TR, Q and the Gang
Theodore Roosevelt inadvertently started the adventurous, rollicking, joyous career of the White House Gang by sending his youngest son, Quentin, to Force Public School on Massachusetts Avenue. Here, the Gang was recruited, and here, each day after school, it went into a huddle, to confound all rules of deportment in high places, mingle in the lives of Presidents and policemen, win victories, taste honor, suffer punishments and engage in escapades that were swept along the wires of national publicity. Many exploits of the Gang, however, either remained unknown, or were known only to the President and Mrs. Roosevelt; some were, securely hidden, even from them.
The arrival of the son of the President of the United States in our dingy, red-brick, public school, occasioned an undeniable flurry among a class of some fifty-odd youngsters who watched with hopeful scrutiny for signs of his being snobbish and stuck-up. But we soon learned that Quentin was like his father, and had the same qualities of enthusiasm, swift anger, quick forgiveness, explosive speech, frankness, aggressive leadership, imagination. His little body fairly quivered with impetuosity. His tow head was always mussed, his tie coming untied, his clothes being torn, his stockings refusing to stay up. His head seemed too large for his body. He was as irrepressible mentally, as he was physically, and, either way, there was no holding him down or back. He was active, alert, eager, bubbling over with ideas, strange words, humor, and deeply-seated sentiment.
For a long time the Gang was unofficial and did not become a recognized fact until its individual membership had been passed upon by the White House. The finally accredited members were as follows: first, in order of size, was Charles Taft, “Taffy,” later, to occupy Quentin’s position as White House host. Charlie was remarkable for his calmness, slowness to anger, good humor, and steadfast determination when roused. Bromley Seeley, tow-headed, with fervid enthusiasm and force, had an honest infectious laugh which, quite often, was the best announcement for blocks away of the presence of the Gang. He was rather startling to us at first, because of his apparent lack of eyebrows – a few paces away, they could hardly be seen, against the tan of his forehead. Later, Brom was to show us the highest example, of which a manly boy is capable, fortitude and courage, in illness.
Dick Chew was called “Sailor,” because his name suggested to us that he should be chewing tobacco – which he did, once, out of bravado, and then repented of, bitterly and with tears. I remember distinctly, the size and uncountable number of his freckles. Edward Stead – called both “Bedstead” and “Slats” – was wiry, and active enough to be used as the entering wedge, into many almost inaccessible places. Walker White, grandson of General Horatio G. Gibson, was the smallest of our number. Usually appearing with his round head closely clipped, he compensated for his lack of size, by an unusually quick pick-up, and sustained speed and stamina. There were others – on and off – including Rosewell “Pinky” Pinckney, son of White House Steward, Henry Pinckney. But boys forget, names mean nothing, action everything.
TR, the most active member of the Gang, was too well known to require describing – except as we boys saw him. In the beginning of things, the appearance of the President among them, gave the Gang queer sensations, in the pits of their stomachs. He would bear down upon us, with his great barrel-chest advancing ahead of him, ready, as we thought, to burst right through the front of his shirt. The famous face, teeth, eyeglasses and black cords made but little impression upon us, compared to that created by this tremendous chest. When he left us, we would stare at the amazing thickness of his girth, and the two buttons of his frock-coat set directly in the middle of his back. He was thick right through, and we knew it to be muscle.
In the days of our early encounters, it would take some minutes for us to really feel at ease with him. There can be no question, I think, but that we stood a little in awe of him – not of his position, but of the man. Yet it was not long before this restraint wore away and we grew to know him better. Like the multitude that admire him from afar, we called him TR. This was not a gesture of familiarity; it was not a nickname; we felt he had been given a title, but one man in the world could ever hold. His active hustling, his bursts of laughter, made us forget anything else about him, in the fun we were having ourselves. One can imagine the impetus a mind like TR’s could have on anybody; its effect upon a small boy was almost electrifying. It is a curious fact that, after being with him for any length of time, we would break out into unreasoning anger, among ourselves, and proceed to sulk, or to fight, or to perpetrate some heinous crime.
The first "crime" I remember was directed towards Andrew Jackson, towards his portrait, rather, which hung in the upper hall. Some very fine shots had been made with spitballs, and very soon Old Hickory was so covered with them that we dragged a chair under the portrait to arrange the wet lumps in designs – three on his forehead, "like an Arabian dancer", Quentin said, and one on the lobe of either ear.
A poultice of masticated newspaper was set upon the end of his nose, "to scare the flies away", and a gob over each of the buttons on his coat. When he was finished, Andrew presented a startling appearance, and we were very proud of our handiwork. But we soon forgot it, in quest of some more boisterous and active adventure. That night, however, in the coolness of White House sheets – we had been invited to spend the night – our first exhausted drowsiness was broken by the apparition of TR pulling Q from the bed and, without the slightest explanation, disappearing with him into the ominous stillness of an otherwise sleeping mansion. When Q returned, he wore a courageous grin but otherwise, was much subdued.
He reported briefly that he, personally, had taken down every spitball from the painted effigy of President Jackson, but refrained from mentioning the obvious – that he had done so at TR's command, and under his watchful eye. In the morning, Q led us before TR, who stood sternly before the portrait, rubbing his glasses vigorously with a handkerchief.
"Who stuck on the first spitball?" he asked fiercely. Quentin, Charlie and Dick all voiced confession together. "Impossible!" TR said, his voice ringing harshly down the hall. "It's all very sporting to try to take the blame from one another but I-want-the-truth!"
"I think I did," Quentin said."
"I-I- (he pronounced it "Aiee") don't like this", TR said. "There is some uncertainty, some reluctance. Here is a case for trial. Oyez! Oyez! This Honorable Court . . .”
An usher came down the hall with a message for the President. He grinned at all of us, especially at Andrew Jackson. "Later, later . . .” said TR impatiently. "Tell him that I'm dispensing justice!"
The President sat in the armchair directly under the portrait. "Now, the truth of this," he demanded. "Just imagine how I would feel, if you rowdies, gangsters, villains, threw spitballs at my portrait!"