"Hey Dad, where'd we get this?" My 8-year-old daughter Wendy handed me an ancient comic book that she'd found in the attic. It was the Classics Illustrated bio of Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919). It made me smile to see it.
"My mom gave it to me when I was your age," I told her.
"Is it any good?" she asked.
Yes, that’s me sitting on Theodore Roosevelt’s knee. I think we’re about to jump off cliffs or swim through some rapids.
I remembered the first of the 50 times I'd read the jumbo 96-pager. It had captivated me right from the start. As a child, Teddy Roosevelt had studied zoology and learned taxidermy. Bookish and puny, he'd taken boxing lessons so he could pound anyone who called him a "pantywaist" or "four-eyes." Being something of a four-eyed pantywaist myself, I could appreciate his moxie. And as for stuffing dead animals, well, who WOULDN'T envy that skill?
Amazingly, his adult life was even better. T.R. bought a ranch in North Dakota and shot a buffalo and bears; he joined the Army and shot Spanish soldiers; he became vice president of the U.S. and then somebody else shot the president; and much later he went on safaris to Africa and South America and shot whatever he could hit.
And in between all this politically incorrect gunplay, he was a family man with six children. My own dad had been named in honor of T.R., but similarities between Teddy Epstein and Teddy Roosevelt were few. Dad was smart and morally upright like the original Theodore, but that was about it. Dad was a librarian who loved the IN-doors and believed that excitement was the result of stupidity or poor planning, and could be avoided by prudence and hard work. His love-gift to us was a childhood free of excitement. So naturally I was tantalized by this illustrated glimpse of another parenting style.
In the comic book, T.R. gives Ted Jr. his first rifle. There is no time to go outside and try it out before dinner, so T.R. fires a test bullet into the bedroom ceiling. "It sure does shoot!" says the luckiest boy in the world. The wildest thing I ever saw MY dad do was mow the lawn.
Then T.R. is off to war, returning home with great stories, more guns, his war horse, a caged vulture and a few of his troopers. (Running down the driveway Ted Jr. exclaims: "Rough Riders! Real Rough Riders!") It's as if the Spanish-American War had been fought mainly for the amusement of the Roosevelt kids.
In the White House, it gets even better. The kids have the run of the place as no one had since the British looted and burned the joint in 1814. There are presidential pillow fights in the nursery and roller-skating and stilt-walking races in the corridors.
When Archie is ill, his little brother Quentin brings his pony into the sickroom to cheer him up. On Page 61, Quentin scares a congressman with live snakes, including a red-and-yellow one that I would've given anything to own. T.R. just laughs at the wild-eyed lawmaker.
In the closing pages, an aging T.R. takes his grown son Kermit big-game hunting in Africa and exploring a treacherous river in South America. T.R. almost died of fever and Kermit almost drowned in a whirlpool. The summer I was 10, our family drove across America. Dad was planning a new college library, so we stopped at every college and toured its library as Dad collected ideas. I almost died, too. Of boredom in the periodicals room of Eastern Montana State.
The comic book's pages were brittle, so I leafed gingerly. Each panel was an old friend. ("Bully for you, Kermit! We'll make soup out of this monster's trunk.")
"Well, Dad," Wendy persisted, "Is it any good?"
"Oh, it's good," I said. "And I'll read it to you. But first there's something we ought to do. Follow me."
A carnival had taken place the night before in the park across the street, and the police had left behind yards and yards of that yellow plastic tape they use to control crowds. I tore off a dozen 15-foot lengths of it and tied the streamers to our wrists and ankles and into our belt-loops. Wendy was mystified. "Now what?" she asked.
"Now I'll race you across the field." As we ran, the yellow tape fluttered out behind us like flames, flashing a luminous amber in the late-afternoon sun. Wendy waved her arms to make looping spirals. The whole effect was even better than I'd imagined when I'd first laid eyes on all that tape. We felt as though we had wings, and it took an effort to stop running.
Well, not everyone can be Teddy Roosevelt, but it's still possible to show the wee ones a good time without showering them with gifts of loaded firearms and live buzzards.