GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #3
In the weeks that followed Robin's funeral my parents found themselves back on the personal appearance circuit. Just a month after Robin died, they were scheduled to appear at Madison Square Garden in New York. The show, with more than 40 performances in less than 30 days, was expected to play to more than 700,000 people.
As they had done many times before and would do many times again, Mom and Dad set aside their personal feelings, their stresses, their grief. "The show must go on" is a cliche, but that doesn't alter the fact that it is also an expectation. It doesn't matter if you're sick. No one cares if you have problems at home.
Fans don't understand the long hours, the hard work, the sore muscles, and the fatigue that make you tired clear down into tomorrow. All they see is excitement and glitter and dazzle. They wonder about box office receipts and fan letters, newspaper reviews, fancy clothes and parties— but fans cannot begin to fathom the mental, physical and emotional price a performer must pay for popularity.
Whatever motivates a performer, whether it's the need for recognition or monetary reward or some other aim, there's a price to pay. For my parents the price was relinquishing their right to privacy, to rest during illness, to take time to grieve. Many times they fought off headaches, sore throats, fevers and flu symptoms to fulfill their obligations to their fans.
"After all," Dad would say, "these people have made me what I am. I owe them something. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be doing what I love to do."
What they loved to do was to perform, but they also loved to be with us. In spite of long separations while they were on the road, they spent quality time with us when they could. During the summers we were together almost every day because we traveled with them.
But the summer Robin died, we stayed home. Mom and Dad phoned us every night while they were away, and just before they were to return home, they called with a special announcement.
"Dusty," Mom said, "we'll be home in time for your birthday. I'll bake you a special cake. What do you want for your birthday dinner?"
"Fried chicken and mashed potatoes! And a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and jelly beans on top!" Mom couldn't have been surprised. I always asked for that.
"Sounds good, Honey," she told me. "And guess what? We're going to bring you a real surprise. We're bringing you a new baby sister! Her name is Mary Little Doe, and we're going to call her Dodie!"
After Robin's death, Mom remembered the little Indian baby she had seen at Hope Cottage in April. Hoping she would still be there, they had stopped in Dallas on their way to the East Coast, and they asked about the baby.
At first the director of the Cottage discouraged them because the law required Indian children to be adopted by Indian parents. But when Dad reminded the Board of Directors that he was part Choctaw, the problem was settled. Mary Little Doe would be ours. I missed Robin so much that the idea of a new baby sister sounded good to me.
On my sixth birthday, Virginia got the three of us scrubbed and ready to meet the airplane. She made us take baths and wash behind our ears and brush our teeth. "Now you guys got to look real sharp because we're taking you to meet your new baby sister." It was bad enough having to get all cleaned up, and what little excitement I had left was dampened considerably when I realized Virginia was going to make me wear a suit. I had a new wind-up piggy bank, and to pacify me, she let me take it with me in the car. When we got to the airport, the reporters were already waiting. My stepbrother, Tom, and his wife Barbara were there, too. Then I saw Mom and Dad get off the airplane. Mommy was carrying our new baby.
Dodie was tiny, and she was wearing Robin's little pink coat and hat. "Why does she have such a dark suntan?" I asked.
"Because Dodie is part Indian," Virginia explained. I thought the baby was pretty.
Suddenly I realized something was terribly wrong. There was someone else with Mommy and Daddy and Dodie. He was a little boy, smaller than me, wearing a suit and a cap. Worst of all, he was holding my daddy's hand. Just before the security people permitted us to go to the airplane steps, Virginia put my piggy bank in my hand. "Now you give this to your new brother/' Virginia was saying, "and you put your arms around him and hug him and kiss him so he knows you like him." The whole idea sounded terrible. "Well," I said soberly, "if I have to give him this pig, that's all he's getting!"
We walked to the airplane, and when I got close enough, Mom said, "Dusty, we brought you a surprise. This is your new brother, Sandy!" Today, Mom says they made a mistake in not preparing me in advance for my new brother. It was always hard for me to adjust to new people, but they didn't realize I would perceive this little tyke as a threat.
Sandy stepped forward and reached out his hand to me. "Howdy, pardner," he said.
I ignored him. But I also kept my eyes on him to make sure he didn't get into my back pocket or something. The photographers were taking pictures like crazy, and Dodie and Sandy were getting all kinds of attention. To make matters worse, that boy was calling my parents Mommy and Daddy. This is just terrible, I decided. Just terrible. I didn't say a word all the way home. But no one noticed. All the grown-ups were anxious to hear about how Mom and Dad found him.
"After the show at Madison Square Garden," Mom said, "we had to play three other cities on our way back to California: Cincinnati, Ohio; Muncie, Indiana; and Owens-boro, Kentucky. From Kentucky we were going to stop in Dallas to pick up our new little Indian baby." She snuggled closer to the baby.
"When we got into Cincinnati there was a stack of mail," Dad interrupted. "I was born in Cincinnati, Dusty. Did you know that? Anyway, I went through the mail, and there was a wire from a woman who ran a home for disadvantaged children in Covington, Kentucky. That's just across the river from Cincinnati. She wanted me to call her."
"Daddy's always a soft touch for kids in trouble," Linda noted.
"Uh huh," Mom nodded, "and our little Robin made you even more sensitive, didn't she, Daddy?"
Dad just fingered the leather of the upholstery. Compliments make him bashful.
"The woman told me she had a little girl in a wheelchair who really wanted to see me, but they didn't have tickets to the show. I told her to meet our PR man backstage. Then I thought about Dusty and all these girls! I asked the lady if she had a little boy about five or sk years old that we could bring home for you Dusty."
I didn't answer. Daddy still had his arm around the new kid.
"She started to say no, at first, didn't she, Daddy?" Mommy asked.
Dad nodded. "But then she said, 'Yes, we do have one, Mr. Rogers, but I don't think you'd be interested in him. He's got a few problems.' I told her to bring him along." Dad gave the boy another squeeze. I turned and stared out the window.
"The night of the show they didn't arrive until Daddy was already on stage," Mom said. "After the first number, he noticed the woman with the little girl in the wheelchair, and beside her was this tiny little fellow wearing a yellow corduroy suit and one of those short billed caps. How old are you, Sandy?"
"That's right!" said Mom.
I thought he didn't look any bigger than a three-year-old.
"When Sandy saw Daddy," Mom continued, "his whole face lit up. He stepped forward with his hand out. What did you say to Daddy, Honey?"
"Howdy, pardner!" Sandy repeated as Dad hugged him again.
Dad has a thing about handshakes. He always says, "If you're going to shake hands, shake hands like you mean it!" That little fella must have meant it, because Dad had simply melted. Although Mom usually does most of the talking, Dad finished the story as Sandy dozed against his chest.
The boy's name was bigger than he was—Harry John David Hardy—and he was in terrible shape. He'd been abandoned three times before he was eight months old. He'd either been dropped on his face or beaten, and he had an unrepaired broken nose. He could hardly breathe, and he had obvious physical problems.
Dad took the lady's telephone number, and after the show he and Mom talked for hours. They discussed what it would mean to take in another handicapped child. There was no doubt he was handicapped, and no denying the potential problems in adopting a child who had so obviously been abused. Finally my dad said, "Anybody can take in a perfect child. What happens to a little guy like this?"
"Within 24 hours we had all the papers signed," Mom added, "and we whisked this little fellow out of Kentucky. Daddy decided he needed a nickname, so we called him Sandy."
"I've got one boy named Dusty and one named Sandy," Dad teased. "If we ever get another one, we'll have to call him Filthy!"
"Poor little guy," Mom mused. "The night we left, we were on a bus with the cast of the show. He'd eaten so much dinner, he lost it all. I felt so sorry for him. We stopped at a hotel and had a roll away bed put in our room for Sandy."
"He was scared to death," Dad added. "All night long he kept getting up and coming over to our bed to see if we were still there."
Then we went on to Dallas to pick up Dodie at the Cottage. While we were in the office talking to the matron, Sandy kept peeking around the door to make sure we didn't leave him. But none of this changed my mind about the new kid. I didn't like him. When we got home, Mommy dropped another bomb on me. Sandy was going to sleep in my room. All night long he tossed and turned, crying out in his sleep. The next morning I hid as many of my toys as I could before I left for school.
"What are you doing, Dusty?" Mom asked.
"I'm hiding my toys, case that new guy tries to make off with any of 'em. Is he going to stay long?"
She knelt down beside me. "Sandy is your new brother, Dusty," she said firmly, emphasizing his name. "He's going to live with us from now on, and he's going to share your room with you. He doesn't want to take your toys. He wants to be your friend."
I wasn't so sure about that, but within a day or two, I decided Sandy was all right. Probably to "seal the deal," Dad took Sandy and me on a fishing trip up near Marysville in northern California. Dad's favorite fishing hole was there. We took camping gear—sleeping bags and whatnot—but no food because Dad likes to "live off the land." We had a great time. We used multiple lines with four hooks on each line, and we put cheese balls on the hooks. Dad was so busy baiting the hooks, I don't know if he ever had time to fish, but Sandy and I pulled in 136 bluegill in about two hours one day. What we didn't eat or throw back, we gave away to other people camping in the area. Dad shot rabbits and showed us how to clean them by running a knife right up the middle. Then he'd have us pull out the innards so we'd know how. Since we didn't take any skillets with us, we made an open fire and cooked them over the spit. He showed us how to clean and bone fish, and how to check rabbits for warbles, which are the larva of the warble fly. When those things get in a rabbit, it's not fit to eat.
Dad had taken me hunting and fishing many times, and he'd started me shooting about a year before, but to Sandy all of this was new. He dove into it headfirst.
Sandy wasn't the least bit squeamish about it. I think his stomach was made of cast iron, but it must have had a hole in it somewhere, because we couldn't seem to fill him up! Anyway, Dad showed us how to catch frogs and cut their legs off. We'd put them on the end of a stick and hold them over the fire. Then we'd roast them until the meat turned white. To this day I love to eat frog legs.
At night we crawled into our sleeping bags and looked up into the sky. It was clear, and we could see thousands of stars. Chirping crickets sang us lullabies as we dozed off to sleep. It felt good to be out-of-doors with my dad and my brother, and even though the mosquitoes about ate us alive, that trip was worth every moment. By the time it was over, Sandy was my best friend.
When we got home, Mom took Sandy and Dodie to the doctor for checkups. Although Dodie was just fine, Sandy was not. His head was enlarged, his bones were soft and pliable, and he had curvature of the spine, all due to rickets and malnutrition. An EEG (electroencephalogram), which tests brainwaves, revealed a slight abnormality. His muscle tone was terrible. Because his face had been smashed, he had almost no bridge to his nose. He needed reconstructive surgery, and he needed to have his tonsils removed. He was hospitalized for the necessary surgery, and although he came back from the hospital looking battered and bruised, he was happy to be home.
In the days that followed Sandy's surgery, we began to realize how terribly abused he must have been at the care facility. He told us he'd been hit with a baseball bat one day when he dropped a baby bottle. As tiny as he was, he had been responsible for changing baby diapers and for feeding other children, as well as caring for the girl in the wheelchair. Whenever he was "bad," they made him sleep in a chair out on the porch. A couple of times, he said, he woke up with snow all over him.
Sandy spent a lot of time crying that first year. Little things reminded him of his early experiences, and he often burst into tears. He had frequent nightmares and dreams that he was falling. One night, terrified, he woke me up.
"Dusty!" he hissed as he shook me awake. "Dusty! Wake up! There's someone in this room."
"What do you mean there's somebody in the room, Sandy? There's nobody here."
"Right over there. Look!"
All I could see was a shirt hanging in the closet. "Sandy," I said, "it's just a shirt." But Sandy would see things that weren't there, like shadows on curtains. Even though Mom would get up and rock him in the rocking chair, soothing him and calming him down, he was plagued with nightmares all during his growing-up years. If the nightmares affected his sleep, they certainly had no ill effect on his appetite. Sandy was always hungry. I think sometimes when people have known the kind of malnutrition and deprivation Sandy had experienced, food becomes a kind of security for them. Whatever the reason, Sandy approached every meal as if it were his first and last for all time. Most people would take a cereal bowl for breakfast, but not Sandy. He'd take the largest mixing bowl in the kitchen, pour a whole box of cereal in it, drown it in a half-gallon of milk and sit there shovelling in the whole thing.
Once Sandy recovered from his surgery and was stronger, Mom started him in school. By this time Cheryl and Linda were in junior high school. One day Mom couldn't drive us to school because she was getting ready to make a personal appearance. When she was dressed in her Western outfit with the fringe and her leather boots and her cowgirl hat, she kissed us at the door and waved us on. Suddenly one of us got a great idea—one of us did.
"Hey, Sandy, look! The mailman's only a couple of houses ahead of us!"
"Yeah. So what?"
"Wouldn't it be funny if we went along behind him and switched everybody's mail?"
Sandy didn't need much persuasion because he usually went along with whatever I suggested. He wanted so much to belong and to fit that he never really thought about the consequences—not that I was giving them much thought, either. We'd switched the mail at several houses before we heard a car coming up behind us. The next thing I knew, the brakes squealed. I turned around just in time to see Mom flying out of the car. She took her belt off and ran toward us, yelling like a Comanche. Sandy and I started yelling and crying before she got within 10 feet of us, and she was hollering that she was going to whip the daylights out of us. She paddled us all the way up the block, missing three swats out of four, and made us put all the mail back where it belonged along the way.
It must have been a sight: this cowgirl chasing two little boys up the street with a belt; letters dropping everywhere; the car sitting in the middle of the road with the motor running and the door wide open. But Mom believed in swift discipline, and it wouldn't be the last time she laid into Sandy and me. The two of us were about to give her a real run for her money.
Although there was a difference of only eight months in our ages, at the age of six, Sandy looked several years younger than me. I stood head and shoulders above him, and because I'd had the advantage of good nutrition and lots of time outdoors, I was stronger and healthier. Sandy also lacked the kind of coordination he needed to ride well, to hit a target, and to play many of the games boys like to play, so I tended to outshine him in those areas.
I don't remember feeling sorry for Sandy, but Robin had taught me so much about being gentle and compassionate that I simply assumed a protective attitude toward my brother. He had become my best buddy, and anybody who picked on him at school had to answer to me.
The summer after Sandy came to live with us, we discovered something he could always do better than me, and it had to do with that cast-iron stomach of his. Dad had purchased an old surplus PT boat and converted it to a recreational fishing boat, complete with diving rigs, and he named it The Flamba. The boat was berthed at Wilmington Harbor, and sometimes on weekends the whole family would pack up and head for the beach. The boat could sleep 14, so the girls sometimes brought their friends and we'd head out to sea. The first time out, Sandy and I were beside ourselves with excitement.
"You fellas are in for a real treat," Dad told us. "Out on the ocean you can catch fish without a pole and without a net!"
I was doubtful. By this time I'd been fishing a lot, and I couldn't see how it could be done. "How do you do that?" I asked.
"You'll see, Dusty," Dad chuckled. "There are flying fish in the ocean. During the night they'll just leap up on the deck! All we have to do is clean 'em and fry 'em up for breakfast."
Sandy and I were all eyes as we climbed aboard. The air was fresh, and we could smell the salt. The sun beat down on us and warmed our faces, but the ocean breeze kept us from feeling too hot. Soon the motor started up, and we headed toward the breakwater. The boat bounced along and Sandy was whooping and hollering and having the time of his life. I stood next to a rail watching the horizon go up and down, up and down and it wasn't very long before I thought my stomach was going to turn inside out.
"You okay, Honey?" Mom asked.
"Uh uh," I groaned. "I feel just awf—."
The next thing I knew my stomach had turned inside out. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to die. There's no worse feeling than being seasick and knowing that there's no way off the boat for the next couple of days—which might as well be for eternity. Mom gave me some soda crackers and tried to talk to me to get my mind off my misery. When things let up a bit, I wondered how ol' Sandy was doing. If his rough-and-tumble brother, who outshined him in every physical activity, couldn't take it, Sandy must be near death. Just then Sandy came whooping down the deck with a sandwich in one hand and a paper cup in the other.
"Hey, Dusty, your face is kinda green. You feeling bad? Daddy says you're seasick!" He grinned again. Every time we went out after that, he grinned and I threw up. I was probably the only one in the family who was glad when Dad sold The Flamba. I secretly celebrated when I heard she had sunk off a Florida reef some time later.
In the meantime, Sandy and I had become like fly and fly paper—and sometimes we got ourselves into sticky situations. Mom was both creative and swift in dealing with our antics. One day she caught us swiping pennies.
"Boys! Stealing is a crime. Do you understand?"
Sandy and I just stood there; we didn't say a word.
"Nothing to say for yourselves, huh? Well, when people steal, they go to jail, and they only get to eat bread and water!"
Sandy shifted from one foot to the other and shrugged.
"Okay, then. Now you boys have to go to jail for the whole day, and you have to subsist on bread and water!"
We didn't know what subsist meant, but we started crying anyway. Mom took Sandy by the hand and grabbed me by the ear, and she locked us inside the cabanas.
"Now you boys can stay here all day. You are in jail.
Sandy and I kept hollering after she left. A few minutes later she came back with a hunk of dry bread and a little cup of water for each of us. Every 15 or 20 minutes or so, she came out to check on us. By the second hour, we weren't upset anymore at all. Each time Mom came out, we were grinning, but we kept quiet. Finally it happened: Mom caught on. Linda's compassion had gotten the best of her, and she had been smuggling us cookies and milk!
TO BE CONTINUED