Saturday, August 28, 2010

Other Teddies

I've been reading Edmund Morris' biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which is very nicely written and only occasionally shows judgmentalism on the author's part.  One surprise was that the corrupt conservatives and corporations had opposed the Spanish-American War while the progressives supported it.  Teddy was responsible for so many things, from civil service reform to trust-busting to the national park system, so many of which are difficult to imagine without his energy and competence behind them.  But there were some things that might have gone otherwise. 

When Teddy was a wee boy of six, he founded the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History in his bedroom and populated it with animals many of which were dead.  This led to the memorable threat by the cook: "Either the muskrat goes, or I do!" His constant dissections and taxidermy led to him to smell of arsenic.  (This was an era when a kid could go to the chemist's shop and purchase a pound of arsenic, no questions asked.)  In any case, he was home-schooled and then went to Harvard, fully intending to be a scientist and naturalist.

1. At Harvard he met a late Victorian Valley Girl, Alice Lee, and fell head-over-heels in love such as no human has before experienced.  But she didn't like his smell and turned down his proposal unless he would give up his stinky plans.  He did, and decided to go into politics.  So, what if he hadn't met her or if she had someone else going?  Prof. Theodore Roosevelt, eminent naturalist, instead. 

2. Alice Lee and Roosevelt's mother both died within minutes of each other in the same house while Teddy rushed upstairs and downstairs between their bedrooms.  It was this crushing tragedy that drove him to Dakota, where he threw himself into a cattle ranch, built up a powerful physique, and learned to associate as equals with common people.  Suppose this hadn't happened.  Teddy remains a snobby East Side patrician and has modest local political success [He was an assemblyman in Albany at the time, but had already been rejected for Speaker by the Machine.] 

3. On his way to a roundup in Dakota Terr., Teddy and his horse were swept off their feet into a turbulent, ice cold stream.  SUPPOSE he had tried crossing a hundred feet or so downstream.  He would have been quickly swept into a stretch of river from which there was no way up the steep banks, and would have drowned. 
4. While hunting stray horses one day, he came to the town of Mingus, Montana, named after founders Minnie and Gus.  As he approaches the hotel he hears shots.  Entering, he finds a drunk shooting at the clock while everyone else wears fixed grins.  The drunk spots him and announced that "Four Eyes" is setting them up.  Teddy grins and takes a seat in the corner by the stove, but the drunk follows him.  "Didn't you hear me?  You're buying a round for the house."  Teddy says, "Well, if I must, I must."  He stands up, looking past the man, as if to comply; then lets loose with a right to the jaw, a left to the gut, and another right.  The guns discharge.  The drunk falls and hits his head on the bar.  SUPPOSE the discharging guns had cut our Teddy down?  

5. Later, his boat was stolen from his ranch and he [as deputy sheriff] and his ranch foreman built another boat and set off after them down the ice-choked Little Missouri.  The ranch foreman is a Maine woodsman.  He knows boats and rivers.  They catch up with the thieves.  They catch one man, at the campfire.  When the other two show up from hunting with dinner, one surrenders immediately; but the other is Redhead Finnegan, a wanted man.  He stands for a time with his rifle dangling wondering if he has a chance.  Roosevelt walks in on him, and he sees he does not, and surrenders.  SUPPOSE, Finnegan had said the hell with it and started a gunfight at close quarters? 

We'll skip over some dull possibilities from his terms on the civil service commission, as police commissioner of NYC, and as assistant secretary of the Navy.  These would consist mostly as missing connections with other important people. 

6. As Lt. Col. of 1st US Vol. Cav., he sails to Cuba in a wallowing freighter, the Yucatan.  On sunset 13 May off Egmont Keys, the Yucatan narrowly avoided collision with the Matteawan.  The latter had 3500 pounds of dynamite resting in her bow, intended for the experimental dynamite gun.  SUPPOSE....

7. At Las Guasimas and again at Kettle Hill/San Juan Hill, bullets were flying.  SUPPOSE....

As near as I can tell, ol' Teddy, like all the rest of us, was a very improbable person. 

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