Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, July 6, 2019

37. The Competitions ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

Miss Jamieson had honed Robert’s music to the point of a gleaming polish. He practiced several hours every day. To prepare for the regional and state music competitions, he tested his memory by picturing exactly which keys were to be played by the proper fingers from the first note to the last. If he were uncertain, he played the edge of a desk or table as if it were a keyboard while he concentrated on the key that was not clearly seen in his mind’s eye. If—after treating the desk or table as an imaginary keyboard—he still could not know precisely which key it should be, he took out the score, which he always carried with him, and checked the passage that was in doubt. Eventually, he could play the movement of the Beethoven sonata in his sleep.

At the regional contest, Robert knew the piece so well that he experienced no nervousness. With utter confidence, he performed the movement flawlessly and received a perfect score in return.

Next up was the state competition. Miss Jamieson met him in the hallway of the building on the Butler campus in Indianapolis.

She smiled. “Well, Ro-BAIR, this is it. Remember that you play the piece better than anyone.”

“I will play it,” Robert said, “for Beethoven. He wouldn’t want his music performed badly.”

“Oh, Ro-BAIR! Only you would put it that way!”

The time had come. Robert entered the large room and handed the score to the judge, a thin man in his fifties with a most serious expression on his face despite the bright red slacks he was wearing.

Miss Jamieson had taught Robert to relax, particularly from the waist, through the shoulders, to the elbows. He sat on the bench and deliberately slumped forward, taking all tension away from his upper body. Then he turned to the judge.

“Whenever you’re ready,” the judge said.

“This is your last time to participate in a state piano competition,” Robert thought. “Let it be your best but let it be fun!”

With joy and inner peace, he launched into the Beethoven, silently singing the melodies. When the last note died away, he believed he had played as flawlessly as he had at the regional competition.

Taking a deep breath, he pivoted on the bench and remained sitting while he looked at the judge.

“That,” the judge said, pausing dramatically, “was perfect in every way. I am giving you a perfect score. It is the only perfect score I will give all day because I am confident I will hear no other performance equaling yours. But are you aware that you play with your mouth open?” The judge made a face imitating Robert’s face. “When you do that, you look like a moron! Keep your mouth shut! You may go.”

Robert smiled, knowing full well that he would not take the judge’s advice—and Robert never did, preferring always to play with his mouth open so that he could sing the melodies as Miss Jamieson had taught him.

In the hallway was great celebration! Joe and Ida could hardly believe that a son of theirs was walking away with a perfect score from the state competition.

Miss Jamieson said, “Formidable! My Ro-BAIR is now a virtuoso!”

Still ahead lay the audition for the famed School of Music at Indiana University.

At his weekly lesson prior to the trip to Bloomington, Robert played the three pieces that Miss Jamieson wanted him to present to the judging panel.

“They will accept you on the basis of your Beethoven,” Miss Jamieson predicted. “They will find your Bach excellent. They will consider your Chopin competent, but you are yet too young to play the Romantics with the depth of feeling that comes only from experience.”

She rocked thoughtfully.

“Well, Ro-BAIR, this is near the end of the road for us.”

“I will write and call often,” Robert promised.

“I hope you will,” Miss Jamieson said. “I hope you will. Your music will be under the guidance of someone else, and you will have to take to heart whatever you discern to be the truth in what your professor is teaching you. Do you envision a career as a pianist? Before you answer my question, I want you to know that the music profession is a mug’s game. The competition is infernal. It can change a person. I would not want to see you transformed by it.”

Robert wondered if Miss Jamieson were trying to talk him out of his decision to major in piano performance—if he could pass the audition. He said, “I do also like writing and literature.”

Miss Jamieson guffawed. “Spoken like the writer I have come to know! Don’t think I haven’t noticed your gift for wording your ideas! You remind me of Yeats. I met him, you know. You don’t use the same rhythms, but you have the same clarity. And something in your face tells me that you and he share a certain je ne sais quois—an unusual economy of expression! You could do worse than become a writer. I have a friend in Toronto who has devoted her life to writing, and I must say that, nonetheless, she has been happy. I would like for you to remember this: life is a crapshoot. No matter what career you choose, you will need good fortune on your side before you can be a success. Read philosophy, my Ro-BAIR! Read philosophy! Now, play ‘Happy Birthday.’”

Robert stared at Miss Jamieson. “Do you mean the song?” he asked.

“Yes, the song! Whatever else could I mean? The judges will ask you to play some song by ear. It could be ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’—oh, you had better hope you don’t get that one! It could be ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ Practice them, but, for now, play ‘Happy Birthday.’”

Robert tried, but he played the wrong chord where a singer would sing the name.

“You fell into the trap, my boy! Think minor seven followed by major seven.”

Immediately, Robert had the correct chords.

As he tromped down the flights of stairs from Miss Jamieson’s flat high above the clothing store, Robert began counting how many more times he would have lessons with his formidable teacher. When he realized how small the number was, he felt his throat tighten.

Joe and Ida sat in the hallway of the Music Building at Indiana University while Robert entered the room for his audition.

Three judges—two men and one woman—sat in a curve near a Steinway grand. The man with long silvery hair said, “We are auditioning twenty applicants today. You are near the end of the list. If you would like to wait outside until the last applicants have performed, we can tell you whether or not you have been accepted, thus eliminating the need for you to await a letter in the mail. What do you have for us today?”

Robert listed the Beethoven, the Bach, and the Chopin.

The silver-haired man smiled at his colleagues. “What is your preference?” he asked them.

“Let us hear the Bach,” the woman said.

Robert motioned toward the bench.

“Please!” said the man with the silver hair.

Robert sat, adjusted the seat, and began the Bach. He had performed only the beginning of the piece when the woman said, “That is enough.” For a moment, Robert wondered if he had failed to play to her expectations, but he quickly put that thought from his mind, as he knew he had played well.

The silvery-haired man said, “Shall we hear part of the Beethoven sonata.”

Robert took a breath and began the piece that had earned him the perfect score at the state competition. His mouth was open while he performed. The judges did not interrupt him until he was very near the end.

“Ahem!” said the man with the silver hair. “In the interest of time, we need to move along. Does anyone care to hear the Chopin?” The other judges shook their heads. “Well, then, could we ask you to play ‘Happy Birthday’?”

Robert grinned. He turned and played “Happy Birthday” with the closing arpeggio that he had rehearsed.

The judges smiled. The silver-haired man said, “Done with panache! Please wait in the hall.”

Robert exited. Joe and Ida stood. They were about to ask him how the audition had gone when the door opened and the woman stepped out. She spoke in a quiet voice. “I am Marie Zorn, and I teach piano and harpsichord. You have been accepted into the School of Music, and you will study with me to become a Bach specialist. I must go back inside, if you will excuse me.” She quickly closed the door behind her.

Robert suddenly realized that he had been given an incredible opportunity. That day, the judges accepted two applicants from the field of twenty. Robert realized that he would never have made it, had it not been for Miss Jamieson. Now, would he spend a lifetime pursuing the mug’s game of music? Only time would tell.



Sunday, June 30, 2019

36. The Convention Center and the Commencement ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

Robert’s senior year demanded effective use of time. His responsibilities included editing the newspaper, editing the yearbook, serving as class president, competing in the regional and state piano competitions, and auditioning on piano at Indiana University.

One of his lighter duties was giving a short talk at the Prom. He handled that obligation well enough, but he and his classmate Susie also had to dance the first dance—a burden less assured of adequate attainment. By the time the dance rolled around, Susie and he were having so much fun joking with their friends that worries vanished, and they gave a lighthearted and carefree demonstration of their dancing prowess (or, in Robert’s case, lack thereof).

The newspaper staff had made money. Toward the end of the academic year, the members and their advisor, Mrs. Nealon, discussed what to do with the profits. The staff decided to attend Sammy Davis, Jr.’s concert celebrating the Gala Grand Opening of the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis on the 18th of May.

After driving to the capital city and walking from a nearby parking garage, the group slowly made its way down a packed hallway beyond the foyer of the Convention Center. The scents of new construction and floral perfume mingled in a heady atmosphere. The concertgoers were dressed to the proverbial nines. Eventually, the students and their advisor found their seats in the vast exposition hall with its stage at one end. The huge space was just as redolent of fragrance as the hallway had been. Robert thought the predominant tones in the bouquet were peach mingled with jasmine.

At 8:00 p.m., the lights dimmed so much that, to all intents and purposes, they went out. Simultaneously, the stage was lit with brilliant spotlights. When Sammy Davis, Jr., walked out, the applause was pure thunder. Having starred in eleven movies, having released over thirty albums, and having had two hits on Broadway, the entertainer was poised to become one of Los Vegas’ most enduring performers.

Davis performed “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?,” “Black Magic,” “I Gotta Be Me,” and “Hey There.” The star whose “Here Come de Judge” skits on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and whose other TV appearances had made him a household name, entertained the audience with ceaseless energy and boundless warmth.

It was one of the rare times in Robert’s life when he thought he might have to pinch himself to see if he were awake or only dreaming. For the rest of the summer before Robert left for college, he thought of the trip to the Convention Center whenever he heard Sammy Davis, Jr’s “The Candy Man” on the radio.

Graduation offered another of those times when Robert thought he might have to pinch himself.

When Robert stood at the podium on the stage in the gymnasium in Pine Village and gave the valedictory address, he heard his voice almost as if he were someone sitting in the rows of folding chairs on the tarps that had been spread to cover the basketball floor. He could hardly believe that he was the Valedictorian—especially after his cousin Pam had come so close to earning the title herself. She was a gracious Salutatorian.

While he spoke, Robert thought about the fact that his father and his brother had been Valedictorians at the same school. Had he failed to achieve the same goal, Robert would have felt humiliated.

A few days after Commencement, Robert and his mother were drinking iced tea on the front porch.

It struck Robert as strange that everything was ending. The school that he had longed to attend when he was but four years of age was now a place he could only visit. He had graduated. Within only three months, he would have no more piano lessons with Miss Jamieson. Even his room in the house on the farm east of Pine Village would no longer be occupied by him throughout the year but only in the summer. Robert would begin attending summer sessions at Indiana University after his sophomore year in college and would never be home again, except for holidays. Why should such tremendous changes be happening to him?

Ida seemed to understand her son’s jumbled emotions.

“You’ll be in college soon,” Ida began. “I want you to call and write as often as you can. Tell me about what you’re reading.”

She paused to sip her tea.

“College won’t be the same as high school,” she continued. “Through your classes, you’ll have experiences that, right now, you can’t even dream of having.”

Again she paused.

“You’ve been very successful in high school,” she went on. “College will be much more difficult. You may not succeed—”

“Oh, I’ll make sure I succeed,” Robert interrupted.

Ida smiled. “I wonder if I was as confident when I was your age,” she said. “You always prepare thoroughly, and you anticipate what lies ahead. Maybe there will be no limit to what you can accomplish. All I can tell you is to study hard and to listen closely to what your professors say. You can always turn to your brother for help and advice.”

She paused once more.

“You should slow down once in a while to look at where you’re headed because you don’t want to look back at the end of your life and realize you missed it. You tend to drive yourself, and I wouldn’t want you to forget the enjoyment along the way.”

Robert appreciated his mother’s insights. He looked above the young corn plants in the field across the road. The rows stretched toward a cobalt blue line of distant trees. He knew he would soon be leaving the farm, and he wanted to take vivid mental pictures to serve as clear memories later on. Yes, if he had to leave the farm, he was surely going to take the farm with him.


Sunday, June 23, 2019


Pine Village had won the sectional basketball contest only five times: 1921, 1922, 1934, 1939, and 1941. Thirty-one years had elapsed since the last win. Calling 1972 the “Year of the Village,” the cheerleaders, the Pep Club, and the Booster Club shared the view of Mrs. Cottingham, a teacher who was serving as guidance counselor: “This is our year.” Coach Bill Barrett said, “We have to be ready mentally to play the game. I feel we’re the best team in the county—the ability is there, and we’re twenty points better than any team in the sectional.”

As editor of The Chrome-Plated Clipboard, the school newspaper, Robert did all he could to support the team.

Pine Village won the first game of the sectional by beating the Fountain Central Mustangs with a score of 83 to 67. Robert distributed a hundred purple Ditto sheets as souvenirs. “Friday night will see the contest where the team and the fans alike must strive with every ounce of strength and spirit to overpower the Seeger Indians.”

Coincidentally, the weights of the team members added up to 1972 pounds; their heights, to seventy-two feet.

In all the years that Robert had attended the school in Pine Village, basketball games were exciting occasions.

The architectural design of the gymnasium lent itself to a feeling of immediacy—with everyone seated so near the court! The elongated-dome ceiling trapped the cheers of the crowd and magnified the sound until the noise could be described as “deafening.”

Cokes and popcorn were available down a flight of stairs and around the corner in the bay area of the shop and agriculture classroom on the north end of the gym, but students carrying wire baskets hawked soft drinks up and down the aisles between the benches. Members of the band in their blue uniforms with silver buttons, white stripes, and white braids gathered for the half-time show.

Basketball games were the principal entertainment of the farming community. Everyone, it seemed, turned out for the contests. The parking lots were full of cars and pickup trucks.

In 1972, farmers talked about the 1954 team from Milan, Indiana, that achieved the Milan Miracle, winning the Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament Championship at the Butler Field House in Indianapolis. Could Pine Village be another Milan? One by one, the small schools across Indiana were falling—merging into consolidations. Such small schools had grown accustomed to losing to teams from the big cities of the Hoosier State, but now those local schools that remained also faced tough challenges in overcoming teams from the consolidated school districts. 

Joe had been present for Pine Village’s 1934, 1939, and 1941 sectional championships, and he had listened to the Milan victory on radio. He wondered if the heyday of Pine Village basketball had already occurred in the 1930s and early 1940s, but he hoped the halcyon time lay yet ahead.

In the weeks leading up to the 1972 sectional, townspeople who happened to meet on the sidewalk or at the elevator or post office or who were gathering for church services talked anxiously about the team’s chances.

Years later, Robert would be a clarinetist in the Indiana University Pep Band at two NCAA championship games when IU emerged the victor, and he would remember the Pine Village sectional games as fitting in the same thrilling category.

The sectional final game between Pine Village and Seeger felt unreal. Robert sat next to his cousin Pam in the Pep Club seats. Pam and Robert yelled until they were hoarse. They were continuously leaping to their feet. These players on the court were their friends, and their friends were playing their hearts out to win.

Once, Robert had reflected in print, “For Pine Village to cheer forward its team in this game in this way is truly fine! This brings our small world together!”

Robert glanced across the intensely emotional faces of townspeople and of neighbors such as Mr. Reed, driver of the team bus, and Mr. Brutus, driver of the fan bus. The noise was like that of an agitated ocean crashing on a rocky shore. Robert could see people shouting, but he could not distinguish their words amid the roar. The cheerleaders sustained frenzied cheer after frenzied cheer without pause.

This was glory! Hope and fear wrestled in the countenances and the gestures of all from young to old.

The team raced back and forth in a fast-paced matchup that the strongest defense could not slow. Mr. Barrett cupped his hands like a megaphone and yelled instructions to his team. Mr. Owens, the assistant coach, paced the sideline like a lion in a cage.

With a fierce expression, Bax Brutus guided the total team effort of Pine Village.

Each time the ball flew up, a collective breath was held. When it slid straight through the hoop, the noise from one side surged.

Before Robert could comprehend what had happened, the clock ran out. Pine Village had won with a score of 76 to 72! On the blue side of the court, pandemonium reigned.

It was indeed the Year of the Village.

Even though the team eventually lost to Benton Central in regional play, it had broken the spell and had won the sectional. The team’s victory had proved that hearts and minds—collaborating with confidence and skill—can attain high goals.

Saturday, June 15, 2019


For a week between his junior and senior years in high school, Robert participated in the Rural Electric Membership Corporation Youth Tour of Washington, D.C. Delegates were chosen through the state 4-H organization in a fairly selective process. The bus left Indianapolis in the wee hours of Monday morning so as to arrive in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for a visit to the battlefield at dawn. Robert noted the low ridges that the soldiers formed for their protection. Fog crept across the ground of Pickett’s Charge. The vapor swirled as if churned by wounded soldiers walking back to the woods. The hills and patches of meadow could have been idyllic, but the landscape seemed weighed down by the carnage that occurred there. The guide took the group past monuments, markers, and statues, including the new Indiana monument. Ultimately, the students ascended Little Round Top and looked down upon Pennsylvania’s Elysian Fields.

Later that day, the enormity of the Capitol impressed Robert—especially when he stared at the ceiling of the rotunda. A young guide exclaimed, “You’re all from Indiana? Far out!” A tour of the Supreme Court Building included the courtroom with its red plush curtains hanging between pillars. Robert found the atmosphere dark and forbidding. As each chair was different, the chairs became the judges—in Robert’s imagination.

After the group relaxed at the Marriott Twin Bridges Motor Hotel, the delegates from all the states took part in a boat cruise past Ladybird’s Fountain, jutting high above the Potomac and lit by colored lights.

Tuesday morning found the Indiana group at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) Building. Arthur Mitchell, NRECA director of youth activities, kept the delegates laughing with his “Johnny Carson” style of humor. At the Rayburn House Office Building, delegates from Robert’s area of Indiana met Congressman John T. Myers, who represented the Hoosier State’s Seventh Congressional District, and Congressman William G. Bray, who represented the Sixth Congressional District. Robert sat next to Congressman Myers at lunch. A waiter gestured toward Congressman Myers and said, “This is the nicest man in the House.”  

Then the bus took the students to the Smithsonian Institution. Robert was mesmerized by the Hope Diamond, although he considered rumors about its curse both unfounded and silly. Robert appreciated seeing a mockup of the Apollo Lunar Module.

Robert found the Iwo Jima Memorial imposing. The struggling forms of the statues called to his artistic spirit.

The Lincoln Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial were visited in turn. Robert found the quiet of the Jefferson Memorial a peaceful change from the chatter of tourists elsewhere. He looked out upon the great rippling bay with its reflection of the Washington Monument.

On Wednesday, the delegates from all the states filled a ballroom at the Marriott where they listened to a speech by Senator George McGovern, who was running for President of the United States. Then buses took the students to the South Lawn of the White House, where Secretary of Agriculture Clifford M. Hardin, from Knightstown, Indiana, greeted them. Secretary Hardin had hardly begun his prepared speech, when he was interrupted by President Richard M. Nixon, who put in an unscheduled visit. Secretary Hardin glanced over his shoulder, saw the President, and said, “Well, here is a man I think you all know. May I introduce President Richard Nixon.”

“I saw these young people gathered here, and I thought I should come say ‘hello,’” President Nixon said. Robert happened to be standing only ten feet from the podium, so he had a close view of the Thirty-Seventh President. Robert heard hardly a word of President Nixon’s extemporaneous speech, but he knew it focused on the importance of the 1970 Farm Bill.

Thursday began with a tour of the Washington Monument. Robert took the stairs from the top of the obelisk back to the ground. Next, the bus transported delegates to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Robert stood silently before the graves of George and Martha Washington as he tried to imagine the Colonial Era.

Robert doubted that the people who lived in the past could ever have felt that anything was new and fresh. They wore historical clothing, they lacked present-day conveniences, and they depended on primitive means of travel, such as sails and horses. They might have felt glum. They might have sighed, wistfully wishing they, too, could live in the 1970s. Robert tried again to picture that, in George and Martha’s day, the present moment was just as present to them as the present moment was to him. Their lives unfolded as a succession of surprises, for their history was not yet written. All at once, Robert felt that George and Martha could walk around the corner of their home and say hello to him.

Robert was surprised to learn that George and Martha Washington’s house was sided with yellow pine that was rusticated to give the illusion of sandstone blocks with beveled edges and that it was painted with sand paint.

Later, the guide at Ford’s Theatre said that planning was already underway for a salute to entertainment that would star Bob Hope and Raymond Burr in the autumn. Despite the bright lights, Robert felt a gloom lingering about the stage and the box where tragedy had occurred on Good Friday of 1865. The black cloud of melancholy hung thickly over the Petersen Boarding House across the street where Lincoln had been carried.

Later, at Arlington National Cemetery, Robert stood at the grave of John F. Kennedy during the changing of the guard. He could hardly believe the number of graves of those who had lost their lives in Vietnam.

On Friday, Robert and the other delegates from Indiana toured the Vietnam Embassy before going to the Washington Zoo, where Robert found the gorillas and the elephants fascinating.

When Robert returned to Indiana, he felt a growing affinity for the study of American history—a fact that might help to explain why he would eventually earn a PhD in early American literature.