THE STORY BEGINS with the closeup of a bottom in the small town of Tampico, Ill., on Feb. 6, 1911.
My face was blue from screaming, my bottom was red from whacking, and my father claimed afterward that he was white when he said shakily, "For such a little bit of a fat Dutchman, he makes a hell of a lot of noise, doesn't he?"
"I think he's perfectly wonderful," said my mother weakly. "Ronald Wilson Reagan."
Those were their first opinions of me. As far as I know, they never changed during their lifetimes. As for myself, ever since my birth my nickname has been "Dutch" and I have been particularly fond of the colors that were exhibited -- red, white and blue. I have not been uncomfortable on the various occasions when I have had an overwhelming impulse to brandish them.
My father was John Edward Reagan (always pronounced Ra-gan), a first-generation black Irishman. He loved shoes. He sold them as a clerk, managed shoe departments and his own stores. He even studied correspondence courses about how to sell more sabots, and spent hours analyzing the bones of the foot. He was a man who might have made a brilliant career out of selling but he lived in a time -- and with a weakness -- that made him a frustrated man.
I was 11 years old the first time I came home to find my father flat on his back on the front porch and no one there to lend a hand but me. He was drunk, dead to the world. I stood over him for a minute or two. I wanted to let myself in the house and go to bed and pretend he wasn't there. Oh, I wasn't ignorant of his weakness. I don't know at what age I knew what the occasional absences or the loud voices in the night meant, but up till now my mother, Nelle, or my older brother, Neil, handled the situation.
But someplace along the line to each of us, I suppose, must come that first moment of accepting responsibility. I felt myself fill with grief for my father at the same time I was feeling sorry for myself. I could feel no resentment against him. That was Nelle's doing. With all the tragedy that was hers because of his occasional bouts with the dark demon in the bottle, she told Neil and myself over and over that alcoholism was a sickness -- that we should love and help our father and never condemn him for something that was beyond his control.
I bent over him, smelling the sharp odor of whiskey from the speakeasy. I got a fistful of his overcoat. Opening the door, I managed to drag him inside and get him to bed. In a few days he was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved and will always remember.
Jack (we all called him by his nickname; we were all on a first-name basis) was a handsome man -- tall, swarthy and muscular, filled with contradictions of character. A sentimental Democrat who believed fervently in the rights of the workingman, he never lost his conviction that the individual must stand on him own feet.
He believed literally that all men were created equal and that the man's own ambition determined what happened to him after that.
He put his principles into practice. On the occasion when that early film classic, "The Birth of a Nation," came to town, my brother and I were the only kids not to see it.
"It deals with the Ku Klux Klan against the colored folks," Jack said sternly, "and I'm damned if anyone in this family will go see it." Years later in the dark Depression years when he was trying to earn a buck on the road as a shoe salesman, he checked into a small-town hotel and signed the register. "Fine," said the clerk, reading his name. "You'll like it here, Mr. Reagan. We don't permit a Jew in the place."
My father picked up his suitcase again. "I'm a Catholic," he said furiously, " and if it's come to the point where you won't take Jews, you won't take me either." Since it was the only hotel in town, he spent the night in his car in the snow. He contracted near-pneumonia and a short time later had the first heart attack of the several that led to his death.
He was a restless man, burning with ambition to succeed. When I left home at 17 to go to college, we had never lived in a house we owned; it was 20 years afterward that I was able to bring him out to Hollywood and present him with the clear deed to a small house and lot, the first piece of real estate he had ever owned. It was the most satisfying gift of my life.
If my father was Catholic, my mother was Protestant. If he rebelled against the universe, she was a natural practical do-gooder. If he was Irish, she was Scots-English. If he was occasionally vulgar, she tried to raise the tone of the family. Nelle Wilson Reagan had the conviction that everyone loved her just because she loved them. My father's cynicism never made the slightest impression on her, while I suspect her sweetness often undermined his practical viewpoint about the world.
When I was 9 years old, we moved to Dixon. It was 90 miles from Chicago, ten times as big as Tampico, with the Rock River running through the middle. It was to be home to me from that moment on until I was 21. All of us have to have a place we go back to; Dixon is that place for me. There was the life that has shaped my body and mind for all the years to come after.
It was a good life. I never have asked for anything more, then or now. Probably the best part of it all was playing football. Sure, I played basketball, went out for track and swimming; but those were games. Football was a matter of life and death.
My poor eyesight had a great deal to do with my love for football. It never occurred to me that I was dreadfully nearsighted; I simply thought that the whole world was made up of colored blobs that became distinct when I got closer. I never cared for baseball, for example, because when I stood at the plate the ball appeared out of nowhere two feet in front of me. Then I discovered football: no little invisible ball -- just another guy to grab or knock down.
The family finally realized my condition during a ride in the country. My brother could read the highway signs and I couldn't. I thought this was odd. bI borrowed my mother's glasses. Putting them on, I suddenly saw a glorious, sharply outlined world jump into focus. I shouted with delight -- the miracle of seeing was beyond believing. The miracle, of course, wore off and I began to hate the big glasses I had to wear. I hate them to this day. a
In the summer of 1926 I got a job I was to keep for seven summers; that of lifeguard at Lowell Park. I was paid $15 a week to save lives. Lifeguarding provides one of the best vantage points in the world to learn about people. During my career at the park, I saved 77 people. I guarantee you they needed saving -- no lifeguard gets wet without good reason. Not many thanked me, much less gave me a reward. The only money I ever got was $10 for diving for an old man's upper plate that he lost going down our slide.
I got to recognize that people hate to be saved: Almost every one of them later sought me out and angrily denounced me for dragging them to shore. "I would have been fine if you'd let me alone," was their theme. "You made a fool out of me trying to make a hero out of yourself."
But I loved lifeguarding -- and I was saving my money. Ever since my first job at 14, digging foundations for a construction contractor, I'd been saving for college -- a particular college. While I was still in grade school, my hero had been the high school fullback and captain. He went to Eureka College. I had never seen Eureka College, but it was my choice, too.
I arrived at Eureka College in the fall of 1928, and fell head over heels in love with it. I still think, after years of traveling the United States, that it is one of the loveliest colleges in existence. And thanks to friends I was already slated for a fraternity house -- Tau Kappa Episilon.
I had wanted to get in Eureka so badly that it hurt. The obstacle was money -- not my marks. I was broke. Nevertheless, I had some reputation as a swimmer and a football player. The tuition was $180 a year and I had brought with me about $400 from my summers' earnings. The officials gave me a scholarship for half of my tuition and a job for board: washing dishes in the fraternity house. Later I got a post called "cleansing tableware" in the girls' dormitory. In my junior and senior years I managed to earn my way as the swimming pool lifeguard and official coach.
The start of my sophomore year was the year of the great market crash, but the only crash Eureka was interested in was that of body against body. We had five full football teams on the field -- and I was on number five. Eventually I was tagged to play right end on the second team, then guard. Then one Saturday I started, and for the next three seasons I averaged all but two minutes of every game.
I also was investigating a new, wonderful world, possibly more fascinating than any other: drama. In Dixon High School I had been lucky enough to be under the instruction of a new English teacher named B. J. Fraser. From him I learned almost all of what I know today (and if the people back there will quit shouting, "That's not much!" I'll be quite happy). At Eureka I had continued much the same career by joining the dramatic society and enrolling in the dramatics course which was part of the English curriculum.
It was during one of our plays that I contracted a disease I call "leading-ladyitis." In this case it was aggravated by the fact that the leading lady was a senior, and every boy has to have at least one experience of an older woman in his life. Actually, it is a theatrical phenomenon and comes about through the process of living a part to a certain extent. In my case, it was short-lived because we had two short weeks' rehearsal and one performance. Today, however, if I could give one bit of advice to youngsters starting out in theater or movies I'd say: Don't marry your leading man or lady until you've done another role opposite someone else. Leadingladyitis is an infatuation that won't hold up, once the play is over and you each go back to playing yourselves.
The campus was so beautiful it hurt that June afternoon in 1932 when we grduated. A way of life was ending; and it was hard for me to see it as also a beginning.
I was broke and in debt and I still didn't know what I wanted to do, so there would be one last summer of lifegurding at Lowell Park, where I knew I could save the usual $200. For many sleepless nights, I truly faced my future with the realization that no good fairy would whisper in my ear and tell me what I did want to do. I really wrestled with the problem of what I would be happy doing for the next few decades.
Finally, the answer came: I wanted some form of show business. But the problem was, how to go about it? There was no show business closer to home than Broadway and Hollywood -- radio -- and its big time center was then Chicago.
I hitchhiked the 100 miles to Chicago and started knocking on doors. I was willing to sweep floors, but I had not been in any station long enough to make the offer. Then, after four discouraging days, I got a brief interview at NBC. The savvy assistant counseled me to get some experience "in the sticks" before trying to crack big-time radio in Chicago. So I hitchhiked back home, then headed for Davenport, Iowa, 75 miles away.
There was a radio station in Davenport called WOC, which stood for World of Chiropractic. WOC was located on the top floors of the Palmer School of Chiropractic and shared time with WHO in Des Moines.
At WOC I came face to face with one of the most unforgettable characters I would ever know -- Peter MacArthur, the Scottich program director. Crippled by arthritis, Peter could only get around using two canes and strong language.
For one month WOC had been advertising for an announcer, and just the week before one had been hired out of 94 applicants. To come so close was infuriating to me, and as I took my leave I asked, as sort of a get-off line, "How in hell does a guy ever get to be a sports announcer if he can't get inside the station?" This was the first in all my door-thumping that I'd mentioned sports or my hidden desire out loud.
Waiting for the elevator, I was quite oblivious to the thumping and cursing in the hallway I'd just left. The door to the elevator opened and, as I started for it, the thumping and cursing caught up with me. Peter MacArthur's cane rapped me in the shin. "Not so fast, ye big bastard, didn't ye hear me callin' ye? Now what was it ye said about sports?"
I told him my idea of someday progressing to the status of sports announcer.
"Do ye perhaps know football?" he asked.
"I played for eight years," I answered, not feeling it was essential to break that down into scrubs, second string, and regular.
"Hmmm! Do ye think ye could tell me about a game and make me see it?" he asked speculatively. "I mean, really see it, so as I'd know what was goin' on?"
I couldn't stop the excitement that was growing in me. "I think I could," I said.
"Come with me!" he barked.
We went into a studio all draped in heavy blue velvet (the custom of that pre-soundproof day). He pointed to a red light. "When that goes on, ye start talkin'. Tell us about a game and make me see it." He paused on his way out and said, "That's the mike in front of ye -- ye won't be able to see me but I'll be listenin'. Good luck."
I mentally selected the fourth quarter of an actual game Eureka had played in my senior year, so I could spout familiar players and plays. I talked for 20 minutes and wound it up.
When Pete came back in, I was wrining wet and hanging on the mike for support. He was chuckling and growling at the same time. "Ye did great, ye big SOB! Now look," (he always made it sound like "luke") "we have a sponsor for four University of Iowa games. Ye be here a week from Saturday and I'll give ye $5 and bus fare. If ye do all right on that one, ye'll do the other three."
The great day day dawned. Evidently Pete had done a little worrying, because a staff announcer was going along to share the broadcast. I was more than a little alarmed, because everyone in Dixon was waiting to hear "little old hometown me."
The other announcer did the pregame stuff, then I heard him say, "And now, to begin the play-by-play, here is Ronald Reagan.
Before I knew it, Ronald Reagan was saying, "How do you do, ladies and gentlemen. We are speaking to you from high atop the Memorial Stadium of the University of Iowa, looking down from the west on the south 40-yard line." This became part of my pattern: I've always believed in the "teller who" locating himself, so the audience can see the game through his eyes.
When the game was over, Pete simply said, "Ye'll do the rest of the games." I could even boast a 100 percent increase in salary -- now it was $10 a game and bus fare. It was only three more games and $30 -- but I was a sports announcer. After all, if one buck for playing the game makes you a pro, $35 for talking it should, too.
But when the football season ended, I still didn't have a job, and I was approaching the hopeless state. But the call came shortly after the first of the year. One of the two staff announcers at the Davenport studio was leaving -- and I would be the new staff announcer at $100 a month! My bag -- and you can keep that singular -- was packed, and I moved to Davenport. I was hired, I would be fired, I would be rehired, but I was out in the world at last.