Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, October 13, 2018


After the week of the fair, Buttercup returned to her meadow, where she reigned as queen for the rest of her long life.

Ida wanted to tell everyone the good news, but she quickly realized that practically everyone she wanted to tell had been in the coliseum and had watched Buttercup win the championship. Ida had to be content to bask in the warm glow of victory.

Just before school was to begin, Ida took Robert and Charles to the school cafeteria to buy their books. Robert always looked forward to the occasion, for he loved to walk up and down the tables to see the covers of the books for all the grades. The fragrance of the volumes resembled that of a cup of fine tea. Ida scrutinized the used copies to make sure they were the same editions as the new books, and she bought used whenever the books contained no marks, underlining, or notes. Quite often, she purchased new printings. On the way back across the road, Robert and Charles carried armloads of books.

Just at the end of August, the television carried news of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The cameras panned across a multitude of people—more people than Robert could imagine in one place at one time! Robert tried to understand what the newscasters—with their perfectly trained voices and equally perfect grammar—were saying, but, at key moments in their sentences, their vocabulary exceeded Robert’s and he lost their meaning. He had a penchant for words, so he kept trying, and, during commercials, he asked his mother what various terms meant.

Her early teenage years in the Methodist Children’s Home in Lebanon, Indiana, had given Ida a steadfast faith. She hoped that past maladies leading down to the present hour could be made well, but she feared that the illnesses afflicting the nation might not find cures.

In defining words, Ida attempted to conceal her vague sense of foreboding, but Robert discerned her worry about the future.

Robert entered Mrs. Winegardner’s fourth-grade class. Mrs. Winegardner was as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar. Her eyes fixed each student in place, and she held all students to the highest standard. She had one of those faces of artistic concentration like a Willa Cather or a Gene Stratton–Porter. Like Joe, Robert’s father and her classmate from long before, Mrs. Winegardner loved history. When she taught about Clay and Webster and Calhoun, she brought to life their powerful points of view. Little by little, she nudged the class toward an understanding of the long history of conflict that was the foreground for current events. Robert found the concept of inequality incomprehensible, yet his American history book reported a story the theme of which was inequality from the American Revolution forward.

The school year promised to be rewarding. Mr. Charles “Charlie” Coffman had been named the interim principal; the beloved teacher, 4-H leader, FFA sponsor, and organist at the county fair was admired by all the students.

In November, Ida wrote on the back of the wall calendar provided by Messner and Sons (Clothing and Shoes for the Entire Family, Phone Dudley 5-2041) of Oxford:

get gander
sell chickens
see egg man
finish cleaning
straighten drawers
Christmas presents
freeze turkeys
shell popcorn
rake leaves
cook pumpkins

At school that November afternoon, Mr. Coffman came to Mrs. Winegardner’s door. Robert looked up in astonishment. Mr. Coffman was crying!

He said, “I’m sorry to interrupt. I don’t know a good way to say this. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas, and he has passed away. School will end early today. I’ve already called in the bus drivers.” With that, he put his handkerchief to his eyes, turned, and was gone.

Mrs. Winegardner, who was sitting at her desk, slowly closed her book. She was staring through the open doorway. She took a deep breath and faced her class.

“Well,” she said. “This is a difficult time. Please put away your books and wait quietly.”

Mrs. Winegardner stood and walked just outside her door, where she spoke softly with the other elementary teachers. Mrs. Leighty, the fifth-grade teacher, was crying. Buses began appearing in the parking lot outside the fourth-grade windows. Soon, everyone was sent home.

Now Ida knew what her ominous feelings had meant. She was witnessing the shattering of the age.

The television remained on throughout the waking hours that weekend. Ida did not feel like cooking Sunday dinner, so she suggested the family go to a restaurant in Boswell. Joe drove into town to invite Aunt Margaret, who put on her winter coat, gloves, and hat and accompanied Joe back home. When he parked by the front gate, Aunt Margaret walked into the house. The TV camera was showing the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters where Lee Harvey Oswald was to be transferred to the county jail. Just then, a man in the crowd approached Oswald. A commotion ensued, deepening into pandemonium.

“I think somebody just shot Lee Harvey Oswald,” Aunt Margaret said. No one else said anything. It was stunning to be watching an event of such magnitude as it happened. The family stood in front of the television for several minutes, until Ida thought everyone had seen enough for the time being. She switched off the set. In the cold outdoors, Joe, Ida, Aunt Margaret, Charles, and Robert filed to the car for the short trip to the restaurant. 

School was cancelled for Monday so that everyone could watch the funeral on television. Images on the TV burned into Robert’s memory, the eternal flame one of the last.

It was exactly as has often been said: those that were alive then would remember for the rest of their lives what they had been doing when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination arrived.

The often expressed presumption that the nation had entered an exciting period of youthful vigor characterized by a relatively young President had vanished.

Nothing felt the same after that.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

38. The Champion ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

The first day of the 4-H fair week dawned, and Joe had already been busy, loading the new wooden box that held the brushes, halter, and products necessary to keep Buttercup looking beautiful. As soon as the sun peeked over the horizon, Ida and Robert were walking the rows and scrutinizing the vegetables to decide which ones to pick for the gardening display. With sunbeams lighting its yellow feathers, a meadowlark perched on a fence post and sang, “How are you today? How are you today?” in answer to the crowing of a rooster in the chicken yard. Then the meadowlark flapped its wings and flapped them again as it dipped and rose, dipped and rose, above the pasture.

Yawning, Charles came to help Joe as he led Buttercup up the chute into the pickup for the ride to Williamsport. She seemed eager to go. Having seen Francis the Talking Mule at the movie theater in Oxford and Mr. Ed on television, Joe and Charles had little difficulty imagining that Buttercup was saying, “Let’s get this show on the road! My fans await me!”

With Robert as her passenger, Ida drove the Chevrolet behind Joe’s GMC, where Charles was seated next to his father. When Joe passed the Mitchell farm, he kicked up dust on the berm as the pickup’s right tires ran just beyond the edge of the pavement. Joe was too busy looking for the Mitchells’ cow to watch the road. Russell, Roger, and Richard were loading a stylish Holstein heifer in their truck. Joe waved. Russell winked and waved back. Joe ran the tires back onto the asphalt.

When the truck and car passed Mrs. Arvin’s house on the left, Robert spotted his former teacher in her garden, and he yelled, “Hi ya, hi ya, hi ya, Mrs. Arvin!” He waved through the open window. Robert was so loud that Ida flinched, grabbed the steering wheel tightly, and pushed the throttle to the floor. The car lurched forward before Ida lifted her foot and brought the vehicle back to a normal speed. Mrs. Arvin straightened up and watched the Chevrolet as it went on down the road.

“Do you think she saw me?” Robert asked.

“Oh, she saw you alright, and she heard you, too,” Ida confirmed. When she told Joe about Robert’s outburst later, he laughed. The saying “Hi ya, hi ya, hi ya, Mrs. Arvin!” became a family quotation, repeated on seemingly endless occasions for years thereafter.

Driving the pickup with Buttercup happily watching the world go by, Joe, meanwhile, was whistling the tune to

Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Old Mrs. Leary left the lantern in the shed,
And when the cow kicked it over,
She winked her eye and said,
“It’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”

Red-winged blackbirds sitting on the passing fences chortled in harmony.

Soon enough, the pickup pulled into the fairgrounds of the county seat. Joe maneuvered his GMC into the line of trucks unloading animals to be housed in the south wing of the coliseum and livestock barn. The men in charge of the dairy exhibits assigned Buttercup the southeast corner: an ideal location! No sooner had she taken up residence in the large space than teenage girls walking past saw Buttercup and came up to pet her nose. Ida had parked in one of the regular spots along the shady road, and Robert ran to help his father and brother scatter golden straw in thick crests around and under Buttercup. Joe wrestled the show box in place just behind Buttercup. For weeks before the fair, Charles had decorated it with vibrantly colored Amish star symbols around the sides, and he had perfectly painted large green letters spelling RHODE in the center of the lid. Then he had given the box several coats of glossy varnish. It was a work of art!

Robert ran back to help his mother carry the vegetables to the aisle beneath the bleachers where the gardening exhibits were arranged. In preparation for the event, he had used marker pens, crayons, and poster board to duplicate the Great Seal of the State of Indiana. A magenta and fuschia sunrise colored hills pink and violet while a cinnamon and ginger bison leapt over a log and a woodsman swung an ax to chop an emerald and turquoise tree above aquamarine grass dotted with pale yellow flowers. The kaleidoscopic depiction hung from tiny gold chains behind Ida’s oversized cornucopia basket with a huge cabbage in its maw as beans, corn, carrots, onions, kohlrabi, and turnips poured forth in spectacular array.

Having fed and watered Buttercup, Joe sauntered down the aisle and took a close look at the competition. He felt satisfied that the Mitchell heifer might take the honors away from Buttercup.

“That heifer of yours,” Russell said, as he chewed on a straw and squinted in Joe’s direction, “will put a smile on the judge’s face.”

Joe grinned. “So will yours,” he admitted.

Russell glanced appreciatively at the better heifer of the two that his boys were going to show. “She’ll be a contender,” Russell remarked.

“With the Holstein judging as the first event tomorrow morning, we won’t have too much longer to learn what happens,” Joe said.

Russell turned to Joe. “May the best heifer win!” he said, chuckling.

In the afternoon, the whole family helped give Buttercup a bath in one of the special pens set up for such purposes. She obviously loved being shampooed and rinsed, toweled and brushed, until her coat shone.

The day passed rapidly away. At dusk, the GMC and the Chevrolet caravanned back to Pine Village. That night, Joe hardly slept a wink. At four in the morning, he sat sipping instant coffee as his mind mulled over the finer points of Buttercup and her adversary.

Charles dressed in his show clothes. He wore jeans of the purest white and a new plaid shirt with white, avocado, and light blue squares. Buttercup wore a brand new halter of shiny black leather that Joe had purchased at considerable expense.

The crowd began gathering in the coliseum. Mr. Charles Coffman slid onto the bench before the electric organ on the platform stage, smiled at the audience, and launched into a rousing rendition of “Fine and Dandy.” He completed the song with a flourish and nodded to the families seated on both sides.

Mr. John F. McKee, county extension agent, clapped his hands and strode to the microphone. “Very fine! Very fine!” he exclaimed. He adjusted his silver hair and his equally silver glasses. “Now will the 4-H members bring in their Holstein heifers.”

Roger and Richard Mitchell led their cows into the ring. Then Charles brought Buttercup, who put on her best show for the crowd—and for the judge, a professorial gentleman wearing glasses, a dazzling white shirt, and what appeared to be snakeskin boots. In all, five cows were competing in the class, two led by girls.

Wearing a printed shirt and slacks for show day, Joe stood near one of the wooden panels leading to the judging area, his arms folded and his brows drawn in what Robert called his “eagle-eyed look.” Joe’s friend, Don Akers, strode up from the hog barn. Don’s cap was pulled forward, shading his eyes. His smile, as white as his T-shirt, lit up his tanned face as he rested one foot on the bottom board of the panel and put his hands on the top board. “Well, Joe, how does she look?”

As soon as Joe had seen Don, Joe had dropped his arms, tucked his thumbs just inside the upper edges of his back pockets, and leaned forward in a characteristic posture that meant he would now give the fullest consideration to whatever Don had to say. “I think she looks good,” Joe said, grinning and blushing from having complimented his own heifer.

Don offered, “It’s a small class—”

“—but there’s strong competition,” Joe added, shaking his head with worry.

At the same instant, Joe and Don looked across at Russell Mitchell, who waved at them. With one accord, Don and Joe raised and lowered the first fingers of their right hands in the universally accepted gesture of acknowledgment.

“Russell often wins this class, doesn’t he?” Don asked.

“Yes,” Joe answered, repeating, “yes, he does.”

“Don’t you wish you could tell what the judge is thinking!” Don exclaimed. “But maybe it’s just as well that we don’t know. He might be wishing he had a coin he could flip.”   

Joe laughed, removed his seed corn cap, ran his hand over his head, put his cap back on, and said, “We could give him a quarter, but people might think we were trying to bribe him.”

“What counts is what those boys and girls are learning out there,” Don said.

The judge had the 4-H members walk their heifers around the ring and then stand them. Buttercup needed no encouragement or instruction. When she walked, she strutted, and, when she stood, she posed. Passing his hands along their backs and flanks, the judge studied every detail of each cow.

He approached the platform. A hush fell throughout the coliseum. The judge pointed toward Buttercup and immediately pointed toward Richard’s heifer. “Number one and number two,” the judge barked.

Robert, who was seated beside his mother in the stands, could not be sure what the judge meant. He glanced worriedly from Ida’s face nearby to Joe’s face across the ring.

“I think Buttercup just won,” Ida said, but she was uncertain, too. From their angle, it was difficult to know which way the judge had pointed. Ida looked at Joe. He was frowning, staring straight ahead, and not moving a muscle, but Don was smiling.

The man with the ribbons in his hand stepped down from the platform and into the ring while the judge ascended the platform and strode toward the microphone.

Smiles crept across Ida’s face and Joe’s face and Robert’s face as the man with the ribbons came closer and closer to Charles. The man briefly held the champion ribbon over Buttercup’s neck before handing the coveted purple treasure to Charles, who grinned from ear to ear.

While the reserve champion ribbon went to Richard’s entry, the judge said, “These winning heifers are so nearly alike that they could be twins. It’s really splitting hairs to say there’s a difference between them. For me, it came down to personality. I like the attitude of the champion.” The judge paused; then he shrugged. “She just acts like a champion!” he declared, to the amusement of the crowd. Farm wives and farmer husbands turned toward one another and laughed heartily, nodding in agreement with the judge. “These 4-H’ers,” the judge continued, “deserve a great deal of credit for raising such fine animals, training them, and bringing them to our attention.” With that, he signaled the helpers to assist the boys and girls in leading their cows from the ring.    

Robert and Ida were standing with Charles at Buttercup’s stall before Joe and Don got there. Don’s wife, Mary, came up, almost on the run.

“I was helping in the Craft Building,” Mary said, nearly out of breath, “but I caught the tail end of the judging—” Mary hesitated a second, catching her pun and adding, “so to speak. Congratulations!”

“I have the camera,” Ida said, lifting the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye to show Joe.

“Let’s take Buttercup around the corner outside where there’ll be more light,” Joe suggested.

Charles held the lead strap while Buttercup took her position with the glistening championship ribbon draped across her back. Sun dappled the white-painted building, and Buttercup’s black-and-white coat wore a velvety sheen. The heifer fluttered her long lashes; she knew she was the champion. The snapshot would be preserved for years thereafter.

“That makes it feel like all the work was worth it, doesn’t it, Charles?” Don asked.

“Yes, it does,” Charles assented, while he led Buttercup back to her stall.

“Let’s all get together for dinner in the Cafeteria Building to celebrate,” Mary said to Ida and Joe.

“Want to meet there around 11:30?” Ida asked.

“We’ll see you there!” Mary smiled. “I need to get back to the Craft Building,” she said while excusing herself and dashing away.

Don said, “Now that we know the best heifer won, I can get back to cleaning up my hog pens!” With that, Don headed down the aisle.

“The gardening exhibits should be judged by now,” Joe said.

“We’ll go see,” Ida said. She and Robert marched off to the room, which had been locked during the judging. The wire door stood open. When they walked to where the Great Seal of Indiana stood in all its glory above the cornucopia, they could not believe their eyes. A big pink rosette with the words “Reserve Sweepstakes” on it was pinned to the basketry. An older 4-H member’s exhibit had taken the sweepstakes, but, with so many entrants, being second best was the same as winning.

Even as exciting as the reserve sweepstakes in gardening was, the family felt that the most thrilling experience had been watching Buttercup win her championship.

On the way home that night, Joe silently concluded there had been other champions that day: Don and Mary.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

37. The Movie and the Cousins ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

As Joe took the family to the Wabash Drive-In near Attica to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, he slowed down and ran the right-hand wheels of the Chevrolet onto the berm when he passed Russell Mitchell’s farm. Joe’s eyes roamed across the Holsteins in the pasture. He worried that Russell’s sons might have a heifer so promising that she could challenge Buttercup for the championship at the county fair.

After eating his popcorn, Robert fell asleep for most of the movie. Ida considered waking him, but she found the motion picture so preposterously long that she thought a sound sleep might outweigh the historical value. To her, the extravagant scenes felt pompous and out of place with the mood of the country that the television was establishing. About a year earlier, the family had attended The Music Man at the Mars Theater in Lafayette, and Robert had eagerly watched every moment of that rousing musical. Now Ida glanced into the back seat to see Robert peacefully dreaming. She began to wonder if she would miss anything if she, too, were to take a nap during Cleopatra. The squawking speaker hanging on the edge of Joe’s window kept droning on and on.

The weekend arrived when Uncle Harold’s car crunched the pebbles of the half-circle driveway in front of the house.

“They’re here!” Robert called from his perch at the front window, where he had been vigilantly watching.

It was early Sunday morning, and everyone was dressed for church. The summer day had turned off blessedly cooler after a hot week—almost like the springtime!

Dapper Uncle Harold wore a neatly trimmed mustache and was one of the few mustachioed men in Robert’s experience. Uncle Harold escorted daughters Sally and Becky and Aunt Della through the front gate. Robert loved hearing Uncle Harold’s Georgia accent!

Wearing her new dress, which had just arrived from the mail-order house, Ida greeted her sister, who took Ida’s hand and held it closely in her own. Robert looked back and forth from his mother to his aunt and noted the resemblance.

“You look so pretty, Ida,” Della said.

“The dress is new,” Ida beamed. “Look how much your daughters have grown!” Ida turned to Sally and Becky. “You’re young ladies now,” she said.

Robert considered his cousins more beautiful than the girls in The Music Man.

Charles said, “After church, we can ride bikes!”

Sally laughed. “Charles,” she said “I wonder what I would look like wearing this dress and trying to pedal a boy’s bike?”

Joe said, “You know how much you enjoyed steering the tractor the last time you visited. I can put a blanket on the seat and we can go for a ride on the Minneapolis–Moline Z, if you want to later on.”

Ida said, “I think the girls may want to walk with Della and me around the garden and see the flowers this time.”

Meanwhile, Uncle Harold handed Ida a box full of oranges.

“You didn’t grow these in Georgia!” Ida exclaimed.

Harold smiled. “No, these are from Florida.”

“Well, they look wonderful,” Ida said, as she turned to carry the box into the kitchen. “We’ll be having a big dinner after church,” she called back over her shoulder. “Maybe we can add some oranges to the fruit cups.”

Harold and Joe drove their families to the Methodist Church, where Grandpa and Grandma Morris were waiting on the steps.

“It is so good to see you,” Grandpa Morris said, shaking hands with Harold while Fern quickly hugged Della.

“Aren’t your girls dressed so nice!” Grandma Morris said.

“They’re young ladies,” Grandpa Morris observed.

“That’s exactly what I said,” Ida commented.

In the car, Ida had put on her new white gloves and had adjusted her blue hat, which she had simplified to match the new styles. As Ida and Della walked down the aisle, Robert thought his mother and his aunt looked radiant and charming. He felt proud that his aunt was so becoming in her dove-gray dress and matching hat of the latest fashion.

Pastor David Richards invited the congregation to sing the first hymn. Although he felt that he did not sing well, Robert could easily read the music. He enjoyed listening to his mother’s clear soprano voice and his father’s resonant baritone voice. As a young man, his father had performed with a quartet, and his experience showed in his confident singing.

The sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows cast pastel patterns on the pews. While the Rev. Richards gave the sermon, Robert watched the pink, gold, and turquoise lights play across his mother’s gloved hands, which she held clasped together until it was time to lift the hymnal again from the varnished rack attached to the back of the pew in front. The spring-like weather made the day seem like Easter in the middle of summer.

Ida and Della had much to talk about over the lavish dinner that Ida had prepared. Sally, Becky, Charles, and Robert sat at a folding table beside the main table. (Joe had removed the davenport to make room in the crowded kitchen.) Grandpa and Grandma Morris, Harold, Della, Joe, and Ida sat around the big table, which had been greatly expanded with extra leaves. Both tables were covered with antique linen tablecloths that Ida had ironed until there were no traces of wrinkles to be seen.

After the meal, everyone sauntered into the yard.

Charles glanced longingly at the red bike lying on its side near the well, but he realized that Sally and Becky’s dresses prohibited riding. Ida’s summer flowers were in full bloom. Becky clapped her hands when she saw a hybrid tea rose covered with big yellow blossoms.

“I love this,” she said, gesturing toward a rectangular flower garden running almost all the way across the yard from the house on the west to the garage on the east. In the center was an arched trellis with a climbing rose that was enjoying a second blush of red blooms.

“I was standing by that trellis,” Ida said, “on the morning when Robert was born. I can hardly believe he’ll turn nine in a few days.”

“He’s already steering the tractor when I haul cornstalks to the cows,” Joe said, with a smile toward Sally.

“I’ll steer for you the next time we visit,” Sally said, smiling back. “Aunt Ida, what is this called?” Sally asked, pointing toward a large, tangled bush.

“Do you mean the Japonica?” Ida returned. “It blooms in the spring.”

“I think what I’m seeing is blooming now,” Sally said.

“Show me,” Ida suggested.

Sally found a way into the flower bed without stepping on a plant, and she pointed directly at what looked like a miniature ear of green Indian corn on a stem.

“Oh, those are the seeds of Jack-in-the-pulpit!” Ida exclaimed. “They turn red in the fall.”

“Has it already bloomed then?” Sally asked.

“Yes, it bloomed in the spring. The pulpit looks like the old-fashioned ones that had an ornate canopy overhead. Under the canopy is this same stem, only much smaller when the plant is blooming. His name is Jack.”

“Can you eat the seeds?” Sally wondered.

“No,” Ida said. “The plant is poisonous, but the Indians had a way of preparing it as medicine.”

“It’s beautiful!” Sally exclaimed.

“It’s so peaceful here,” Della said, peering intently at her sister. “Everything else seems to be in such turmoil these days.”

Ida nodded, not able to put her thoughts into words but fearing that the world that Sally, Becky, Charles, and Robert would one day inhabit as adults might not be so peaceful.

The time had passed too quickly. Uncle Harold, Aunt Della, Sally, and Becky had to leave. They were going to stay overnight in West Point before returning to Georgia the next day. Aunt Della hugged Ida. The sisters’ eyes glistened.

Uncle Harold waved from the driver’s window as he made a U-turn and headed east on State Route 26. Charles and Robert waved back. Robert felt sad to see them go, but he knew they would come again before long.

In the mean time, Joe changed into his work clothes and went to the barn to start the evening chores. He looked carefully at Buttercup strolling with the other Holsteins along the path in the meadow. She glowed in the honey and amber light of late afternoon. Had she grown into the young lady that would take the championship ribbon at the fair? Joe would soon find out.