GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #7
Sandy and I were in school the day In Ai Lee came to live with us. She arrived on Cheryl's sixteenth birthday, and Mom and Dad took all the girls with them to the airport to get her.
"We're going to call her Deborah Lee," Mom had explained to us that morning. "Debbie for short. She's about three years old, and she only knows a few words in English, like 'Mommy' and 'Daddy.' You kids can help us teach her how to speak English."
I didn't say anything. I put my spoon into my oatmeal and stirred it around for awhile. I always had a hard time warming up to strangers, and I didn't like the idea of a new person living in the family—especially one who couldn't speak English!
If anyone realized what I was thinking, no one tried to change my mind. No one reminded me that I had loved Robin from the beginning, that Dodie and I got along fine, that Sandy was my best buddy, and that Mimi was special to me. No one reminded me that another child never meant less love in our home, but more of it. It probably wouldn't have mattered if they had. It was something I had to work out for myself. After breakfast I went up to my room and punched Peter Cottontail around for awhile, then tossed him on the floor by my bed and headed out the door. That afternoon when I got home from school, I looked for Mom to find out about the new intruder. She was in the den with the girls.
"Is that Korean girl here?" I asked.
"Yes, Dusty, your sister Debbie is here."
"Poor little thing," Cheryl said. "She can only speak Korean, and the people at World Vision taught her to say 'Mama' and 'Papa' and to sing Jesus Loves Me.' That didn't do her much good today."
"Every time she opened her mouth," Linda put in, "someone grabbed her and took her to the potty, whether she needed to go or not!"
"You should have seen her, Dusty," Mimi chimed in. "She went right to Daddy and just hung on to him for dear life. I think she's going to be a real Daddy's girl!"
"Where is Daddy?" I asked.
"He's out with his pigeons. But guess what!" Cheryl added. "She can imitate! Mimi leaned over to her and said, 'Hello, darling,' and she said it right back!" The girls burst into laughter.
"She has a very low voice for such a tiny little thing," Mimi giggled. "All the way home we got her to imitate us, and every time she said, 'Hello, darling' we cracked up!"
"Where is she?" I asked soberly.
"Well, she's had a long trip," Mom said. "She was tired and fussy when we came home, so she and Dodie are taking naps."
"Where's she sleeping?"
"Dodie's in her own bed, and Debbie's in yours."
"In my bed?" I whined. "Why does she have to sleep in my bed?"
"I was showing her the house, and when we got to your room, she just crawled up on your bed and went to sleep."
I walked down the hall toward my room, and Mom called after me. "Dusty, don't you wake her up!"
Hmpf. I don't know why we have to have another baby— another girl—around here anyway. Why does she have to take over my room?
When I got to my door, I slid it open slowly, so it wouldn't make any noise. Debbie was curled up on my bed, all right. I walked over toward her to get a better look. She was tinier than I expected, but about the same size as Dodie. Her skin was a pretty light brown, and her hair was almost black. It was a warm June day, and Debbie's dark hair stuck to her face in little wet ringlets. Tiny beads of perspiration dotted her forehead and her upper lip. For a long time I just stood there, watching her sleep. To this day I can see her lying there, so sweet and vulnerable. Finally I decided it was okay for her to be on my bed. I started to leave, then turned back. I picked up Peter Cottontail and set him down next to her.
"I'll let you borrow him for a little while," I whispered. "But not for keeps."
As soon as she woke up, Debbie went looking for Dad. He was in the den, and when she saw him she crawled up in his lap, patted him on the cheek and put her head on his shoulder. She stayed there until supper time. From then on, we all knew that Mimi was right: Debbie was definitely Daddy's girl. She'd climb up on his lap and rub his hair, and she'd hug him. She was affectionate with all of us, but she and Dad had a certain magic together that everyone recognized.
Before the day was over, we discovered that James could speak enough Korean to get us over the hump. He could tell us what Debbie wanted, but Mom didn't want that to go on for very long.
"Debbie has to learn how to speak English," Mom said. "She lives here now, and it's important that she learn our language."
It didn't take long. Debbie was outgoing and friendly and eager, and she and Dodie became friends right away. Like most siblings, Dodie and Debbie had their share of spats, especially since neither of them had had to learn to share very much. Dodie was five months older than Debbie, so they were both finishing the terrible twos about that time. One day they were hassling back and forth, and Debbie finally got so flustered she picked up a toy and hit Dodie with it. Just then Mom walked in, and Dodie started crying.
"Debbie hit me!" she wailed.
Debbie looked up at Mom and started jabbering away in Korean, but every few words she'd say, "Dodie . . . Dodie. . . Dodie." She knew she was in trouble, and she'd made up her mind to stand up for herself.
After Debbie was with us for a few weeks, she and Mom were out in the carport. Debbie pointed to the car and started talking a mile-a-minute. Mom knelt down next to her, eye-to-eye, and said, "Debbie, I can't understand you."
Debbie put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. "Hmpfh!" she grunted, then turned on her heels and stomped into the house. She never spoke another word of Korean after that.
A few weeks later I saw my dad angrier than I had ever seen him. He was pacing the floor in the den, and he was breathing in great gasps. Mom was trying to calm him down.
"If I ever get my hands on that guy, I'll break his face!" Dad shouted, then punched the air with his fist.
"Calm down, Papa," Mom said. I could tell Mom was upset, but Dad was beside himself.
"How could he write something like this?" Dad picked up a magazine and shook it in Mom's face. "Doesn't he realize what this could do to our babies? Who does he think he is?"
By this time Dad was shaking with rage. He began to pace again.
"But, Honey," Mom said, "the children will know it's not true. We'll have a talk with them tonight during our devotions. They won't hear it from anybody else."
"If I ever run into that reporter, even if I have to get up out of a wheelchair when I'm 90 years old, I'll. . . Well, when I get through with him, he'll want to walk West until his hat floats! What does a man like that know about walking the floor all night with a crying baby? Has he ever tried to understand a little girl who can't even tell you she needs the bathroom? Does he care about the hurts that happened to Sandy for no reason? What does he know about burying your little girl on her birthday?" Dad's voice broke in pain.
His anger had not subsided, but both he and Mom were in tears, and she put her arms around him. "He doesn't know, Honey," Mom said.
I don't think that reporter has any idea of the pain he caused my parents or the damage he could have done to their children when he wrote his article. The essence of his piece was that my dad was adopting children for only one reason: publicity. To this day Dad rankles when he's reminded of that reporter, and although he's a Christian and he knows that Christians must forgive, this is one hurt he has found hard to relinquish to God.
That night we gathered together as usual in the living room near our family altar. It wasn't a real altar, like you find in a church. It was an old record cabinet Mom had covered with a piece of colorful tapestry. She had some incense on it, and some water from the Sea of Galilee that she'd brought back from a trip to the Holy Land. A large open family Bible rested in the center. There were also some flower petals from Jerusalem and two sculptures: a Madonna and a head of Christ that had a halo. Above the altar was a portrait of Robin, and there was a little kneeling bench in front of it. We always said our prayers there at night before we went to bed.
Because Mom and Dad felt that a personal relationship with God should be the central focus of their lives, Mom made sure the family altar was the central focus in our home. It was visible from several rooms in the house. Usually Mom led the devotions unless she was out of town, and then Dad led them. This particular night, Mom led them, and Dad was there, but he was subdued. Debbie was sitting in his lap, and he was quiet, never saying a word.
"Before we go to bed tonight," Mom began, "Daddy and I want to have a long talk with you about something very important. It's about adoption. You know that Daddy and Mommy love you all very much. Cheryl, before your daddy adopted you, he and your mommy were very lonely. When you came along, you fit right into the empty space in their lives, and they were so happy. I remember working with your daddy on the set after Linda Lou and Dusty were born and your mommy died. He was always showing pictures of you three, and there was never any difference in how he talked about you. He loved all three of you. When Daddy asked me to marry him, I knew that it would be hard for you to accept a new mama and a new brother. I know that Tom seems more like your cousin than your brother because he's never lived with us. But because Tom loved and respected Daddy so much, he started calling him 'Dad.' It's almost like Tom adopted your daddy! When Robin came along, she adopted all of us, didn't she? It didn't matter to Robin that all of you had different birth mothers—she loved you anyway, and you loved her. After Robin died, we were all so lonely that God sent us Sandy and Dodie, and then Mimi and Debbie. We are the most adopted family I know! Some people don't understand about adoption. They don't know how happy a home is when there are lots of children there, and they don't know about our blended family and how we live. When people don't understand, sometimes they say mean things. We just have to forgive them when that happens. Do you understand?"
We all nodded. I looked at Dad. His lips were shut tight, and he was staring at the floor.
"Now I want to read to you from the Bible so we can hear what God has to say about adoption," Mom said as she got the Bible from the altar. "I'm going to read to you from the book of John, which is in the New Testament."
She turned the pages carefully until she found her place, and then she began to read.
He [Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him .... Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God John 1:10-13, NIV).
"That means that when we ask Jesus to make our lives belong to Him, God adopts us as His own children!" Mom explained. "In fact, the apostle Paul tells us that very thing in the letter he wrote to the Christians who were living at Ephesus."
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will (Eph. 1:3-5, NIV).
"It's a very special thing to be adopted, isn't it?" Mom asked us. Then we prayed together. Mom thanked God for adopting Daddy and her, and then she thanked Him for each one of us by name. We said our prayers and went to bed, but that night I wondered about the man who had provoked my dad's wrath. I never forgot the intensity of my dad's anger, but it wasn't until much later that I realized how much his pain had to do with his profound sense of integrity. Because Dad has always honored his word, he feels deeply wounded when people misjudge him or misinterpret his intentions. At the same time, he's been around long enough to know that few people still hold to that code of life. It upsets him to think that today's children are often confused by antiheroes and by the good guy who turns out to be evil in the end.
Dad is thin-skinned when it comes to children. He is keenly aware of the impact he has had on young people. Consequently he's fussy about where he goes, what he does, and with whom he is seen, and he carefully guards the image he projects. Because he has been so loved and so honored, it hurts all the more when someone takes a cheap shot at him. Although he doesn't like to let it show, he is tender and sentimental. That day I had a momentary glimpse of something I hadn't realized was there and couldn't even name until many years later: vulnerability.
That a father should be a vulnerable human being, open to pain and disappointment, to loneliness and error, is information most small children rarely comprehend, and I really didn't understand it either. But I began to sense, at that point, that Dad could be disappointed. Not long after that, I felt his disappointment in me.
It started out as a typical boyish prank, and I'm not even sure today whose idea it was. Mom and Dad were determined that we would grow up to be down-to-earth, self-disciplined and responsible people. Even though our parents were famous and had money, they wanted us to learn to take responsibility for our own lives. Mom and Dad didn't want us to grow up expecting everything to go our way and thinking we could have anything we wanted. That's why we were expected to do chores, to clean up our messes, and to keep our rooms tidy. It's also why we were not allowed an unlimited number of toys. Looking back, I can see how wise they were.
People from all over the world used to send us toys, and we always looked forward to the giant boxes that came at Christmas time from Walt Disney. Walt sent us all kinds of toys—Mickey Mouse watches and figurines of all the cartoon characters. Often it was more than my parents bought for us! Because we had more toys than we could ever use, most of them were boxed up and sent to hospitals and orphanages. But we were certainly not deprived. In fact, Sandy and I sometimes used to sell our things to the kids at school, until Mom and Dad found out and put a stop to it.
Not too far from the ranch there was a little neighborhood drugstore, and Sandy and I went in there one day to buy some bubble gum. There was a tree-like display with all kinds of nickle-and-dime toys like caps and little cap guns and army men. I reached up and took a cap gun, and Sandy picked out a little plastic submarine. We looked around, and seeing no one, we sneaked out the door. Out on the grass, we looked at our take.
"Gosh, Dusty, wasn't that easy?" Sandy asked.
"Yeah. Tell you what, Sandy. I'll hold this stuff here. You go back and get some more."
"Okay!" Sandy took off, and before I knew it, he was back with a fistful of caps. "Your turn."
I was long on bravery when it was Sandy's turn, but I turned to chicken liver when it was mine. "Naw, Sandy, this time we'll both go. We can really clean out the place!"
We went back into the store and took a few more toys, then ran out of the store and around the corner. We were sitting there, looking at all of our new stuff, when suddenly a shadow came over us.
"Hey there, boys. What are you doing?"
I looked up to see the druggist hovering over us. I thought I was dead, right there.
"Uh, nothing," I said.
"What do you have there?"
"Just a few things."
"Where did you get them?"
Sandy just looked at the ground, and I stammered around for a bit.
"You guys want to come with me?"
Oh, no! He's going to call the sheriff for sure, I thought. The druggist marched us back into the store and made us pile all the things on the counter.
"You two just stand right there," he said, leafing through his files. He picked up the telephone. In those days there weren't dials on the phone yet, and you had to tell the operator the number you wanted. I thought I'd lose my lunch when he repeated our number.
"Yes, this is the drugstore. May I please speak to Mr. Rogers? Thank you."
He tapped his pencil on the desk, and Sandy and I looked at each other. Sandy's eyes were as big as an owl's. He was shaking.
"Hello, Roy. Listen, I hate to call you on this, but I thought you'd want to know. Dusty and Sandy are down here, and they just put a few things in their pockets without paying for them. Yes. Okay, I'll do that. Bye."
The druggist put the receiver back into the cradle of the telephone, then turned to face us. "Well, boys, your dad said to hold you here for awhile." The worst part for me was knowing that Dad knew. It seemed like hours before I heard that cough as he strode in. He glared at Sandy and me, then came over and grabbed us both by the backs of our necks and jerked us up. He stood us up in front of the counter and said, "Now, boys, what do you have to say for yourselves?" Sandy and I both mumbled something about being sorry.
"How much stuff did they steal?" Dad asked.
The druggist dumped out the evidence on the counter. Dad let out a low whistle. "That's a lot of money. You guys aren't going to be able to pay for that stuff, are you?"
Sandy and I shook our heads back and forth as fast as we could. Dad turned us around and let us both have a hard swat across the back end. Then he took off his belt and spanked us all the way out of the store and into the car. He drove us home in silence.
Back at the house, he grabbed us each by one arm and took us to the back porch. We had a redwood picnic table out there, and he put Sandy on his left and me on his right. Then he folded his belt in half and whacked it over the table. It cracked so loud that Sandy and I both jumped.
"Now that I have your attention," Dad said, "I have a few things to say to you. It's really bad to take what isn't yours. Sooner or later, that'll just put you behind bars somewhere. You start with something small like caps, and then you go on to motorcycles or cars, and the next thing you know, you're in jail. But that's not going to happen to you boys, because I'm not going to let it happen. I'm going to whip you. I have to. But this is only the beginning. The next time something like this happens, it's going to be twice as bad as this, and the next time it'll really be a beaut. I have to do this because you've done something very wrong. You didn't need those toys, and even though you gave them back, you still did the stealing. This is never going to happen again. Now which one of you will be first?"
"Well, Dusty, you're bigger than Sandy, and older, so you can be first." He picked me up and bent me over his knee. I decided I wouldn't cry, no matter what.
Nothing. Dad decided if I didn't cry, I wouldn't learn anything, and he kept whapping until I finally let out a howl.
Sandy was shaking all over, but he figured out right away the secret to a short spanking. The first swat, he let out a bellow that could be heard from Chatsworth to Azusa. But Dad hit him a few more times, just to make the punishments equal.
Then Dad put his arms around both of us and said, "I sure hated to do that. But I'm your daddy, and it's me who has to show you right from wrong."
I never wanted Dad to be mad at me again—and it wasn't because I was afraid of him. Like any kid, I never wanted to be spanked. But there was something in Dad's voice this time besides anger. It was disappointment.
I knew being Roy Rogers's son meant that others expected me to behave differently. Whatever I did, I didn't want him to be ashamed of me, and I didn't want people to think bad of him because of me. Those thoughts remain very much a part of me today. My parents have spent more than 50 years laying down a standard, a set of values. For me the question is, do I measure up?
In a sense, being the son of Roy Rogers has prepared me for being a Christian. Mom always used to say to me, "Dusty, you have to watch what you do because your life is the only Bible some people are ever going to read."
I realize there's tremendous truth in that. How many times do people say they don't want to become Christians because of what they have observed in the lives of other Christians? How often do people say they would rather do business with a non-Christian than a Christian? That wounds me because I know they are interpreting what God is like on the basis of what they have seen in the lives of some of His unruly children. Such thinking gives me a double responsibility: living a life that honors both my heavenly Father and my earthly one. I am thankful for parents who cared enough about me to teach me these values and to live lives that taught me, by example, the way of integrity.