GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #14
By the fall of 1964, Dad had begun to pull out of his weakened physical condition, but Mom wasn't doing well. The shock of Debbie's death plunged her into diabetes which, the doctor told her, was not all that uncommon. With both Mom and Dad on a physical low, they were home most of the time.
Dad had bought some property out in the desert near Victorville, and for some time they had discussed a move. Now that the older girls were married, there were only three of us kids left at home. The rambling ranch in Chatsworth had become cumbersome. There was no need for nannies anymore, and Leola was gone.
I hated the idea of moving. I'd made good friends at Ridgewood, and now at Chatsworth I had been accepted as "one of the guys." Mr. Gustafson, my choir teacher, was helping me overcome my shyness. He seemed to care about me, and he'd encouraged me to sing a solo at one of the spring programs the year before.
One day one of the English teachers, Mr. Bradley, called me in to talk.
"Dusty," he said, "I want you in my speech class."
"Speech?" I asked. "There's nothing wrong with my speech!"
Mr. Bradley smiled and shook his head. "No, no, not that kind of speech. In my class you give talks. I give you a subject, you write a speech, and then you get up and speak to the class."
"You've got to be kidding! I'm not getting up in front of anyone!"
"I want you in there, Dusty."
So, I joined the speech class and the drama class, and Mr. Bradley spent a great deal of time working with me. We did a lot of plays at Chatsworth High, and one time I was especially eager for my folks to see me in The Devil and Daniel Webster because I was playing Webster. I was crushed when I found out they had to be out of town the weekend we were to perform.
"It's no problem, Dusty," Mr. Bradley said. "We can give a special performance, just for your folks! It'll be a dress rehearsal."
Everyone was thrilled to do a private showing for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Dodie came, too, and the three of them sat in the front row. We were all a bit nervous at the start, but then everything clicked. I think it was the best performance of the weekend. Mom just raved about us, and we all felt like award-winners.
A few days later Mom burst through the front door.
"Dusty!" she called. "Guess what? I was bragging about you this weekend. You have a wonderful talent! Somebody told me that Youth for Christ is producing a film called To Forgive a Thief. It's about the half-way house program. I told them you'd love to try out for a part!"
I did want to try out. I enjoyed acting, and it sounded like fun. A few days later I received a call from a fellow from Youth for Christ. His name was Mel White.
"Would you be willing to read for a part in the film, Dusty?" he asked.
"Could you tell me about the part?" I asked.
"Sure. It's about a kid named Ted who gets a bad start. After he finishes his time with the Juvenile Authority, he's sent to a Christian half-way house. He's hostile and bitter, but the love of the Christians wins him over. We'd like you to try out for the lead."
"Boy! I'd love that!"
"Great. I'll send you the script, and we'll be out next week to have you read for the part. I have to be honest with you, though, Dusty. It's a toss between you and Gregory Peck's son."
Suddenly there were stars in my eyes. Even though it was a low-budget Christian film, for me it seemed like a major production. But when the script came, I panicked. I tend to procrastinate when I'm unsure of myself, and day after day I put off practicing the lines. Although I could have asked Mr. Bradley to help me, I kept postponing it until the morning of the reading.
Nervous, I poured over the script for a couple of hours. At the same time, the feeling of competition added to my stress, and my agitation produced a sense of defensiveness. By the time I did the reading, I was feeling aggressive and downright nasty—exactly what the part called for. And I got it!
We went into production and worked on location 18 hours a day for 11 days. Some scenes were shot in beautiful homes in the Rolling Hills Estates, and other times we went into some of the worst places in Los Angeles for barroom scenes. I had to do a motorcycle jump scene although I'd never jumped a motorcycle in my life. I fell off and skinned my legs, but I had a great time. It never dawned on me that God had a purpose for me in playing the part of Ted until the day we shot a scene at the detention center in Chino.
They cleared a cell block for us, and I noticed a little boy. He couldn't have been more than nine years old. I turned to the deputy in disbelief.
"Why is he here?" I asked.
"Well, we don't have any place to send him right now."
"But why is he in jail? Why isn't he at juvenile hall or some place like that?"
"Because he's incorrigible. About four days ago he walked into his parents' bedroom, and while they were asleep he shot them both in the head with a. 22. Murdered them."
I could hardly catch my breath. What had provoked such a terrible thing? Was he abused? Did they beat him? Had no one ever told him he was important? I looked into that sad, sad face, and I thought, What would have happened if someone had reached out to this kid three weeks ago? What if someone had shaken his hand and said, "Hi there. How ya doing? Nice to see you. I appreciate you. You're a human being with worth and value. God loves you and I love you."
I walked over to him and said, "Hi." I shook his hand, and he smiled. He seemed to be genuinely appreciative. I'd walked into that cell block feeling like a big shot. Now, as the cell door closed behind me, I had a profound sense of purpose. 'Remember, Dusty. Your life is the only Bible some people will ever read.' Mom's words suddenly took on new meaning, and I realized that even this low-budget, 29-minute film, starring a bunch of unknowns, could change the lives of a lot of people.
Dad and I flew to Portland for the premiere. It was the first time I saw it. When it was over, there was no applause—only silence. That warmth came over me again, and it seemed like God's hand rested on my shoulder. I've given you that ball. Now Dusty, it's up to you to run with it.
I looked at Dad, and his eyes were misty. People in the audience were crying, and I knew that God was going to use that ordinary piece of black and white film. During the next three years I took the film to almost 400 churches, encouraging Christians to support the half-way house program. To help young people instead of sticking them in jail. To help them feel loved and wanted. To bring them under the influence of the church. To reveal to them the love of God. To show that they are not alone, and that people do care.
As serious as I was about the ministry God had given me, I'm grateful for the example my mom set for me. I think she's the greatest Christian in the world, and if I ever wanted to know anything about living the Christian life, all I'd have to do is ask her.
But Mom is also a regular guy. She takes God very seriously, but she knows how to laugh at herself. She never makes the mistake of taking herself too seriously, and because of that, I knew it was all right to enjoy myself. I was enjoying myself a lot at Chatsworth High. I'd had several girlfriends, each of whom took their turns caring for Peter Cottontail. Because I had finally gained some self-confidence and developed some warm friendships, it was all the harder to accept the fact that we were moving.
To avoid the problem of transferring in the middle of the term, I had to move out to Victorville a few months before we could move into our new home. Sandy was in a private school because of his learning disabilities, so I lived alone in a local motel and drove myself back and forth to school. I ate my suppers in the motel room because I didn't want to go out alone. It was probably the loneliest period in my life, and I was relieved when the rest of the family was able to move out to Apple Valley, just over the hill from Victorville.
At school, the teachers took a special interest in me. One was Mrs. Kurtz, my singing teacher. She spent a lot of individual time with me, and she encouraged me to join a barbershop quartet with David and Ron Powell and Dave Wallace. Those guys and I had a great time. We called ourselves the Fuzzy Wuzzies, and we sang every chance we could. We went to convalescent hospitals and churches— any place that would have us. Even I was surprised when I found myself playing the comic relief! Mrs. Kurtz also encouraged me to join the Chamber Singers, an a cappella choir. I also joined the church choir, and I did a lot of singing and solo work. I enjoyed it.
Victor Valley had very little to offer in the way of entertainment in those days. The little desert community had one old hamburger joint, a drive-in, and one old theater that showed ancient movies. A lot of the time, we just cruised around in our cars. About the most exciting thing to do was to watch the Safeway trucks unload at 2:00 in the morning!
The church kids were shunned by the party-goers, and if you weren't part of one clique or the other, you were alone. The kids from my church had prayer meetings both on and off campus, and during lunch we went across the street from the school to a little hall, where we prayed together and goofed off. There was never any drinking or drugs with that group.
Sandy and I had both dated, and one day he came to me looking a bit sheepish. "Hey, Dusty. I gotta tell you something. I think Sharyn is about the nicest girl in the world."
"She is pretty neat," I said.
"She treats me so nice. She doesn't care about my problems with learning, you know? I love her a lot."
"You do? How do you know? You're only 17!"
"Well, I'll be 18 in June. Dusty, I'm gonna ask Mom and Dad to let me enlist."
"Sandy, you aren't even out of high school yet!" I protested.
"Well, I'm not doing any good at it. All I ever wanted was to be in the army. I can enlist on my own when I'm 18, but that's only a few months away. Do you think Mom and Dad would sign for me to enlist early?"
I shook my head. "Gosh, Sandy, I don't know. I guess you'll have to ask them."
Sandy did ask, and in January of 1965 he went off to boot camp. The war in Viet Nam was heating up, and Sandy had hopes of going over. He hoped he'd finish his training before the skirmishes were over. Before he left, he'd asked his girlfriend, Sharyn, to wait for him. He wanted to marry her.
I wasn't ready for that kind of seriousness, so that spring I decided to take a set of twins to the prom. I was dating Lynn, but her sister, Lee, didn't date very much. They did everything together, and so I just boldly asked them both to go with me. I had no idea how expensive prom night would be. I bought two corsages and three dinners, but I had to buy four tickets to the prom because they only came in pairs. There was an all-night movie after that, and I had to pay for three tickets to that. At the dance, I put one girl on each arm and danced with them both at the same time. Other kids kept coming up and singing the Doublemint gum commercial: "Double your pleasure, double your fun . ..." I told them to get lost.
By the fall after I graduated from high school, Sandy had been sent to Germany. I had missed being with him every time he was home on leave, and we just hadn't had any time together. Sandy's letters showed that the army was changing him—helping him grow up. He didn't need me to protect him anymore. But I never really got to see any of that. My best buddy was a continent and an ocean away.
Although Sandy had volunteered several times for service in Viet Nam, his orders never came. While I was in high school, I'd received my draft notice, and I was scheduled to report right around my dad's birthday, in November of 1965.
One day late in October my speech teacher, Larry Bird, went with me to a speaking engagement in San Bernardino. About 6:00 in the afternoon we pulled into Apple Valley. As we headed down our block, I noticed the driveway full of cars. I felt uneasy.
"Larry," I said slowly, "Mom's supposed to fly in from Texas tonight. It's her birthday. I hope everything's okay. Mom's had more than one near-miss, flying."
We walked into the living room, and I saw Linda and Dodie, and our pastor, Bill Hanson. Then I spotted Dad. He was sitting in a chair with his elbows resting on his knees. His face buried in his hands, he was sobbing.
"Dusty," somebody said, "something's happened to Sandy. He's dead."
Dead? What kind of horrible joke is that? But I knew it was true. We were waiting for further reports, but the first word was, my brother had choked to death in Germany.
"It's time to go. We have to meet Mom at the airport so no one tells her before we can," Linda said. We climbed into several cars and drove out to Los Angeles International Airport. We stood around waiting, and then we saw the plane taxi in.
"How am I ever going to tell her?" Dad asked Reverend Bill.
"Do you want me to?"
Dad shook his head. "No. I'll take care of it."
But no one had to say a word. The minute Mom got off the plane and saw us all standing there, she knew.
"Oh, my God," she cried, "not Sandy! Not Sandy! He's in Germany, not Viet Nam!" Suddenly her legs went out from under her, and Dad grabbed her. A couple of security men rushed over, and they helped us into a small private room. Mom was hysterical for nearly two hours.
In the days that followed, we learned the circumstances that surrounded Sandy's death. To celebrate the completion of some maneuvers, the guys in Sandy's barracks decided to have a bash. Sandy had never had anything stronger than beer before, but he wanted so much to belong—to fit in—that he simply went along with the crowd. In a short period of time, he drank an enormous amount of alcohol—champagne, beer, whiskey, gin, vodka, brandy—all to prove himself a man. Sandy's cast-iron stomach was never intended to handle all that poison, and he began to vomit. One of his buddies took him to the infirmary, where the doctors checked on him several times during the night. At 2:00 in the morning he seemed to be all right, and again at 3:00 he responded to the doctor, but sometime between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., he must have begun vomiting as he lay on his back. He choked to death.
I was angry. I was angry at the senselessness of it all. Angry that Sandy had had such a tragic early childhood that he could never overcome his feelings of inferiority. Angry that God had taken him before I had time to see my brother become a man. Angry that it was Sandy who died and not me. And the questions. Why? Why Sandy? Why this way? Why not me? Why had he had so much against him? Why didn't God let Sandy lead the good life and take me instead? After awhile you quit questioning. The questions drive you nuts, so you just have to let it go.
The military funeral was held at Forest Lawn, and Sandy was buried near Debbie and Robin. I'd decided that Sandy should be buried with his favorite Civil War sword, and I took it with me to the cemetery. The color guard from Ridge wood Military Academy came, and Colonel Metcalf was there. He walked with me up to the casket. I was glad, because I didn't think I could make it on my own.
I looked at Sandy, all dressed in his military uniform. Oh, Sandy. I'll never be able to put my arms around you again. Never shake your hand. That's all I want, right now. I reached down to put the sword into his hand; it was stiff and cold. That's when I realized that Sandy wasn't there. All the warmth, all the fun, all the stuff that was Sandy was not there at all, and suddenly I knew with certainty: Sandy was with God.
TO BE CONTINUED