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In the year 1903 a son of the President of the United States asked his father whether he should play on the second squad at Groton. The President replied in a long letter which began, simply enough, with some thoughts on the joys and virtues of the manly sport of football. But then he became distracted by something that Pliny had written to the Emperor Trajan about athletics in the first century after the birth of Christ. This led him to think about the commissioned personnel of the British army, and that, naturally enough, put him in mind of his old Army regiment. From there he proceeded to a series of reflections?on Groton School, a horse named Bleistein who crashed through a jump, and the character of Abraham Lincoln. Then he took up the various qualities a good government officer ought to possess, the state of his own tennis game (not so good), and his tendency to preach. He concluded finally that it was indeed a good thing to have a sound mind in a sound body.
The presidential letter suggests some of the difficulties confronting anybody who sets out to make a simple statement about who or what Theodore Roosevelt really was. One thing always leads to another. He did so many things; he had so many ideas; he said so much. He can't be trapped and stuffed and mounted in a single attitude.
This is as true of sports as anything else in his life. Among American Presidents, Roosevelt must have been the greatest sportsman. Leastwise, there is little doubt he was the most active sportsman while in office. The only encompassing description of the restless and energetic Roosevelt's omnivorous appetite for physical exercise was one coined by T.R. himself, "The Strenuous Life." Before and after Roosevelt most Presidents have felt that they have fulfilled the athletic requirements of high office if they caught a small trout, broke a hundred or drew to two pair. For Roosevelt, these didn't amount to a beginning.
As governor of New York, for instance, he had a difficulty with the state comptroller who would not make public funds available for the purchase of a wrestling mat. The watchdog of the treasury said he would permit a billiard table, but while it was apparently appropriate for a chief executive to chalk a cue, it was unbecoming in a governor to try an occasional fall with the middleweight champion of America. And a few years later, as President, Roosevelt had another difficulty with a doctor who would not let him box after a presidential eye had been permanently damaged by a right cross. Thus circumscribed by higher authority, he turned to the daily practice of jiu jitsu. Wrestling, boxing, jiu jitsu were, however, only secondary athletic interests of Theodore Roosevelt. At one time or another, he rode to hounds, engaged in single stick (a form of fencing) and harpooned fish. He could hit an ibis stork or a duck on the wing, play polo and hold the stern paddle in white water. He could hit a ball on the backhand, handle a rope from the saddle, kill a charging bull elephant at 40 yards, jump a horse five feet and, no doubt, build a fire without matches.
The list could be extended, but to no real purpose. It need only be said that in whatever place Theodore Roosevelt found himself, he entered with immense good pleasure into the sporting opportunities offered by local custom and terrain. Sometimes, indeed, he improved on or, according to one's taste, outraged local custom. Through a deep ravine in the city of Washington there runs lovely Rock Creek. Often in late fall or early spring it delighted the President to end a long tramp by swimming naked through the creek's freezing waters. Once, he loved to recall, he and the French ambassador had thus concluded a walk through the ravine, although the ambassador kept his gloves on because, as he explained, "we might meet ladies."
RHEUMATICS DON'T VAULT
Some part of the joy he had in the hunt he has himself described well in his book on Africa. One day he and his native bearer and an English lady became separated from their party during a lion hunt. Simba, the bearer, and Roosevelt, who had dismounted from his horse, Tranquillity, faced the animal on the ground. "Now," he says, "an elderly man with a varied past which includes rheumatism does not vault lightly into the saddle, as his sons, for instance, can; and I had already made up my mind that in the event of the lion's charging it would be wise for me to trust to straight powder rather than try to scramble into the saddle and get under way in time. The arrival of my two companions settled matters. I was not sure of the speed of Lady Pease's horse; and Simba was on foot and it was, of course, out of the question for me to leave him. So I said, 'Good, Simba, now we'll see this thing through,' and gentle-mannered Simba smiled a shy appreciation of my tone, though he could not understand the words.
"I was still unable to see the lion when I knelt, but he was now standing up, looking first at one group of horses and then at the other, his tail lashing to and fro, his head held low and his lips dropped over his mouth in peculiar fashion, while his harsh and savage growling rolled thunderously over the plain. Seeing Simba and me on foot, he turned toward us, his tail lashing quicker and quicker. Resting my elbow on Simba's bent shoulder, I took steady aim and pressed the trigger; the bullet went in between the neck and shoulder, and the lion fell over on his side, one foreleg in the air. He recovered in a moment and stood up, evidently very sick and once more faced me, growling hoarsely. I think he was on the eve of charging. I fired again at once, and this bullet broke his back just behind the shoulders; and with the next I killed him outright, after we had gathered around him."
This is, in a way, a rather slight situation?one of nine lions killed by Theodore Roosevelt on this African trip. But there is in this episode picked at random from a score of similar descriptions something of the meaning of the hunt to Theodore Roosevelt. Here is the skillful organization of a crowded moment; the fully mobilized powers of a very acute observer; the great, unstated excitement of the tight situation. Such situations?when things could be seen really to hang in the balance?whether on battleground, convention floor, or hunting field called all the elements in Theodore Roosevelt most brilliantly to life.