Last chapter from the book “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans - Happy Trails” with Carlton Stowers - published in 1979
It was time, Roy and Dale agreed, to begin slowing the pace. They talked of retiring, of finding a place somewhere in the High Desert country where life would be less hectic.
"There are some people who, having spent most of their lives in show business, find that regardless of their age they simply cannot survive without it. Bob Hope is like that. And it's no criticism of Bob. But I was never that much of an extrovert. It was—and still is—hard for me to perform, to get up in front of people. I enjoy it, but it isn't something that has ever come easy. When the movies and television series came to an end, I was ready. I had had enough of it. And it seemed to me that Westerns could use a rest, too, since television was surfeited with horse operas."
It is perhaps necessary to offer up here the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans definition of retirement, lest anyone get the idea they had designs on his-and-her rocking chairs and keeping up with the daily happenings of "As The World Turns.” Retirement to them was nothing more than a more selective approach to their work. There would be fewer state fair appearances, fewer television specials, fewer recording sessions.
Complete, hands down, cold turkey retirement is no more possible for the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West than it is for Bob Hope. If nothing else, there is the public demand. "One of the things I never learned to do very well," admits Roy, "is say no. And, you know, there have been precious few times that I've regretted that particular shortcoming.”
I had promised never to tell my barlow knife story again once the children were all raised and gone. Not that it isn't a good story and one with a message. Dale says I just overused it a little. Looking back, I would have to say her judgment is an understatement. It got to the point, in fact, that I would launch into it, dead set on making my point, and would get one of those patient "here it comes again" looks. It finally became so amusing to Dale that she would have to take quick leave of the room so that her amusement would not hamper the serious tone I was trying to set. As the children grew up, it always concerned me that they lacked the proper degree of appreciation for material things. There were always plenty of presents at Christmas and on birthdays. Financial hard times were never really a part of their growing-up experience. And so, when Christmas presents would be too quickly discarded or torn up, I would tell them the story of the Christmas Dad gave me this pocket knife. That was all I got, but it was one of the greatest treasures I ever owned. I took care of it, I polished it, I guarded it like a fine piece of jewelry. I told that story when the girls would rip rampantly through all their presents on Christmas morning. I told it when Dusty and Sandy took the motor out of their go-cart and dismantled it. I told it when Dusty complained that most of the kids at high school were driving far newer cars than he was. I told it prior to birthdays when they asked for expensive gifts. I told it, I guess, until it took its place right alongside the old "I had to walk five miles to school in the snow every day—uphill all the way" story. But I told it with a purpose and, looking back, I like to think I got my point over. Now that I think about it, Sandy was probably my best audience. Having come to us with nothing but a tattered little sweater stuffed into a grocery bag, I think he understood what I was saying. Not that he always agreed, mind you; but he understood.
In January of 1965, we were making plans to move to Apple Valley near Victorville. One evening as Dale and I sat discussing the move, Sandy came in and asked if he could talk with us. Clearly, he had something of a serious nature on his mind. And it was quickly obvious that his presentation had been well prepared. "I'm not making good grades in high school," he pointed out, "so what I'd like to do is enlist in the army. That's what I want to do more than anything else in the world. I think I can prove myself as a soldier. I'll be eighteen in June," he continued, "and I could wait until then, but I would like to go now if you will give me the permission. I promise that I'll get my high school diploma in the service. And I promise that I'll make you proud of me."
The latter he had already done, time and time again. Despite the hardships dealt him in infancy, John David (Sandy) Rogers had never been a quitter. As he grew older, he recognized his limitations in certain areas, but he never let those stop him. He and Dusty loved to wrestle, and if Sandy ever won I wasn't aware of it, but he always came back for more. He tried out for Little League summer after summer but never made the team. So he served as an enthusiastic and hardworking bat boy while the others enjoyed the glories of hitting home runs and seeing their names in the local paper.
He made a concerted effort in the remedial reading classes to which we sent him, but with only marginal success. As many hours as I worked with him, he could never master a shotgun at the trap-shooting range. But he never let disappointment or discouragement show. Rather, he would mask it behind a clown face, going into an elaborate comedy routine in his moments of shortcoming, and then come back for more.
There are those, I'm sure, who will tell you that Sandy didn't have much going for him. The truth of the matter is he had a great deal going for him. Call it fatherly boasting if you will, but I've met few people in my life with more heart than Sandy.
And so we agreed to let him enlist, secretly feeling that his chances of passing the physical examination were slim.
Dale and I, of course, had mixed emotions. If he failed the exam that would mean he would stay at home, and would finish his final year of high school. On the other hand, if he was not allowed to enlist, a life's dream would be shattered. From his first days at the military academy, Sandy had been fascinated, almost obsessed, with the service. When he was sixteen, he and Dusty had gotten summer jobs digging ditches and, saving his money, Sandy wound up spending all of his earnings at the Army Surplus Store in Canoga Park to purchase an old Civil War sword, which he cherished every bit as much as I did the aforementioned pocket knife.
Thus it was with a mixture of sorrow and pride that we learned he had passed his physical. We signed his release and saw him off to Fort Polk, where he was to go through basic training.
He went off to serve his country, and we went off to Apple Valley.
The day Sandy graduated from basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, was one of the biggest of his life. He immediately volunteered for duty in Viet Nam, but instead was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
He did get a short leave and came home for a few days, but we saw very little of him. He was far more interested in a young lady named Sharyn, whom he had been dating steadily before enlisting. Before leaving, he broke the news to us that they had decided to become engaged. He had also made the decision that he wanted to pursue a military career.
At Fort Leonard Wood, he volunteered for demolition squad duty, one of the most hazardous jobs offered, but was turned down. Transferred to Fort Knox, he again requested assignment in Viet Nam. Again his request was denied. While he was never given a detailed reason, Dale and I later had it explained to us: The guerrilla warfare going on in Viet Nam demanded that a soldier be able to think quickly and react quickly. These abilities Sandy, through no fault of his own, lacked.
Thus his next stop would be Germany.
Dale flew to Fort Knox to say good-bye, and returned home disturbed over an admission Sandy made to her before she left. On his eighteenth birthday, he told her, he had participated in a beer bust with several of his friends. Clearly he felt badly about doing so, Dale said, but she was unable to pass it off as a boys-will-be-boys fling. His parents, we both knew, had been alcoholics, and Dale voiced her concern that he might have inherited a weakness for alcohol.
I did my best to convince her that she was worrying over nothing. It would be Sandy himself, however, who set her mind at ease with a letter he wrote shortly after arriving in Germany:
Dear Mom and Dad:
I'll make this promise to both of you—that when Sharyn and I get married and raise our kids, they will be raised in a home where Christ is Lord. That old saying, "A family that prays together stays together," goes for both of us. We will try our hardest to raise our kids as God wants them to be raised. It's tough that I didn't finish high school in civilian life, but I'm going to finish it in the army, and I'll make you both, and everyone else, proud of me. I realize that it isn't much of a jump from being seventeen to being eighteen, but I have finally realized that parents aren't just talking to hear their heads rattle when they're trying to tell us something. All the time, kids think they're smart and their parents are dumb, but it's just the opposite. Parents are the smart ones and the kids are the dumb ones. Someday when I have my own kids, I hope I can show them the patience that you’ve shown me and the other kids.
God bless you both always,
Again in Germany he volunteered to go to Viet Nam but instead remained there and, to my everlasting amazement, managed to get into the tank corps. I had underestimated him. There he was, promoted to private first class, and in the driver's seat of a military tank, when he had left home without even benefit of a driver's license.
His letters home were a delight, filled with self-confidence and a well-deserved touch of pride. Sandy was happier than he had ever been in his life, and Dale and I delighted in his joy.
On the home front things were progressing nicely. Dusty was in his senior year at Victorville High School, and Dodie was in the eighth grade. She, Dale, and I were attending the Presbyterian Church of the Valley, while Dusty had chosen to attend the High Desert Baptist Church where many of his school friends were members.
In late October of that year, Dale decided to make a trip home to celebrate her birthday with her mother. Having long since dismissed her fear of flying, she was eagerly looking forward to going to Texas. I suppose, in fact, if I keep her in California until she's one hundred and twenty-five, she'll still refer to Texas as "home."
Going to Italy was always an event for Dale. Elaborate plans had been made for her to sing in the church choir on Sunday and to give her testimony to the congregation. Then, in the company of her mother and other family members, she would drive to nearby Waxahachie for her birthday dinner.
I only wish her celebration could have lasted longer. The night before she was to return home tragedy struck, as it always does, in a moment when least expected. The call had come to our house: Pfc. Sandy Rogers, age eighteen, a fine soldier, was dead.
A look of horror wiped the smile from Dale's face the moment she stepped from the plane. Marion had planned to meet her, have coffee, and bring her home. Instead, we were all there as a family. Dale knew immediately something was wrong.
It was Cheryl who reached her first. "Is there a problem?" her mother asked. No hugs, no kisses, no warm hello. Somehow she seemed to know already.
"It's Sandy," Cheryl said. "He's gone."
It made no more sense to her than it had to me. Sandy was not in the battlefields of Viet Nam. He was in Germany, far removed from the conflict. How could he be gone? How could still another of our children be dead even before he had had a chance to live?
Gently, Dusty took his mother by the arm, and in a manner which far belied his age, explained the bare details for her. "Sandy was at a party Saturday night," he told her, "and some of the guys talked him into drinking a lot of hard liquor and it killed him, Mom. I'm sorry."
Dale buried her face in her hands and sobbed. She said nothing, just cried silently while the rest of us stood by, feeling helpless, empty. Sandy's death was senseless, without rhyme or proper reason. If there are degrees of tragedy, his passing was one of the highest order.
He had returned from twenty-six days of grueling maneuvers, dog-tired and glad they were over. Several of his friends had suggested that a celebration was in order, inasmuch as Sandy had not, in the military tradition, "wet down his stripes" since attaining the rank of Pfc.
They had showered, dressed, picked up their pay, and gone to the enlistment men's club for dinner. Then he had been challenged: "You're a man now, Rogers; let's see if you can drink like one."
I can see him now, that crazy grin on his face, eager to prove himself, eager to be accepted, a part. It wasn't any different from what he had been doing all his life. And, bless him, he fell for the challenge.
In a short period of time he had drunk a half bottle of champagne, two beers, four mixtures of whiskey, gin, vodka, and brandy, and a sweet cordial. And collapsed, unconscious.
His companions, realizing that this young man who had never tasted anything stronger than beer had gone far beyond any reasonable limits, had tried to revive him and then had taken him, on their shoulders, to the dispensary. The orderly, instead of pumping his stomach, had put him into his bunk to sleep it off. The following morning, the same day his mother was singing in the Baptist church in Italy, Texas, they had found him dead.
When told the story I had gone into an emotional tailspin. I was grief-stricken by the loss of a son who had battled so gallantly to find his place in life, and I was bitterly angry at a society which could pressure a person to such a meaningless waste. For Dale and me both, the tears and sorrow were not so much for ourselves and our loss, as for the loss Sandy had suffered, for the unfulfilled dreams, the hopes which would not be realized, the plans that would not be carried out.
We waited for his body to be flown home. He would have a full military funeral and then be laid to rest in a crypt at Forest Lawn next to Robin and Debbie. The services were brief. Taps was played and a salute cracked from the rifles of the military escort on hand. The American flag, for which Sandy had wanted so badly to fight, to defend in battle in Viet Nam, was taken from the casket, folded, and handed to Dale.
Watching as his friends stood silently by, bidding him farewell, paying their last respects; as Dale proudly and courageously accepted the traditional flag, I felt all the strength go out of my body. And I cried. That lonely-sad-happy-mischievous-beautiful little boy from Kentucky who, just a few short years earlier, had looked up at me for the first time, shaken my hand, and said, "Howdy padnuh," a little guy I had loved the minute I saw him, was gone.
Dale reached over and touched my arm. "Honey," she whispered, "Sandy's with God . . . and Debbie and Robin." It was a comforting thought. Still, I was going to miss him. We all would.
Just before Christmas that year, a package came in the mail from Sandy's commanding officer in Germany. In it were the wedding and engagement rings he had purchased for Sharyn. We gave them to her, and she had them made into a cross, a gesture Sandy would have liked.
He also would have liked the bronze plaque which now stands between a big, beautiful tree and a singing water fountain on the grounds of the Chapel in the Canyon. The inscription describes him well:
John David (Sandy) Rogers
Here he played. Here he prayed.
Here he loved, and was loved by all.
That summer Dale and I were asked by the USO to do an entertainment tour of Viet Nam. We accepted for several reasons. Perhaps by going we might in some way help Sandy to fulfill his desire to be there. And, too, we wanted to see firsthand what this seemingly unpopular conflict our soldiers were involved in was all about. And Dale had talked to her editor about writing a book about Sandy, and hoped to talk to some of his army buddies about his brief life as a soldier.
Frankly, I began the trip with some reservations. I wasn't sure what to expect. All I knew was that it would be unlike any of the hundreds of USO tours we had done in the States years earlier. The spirit of Sandy would ride along on this trip. There would be Sandy’s at every stop along the way— young men who fully realized there were those back home who made no pretense of supporting what they were doing. I wondered what their reaction would be to our visit. And I wondered, too, what our reaction would be to them.
It pleases me greatly to report that what we found was the finest example of American youth you could ever hope to see. We saw a strong, unbending dedication to a necessary task. We saw suffering, but heard no complaining. We saw courage and faith and a patriotic dedication to doing a job that they felt, knew had to be done.
We came home believing in those soldiers and in their cause.
And we also brought with us some heart-warming reflections of our son. One of Sandy's friends gave us a Vietnamese picture on which he had written "In Memory of John." The captain of his outfit at Fort Polk had told Dale that in his eighteen years of service experience he had never known a young man so anxious to be a soldier, had never seen one who tried so hard. A sergeant who had had no idea of Sandy's difficulties said, "There were times when I got so mad at him I wanted to choke him until his eyes popped out. He would make a mistake and go into that crazy comedy routine. But he stayed after it, never gave up. You can't help but admire that. I just wish I had known a little more about him."
It sounded to me like he knew plenty.
We came home spiritually uplifted but physically exhausted. All I wanted to do was sleep, but Dale, working diligently to complete the book she had worked on throughout our trip, didn't slow a bit.
On what would have been Sandy's nineteenth birthday, Salute to Sandy, the story of our son and our travels to Viet Nam, was published, and Dale arranged to have the royalties paid to the Campus Crusade for Christ International.
Sandy would also have liked that.
As with all the tragedies which have befallen the Rogers family, their mourning was shared by people throughout the nation, the world. Long after Sandy’s death, letters of sympathy continued to arrive. Some carried simple messages of condolence, others words of admiration for the strength and faith maintained by Roy and Dale through their trying ordeals. And with the publication of each new book by Dale, there would come a steady stream of testimonies, indications that she, by telling of the manner in which she and her family had dealt with shock and sorrow, had helped others deal with similar situations.
And, as Roy is so fond of saying, for every sorrow in his life there have been a thousand joys.
Shortly after graduation Dusty, eager to have his crack at making it in the world, moved to Middlefield, Ohio, where he went to work in a supermarket with a close friend named George White whose father owned the business. There was the expected urging on the part of his parents to stay a bit closer to home, but the final decision was properly left to Dusty. He had earned the right to make it being Roy Rogers, Jr., is not the easiest assignment a young man can draw, but he had handled it well.
Roy and Dale respected his decision and bade him godspeed. It was not long before they too were summoned to Middlefield, to attend the wedding of their son and a beautiful young girl named Linda Yoder. Predictably, Dad beamed and Mom shed a few tears and both realized there would be yet another empty bedroom back home.
There was only Dodie, still young but fast approaching the time when she, too, would no doubt go away to make a life of her own. She served as a bridesmaid at Dusty’s wedding. Then, in the fall of 1969, she became the bride of an Air Force staff sergeant. She was the last of the flock to leave.
When the wedding festivities were over, they returned to a quiet house. Dale cried again, and Roy put his arm around her. “Honey” he said, "it's not as if we don't have kids anymore. We've got grandchildren running out our ears, and there's no telling how many more to come. I suspect they're going to keep us pretty busy." Dale smiled. I suspect they will," she said.
Clearly, the story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans is far from ending. Their retirement, in fact, may be one of the busiest ever undertaken.
Roy and Dale continue to establish new all-time box-office records at state fairs and rodeos, and hardly a month goes by that television viewers don't see them as guest stars on everything from "The Muppet Show" to "Hee Haw" to Christmas specials and talk shows.
The number of books written by Dale now totals seventeen, with a combined total of over four million copies sold. Roy is actively involved in over two hundred Marriott Corporation-owned Roy Rogers Family Restaurants throughout the United States and Canada. While he travels to openings of new restaurants, often accompanied by Dusty and the Sons of the Pioneers, Dale takes her moving message of faith to concerts and Christian rallies all over the country.
And there is the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, to which thousands come annually to view the artifacts of one of the entertainment worlds most well-known families. It is a warm, fascinating collection of photographs, show business memorabilia, family mementoes, citations, and treasured gifts certain to bring back fond memories to any of yesteryear’s Saturday Afternoon Deputies who once lent support to the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West from a front-row vantage point down at the Bijou. Trigger, who died in 1965, is there, beautifully mounted. So is Trigger, Jr., Buttermilk, Bullet, and even Pat Brady's jeep Nellybelle.
When not traveling or taping a TV show or adding to the list of over four hundred songs they have recorded or greeting visitors to the museum, Roy, showing no ill effects of the bypass surgery he underwent in 1978, spends a lot of time on his sixty-seven acre thoroughbred ranch or at the Victor Lanes bowling alley where he maintains an 180 average in league play. Or out in the desert with his favorite bird dog, Sam. Or at a nearby gun club, still shooting trap and skeet as well as most men half his age.
And there is always time for frequent visits from all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren; the Rogers clan has increased rather than dwindled with passing years.
What those children have inherited is a legacy they share with an entire nation. Roy and Dale's kinship to millions of people whose names and faces they don't even know is as real as any family ties will ever be. Roy and Dale continue to be loved and admired in a way that few, if any, celebrities can claim.
That affection is not only for what they are and who they are, but for what they represent. In a time when heroes are in short supply, Roy Rogers remains one—a man who flaunts no macho image and waves no celestial bankrolls, but instead simply lives the good life, standing firm in his beliefs and maintaining a close rein on his priorities. Dale Evans represents proof positive that the roles of mother-wife-career woman can be successfully woven. Together, they stand as a solid example of what the family unit is supposed to be and as a steadfast witness to the faith that has sustained them.
A legacy indeed! It is an example that any child—or any nation—would do well to follow.