Frank van der Linden, Veteran White House correspondent and Columnist and Author of The Real Reagan.
My fondest memories of my friend, Ronald Reagan, are from the December day in 1980 when I had the privilege of flying with the President-elect from Washington to Los Angeles and he told me recollections of his childhood – stories he had never confided to anyone before.
This courageous statesman, who would build up America’s defense forces and break the fearful power of the Soviet “evil empire,” confessed to me that, as a little boy, he was afraid of the school bully.
Reagan recalled that when he was a third-grader, this bigger boy began beating him up every afternoon on the way home from school. “Boy, this bully would drive me home, day after day, and I’d be in tears,” he said.
“One day, when I turned the corner and the bully was right there, having at me, I saw my mother standing there on our front steps.”
“I thought, ‘Oh, safety!'”
“But she said, ‘You can’t come in the house until you turn around and fight him.'”
“I was in tears, but she said, ‘Go back, you’re not coming in here until you fight!'”
“Oh, betrayed by my only friend!” I thought.
“So I turned around, waded in and threw a couple of punches, tears streaming down my face. To my surprise, the bully took off and ran, and that was the end of him. I learned a very good lesson.”
Reagan also confessed to me that, as a little boy, he was afraid of the dark. “When they would send me to the store after dark, boy, that was an agonizing couple of blocks. I would usually be running like hell the last block home.”
Ronald wondered why he had this fear, which his big brother, Moon, did not share. One day he found out the reason: While his family was out riding, he picked up his mother’s reading glasses from the car seat and tried them on. Suddenly he discovered a world he had never known before. “For the first time, a tree wasn’t just a green blob. I could actually see the leaves.”
The truth was that he was afraid of the dark because he couldn’t see. He was delighted to acquire some black-rimmed glasses of his own. “It was worth it,” he told me, “even though some of the other kids called me ‘Four Eyes.'”
Reagan also revealed why he had a mild case of claustrophobia. It began, he said, when he was riding with his family in an old Model T Ford and the car tipped over. Everyone else escaped, but he was pinned underneath.
“They fished me out from under the car,” he said, but ever since, “I feel a certain amount of discomfort when I get too enclosed.” When “the Gipper” would be in a general pile-up in a football game, he would make sure that he did not land on the bottom of the heap, so he couldn’t be smothered under there.
These and many other anecdotes, which he shared with me during that flight to California, gave me priceless insights into the inner nature of the quiet, modest little boy who grew up to become the indomitable leader of the Free World.