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Wednesday, 15 March 2006 00:00

Leaving no doubt behind

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About 15 years ago, one frequent guest at our bed and breakfast here in Waynesville was a Mrs. Irene Harrison, wife of a well-known New York state attorney and daughter of Charles Seiberling, the tire manufacturer. Though Mrs. Harrison was 106 years old on her last visit here, she maintained an intense and often eccentric interest in politics, remaining convinced, for example, that fluoridated water involved some sort of government plot against the American people. Once, as I passed through the parlor where she and her son nightly debated current political developments, I stopped and asked her, “Mrs. Harrison, you’ve obviously seen quite a few presidents in your lifetime. Which do you judge to be the best among them?”

 

She never hesitated. “Roosevelt,” she said firmly.

This choice seemed unusual, given her conservative bent. But then she continued: “Theodore Roosevelt was absolutely the best. He was always alive, and he brought life wherever he went.”

Alive: that would certainly be one word those of us who have only read about Teddy Roosevelt would find appropriate. A weak boy who built himself into a powerful man, a man who suffered the tragedy of losing both his mother and his wife to illnesses on the same day in the same house, a cowboy, the police commissioner of New York City, a consummate politician, a soldier, a big game hunter, a conservationist, a writer of many books and articles, a voracious reader, a father beloved by his children, and the youngest man ever to serve as president of the United States. (Kennedy was the youngest elected; Roosevelt came into office when McKinley was assassinated.) Roosevelt was like a storm in the face of life, roaring and shaking everything about him.

Though perhaps best remembered for his exploits as a Rough Rider or for his vibrant presidency, Roosevelt was also a naturalist and an explorer. In The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (ISBN 0-385-50796-8, $26), author Candice Millard follows Roosevelt, his son Kermit, Brazil’s most famous explorer Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, and a mixed crew of Americans and Brazilians as they explore a mysterious tributary of the Amazon River.

Millard’s account of this expedition reminded me of the story of the doomed expedition by Captain Robert Scott and his men in Antarctica: the idealism and excitement of exploring an unmapped region of the world, the poor planning, the careless attitude toward provisions, and the courage shown by men who are suddenly aware that they have fought their way to death’s door. The Roosevelt party met with several disasters, including the pounding of whitewater rapids, thievery, attacks by Indians, and a murder within their own party. Roosevelt — the most ebullient of men and a legend among the campradas, or poor laborers, of Brazil for his powers of endurance — at one point on this journey became so weak that he urged Kermit and the others to leave him behind to die so that they could make better time back to civilization and safety.

Millard gives us vivid descriptions of the travails and dangers suffered by Roosevelt and his men. Here was an ominous river whose heat and humidity sapped the strength of the strongest of men, its banks a dark cathedral of trees and vines concealing venomous snakes and wild animals who might strike their victims night or day, and insects whose bites and stings often made every day of the journey a living hell.

The human adversaries of the expedition also capture Millard’s attention. Here, for example, she tells us why some of the cannibalistic tribes of the river might have regarded Roosevelt as their prime target:

Even if the Indians had only recently stumbled upon the expedition, they probably would have aimed for Roosevelt first — simply because of his substantial girth. The Cinta Larga often tossed pieces of a slain enemy into the jungle if they thought he was too lean. Although Roosevelt had already begun to lose much of his 220 pounds to illness and the intense physical work and diet of the past few months, he was still by far the heaviest man on the expedition. If the men were massacred, the former president would have made the best ceremonial meal.

Although Millard, like most other historians, believes that this expedition contributed to Roosevelt’s death just five years later, several other members of his River of Doubt company lived long and well. George Cherrie, for example, a field naturalist, remained in South America for several more years before returning to his beloved Vermont, where he would live to be 83 years old. Candido Rondon, the Brazilian explorer, lived even longer, to the age of 92 — 32 years longer than Roosevelt. Kermit, Roosevelt’s son who accompanied him, lived on for another 30 years.

Lacking his father’s fortitude in facing the difficulties of life and perhaps feeling himself unworthy in light of the older Roosevelt’s accomplishments, Kermit became a heavy drinker, an adulterer, and finally a suicide while serving with the U.S. Army during World War II in Alaska.

Theodore Roosevelt possessed one of those mercurial personalities that acquaintances either loved or hated. George Cherrie, who had accompanied the former president on this journey into the unknown, emerged from the quest a lifelong admirer. Speaking at the Explorers Club just two months after Roosevelt’s death, Cherrie struggled to express the depths of his feelings:

In the club’s ornate hall, filled with mounted polar bears, Indian spears, and other trophies from across the globe, the aging naturalist became lost in the memory of a distant jungle, and a friendship forged at the limits of human endurance.

“I have always thought it strange,” Cherrie said quietly, “since I had the opportunity to know him and know him intimately — because I feel that I did know him very intimately — how any man could be brought in close personal contact with Colonel Roosevelt without loving the man.”

As he continued, his audience of dignitaries and socialites realized that the man before them — a man whose callused hands had fought off cavalry charges, smuggled guns, and catalogued nature’s most dangerous mysteries — had begun to weep.

In The River of Doubt, Candice Millard has given us a great gift with her riveting account of the ordeal endured by one of our greatest presidents. She has shown us the reasons for Cherrie’s tears and why he, like so many others, loved this remarkable human being.

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