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Theodore Roosevelt: That Damn Cowboy

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 28, 2022 3:00 am

Theodore Roosevelt: That Damn Cowboy

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 28, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Theodore Roosevelt was just 42-years-old when he took office in 1901—the youngest president ever.  It was the West that molded Roosevelt into a man and it was here where he learned to “carry a big stick.” Here to tell the story is Roger McGrath and Michael Blake.

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Purchase all free clear mega packs today. This is Lee Habeeb and this is Our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show and our favorite subject, American history. Though Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president, was a Texan and an absentee rancher with acreage west of Austin. And though Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, acted in westerns and owned a 688 acre ranch in Santa Barbara County, both were more hat than cow. Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, owned two ranches and ran cattle in North Dakota and Montana. He was just 42 years old when he took office in 1901, the youngest president ever. It was the west that molded Roosevelt into a man.

Also, it was where he learned to carry a big stick. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt was born. Here to tell the story is Roger McGrath and Michael Blake. McGrath is a regular on our show, a regular contributor for the History Channel. Michael Blake is a two-time Emmy award-winning makeup artist and a respected film historian.

Here's McGrath and Blake. Theodore Roosevelt was one of New York's most accomplished, adventurous, self-sacrificing, and patriotic sons. A Harvard graduate, author, cattle rancher, war hero, U.S. president, and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in the Medal of Honor.

He was a towering American figure, whom sculptor Gudson Borglum carved into Mount Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Contributing mightily to making Roosevelt into the heroic man he became were his days in the Old West. Unfortunately, most Americans today know little about Theodore Roosevelt and next to nothing about his life on the frontier.

Theodore Roosevelt is born in the heart of New York City in 1858, the second of four children to a prominent and wealthy family. He's not the sickly child often portrayed, but energetic and adventurous, although he does suffer from severe asthma attacks, which gives him a reputation for ill health. At 11 years old, he hides the alps with his father, stride for stride, and later takes up boxing after being pummeled by two older boys.

By the time he's in his late teens, he is a robust physical specimen, and his asthma attacks are less frequent. Roosevelt is homeschooled and proves a bright student and a voracious reader. He doesn't attend one of the proper prep schools, as most young men of his social class do, but is nonetheless admitted to Harvard University at age 18. His father, whom he loved and admired greatly, tells him to take care of his morals first, his health second, and his studies third. He takes his father's advice to heart and is a paragon of moral rectitude. He is also a top performer in the varsity rowing and boxing teams. He excels in the classroom, graduating magna cum laude and phi beta kappa, and finishes in the top 12 percent of his class. His achievement is all the more impressive because his father died two years earlier.

From the inheritance Roosevelt received, he could have settled into a life of indulgence and indolence. Instead, he enters Columbia Law School in the fall of 1880. At nearly the same time, he marries the love of his young life, Alice Lee. After a year at Columbia, the political bug bites him, and he is elected to the New York Assembly. He is in his second term when tragedy strikes.

His wife gives birth to a daughter on February 12, 1884. But two days later, his mother dies of typhoid fever and his wife of kidney failure. A double blow leaves Roosevelt devastated. For a time, he throws himself into political work with a vengeance, but soon decides to seek solace in the frontier west. Theodore Roosevelt once said that if he hadn't gone west and hadn't spent time in the Dakota Territory, he never would have been president.

While some may say, oh, that's typical hyperball of Theodore, it's actually very true. At the time, in 1884, he had lost both his mother and his first wife on the same day, February 14, Valentine's Day, within hours of each other. His first wife, Alice, had just given birth the day prior to their first child, who was also named Alice. So grief-stricken was he that he left the baby daughter in care of his older sister, Bayme, and he went out west to a cabin he had recently bought and cattle ranch in what is now the area of Medora, North Dakota. Theodore went west to mend his broken heart to escape.

It's kind of an interesting trade of Roosevelt. Whenever he lost something very important in his life, he went away, in this case, going west. Roosevelt first experienced the west on a hunting trip to Dakota Territory in 1883. He roughed it on several hunts, enjoying himself immensely. He also bought a ranch, the Maltese Cross, and stocked it with cattle. Now he is returning to the ranch, not for a visit, but to settle. These years in the west contribute mightily to shaping him into the man America will come to admire, a man who has parked cattle puncher, which helps make the cowboy a symbol of our country. Without his time and experiences in what was still the old west, Theodore Roosevelt would not have organized the Rough Riders, not have led the charge of San Juan Hill, and not have become president.

And you've been listening to Roger McGrath and Michael Blake tell the story of Teddy Roosevelt and what a story indeed, when we come back more of this remarkable story here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture, and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Find your cheer on the Starbucks app today. And we continue with our American stories and the story of Theodore Roosevelt and his time spent out west healing and mending a broken heart. Let's return to Roger McGrath and Michael Blake. In June 1884, Roosevelt gets off the Northern Pacific Railroad at the town of Medora. Founded only the year before by a French nobleman turned rancher, the Marquis de Morais, and named for his wife. At the western edge of Dakota territory, near the border with Montana territory, Medora is in the heart of the Badlands. Despite the name and its rugged terrain, the Badlands have thousands of acres of grasslands, especially in the valley of the Little Missouri River where Medora and several cattle ranches develop.

The area is still frontier. Only eight years earlier and 200 miles to the southwest, Custer and 200 men of the 7th Cavalry were massacred at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When Theodore got to Medora area in 1884 after the passing of his mother and wife, one of the first things he did within a day was he saddled up his favorite horse, Manitou, and went out for a ride for three days by himself into the wilderness. He wanted to test himself. He wanted to see if indeed he could be like those who he had read about in earlier days of the party pioneers, and he did quite well.

From Medora, TR heads seven miles south to the Maltese Cross to begin his life as a rancher. He is soon dressed in a buckskin suit made for him by one of the first white women to settle in the region, Widow Maddox. He is armed with an ivory grip coat revolver and a bowie knife.

A wide brim hat sits on his head. When in the saddle, he wears spurs on the heels of his high-top boots and stovepipe chaps. He writes his sister, Well, I have been having a glorious time here, and am well-hardened now. I have just come in for spending 13 hours in the saddle. First and foremost, the cattle have done well, and I regard the outlook for making the business a success as being very hopeful.

This winter, I lost about 25 head from wolves, cold, etc. The others are in admirable shape, and I have about 155 calves. I shall put on a thousand more cattle, and shall make it my regular business. I have never been in better health than on this trip.

I am in the saddle all day long, either taking part in the round of the cattle or hunting antelope. This country is growing on me. It has a curious, fantastic beauty of its own. Before the summer is out, Roosevelt lays claim to a large tract of land 35 miles to the north of the Maltese cross. He wrecks a cabin on it, drives in a herd of cattle, and christens his new ranch, Elkhorn. When the Marquis hears about it, he says he has an earlier claim to the same property.

Roosevelt notes the Marquis has not built the cabin on the property or stocked it with cattle, and ignores the Frenchman's protestations. Roosevelt understands that not standing fast will expose him to ridicule as a weakling. He desperately wants to be respected as a man who lives by the Code of the West.

Unwritten and informal, the Code of the West develops during the 19th century in the American West. First and foremost, a man is expected to stand his ground, to have sand in the face of death. Many a man expresses it simply, I'll die before I'll run. A man is also expected to be loyal to his friends. The Cowboys call it riding for the brand.

A man is expected to work hard and pull his own weight. A man is never to steal another man's horse. That isn't mere theft, but can mean a death sentence for the man who is left without a horse. Certain forms of outlawry are tolerated. A highwayman can hold up a stagecoach or train and take the express company's treasure box, but he is not to rob the passengers. A man's word is his bond. His word and his handshake are better than a legal contract.

Women are to be treated with difference and respect. Roosevelt embraces the Code of the West and is determined to live by it. When he first arrives, many suspect he's not up to it. Will this scion from a prominent family in New York be up to the rigors of life on the frontier? The glasses he wears don't help. However, he throws himself into working his ranches with such determination, energy, and stamina that even the most seasoned Cowboys are impressed.

But when faced with life or death, will he have sand? As a cattle operation, Theodore was the boss, and during roundups, Theodore would take a job just like any other cowboy, and he would do various jobs rounding up the cattle. The only thing he didn't do was rope any of the cattle because of his poor eyesight, but he'd help in the branding and castrating the male cows and things like that. During one of the cattle roundups, Theodore was noticing that some of his men were lagging behind and the cattle were starting to spread out, so he yelled to them and said, you there, hasten forward quickly now. Well, the Cowboys simply looked at him for a moment and thought, what the heck was that? Now, most Cowboys, when they round up cattle, they'll do the various yas or yihas or whistles or all sorts of sound effects to get them to move. Well, when the Cowboys in Roosevelt's outfit got a little bored, they would yell at the cattle, hasten forward quickly after that moment.

During his first summer on his ranches, Roosevelt is many miles west of the Elkhorn looking for stray horses. With the sun setting, he decides to ride to Mingusville, a town on the Montana side of the border with a small cluster of buildings, including a railroad station, a livery, and a hotel. It's dark by the time he stables his horse and walks towards Nolan's hotel. Two shots suddenly ring out from the bar and dining room of the hotel. Undeterred, Roosevelt walks inside and finds the bartender and several men, as Roosevelt put it, wearing the kind of smile worn by men making believe to like what they don't like. Roosevelt also sees a drunken patron with a revolver in each hand, swearing and strutting back and forth.

A clock on the wall has two bullet holes in its face, evidence of the drunk's prowess with his revolvers. When the drunk sees Roosevelt, he proclaims, four eyes will treat the house to drinks. Roosevelt laughs along with everyone else and takes a seat at a table, hoping that will be the end of it. However, the drunk strides over to the table and repeats the demand. You're going to buy us a drink, Theodore said, tried to ignore it. And again, he's repeated his demand with a few cuss words in it. Theodore always said, if it's at all possible to avoid a fight, avoid it. He says, but if you can't, hit them and hit them hard so they don't get up. Well, Theodore, the man standing in front of his table, Theodore sitting down and he's weaving and Theodore said, well, if I've got to, I've got to. And as he stood up, he pushed the table aside and hit the man with a sharp right to the chin, a sharp left and another right driving him back. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath and Michael Blake tell the story of Teddy Roosevelt and his adventures out West.

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To learn more, visit bose.com. And we continue with our American stories and let's pick up where we last left off with Theodore Roosevelt punching out a bully in a bar. Here's McGrath and Blake. While collapsing to the floor, the drunk reflexively fires his guns, hitting no one. Roosevelt is ready to drop on the man with a knee to the ribs, but sees he's unconscious. Well, after this fight with the drunken cowboy, all the cowboys in the area of Medora respected Theodore.

They accepted him then as one. He had proved his mettle. Another incident that cements Roosevelt's reputation as a man with sand and not just another Easterner playing cowboy occurs just after the ice breaks up on the Little Missouri River. In fear for their lives from vigilantes in Montana, three men steal Roosevelt's boot that he tied to a tree just above the river's shoreline on his Elkhorn Ranch.

When Roosevelt discovers a theft, he's outraged. He and two ranch hands set out in a second boat to capture the miscreants. The thieves have a couple days head start, but there are still ice flows on the river and the weather turns bitterly cold, forcing them to stop frequently, build fires, and hunt for game. After a week of pursuit, Roosevelt and his hands see the stolen boat moored on the riverbank and smoke coming from a campfire.

They stealthily approach the campfire and see one man warming himself. Roosevelt springs out of the brush and levels a Winchester at the man. He offers no resistance and has taken prisoner. Still out hunting, his two partners return singly and suffer the same fate at the hands of Roosevelt. Now in two boats, Roosevelt, his ranch hands and the prisoners continue downstream until they come upon a ranch and secure a wagon from the ranch. While Theodore didn't want to sit with his back to these three men riding alongside the driver in the wagon, so he followed the wagon in ankle-deep mud in the middle of February and he walked the 45 miles to Dickinson to turn them over into the local law authority.

And by the time he got there, his feet were almost frostbitten. He hadn't slept for 36 hours because he kept, he stayed awake the whole time to watch these guys so they didn't try to escape. When he turned him in, he, the next morning when they were arraigned in front of a judge who happened to be somebody Theodore knew from his days at Columbia College when he was studying to be a lawyer, and the judge's name was Western Starr, he asked the judge not to charge the German man because he says, I don't think he knows what he's doing. And the German man would profusely thank Theodore for his efforts and Theodore chuckled and said, well that's the first time I've ever been thanked for calling someone an idiot. The other two men did get five-year terms and he had the respect of the local cattle owners, but they didn't understand why did you go to all that trouble when you could have just shot him or hung them and that was it. And they didn't understand Theodore and this was something very key to Theodore's makeup and something that would echo throughout the rest of his life, whether he was a New York Police Commissioner or in charge of the Civil Service Board or Assistant Secretary to the Navy or the Governor of New York and then ultimately the President of the United States. Theodore didn't want vengeance, he wanted justice and he saw justice serve.

That was very important to him. Yes, it would have been easier to hang the three men or shoot them, but that was not what Theodore wanted. Obviously if the men tried to shoot it out with them they would have returned fire, but Theodore was determined to see these men brought to justice and justice they were. Even out west, the politician in civic duty is in Roosevelt's blood. He is instrumental in organizing the Little Missouri Stockmen's Association and at the organization's first meeting in December 1884 he's elected chairman or some call it president and re-elected in 1885 and 1886. Maduro's newspaper The Badlands Cowboy says the association can congratulate itself on again electing Theodore Roosevelt as president.

Under his administration everything moves quickly forward and there's none of that time-consuming fruitless talk that so invariably characterizes a deliberative assembly without a good presiding officer. Roosevelt becomes a member of the Montana Stockrows Association in April 1885 and serves on one of that association's committees. As a member of both cattlemen's associations, Roosevelt is clearly not only accepted as a westerner but respected. Victor Stickney, the doctor who treated Roosevelt for blistered and frostbitten feet, invites Roosevelt to give the keynote address at Dickinson's 4th of July celebration. Roosevelt accepts. In the past noon on the 4th Roosevelt begins his address to a crowd of hundreds. It is his first major public speech. He declares that though America shares a present with other nations, the future belongs to America.

It's the same with Dakota territory he says. We, crangers and cowboys alike, have opened a new land. We are the pioneers and as we shape the course of a stream near its head our efforts have infinitely more effect in bending it in any given direction. Later in his speech he expounds on a theme that will come to characterize him as a national political figure, says Roosevelt. Like all Americans I like big things, big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads and herds of cattle too, big factories, steamboats and everything else.

But we must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their property corrupted their virtue. It is of more importance that we should show ourselves honest, brave, truthful and intelligent than that we should own all the railways and grain elevators in the world. Roosevelt concludes his address by saying he is now as much a Westerner as an Easterner and is proud to be considered such.

The crowd applauds loudly and many roar their approval. On the train ride home from Dickinson to Medora, A.T. Packard, the publisher of the Badlands cowboy, tells Roosevelt that his future is not as a rancher but as a politician. Packard thinks Roosevelt will be president one day, says Roosevelt.

If your prophecy comes true I will do my part to make a good one. Theodore Roosevelt is all of 27 years old. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath and Michael Blake tell the remarkable life story of Teddy Roosevelt and my goodness to earn the respect of a bunch of 19th century cattlemen.

No duck walk and he walked the walk. That bar fight probably sealed his fate but that he ultimately joined these associations and led them and spent the time doing that. He also showed leadership and not just fortitude and strength. When we come back more of this remarkable American character and how the West shaped that character. The story of Theodore Roosevelt born on this day in 1858.

Teddy Roosevelt's story continues here on Our American Story. by joining their Pass the Ball Challenge. Just grab a specially marked bag of Lay's, Cheetos, or Doritos, scan the QR code and enter for a chance to win. But if you want more entries you gotta pass the ball. The Golden World Soccer Ball that is. The first people to add their picture to the Golden Ball will receive a one-of-a-kind collectible NFT commemorating the experience.

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Find your cheer on the Starbucks app today. And we continue here on our American stories with the life of Teddy Roosevelt and how his time in the west shaped it. Let's continue with our fabulous storytellers and the now 27-year-old Theodore Roosevelt.

Here's McGrath and Blake. Roosevelt uses his slow times on the ranch for writing. Before he came west he authored his first book The Naval War of 1812. Now he completes his second book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and is well on his way to finishing a third book, a biography of Missouri's famous senator Thomas Hart Benton. His foremen and cowboys see him at his desk for hours getting up now and then to pace about and then go back to writing. When Roosevelt is not writing during slow times he's hunting.

He bags all the big game in the west. Alluding him until the end is the mountain goat. The surprisingly tough, wary, and sure-footed critter is found only at higher elevations, most often on steep and rocky mountainsides above the tree line. Roosevelt isn't able to shoot one until a professional hunter, Jack Willis, agrees to take him along on the hunt in Montana. After a couple days of grueling, hiking, and climbing Roosevelt misses an easy shot but the next day he makes, in the words of Willis, an impossible shot and drops a mountain goat at a distance of a quarter of a mile with a shot through the heart. A day later Roosevelt and Willis are working their way along a narrow ledge when Roosevelt slips and falls at first off the ledge.

When I saw him fall, said Willis, I wouldn't have given two bits for his life. Roosevelt skids and bounces 60 feet down a rocky slope before his fall is stopped by the branch of a pine tree. He comes to rest at the base of the pine, still clutching his rifle but without his glasses. By the time Willis reaches him, Roosevelt is on his feet saying he's okay. Searching for a time he finds his classes, which miraculously are not broken.

Back up the slope the two of them climb and continue the day's hunt. Willis loses his last skepticism of the Easterner turned Westerner. There was another fellow in the Medora area named Jerry Packard who was something of a troublemaker and he came out to Theodore's Elkhorn Ranch one day while Theodore was out hunting and he was talking with Bill Sillwall and said this is a very nice place and word got back to Sillwall. That Packard in town in Medora was saying he wanted to take the Elkhorn Ranch and he said if Roosevelt wants to pay for it he can pay for it even in blood. Well word got back to Sillwall and as soon as Theodore returned from his hunting trip, Sillwall said hey you know you got to be aware that Packard was making these threats. Theodore said oh okay so he saddles up on the horse, rides over to Packard's cabin, knocks on the door. Packard opens it and he says I understand you have threatened to kill me.

I'm here to ask when do you want the killing to begin and if you have anything to say against me say it now. And about all Packard could do was stammer and stumble and say something to the effect of while it was all a mistake. They remained friendly even years later when Theodore was coming through on his 1903 Great Loop tour as president and stopped in Dickinson.

Packard was there who at that time was serving as a law officer and they greeted each other heartily in that but no mention of that incident. Another time when Theodore was riding along and he was riding with Lincoln Lang to go into a cabin where this lady made these beautiful buckskin shirts. They're riding along and they hear this chirping noise and squealing noise and they stop and they notice that a bull snake has wrapped its coils around a jackrabbit and is strangling to death.

Well Theodore jumps off his horse and with his quirt which was a leather whip, small whip that cowboys would use and wear it around their wrists to whip their horse, he proceeds to whip the daylights out of the snake and kill it and he uncoiled the jackrabbit out of the snake's tightness and he's holding it in his arms cradling it in his arms and petting it while you know the rabbit is kind of gaining its senses back and he's sitting there there in the middle of nowhere and just gently stroking the rabbit on the head and on the back and then puts him down and the rabbit scurries off and he said there goes a sore but wiser rabbit. Roosevelt's many hunting trips make him aware of the need to preserve the natural habitat of the big game of the west. As a consequence he founds the Boone and Crockett Club.

Named for two of his heroes, the club is dedicated to conserving the wilderness and to what he terms fair chase hunting. Roosevelt loves his new life in the west but mother nature is about to turn against him and all other ranchers on the high plains. The summer of 1886 is unusually hot and dry and the normally abundant grass disappears. Ranchers purchase hay from farmers but the demand soon exceeds the supply.

Cattle begin losing weight and some die. Cooler weather comes in October but then a blizzard hits in mid-November. Day after day snow piles up and temperatures drop until they dip well below zero.

Then in early December a Chinook wind drives temperatures up as much as 50 degrees in one day. The snow begins to melt. Then suddenly the temperature drops again to 10, 20, 30 degrees below zero. One morning a temperature of 41 degrees below zero is recorded. The melting snow is turned to an ice sheet. A cattle can't paw through it to get to the feed.

More snow storms arrive driven by powerful winds from Canada. Cattle starve, cattle freeze to death and cattle suffocate when buried alive in snowdrifts. The era of the open range cattle industry dies in the winter of 1886 to 1887. Roosevelt loses more than 60 percent of his cattle and he was one of the lucky ranchers. A way of life for the cattlemen of the high plains that has prevailed for the preceding 20 years is over, never to return.

The Cowboys have an old saying that somebody's all hat and no cattle which means they're all talking no action. Theodore definitely was all action and the people understood that. Maybe not the people in Washington but the American public understood it and embraced it and while he was president he set aside 230 million acres for the American public to see, established 51 bird sanctuaries, eight national parks, 18 national monuments. He and William Halliday started a breeding program at the Bronx Zoo for the American buffalo. It's rather ironic that the man goes to hunt buffalo and he becomes known as the great conservation president.

Late in 1887 Roosevelt leaves for New York. He will come back to his ranch but only for visits. However, it is his years as a rancher in Dakota territory that help make Theodore Roosevelt the man he becomes. The man who organizes the Rough Riders and leads the charge up San Juan Hill and the man political boss Mark Hanna calls that damn cowboy. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath and Michael Blake tell one heck of a story and by the way McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, How Him and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier. He's a former U.S. Marine, a former history professor at UCLA and he's appeared on numerous history channel documentaries and we are lucky to have him as a regular contributor here at Our American Stories.

And Michael Blake, well he's a two-time Emmy-winning makeup artist and respected film historian. He's the author of the informative and easy to read biography, The Cowboy President, The American West and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt. That time in the Dakota territories what a mark it left on Roosevelt's life and what a mark it left in American life. 200 million acres preserved eight national parks, perhaps the first American conservationist and certainly the first American president who thought about our land in this way.

Theodore Roosevelt born on this day in 1858 here on Our American Stories. How does a 65-inch Vizio 4K Smart TV with award-winning Quantum Color sound? Pretty good, right? Now you can get one for just $429. That's a $110 discount at Sam's Club. The Vizio M-Series Smart TV displays over a billion colors and Dolby Vision HDR to create a true-to-life picture.

With Vizio's huge selection of built-in apps, you can even listen to your favorite music with iHeartRadio right on your TV. This Sam's Club exclusive runs from November 5th to the 9th, so head to sam'sclub.com today. Do you want to win two tickets to the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar? Frito-Lay is giving you the chance to make history by joining their Pass the Ball Challenge. Add your picture to the Golden World Soccer Ball, then pass the ball to fellow fans to score additional entries. Scan the QR code on specially marked bags of Lay's, Cheetos or Doritos or visit fritoleyscore.com and pass the ball now. No purchase necessary. Open to legal resonance of 50 USDC 18-plus grand prize entry deadline 11-10-22. Entries received after 11-10-22 are only eligible for secondary prizes.

See rules at fritoleyscore.com. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2. Next-Gen Earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound, so you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2. Sound shape to you. To learn more, visit bose.com.
Whisper: small.en / 2022-11-07 13:00:56 / 2022-11-07 13:09:27 / 9

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