he'll be wearing fancy clothes?' 'I'll bet he drives a Jaguar!'"
Mom just shook her head. She'd heard these stories hundreds of times. "Fat chance after what you did to mime!"
"Dad will never let me live that one down!" I chuckled. When I was first learning to drive, Mom let me drive her Jaguar up and down the driveway. One day she and Dad were both gone, and I decided to give it a try without their supervision. I was going up and down the driveway, hot-rodding it. I stepped on the gas, kicked it in gear and twisted the drive shaft. Dad grounded me for a month.
"What did you do in the parking lot today?" Mom asked. "Did you tell the kids who you are?"
"Naw. I just laughed! After school some guy followed me out to the parking lot. 'That your car?' he asked me. I said 'yeah.' 'Is that the best your dad could do for you? My dad's just a writer, and look at what I'm driving.'"
"What was he driving?" Mom asked, cocking her head a bit as she looked up at me.
"He was driving a brand new Thunderbird." I let out a low whistle. "Sure was classy!"
"What did you say to him?"
"I'll tell you. I said, 'Listen up. I bought mine with money I earned. Did you?'"
Mom just beamed. "Oh, Dusty, I'm so grateful! I'm proud of you!"
That made me feel great! I always felt taller when I knew my mom was proud of me. For the next few weeks the kids checked me out every day to see what I was wearing and how I combed my hair. It got to be a drag. But I didn't have any fancy clothes, and after awhile things settled down.
I joined the choir and took drama. Things were going pretty well, until one warm autumn day. That Friday, something happened, and it changed our lives forever. I was sitting in Spanish class, looking out the window. It was unseasonably warm, but the air was fresh. The sunlight cast a glare against the glass, and I wanted to be outside. Suddenly the loudspeaker interrupted the teacher.
"May I have your attention please," the principal was saying. "We have just received reports that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas just moments ago. We will keep you informed when we hear anything new."
I have never again experienced such sustained silence. I don't know how long we sat there before we began to look at each other. Some of the girls began to cry, softly. A few minutes later, the bell rang, and we filed out to the assembly area. We dreaded what we might be told.
"I'm very sorry," the principal said. "The President is dead." Just like that.
We wandered around from class to class, stunned into silence. The school was like a tomb for the rest of the day. Here and there you could hear muffled sobs and people sniffling. In class, some kids folded their arms on their desks, buried their heads and wept.
After school I drove home. The television was on, and everyone was crying. For the next four days the grief of the nation was the only thing on our minds. John Kennedy had captured the imagination of the nation's youth. We liked his vitality and his youthfulness, and I especially enjoyed his sense of humor. He had won people over.
The President's death ushered in a decade of tragedy for our nation. Other men would die at the hands of assassins, and great grief would govern the lives of many people. Racial unrest, the upheaval of human values, the terrible war in Viet Nam—all that lay ahead of us. But for my family, tragedy was about to take its toll much closer to home.
TO BE CONTINUED