Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden




Boyhood

Despite his activity and delight in games, the boy was not strong. His legs were like pipestems, and he was troubled with asthma, so that often he had to be propped up on pillows all night long. He tells of his father sitting up with him, so that the choked little chest could breathe, and even making him take a puff or two at a strong cigar. The boy was literally fighting his way along for a chance to grow.

The summers were a special joy to the Roosevelt children, for they left the hot and noisy city and went to the country, now to one place and then to another. The children loved the country beyond anything, and with the first warm days of spring they began to ask:

"Where are we going this year? When do we start?"

In the country, instead of the closed-in city house with its horsehair furniture and gloomy rooms, they found rambling farmhouses with everything wide open. There were a stable, barnyard, cows, pigs, and horses. And there were all kinds of pets—cats, dogs, rabbits, a coon, and a sorrel Shetland pony named General Grant.

When Theodore's young sister first heard of the real General Grant, she remarked, "Isn't it strange that he should have the same name as our pony!"

In the country the four children went bare-foot most of the time, and the seasons came and went with a round of pleasures—watching the haying and harvesting, picking apples, hunting frogs successfully and woodchucks unsuccessfully, gathering nuts in the autumn, and so on until the reluctant summons came to go back to the city.

Young Theodore had his father's love of the woods and inherited from him his desire to know more about the growing things, both plants and animals. As he grew into boyhood he gradually took the lead, when it came to seeking out an ants' nest, or the tree where the oriole was building its home. Although woefully near-sighted, as he and his parents discovered later, and although those spindle shanks of his refused to let him go far at a time, he made the most of his jaunts and was constantly coming back with some piece of information, such as:

"Do you remember those pollywogs down at the pond? Well, they are turning into frogs!"

On rainy days or in the evenings he would turn to some beloved book of adventure or travels. Once when reading of Livingstone's travels in Africa, he paused to inquire, "What are foraging ants?"

His father and the rest were "stumped" for a moment, but on referring back to the text he was reading they found that Dr. Livingstone had spoken of them as the "foregoing ants."

One such summer was spent in Tarrytown on the Hudson, when Theodore was in his tenth year. Then he essayed his first attempts at authorship—a diary which ceased after two or three weeks, like many another diary since, by other hands. One entry alludes to the sorrel pony for whom General Grant was named:

"I had a ride of six miles before breakfast. I will always have a ride of six miles before breakfast now."

There spoke the future ranchman and lover of horses.

Back to the city they would go regretfully in the fall–often a month later than school time, for the father and mother were closely watching this boy who seemed all spirit and no body.

"I never liked to go to school," he admitted afterwards; yet he managed to get fair grades.

On the big back porches of the two homes the children had rigged up a sort of gymnasium. One of the pieces was a climbing pole, and it was Theodore's pet ambition to shin up to the top. Time after time he would twine his skinny arms and legs around it, and wriggle his way upward, and it was a proud day for him when he at last got up.

In the year 1869, when he was eleven, his father took him to Europe to benefit his health. "A tall, thin lad with bright eyes and legs like pipestems," is how he impressed a fellow passenger. This trip for some reason or another he cordially hated, perhaps by reason of ill health, but four years later they went again, when he was old enough to enjoy it and profit by it.

They went first to Algiers, to avoid a northern winter and for the sake of his weakened lungs. Later he grew stronger and they went to Vienna, where his father held an appointment from President Grant (not the pony this time!) as Commissioner to the Exposition of Vienna. At Dresden the children were placed under a tutor's care.

Here Theodore gained a speaking knowledge of German, took up drawing lessons, which stood him in good stead in later life, in rough-and-ready sketches of things, and continued his hobby for natural history. When it came time for the family to start home, his mother was in despair. His trunk was half-full of specimens. Right and left in the room she chucked them in the effort to make room for his clothing, and as fast as she would discard some beloved trophy he would pounce upon it and try to thrust it in his pocket.

As the boy grew older he gradually got the better of his asthma. He seemed to grow out of it, thanks to his love of the outdoors and constant activity. His lungs grew sound; and while he did not have much stamina he had the next best thing, determination.

His eyes still continued to trouble him, he did not know why. In those days we must remember that there were comparatively few oculists, and the practice of putting spectacles upon children was almost unknown. Theodore was, as he afterwards learned, at a hopeless disadvantage in studying nature. He was so near-sighted that the only things he could observe were the ones he "ran against or stumbled over." When he was about thirteen he was allowed to take lessons in taxidermy from a Mr. Bell, who had a musty little shop somewhat like that of Mr. Venus, which Dickens describes in "Our Mutual Friend."

That summer he got his first gun and went out in the field to get specimens. It puzzled him to find that the others could see and bring down the game, which he could not locate at all. An oculist was finally consulted and the much-needed glasses procured, which literally "opened up a new world" for him. "I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles," he says, as the day grew brighter and the trees were transformed from confused blurs into delicate traceries of living green.

Unluckily for the rest of the family, Theodore insisted upon carrying his specimens, living or dead, from place to place. Once while in Europe, his brother Elliot came to their father with the tearful request that he be allowed to have a room to himself.

"Why, what's wrong with your sharing a room with Theodore?" asked his father.

"Just come and look," was the reply.

His father followed him, and the room that greeted his eyes was indeed a "sight." There were half-mounted specimens, carcasses, and crawling things all mixed up with bottles, glasses, and other thins dear to a taxidermist's heart, but hardly the thing for a hotel bedroom.

"I suppose that all boys are grubby," says Theodore himself at a later date; "but the ornithological small boy, or indeed the boy with the taste for natural history of any kind, is generally the very grubbiest of all."