Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, December 9, 2018

7. The Sixth Grade ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE




Charles’ teacher in the sixth grade was Mrs. Downy, but Mrs. Russell had taken her place by the time Robert was ready to begin his last year in the grade school of Pine Village. (Robert perceived the seventh and eighth grades as radically different because the students in those grades changed rooms to be taught different subjects.) Mrs. Elma Russell had been a classmate of Charles and Robert’s father.

Although her stature was slight, Mrs. Russell exerted an influence that was gigantic. She was one of the teachers that shaped the yielding clay of Robert’s perceptions. Mrs. Russell’s businesslike approach brooked no nonsense. Her smile meant she was pleased with the progress of the class. She smiled throughout the weeks that Robert’s class built a medieval castle.

A long table such as those in the cafeteria was placed by the east wall of the classroom, and the students were given the assignment to research and construct a castle resembling those of Europe in the Middle Ages. Mrs. Russell divided the class into teams, with each team responsible for completing one facet of the project. The team of which Robert was a member was to complete a backdrop. Wallpaper with the white side out was taped to the wall behind the table, and Robert’s team created a landscape in the appropriate scale for the cardboard castle buildings, which stood some two feet tall. The backdrop measured five feet tall by eight feet wide.

While his classmates laid out baileys and built walls and battlements, crenellated towers, and a rectangular keep, Robert sketched serfs working in fields and knights on horseback. Measurements were all there was of mathematics, but other subjects were fully incorporated in the project. Students gave oral reports on the history of medieval Europe, and they wrote papers about life in the Middle Ages. As the castle took shape day by day, the class’ sense of accomplishment grew.

During Robert’s time in Mrs. Russell’s class, his great uncle Marshall C. Rhode passed away. Robert’s father and his father’s first cousin Jay helped Marshall’s brother Charlie (Jay’s father) to prepare for an auction. On a cold day that threatened rain, the auctioneer’s repetitive tenor voice echoed down the valley from Marshall’s large house on the hill. While it wasn’t a castle, Marshall’s house was palatial for a farming community. It was a plain, two-story L-shaped home with fourteen rooms.

Joe was standing beside Ida when she said in an undertone, “I’m going to bid on the clock.”

Joe’s mouth fell open, and he stared at Ida. “What do we want with an old clock like that?” he asked.

“I like it,” Ida replied.

Joe closed his mouth. Ida stood determined in her boots, long blue winter coat with the big buttons, scarf tied over her hair, and pointy glasses: the picture of a farm wife in the 1960s.

The bidding turned to the so-called “mantel clock.” It was an old one: a Seth Thomas built in the early 1840s. The rectangular wooden box stood some two feet tall. The top glass over the face was intact, as was the bottom reverse-painted glass depicting a bouquet of flowers. The mechanism had to be wound each day and was powered by heavy weights that the act of winding caused to be lifted along the sides of the box on the inside. Gravity pulling on the weights did the rest, and a pendulum kept everything moving.

“Let’s start the bidding at fifty dollars,” cried the auctioneer. “Who will give me fifty dollars for the mantel clock?”

Catching an almost invisible gesture in the crowd, one of the auctioneer’s assistants yelped.

“Fifty, fifty, fifty, I have fifty, fifty, fifty,” the auctioneer began trilling. “Fifty-five, who will give me fifty-five, fifty-five, fifty-five?”

Ida nodded while Joe stared resolutely forward. A cold wind blew.

“Now sixty, now sixty,” the auctioneer warbled, warming to the contest. He pushed his cowboy hat back farther and leaned forward.

The auctioneer’s helper yelped again.

Eyes in the crowd went roaming in all directions to identify who was bidding.

Ida nodded, bringing the bid to sixty-five.

Joe whispered, “That’s a high price for an old clock.”

“It’s not polite to whisper,” Ida calmly explained.

“Now seventy, seventy, seventy,” sang the auctioneer, whose helper yelped almost immediately.

Ida recognized the dealer in antiques that she was bidding against. Joe was hoping she wouldn’t nod, but she did.

“Now eighty, now eighty, now eighty,” chirped the auctioneer. Within seconds, the assistant yelped again.

“I believe it’s time to stop,” Joe mumbled.

“I believe it’s time to bid again,” Ida said with the undaunted gallantry of a knight in the lists during a joust.

Exasperated, Joe muttered, “Oh, what do we want such an old clock for?”

“Try not to end on a preposition,” Ida said, nodding.

“Eighty-five, eighty-five, eighty-five, I have eighty-five, who will give me ninety, ninety, ninety?” the auctioneer yodeled. All eyes were on the antiques dealer, who finally shook his head.

“I have eighty-five, ninety? ninety? ninety? going once, going twice, SOLD to the little lady in the blue coat!”

“Let’s put the clock in the car, and I’ll show you why I like it,” Ida said to Joe, who tagged along after her as if he were a whipped puppy.

Once the clock was resting in the back seat, Ida carefully opened the glass door, reached into the bottom of the clock, and lifted a sheaf of papers.

“Here’s why I like the clock,” Ida said, smiling at Joe.

From 1806 until 1827, Joe’s Quaker ancestors had farmed along Caesar’s Creek, where their Quaker meetinghouse stood, and had attended “monthly meeting” in Waynesville, Ohio. In 1826 and 1827, they migrated to Indiana. The clock had been purchased only a decade and a half after the move. A family story told that Jonathan Rhode, who tried farming in Arkansas before returning to Indiana, had brought a mantel clock back to Indiana with him. The bundle of papers in the bottom of the Seth Thomas that Ida had bought for the exorbitant sum of eighty-five dollars included the handwritten tax receipts from Caesar’s Creek.

“This is your family’s history right here,” Ida beamed. “Nobody knew that these papers were in the bottom of the clock.”

“Well,” Joe grinned sheepishly, “I guess you knew what you were doing.”

“Oh, Joe, I always know what I’m doing,” Ida said in mock indignation.

At the end of the auction, a sleety drizzle began. People took the last of their prizes to their cars and trucks, and, soon, the grounds were largely deserted. The windows of the big house seemed to stare mournfully upon the emptiness.

Robert was staring at a broken dressing table that nobody wanted. It had been painted white, but the paint was chipping off. The heavy mirror had splintered the back of one of the supports and was detached, lying on top of the table with its single drawer. The legs were loose and wobbly. Tiny beads of rain covered the mirror and were reflected in it.

Joe read Robert’s mind. “Do you want that old table?” he asked Robert.

“I could refinish it, fix it up, and use it as my desk,” Robert said with a big smile.

Joe looked at Ida.

She said, “If that’s what he wants to do, let him take it.”

Joe lifted the dressing table and made room for it in the back of the GMC pickup.

Later, with advice from Aunt Margaret, who routinely restored furniture, Robert removed all traces of the white paint, sanded all the surfaces until they were smooth as glass, stained the piece a dark walnut, tightened the legs, and glued the splintered area. The day when he hung the mirror again was a victory. Many years later, it would bring a high price at another auction. Meanwhile, Robert sat at the desk every day and dreamed of becoming a writer.

That spring, a senior accomplished a dream of his. The Lafayette Journal and Courier for March the 26th in 1966 reported, “Central Catholic High School and Pine Village boys won the two top awards in the 14th Lafayette Regional Science Fair at Purdue University Saturday. Thomas Eberts, 16, a Central Catholic High School junior, won a trip to the International Science Fair at Dallas in May with his exhibit on ‘The Role of Testosterone in Red Cell Formation.’ Also winning an expense-paid trip to the International was Ted M. Willer, 17, a Pine Village junior, with his work on ‘Plasma Jet Studies of Re-entry Materials.’ In addition, Willer was named to receive a Navy Science Cruiser award. Sometime next summer, Willer will be a guest of the Navy on a tour of naval facilities, probably at Norfolk, Va.” The newspaper erred; Ted was a senior. Robert had stood in awe before Ted’s display at the local science fair. Ted went on to place third internationally.

From medieval castles to space exploration, the sixth-grade year impressed itself deeply in Robert’s memory.  

Saturday, December 1, 2018

6. The Cousins of Willowwood ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE




Joe’s cousins Vera Fenton and her older sister, Pearl Fenton Clark, who was married to Arthur Clark, spent much of their adult lifetimes living and working in Chicago. Vera, Pearl, and Arthur were in Joe’s mother’s generation. In her youth, Pearl had been considered beautiful, and, now, as a white-haired, older woman, she was regal. Vera had a wonderful sense of humor, which living in the Windy City had refined. Vera was as elegant as Pearl was royal. Arthur typified a Chicago businessman; he was urbane and confident. When they retired, the three returned to Pine Village to live in the house that Pearl and Vera’s father had owned. The sisters’ father was Thomas Eleazer Fenton, the blacksmith who designed the special shoe that transformed the horse Dan Patch into a legendary pacer. Pearl, Vera, and Arthur lived just to the west of the blacksmith shop. In his spare time, Arthur, a skilled artist, liked to paint. His canvas depicting deer in a forest adorned a wall of the living room.

With their earnings from Chicago, the three purchased Willowwood, which was a glorified cabin in the hills and woods near Kramer, only a few miles north of Williamsport, the county seat. Arthur, Pearl, and Vera repaired to Willowwood for several days at a time during the hot summer months. What Willowwood, the small house, lacked in refinement the landscape around it more than compensated in magnificence.

To the north arose a high cliff of crumbly sandstone. The sunshine lit the nearly vertical escarpment a bright yellow with hints of coral pink. Between the crag and the cabin, cottonwoods fluttered their leaves like oversized coins on both sides of a tiny gully that could become a raging rivulet when it rained. Immediately adjacent to the cottonwoods was a bevy of weeping willows, for which the cabin had been named. They draped their long, lithe branches almost to the ground. Strolling among the lime and lemon leaves felt like walking through graceful streamers at a Japanese festival. Surrounding the cabin stood towering pines that kept the cottage in perpetual shade.

Willowwood was close to where the school bus had parked on the 24th of September in 1963 when the fourth and fifth grades had taken a special field trip to see the beaver dam on Big Pine Creek. That day in late autumn had been gray and cold. Robert and his classmates had hiked through a forest and arrived atop a hill commanding an excellent view of the pond the beavers had created. Robert had felt a twinge of disappointment because he had expected to see beavers, resembling the animated versions in Saturday morning cartoons. There had been no beavers that day because they work at night. Even with no animals in sight, Robert had appreciated the opportunity to take a close look at what the animals had built. Constructed of mud mixed with twigs, their dam had crossed the creek and had reached a height of six feet or more. On the dry slope of the dam, hundreds of branches and numerous trunks of trees as big around as stovepipes had been piled. Robert had been impressed with the orderliness, for the branches and trees had been aligned vertically—not strewn haphazardly. In the middle of the pond, the beavers’ lodge could be seen: a mound of sticks protruding above the deep reservoir. When Robert had played in the mud near the barn after a spring storm, he had used a small shovel to dig a channel no wider than three or four inches where the water was the deepest, needing little encouragement to form a small stream headed toward the meadow. Then he had attempted to build a dam across the channel. The water kept tearing away his preliminary work. When he finally resorted to dropping a large shovelful of soil squarely over the stream and had stepped on the dirt to make it stay put, the water immediately went around one end. Beavers were experts, Robert had decided when the field trip had ended and everyone was climbing aboard the bus for the return trip to school.   

On a sunny June day—the exact opposite of the overcast day when Robert had studied the beaver dam—Joe and Ida took the boys to visit Arthur, Pearl, and Vera at Willowwood. The three greeted the family at the door to the little house.

Ida said, “Charles and Robert, you may entertain yourselves by the cliff, and we’ll call you when it’s time to eat.”

Charles and Robert were happy to be excused, although they would not have minded listening to the adults’ conversation, which was sure to roam through stories about the olden days. The boys lingered in the cool shade of the pines, examining cones that left a sticky tar on their fingers. Charles showed Robert how the cone protected the seeds. Next, they passed through the grove of willows with its spongy, sun-dappled floor. As no water was running through the rill, they found tufts of dried sedge where they could place their feet and cross the muddy streamlet. Now they stood before the cliff. They looked up, admiring its height. They wanted to climb the sheer face, but to scale more than eight or ten feet upward was impossible. They balanced like goats on small projections as high as they could go without losing their footing.

Robert was amazed to find tiny snail shells, which seemed to him to be so foreign as to belong in a different part of the world. Each was perfectly formed. They were empty, and he found—quite by accident—that some of the smallest ones could be crushed with very little pressure between the thumb and forefinger. As he wanted to take them home, he tried not to flatten them into minuscule shards.

When the brothers returned to the level ground, Robert searched for a chunk of sandstone that he could pocket for his collection. At home, he had a shoebox with stones lining the bottom. He had found them wherever the family went, and they reminded him of the places Joe, Ida, Charles, and he had visited. Robert crouched down to lift a triangular piece of sandstone from the sandy, pebbly soil near the rivulet. He liked the granular feel of the rock, which he put in the pocket of his tan shorts—first making certain that his shells were in the opposite pocket!

Just then, Ida called for the boys to come to “dinner,” the midday meal.

When the boys entered through the screen door, Arthur and Joe were discussing the Battle of Kickapoo, which had been fought on the 1st of June in 1791. The battlefield was between Williamsport and Independence.

“The battle took place not too far from the falls on Kickapoo Creek,” Arthur said.

Robert knew where Kickapoo Falls was. Joe had taken the boys to see it, even though the site was on private property. The somber cliff stood in a dense forest. The rocky cleft loomed up from the shadows and impressed Robert’s young imagination as ancient and elemental, as if Titans had fought there. Joe had warned the boys not to circle around to the top of the falls, as Charles had suggested. With his fear of heights, Robert had felt considerable relief.

“Warrenton, which had been planned as the county seat, was near there,” Arthur added.

“Is there anything left of Warrenton?” Joe asked.

“Not that I know of,” Arthur said.

“Doubtlessly, you are aware that another Indian battle took place in 1822,” Joe offered.

“Refresh my memory,” Arthur said.

“After the Battle of Tippecanoe, unrest persisted, and the government conducted what might be called ‘clean-up operations’ in Indiana, even after statehood,” Joe explained. “Groups of Kickapoo and Potawatomie Indians lost a battle in 1822. As I understand, it took place near Warrenton. That was only four years before my ancestors began felling trees for their farm south of Pine Village.”

“We’re going to eat now,” Ida suggested.

Ida had helped Pearl and Vera prepare chicken salad sandwiches and lemonade.

Vera, who always took an interest in what the boys did, asked Charles and Robert, “Were you having fun while we were talking about battles?”

“I found snail shells,” Robert said. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful to show Vera.

“Those are lovely!” she exclaimed.

“And I found a rock,” Robert said, while he carefully replaced the shells and transferred his hand to his other pocket, pulling out the sandstone.

“I find the color almost pink, don’t you?” Vera said.

“Yes,” Robert said, “especially when the sun shines on the rock.”

“My, it’s a hot day!” Ida said.

“We can better appreciate the shade of the pines on a day like this,” Pearl said.

“I would rather be a little too warm than to be freezing in air conditioning,” Vera said.

Robert hadn’t even noticed that it was hot out. He wondered why the adults thought it was such a hot day.


Sunday, November 25, 2018

5. The Old Barn ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE




On a warm summer’s evening, Joe brought Robert along in the 1951 GMC pickup through the barnyard and through the pasture to the edge of the cornfield. Robert opened and closed the gates for his father. Joe then began using a machete to cut cornstalks, which were still green but had well-formed ears. Robert lifted the piles of cornstalks in the back of the pickup, which had the tailgate down. The Holsteins in the pasture could foresee the treat that was coming, and they gathered near the gate that the truck would pass through when it exited the cornfield. With the stalks about three feet deep, Joe climbed back behind the steering wheel, and Robert stood by the gate. Joe drove into the pasture, and the cows strode over to mill about the back of the truck. Robert jumped onto the running board, balanced his knee on the hot metal of the rear fender, steadied himself, and climbed over the short side panel into the truck bed.

“Ready?” Joe asked through the open window.

“Yep,” Robert replied.

The GMC crept forward, and Robert slid three cornstalks over the edge of the tailgate. No sooner had the corn fallen to the ground than the lead Holsteins were standing over it, finding the sweet green ears. Meanwhile, Robert shoved a few more cornstalks onto the ground in front, and cows of lesser status in the pecking order came around to take their turn to feast on the corn. The GMC kept inching along until all the corn had been shoved out. The herd would keep working on the corn until only traces of it remained.

Next, Joe and Robert drove through town to feed the Hereford herd at the Old Barn. Joe’s farm on the east side of Pine Village was really two farms joined catty-corner. The smaller farm bordered State Route 55 and could be accessed from the farm that bordered State Route 26 by driving along dusty farm lanes, through many gates, and across the corner that joined the two farms, but driving through the town meant having to pass through only two gates.

Before Joe was born, the Gady brothers ran a butcher shop just north of the intersection of the two main highways in Pine Village. Elmer Gady bought the stock and Bill Gady prepared the meat, which the Ogborns sold in their grocery. The Gadys had a large barn on their farm just south of town. Elmer always thought “big.” He shipped in western lambs that were fed in the barn, which boasted nearly 6,500 square feet under roof on the first floor alone. To accommodate more and more sheep, Elmer added wing after wing to the barn, making a large barn a huge barn. He and Bill were earning handsome profits.

Elmer decided he could afford to mortgage his farm and speculate on the Board of Trade. Elmer lost his farm and the butcher shop. He became a day laborer. Bill, meanwhile, moved to Chicago to work for a big farm, but Bill fell from a streetcar and broke his back. He returned to Pine Village. He walked stooped over. Frank Ogborn’s department store and grocery hired Bill to take orders and make deliveries.

The Old Barn, as Joe referred to it, was still standing, although it had not seen paint in so long that the boards were silvery gray, the roof rusty red.

Just outside the barn on the east side was a stock tank that once featured a windmill to pump the water. Now the pump was electric. Joe kept a long stick, which he used to push up the curled rod on the side of the switch box that started the motor. The box was affixed high on a pole, so that cattle could not accidentally start the motor by rubbing the box. The pipe that delivered the water to the tank was rusted through in several places. By covering the end of the pipe with his left hand, Robert made a water fountain through a quarter-sized hole in the top of the pipe. He drank the clear water that came from so deep down that it was icy cold.

South of Pine Village stood a large building that housed a rest home for elderly patients. Despite its size, the building was only the small remnant of what earlier generations had known as a vast spa named Mudlavia: nearly all of it long gone by the time that Robert’s family visited. Joe and Robert often stopped by Pig Gady’s room. Ernest Alvin Gady, a 1910 graduate of Pine Village High School, had acquired the nickname “Pig,” and it was just too good not to stick. Everyone knew him as Pig, and many had forgotten that his real name was Ernest. Pig was Elmer Gady’s son and had played in the Old Barn when he was a lad. For a brief time, Pig had taught lower grades, but his father’s downfall prompted him to seek independence. In 1913, when he celebrated his twentieth birthday, he decided upon the life of a transient laborer and lit out for the West.

When Robert and Joe visited him, the 74-year-old Pig wore brown plaid flannel shirts and jeans. Whenever he saw Robert, his eyes lit up.

“Say, what do you know?” Pig asked, grinning and slapping his knee. Then came the best part. Pig would lean forward and begin telling stories of his train-hopping days as an itinerant thresherman. The walls of Pig’s room in Mudlavia faded away, replaced in Robert’s imagination by the broad expanse of Kansas wheat fields and Kansas skies.

Pig was running for his life down an alley in Burlington, Kansas. He clutched a broad-brimmed straw hat in one hand and seemed to be swatting at hornets, he was sprinting so fast! He kept glancing over his shoulder, until he was sure he had lost the Industrial Workers of the World members who were chasing him. Pig slowed to a walk, his sides aching, his heart pounding. The nest that Pig had accidentally run into was not a nest of hornets but a nest of I.W.W. men, otherwise known as Wobblies. They had made vague threats to try to force Pig to join their socialist order. Pig wanted nothing to do with the I.W.W. because he would not hide shrapnel inside wheat bundles to wreck threshing machines and bring work to a halt. “Why would anybody want to bust up a separator?” Pig wondered, shaking his head in consternation. Higher wages for workers was one thing, but sabotage was another—and sabotage was criminal!

“What am I gonna do?” Pig mumbled, sauntering along. A colorful poster for the Barnum & Bailey Circus caught his eye. It was plastered to a tall fence made of rough-cut boards. With his pocketknife, Pig cut a small red rectangle from the poster. He slipped the card into the pocket of his shirt. He smiled and strode confidently along. Heading north on Third Street to find work as a thresherman, he encountered two men he thought might be Wobblies. He flashed the corner of the red rectangle and winked. One of the men produced an I.W.W. red membership card from his pocket and nodded. The Wobblies paid Pig no further notice. He strode past them and began whistling a merry tune.

Pig was fortunate enough to find employment as a spike pitcher for threshing rings in eastern Kansas. “Much of the wheat out in Kansas was winter wheat,” he told Robert. “It was spiky and tough, but it sure did grow well there.” He fondly recalled the steam engines belted to the threshing machines in the barnyards, but, in western Kansas and in states farther north, he came to know threshing on a vast scale with fields of wheat shocks stretching toward the horizon and with half a dozen columns of smoke indicating the locations of various steam engines and crews under the command of custom threshermen. Pig slept beneath the stars. He slept the sleep of a young man who has done hard work, honest work.

Pig’s stories often led back to 1913, and, in his mind, Robert was there, too, jumping down from the boxcar and looking for work. A custom thresherman, scrutinizing the hopeful unemployed men who had gathered near the train station in some Kansas town, chose Pig (and Robert) to pitch bundles. Pig (and Robert) climbed into a wagon and was hauled to where the work was to be done. Pig (and Robert) was doing what he loved best: lifting sheaves high above his head and expertly dropping them for the bundle loader perched atop the wagon.

When Joe and Robert would leave Mudlavia after visiting with Pig, Robert left with his vision expanded. Walking past the goldfish ponds of the once lavish resort, Robert peered at the flashing orange fish beneath the rippling surface that reflected the clouds. He thought of Pig flashing the red card and grinning. To Robert, the past appeared to be separated from the present only by a rippling film.

Robert thought of Pig while helping Joe load the pickup with freshly cut corn stalks for the herd of Herefords that had gathered in the pasture beside the Old Barn. Then Robert repeated the process of scattering the stalks while Joe drove the GMC slowly forward.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

4. The Fair ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE




With her placid nature and good outlook, Vicky, the polled Hereford heifer, was easy to train for the 4-H show ring. Robert had merely to touch a hind hoof with the long pole made for the purpose, and she adjusted her leg to present her form in the best position. Diane, the name Charles had finally chosen for his heifer, was another story. She fought the halter, she held her head down as if she would prefer to butt anyone who came near her, and she kept spinning sideways while planning her getaway. Poor Charles! Diane stepped on his boots again and again.

When the Warren County 4-H Fair in Williamsport rolled around, Diane was no calmer. Joe had to take her in tow to lead her to her stall in the north end of the coliseum building. Once she found that she was tied next to Vicky, Diane felt a little better, but she continually watched over her shoulder and mistrusted the movements of the fairgoers who strolled behind the cattle. On the day when Charles led her into the ring for judging, she bucked and reared. The farmers who volunteered to help with the beef competition had to take charge of Diane—but not before she had stepped on Charles’ toes! She earned a red ribbon for her pains.

Vicky, though, peacefully joined in the fun of the contest. Each time that Robert brought her to a stop in the ring, she needed no prodding from him to place her hooves in exactly the right places. Robert could take the precious seconds when he might have been working with her feet to brush up the curried horizontal rows of fur along her thigh and across the back part of her barrel, making her appear just that much more rectangular. When the judge handed Robert not only a blue ribbon but also a reserve champion purple ribbon, he was proud as punch and happy for Vicky!

At the fair, each township took a turn running the cafeteria. Adams Township had Wednesday evening, one of the busiest suppers of the week. Joe and Don finished watering their pigs just in time to wash up and ready themselves for many hours of shucking sweet corn outside the back door of the cafeteria building. Ida joined Mary in doing dishes and keeping the food line supplied. Ida assigned Charles the task of assisting the men, usually by carrying trays of buns to the grillers or by bringing pans of cooked sweet corn to the line. Ida considered Robert old enough (and responsible enough) to help out; he was assigned a gray rubber tub to collect dishes, and, like Tom Sawyer’s friends, he found collecting dishes a wonderful activity! Long before, he had learned a lesson about which he would remind himself for the rest of his life. Work can be fun, but fun can never be work. Most of the farmers shared a great sense of humor. Some contributed to the general amusement by performing as comics, although not on a stage and not for a salary.

Among the happy farmers was Fred Sundqvist, Sr. Smiles emanated from his face like rays of sunlight while his eyes sparkled behind his glasses. In the 4-H cafeteria building, he was ubiquitous, bringing sunshine wherever he went. Here he was wearing his broad white apron and flipping hamburgers on the big grill. Yet here he was razzing Don and Joe about their shucking of the corn. But here he was bringing laughter to a long table full of friends, some of whom he had just met for the first time. Now here he was by the door, discussing swine culture with a foremost hog breeder. He was everywhere!

And Fred even stood before little Robert. “Need a hand with those dishes?” he asked, gesturing with a thumb toward the pile of plates in Robert’s gray tub.

“No, I think I can carry them,” Robert replied.

“They’re not too heavy?”

“No, sir.”

“Are they getting heavier while I stand here asking you questions?”

Robert didn’t know what to say. Fred laughed, and Robert laughed, too.

While Robert was unloading his tub, he saw Fred cutting pies. “How did he get over there that fast?” Robert silently wondered.

Earlier in the day, Fred had been similarly everywhere at once. During the hog judging, he could have been seen leaning on a panel beside the ring with one brown work shoe up on the bottom board. Then he had been back by the pens, persuading pigs to move peacefully down the aisle to be exhibited. Soon, he had been joking with Charlie Coffman about hamming it up at the keyboard of the organ that Charlie played on the platform of the coliseum.

There was no harder worker than Fred Sundqvist, who understood that work can be fun.

… but fun can never be work. Those who had to work at having fun or being funny seldom had fun and were definitely not funny. Confronting the exigencies of daily living began with a sense of humor originating in the heart. Well acquainted with the caprice of the weather—which could make or break farm profits—farmers had to love long hours and hard work that most often took place outdoors in all kinds of weather, and they were most successful when they learned to accept loss with wit, if not a smile.

While Robert picked up dishes in the 4-H cafeteria, he encountered men and women who had spent seven, eight, or nine decades on farms. No matter how self-reliant, they respected the importance of the collaboration that placed rural communities on firm foundations. They were genuinely grateful when Robert cleared a place for them at one of the tables that were arranged in long parallel lines down the length of the building. With keen glances from faces that revealed their years in sun and wind, they politely thanked him with a “much obliged, young man.” Robert felt that, in the simple act of lifting plates into a tub, he had helped make the evening more pleasant for others who had spent decades helping shape and form the good world that he was enjoying.

On Thursday evening, Ida and Charles made a quick trip from the fairgrounds to Pine Village to feed Spot and the ducks while Joe and Robert took care of the family’s livestock exhibited at the fair. Joe and Robert finished early, so Robert’s father suggested that they take a look at the new farm machinery on display.

They walked up and down rows of shiny tractors and various implements exuding the indefinable fragrance of new equipment. As dealers in farm machinery were enjoying a huge increase in sales over the year before, they brought plenty of exhibits to the fair. The newest tractors were more rugged in appearance with heavier gearing.

Joe glanced over to the Ferris wheel. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked Robert, who had to ponder the offer.

Robert was deathly afraid of heights. Once, on a trip to visit Andy and Emmajeanette, the family had scaled the limestone Observation Tower—seventy feet tall—at Washington Park in Michigan City, and Robert had just about passed out from fear when he reached the top. At the farm in Pine Village, a sugar maple in the hog lot had a tempting lateral branch about six feet off the ground, and, time and time again, Robert climbed the trunk so as to sit on the limb but lost all resolve to climb back down. Patiently, he waited for his father to appear in the chicken lot or the barnyard, and, when Robert saw him, he yelled for Joe to come rescue him. Joe had to bring a stepladder to retrieve his son; somehow, Joe never lost his temper at the repeated instances when Robert became stuck on the limb.

Reluctantly and meekly, Robert said, “Yes.” Joe paid the attendant the price of the tickets, and Joe and Robert strapped themselves into one of the Ferris wheel’s seats. Up and up they went. When they were exactly at the top, the wheel stopped.

After several seconds, the attendant shouted up that the ride was not getting electricity and that he would run up to the main electrical box to see if he could determine the cause.

Robert was ready to panic, but his father spoke reassuringly, “There’s nothing wrong where we are. We’re safe. He’ll get the motor going again, and we’ll be on our way.”

Hushed breezes passed by while the seat rocked lightly. Robert and Joe looked down on tractors that they had looked up to only a few minutes earlier. They could see the roof of the coliseum. The conversations of fairgoers seemed strangely nearby for as small as the people appeared from high atop the wheel. Robert and Joe gazed up at fluffy white clouds that were almost immobile, only now and then taking a step forward, and Robert and Joe gazed down on the life of the fairgrounds.

Robert marveled that his father was calm, but Joe understood and trusted the machinery. Taking a deep breath, Robert relaxed and waited for the wheel to roll on.

Shortly, the attendant returned. He shouted, “It was a breaker in one of those new circuit breaker boxes!” The motor hummed back to life. The wheel creaked and began to orbit again.

Before long, Robert and his father were back on terra firma, their Ferris wheel ride enshrined in their memories.