Utile Dulci

Dawn broke in waves of sulfur. The horses could sense the anxiety. Bloody ford had cleared. It flowed crystal blue again. He stepped out of the tent. A stout forty bereft of a sickly youth. In a blue military coat and a blue polka-dotted handkerchief tied around his thick neck. His eyes flared an eagerness that had been kept in check.
The ground was hot. The plants were sweating in the early July morning. Roosevelt looked calm and cool.

He’d paced for the last two days: The fight was over, but he yearned for more. This war was his chance to become a gentleman. He was nothing but overdramatic. Even on the battlefield. He rose at sunup. Religiously. He cleaned his rifle, polished the bayonet, and saddled his horse. A ritual he’d begun in Texas, brought to Florida, and then to Cuba. He tightened his jacket. Straightened his handkerchief. Mumbled a missive about invading San Juan. A glance. Officer’s tents. Reminding himself he needed to spell it out for his superiors.

The newspapers had gotten America into the war. That there were men recording the events on their behalf was to be expected. Keeping tabs on their splendid little war. Recording the progress. Reporting the heroics. Infantry tripping over photographers in the musty trenches. Unwieldy cameras and tripods sacrificing themselves to the Spanish sniper. Roosevelt had seen them. He knew them. He courted them. A friendship rose between the Harper’s Weekly man and Roosevelt.

William Dinwiddie, the Harper’s man, stood beside Roosevelt at the foot of San Juan Hill. It was a friendship of convenience. Dinwiddie seeking a worthy story. Roosevelt seeking notoriety. Dinwiddie wasn’t a soldier. He was dressed like the rest. He followed them into the trenches. Ducked the Mauser rifle fire raining down from fortified positions atop the hills. Unlike his brethren in the trenches, he came armed with a notebook and camera. Roosevelt brought him along. Dinwiddie marched with the riders; riders who walked instead of rode. Riders who’s horses stayed in Florida. A cavalry that fought on foot.
–Don’t report, don’t report.
He repeated this mantra. At the sight of cavalry marching. At the sight of officers sniped before they could rally a charge. At the sight of hesitation. Of cowardice.

Leaning over the rails, watching the pallid blue water roll past the SS Yucatan’s black hull Dinwiddie and Roosevelt found a kinship. Dakota Territory. Roosevelt had built the Elkhorn Ranch to cure a western itch. The ranch was a failure. The cattle lost. He’d come back to New York with stories of capturing thieves and hard winters. He’d made both an enemy and a friend in a wealthy rancher. Marquis de Mores. He’d left New York an asthmatic and scrawny. He’d returned a barrel-chested, western-toughed. The itch never abated. Dinwiddie, too, had spent time in the Dakotas. A reporter. A photographer. Working for the Bureau of American Ethnology. He’d told Roosevelt of his days in the wilds stretching from the Dakota’s to southern Arizona photographing the Tohono O’Odham Indians. They spoke in longing phrases and romantic tones despite their rough-hewn facades. Dinwiddie had followed the charismatic man through the steaming jungles knowing a story would always surface.

A photograph. He wanted a photograph. One of Roosevelt’s rabble–an Indian from Arizona–came. Gather your camera. A warm Caribbean gust carries a stifling din over the camp. There was always concern that the humidity would rot the leather bellows, and a replacement for his Rochester Optical was far away. As the soldiers meticulously maintained their weapons between fights, so did Dinwiddie with his equipment. –Better, he thought, than having a cheap paper bellow. The camera sat on a field table. Burnished mahogany. Polished brass fittings catching mid-day sun. A tripod to match the wood.
A legend. The stories were eagerly read by thousands across New England. Roosevelt leading the charge. Roosevelt dodging the snipers. The notion that the bullets found it offensive to assault his personage. Not that these stories have any truth. Roosevelt disobeying orders. Ordering a charge beyond his command. A legend is born in ink and words.
–Always, always, Dinwiddie reminded himself, find the power hungry and live in their good graces.

Atop Kettle Hill. Three different units. Dinwiddie surveyed the image before him: the 3rd Cavalry on his left, Roosevelt stood proud in the center beneath the U.S. flag surrounded by his 1st volunteer cavalry, and the 10th Cavalry on the right. Setting up the camera below. Capture the falling sun against the breasts of the men. The flag barely moving in the stifling stillness. Roosevelt stands victorious. The plate is exposed. Posterity captured.
–Another one, the Indian says, only the 1st.
–He’d want it that way, Dinwiddie told himself. Of course he would. Posterity doctored.


The above piece was inspired by the word “doctor” from Studio 30plus (though it missed the deadline to post) and by the recent “selfie” that President Obama was caught in during Nelson Mandela’s funeral service.

I won’t reproduce the “selfie” here since I would suspect that many of you have already seen the photo, but that picture got me wondering what picture would define this current Presidency: The funeral “selfie” or Peter Souza’s photo of the President sitting in the Oval Office with the portrait of Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, portrait of George Washington, and bust of Lincoln in the background. One photo seems authentic while the other more staged. Here is the Souza photo:


Photographs have been widely used to manipulate our history, and I couldn’t think of a better occasion than the Roosevelt Rough Rider photograph to highlight this. There were two Dinwiddie photos taken that day, as illustrated in the story, but one has become iconically related to Teddy Roosevelt, while the other tends to be spartanly published. Here are the two Dinwiddie photos:



The first highlights Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. The second brings in all the units involved in the capture of Kettle Hill, San Juan. Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were not in the initial wave scheduled to assault Kettle Hill; they were reserve units until Roosevelt ordered his own charge. This is a little quibble in history. Yes, Teddy probably disobeyed orders. Yes, Teddy’s Rough Riders walked because they were hurried out of Miami for Cuba and had left most of the horses behind. Yes, there were men from the U.S.’s largest papers on the island. This is what matters the most; Roosevelt understood this fact and used it to his advantage. His larger-than-life persona bled through the ink printed in the nation’s papers catapulting him to the Vice-Presidency. Dinwiddie’s doctored photo was one of TR’s legacies to the Presidency. Through which lens will history view the Obama Presidency? A “selfie” or Souza’s?

About the title: Utile Dulci is one of my favorite Latin phrases. It means “the useful with the agreeable.”


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