Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, April 21, 2018

14. The Birthday ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

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! 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

13. Christmas Returns ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

As another Christmas drew near, Ida and Joe took the boys to Purdue University’s Christmas show matinee performance. After the long walk from the parking lot to the doors of the Edward C. Elliott Hall of Music, the family passed through a series of foyers. The boys and their parents waited in the innermost foyer until the doors would open. As Ida had seen to it that they were early, they were near the door on their right. More and more people entered the foyer and stood expectantly, speaking in low tones that steadily grew in volume as the crowd grew in numbers. The women’s perfumes were strong all about. Here and there, the scent of a cigarette came wafting through the fragrances.

Suddenly, black-suited ushers opened the many doors across the foyer’s inner wall, and Ida made a mad dash for the aisle beneath the balcony along the right of the ground floor. She had her boys’ hands in hers, and they were practically tripping as she sprinted down the carpeted ramp. Ida wanted seats as close to the front as possible. Other mothers were springing forward ahead of Ida, so she accepted seats in the center of the second row. Joe was farther back, as he did not want to appear too eager. Eventually, he caught up with the rest of his family.

The auditorium was huge. Robert turned to look at the balconies. He stared at the big organ on the platform at the left. He watched the well-dressed crowd quickly filling all the seats.

At the appointed hour, a hush fell over the throng. Almost simultaneously, the lights dimmed. The velvet curtains rustled back from the immensely tall stage, and a winter scene unfolded. Fluffy snowflakes were falling. A full-sized house decorated for Christmas stood at the right, and an ever-so-tall Christmas tree covered in lights was catching snowflakes in the front yard. Snow-covered fields stretched back exactly as they would in the real outdoors, and horses pulled a sleigh into view at the left. Carolers singing “Jingle Bells” jumped down from the sleigh. Their trained Glee Club voices reached into all the corners of the gigantic hall.

Robert was in awe of the set, and it was only the first of many to move in and out, across, and up and down the massive stage. He watched in wonder at the baton of Al G. Wright, the orchestra conductor and widely recognized director of bands at Purdue University. It caught the yellow light from the brass lamps on the musicians’ stands and flashed to the right and left of Al’s tuxedo shoulders. Gladys Wright, the conductor’s spouse, ably played bells and other percussion instruments.

When the renowned Al Stewart strode onto the stage, applause erupted immediately. He was the beloved choral conductor whose genius for entertainment lay at the heart of the annual Christmas extravaganza. He brought on soloists and various groupings of singers for number after number as the sets established mood after mood commensurate with Al’s vision of the scope of Christmas and its meaning.

The whole event was grand on a grand scale. Just when people in the surrounding counties thought that Purdue could not possibly exceed the glories of a Christmas show twelve months later, the next year would unveil a magnificent entertainment even more spectacular than the one before.

At the end of the performance, a spotlight illuminated the organist, a scrim became nearly transparent. What appeared to be a cathedral with stained glass windows lit by candles could be seen through the misty scrim. The organist played a solemn introduction, and voices singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” arose behind the audience.

Robert swung around to look back. Down all the aisles came robed singers carrying candles. At the same time, the words to the hymn appeared in ghostly translucence on the scrim. A voice from somewhere invited the audience to sing. More and more voices joined those of the robed choir members, who just kept coming. There were so many singers! As they arrived at the stage, they took steps to the tops of multi-tiered risers in front of the cathedral windows. In dignified procession, the singers slowly filled the risers. Verse after verse lit the scrim before them. By the end of the song, hundreds of robed singers filled the stage in towering rows from one side to the other. The effect was breathtaking.

The crowd sang several traditional Christmas melodies along with the choir and the thundering organ. At the end came “Silent Night.” When the last chord trailed away, the robed singers blew out their candles, the stage was dark except for the central stained glass window with its depiction of the nativity, and the announcer’s voice said, “All of us at Purdue University wish you and your loved ones a very merry Christmas.”

The lights in the auditorium came up, and the crowd burst into a standing ovation.

Filled with Christmas joy, Joe, Ida, Charles, and Robert drove the twenty miles to their farm on the edge of Pine Village. All the way home, they talked about the sets, the singers, the clever dialog, Al G. Wright, Al Stewart, and the majestic ending.

Twilight was falling, and Joe plugged in the wreaths hanging in the windows and the lighted Santa Claus head that hung in the window at the foot of Robert’s bed. Then Joe plugged in the Christmas tree. The decorations seemed all the brighter and more beautiful because the Purdue show had put everyone in the perfect holiday spirit.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

12. The Cottage Cheese ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

Robert enjoyed watching his mother make cottage cheese. She began pouring boiling water over a large stainless steel bowl to discourage bacteria. Carefully holding the lip of the bowl with a towel, she shook the water droplets out so that no water remained in the bowl. Next, she let milk fresh from the cow sit for a day or two in the bowl covered with a muslin cloth. During the first few hours, Ida removed the cloth and used a spoon to skim off the thick yellow cream that rose to the top of the milk. She skimmed the cream at least twice and saved it in the refrigerator for other recipes. After the first day, she again lifted the muslin and gently shook the bowl. If the milk looked lumpy, it was ready. If not, it waited another day. The hotter the weather, the faster the milk turned lumpy.

Ida warmed the milk on the stove on low heat for ten minutes.

Ida next set a colander into a deep bowl. She lined the inside of the colander with a muslin cloth, and she poured the warm milk slowly into the colander. She covered the colander and bowl with yet another muslin cloth, and let the milk sit for two hours or so. She then used a spatula to encourage the curd to come loose from the cloth-lined colander. The whey in the bowl was saved and mixed in very small amounts with the dry ground feed that was given to the chickens. (Too much of a dairy product was deemed harmful to poultry, while a little was considered beneficial.) Meanwhile, Ida salted the curd and poured some cream on it. The cottage cheese was ready to eat!

… and that was the sad moment for Robert.

He hated the taste and the smell of the homemade cottage cheese.

“Eat it!” Ida told him. “It’s good for you.”

She said the same thing at every meal when she served cottage cheese—and that was at least once a day each time she made a batch. (She made batches all too often!)

“Eat it! It’s good for you,” Robert heard over and over.

He could hardly get the stuff past his nose! The curd was hard, resembling little gummy rice pellets. The dollop of it on his plate held its shape, but the creamy puddle that slowly spread out from the bottom of the mound invaded the other, good food nearby, tainting otherwise desirable items with the bitterness of the cheese. Robert would eagerly lift a delectable piece of fried chicken only to discover that the bitter pool had seeped underneath and had soaked into what should have been the chicken’s crispy surface.

In Ida’s kitchen, children were to eat everything that she put on their plates. Robert was frankly astonished that Charles could eat the cottage cheese day after day, week after week. How was it possible?

“Eat it! It’s good for you.”

The creamed corn looked succulent, but oh no! The nasty cottage cheese puddle had sneaked into the creaminess of the corn, ruining the taste.

His mother did not allow Robert to get up from the table until he had eaten every morsel on the plate that she had served him. He would make his way through the chicken and the creamed corn—even though they had been contaminated by the seeping cheese. Ultimately, only the sinking mound of cottage cheese remained on Robert’s plate. What could he do with it?

He tried to hand part of it to Lady, the family’s dog whose name was inspired by Walt Disney.

“I saw that,” Ida said. “Don’t you give that cottage cheese to the dog! Eat it! It’s good for you.”

He put one granule of the cottage cheese on the tip of his spoon, held his breath, and deposited it in his mouth. He swallowed it without chewing it. Even so, the taste was disgusting. He sat for several minutes and stared at the dollop sitting on his plate. It seemed to grow larger.

“There are hungry people in the world that would love to have that cottage cheese,” Ida said. “You can’t get up from the table until you’ve eaten it.”

Everyone else had left the table long before. Everyone else had cleaned his plate. Robert sat by himself, spoon in his motionless hand, while his mother did the dishes. Every now and then, she turned back from the sink with the suds clinging to her wrists and falling onto her apron. “Hurry up and eat that!” she said.

Robert would scoop another hard, bitter, nasty granule onto his spoon, push it past his nose, clamp down on it with his jaw, and swallow it as fast as he could. Ugh!

He could not repeat the process until several minutes had elapsed.

“Do I have to eat it?” Robert pleaded.

“Yes,” Ida said. “You have to eat everything on your plate. Now hurry up!”

Robert consumed one more icky granule—an especially tiny one. He often spent an hour in this way, incrementally working his way through the mound of cottage cheese. During the hour, Robert wondered what Charles was doing. Whatever it was, it probably was fascinating. How did he manage to eat his cottage cheese so fast? Robert had ample time to ponder such questions.

Ida never relented. She was determined to teach Robert not to waste food and to appreciate the healthy food that had been prepared for him.

Robert never developed a taste for homemade cottage cheese. He always took a long time to choke down the unpalatable substance. He hoped his mother would want his plate for washing and would excuse him from the table, but Ida had an iron will. If she ever were tempted to let him forgo the cottage cheese, she certainly did not show it. She could outwait him.

No, Robert never came to like homemade cottage cheese. His revulsion toward the sour concoction carried over to store-bought cottage cheese. Although he could choke it down, store-bought cottage cheese—the taste of which was very different (far blander)—was similar enough to the homemade astringent variety that he disliked commercial cottage cheese, too.

… and so, for years—for as long as Joe had dairy cows—Robert sat at the kitchen table and stared at a mound of homemade cottage cheese. Staring at the stinking, wretched curds became one of his principal memories of growing up.       

Saturday, March 31, 2018

11. The Diastema ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

The 1950 Chevrolet was black. In front of the regular windows on the driver’s side and passenger’s side were triangular windows (wing vents) that could be turned in such a way as to force a blast of wind against the face. The breeze felt so good on a hot day! The windshield was in two halves joined by a thin metal connector moulding. When Robert was sitting in front (which was most of the time because he suffered from motion sickness when seated in the back), his eyes would focus first on the metal moulding then on the distant view then on the connector again, until he was well on his way toward nausea!

Joe and Ida drove differently. Joe was far-sighted and enjoyed perusing fellow farmers’ fields to his left. While doing so, he slowly veered the car to the right until the right wheels were off the road and onto the berm. Miraculously, he never lost control of the vehicle but gradually brought it back onto the pavement, only to repeat the experiment immediately afterward. Ida, meanwhile, played with the throttle. Her small foot, usually wearing a sandal in summer, wore out the gas pedal by depressing it and lifting up right away, depressing it and lifting up right away. The car lurched forward and hesitated, lurched forward and hesitated in response. Robert was anxious when Joe drove, nauseous when Ida drove.

When most of the corn had been picked, Robert was riding with Ida at the wheel. She was driving out to visit with Robert’s great uncle Marshall and his great aunt Anna. Down went the gas pedal, up went the gas pedal, down went the gas pedal, up went the gas pedal.

Robert had developed the bad habit of standing in the front seat. On this occasion, he swayed backwards and forwards in time with the motion of the throttle.

“Sit down,” Ida told Robert.

He disobeyed.

“Come over here where I can put my arm around you,” Ida said.

He disobeyed.

Frustrated, Ida said, “Alright! See if I care if you lose your balance.”

Robert was near the passenger door and was having a hard time keeping his balance while the car briefly gained speed and momentarily slowed, gained and slowed, gained and slowed. He felt slightly dizzy. He smelled his mother’s new permanent. (Ida had to have curls in her straight hair!) The Chevrolet was lurching and hesitating while heading east along the gravel road that ran in front of the McFatridge farm. The car dipped down the slight hill leading to the intersection with the gravel road that ran south past the Anderson farm.

Tall corn in the fence corner blocked the view to the right. Ida obeyed the stop sign, but the corn was planted so close to the road that she could not see around it. The tan leaves rustled in the cool breezes of autumn. Ida slowly entered the intersection only to discover that a road grader was bearing down on the intersection from the right. The corn had hidden the big machine! Ida slammed on the brakes, and the road grader just missed the front bumper!

Robert flew headfirst into the hard metal dashboard. He ricocheted back toward the seat and slid onto the floor. He was watching stars sparkling and spangling before his eyes.

Ida put the car in parking gear and muttered, “Why don’t you ever stand close enough so I can grab you?”

Ida did not yell at Robert. She felt terrible about what had happened.

She gently lifted Robert back into the seat. Using her hankie, she stanched the blood flowing from the gums where Robert had knocked out his two front upper teeth. Robert was beginning to see his surroundings again, and the pain was starting. He knew he had been wrong to stand on the seat. Now he sat where he was supposed to sit, and he whimpered.

Ida turned the car around and went home to ask Joe what should be done. Joe and Ida took Robert to Dr. Sullivan, their dentist in Attica, a town ten miles to the south. Dr. Sullivan explained that there was nothing to do but to wait for Robert’s permanent teeth to come in.

At first, Robert’s pronunciation changed to a lisp, but, instead of retreating into his early fear of talking, he pushed through the obstacle and learned to place his tongue a little farther back so that he could say the consonants that otherwise would become hisses. By degrees, he was learning to be more confident and assertive.

A little less than a year after the incident—and just in time for Robert to enter the first grade without embarrassment—Robert’s permanent teeth came in. Owing to the injury, they were separated by a gap, or diastema. Whether Robert liked it or not, his diastema became a trademark. Terry–Thomas was a popular British comic film actor in American movies. Robert always enjoyed his performances because, like Robert, he had a pronounced diastema.

Robert’s teeth were somewhat yellow from the antibiotics he had been given for his frequent earaches. Worried about his diastema and his yellow teeth, his parents took him to see an orthodontist in Lafayette, Indiana. Taking children to an orthodontist was a very modern thing to do. The orthodontist had offices in a very modern building not far from Smitty’s, a large independent grocery store near Purdue University. The very modern orthodontist said that he would apply hydrogen peroxide and heat to whiten Robert’s teeth. When the very modern orthodontist told Joe and Ida that correcting Robert’s diastema would cost $2,000, they asked Robert if he really wanted to have his incisors properly aligned through wearing very modern braces. Robert hated dentists, so the answer was easy. With vast relief, Robert said no to the very modern era. Also relieved, Joe and Ida did not have to pay $2,000 for a closed diastema and whitened teeth.

Ever after that, whenever Robert brushed his teeth, he recalled the hard old dashboard of that 1950 Chevrolet.