Brilliant. Bombastic. Explosively energetic. Arrogant. Innovative. Egomaniacal. Heroic. Perpetually
manic. Self-inventing. Those are
some of the words and phrases the
immediately spring to
mind when contemplating the life of Theodore
Roosevelt, the man who, among other things, reinvented the Presidency for
the 20th Century. The man who was born into a wealthy and influential
old Knickerbocker Dutch family on
October 27, 1858 continues to fascinate
103 years after his death in 1919 at
the age of 60.
In recent years he was the subject
of widely hailed three volume biography by Edmund Morris and several
other books examining various parts of his multi-faceted
life, studied in Doris Kearns
Goodwin’s close examination of the Progressive
era in The Bully Pulpit, portrayed by Tom Berenger in the TV
miniseries Rough Riders, and was
one of the three main characters
profiled in Ken Burns’
epic 5 night PBS documentary series The Roosevelts. And one of my favorite novelists and Facebook connections Jerome Charyn got
inside T.R.’s head in The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King.
Jerome Charyn's The Cowboy King was a rip-roaring romp and a reminder of why idolized Theodore Roosevelt. It even echoed the vibe of my Classic Illustrated comic book.
But 40 years after Roosevelt’s
death, he also grabbed the idolizing attention of a 10 year old nerd from Cheyenne,
Wyoming. I was already in the grips
of fascination with history as a bespectacled, bookish kid
with no friends when I first encountered passing notice of him in my entirely inadequate elementary school social studies text. From there I checked him out in the illustrated Presidential biography books
that I had already collected. And my folks
had taken me to the Black Hills where
I had seen Roosevelt’s visage
squeezed in between Jefferson and Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. So I knew he
was a big deal.
But what turned Roosevelt from a passing interest into an obsession was a Classics Illustrated comic
book The Roughrider. It told
the story of how young Theodore, the weakling
asthmatic who was bullied and mocked for his myopia and
thick glasses but who by dint of sheer grit and determination transformed himself into a Harvard boxer, South Dakota
rancher, New York City Police
Commissioner, war hero, and
eventually President. A particularly satisfying panel in the book depicted
Roosevelt knocking out with one mighty blow a cowboy who mocked him as four eyes. The
boy Teddy seemed a lot like me,
likewise the brunt of ridicule and abuse.
The adult hero held out promise that it did not always have to
be that way.
It was a short step from hero worship
to nutty obsession. How so?
Let me count the ways.
The first thing was appearance. The mustache stubbornly refused to rise from the fine blonde down on my upper lip. Halloween
costume fakes were all jet black,
lacked the distinctive inward curl
around the sides of the mouth, and, well, looked
like crap. And I discovered that pince-nez glasses were not available at
my local optician’s. I was stuck with the clunky plastic faux
tortoise shell frames fit for a middle aged accountant. But I could get
the hat right.
I started with a cheap gray felt hat I bought at a souvenir
stand at Cheyenne Frontier Days. It was supposed to be a Confederate hat and had a paper Stars and Bars Flag sticker on the front. I was a loyal
Union man and spent hours trying to
get all vestiges of that peeled off. The hat did have a satisfyingly military looking gold cord band with end
tassels. I pinned up one side with a
brass US collar insignia from my Dad’s
World War II uniform. It made a satisfying reproduction of Col.
Roosevelt’s famous Rough Rider campaign
At first I decorated it with a long pheasant
tail feather, but discarded that when I realized that no photo showed my
beloved Teddy sporting such a plume.
I wore that increasingly battered
hat every single day from the moment I got out of bed to the time I turned in
at night—except when required to remove it at school or church—for
almost three years until it practically disintegrated,
and my head got too big. Needless to say, I attracted a lot of gaping stares. And the bullies were unimpressed by its martial
The hat was useful in the back yard fantasy games I played largely by
myself. None of the other neighborhood kids, least of all twin brother Tim who was running with a
faster older crowd and already smoking cigarettes in their fort/club house, were interested in
daily charges up San Juan Hill or whatever other
adventures I could conjure. My red and
white Firestone coaster brake bicycle with
the plastic streamers on the hand grips had to be my noble steed.
Alas, there are no extant photos of me in my Rough Rider hat, although I know that several were snapped on our old Kodak
Brownie Box Camera. My mom, likely out of shame and humiliation,
left them out of her meticulously
maintained photo albums and they
can’t even be located in the unsorted shoe boxes of old photos.
School was a place where my
obsession played out with a bit of drama. I started handing in my homework, busy work Ditto
activity sheets, quizzes,
and tests with the correct day of the month underneath
my name but instead of 1959 listing the
year as 1905, the year after Roosevelt’s election to a full term on his own. I picked the year because the old movies I watched on TV
when I got home from school painted that era
as sunny, pleasant, and free from looming
nuclear annihilation—something that
was constantly on our minds in Cheyenne where
the Air Force was beginning to build
the nation’s first ICBM missile base
and which, the civic boast
proclaimed, would be a top target for
Commie obliteration. The movies, mostly musicals and comedies like
Me in St. Louis or Life With Father were all made in
the ‘30’ and ‘40’s when many ticket
buyers were of an age to recall those days with wistful nostalgia. Most depicted the comfortable middle class in large
homes with live-in servants. It seemed to me that Teddy Roosevelt
ruled over an ideal time to be alive.
So I decided that, come hell or high water, I would live then. Neither my teachers, nor the Principal at
Eastridge Elementary where I was
routinely sent for an attitude
adjustment, were amused by this quirk.
They demanded that I use the
correct date and used every punishment
in their arsenal to compel my acquiescence. For a while I was given an F (actually a 5 because Cheyenne Public
Schools were then using an odd
numerical grading system) on every paper I turned in with the wrong
year. But I was a student reading at the level of a senior in high School and in subjects like social studies and science
showed every evidence of complete mastery of the lessons. Of course my spelling was atrocious,
my hand writing cramped and nearly illegible, and I was too bored by arithmetic to bother with accurate
computations and, it would be discovered
much later, was mildly dyslexic compounding
that problem. Despite my wildly uneven academic performance,
eventually it was decided that it was hopeless
the hold the date thing against my grades.
Besides, if the teachers kept it up, I would be held back for another year
and they would be stuck with me again.
So, they tried keeping me in for recess. Hardly a punishment as it kept me from getting beat up on the playground. While the others were outside running
around and screaming, I was happily alone in the classroom partaking of
my favorite activity—reading. Keeping
me after school was no skin off my nose either. Things were not all that rosy at home where my Mom was battling mental
health and rage issues and I was
the #1 object of her wrath and dissatisfaction with the hand life had dealt her. Of course, that also meant that when the
school sent home notes complaining about my stubborn
misdating, she took it as a purposeful
disgrace to the family—the gravest of all possible offenses. Then out would come the wire handle of the fly swatter,
down would drop my jeans and underwear and my ass got whipped to hamburger.
None of it
mattered. I just kept
entering that date, and dreaming of the time and place where nothing like that
The whole thing lasted almost three years until I entered
Junior High School and just let it all slide for new dreams
and obsessions, every bit as weird perhaps, but not as apt to draw notice.
Then in a few more years I would discover the underside of 1905 and the Roosevelt utopia—the world of vicious
capitalist exploitation of working people, their resistance and rebellion, of open class war, Jim Crow, lynchings, and of nasty little imperialist wars.
But that’s another story….