Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, April 26, 2015

My Sacred Places: Walt Whitman's House in Camden, New Jersey

Writing my dissertation about the poetry of Walt Whitman coincided with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As I played clarinet in the Indiana University Pep Band and had nine years of seniority in the famed Marching Hundred, I was entitled to a trip to the City of Brotherly Love. I planned to visit Whitman’s house in nearby Camden, New Jersey, on the day in between the first and second matches.

On March 30, 1981, my trumpet-playing friend Ken and I took the subway to Camden and found Whitman’s house. There, we met Eleanor Ray, the caretaker and docent. As my dissertation was nearly finished, I had enough knowledge about Whitman to verify that Eleanor knew her stuff! To this day, I think of her as one of the foremost experts on Whitman. She had grown up in Camden, had seen a want ad listing the caretaker job, had applied, and had been chosen. Eleanor told us she felt she was under obligation to learn as much about Whitman as she could. She definitely fulfilled her promise!

My Friend Ken Walking Away from the Walt Whitman House
(Painted Light Gray) in Camden, New Jersey, in 1981

We slowly toured the small shotgun house. Many of Whitman’s belongings were on view; seeing Whitman’s effects made me feel that he was peering over my shoulder. I thought I might glance at his rocking chair and catch him rocking!

The great biographer Justin Kaplan had published his life of Whitman the previous year. Eleanor told us she and Kaplan had lengthy conversations about the poet. As Kaplan was most interested in examining Whitman’s environments to discern the ways in which Whitman constructed a public persona consistent with the high aims of his literary art, Kaplan had come to a significant location when he visited Camden, Whitman’s final home (the only house he ever owned) and his burial place. While we stood in Whitman’s front room, I sensed that I was standing where many famous writers, past and present, had stood.

After our tour, Eleanor, Ken, and I lingered on the sidewalk in front of Whitman’s house. A drizzling mist was falling, and the sky was leaden. I had the notion to step up on the block that Whitman used to step up into his buggy. No sooner was I atop the slab than lines from Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” flashed into the forefront of my mind. Whitman had written the poem in honor of slain President Abraham Lincoln. Suddenly, Eleanor asked, “Do you feel that change in the atmosphere? Something bad is happening somewhere.” I admitted I had the disquieting sensation that an evil act was occurring. Feeling vulnerable, I quickly dismounted from the stone. Eleanor explained that, ever since she had worked at the Whitman house, her extrasensory perception had been in harmony with the poet’s psyche. On that occasion, she seemed almost a reincarnation of the author of Leaves of Grass.

Ken and I journeyed back to our hotel in Philly. We had plenty of time to don our pep band uniforms. We were surprised to find our fellow band members glued to the television sets in their rooms. “Haven’t you heard?” they asked. “Someone just tried to assassinate President Reagan.” The TV reporters solemnly repeated the facts about the assassination attempt, which had occurred precisely when Eleanor had said, “Something bad is happening somewhere.” Most fortunately, President Reagan survived and reportedly felt he should be especially mindful of his actions because a Merciful Providence had spared him.

The band boarded the bus for the Spectrum. The NCAA had decided to delay the game. Everyone waited, including then sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, who engaged in friendly conversation with band members. The crowd quietly awaited news of President Ronald Reagan’s condition. Eventually, the voice over the loudspeakers announced that the President was recovering and that he had urged the NCAA to start the games, saying he would rather be in Philadelphia. I had been in the Spectrum when IU won the NCAA championship in 1976, and I was there in 1981 when, late at night, the Hoosiers beat Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels 63 to 50.           

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My Sacred Places: Angel Mounds

Each of us has visited places that we regard as sacred. Cathedrals, burial grounds, and monuments to soldiers fallen in the line of duty readily come to mind. When we broaden the definition of “sacred” to include any place inspiring our loftiest ideas and our highest respect, we have a host of consecrated locations. This series of blogs is dedicated to a few of my sacred places.

My India Ink Drawing of Woodland Mound,
Which I Made for Dr. Conard Carroll

When my brother and I were enrolled in one of many summer sessions at Indiana University, we decided to spend a Saturday at Angel Mounds. After AD 1000, a large settlement of Native Americans thrived beside the Ohio River; the impressive civilization lasted until 1450. The inhabitants farmed the area for miles around. The site boasted a dozen impressively large structures including various mounds and a palisade.

As it turned out, my brother and I had chosen a stiflingly hot day. At approximately 11:00 a.m., we parked our car and walked through a weedy field toward a reconstructed section of the palisade wall, which once had bastions at rhythmic intervals along the half circle that stretched from the river, around the village, and back to the river again. The sun beat down on our heads. We were standing on soil that crayfish loved. Every inch of ground was steamy. Even while standing still to read the markers interpreting the archaeological site, we felt sweat beading on our foreheads and dripping down our backs. We weren’t being baked; we were being boiled!

We had come to see the mounds, and we were going to see them, no matter how sweltering the day might be! We went from one to the next, surveying each in its torrid splendor. Not a breath of air cooled our perspiring faces. All was breezeless and scorching. We were the only visitors to the park. Others were wiser. Others were enjoying themselves in air-conditioned rooms somewhere. We trudged from a platform mound to a conical mound. We could have wrung the moisture from our shirts.

We found appealing the thought of climbing above the tropical bottom land, so we scaled the cone before us. We dragged our feet through tangled grasses, our tendons pulling hard as we scrambled up the steep embankment. When we reached the top, we sat down to drain. The view was spectacular. The turquoise haze of southern Indiana lay above the land bordered by motionless trees. The great river lay beyond with scarcely a trace of movement as if it were a lake instead.

For a long time, neither of us spoke. I felt that we were becoming one with nature.

Just then, with a sarcasm that only my brother can wield, he jeered, “It probably took them a long time to make this mound. I bet they wish they could have had our modern earth-moving equipment. With a good bulldozer, they could have scraped this mound together in less than a day.”

Out of nowhere, a furious wind suddenly crashed against us. We took one look at each other, jumped to our feet, and dashed pall-mall down the slope, nearly falling several times in our rush toward the level plain. Once we regained our breath, I said, rather accusingly, “They didn’t like that very much!” Contritely, my brother said, “No. That stirred up something we had no right to disturb.”

Neither of us felt safe. We abruptly concluded our visit by striding back to our vehicle. Since that day so long ago, we have journeyed to many prehistoric sites in Ohio, and, needing no reminder, we have kept a respectful attitude throughout our trips.