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ROOSEVELT: THE HAPPY WARRIOR
THE BENDING OF THE TWIG
My earliest recollection of Theodore Roosevelt is still fresh in my memory. I saw him, really to distinguish him for the first time, in the transept of Memorial Hall, Cambridge, in October, Eighteen Hundred Seventy-Six - our Freshman year.
I had come out of the dining-hall, and, as I walked toward the outer door, I noticed three fellow students engaged in animated discussion. What the topic was I knew not. But I was struck by the earnestness with which one of them was setting forth some point to the other two, in turn.
The speaker emphasized his points by vigorous movements of his head and by striking his right fist into his left palm. He was a lad of medium height. His slightly curling hair was a light brown color, and he wore side whiskers. Behind his spectacles I could see his keen blue eyes flash, and he seemed
entirely absorbed in his speaking. His words poured out rapidly, and he fairly stammered in his eagerness to express his ideas. He frowned as he talked, yet at times he paused and smiled. And I noted, for the first time, his singular yet winning expression as his short upper lip bared his teeth.
"Who is he?" I asked of the friend with me. And the reply came, with an amused smile, "Oh, that's Teddy Roosevelt, one of our '80 men.'
From that point of time on through forty years Roosevelt became to me more and more a marked personality. And my acquaintance with him, beginning slenderly, enlarged and strengthened until I counted myself, through the great rich years of his mature power and world-wide fame, one of his most appreciative and devoted friends.
Upon the period of his life which lay back of my first sight of him- the period of his childhood and boyhood -I am compelled, of course, to look through eyes other than my own. Indeed, chiefly like fellow chroniclers of his life
through his own
eyes. For to him, in his "Autobiography", are we mainly indebted for such knowledge as we have of his earliest years.
Lucius Eugene Chittenden, at one time private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, kept a diary and afterward wrote "Memories" of the great man whom he served. And in them he drops the casual,
naïve remark, "Had I known, at the time, how great a man Lincoln was, I could have written far more details about him than I did."
Would that he had better known the great Emancipator. And would that some friend and associate of the boy Roosevelt could have discerned the unfolding greatness in him and set down ten times the number of incidents and anecdotes, sayings and conversations, which we treasure, in the all too meager Autobiography.
I have long been interested in comparing him, the mature statesman and reformer, with himself as the child and the schoolboy. I take the woven fabric of his mature character, as it now lies exposed to the gaze of the whole world, and try to trace the threads of that firm fabric as they run back into his boyhood and childhood. They were tremendously strong, many of them, at his age of forty and fifty, but were essentially identical with the slen! derer, more fragile threads of his earlier years.
Take this "thread" as an illustration. I read, not long ago, an account of his excursion with Earl Grey over English fields and meadows, on Roosevelt's journey back from Africa, and about the pleasure of the two men in their observation of the birds. Earl Grey expressed surprise at Roosevelt's interest in them and his knowledge of them.
Trace that "thread" farther back along the
fabric of Roosevelt's life. John Burroughs, an authority on such matters, declared that Roosevelt had remarkable familiarity with the birds of this country.
Still farther back, some of us recall a somewhat heated controversy on nature study which ran the rounds of the newspapers. Roosevelt had questioned some of the interpretations of smaller animal life set forth by a well-known naturalist. I forget which of the two disputants was correct - Roosevelt, I think — but the controversy showed that my former classmate had observed very keenly.
Thus the thread of nature study runs throughout his entire life. In his college course it was very apparent from his choice of studies. It leaps into humorous prominence in that story of his ride from Boston to Cambridge, in the horse car, having beside him several live lobsters for study in a loosely tied package. One of the lobsters crawled out of the package and up into an adjacent woman passenger's lap, to her great alarm. Recapture and apologies followed. But there was the thread of the naturalist running through the incident.
Back runs the naturalist thread into Roosevelt's childhood. He was, mentally, a good observer, but normal physical sight was denied him. He found out his deficiency when he was about twelve years old. But before that time, handicapped as
he was, he observed insects, fish, animals, flowers,
At that stage of his career, he became interested in white mice. And with a resourcefulness and energy which never left him but rather increased as years passed and physical strength increased, he informed the neighborhood that he would pay five cents for each white mouse sent to him, and thirty-five cents for a family of them. Result? The house was swamped by contributions.
One of his acquisitions was a snapping turtle, which he fastened to the leg of the sink in the laundry. And one of the housemaids gave notice that she would leave unless the turtle was removed.
A hint of the thoroughness which was always a marked characteristic of him comes out in the recorded incident that he had secured a dead woodchuck and wished to set up its skeleton. And he told the cook to boil the body "twenty-four hours, so that the bones would all separate out, and not one be lost to science."