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.