During the year before Robert began his formal schooling, his father bought a used car that was almost new. It was a 1957 two-door Chevrolet Bel Air Hardtop Coupe. Robert was glad to see the 1950 Chevrolet go. After all, it had knocked out his two front baby teeth! The new car sported fins and futuristic hood ornaments reminiscent of rockets. The roof was white and the body was pink. The abundance of chrome made Robert blink on a sunny day! What a splendid show the automobile made at the drive-in movies and drive-in restaurants!
Toward evening on Robert’s sixth birthday, the family drove to Boswell, a nearby town, for so-called “ice cream cones” at the Tastee Treet. The late July temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit felt a little on the hot side, and frozen custard was the perfect remedy. Robert was permitted to have the largest size. The challenge was twofold: to consume the swirled goodness without getting a so-called “ice cream headache” and to do so before the bottom of the cone became so soggy as to leak and drip down Robert’s shirt.
While Joe, Ida, Charles, and Robert were enjoying their cones, the topic of hair color came up in conversation. Everyone had dark hair, except Robert, who was blond. “I suppose Robert got his blond hair from you,” Ida said to Joe.
“Dad has dark hair,” Robert said, not really meaning to sound so contradictory.
“He does,” Ida agreed, “but it was blond when he was your age. It turned dark later.”
Actually, Joe was bald on top: a fact that embarrassed him. He liked wearing caps, which the seed corn companies provided, because they covered the bald area. The fringe of dark hair around the edges of the cap made him appear to have no baldness.
“I was somewhat younger than Robert when my hair grew darker,” Joe said.
Meditatively, Robert licked the frozen custard. He hoped his hair would remain blond.
At that moment, a man of high school age strode into the filling station that stood next door to the Tastee Treet. The young fellow’s hair was light blond.
“My hair is never going to turn black,” Robert asserted. “It is going to be that color.” He pointed at the blond high schooler through the open window of the car.
Even though she was laughing, Ida said, “It’s not polite to point.”
Robert’s prediction was accurate. Years later, he often pondered if, on that day at the Tastee Treet, he had willed himself to retain his blond hair.
Back home that evening, Robert asked his mother if he could practice reading The Little Engine That Could. She readily consented. Until September, there would be no new programs on the TV, and, in those years, Ida would not let the Zenith dictate what the family spent its time doing. There were only three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and by 1960, they had become chock full of Westerns, which were becoming just alike. The Zenith with its remote-controlled antenna on a scaffold up the side of the house pulled in two stations well and a third station reasonably well, but, as there was nothing that Ida wanted to see at that hour on the clear stations (that is, those free of static), she sat down beside Robert on the davenport in the kitchen. Together, they held the book that was so red that the blue locomotive on its cover almost blended into the red. It was the version retold by Watty Piper and published by Platt & Munk.
Robert sounded out the words again: “THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD … Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks. She was a happy little train for she had such a jolly load to carry. Her cars were filled full of good things for boys and girls.” Robert felt that he might be a little too old for the story, but he was learning to read and had to begin somewhere. As he had witnessed steam engines in action, he was ready to read about the confident little engine in the story.
Ida was a little worried that Robert might be starting to read too soon, but she remembered what the speech impediment specialist had said about Robert’s wide vocabulary. She did not want to hold Robert back. He would just be ahead in reading, and that was how it would be.
Robert read each word slowly for a page but was stuck on “giraffes” for a long time. “Yellow” threw him, as did “bobbed.” When he bogged down on “aeroplanes,” Ida said that he had read enough for one day, and Robert wanted to stop anyway. He glanced out the open window at the White Pekin ducks in the lot beyond the wire fence that ran along the south side of the yard. They were dabbling their bills in their water tub and preening themselves.
“It’s time to help your father feed those ducks and do the chores,” Ida said.
Having birthdays did not give one a pass to avoid chores on the farm! Besides, Joe was sure to be in a pleasant mood. He always was! He probably would join in a game of cowboys.
While the chores of feeding the chickens, feeding the ducks, feeding the geese, feeding the turkeys, making sure the pigs had enough feed in their feeders, feeding the Herefords (the beef cattle), and feeding and milking the Holsteins were underway, Robert and Charles could hide briefly and, when Joe passed nearby, leap out of hiding and “fire” an imaginary gun by tossing a corn cob shorn of its kernels. Joe would duck or sidestep the “bullet” that the cob represented. He carried a similar cob in a pocket of his overalls, and he would spin and “fire” his cob at whichever “cowboy” had “shot” at him. Whenever they were hit by one of Joe’s cobs, Charles or Robert would groan, “Oh, he got me,” hold hands over the spot where the cob had so lightly struck, and slowly fall to the ground. Then it was back to work.
The summer days seemed delightfully long. At the conclusion of his birthday, Robert felt he was living in an ideal world with the ideal car, the ideal ice cream cone, the ideal books, the ideal family, and the ideal hair color!