The day I met Teddy Roosevelt, sort of
In September, 1901, at the Buffalo Pan American Exposition, President William Mckinley, the last Civil War veteran ever elected president, reached out to shake hands with Leon Czolgosz and instead of shaking hands, Czolgosz shot the president. Talk about dastardly. Bad enough to shoot a president, or any man, but shoot him as he’s reaching out to shake your hand? That’s bad manners.
The shooting led to the series of events that culminated in my sort-of meeting Teddy Roosevelt, and I wouldn’t even be born for another half century.
How it happened, TR was President McKinley’s vice president and immediately upon receiving word of the assassination attempt, TR rushed off to Buffalo, to be with the president. The president’s doctors seemed to think the president would survive and TR was urged to get out of Buffalo. (Not sure why, unless they thought there might be more assassins lurking, and if they thought so, why had they insisted the VP hurry up to Buffalo?)
Teddy, dismissed, decided to take a vacation in the Adirondacks and here’s where the story gets murky, where fact maybe drifts into folklore.
Most reports say Teddy went into the Adirondacks with his family, which doesn’t make sense, unless the family had traveled with him from DC to upstate New York and would they have? A wife and all those kids and on such a critical, time-sensitive mission? Maybe they met him there later, coming up from Washington, D.C. on the train.
Anyway, TR and his family were staying at Tahawus, NY, a tiny Adirondack village, when he got an urgent cable. Turns out President Mckinley wasn’t doing so good. He was dying and TR had to get back to Buffalo and upon arriving there, TR was greeted with some shocking news and an equally shocking greeting: hello, the president is dead, and good to see you, Mr. President.
Ironic, given TR’s personal history, his big game hunting and his conservation proclivities, that it all happened in...Buffalo.
OK, so much for the official version. Here’s what really happened, and I know, because it was told to me by someone who was there.
TR didn't have his family with him and had decided, when they told him the president was going to make it, to go hunting. TR was, of course, an avid outdoorsman and he was already right there just south of the Adirondacks and so went into hunting camp. Those rich-gentlemens’ Adirondack hunting camps, at the beginning of the twentieth century, were somewhat more comfortable than what we might think but 1 thing they weren’t, was accessible. In fact, most were buried deep in the woods.
That’s where Teddy was, deep in the woods, when 1 of the most fateful telegrams in our nation’s history, or at least in the history of North Creek, NY, arrived at the North Creek train station, the station nearest where TR was staying and with instructions for the VP to get back to Buffalo, pronto. Fine, except it was the middle of the night and they had to send a man into the woods to alert TR and just when TR arrived at the station, another telegram arrived. The president was dead, and since the country couldn’t be without a president, TR was sworn in right there at the North Creek train station and at 3 A.M. and by the local justice of the peace.
How I come into the story, 1 night after supper, early to mid-60s, the phone rang and Mom picked up and was talking excitedly and when she got off the phone she was telling us to quick get into the car, we were going over to Gramp’s house, he lived just a few miles from us. Gramps had grown up in North Creek and his famous childhood friend had stopped in to visit and did we want to meet him?
The man was old, of course, when I met him, but in 1903, he was the 10 year old son of the scout who'd been sent to retrieve the about-to-be president and the man-boy had accompanied his dad. That seems entirely plausible. Sure, it was dangerous, a man and a boy riding in a buckboard over lousy roads in the middle of the night and at breakneck speed and with nothing more than a single lantern and a hike into the dark woods to fetch TR. I suppose the scout knew it was history in the making and maybe he wanted his son to be a part of it and besides, 10 year old kids were probably tougher back in those days.
We’d heard the story many times before, from Gramps and from Mom, but this was different. This was hearing it from the man who’d been there, who’d shook hands with TR and wished him luck immediately after he became president.
It was an evening I’ll never forget - early September, moon lit and cool, and with fireflies and crickets and the folks, more than a dozen, as I recall, on Gramp’s porch, listening to the man retell it. Was his version true? Was it even close to the truth? Or was it a story invented and embellished through all those years? Would they really have sworn-in TR as soon as he came out of the woods and before he got on the train? (A special train, that is, waiting for him.) I don’t know. I like to think it was true and I can’t say it wasn’t, and if it wasn’t, well, God bless Gramp’s friend, for convincing us it was. The man was a true raconteur, of which there are few enough in our homogenized, twenty-first century America. And true or not, the old fellow had it down pretty good, had us enthralled, had us back there with him the night he sped through the north woods with his dad and into history with the twenty-sixth president of the United States. Maybe TR wasn’t on the porch with us that night but it sure felt as if he was.