ONCE MORE DALE'S STORY
From the book "Our Life Story" (1994)
I pulled a gun on Dusty and Sandy only once: at the ranch, late Saturday in the fall of 1953.
We were living on a ranch in Chatsworth now. The boys were adolescents, but very boisterous ones—chasing each other, wrestling on the floor in the living room, knocking over things. Roy was away and I was home alone with the children. I had spent a very busy day, and the lady who helped with the children was off. I was very tired. The noise generated by Dusty, Sandy, Debbie, and Dodie was getting the best of me.
"Enough's enough!" I hollered. They were too busy to hear. "Knock it off!" I shouted as they ran past so fast papers flew off tables in their wake. They still didn't hear. I got up and went to the couch where they had taken pillows to swat each other in the noggin. "I SAID STOP IT!" They dropped the pillows and somersaulted over the back of the couch, tearing across the floor like twin cyclones. They stopped in place, then suddenly launched into a screaming match to see which of them could deafen the other one first.
I walked away, got out my stage pistol, loaded it with blanks, and fired it into the air six times. Those were the loudest explosions those boys had ever heard indoors. They were frozen in their tracks, paralyzed with fear. I looked at them with murder in my eyes. I only had to whisper, "I said stop it," and they stopped, but now that I had their attention, I drew a deep breath and in a stage shout nearly as loud as my pistol, I flattened them: "NOW BE QUIET!" And for a precious short while, they were quiet.
Dusty had been suspicious of Sandy when his new brother came to live with us. The first morning after Sandy arrived, we discovered Dusty hiding all his favorite toys under the bed. We explained to him that Sandy only wanted to be his friend. By the time they came back from their first fishing trip with Roy, the two of them had become inseparable. Dusty realized that Sandy wasn't going to spoil his fun at all; he was going to double it. At last, he had a partner in crime!
There were times I swore that those two boys had been born for no reason other than to make my life miserable. If there was trouble anywhere, they found it; if they couldn't find it, they invented it. Merely going shopping in the car was an adventure. As far as they were concerned, the backseat was not for sitting; it was for bouncing, wrestling, and issuing war whoops as we traveled through Los Angeles traffic. Whenever I went on errands, they came along. I carried a good-sized switch by my side in the front seat so I could reach back and cool down their bouts when necessary. They'd shout, "Hit the deck!" and duck when I started swinging, but one time I connected pretty good. I heard a yelp, then Dusty—more humiliated than hurt—leaned into the front seat and announced, "Mom, we are leaving home."
"Fine! Good!" I said. "As soon as we get back I will help you pack." There was a strange silence from the wrestling pit.
Two minutes later, Dusty quietly announced. "Maybe we'll wait a year."
One morning I was getting ready to leave the house for the Iverson ranch, a location where we shot many Western scenes. I was fully dressed in my Queen of the West attire—boots and buckskin fringe skirt, fancy embroidered blouse and Stetson hat, and heavy leather belt. I kissed the boys good-bye and sent them on their way to school. A few moments later, Ginny, the boys' nurse, called to me: "Dale, you will not believe what they are doing. Take a look out the window."
We had a good view of Amestoy Avenue, where I could see my two little cherubs gallivanting along a few houses behind the mailman as he made his rounds. They stopped at each mailbox and pulled out the letters and the magazines, replacing them with rocks, dirt, trash, and other people's mail. Oh, they were having a jolly time!
I ran outside, jumped in my car and screeched out our driveway, slamming on the brakes when I got to the mailbox they were currently plundering. I hit the brakes, threw the door open, and flew out after them, yanking my belt off my waist as I ran. It was a sight to behold: one very angry cowgirl charging down the avenue snapping a belt in the air like a bullwhip as the two fugitives stampeded to avoid my wrath. When I caught up with them, I paddled them all the way back home and made them put the mail back where it belonged.
I reckon their antics are the kinds of things that happen in a lot of families, just a normal part of growing up. Only after he had become a responsible adult did Dusty reveal some of their more heinous activities: their dirt-clod fights with Rex Allen's boys just down the street; how they used to spend summer days catching flies and eating them; and the time they discovered a nest of baby rats in the barn and fed the squirming little rodents to our housecat. I suppose those two were living, breathing, yelling, mischief-making proof that boys will be boys. Come Sunday morning, though, they sat by my side in church, a pair of sinless little saints sprouting wings.
Roy, who had never had a brother of his own, delighted in the way they took to each other, and he was tolerant of most of their rowdy antics. One time, however, he went through the roof. I knew something was wrong when I heard him roar from the shed where he kept the racing boat of which he was so proud. Someone had pulled every inch of rubber from its dashboard. He had a pretty good idea who the culprits might be. Court was held in the living room for three days running. Roy cross-examined, cajoled, pleaded, and threatened them with everything up to and including the electric chair, but neither of the two prime suspects cracked. On the third day, His Honor announced, "I know one of you did it. If the guilty party does not fess up, I will have to give you both a good licking." He started to remove his belt. Both boys gulped. And finally, Sandy piped up, "I did it, Dad." Sandy was like that. He always came through; and he'd do anything for Dusty.
The way our kids learned to stick up for each other was heartwarming, but on occasion it could make me boil. One day I caught the boys with their pockets full of coins that I knew they hadn't earned. Roy and I were careless about leaving change around the house; Sandy and Dusty figured nobody would miss it. I decided I would take the opportunity to teach them a lesson. "Boys," I said, "do you know what happens to people who steal?"
They looked at each other, then at me, and shrugged, waiting no doubt for a scolding or, at worst, a spanking.
"People who steal go to jail!" I informed them. "In jail they eat nothing but bread and water." I grabbed Sandy by the hand and Dusty by the ear and marched them out to a cabana we had by the swimming pool. I put them in and locked the door, returning from the kitchen with two hunks of dry bread on a plate and tyro glasses of water, which I passed to them through the porthole of the little dressing room. Their sentence: a day in jail without lunch.
A little later when I checked on them it didn't seem to me they were suffering much from their strict regime. Let me tell you, those boys loved to eat, and to deprive them of even a single meal should have been torture. When they were released from their incarceration midafternoon, however, they had big grins on their faces and above each of those grins was a milk mustache. Then it dawned on me: their sister Linda had spent the day smuggling milk and cookies to the jailbirds.
On one occasion, Roy's threat of jail turned out to be more effective than mine. He lowered the boom after the boys decided they had had enough of my unfair rules about not screaming and yelling and wrestling twenty-four hours a day. Dusty was the instigator this time. When the boys were about eight he convinced Sandy that the two of them were getting a bum deal in a houseful of girls where they had to be polite all the time and wash their hands before supper and awful things like that. He had figured out that the two of them would have a much better life if they ran away and spent all their time fishing and swimming and stomping in mud puddles. They piled some toys in a wagon and set off to seek their destiny. They got to the top of a hill near the ranch, when Dusty realized it was lunchtime. When they suddenly remembered that neither of them had packed any food, they started to cry. Meanwhile, Roy was conspiring with Ginny to bring them back. He sent her out in her green Chevrolet, and when she found them she said, "You boys are in a heap of trouble! Your daddy's gone and called the sheriff!" She told them they had one chance to escape the long arm of the law: if they hid under a blanket in the backseat of her car, they might manage to sneak back to the house before they were nabbed in the dragnet.
"The coast is clear!" she whispered to them when they pulled up. They scampered from the car back to their rooms. "Quick, get under your beds!" Ginny hissed as they ran past. There wasn't time to separate, so both boys crawled under Dusty's bed, where they thought they were invisible. At this point, Roy tramped into the boys' room pretending to look for them with a friend he had enlisted in his plot.
"All right, Roy," the stranger said. "Where are those two outlaws?"
Roy then delivered his line with utmost sincerity: "Gosh, sheriff, you know I'd help you if I could. I just don't know where they are."
"Roy, if I ever catch those two boys running away from home again, they're going to jail for the rest of their natural days."
They never ran away from home again.
In February 1954 Roy and I went to Great Britain.
Billy Graham had come to speak at a meeting of the Hollywood Christian Group at our house the previous fall and said that he had been invited to conduct a Crusade for Christ over there. But the invitation had been extended by only a few small churches, so he was worried about attendance. Roy said, "I have a big fan club in the British Isles. Why don't we go over there ahead of you? We'll take Trigger and the whole show, do some performances to pave the way, then join you in London the first week you're there." We had never done an overseas tour, but Roy had the biggest fan club in Britain before the Beatles.
Those fans were enthusiastic, let me tell you! Getting off the plane in Glasgow, we were engulfed by thousands of them screaming, "We want Roy, we want Dale! Sing us a song!" They pressed so hard to be close to us, it was frightening. At one point a lady with an eight-month-old baby pushed close but couldn't break through to us, so she threw her child over some heads in the crowd into Roy's arms. We managed to return the child to its overenthusiastic mother, but by the time we got to our hotel, we were bruised and battered from shaking hands and from people grabbing hold of us.
Roy was killed on opening night . . . according to a rumor that the press picked up for a while. What actually happened was that one of the guns being used by our singing group, who dressed as outlaws and pretended to shoot at Roy when he rode out on stage, wasn't loaded with blanks as it was supposed to be. Instead, it had birdshot cartridges that were intended for use in a sharpshooting act later in the show. Roy rode out and the boys started blasting away. Trigger flinched, Roy started to duck. He went to the microphone with his face streaming blood. "They've been shooting at me for twenty years, and this is the first time they hit me," he told a crowd that sat there amazed by the realism of our special effects. The birdshot was picked out of Roy and Trigger that night and they were fine, but somehow a telegram was sent to Art Rush, who was coming over on the Queen Mary, informing him, with great regret, that Roy Rogers was a goner.
It was six cold and rainy weeks of shows throughout the British Isles, and in Liverpool at one point both of us came down with a raging European flu. The doctor put us to bed and injected us with sulfa and penicillin, but there were some newspaper people who were convinced we were faking it to avoid a press conference. They somehow managed to get Glenn Randall, our horse trainer, to lead Trigger up to the hallway outside our hotel room, where they stuffed a get-well bouquet of daffodils in his mouth and knocked on the door. When it opened they peeped in and saw our ashen faces; two of them actually managed to put their hands on our foreheads to confirm that we had a fever. When they realized our illness was no joke, they retreated; Trigger dropped the flowers and nickered his own genuine get-well, then was led away.
But that wasn't the end of it. When word spread that we might be too sick to make a scheduled performance, disbelieving fans started gathering outside our hotel. At one point there were hundreds of them milling underneath the window, chanting for us to show ourselves and to sing some songs. At that time we were both in bed, barely able to move let alone perform. Luckily, our singing group, the Whippoorwills, were able to stage an impromptu recital in the street, accompanied by Trigger doing some of his tricks, which appeased the crowd. Two days later, we did manage to shuffle on stage for our show. I remember clinging to the curtains to keep from falling down.
Toward the end of every show we sang "God Save the Queen," talked about the Bible a little, and invited everyone to come see Billy Graham in London. Then we closed with "Happy Trails." The agency that booked us over there heard that we were telling people about Billy and he warned us that if we tried such stuff when we played Dublin, we were likely to have rotten potatoes thrown at us. They don't go for evangelists there, he said. I told him that Billy was the reason we came in the first place. And don't you know, when we sang "How Great Thou Art" in Ireland, we got a standing ovation. Afterward the usher asked me if I would come back and meet the chaplain of the Abbey Players, Ireland's famous national troupe of actors. The man of the cloth came close and he said, "You don't have to answer if you don't want to, but I'd like to ask you a very personal question. I would like to know: what kind of man is Billy Graham?"
"Sir," I responded, "he is the most utterly dedicated, committed Christian I have ever met in my life."
The chaplain fixed me in his sights and gave me a message to deliver: "You tell Mr. Billy Graham that I said God bless him." I will never forget the sincerity in that man's voice when he said those words.
(HERE AM I AT AGE 12 WHEN ROY AND DALE AND TRIGGER AND THE GANG CAME TO BRITAIN, AND I DID NOT KNOW THEY WERE THERE! I HAD ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA THEY WERE THERE FOR 6 WEEKS, ENTERTAINING. I NEVER HEARD IT ANNOUNCED ON THE RADIO, OR TV. I WAS NOT A "PAPER" READER, SO DID NOT SEE IT SPOKEN ABOUT IN PAPERS. IT WAS AS IF I WAS ON A TOTALLY DIFFERENT PLANET I GUESS, TOO BUSY WITH AFTER SCHOOL ACTIVITIES, THE BOY SCOUTS, MY MUSIC LESSONS, AND LISTENING WITH MY MOM TO THE SINGING AND YODELING OF SLIM WHITMAN. I HAD NOT THE SLIGHTEST IDEA ROY ROGERS WAS IN BRITAIN. NOW I DID CATCH BILLY GRAHAM LIVE ON TV ONE EVEING. HE WAS PREACHING CHRIST AS SAVIOR, MAKING JESUS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR. I THOUGHT IT ALL VERY GOOD, I WAS GLAD SOMEONE WAS PREACHING POWERFULLY JESUS AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR. I HAD ALREADY MADE JESUS MY PERSONAL SAVIOR WHEN I WAS 10 OR 11. BEING RAISED IN A CHURCH OF ENGLAND SCHOOL SINCE 7, READING MY BIBLE REGULARLY SINCE ABOUT 10 YEARS OLD, HAVING TO LEARN THE TEN COMMANDMENT AS IN EXODUS 20, BY MEMORY, FULL VERSION, AND SOME PSALMS, GOING EVERY SUNDAY [NEVER HARDLY EVER MISSED] TO MY LOCAL "CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH" FOR SUNDAY SCHOOL….. IT WAS NICE TO HEAR SOMEONE LIKE BILLY GRAHAM, BUT I WAS ALREADY A SINCERE SERIOUS CHRISTIAN, SO HIS PREACHING DID NOT EFFECT ME IN THE WAY IT MAY HAVE FOR THOSE NOT BEING CHRISTIANS, AND DID DECIDE TO ACCEPT JESUS AS THEIR PERSONAL SAVIOR - Keith Hunt)
While touring Scotland, we did what we did in America whenever we traveled: we went to children's hospitals and orphanages. In Edinburgh we found a home called Dunforth, where we met a thirteen-year-old girl named Marion Fleming. Both her parents were alive, but they had divorced when she was two, and she had lived in the orphanage ever since. British law made a child with living parents nearly unadoptable. I was feeling pretty low when we visited: we had been away from our own home and children so long, and we had missed Dodie's first birthday. Marion was a tiny girl with a haunting voice. She sang us an old folk song—"Who Will Buy My Flowers?"—about a hungry orphan child on the streets of London. I wanted to grab her on the spot and make a run for the door.
We invited her to our show the next day. She sat on Trigger, then came to our hotel for lunch. We were smitten and agreed that we wanted her, but we soon discovered that in order to be eligible to adopt her, we would have to live in Britain for two years. Instead, we invited her to come visit us in California. Later that spring, we all went to the airport to greet her: Roy, me, Cheryl, Linda, Dusty, and Sandy. I remember Sandy's reaction best. When he watched her walk down the stairs from the plane, he broke into a broad grin. He marched right up to her and held out his hand in welcome. That handshake of his sure was something special. Dusty loved to hear her say all our names with her lilting Scottish brogue and spent hours with her in the yard building leaf houses on the ground. She taught Cheryl and Linda how to do the Highland Fling. We called her Mimi, and after a short while it began to seem that she had always been part of us.
That summer, a week before she was scheduled to go back, I found her in the corner of our breakfast room, weeping. We managed to extend the visit to Christmas so she could attend an American school for a semester. By then, her Scottish brogue was disappearing and in its place came American slang (I think I preferred the brogue!). At Christmas, we extended her visa once again to the end of the school year. In June she became our ward—a permanent member of our family. I was in heaven, surrounded by all these children. I told Roy that we had better stop visiting orphanages or we'd soon have to move to a hotel.
In 1954 we did move to a place much better than a hotel—a 133-acre ranch in Chats worth, near Canoga Park. It had a lake and ponds, a ranch hands' house, a barn, corrals for horses, coops for Roy's pigeons, and shelters for his hunting dogs. The main house was a big one, made of brick, secluded on the property by big shade trees and shrubs. We added wings on either end to make room for everybody, installed an intercom system to call from one end to the other, and laid down industrial (childproof!) carpeting everywhere. The kitchen was immense, with a walk-in refrigerator, walk-in freezer, and meat locker. When our cook Leola was off-duty, I made southern fried chicken in that kitchen and skillet-cooked cornbread on the side, with black-eyed peas and mustard greens. The boys loved that! Of course, the boys loved just about anything, except liver. In the morning, the first thing Sandy said when he came for breakfast was, "Mom, what's for supper?" Whatever I said (unless it was "liver"), his answer was always the same: "Good!"
The idea we had when we bought Chatsworth was to make room for all of us—kids, animals, and all the stuff Roy liked to collect; but we also bought the ranch with an eye to shooting movies and TV shows there, as well as renting the location to other companies. Sure enough, shortly after we moved in, along came the crew from television's "Brave Eagle"—a Western told from the Indians' point of view. One morning Dodie came flying into the kitchen, crying hysterically. She had looked out her window and seen a group of men on horseback. They were wearing feathered headdresses and war paint, practicing their most blood-curdling yells. It took some time to explain to our own little Indian that they were only actors, just like Mommy and Daddy.
Poor Dodie: she was beginning to seem like a sort of odd-girl-out in our family. Dusty and Sandy, five years older than she, were a terrible twosome, so close they needed occasional prying apart; Marion and Linda became bosom pals and swam together every day; and Cheryl was so interested in boys she didn't need a friend at home. Dodie, who was just three and a half, had Bullet, our German shepherd, whom she declared her property, not to be abused, harmed, or harassed by any of the other children; but we began to feel she would be happy if there were a girl her age among us. We found one, thanks to Dr. Bob Pierce of World Vision, a Christian group that helps children all over the globe. He sent us a picture of a three-and-a-half-year-old Korean War orphan named Lu-Ai Lee. She was part Korean and part Puerto Ri-can, unadoptable in her homeland because of her mixed parentage. Her eyes were big and brown; her hair was cut into a Dutch bob, and she seemed to have a very, very serious expression on her face. The Rogers family fell in love as soon as we saw her picture.
She arrived in June 1955. When Dr. Pierce carried her off the plane at Los Angeles airport, the little girl nestled into Roy's arms right away, hanging on to him for dear life. She was Daddy's girl from that moment on. We named her Deborah Lee.
Debbie had a lot to learn. English, first of all. She knew Mama and Daddy, milk and sleep, but the first day at the dinner table, when she didn't eat very much and I tried to ask her if she was all right, she could only look at me anxiously and speak a few timid words in Korean. I looked blank. World Vision had given us a pamphlet with some Korean phrases, but it wasn't any help. She repeated the words, looking desperate. When I still didn't respond, she addressed Linda and Marion. They didn't know how to answer. Debbie appeared distraught. Finally we figured out that Debbie was asking to be excused from the table to go to the bathroom. For weeks after that whenever she spoke to any of us in Korean, our first reaction was to pick her up and take her to the potty.
At first Debbie didn't seem to understand about the language. When she and Dodie played together, she would jabber in Korean and Dodie would answer, "What you say? What you say?" When I left for work in the morning, Debbie cried, and there were no phrases in the pamphlet we had gotten to explain to a little child not to worry, that Mommy would be home soon. One morning, after several frustrating weeks of noncommunication, the little girl took my hand and led me out to the driveway. She waved her arms wildly, pouring out an excited stream of Korean words, trying with all her might to get through to me. I bent down, put my hand on her shoulder and said, helplessly, "Honey, Mommy can't understand you." At this, Debbie stopped talking, put her hands on her hips, looked me up and down with utter hopelessness, and turned away to go back to the house. From that moment on, she spoke no Korean. Almost overnight she began to pick up phrases that the children used, and within six weeks she spoke as well as Dodie.
Every night after we tucked Debbie in, she climbed out of bed and rooted for the floor, where she had spent her nights in Korea. Even when I put a guard rail on her bed, she clambered over it or through it to get to the hard wood floor. She constantly caught colds there, but even so, somehow she felt that that was where she belonged. It took Debbie six months to learn to sleep in bed. It took her even longer not to be paralyzed with fear around Bullet. The first time that sweet dog came rushing up to her, looking for a pat on the head, Debbie screamed a howl of terror. Where she had come from, big dogs like Bullet were used as weapons, trained to hate everyone but their master.
Our family dinner table was something special. It was made of oak by our friend George Montgomery and it was huge: it had to be! It was round, with plenty of room for all of us, and had a lazy Susan in the middle; people could turn it and get what they wanted. Before we ate, we prayed; and while we did so, each of us closed our eyes and clasped our hands together below our chin. However, one night Sandy— the bottomless pit—figured out a way to make certain that he always got to the mashed potatoes first. He opened his eyes during prayer and very gently used his clasped-together index fingers to ease the lazy Susan around so that at the sound of "Amen" he was already piling them on his plate like Mount Whitney. Dusty, who could eat almost as much as his brother, figured out the game, and pretty soon he had his eyes open and fingers out, trying to get the potatoes around in front of him. Then Marion caught on, and by the time I opened my eyes to see what the commotion was about, the lazy Susan was spinning like a gyroscope. "Children," I announced, "it is time we started a new family tradition. From now on, when we pray we will all hold hands around the table. And nobody lets go until Daddy says 'Amen.' "
With six healthy kids around it, there were times when that big, wonderful table was the scene of wholesale confusion. Food fights, spitballs, pinching, kicking: all the rowdy things children do that can make a parent want to tear out her hair, or maybe theirs. There was one night in particular when Sandy and Dusty were going at it good, using spoons to launch peas across the table at the girls and goading each other mercilessly. Sandy had a way of teasing Dusty to the point of distraction. They were making faces, kicking under the table, and generally raising havoc. Despite my warnings to knock it off, Sandy got in a lick at Dusty every time I turned away. "Sandy," I said, "if Dusty beats the tar out of you I am not going to do a thing to stop him. You are asking for trouble. This is your last warning!" We had a dairy cow at Chatsworth, and we had just brought in a big container of milk and filled a pitcher on the table. I said, "Sandy, if you don't behave, I am going to drown you in this milk."
Sandy dared me: "Aw, Mom, you would never do that!" Then he laughed and stuck his tongue out at Dusty.
I took the dare. I stood up, lifted the pitcher of milk from the lazy Susan and poured it over his head. He began to wail and I continued to pour, all the way to the last drop. "Young man, when I make a promise, I keep it!" Then I ordered him to go to his room.
In the summer, when the children were out of school, the whole Rogers family toured together, performing at rodeos and state fairs. Cheryl and Linda usually sang a song with Roy and me, something like "The Bible Tells Me So"; Dodie, our little Indian, came out in a squaw dress and did a solo of a little song I wrote called "Chicky-Wicky Choctaw"; and Debbie, wearing a spangled cowgirl costume, sang "Jesus Loves Me" in Korean, solo. Roy then introduced the boys, dressed in their own little cowboy suits, and we all stood on stage together and sang "Oh, Be Careful, Little Hands, What You Do," then "Happy Trails." The kids didn't always get their part in the show right, but that only added to the fun. Debbie never quite learned the words to "Oh, Be Careful... ," ending her verse with a loud and sonorous "what it do" instead of "what you do." Sandy couldn't carry a tune, and the time we gave him a line to deliver, he got it all twisted up. Midway through, he gave up trying to say what he was supposed to say, pulled his little cowboy hat way down over his head, and bawled, "Mawm! I goofed!"
Whereas life at home was merely hectic, life on the road was sheer chaos. Weeks before leaving the house, I tried to organize the tour like a general planning an invasion. We had to have show clothes made for everyone; then I made lists of exactly what each child was responsible for taking: how many pairs of socks and what color they should be, even the exact number of bobby pins the girls were allowed. At each hotel, every child was expected to take inventory of his or her clothing and equipment before we left. In transit, the older children shepherded the younger ones through air-ports, and they were shepherded by a lady helper from our church in Chatsworth.
For the boys, being on the road presented countless new opportunities to get in trouble. They had a pair of big white rats, which only two boys could love, that they took along in a bird cage, then let loose in hotel rooms. This, of course, thrilled the hotel staff! After a while, when Dusty and Sandy started having trouble getting the bird cage past desk clerks, they exchanged it for an inconspicuous shoe box. On the way home after one show, they stowed their box under the seat in the airplane. Midflight, there was a sudden outburst of squeals coming from the floor. When the stewardess walked past, Dusty and Sandy began squealing to camouflage the sound, but pretty soon the whole cabin was trying to figure out what was going on. The boys picked their box up off the floor and removed the top. To the delight of all the other passengers, out scampered a passel of newborn baby rats.
On another occasion when we were in a plane flying to a show, Dusty decided to play a trick on his brother. "I'm thirsty," Sandy declared.
Dusty volunteered to go to the restroom and get him a drink. He came back with a balloon full. "Here, Sandy," he said. "It's got soda pop in it." Sandy put the balloon to his mouth and squeezed a big gulp out. Soapy water spurted from the balloon and began to foam all around Sandy's mouth. He sputtered and coughed and moaned. Dusty was jubilant at the sight.
Roy leapt from his seat, grabbed Dusty by the nape, and took him to the bathroom, where he tanned his hide, then washed his mouth out with soap. Naturally, by the time the plane landed the boys were best friends again.
Sandy was a fearful little fellow. As an infant who had been beaten, abused, and neglected, he had learned some terrible lessons about what he should expect from life. At night in bed, he often saw shapes and shadows in the bed-room that terrified him. Usually Dusty was able to reassure him, but one night on tour when we were staying in an old hotel somewhere, Sandy ran out of their room screaming. We all awoke and came into the hall, trying to calm him down. Roy led him back into the room to show him there was nothing to be afraid of. As the rest of us waited in the hall, suddenly pandemonium broke out and there was a racket in there that you could have heard in Peking. Sandy came running out again. This time, he wasn't imagining things. There was a bat in the room, and Roy was going after it with a coat hanger. By the time he came out, triumphant, the entire floor was awake and out of their rooms to see what the commotion was about: just another normal night with the the touring Roy Rogers family!
Roy turned Sandy's fears into a good story about both boys that he often told to audiences during our show. "You know, pardners," he'd say. "The Rogers family always goes to church and Sunday school. The children like Sunday school, but they don't always understand everything they hear. Last week the minister was speaking about the part of the Bible that says, 'From dust thou art, and to dust thou shaft return.'
"When they got home, Dusty and Sandy were playing in their bedroom when they noticed some dust under one of the beds. They came tearing down the stairs.
" 'Daddy, Daddy,' Dusty shouted. There's somebody under my bed, and I don't know if he's comin' or goin'!' "
Sandy was a bed-wetter. I didn't know it at the time, but the problem stemmed from his brain damage. I thought it was a matter that could be cured by will power alone, so I tried everything. I bought a pad for the bed that sounded an alarm at the first sign of moisture. It woke up everyone but Sandy. I took him to every medical specialist under the sun. I woke him every two hours. I tried rewarding him with presents if he stayed dry. I tried shaming him. The night on tour he fell asleep in his stage clothes and soaked them, I lost it. I ripped off his costume and went chasing that poor boy up and down the hall. To let you know just how desperate I was about the situation, I will admit that I actually tried an old folk cure. I had been told that the country way to cure bed-wetting was to catch a field mouse, skin it, make a stew of it, and feed it to the boy. Sandy didn't ask what was in the stew our cook made for him—so long as it didn't have liver in it, he ate anything— and he gobbled it up with glee; but that night, as usual, he wet his bed. After that I tried to accept the problem; and Sandy, shamed as he was, came to terms with it, too. In the army, he woke up every morning before reveille to make his bedroll so no one would know.
When we were on the road, I always planted myself between Dusty and Sandy at the dinner table to try to keep them from combusting. Still, they managed to rile up each other behind my back. One night before a show in Ohio we all went to a very elegant restaurant. The boys started in and heads in the dining room began to turn. I think they thought that because we were in public, Roy and I wouldn't pour a pitcher of milk on their heads or shoot off blanks. I asked them nicely to please do their dad and me a favor and sit still and behave themselves, but this night I could see that they were going to push us to the limit. As Roy and I were trying to have a conversation, I reached down under the table with both hands and grabbed a fistful of each boy's leg just above the knee. I squeezed. They stopped their teasing. I squeezed harder. Sandy started to moan. I kept squeezing. He moaned louder and Dusty joined him in a long, mournful howl of pain. Every single person in the dining room turned to see where these unholy sounds were coming from. As far as anyone could tell, Roy and I were sitting opposite each other at the table having a pleasant chat. The boys next to me were caterwauling for no apparent reason. I lessened my grip just enough so they quieted down. With a sweet, motherly smile on my face, I said softly, "I told you boys to be quiet. Now will you?" Mollified, they nodded yes.
When we first took Debbie with us, she was so young, and so new to America. She was sitting on my lap when our plane landed for an appearance at the Ohio State Fair. A huge crowd was at the airport waiting for us, and as soon as the plane stopped, they rushed it, screaming and shouting for Roy. Debbie, who wasn't long out of wartorn Korea, looked out the window and saw the throngs of people and police trying to control them. A look of horror came over her face and she fell into hysterics, hiding her face from the crowd all the way to the hotel. It took a lot of explaining before that frightened little girl understood that the people didn't mean us any harm.
Debbie soon became our family extrovert; she could talk to anybody—one-on-one or in front of the crowd at the Calgary Stampede. She went trout fishing with Roy and the boys; she made friends with girls in the neighborhood and got so caught up visiting with them that she came home long after dark. How I went into orbit over that! Oh, I harped on her for all sorts of things: for snitching cucumbers, peppers, and celery from the salad (was she part rabbit?); for raiding my clothes and perfume; for leaving peanut shells and apple cores in front of the TV set. When I scolded her, she pouted; she clamped her lips and stalked off to her room; but I couldn't stay mad at her for long, and she couldn't pout for long, either. After a few moments of glowering at me, her eyes would start to twinkle, and she couldn't help but soften her expression.
Debbie was so much like Roy in the way she cared for animals, especially those that were hurt. I recall the time she brought home an injured sparrow she found on her way home from school. She got an old bird cage for him from the laundry room, gave him water and moistened bread crumbs, and after a few hours he perked up. Oh, she was so happy when he stood chirping on his perch. Late that afternoon she carried the cage up the mountain behind our house and opened it, laughing out loud as the sparrow flew up into the sky.
Just before Debbie's twelfth birthday, Roy had to have a serious operation on his neck. Eight years of hard riding on his speedboat, as well as years of galloping on that horse of his, had injured his discs, causing three vertebrae to jam together and cause him severe pain. The operation lasted five hours and left him in a temporary neck brace, battling complications from an agonizing staph infection. Debbie was so anxious when Daddy went into the hospital that she came to me nearly every hour for reassurance that he would be all right and would come home soon. From the first moment, eight years earlier, when she came off the plane and curled up in his arms, Debbie and Roy had an extraordinary affection for each other. She was the first to run out and greet him when he came home from work; she took off his boots, rubbed his aching neck, and brought him coffee. She and Dodie delighted in taking turns combing his hair when he read the paper, sitting in his lap and trying different hair styles, making him look silly. He adored the attention, and when one or both of those two girls were fussing over him, even if it did distract him from his paper, Roy Rogers looked like the happiest man in the world. How he beamed when Debbie came to visit him at the convalescent home in Bel Air the day after her twelfth birthday! His little girl had won a little blue stuffed animal at Pacific Ocean Park on her birthday; she was dressed in her new stretch jeans and patchwork print top, and finally too grown-up to sit in Daddy's lap.
Two days later, on August 17, Debbie joined her friends on a church bus trip to deliver presents to children at an orphanage in Tijuana. On a two-lane section of Interstate 5, the bus blew a tire and the driver lost control, veering into oncoming traffic. The bus hit a station wagon. Debbie, who was standing at the front because she wanted to look at the road ahead, was thrown through the window and killed.
I had asked Debbie not to go on the trip. I wanted her to wait until Dodie got over a stomach flu and could go with her. Maybe when Roy was home and life was back to normal, we could all go to the orphanage. I was feeling troubled just then about many things: Roy's operation, Dodie's illness, and ... I wasn't sure exactly what. Debbie pleaded to take the trip because her friends Joanne and Kathy Russell were going, and it would be part of her birthday celebration. I gave in and allowed her to go on her errand of love. The day Debbie left, as I drove back from Roy recuperating in Bel Air, I felt so distressed that I started to pray for God's help. It was a hot, restless afternoon, and as I watched the wind blow leaves across the sky, I asked for tranquillity. I was tense and I desperately needed to relax. By the time I got home, I did feel good. I felt that God had blessed me with His peace. I noticed a strange thing as I pulled in the breezeway: Debbie's red bicycle had fallen off its stand to the pavement.
Ruth Miner, our housekeeper whom the children knew as "Granny," waited at the door of the house with a strange expression as she watched me park the car. "Dale, I have to talk with you," she said, taking my arm and leading me into the living room. I felt blood draining from my face, thinking that something had happened to Roy. "The bus had an accident," she said. "Debbie and Joanne Russell are with the Lord."
It took a moment for the news to register. "With . . . the Lord?" I wondered to myself. Then I knew. It felt like a sledgehammer falling on my brain. I screamed, "No! No! Not my baby, not again!" I pounded my fists, I writhed, I tore at my clothes. "Jesus! Jesus! HELP ME!"
Dusty, who was then seventeen years old, rescued me from my spiraling despair. He came into the room and sat next to me on the couch. He took my shoulders and made me face him. "Mom!" he said firmly. "Mom, for as long as I can remember, you've told me to trust Jesus. If you meant that, you must trust him, too. Debbie is okay. She is with Him." I put my head in my son's lap and cried. After a long time, he whispered, "What about Dad? I don't think he's strong enough to handle this."
When Roy was given the news by his surgeon, he tore out his I.V. tubes and tried to get out of bed, crying "Why? Why her?" He was put under heavy sedation and rushed back to the intensive care unit at the UCLA Medical Center. I went to visit him there and sat down by the side of his bed. We talked together; Roy couldn't move his head because of the brace; and when it came time to leave, I could not stand up. I was too weak to get out of my chair. Doctors gave me a glucose tolerance test and discovered I was spilling sugar into my urine. I had developed diabetes. The shock of Debbie's death had triggered an attack.
This time, the trip to Forest Lawn to make funeral arrangements for my child would be my responsibility. I planned a double funeral for Debbie and Joanne. The coroner strongly advised a closed-casket service because damage to the girls was so severe. No! Since Robin's death, I had lived with the regret of refusing to look, and this time I knew I had to. I needed to touch Debbie's pretty hands once more and smooth her rich, dark hair for the last time.
"They have worked very hard to make her presentable," Art Rush reported to me before the funeral. Her casket was in the Slumber Room at Forest Lawn. My baby looked eighteen instead of twelve. She wore the white dress she had worn at her sixth-grade commencement, with a pink bow in her hair. In her fingers was the blue plush animal she had won on her birthday. I placed three rosebuds from our yard in her hands and a new gold cross around her neck—the cross she usually wore had been lost in the wreck. I felt at that moment she was aware of the tributes being paid her, and I could almost hear her say, "Hey, Mom, what a blast! Is this all for me?"
Dodie, who had always been frantic that she would lose her sister and her best friend, came to me and asked, "Mom, why can't I go to heaven, too, and be with Debbie?" I told her that when God was ready, he would beckon.
I fell to my knees and thanked the Lord for the time we had had Debbie. When I reached the house in Chatsworth a friend looked at me and said, "Dale, your face is positively glowing. It is radiant. How. .. ?" God had removed me forever from all fear of death.
I wrote Dearest Debbie, a book about the time she had spent with us, addressed to her in heaven. It began, "How lovely you must be in your new halo! You always looked so pretty in your simple little white headband.... You will never be a closed chapter in my book of life, Debbie. You will live in my heart, and I shall go right on singing the Lord's praises until He calls me home, too, to sing in that great choir of the Heavenly Host." Royalties from the book went to World Vision International, the organization that had brought Debbie to us nine years before, when she was a three-year-old orphan.
In January 1965, Sandy told us he wanted to join the army. It had been his dream for so many years. As a tot, he delighted in toy soldiers, guns, and airplanes, promising that one day he would grow up and drive a tank. Soon he developed a nearly fanatical interest in all things military, especially if it was connected to his original home state of Kentucky or the Civil War. As much as he and Dusty complained about strict discipline at the Altadena military school they attended, Sandy delighted in the school uniforms. He had trouble in math and English, but he couldn't get enough military history. He called himself "the Rebel," and on his thirteenth birthday, he asked for a Confederate uniform. He clicked his heels and proclaimed, "The South shall rise again!" as he and Dusty argued endlessly over the merits of General Lee vs. General Grant.
When he asked our permission to enlist—he was only seventeen at the time—we didn't think he would pass the physical. Despite his enthusiasm for life, Sandy's handicaps made it difficult for him to keep up with others. When he and Dusty used to wrestle, Sandy always lost. He went out for Little League summer after summer, but never made the team. Undaunted by his shortcomings, he gladly served as batboy. At touch football, he didn't seem to know which way to run ... but he always wanted to play. Roy tried to teach him how to drive the Jeep, but he couldn't figure out how to coordinate the clutch and gearshift. When Roy started to take the boys trapshooting, Dusty was a good shot from the beginning. Sandy simply couldn't figure out how to handle the gun. To save Sandy from feeling shamed, Roy stopped taking the boys to the range. He was a boy who failed often, but who never, ever quit.
"I'm not doing well in high school," he pleaded with us. "I want to prove myself. I promise I will make you proud of me." He did pass his army physical, and the day he graduated from basic training at Fort Polk, he was on cloud nine. His captain told me that he had never seen a young soldier try so hard. I was so proud of him; this was a real accomplishment for the young man whose life was such a struggle every step of the way. But my heart was heavy as lead thinking of Sandy being sent into combat. "Sandy will never be home again," I moaned to Ruth Miner. He did volunteer for duty in Vietnam, but superior officers decided that his reflexes were too slow for combat. He was assigned to the tank corps in Germany: his boyhood dream come true.
Late in October 1965, I went to Texas to spend my birthday with my mother. On Saturday night I had a nightmare: a rider was galloping full speed across a wide plain, heading straight for me. His horse stumbled and fell. The horse got up. The man lay in the sand, motionless. I knew he was dead. I woke up screaming.
When I returned to Los Angeles on Monday, the family was waiting at the airport to meet me. Cheryl and Marion approached, with an odd look on their faces. "Do we have a problem, kids?" I asked.
Cheryl replied, soberly and carefully, "Sort of, Mom."
"Who is it?" I asked as my panic level escalated.
Dusty said, "It's Sandy. He's gone."
"What do you mean, GONE?" I shouted. "Sandy isn't in Vietnam. He's in Germany!"
Dusty and Roy took me by the arms. Dusty explained: "Sandy was at a party Saturday night. Some guys got him to drink a lot of hard liquor, and it killed him."
Sandy, the boy with the cast-iron stomach, the boy who could devour everything (except liver), to my knowledge had never tasted liquor stronger than beer. He had come back from maneuvers where he earned his first-class stripes and went with his buddies to the enlisted men's club to celebrate. One of the soldiers needled Sandy, saying "So now you're Private First Class, now you're a man. Or are you? Let's see you drink like a man." Sandy fell for it. He drank an unbelievable amount of hard liquor, then ate a steak dinner, followed by two beers. "Come on, Rogers, bottoms up!" his friends shouted. Sandy, who yearned to be accepted as one of the guys, poured it down. He began to vomit and collapsed. His drinking buddies got him to his bunk, thinking he would sleep it off. In the morning he was dead.
Once more, we went to Forest Lawn Memorial Park to say good-bye to a child. Sandy came home in a flag-draped casket. As I looked at him there in the sharply creased, brass-buttoned uniform that meant so much to him, my mind went back in time, thirteen years, to a battered boy who left the Covington orphanage with all of his worldly belongings in a paper sack. I remembered when someone asked the little boy what he had, how he folded back the top and proudly pulled out all he owned—that tattered sweater.
The service was beautiful. Dusty put Sandy's favorite Civil War sword in his hand. Then a military escort led us out the door of the Church of the Recessional as a bugler blew Taps. When the escorts lifted their rifles and fired them toward heaven in a sharp salute, Roy broke down and cried. They folded the flag from his coffin and gave it to me, his mother. I held it to my heart. Rest in peace, sweet Kentucky babe!
At the Chapel in the Canyon near a fountain splashing in the sun there is now a bronze plaque that says:
John David (Sandy) Rogers
Here he played. Here he prayed.
Here he loved, and was loved by all.
The next summer, in Sandy's memory, Roy and I went to entertain the troops in Vietnam on a USO tour. I wrote a book called Salute to Sandy—about that trip and about Sandy's hard struggle to find a place for himself in a world where he didn't get a lot of breaks. Royalties went to the Campus Crusade for Christ.
When we were in Vietnam a young trooper came to me and said, "Ma'am, I was in Sandy's company in Germany."
"Were you there the night he died?" I asked.
"I wish I had been," he replied. "It would not have happened."
"He did try to be a good soldier, didn't he?" I asked.
The trooper said, "Ma'am he was a good soldier."
INDEED THE ROY ROGERS FAMILY HAD THEIR HARD TOUGH TIMES; FOR SURE NOT ALWAYS A ROSE GARDEN; AS ROY SAID, THE HILL-TOPS AND THE VALLEYS, IF YOU HAD NO VALLEYS YOU COULD NOT REALLY ENJOY THE TOPS OF THE HILLS.