In the fall of 1904, when Clifford Roberts was ten, his mother, Rebecca, took the children to live with relatives of hers in California. She was acting on the advice of a doctor in Kansas, who had said that a trip and “a complete change” might improve her still mysterious condition. Not long before, she had written in her diary, “I am going down hill as rapidly as possible and there seems to be nothing to stop it.” They made the journey by train and stayed for seven months, while Charles Roberts tended business interests elsewhere. (He wrote occasionally, sent fifteen dollars for Christmas, and sold most of the family’s furniture—including the dining-room linoleum—while they were gone.) For part of that period, Clifford lived not with his mother, brothers, sister, aunt, and cousins, but with his mother’s parents, whose house was in Lakeside, a train ride away. He made brief visits to his mother by himself every week or two, attended a different school from the other children, and seemed to enjoy, or at any rate not object to, his independence. Before returning to Kansas the following spring, the boys traded their schoolbooks for a checkers set, with which they occupied themselves on the long ride home.
John and Clifford both worked outside their house from early ages. They did odd jobs, raised and sold chickens and dogs, made deliveries for their father, served as clerks in the family’s various stores, milked cows, raised pigs, caddied at local golf courses, and sold onions. They helped with the harvest when their father was farming. They worked to pay for their own schoolbooks and clothes. They sold calling cards and the Saturday Evening Post, played baseball for a share of the gate receipts, and, as they got older, accompanied their father on business expeditions. They inherited his entrepreneurial drive. One day, the brothers caught another boy selling trout from a line they had set in a stream. Instead of starting a fight—something they usually did when opportunities arose—they sold him the line and invested the proceeds in a new one. Shortly after the family moved from Kansas to Oklahoma, in 1906, Rebecca noted that Clifford, now twelve, was “using his Spanish selling goods to Mexicans working on R. R.” By then, Clifford was spending long periods working at real jobs for adult wages. He and his older brother both quit school before the end of ninth grade.
1906 Letter from Charles told us he had traded for store and was busy invoicing. . . .Clifford has 10 names for calling cards & magazine—will get 3 premiums. . . .Clifford not able to go to school in afternoon—so sorry for they had a geography test. . . .I made the best bread ever. . . . I was in bed all day—very dizzy & sick—but not so bad as when Charles was at home. . . . Could not get a man to clean carpets—so Clifford undertook the task—a hard one—but he stuck to it until they were clean & nice. . . . Clifford shot his first duck. Proud. . . . . Boys met traveling circus wagons & worked for tickets. Took twins—thought it fine. Right next to our block. . . ..Gave children worm medicine. . . . John & Clifford went to see a boy fire off a “Japanese mine” firecracker. It shot into John’s face—burning off eyebrows & lashes. . . . . Disappointed by new minister’s use of slang in pulpit. . . . We have hopes of John being cured—he is so young—but it is very uncertain.
Clifford grew up fast. He got into fistfights, stole rides on freight trains, chewed gum at school, smoked, entertained poorly-behaved friends at home while his mother was away, prompted one of his teachers to strike him, and shot pool—“such troubles as all boys make,” according to Rebecca, who smiled at the shenanigans of all her children and was a gentle disciplinarian. In 1909, she wrote, without apparent alarm, “All schools having a war with rubber shooters & paper wads. Clifford sent home. Charles went back with him—may have special tutor.” When the boys got into trouble, she seldom sided with their accusers—noting, for example, that Clifford’s teacher had returned only thirty of sixty marbles she had confiscated.
Despite occasional forays into juvenile delinquency, Clifford was the member of the Roberts family who on Sunday mornings was the most likely to be found in church. “Clifford went alone to Sunday School,” is a typical diary entry—this one from when he was seven. He won Sunday-school prizes, went to Christian Endearment picnics, often followed Sunday school with a regular service at a different church, and escorted younger siblings to Sunday school on days when no one else was going. Shortly after the family moved to Oklahoma, he took his little sister, Dorothy, to a Baptist church—a novelty for both of them—then later went with his father and older brother to watch a group of recent converts being baptized in a lake. “Clifford went to Catholic Mass with Carl Lully,” Rebecca wrote in 1908, when Clifford was fourteen and the family was living in Emporia, Kansas. “First time he had seen their service & quite impressed.” His steady church attendance won him special privileges, including an invitation to a fancy social at the home of his Sunday school teacher. “A four course luncheon served,” his mother wrote. “Everything of finest—finger bowl passed by maid. Brick ice cream, deviled eggs, angel food, candy, nuts, etc., etc.”
In their free time, Clifford and various siblings went with their father to see a baseball game “between fat & lean men,” saw a tent production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saw pictures of Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration at a movie theater in California, and took part in an Epworth League temperance program. Clifford didn’t mind performing before a crowd. At a patent-medicine show in 1903, he “helped with a spiritualistic exhibition.” In 1907, the family went two evenings in a row to see a show put on by a “hypnotist & mind reader” named Dr. Glick. Clifford, alone among his family members, volunteered to be a subject and, according to the diary, “did funny things—picking strawberries from floor—peddling them—motioning a man across a tight wire, etc.” On the third evening, Clifford went back alone and volunteered again.
Clifford appears to have had no trouble making friends. The diary mentions many playmates and overnight guests—including more than a few whom his mother considered “bad boys” or “roughs.” Clifford enjoyed and was good at marbles, football, basketball, and baseball, and he and his older brother were always arranging games of one kind or another. Clifford’s popularity may have been eased by the fact that he was strong and good-looking—although he was considered less handsome than John. His sharply arched eyebrows, which would contribute to a perennial look of alarm in his sixties and seventies, made him seem playful and mischievous when he was young. He parted his hair in the middle and had a strong taste for nice clothes. When he earned extra money, he often spent it on a tie, a shirt, or a suit. (“John & Clifford went shopping for Spats, sweater, cap & cruet tray,” Rebecca wrote in 1909.) In eighth grade, he attended a school May Day celebration wearing a “silk hat & Knickerbockers,” and in more than one family photograph he has the only pocket handkerchief. He began to meet girls. “Clifford went to dance—to look on—but he danced.”
Maintaining friendships was hard, however. The children changed schools and neighborhoods constantly, and they seldom finished a year with the same companions they had begun it with. Many of the family’s many moves were not only sudden—“Charles wrote for us to pack up & we commenced”—but also complete: Charles sometimes sold or auctioned much of their furniture rather than take it with them. All the moves were stressful, some more than others. (“Three moves is worse than a fire,” was a nineteenth-century American proverb.) Two days after Charles sold the family’s Emporia house—a showplace that he and Rebecca had scarcely finished fixing up—the new owners, along with their children and a maid, moved in with the Robertses. The two families shared a roof for more than two weeks, then Rebecca and the children went to stay with one of her sisters for another three weeks before setting out by train, at one o’clock in the morning, for yet another new life—this time, in a five-room house on a ten-acre “orange ranch” in Palacios, Texas, a small, dusty town on the Gulf of Mexico between Galveston and Corpus Christi. “Alpheus said, ‘Mama, you look as though you did not know anything,’ and that is just how I feel.”
1909 Had to take one small dose of sleeping medicine—the last. . . . Am so sorry Dorothy & Key are to be disappointed again in not having a birthday party—but have neither money nor strength. . . . Received $50 interest on $1,000 note in Kansas. Boys could not have begun high school else. . . . John & Clifford sold $8.35 of fine figs—quite cheering. . . . Charles is worn to a sick shadow, nervous dyspepsia wreck. Is uneasy all day & night. Has sued F. M. Elliott for $4,220.00 & we are living as skimped as possible in a land of strangers. . . . Clifford saved life of a woman (in childbirth) by calling Dr. when her children did not know how. . . . My hair is nearly all coming out—am so very sorry—for it was my one beauty.
[to be continued]