ROY SPEAKS….early years
You'll forgive my immodesty if I point to the fact that each spring something in the neighborhood of a million people— men, women and children of all ages—visit my birthplace. But, in all honesty, not for the reason you might think.
The address of the old home place was 412 Second Street, Cincinnati, Ohio. It was, I'm told, a red brick tenement building whose best features were the facts that the roof didn't leak unless it really came a downpour and that it was in close proximity to my father's job at the United States Shoe Company.
The building is no longer there. For that matter, neither is the four-hundred block of Second Street. Urban Renewal saw to that some years back. In its place the city fathers elected to have Riverfront Stadium built to serve as the home of the major league Cincinnati Reds.
And as best I can determine, the place I was bom was roughly where second base is now located. So, in reality, it isn't the birthplace of Roy Rogers those million people I mentioned come to see but, rather, the double plays turned by the hometown infield. Which is quite as it should be. Still, how many people do you know who can say they were bom at second base in a big league ball park? It's not a bad yam to spin to your grandkids, you'll have to admit.
As a matter of fact, had one of my early boyhood aspirations materialized, I just might have made one of those triumphant returns to the old home place, not as a singing cowboy or, for that matter, as a second baseman, but as a big league
pitcher. Though my grade school teacher and coach, a man of rare athletic and academic abilities named Guy Baumgartner, probably doesn't remember it exactly the way I do, my curve ball was once the terror of the schoolground. (Granted, it has curved better and with greater velocity with the passage of time, but then that's the privilege of aging athletes, right?)
Still, when you get right down to it, my abilities as a baseball player never caused a single major league scout to come running to our doorstep with promises of fame and fortune. No big league pitcher ever lost any sleep worrying about having his job stolen away by a skinny right-hander named Leonard Slye.
But it didn't hurt to dream. My father taught me that.
Andy Slye was a small, easygoing man of incredible energy, a man with a creative knack for building everything and repairing almost anything. He loved life, music, the out-of-doors, my mother, and each of his children. And he was a bit of a dreamer, a romantic, an adventurer. I used to love to sit and hear him tell stories about his younger days, before he met and married Mom, when he followed the whims of youth from one marvelous adventure to another.
As a teenager, he once traveled across the country with a carnival as a laborer, and later performed as an acrobat for a while. A self-taught musician, he once worked as an entertainer on a showboat and was a big hit with his guitar and mandolin at square dances throughout Ohio. He used to tell about sitting on the wharves of Portsmouth for hours on end, watching ships from magical, far-away places as they unloaded their cargoes. He would make up fantasies about the ships and their crews, fashioning exciting stories in his mind. From that fertile imagination would later come the stories he would tell my sisters and m
Dad never said as much, but I've always felt that the only thing in the world that could have made him give up his wandering and adventure-seeking was his love for my mother. She was working in a laundry when Dad first met her and began asking her out on dates. A couple of years older than he was, she made it clear to him that she would never consider marrying a man who was not ready to settle down, hold a job, and devote himself to raising a family.
Which is not to say Mattie Slye didn't like her fun, too. Born in Kentucky, she also had a deep-seated love for music. She played a variety of string instruments and, despite having been crippled by polio as a baby, loved to go to dances.
I should also point out that Mom's marriage to Dad didn't exactly shake all the wanderlust from his shoes. . . .
Shortly after the birth of his son, Andy Slye began plotting to escape the bustle and confinement of Cincinnati. His job in the lasting department at the shoe company had become akin to a prison sentence. The outdoors beckoned him, travel whispered in his ear, adventure called. So he enlisted the help of his blind brother Will in constructing a houseboat from lumber salvaged from a wrecked steamboat.
Friends good-naturedly referred to it as Andy's Ark. Andy Slye called it his family's ticket to a better, more carefree life. In July of 1912 they boarded their newly-whitewashed, twelve-by-fifty-foot, three-room home and floated off down the Ohio River toward Portsmouth. It would be a journey the Swiss Family Robinson would have appreciated.
The first day out a sudden summer storm ripped to shreds the boat's sail, which had been fashioned from a half-dozen of Mattie Stye's best bedsheets. The mast was hurled into the river as the houseboat pitched on the storm-chopped river. Inside the cabin Andy Slye tried to comfort his family, all the while privately questioning the soundness of his plan, which just hours earlier had been one of great promise and excitement.
But aside from the loss of Mattie's bedsheets, a broken dish here and there, and an untimely collision with a stray raft (which caused only minimal damage to the floating Slye home), the storm would be remembered as little more than an exciting episode in a great adventure.
Along the way Andy worked at odd jobs, anchoring long enough to set nets for fishing boats in return for a tow on down the river. The journey would finally end with the docking near a landing in Portsmouth. And for the next four years of his life, the man who was destined to one day become King of the Cowboys spent more time on the water than he did on land.
It is understandable that he remembers little of those times; the family gatherings on deck on summer evenings for sing-alongs, the picnics shared beneath the shade of dogwood trees and clusters of pawpaw bushes, the swimming and fishing.
For instance, Roy doesn't recall the day his mother happened on him as he stood near the protective railing, systematically and with great joy tossing the family silverware into the river, delighting at the plunking sound each piece made as it hit the water and then sank. (Mattie Slye retrieved all her silverware when the river went down.)
Nor does he own firsthand knowledge of the great Portsmouth flood which set the Slye houseboat afloat and sent landlocked homes washing away from their foundations. During the thirteen days of the flood, Andy Slye skillfully poled his houseboat through the streets of Portsmouth, rescuing people stranded on rooftops or floating along on pieces of torn-away debris. Before the water receded, Andy's Ark had finally lived up to its name; it was filled to overflowing with homeless victims, stray dogs, and an odd assortment of personal belonging which had been saved.
The flood, for all the misery and destruction it caused, provided the Slyes with a rare opportunity to relocate. Mary, the eldest of the Slye daughters, was nearing school age, and Mattie was expecting her fourth child soon. It had been agreed that the luxury of life on the river would have to be set aside in favor of a more populated area where schools and doctors were closer at hand. Andy, in fact, had already purchased a lot in Portsmouth where he planned to build a home. Instead, however, he simply navigated the houseboat to the proper spot on Mill Street and let it settle into place—instant house.
The final chapter in another adventure story written, Andy Slye again found himself working in a shoe factory while his family adjusted themselves once again to life in the city.
It was a change of lifestyle born more of necessity than desire. Neither Andy nor his young son was able to forsake the life of freedom and open spaces completely. The rewards of punching a clock at the shoe factory were basic to Andy—a regular paycheck kept groceries in Mattie's cupboards and proper clothes on the backs of his children. Beyond that it was uninspiring drudgery, hardly satisfying to a man whose soul was that of half dreamer, half adventurer.
For young Leonard the paved streets of the city failed to provide many of the delightful mysteries which had surrounded him as he grew up on the river. With no squirrels to chase, no raccoons to track or rabbits to hunt, he turned his attention to more domestic animals. The Slye home became the way station for a constant parade of stray and hungry dogs and cats, but his Samaritan inclinations were not restricted to animals. Once he arrived in Mattie's kitchen leading a sick and elderly man he had found suffering from amnesia. On another occasion it was a young child—scared, lost, and hungry.
Leonards compassion, his concern for the physical welfare of virtually all of Gods creatures, would form the foundation of his greatest ambition. Young Leonard began to make it clear to anyone interested enough to listen that he would one day become a doctor. There are those who knew him as a youngster who feel the ambition was born from his constant concern for the human miseries he saw daily. There was his beloved mother, with her crippled leg, and his blind Uncle Will. Leonard felt their suffering, and in his youthful fantasies saw himself one day helping people like them.
Until such time that he was qualified to undertake such healings, however, he would content himself with mending the homeless animals he brought regularly to the house on Mill Street.
"I don't think anyone really realized how serious he had become about being a doctor, "Andy Slye once told a reporter, 'until his little oT mongrel puppy got its leg broken. With his mothers help he put a splint on the dogs leg, fixed it a bed from an old quilt, fed it warm milk, and spent every spare minute he had pouring love and attention on that little dog."
Finally the time came when his parents agreed the splint had been on long enough for the bone to heal. With great care and obvious excitement, Leonard removed the wrappings. Once free of the splint, the dog slowly stepped from the youngsters lap and began to walk across the kitchen floor. Leonard's face froze in disappointment; tears came to his eyes. The dog put no weight on the crippled leg. The bone had mended, but in such a way that it made the leg useless.
The failure sank his spirit, but at the same time reinforced his determination to become a doctor. It served to make it clearer to him that reaching his goal was going to be difficult. "But Vm going to do it," he told his mother, who had tried to console him by pointing out that his care and attention had no doubt saved the little dogs life, even if it hadn't made its leg like new. "I want to be able to fix things right," he argued. Mattie Slye smiled, nodded, and hugged her young son.
As time passed, Andy Slye became more and more convinced that the city was not the proper environment for children. It was a subject he and his wife had spoken of often, but the discussions came more frequently and grew more serious following a call one evening from the police. Leonard and one of his neighborhood friends had hopped a ride on an ice wagon and, once discovered by the angry driver, had been taken to the police station. Both were frightened and crying when their parents came to get them and assured them that their crime was not of such magnitude to merit being locked away.
The incident, however, lent fire to Andy S/yes desire to get his family out of the city and back to the country life. He had been able to save a little money, and had even managed, to purchase a second-hand Maxwell touring car.
Money and transportation were the two things he needed to be able to embark on his next adventure. Thus in 1919, when Leonard was eight, Andy purchased a small farm in the rolling brush country on Duck Run, twelve miles outside Portsmouth. With the help of relatives and his children, he built a six-room farmhouse which would replace the houseboat as the Slye residence. It lacked indoor plumbing and had no electricity, but it had plenty of coal-oil lamps. It was really a home.
The first thing i learned about life on the farm was that no matter if the sun was boiling hot or there was rain coming down in sheets or it was below freezing with snow knee deep, a cow was still a cow and had to be fed and milked. And that chickens still laid eggs and needed their nests cleaned, and that hogs still needed to be slopped.
And I believe to this day that the wood box we kept in the kitchen must have had a hole in the bottom of it. One of my chores was to see that it stayed full, and it seemed forever empty despite my efforts.
My efforts, you should understand, weren't more than a drop in the bucket compared to those of my father. He cleared land, burned stumps and pulled them out with a mule; he built a bam for the milk cows, pens for the hogs; he planted and plowed, and somehow still had energy left after dinner for music. But he knew that it would be close to impossible for us to make it on the farm alone, so he went back to work at the shoe factory as soon as he had set everything in order in Duck Run.
That, I think, was probably the hardest thing he ever had to do. In those days twelve miles was a long trip. So he was forced to stay in Portsmouth during the week, coming home to the farm on the weekends. It was lonely and hard for him— and for us as well—but it was the only way he could see to provide us with the environment he felt was so important to his children.
Like every other farm family I've known, we worked hard and, when the opportunity afforded itself, played hard. It was my responsibility to tend the animals, fill the woodbox, and do the plowing. Admittedly, these weren't the greatest forms of recreation in the world, but there was always the knowledge that, once completed, there were things like fishing and swimming in the nearby creek, hikes into the Ohio hills, picnics on warm summer days, and more wild animals than you could shake a stick at. It sure beat chasing the ice wagon back on Mill Street.
I had pet skunks, a groundhog, a couple of raccoons, more dogs than I can even remember, and a rooster that I trained to sit on my shoulder. If times were hard in those days—which certainly they were—the fact usually escaped my notice.
Dad got paid every two weeks, and he would always come home with presents for everyone. There was one he brought me which I'll never forget; the afternoon he came home with Babe, a black mare who in her earlier life had been a sulky racer, still has to rank as one of the most memorable of my life. Never mind that she dumped me right on the seat of my britches the first time I got on her. It was love at first sight as far as I was concerned. I just dusted off my pants, stroked her mane a little and talked with her and climbed back on.
She was quick to pick up a few simple tricks I began to teach her as soon as we got acquainted. I thought she was, without question, the most beautiful and the smartest animal the good Lord had ever created. Of course, the only first-hand comparison I could make at the time was with an ornery old plow mule with whom I had had a running feud from the time we moved to the farm.
As I grew older and satisfied Mom that I was a qualified horseman, I was occasionally allowed to ride Babe into Portsmouth and pay a visit to Dad on weekends when he couldn't get home. When the budget allowed, he would treat me to a movie.
Years later, I mentioned those trips to the movies to a reporter, adding that my favorite star was Hoot Gibson. Shortly after that, a story appeared, saying that while sitting there in that little Portsmouth picture show I made up my mind that I was going to grow up to be the "King of the Cowboys."
Which is nothing more than a Grade-A pasteurized Hollywood publicity story. The truth of the matter was that the only things that seemed really important to me at that time were being able to eat all I wanted and sleeping as late as I could in the mornings (but the cow always had to be milked). And, in the back of my mind, there was that dream of being a doctor. Elbowing in on Hoot Gibson's terrain never came to mind.
For an aspiring young Doctor Kildare, I'm afraid I wasn't exactly an academic whiz. School, as a matter of fact, became more and more of a problem as I went from one grade to the next.
With Dad working in Portsmouth, the job of running the farm demanded a great deal of my time before I went off to school and was waiting for me when I returned. If we had had a dollar for every night I fell asleep at the kitchen table, trying to study by the light of a kerosene lamp, we would have been able to hire help and probably buy a second-hand tractor.
The fact that my grades did not reflect the same scholarly abilities as some of my classmates worried me. No, worried isn't the proper word. It embarrassed me. And I handled it about as poorly as it could be handled. To draw attention from my poor performances in the classroom, I became the class show-off, a blue-ribbon smart aleck who did his dead-level best to be sure the teacher earned his money.
One morning one of my classmates was on the receiving end of what I felt was a little too severe whipping, and I jumped up and came to his defense. What resulted was a good country whipping for me as well, and something close to mutiny in the little one-room schoolhouse.
Things didn't get much better as time passed. Once I threw a girl's cap up on the roof of the school (after she had thrown mine up there). The teacher, having witnessed my mischief, demanded that I climb up and get it. I said, "Not until she gets mine," and the teacher dashed off in search of the paddle.
The chase was on. I finally ran into a shallow creek, certain the teacher wouldn't follow, and panicked when I quickly saw that was not to be the case. I picked up a rock and threw it at my pursuer, hitting him in the forehead. Scared and ashamed of what I had done, I then ran home.
The term juvenile delinquent had not become a part of the nation's vocabulary when I was in the sixth grade, but, looking back, I shudder to think of the direction I was headed.
A man named Guy Baumgartner arrived just in time. The former teacher, having all he wanted of Duck Run—and, no doubt, of Leonard Slye—resigned at the end of the school year. In his place came a middle-aged man who had a constant smile fixed on his face, a gift for making education fun, and the patience and ability to make me aware of the importance of learning. He even insisted that all the students call him Guy rather than Mr. Baumgartner.
I've never fully understood how it is God knows when and whom to bring into your life, but his timing was perfect in this case. Over the years it has been my good fortune to have a lot of wonderful people play a part in my life. None ever did so in a more positive manner than that schoolteacher back in Duck Run.
To him the learning process included more than books and blackboards and homework. He organized athletic teams, led us on nature hikes, and established a 4-H program, urging those of us who could to purchase a baby pig and try to raise a prizewinner.
For ten dollars, I became the proud owner of a newborn black Poland China pig which, with a little suggesting from my sisters, I named Evangeline. She grew up to be the grand champion at the Scioto County Fair held in Lucasville, and earned me a trip to visit the state capitol, Columbus, Ohio.
It was Guy Baumgartner, I suppose, who gave me my first acting job—if you want to call playing Santa Claus in the school Christmas play a first step toward B-Westem stardom. I can say without reservation that I never made a movie or did a television show or performed on a stage that terrified me as much as standing there in front of a couple of dozen people at the Duck Run School, trying to "ho-ho-ho," thinking I was going to die of sheer agony.
I don't think I'd have even considered doing it for anyone but Guy Baumgartner. I owed him. For that matter, I still do.
No matter how hard we worked at it, the demands of making a go of it on the farm seemed always a step ahead of us. Oh, there were fun times, and a sense of freedom that only that kind of lifestyle can provide. But, looking at it from a cold, businesslike point of view, it seemed at times like we were trying to dig a hole in the sand. Dad, trying to divide his time between the shoe factory and the farm, would get discouraged, and the feeling would sweep through the family— to Mom, to me, and to the girls.
Since the Duck Run school had only eight grades, I was enrolled in a high school at McDermott, Ohio, about four miles from Duck Run, for my freshman and sophomore years.
I was pretty good at sports, not bad at the clarinet, okay with my studies, and a galloping failure with the girls. There was this pretty auburn-haired trumpet player in the school orchestra with whom I fell madly in love and whom, after several weeks of practice and nerve-building, I finally asked to be my date at a band recital. I had every intention of sweeping her off her feet with clever and witty conversation.
This, to the best of my recollection, was how the conversation went that evening: After I picked her up she made the observation that it was most certainly a warm evening, wasn't it? I dazzled her with my reply: "Yes, it certainly is." Later, the recital over, I took her home and she said, "It's a bit cooler now, isn't it?" "Yes, it is," I said.
I decided to postpone romance and work on baseball.
Which was just as well, really, since the time was nearing for the family to make another move—back to Cincinnati.
I was seventeen then, and felt it time for me to help Dad carry the load of financial responsibility. Despite my mother's reservations—she had been openly concerned about the possibility of my dropping out of school in the early days in Duck Run—I quit school and went to work alongside Dad in the shoe factory in Cincinnati. The thirty-five dollars a week they would pay me, it had finally been agreed, would help with the family finances and still leave enough to pay for night school.
For a while it worked. I would get off at the shoe factory, have dinner, and go off to night classes which lasted from eight to eleven-thirty. As time went on, however, it became harder and harder to find time to get homework assignments completed on time. Tired from the routine of working by day and going to school at night, I wasn't exactly setting any records for retention either.
One evening, in the middle of class, I decided to rest my head on the desk for a minute during a lecture. I did not awake until a fellow sitting next to me poked me in the ribs to tell me that class was just about over.
Several of the students got a good laugh out of the incident. But it would be their last at Leonard Slye's expense. Someone else would have to grow up to heal the sick and the afflicted. I had come to the realization that the task would not fall to me. Embarrassed by my untimely catnap and weary of chasing academic rainbows, I gave it up. I never went back to school.
Working full-time at the shoe factory, I soon came to appreciate the drudgery my father had so long endured. Weeks seemed to stretch endlessly until finally it would be Friday and I could look forward to a weekend of freedom. As often as possible I would return to the farm where my sister Cleda and her new husband were living. It was good to be back in the open spaces, to work out-of-doors by day and go hunting at night. But there would always be a new week and time to clock in again at the factory.
On one particular Monday morning, as I made my way about the house, getting ready for work as if I were locked into slow motion, I looked in on Dad to see if he was about ready. I found him still in bed; Mom was pressing a damp cloth to his forehead. "Your father," she told me, "isn't going to work today. He's got a horrible headache."
I stood there in the doorway for a moment, looking down on my father, saying nothing. I couldn't remember his having had a headache before. Suddenly I was fully awake, no longer in slow motion. In fact, there were several things running through my mind at once. I thought of the letters from my sister Mary, who had married and moved to California. And of the fact that our jobs at the shoe factory were roads leading nowhere.
"Dad," I finally said, "I've got something over ninety dollars saved up. You ought to have right at a hundred. What do you say we just up and quit our jobs, go out to visit Mary, and take a look at California? She says the country's beautiful, and it seems to me there's likely jobs to be had out there."
You never saw a headache go away so fast. Suddenly Dad was sitting up in bed, talking with great enthusiasm about my proposal.
Mom, bless her, took the damp cloth away and left the room, silently shaking her head. Now, she was no doubt thinking, she had two daydreaming adventurers on her hands.
She started packing that day. We loaded our 1923 Dodge and started the long drive west.
The old Dodge didn't make it, but we did. We got as far as Magdelina, New Mexico, before the bearings burned out; we fixed them from parts of another old Dodge in a junkyard and continued on to California. Fixing the car shot quite a hole in our vacation budget. Suffice it to say, then, that we didn't exactly arrive at Mary's home in Lawndale putting on any airs, packed as we were into an aging jalopy that badly needed a paint job and did far more shaking and rattling than it did rolling.
But aside from being broke, hungry, and bone-weary, we were just fine. A few days' rest took care of the weariness, Mary's abilities in the kitchen chased the hunger, and her husband did his part to solve our financial problems by giving us jobs driving gravel trucks for him.
We stayed four months before heading back for Ohio. None of us were too anxious to leave, but Dad insisted it was time. "Maybe," he said, "I'll just see about putting the farm up for sale when we get back and we'll move out here for good. I'm not a half-bad truck driver, and it sure beats being cooped up in a shoe factory."
Patience not being one of my long suits at the time, I was hardly home before I found myself headed back to California. Mary's father-in-law was going there, so I suggested going along to help him with the driving. The following spring, the rest of the family followed, and the old farm shifted to the shoulders of some of our neighbors, the Hiles family, who still own it.
Dad rented a little house near where Mary and her husband were living, and before Mom could even get curtains hung he and I had jobs driving trucks for a road construction operation. We regularly took turns applauding our foresightedness in making the move west—until the morning we reported for work just in time to see all the trucks being towed away. Our employer had gone bankrupt, and quite suddenly bountiful California began to look a great deal like hard-times Ohio.