GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #8
Sandy and I both had problems in school. Our grades were awful. Sandy's learning disabilities were more pronounced than mine, and they had even been foretold in the results of the physical examinations he had when he first came to our family. Sandy would be a slow learner, and there would be a limit to what he could learn.
In those days, little sympathy was given to children who, for whatever reasons, were having problems in school. The teachers were sometimes impatient with us, and we were frustrated, too. When we acted out our frustrations, our teachers called our parents. One day Mom and Dad called Sandy and me into the den for a talk. "Boys, we want to talk with you about something," Mom began. "You know that your papa and I are away a lot these days, especially during the week. And you know that you've both had some problems at school. Papa and I have talked it over, and we've decided to try you at a new school."
Sandy and I hung our heads and didn't say anything. I hated going to a new school—or even starting school each fall. I dreaded roll call, when the teacher said, "Roy Rogers, Jr." I answered, "Here" as quickly as I could, and stared at the floor. Everyone turned around and looked for me. "Where is he?" they whispered. Then, out on the playground, they came up to me and said, "Roy Rogers, huh? You don't look like much of a cowboy." A new school would mean going through that all over again.
"We're going to send you to a fine school," Mom was saying. "We've asked a lot of people about it, and we hear that it's a really good school. You'll stay there during the week, and you can come home on the weekends."
"You're going to leave us there?" Sandy asked. His chin was trembling.
"Just on weekdays, Honey." Mom put her arm around him. "It's too far to come home every day, and besides, Daddy and I won't be here most of the time during the week, anyway. We'll pick you up on Fridays right after school and take you back on Sunday nights. It's a military school, Sandy. You'll like that, because you like to play army. At the academy, you'll get to advance in rank, and you'll even have a uniform!"
Sandy did perk up at that, because he was interested in the military. Even though he was little, he loved the Civil War and knew a lot about the famous battles. Mom had even found him a little Civil War uniform, which he loved. He called himself the "Little Rebel."
"Are you mad at us because our grades are bad?" I asked.
"No, Honey. But maybe the discipline at military school and being away from home will help you. Maybe being at home with the girls and having Mom and Dad away so much is keeping you from doing your best. Maybe you're just not getting the best education in the school you're going to. We want to see if this will help, but we're not mad at you, Honey."
The following Sunday afternoon Mom took us to the school in Altadena, California. It was a long drive, and we could see Mom's point: it would be too far to come home every day. The school was completely secluded by trees so it couldn't be seen from outside the gate. None of the buildings was visible from the street. The closed-in play areas were surrounded by chain-link fencing covered with thick vines. The place looked like a dungeon.
Mom took us to the administration office, where we were greeted by the headmaster. The Colonel was a retired Marine who had been wounded during World War II. He'd caught a bayonette in the leg, so he had a pronounced limp. He was a huge man, but not solid with muscle. His body jiggled with fat.
"No, Mrs. Rogers, we don't encourage the parents to go to the barracks with the boys. It just makes the parting that much harder. Why don't you just say good-bye here, and then we'll get them settled. I'll have one of the cadets show them around the academy, and we'll start them in class first thing in the morning. Tell your mother goodbye, boys. She'll be here Friday to get you."
Mom kissed us and hugged us, and then she left. Sandy was teary, but then the cadet came to take us to the barracks. We couldn't believe it! The room was stark, with walls like paper. There were holes in some of the walls, and a bug light hung from the ceiling. I missed the warm wood paneling, my soft chenile bedspread, and the curtains in my own room at home. Sandy and I always got cold at night. The barracks were cold and drafty. One of us got the idea that we could fill the cracks and holes with toothpaste to stop the cold from coming in, but it didn't work.
"Dusty?" Sandy asked one night.
"You don't think Mom and Dad are gonna dump us here forever, do you?"
"Of course not!" And I didn't think that. But I think it ran through Sandy's mind a lot. Having been abandoned three times before, he never did feel as secure as the rest of us, and I'm not sure he ever resolved those feelings of abandonment.
By Friday we were more than ready to come home. Mom picked us up at the gate, and Sandy and I both started talking at once.
"Mom, it's awful here!" I started.
"Yeah! The Colonel is mean! He takes candy from the kids!"
"Well," Mom answered, "I'm sure he doesn't want you guys eating candy during school. You'll get used to the rules after awhile."
"Huh uh, Mom. He's just mean," I said. "And the other teachers are, too. I think one of them is a Russian spy! He keeps putting his hands in his arm pits and smelling them!"
"You get demerits if your buckle isn't shined or if your zipper is down," Sandy added.
"Yeah, and the teachers have these paddles with holes in them, and they give swats," I put in.
"If kids are naughty, they need to be disciplined, Dusty. You know that you get spankings at home when you disobey," Mom replied. "They're just trying to help you grow up, that's all."
"Nah, Mom, it's not like that," I answered. "They beat you on your hands—on the palms of your hands or across your knuckles."
We complained all the way home, and Mom tried to soothe us. Everyone disciplines differently, she explained, and it always seems bad when someone you don't know is upset with you. We would get used to it.
The weekend was wonderful. Sandy and I roamed all over the ranch, savoring everything. We ran wild outside, and inside we crawled back and forth through the grate between our rooms. Leola even gave us extra cookies once in a while, and at night we fell into our own beds thinking they were the most comfortable beds in the world. Peter Cottontail was waiting there for me, and I alternately beat him up and cuddled him. We watched television on Friday nights, then got up early on Saturdays to watch cartoons and Mom and Dad's program. We threw ourselves all over the furniture and the floor, copying the stunts. We liked Howdy Doody, and on Saturday nights we loved to watch the wrestling matches.
On Saturday afternoons Dad took us over to his gun range in Chatsworth, and we practiced target shooting. No matter what we did during the day, by Saturday night we were so wild we were almost beyond redemption. We threw ourselves on the floor, rolling and hollering, really tearing up the place.
"Okay, boys. Enough's enough!" Mom shouted one night.
We ignored her.
"Knock it off!"
We kept it up. Mom came close and bellowed in our ears, "I said stop it!" We didn't.
Suddenly we heard an explosion. It was the loudest bang I'd ever heard! Instantly Sandy and I stopped wrestling and sat up. Sandy was shaking and his eyes were darting back and forth. I must have looked the same. Then we saw her. Mom was standing there like a statue, with her stage pistol pointed to the ceiling. She was staring at us with murder in her eyes. I don't think we would have been surprised at all if smoke had come out of her nose.
"I said," she whispered through clenched teeth, "it's time to stop. Now," and this time she shook the rafters with her voice, "be quiet!"
This time we believed her.
Sundays were always special. We all got up early because it took so long to get seven of us ready for Sunday School. Mom fixed breakfast rolls and milk, and then we headed out for church in the station wagon. There was never any question about whether or not to go to church—we all expected to go. After church we went out for Sunday dinner. It was wild—all nine of us, with high chairs for the little girls. We usually went some place where Sandy and I could have all the fried chicken we could eat, and sometimes we were scattered all over the restaurant. The big girls took charge of the little girls, and Mom and Dad took charge of Sandy and me. Because Sunday was the only day we were all likely to be home, we couldn't go anywhere. We had to stick around the ranch. But we could have friends over and do whatever we wanted. Mom could kick back and relax, and she would nap or read. Leola was off on Sundays, too, so we were free to do whatever we wanted in the kitchen. I was about eight when I started making popcorn for everyone. I did it up right—lots of popcorn with butter and garlic salt and parmesan cheese. That became my regular job, and I made popcorn for everyone until I grew up and was out on my own. I'm still the popcorn maker for my own family.
Sunday dinner seemed to wear off for everyone about the same time, and we'd all hit the kitchen at once. Mom and Dad were sponsored by a cereal company then, so there were always boxes of corn flakes and Raisin Bran, and of course, Nestle Quik. Sandy would mix a box of Quik with a gallon of milk in a large salad bowl then throw a box of cereal on top. That guy would eat anything—anything.
Late one Sunday afternoon our friend Joe Espetalier came by. Joe and Dad were members of the Masonic Temple in Hollywood. Not only did Joe guide Dad through his Masonic activities, but he also invested a lot of time in Sandy and me. Joe was a bachelor, and when Virginia Peck was still with us, I had ideas about getting them together. They were good friends, but nothing ever came of my matchmaking.
Joe showed up every Sunday afternoon and relaxed with the folks, then drove Sandy and me back to the academy because it was near his own home. As soon as it was time to go back, Sandy and I started crying.
"Please don't make us go, Mommy," Sandy begged. "Please let us stay here."
"Now Sandy, it'll be all right," Mom tried to soothe him. "You did a good job on your papers at school this week, and you'll be fine. Dusty's with you."
We climbed into the car and watched out the window as Joe drove out of the driveway. We watched until the ranch was out of our sight, and then we cried all the way to Altadena. Joe tried to cheer us up.
"Now, fellas," he'd say, "everyone gets a little homesick once in awhile. But your folks wouldn't send you any place that wasn't good for you. This school costs a lot of money. It can't be as bad as all that."
But it was. It was like a reformatory. As soon as we got inside the gate and Joe drove away, we were searched. Any candy or other treats were confiscated and given to the Colonel. Twice a week or so we could send letters home, and Mom wrote or called us a couple of times a week. Sometimes she sent us packages with little treats, and she also sent vitamins with us. She was especially picky about the vitamins because of Sandy's medical history. If we got out of line, our treats were confiscated. The Colonel's inner office was stacked with candy. I think if Star Wars had been around then, we'd all have called the Colonel "Jobba the Hut," because he was so fat and so cruel.
I tried to keep my nose clean and stay out of trouble, but Sandy was always catching it. He'd get swats with the paddles and demerits because he had a serious bed-wetting problem he was never able to outgrow. Mom had taken him to doctor after doctor, and nothing could be done. For nearly a year we agonized at that place. Week after week we tried to tell Mom and Dad, and every Sunday we poured our hearts out to Joe. Once Mom did call the school. The Colonel invited her out, and he took her on a tour of the officers' quarters and the administration building. Seeing nothing amiss, she was more convinced than ever that Sandy and I were merely homesick.
One of the boys had a problem with seizures. I tried to be nice to him because the other kids didn't understand. I knew from Robin that his disability didn't keep him from being an okay person with lots of special needs, and I was concerned about him. One day he told me something that really upset me.
"The doctor gave me some medicine," he told me. "It's supposed to keep me from having seizures."
"Hey, that's great!" I said.
"Yeah, but last week I got some demerits, and the Colonel took my medicine away. He said if I can't behave, I can't have my medicine."
"Did you write your mom and tell her?"
"Yeah. She never answered my letter. Do you think she got it, Dusty?"
I didn't think so. Sandy and I realized what whenever we wrote any kind of complaint in our letters, Mom didn't get them. Our mail was being watched very carefully.
One day not long after that Sandy got himself in trouble. I don't even remember what he did, but whatever it was, the Colonel was angry. He ordered that Sandy would not receive his vitamins until further notice. That night in the mess hall, we got to talking. "Look at this food," someone said.
0l' steel-stomach smiled. "Aw, it isn't that bad. It's chicken tetrazzini!"
"Yeah," said one of the guys, "but look! Mine has a worm in it!"
We all looked. It sure did look like a worm. I looked around to see if anyone was watching.
"Here. Give it to me. Tomorrow's Friday. I'll smuggle it home and tell my folks."
I stuffed the worm in my pocket. Now they'll have to believe me, I thought. This time, I have proof.
I showed the worm to Dad as soon as I got home.
"Oh, Dusty!" he said, shaking his head. "You've lived on this ranch long enough, and you've helped with the chickens long enough to know that this is probably a piece of intestine or a blood vessel of some kind. Your imagination is running away with you, boy!"
I was crushed. Dad didn't believe me. Mom didn't believe me. When I grow up, I told myself, I'm really going to listen to my kids.
Now that I am an adult with children of my own, I realize how easy it is to dismiss the things that children say. Because children have vivid imaginations and because their logic is sometimes faulty, adults tend to disregard statements that can be strong warnings about something that is truly amiss.
Today, child abuse experts say that it is important to believe the things children say because they rarely make up stories about abuse. In fact, many do not tell simply because they do not expect to be believed. Educators who understand this are beginning to teach children to tell, and to keep telling, until somebody finally hears them.
That's what Sandy and I did. And finally, somebody heard. I don't know if it was because Sandy told Joe about the vitamins, or if it was because Mom became concerned about missing so many letters. I don't know what brought about the change, but one day Mom came and picked us up from the academy and said we didn't have to go back. That was the best news I ever received.
TO BE CONTINUED