GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #5
Mom and Dad belonged to the Hollywood Christian Group, which started at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church under the direction of Dr. Henrietta Mears. The group provided prayer support and Christian counselling for its members, and they sponsored retreats at Forest Home Christian Conference Center in the mountains near San Bernardino. Every Monday night the group met at a different home for fellowship and to hear a guest speaker. One warm Monday evening in the autumn of 1953 they held their regular meeting near the pool in our backyard. A special guest was there to lead the meeting, and when it was over, the tall, distinguished-looking young man told my parents he had been invited to conduct a Crusade for Christ in London in the spring.
"Is there anything we can do to help you, Billy?" Dad asked. "We have a pretty good-sized fan club in the British Isles—our London chapter has about 50,000 fans."
Before the night was over Mom and Dad and their manager, Art Rush, were planning their first overseas tour. They would take their show to the United Kingdom. Beginning in Glasgow, they would appear in many major cities, including Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin. They would finish their tour by playing in Dublin, Ireland, and then join Billy Graham's crusade in London. In England Mom and Dad experienced one of the few times they were afraid of the crowds. When they got off the plane, the crowd engulfed them like a wave. By the time they reached their hotel, their hands and arms were bruised, sore and swollen from shaking hands. They spent six cold and rainy weeks in the United Kingdom, touring damp theatres and dingy castles, and standing in the February rain to greet people. Finally in Liverpool they both ended up in bed with pneumonia.
When word got out that Mom and Dad might not be able to make it to one of their appearances, people began to gather outside the hotel. Some estimates put the crowd at nearly 20,000 people! My folks did make their appearance, on stage, though, because in spite of their illness, they were threatened with a lawsuit if they didn't! It was not the first time such a threat had been made, nor would it be the last, but those kinds of experiences represent a side of show business that is painfully real. But for Mom and Dad, that tour came to represent something quite different, something apart from show business and fans and crowds and unthinking demands. In Scotland my folks did what they tried to do everywhere they went: they visited children in hospitals and in orphanages. In Edinburgh the chief constable asked them to visit an orphanage called Dunforth. There they met a young 13-year-old named Marion Fleming. Marion sang for them, and Mom invited her and the matron to join them for lunch the next day. In the hours that followed, Mom and Dad investigated the possibility of adopting Marion, but they discovered they would be required to live in England for two years before they would be eligible.
The way English law works, it is almost impossible for Americans to adopt English children, especially if their parents are still living. Marion's parents were divorced, and both were alive, so the best my folks could do was arrange for a visitor's visa for the summer.
While Mom and Dad were gone, Cheryl and Linda were away at school, so Sandy and I kept ourselves entertained. Dodie was too little to roughhouse with us and to get into mischief, but Sandy and I made up for whatever Dodie couldn't—and probably wouldn't—do. Whenever my folks were away, they gave Virginia and everyone else who worked for them complete authority over us. There was never a question of whether to discuss a problem with my parents first. My folks believed that transgressions should be handled swiftly, and they didn't want us to think of their homecomings in terms of punishment. Neither did they want us to think we could raise the roof without having to face the consequences. I think their perspective gave all of us a great sense of continuity and security, because life was much the same whether they were home or not. We had our daily devotions every day, we talked with Virginia at mealtimes, and she disciplined us with consistency and love. Virginia always made me relish the fact that I was going to get it, and every time, it was the same.
"All right, Dusty, you know what you've done, and you know what the penalty is. Now I want you to go outside and get me a switch." I'd go outside and find the feeblest little branch I could find off the peach tree and take it in. "No sir, that one won't hurt enough to make you remember. You go out there and get me a switch that's worth the getting." Back out I'd go. I'd have to get the branch ready by stripping all the leaves off of it—then she'd switch me across the back of my thighs. It didn't happen often, but when it did, it was something I remembered.
One day Sandy and I both got it. We had one of those big toy cars with pedals inside. We'd get inside, push the pedals, and the car would go. Sandy and I took it out back, behind some bushes. Our Swedish gardener, Gus, was very fussy about the yard, especially the roses and the irises, so I'm not sure where we found the old leaves and the dead grass, but we got it all together and put it inside the car and set it on fire.
"Put some more leaves on there, Sandy," I said.
"Okay. Wish we had some frog legs we could cook!"
"Yeah, that would be—oops, Sandy, look out!"
It didn't seem like a big deal to us, but all of a sudden the grass around the car began to smoulder and before we knew it, flames shot up.
"Dusty, look! It's spreading up to them big eucalyptus trees! What are we gonna do?" Sandy moaned. Sandy and I stood there hopping from one foot to the other for a minute, and then I saw the irises. "Look, Sandy! Get some of these flower leaves. We can beat the fire out with them!" The iris blades were about as effective as the bread I'd tried on the fire in Hollywood Hills. "We gotta get some water," I sputtered. By that time the smoke was rising and Gus came running up, hollering loud enough to raise the dead. He grabbed a hose and put the fire out, yelling in Swedish all the while, and then he chased us all the way up to the house. Virginia really let us have it that time!
A few days later we went over to Rex Allen's place, which was just down the road from us. Sandy and I loved to go over there because we'd get into terrific dirt clod fights with Rex Jr. and his younger brother, Curtis. One day we were particularly enthusiastic. It was the Rogerses against the Aliens, and we were really hurling them back and forth. Rex threw one and hit Sandy in the shoulder. Sandy had a jacket on, but the clod was a big one. Sandy began howling and rubbing his shoulder. I could tell it hurt, and that really made my blood boil.
No more fun and games, now, I decided. I picked up a big clod and let it sail. I clipped Rex Jr. just above the eye. That ended everything. Rex went crying into the house, and a few minutes later his dad came ripping out the door.
"What's the matter with you boys?" he shouted. "Don't you know you could put somebody's eye out like that? You know better than to be throwing rocks. If your daddy were home, he'd tan your hides! I'm going to let Virginia know what's been going on here. Now get this mess cleaned up, and then git!"
The four of us spent about an hour cleaning up the place, and then Sandy and I skedaddled, all right. Rex Sr. was right—Dad would have had our hides, if he'd been home. Because so many of the children he visited in hospitals were accident victims, he and Mom were always talking about safety. They even started a program to give safety awards to schools all over the nation, as a way of encouraging children to think "Safety first."
Sandy and I sweated it out all that afternoon, thinking Rex Allen would call Virginia and tell her about the fight, but this time, we were saved by his mercy—or his faulty memory!
For the next couple of days Sandy and I were on our best behavior. The kind of mischief we did get into never amounted to anything worth fussing over. We'd drag snails out of the iris garden and pour salt on them to see them bubble, or we'd catch flies and eat them. Mom never knew about that, or she'd have nailed us both! One day we found a nest of rats in the barn. They were underneath a bale of hay, and they were still pink—no fur on them. Sandy and I took turns feeding them to the cat. Every couple of days the phone would ring, and it would be Mom and Dad. If it had been a good day or two, with no spankings, I'd talk to them. If not, I wouldn't.
Finally it was time for Mom and Dad to come home, and not long after that, Marion arrived. It meant another trip to the airport, all clean and gussied up because Virginia insisted. But this time, I didn't mind so much. I was curious about the girl who was going to visit us for the summer. Marion loved oranges, and Mom gave her a whole bag of them when we met her at the plane. I like to take my time with people, but Sandy ran right up and gave her his hand. She was friendly, and I liked the way she talked. She had a strong Scottish brogue, and it was fun to hear the way she pronounced our names.
"Did you have a nice time on the airplane, Honey?" Mom asked.
"Oh, yes, Mum," Marion answered. "There was a cowboy on the airplane. He sat next to me, and he said the most curious thing!"
"What was that?"
"He asked me, 'Well, little lady, are you traveling all by yourself?' And I said, 'Yes,' and he said, 'Well bless your little pointed head!'" Marion rubbed the top of her head in bewilderment.
The first few nights she showed us some traditional Scottish dances, including the sword dance and the Highland fling. I stood off and watched from the corner, but Cheryl got to be pretty good at it, and so did Linda.
Marion fit in with us right away, especially at night around the supper table. Perhaps because she had come from an orphanage, she didn't seem to mind the bedlam that supper time could be. She enjoyed the chatter and the silliness. Like Sandy, Marion had known what it was like to be deprived of food. Although World War II had been over for some time, it had only been a short time since Scotland had stopped rationing food and requiring food coupons. Marion could remember the harshness of the war years, and she was astonished at the amount and the variety of food on our table.
In the early weeks of her visit, in the summer of 1954, Marion couldn't bring herself to eat very much, and yet the two things she couldn't seem to get enough of were oranges and potatoes. After awhile, she realized that she had fierce competition for the potatoes. She had to contend with Sandy and me. Before we could eat, we prayed together. After folding our hands and bowing our heads, we would take turns thanking God for our various blessings and for the food. In the mornings we shared Scripture verses from a little devotional aid Mom had bought. It was a little plastic loaf of bread containing Scripture verses printed on brightly-colored strips of paper. We took turns reading them as we sat together around our huge round dining room table. The center of the table was dominated by the biggest lazy Susan I've even seen. George Montgomery made it especially for us. Mom put all the food on the Susan, and we turned it if we wanted anything.
One night Sandy figured out how to have the home court advantage in terms of the mashed potatoes. That night he prayed with his eyes open. With his hands still clasped, he extended his index fingers until they met, and with ever-so-little effort, he used them to turn the Susan slowly until the potatoes were right in front of him. I couldn't figure out why the potatoes weren't in front of me until several days later, when I opened my eyes while we were praying. I joined Sandy's little game, and then Marion figured it out, too. Before we knew it, that Susan was spinning back and forth like the agitator on a washing machine! The next night, Mommy made an announcement.
"Children, I think it's time we started a new family tradition. From now on, we're going to hold hands around the table when we pray, and no one is to let go until Daddy says 'Amen!'"
Summer stretched into winter, and my folks were able to have Marion's visa extended month after month. Finally Marion became their official ward, and she never did go back to Scotland. We began to call her Mimi, and soon she was calling our folks Mommy and Daddy. Mimi and I got to be good friends. I was eight and she was 13, but we were almost the same size. Out in the yard, we built leaf houses on the ground. We decided where we wanted each room to be, then raked the leaves into the proper floor plans. We did that for hours while Sandy played with his army men. Even though we liked each other, or perhaps because we did, Mimi and I teased each other constantly. I'd wait outside the bathroom door and run by her as she came out after her bath or shower. I'd grab her towel and just keep running. She screamed and hollered every time, but it wasn't long before Mimi realized there's no place for modesty in a family with half-a-dozen kids swarming around all the time.
At dinner Mimi always sat to my left, and she loved carrot strips. She always got the last one, and she waved it in front of my nose to remind me that she was faster on the grab than I was. I tried to get as big a bite of carrot as I could, and one night I bit her fingernail off. A bit closer, and I'd have got her finger, too!
A few nights later we were all especially rowdy, and after a while Mom had had it. "Okay, Dusty, knock it off. Sandy, you, too. Eat your dinner and be quiet."
Sandy went on laughing and grinning, and he shot a pea off his plate at Linda.
"Stop it, Sandy!" Linda insisted. "Mommy, make him stop!"
"Sandy, I told you to knock if off. I'm getting tired of warning you!"
Sandy grinned again, and took another mouthful of potatoes.
"Ouch!" Dodie cried. "Sandy just kicked me!"
"Sandy, this is your last warning," Mom said. "If you don't knock it off, I'm going to drown you in this pitcher of milk."
The tone of Mom's voice meant business, but Sandy wasn't ready to give up. "Aw, Mom, you would never do that!" Laughing, he leaned over and made a face at me. "Nyah, nyah, nyah!" he teased.
Before the rest of us knew what was happening, Mom was out of her seat and around the table, pouring a whole pitcher of milk all over Sandy's head. Pretty soon he was wailing, but she kept pouring.
"Young man," she said, "when I make a promise, I keep it. Now go get cleaned up; you've had enough dinner for one night!"
Sandy opened his mouth and screamed at her. She screamed back, louder. Sandy took a deep breath and gave it all he had—a long, piercing bellow. Mom half-smiled, took a deep breath, and just about broke all of our eardrums. Sandy stared at her for a minute, shrugged, and left the table.
Sandy and I did our best to have a good time, but we must have driven Mom to distraction. She even kept a long switch in the car so she could reach us while she was driving, and she made good use of it. She'd grab that thing, and one of us would yell, "Hit the deck!" We'd all duck down low, hoping she'd miss us. She rarely missed.
One day I decided I'd had enough. "You don't love me," I declared, "and I'm tired of living here. I'm going to runaway!"
"Fine. I'll help you pack."
That wasn't quite the answer I expected from my mom, and I was surprised when she came into my room to help me decide what to take. I got all packed and then I hung around awhile, but nobody said anything to me. Not one person told me I ought to stay! I decided to talk it over with Mimi.
"Nobody likes me anymore, Mimi."
"I like you, Dusty, but you've been naughty today."
That made me mad, so I pulled out all the punches. "Yeah, well, you're just being mean because you're too short!"
Nothing got to Mimi like that reminder. Although she was 13, she was tiny, and people always thought she was about eight. Tears welled up in her eyes, and I felt terrible because I'd made her cry, but I didn't let her know that.
"Dusty," she said, "you're a naughty little boy!" Then she turned around and stomped out of the room.
"Yeah, well, I'll show you, Mimi. I'm gonna go outside and eat grass!" I yelled after her. My threat had no effect. I wandered up to my bedroom so I could talk it over with my brother. "Sandy, nobody likes me anymore."
Sandy grinned, "I do."
"You do? Well, don't you get tired of always getting hit with a switch every time we go in the car?"
"And aren't you tired of always having nothing but girls around?"
"And don't you wish we never had to go to school anymore?"
"You wanna run away with me, Sandy? We could camp out and go swimming and catch fish."
"Yeah, Dusty! Let's go!"
I don't suppose Sandy really wanted to run away, but he packed a little bag of stuff—mostly army men—and we headed out. We piled our bags into our wagon and started up the hill from our house. When we got to the top of the hill, it seemed like we'd been gone for hours.
"You're always hungry, Sandy. Did you bring any food?"
"No, didn't you?"
When I said no, I thought Sandy was going to shrivel up and die right there. Pretty soon we were both standing there, bawling, because we were away from home and we had no food. Just then Virginia's old green Chevy pulled up beside us.
"You boys are in a heap of trouble!" she called out the window
"How come?" I asked.
"Your Daddy's gone and called the sheriff on you. Get in this car, quick-like!"
We scrambled in the back seat and Virginia covered us up with an old blanket. "You boys hush your crying, now," she said. "I'll do my best to sneak you back into the house, but then you're on your own."
Slowly she drove back down the hill to our place. "Okay, the coast is clear. Come on!"
We tiptoed into the house and tore lickety-split down the hall to our rooms.
"Quick! Get under your beds!" Virginia hissed.
By this time, Sandy and I had our own rooms with a little grate between them. We could loosen the screws and crawl from room to room. We decided to get under my bed, and we had just barely made it when I heard my dad cough. He has a distinctive cough, and even today it lets me know when he is in the room.
Soon we saw two pairs of boots, and I heard a voice I'd never heard before.
"All right, Roy," the guy with the black boots was saying, "just where are them two outlaws of yours?"
"Gosh, Sheriff, you know I'd help you if I could. I just don't know where they are!"
"Well, I tell you, Roy, if I ever catch them two boys runnin' away from home, they're goin' to jail and they won't get nothin' to eat but bread and water for the rest of their natural days!"
Sandy and I really ate that up. We knew we'd had it this time. We lay there as still as we could for what seemed like hours—and we never ran away from home again.
TO BE CONTINUED