Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, March 24, 2019

22. The Snow and the Neighbor ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

A winter came with snow that would not quit. Relentlessly, layer was added to layer with no single storm that would qualify for the record books but with freezing temperatures that permitted the snow to deepen inexorably.

Joe, Charles, and Robert trudged through narrow pathways to the barn to feed the cows. Although there was still plenty of water in the tank for the cattle to drink, Joe hoped there would be a break in the weather soon, so that he could start the Minneapolis–Moline Z and haul water from the well by the house to the tank beside the barn.

School was cancelled …

… and snow kept falling. Now no pathway existed. Only a shallow depression in the snow …

A day dawned bright and cold. Joe had just entered the house from the enclosed porch, where he had removed his boots and the first of two denim coats. He was still wearing one denim coat and his cap with the earflaps down. His nose and cheeks were rosy.

“Here’s something you won’t see every year,” Joe said to Robert while turning on the burner beneath the tea kettle and meticulously measuring Maxim instant coffee into a cup.

“What’s that?” Robert asked, looking up from reading Macbeth.

“Just come outside with me and take a look—after I warm up with a cup of coffee.”

While Joe sipped his coffee from a teaspoon, Robert wondered what was so extraordinary that his father wanted him to see it.

When Joe was ready to venture back outside, Robert donned his heaviest winter coat and his stocking cap. He put on his boots before stepping from the enclosed porch into the wintry landscape beyond the door. With an effort, Joe and Robert plodded in front of the shop building, their boots descending through only the top layers of snow and coming to rest precariously on lower layers.

“Well, what do you see?” Joe asked.

Robert squinted against the light reflected from the whitest of snows extending to an indistinct horizon of blowing glitter.

“Nothing,” Robert replied. “Just snow.”

Robert glanced at the maple tree and at the openings into the old garage appearing to be two small caves in a mound of snow.

“Nothing,” he repeated.

“That’s right!” Joe said. “Where are the fence posts?”

Robert turned toward where the road and the posts along it should have been. Nothing indicated that a road lay beneath the snow, and the posts had vanished. For a split second, Robert thought of asking where the posts had gone, but then he realized that they were under a blanket of snow. He could walk on snow above the fences!

“Wow!” was the full complement of his response.

If Robert half closed his eyes, he could detect slight waves and ridges formed by wind in the snow’s surface.

“Seldom does the snow get so deep that the tops of the fence posts are hidden,” Joe commented.

Several days passed. One morning, Robert looked through the picture window and saw a line of raisins through the snow. Suddenly, he realized they were not raisins but the tops of the posts along the road. The snow was melting!

Later—precisely when all that snow melted—the spring rains poured down as if the heavens were giant water bags that had burst.

School was cancelled …

… for mud! Rain kept falling, transforming the gravel roads into impassable corridors of mud. Vehicles mired and were abandoned.

During a deluge, Robert stared through the picture window. The widely spaced creeks and ditches in the flat land could not carry away the water fast enough, and the house, shop, and old garage appeared to be on an island in the middle of a lake.

The Rhode family’s nearest neighbor was Agnes Moore. She was in her eighties, but she enjoyed complete mobility and was so active that she seemed much younger than her years. Every sunup, except on the coldest days of the winter, she walked briskly down the gravel road with her black Spaniel, Lady, by her side. In the stillness of daybreak, Robert heard Agnes’ footsteps crunching the gravel road. “Agnes is up,” thought Robert.

Along with playing piano for the Methodist Church, Robert worked with the Vacation Bible School. Agnes served as an instructor. Each morning, Robert picked her up and drove her to the church.

Agnes taught the youngsters to make churches by gluing Popsicle sticks to milk cartons. Meanwhile, she and Robert designed a more elaborate structure of their own. After a few days of diligent gluing, their Popsicle church was a veritable cathedral!

At about the same time, Agnes called Joe to ask him to use her gun to drop raccoons that Lady had treed in Agnes’ apple orchard. Robert thought, “A lot of good that will do! Dad doesn’t know anything about guns.” Ida did not permit guns on the farm, as she was afraid of accidents involving children. Joe walked up the road to Agnes’ farm. Soon, Robert heard two light reports of a gun, so he thought he might as well go to see if Dad had had any luck. Robert met Agnes and Joe at her door. She was putting her gun away.

“I heard only two shots,” Robert commented.

“That’s all it took,” Joe said.

Seeing Robert’s look of amazement, Agnes asked, “Don’t you know that your father has always been a crack shot?”

Robert felt like Scout learning about Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Back when Joe was a lad, he trained himself to be an excellent marksman. Given Ida’s proscription against guns, Robert had had no cause to discover Joe’s skill.

Agnes provided another link to Joe’s past, for she had remembered his ability with firearms. Agnes was also a link to the community’s future through the lessons she taught to the children in the Vacation Bible School. Little by little, Robert came to appreciate how remarkable Agnes was and how fascinating her life had been. Robert came to learn that she and her husband, who predeceased her by many years, had built the tidy house that Robert often visited. Overlooking the kitchen on the ground level was a higher living room accessible by a few steps and bordered by a neatly turned railing. Until Robert discovered that Agnes and her husband had planned and constructed their house, Robert thought that it might be another of the pre-packaged houses that Sears had sold in the early 1900s. The excellence of the craftsmanship and the high polish of the woodwork reminded him of Sears houses. On several winter mornings, Ida sent Robert to deliver fresh baked goods to Agnes’ door. Robert enjoyed the pleasant warmth of Agnes’ wood-burning stove and the coziness of the home that she had created with her own two hands.

Even during the most isolated periods when snow or mud kept Robert from driving anywhere, he had only to look to the east to feel that he and his family were not alone. There stood Agnes’ comfortable house, her perfectly maintained barn with its bright red paint, and her well-designed garage nestled beside rows of apple trees.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

21. The Storm and the Show ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

Joe, Ida, Charles, and Robert were watching a singing act on The Ed Sullivan Show in the kitchen that was also a family room while listening to the sleet, now like tiny shards of glass pinging against the windows, now like the tiniest brass bells sounding, and again like handfuls of sand being flung across the panes. Abruptly, the TV went dark, as did the house.

Everyone sat silently for the moments necessary to come to the realization that the electric service had stopped.

Joe summarized the now obvious fact: “Well, I guess our lights are out.” He set his teaspoon beside his coffee cup, and, as he could see neither, he struck the cup a loud blow.

“Careful, Joe,” said Ida.

He carefully scooted his chair back from the kitchen table and stumbled toward the Hoosier, where he opened a drawer and removed a flashlight. He went to the enclosed porch and returned with his Van Camp kerosene lantern, which he soon had lit. Charles borrowed the flashlight, went to his room, and slowly brought his Aladdin lamp with its mantle of hanging ash. The lamp made its way to the kitchen table without disturbing the delicate mantle. Charles lit the lamp, and, soon enough, the mantle was a brilliant star that nobody could look at without wincing. Charles gingerly placed the frosted glass shade over the lamp, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

“No telling how long we’ll be without electricity,” Joe said.

Back when the family lived in town, occasional lapses in the electrical service had occurred. One time, an ice storm caused a long delay. The lights came back on in the night. The next morning, Joe discovered that the hot wire was lying on the ground and that Spot had been jumping over it again and again as the dog patrolled the corners of the yard. The instances of being without lights were more frequent and more sustained in the country.

Ida cut apples and sliced wedges of cheese for everyone; then she produced a card deck. Joe, Charles, and Robert gathered around the brightly lit kitchen table and played euchre. For a Methodist, Ida could sure play a mean hand of cards! Joe and Ida had belonged to the Euchre Club for many years. Quite often, Ida brought home the top prize while Joe earned the booby prize.

During the blackout, Charles was Joe’s partner; Robert, Ida’s.

“Pick them up, Robert. I’m going alone,” Ida said more than once.

From having played many times, Robert was well trained. He knew never to trump Ida’s ace, and he always led the next suit of the same color.

Ida and Robert won the first game. Joe and Charles wanted revenge. The euchre match continued in the light of the Aladdin lamp, until it was bedtime for the senior and the sophomore who had to board Glen J. Brutus’ bus the next morning.

“Well, Ida,” Joe said, smiling and touching Ida’s arm, “once again, you showed us how it’s done.”

The electricity came back on in the wee hours of the morning.

The next afternoon, Robert sat at the Yamaha piano and composed a short piece of music for the offertory. During his freshman year, Robert had become the principal pianist for the Methodist Church, and he liked scoring his own compositions for the time when the plates were passed down the pews. Ida walked into the living room. Drying her hands on a dish towel, she sat in the rocking chair that had once belonged to Grandma Rhode. “Have you decided whether to try out?” she asked Robert.

The Delta Theta Chapter of Kappa Kappa Kappa had contracted with Jerome H. Cargill Producing Company of New York City to perform a variety show on stage at the Attica High School Gymnasium on April 3rd and 4th—with proceeds donated for a new Coronary Care Unit at the Community Hospital in Williamsport. The revue would sport the name Hello Follies!, a rather unlikely echo of the title of the musical Hello, Dolly! The director, Vance Henry, moved about the United States, rapidly training local talent to present a full-length program in two acts with an intermission, each town or city coining its own title. Henry was looking for a pianist.

“I’m only a sophomore,” Robert said. “The show probably needs somebody more professional.”

“I think you should go,” Ida said. “It never hurts to try.”

“Alright,” Robert said.

Robert already had his driver’s license: a fact that annoyed Charles, whom Ida had made to wait until his seventeenth birthday. With her second son, Ida was relaxing her caution.

“You can take the Pontiac to your audition,” she said.

Joe had purchased a used 1967 tan-colored Pontiac Bonneville. On Saturday morning, Robert drove from Warren County into Fountain County over the Paul Dresser Bridge crossing the Wabash River, lying peacefully in its broad floodplain, and toward the Harrison Hills Country Club in Attica, where Henry was holding a dance rehearsal in the Tudor Revival clubhouse. When Henry took a five-minute break, Robert introduced himself.

“Oh, yes!” Henry said, holding his glasses in one hand and smoothing his dark hair back with the other. “I’m looking for a pianist who can play the scores effectively. Take a seat at the piano.” He opened a rehearsal binder to the chorus of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Shall We Dance?”

Robert began the song.

After only a few notes, Henry exclaimed, “No, no! The tempo is faster.” He cradled a clipboard against his argyle cardigan and smacked it with a pencil like a noisy metronome. He sang, “Shall … we … dance, bu—bump  bump, bump, on a bright cloud of music shall we fly, bu—bump  bump, bump.”

“That’s a little too fast,” Robert thought but said nothing. He began again, holding to Henry’s speed.

“Better!” Henry said, tossing the clipboard onto the piano. He commanded, “Now, jab it more! Bu—bump  bump, bump!”

Robert obeyed.

“Louder!” Henry ordered.

Robert did as he was told.

“That’s great!” Henry interrupted. “You’re my pianist. Kay will give you a rehearsal schedule.”

With that, Henry spun on his heel and walked briskly away. Robert caught up with him.

“Do you mean that I will accompany rehearsals but someone else will play the shows?” Robert asked.

“No!” Henry exclaimed in the tone of a director with a million things on his mind. “You’ll be the pianist for the shows.”

Robert walked back to the piano, closed the binder, and took it with him.

For rehearsals at Attica High School on school days, Robert drove to the drive-in on South Council Street to have a quick hamburger. He felt very grown up to be eating on his own. After gulping down dinner, Robert drove on to the school. Seating in the gymnasium stood taller than what he was accustomed to in the gym at Pine Village. To Robert, the gym in Attica felt cavernous. He wondered if he would be nervous when all those seats were filled.

The performers were devoted to doing their best. One fellow, though, worried Robert. The gentleman, who had chosen to sing a solo, had an uncertain sense of rhythmic exactness. Robert could not predict what might happen.

The pit orchestra sounded professional, and the sets and costumes were all they needed to be.

The audiences were huge. For both performances, the gym was packed. Robert felt a healthy nervousness—not the fatal kind—and, the moment he began playing “Shall We Dance?” with the Bu—bump  bump, bump, his confidence banished all anxieties.

On the evenings of the shows—to Robert’s great relief—the singer with ambivalence about where the beats should fall turned in creditable performances.

Talent in music ran deep in the class ahead of Robert’s. Becci, Jill, Darci, Dia, Debbie, Gail, and Betsy formed a singing sensation known as “The Farmers’ Daughters.” By their senior year, their rendition of the 1941 hit “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was equal to the best anywhere. The Farmers’ Daughters brought top-notch musical entertainment to audiences in many towns and cities of the region. Had the singers been discovered—and had they recorded an LP—they easily could have gained a national following.

Like Big Pine Creek, music flowed through Benton, Warren, and Fountain Counties. From the heartfelt singing in the churches on Sunday morning, through the school bands, to the garage ensembles, to the homegrown performers whose talents and abilities rivaled the best on television, Pine Village’s fields were alive with the sound of music.


Saturday, March 9, 2019

20. The Sophomore Year ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

The year 1969 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Warren County 4-H Club Free Fair, as the event was named in the catalog of contests. After the thrills of the week began fading away as memories, Robert anticipated his sophomore year at Pine Village High School. On the opening day, Robert met the new English teacher. As she wrote her name on the chalkboard with big letters and bold strokes, she said, loudly enough for all to hear, “My name is Miss Matthews—with two t’s!” She clacked the chalk beneath the two t’s in her name. With a freshly minted degree, Miss Matthews was teaching for the first time. She brooked no nonsense.

And Robert learned so much about literature and writing from Miss Matthews that he would eventually earn three college degrees in those subjects!

Before her, Mr. Cavanaugh, Mrs. French, and Mrs. Wilson had done their part to bring Robert forward in his understanding of English. Miss Matthews continued his education and brought him to the level of sophistication that would stand him in good stead for a long career.

On that very first day, Robert sensed that Miss Matthews was the proverbial force to be reckoned with, and, thereafter, he dotted every i and crossed every t, including both t’s in Matthews.

While Robert’s class slogged through Julius Caesar, Robert suddenly looked up past Miss Matthews, his eyes fogged over, and he pictured Shakespeare’s play as a farce. The tedium of inching forward through Elizabethan English melted away as Robert visualized comical scene after comical scene.

He enlisted Dennis’ help, and, before long, a script, of sorts, had emerged. Mr. Boots readily consented to their request to use the Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. It remained to free not only themselves but also various classmates from the study hall, so that recording could take place in the band room.

As if the cosmos had been listening, Mr. Boots, the band director, volunteered to give Dennis and Robert signed hall passes, allowing them (and others) to spend study hours in the band department filing music. Given such an unlimited supply of passes, Robert, Dennis, and their cast of aspiring actors and actresses enjoyed ample time to record Julius Caesar, the comedy.

One day, Robert and Dennis came to Miss Matthews’ class with the large Wollensak in hand.

“Why do you have a tape recorder?” Miss Matthews asked, wondering if she should say “no” automatically or listen to whatever answer might be forthcoming.

“We have a recording that pertains to our study of Julius Caesar,” Robert replied.

The tug-of-war in Miss Matthews’ mind was visible on her face. Deciding to risk her classroom control, she said, “Alright. You can play it, but I decide when to shut off the machine.”

The class leaned forward eagerly as the stereo tape began to play. Again and again, laughter erupted. Miss Matthews kept saying, “Shhh!” but finally gave up. She sat at her desk, and—guess what?—she smiled! To her lasting credit, she smiled and smiled. Then she laughed! As funny voice after funny voice lent itself to a fractured version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Miss Matthews laughed hysterically.

It was a triumph!

After such a success, Robert chose to set an even more preposterous goal.

Mr. John Taylor, coach and biology teacher, had a flat-top, a piercing stare, and a commanding presence, Mr. Taylor had a zero-tolerance policy regarding noise from elementary students. When grade school boys made too much of a racket in the restroom, Mr. Taylor banged open the door and stood like a gladiator ready for battle with a paddle in his hand. Had any student a pin to drop, you knew it would have been heard.

In grade school, Robert had feared Mr. Taylor, but having taken Mr. Taylor’s freshman biology class had convinced Robert that Mr. Taylor actually had a kind heart. As a sophomore, Robert and a senior named Ted put their heads together. Mr. Taylor was now the principal. Temporarily encumbered by a cast on his leg, he spent much of his day in a wheelchair. Ted was excellent at drawing souped-up sports cars, and Robert could sketch people’s portraits. So the two of them created an oil painting of Mr. Taylor in a smoking, fire-breathing hot rod of a wheelchair leaving a trail of dust taller than the gym as he zoomed around the school!

When Ted and Robert presented the painting to Mr. Taylor, Robert was fairly certain that Mr. Taylor would sentence them to hard labor; much to Robert’s surprise, Mr. Taylor held the painting as if he had just won the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes! He was smiling! “You guys painted this? This shows real talent!” When he looked up at the artists, he had the merest hint of a tear in his eye! Mission accomplished! It was true that the lion had a heart of gold!

Ted could play anything by ear on a keyboard, and he also performed on bass guitar. He played in a band named Bayou Inhabitance. Robert’s class booked the band for an evening’s entertainment on January 23rd, 1970, at a cost to the class treasury of fifty dollars. Ted and Robert created a poster with caricatures of the band members.

Local musicians fulfilled many significant functions in Pine Village, as they had for generations. Samuel C. Fenton, born in 1877, may have been high strung, but he was a talented musician. On hot summer evenings, residents sat on their porches and listened to his melodious playing. He performed with several bands in northwestern Indiana. Ultimately, Samuel played cornet in the well-known band led by Arthur Willard Pryor, who had served as assistant conductor of John Philip Sousa’s band and who was a famous trombonist. Pryor composed “The Whistler and His Dog,” a popular concert piece. Eventually, Samuel split his lip and decided to forgo the cornet. He returned to Pine Village, where he gave piano lessons.

Samuel’s first cousin, Charles Albert “Charley” or “Cobbie” Cobb, born in 1883, played several instruments. Charley organized his own band, known as “Cobbie’s Band.” Lena (Fenton) Rhode, born in 1884, a first cousin of Samuel and Charley, studied piano at the Chicago Conservatory. She served as pianist for the Methodist Church in Pine Village. In her seventies, Lena continued to play hymns, but the minister occasionally had to awaken her.

Samuel, the trumpeter with the split lip, was married to Bessie Ogborn (1881–1967), daughter of Levi Ogborn. Samuel and Bessie had one daughter, Dorothy Fenton, who became an accomplished pianist. For graduation exercises way back in 1919, Dorothy joined Adele LaPlante in performing the “Poet and Peasant Overture” piano duet.

Charles and Robert revived the “Poet and Peasant Overture” and played it publicly several times. The brothers wore matching polyester sports coats in a lizard green and pumpkin orange plaid.

Charles was considering universities. The family had made a trip to Bloomington that Robert later recalled as hilly, wooded, and filled with limestone buildings, unlike the red brick structures on the Purdue campus. Charles selected Indiana University.


Sunday, March 3, 2019


A favorite family activity was fossil hunting. Joe, Ida, Charles, and Robert once visited the historic railroad cut in Madison, Indiana, and brought back enough horn coral and brachiopods to weight the car down on its springs. From Pine Village to Madison and back in a day meant a long time on the road. Joe never could stay overnight because he had to feed his livestock and would not ask a neighbor to help.

One morning, Ida said, “Let’s go to southeast Indiana to find fossils,” and Joe agreed. A few days later, the family piled into the Pontiac Bonneville and drove and drove. Joe took State Route 52 through Rushville to Brookville, where they ate their picnic lunch before searching for fossils along the Whitewater River to the west of town. Finding little to keep them interested, Joe drove farther south and took State Route 1 along a creek that looked promising. Joe pulled onto a short stretch of country road, then onto what was little more than an abandoned farm lane that crossed a tiny bridge.

“Let’s hurry before it rains,” Ida said. The sky had become cloudy. Gradually, the daylight dimmed beneath the heavy cloud cover. Joe, Ida, Charles, and Robert fanned out along the creek. The trilobites that they had hoped to find remained elusive.

Suddenly, raindrops began pelting the creek.

“I guess we’re going to be rained out,” Ida said, as everyone headed for the car. Robert had to sit in the rear seat—with Ida’s promise that he could switch to the front seat in Brookville.

The mischievous storm quickly developed into a steady downpour.

“Joe, we need to get back to the highway as soon as we can,” Ida said. “When I was growing up along the Ohio River, there were people that got caught in flash floods along creeks like this.”

“I don’t think there’s any need to worry,” Joe said. He put the car in gear and steered it toward the low bridge he had crossed to reach a level place to park along the creek. In just that short a time, a raging channel of yellow clay and water was surging under the bridge and, at both ends of the bridge, had already crossed the driveway.

Joe took his foot off the throttle.

“Oh, Joe! Don’t stop now,” Ida warned, with a note of fear in her voice.

“I don’t think we should drive through water that deep and fast,” Joe said.

“But don’t you see that the water is going to cover everything where we are? We have to get to the other side of that bridge!” Ida said, her panic escalating.

Reluctantly, Joe inched the Pontiac forward into the current at the near end of the little bridge. Robert and Charles peered through the windows at the seething stream surrounding the car.

“Hurry, Joe!” Ida said, tensely. She put her hand on the dashboard as if she were encouraging a horse to remain calm while attempting a dangerous feat.

The car gained the bridge, but as much water was crossing the other end as the Pontiac had already cleared. Leaving the bridge behind, the car nosed back into the turbulent yellow stream.

Ida began patting the dashboard nervously.

Eventually, the Pontiac climbed out of the rushing water and turned onto the country road.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

“I told you there was nothing to worry about,” Joe said.

“Oh, you know you were scared back there!” Ida exclaimed.

“With a car this heavy, we weren’t going to be swept away,” Joe continued.

“Why, I could feel the car rocking from the water!” Ida said, staring at Joe. “We nearly became one of those families that you read about in the newspapers: the ones carried off by a flood.”

“We weren’t close to being ‘carried off by a flood,’” Joe persisted.

“You grew up where everything is flat,” Ida retorted. “Maybe I know a thing or two about hilly country that you don’t know.”

Joe reached over and patted Ida’s wrist. “I’m just teasing,” he said. “I think we were in some danger there. Had we waited a few more minutes, we might not have been able to drive out.”

“That’s right,” Ida said, barely placated.

At Brookville, Joe pulled over, so that Robert could trade places with Ida. Robert was already experiencing motion sickness, but it slowly abated on the way to Rushville.

Throughout the return trip, the rain fell in torrents. The drive to the Whitewater River was the family’s last fossil hunt.