"Fifty years ago I sat on a wooden rail enclosing a large observation deck behind the visitor’s center at Mount Rushmore. Encircled by a crowd of chattering siblings, so many of them that my father required us to count off military style each time we reentered the car, I watched a bedecked Sioux pose for pictures with admiring tourists. He was having a fine time, a midsummer Santa Claus with headdress, surrounded by suitors—and so were the tourists.
Dad was in his meticulous stage as a photographer, camera perched on a massive varnished-oak tripod produced in his basement shop because rock-steadiness was required by the extremely slow slide film he preferred. We would be here a while. He would snap the famous rock faces from every angle possible, seeking branches with pinecones as foreground framing. We would wait; our initial “Wow’s” on first seeing the stone presidents had been spontaneous and genuine but short in duration.
Ever the pensive one, I sat and stared, tuning out as best I could my siblings and, from the crowd, a cacophony of touristy comments that seemed to me, even at age thirteen, inane. Already too much the westerner, I didn’t particularly like crowds of any sort, and these pudgy tourists in Bermuda shorts, clutching at children who ventured close to the edges of the deck, were too obviously creatures of pavement and suburbs in faraway places to which I’d rather not go.
But the four faces on the mountain did hold my interest. No stellar student, I was nevertheless secure enough in my knowledge of three of them. The stock but solid history drilled into us by elementary teachers in our stone Montana schoolhouse had stuck rather well, and I’d begun to supplement my awareness of the past with more palatable stuff, historical novels I’d found during numerous sifts through our school’s little library.
Washington, it seemed to me, was the most logical subject for sculptor’s stone: Strong, a horseman and commander, but aware, too, of the limits of his role. Unschooled as a military man, he more than compensated with stubbornness and raw courage, while he led by example and had the class to step aside when it was time.
Jefferson was more like me, I thought, a reader and writer and perhaps a dreamer, but one who dreamed on a grand scale. He sent Lewis and Clark out to the good country, to my country, Clark’s name having been lent to a branch of the Yellowstone River near our home. The Pryor Mountains, visible when I climbed the hill behind our house, were named, I knew, for a soldier in his company.
From my early childhood, Lincoln’s face invoked in me dumb admiration along with an impulse nearly to cry. I needed only a few minutes to memorize the Gettysburg Address (my schooling occurred before teachers were taught that rote learning was unnecessary and destructive). I found the words beautiful in formal fashion, and the man lonely and tortured. I saw him pacing in his study, struggling for just the right word and just the right deed and coming to it as all great men must, alone.
And there, tucked back between the shoulders of his elders, was the junior member, the only one with spectacles and a mustache, Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in my father’s politics, the “good” Roosevelt. Dad was nearly manic in his enthusiasm for national parks, and taking his brood to any one of them, homebuilt travel trailer in tow, was a task not daunting but relished throughout its yearlong anticipation. He thanked Roosevelt for the whole shebang, though as an admirer of Henry Ford, he said less about TR’s stance toward big business."
To read a longer excerpt or to buy In Trace of TR, visit http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/In-Trace-of-TR,674202.aspx. Visit our holiday sale page for a special discount code!