Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Vehicles I Remember: 1951 Hudson

My grandfather bought a new Hudson in 1951. It was a Commodore 8 Sedan in basic black. He purchased many (if not all) of the optional features. A few years later, when I was old enough to appreciate cars, I thought Grandpa’s vehicle was the most spectacular automobile on the road.

Seymour Alfred Rhode's 1951 Hudson Commodore 8 Sedan

I was intrigued with the push-button radio. For better reception, a knob above the windshield could be turned to rotate a small antenna into an upright position. When doors were opened, small lights in the door panels came on so that the driver or passengers would not trip over the doorsills at night. The upholstery (dark green and golden tan, as I remember) felt swanky.

On Easter one year when we were boys, my brother and I were dressed in matching brown suit coats with brown shorts and brown caps with small bills. We were invited to sit in the back seat of the Hudson while Grandpa drove us the mile from our house to the church. I felt that we were riding in a high style indeed!

The exterior of the car was shaped like the back of a duck. Now that I think about it, the contours probably gave the automobile superior aerodynamic properties. I recall that the Hudson wanted to go fast down a highway.

When my brother attended Indiana University, he needed a car, and my parents agreed that he should have the Hudson, which they had inherited. I was an entering student at IU, and I enjoyed weekends when my brother and I took the Hudson off campus to visit neighboring towns. One of my favorite recollections is driving along with the windows down on a crisp fall day with the spectacular autumn colors of the Brown County landscape passing by. Life really did not get much better than that!

As I contemplate vehicles I have known and loved, I think what a difference various cars and trucks have made in my existence. While I have appreciated various cars that I have owned in recent years, none of them have carried the mystique that surrounded those automobiles that first entered my developing consciousness. Was I so young that I was more impressionable then, or were the vehicles themselves more exciting? I can attest that riding in the Hudson was a thrill in any year from the time when my legs swung off the edge of the seat until I was a college freshman.

When my father passed away, the Hudson was in a garage where it had been parked since my brother no longer needed it. While my brother and I were preparing for the estate auction, we discussed whether he wanted to restore the car. It had been sitting for so long that the tires were flat. Mice had invaded the interior and had destroyed the once luxurious upholstery. My brother wisely decided that a restoration would be a challenge too great for him at that time in his life. We sold the car at the auction. I hope whoever bought it brought it back to its former glory because it was truly a thing of beauty!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Vehicles I Remember: 1951 GMC Pickup

The first pickup that I remember was a 1951 GMC. It was rated a half-ton model, but it had a ¾-ton bed. My father kept it seemingly forever! It must have run well, as I have no memory of it in a repair shop. It was a silvery pale blue. It boasted a 1940s underdash heater that was an aftermarket installation by Glen Bisel, who owned the Sinclair station in my hometown; he found it in a wrecked Oldsmobile car. The heater was shaped like a shield and had two doors with round metal doorknobs. When a door was opened, the heat poured out. Actually, the heat poured out even when the doors were closed! I always sat between my father and my brother on the bench seat. The heater was close to my knees. On bitterly cold winter days, the heat felt good; otherwise, the heat was too intense, and I compulsively drew my knees back into the seat as far from the heater as I could get.

My Father and the 1951 GMC Pickup

On a farm, a pickup truck gets constant use; for that reason, I have scores of memories of the faithful old GMC! My father often chose a rainy day to load two or three hogs to take to the market. If the loading went well, my father would not sustain a scratch; frequently, though, he had to wrestle with the pigs to get them up and into the bed of the pickup, and he would be cut. As my father bled freely from even the smallest nick, he would soon have a trail of blood over the back of his hand or on his forearm. Once the pigs were loaded, he would run to the house to wash his hands and coat his scratches with tincture of merthiolate (an antiseptic in a bottle with a thin glass tube attached to the lid). The tincture left orange stains. My father would hop behind the wheel, and we would be on our way to one of the livestock sale barns near our home.

The rain would slosh across the windshield from side to side as the wiper blades worked back and forth in a lazy rhythm. I was a youngster sandwiched between my father and my brother. I would listen to their conversation and the peaceful beat of the raindrops. Our damp clothing and the scents of earth within the cab mingled in waves of tropical heat exuding from the heater slung beneath the dashboard. Slowly but surely, I would fall asleep.

That sleep was the soundest sleep that a boy could have! I wish I could experience such tranquility today! I felt secure and toasty warm. I assumed that life would go on like that forever.

Of course, life didn’t go on in that same way, but I have the memories of that comfortable time when I was really young. Such recollections sustain me now.

I can hardly conclude without mentioning that I often washed and waxed the good ol’ GMC. In waxing and polishing vehicles from the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, jammed fingers were always a possibility. Where I most often rammed my fingers into a space too small for them on the GMC was between the back fender and a vertical support for the pickup bed. My hand would smoothly slip down the rounded curve of the fender and get caught near the bottom of the curve. Ouch! No matter how many times I told myself not to do that, I did it anyway!

What would I not give to return to the 1950s for another ride in that GMC truck? Maybe my father would be hauling sacks from the feed store in town to our storage shed for livestock. The sun would be shining, the heater would be turned off, and we would be sharing a small bottle of Coca-Cola. How did I let those wonderful days slip away?   

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Vehicles I Remember: 1950 Chevrolet

The first car in my memory was a 1950 Chevrolet. It 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. That breeze felt so good on a hot day! The windshield was in two halves joined by a thin metal connector moulding. As a child, I always experienced motion sickness, which was far worse if I were in the back seat. Even when I was lucky enough to sit in front, my eyes would focus first on the metal moulding then on the distant view then on the connector again, until I was well on my way toward nausea!

My Mother, My Brother, and the 1950 Chevrolet

My parents drove differently. My father was far-sighted and enjoyed perusing fellow farmers’ fields to his left. Meanwhile, 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. My mother, meanwhile, played with the throttle. Her small foot, usually wearing a flip-flop 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 accordingly. To ride with my father at the steering wheel was less nauseating but more frightening.

One day in the good old summertime, I was riding with my mother at the wheel. Down went the gas pedal, up it went, down it went again, back up it came, and so on. I was a youngster still short enough to stand on the front seat. I was near the passenger door and was trying to keep my balance while the car briefly gained speed and momentarily slowed, gained and slowed, gained and slowed. I remember being slightly dizzy. I could smell my mother’s new permanent. (She had to have curls in her straight hair!) We were lurching and hesitating along a gravel road lined by tall corn on our right. We came to an intersection with another gravel road. My mother obeyed the stop sign, but the corn was planted so close to the road that she could not see around it. She entered the intersection only to discover that a road grader had almost entered the intersection from the right. The big machine had been hidden behind the corn. My mother slammed on the brakes, and the road grader just missed the front bumper!

The sudden braking made me lose my balance. My mouth struck the hard metal dashboard. I lost both of my upper baby teeth in the front. My mother yelled, “Why don’t you ever stand close enough to where I can grab you?”

A long time after the incident, when my two permanent teeth came in, they were separated by a gap, or diastema. Whether I liked it or not, the diastema became a trademark. I still have it, although the gap has lessened over the years. Terry–Thomas was a popular British comic film actor in American movies of the 1960s. I always enjoyed his performances because, like me, he had a pronounced diastema.

I am old enough to be mindful that young people today have such perfect teeth! When I was growing up, children lacked such gloriously white, exactly spaced teeth, the result of costly orthodontics. (Incidentally, antibiotics given for ear infections, from which I frequently suffered, turned children’s teeth yellow.) Visiting an orthodontist was just becoming an option for rural kids back then. My parents took me to one in Lafayette, Indiana, but, when they learned how expensive it would be to close the diastema in my front teeth, they asked me if I really wanted to have my incisors properly aligned. I hated dentists. With vast relief, I said that I would just as soon avoid going to the orthodontist. Also relieved, my parents did not have to pay the thousand dollars to close the gap in my teeth.

Whenever I brush my teeth, I recall the dashboard of that 1950 Chevrolet.    

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Rustic Prints 6 (Last Installment in This Series)

What is not to love about this rustic print? It glows within the mat as if filled with its own light. The blue sky and white clouds are true to a summer’s day. A pleasant cottage with a white fence is barely discernible beneath the branches of the welcoming tree. A man walks a large fluffy dog by the trunk. Farmers load bundles of wheat, also known as sheaves, onto a wagon pulled by three horses. A rooster and a chicken, like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Chanticleer and Pertelote (in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”), wait happily, knowing they will find grains of wheat when the nearby shock is knocked apart.

Framed Rustic Print of Horses, Wheat, and Chickens

When I exhibited my farm steam engine at the Will County Threshermen’s Association show in Illinois in the 1990s, I enjoyed loading bundles of wheat in the late afternoon. Tired from the hard work of a hot day, I somehow managed to find a burst of energy when fellow exhibitors and I walked the short distance to the field. With a pitchfork, my friends and I lifted the bundles higher and higher until the wagons were stacked to the sky with sheaves of golden wheat. We could nearly always count on the sunset to be spectacular, with reddish orange rays slanting between the bundle wagons. Don’t get me wrong! It was a workout, and my muscles screamed afterwards. The joy was in doing honest and collaborative work as it had been done in my grandparents’ and parents’ days. The banter was ever friendly; the camaraderie, always memorable.

In helping to load bundles in Will County, I learned that a shock must be broken apart before the bundles can be lifted. Shocks of wheat are carefully piled groups of bundles, with at least one fanned out across the top to help shed the rain. For most of the time that wheat was threshed—that is, before wheat was harvested by means of the agricultural implement called a “combine”—standard wisdom held that wheat should “cure” in shocks or stacks for a few weeks before being threshed. Should it rain during the curing process, much of the rain would be shunted aside by the bundles carefully spread across the tops of the shocks.

After being propped together for many days, the wheat bundles are commingled enough to make lifting one of them a challenge. By the simple expedient of easy movements with a pitchfork, the shock is loosened in such a way that the bundles become disentangled, ready for loading. In this rustic print, the man wearing suspenders is standing over a shock that has been knocked apart. His actions remind me of those jubilant evenings in Will County!

I began this series by admitting that I am a sucker for old-time illustrations that can be described as “rustic prints.” With a farming scene as spectacular as this one, I am confident that my passion for such prints can be understood by everyone.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Rustic Prints 5

This framed print of cows and a stream defines the word bucolic, a word with Greek roots meaning “cowherd” and “cow.” Bucolic has a synonym in pastoral, a word having multiple layers of significance relating to “pastors,” or “shepherds.” I suppose that one of my most important memories of growing up on a farm in Indiana is the peaceful sight of soft-eyed cows wading in sparkling creeks on sultry summer afternoons.

Framed Rustic Print of Cows and a Brook

That sight was repeated around every bend of a country road. When I was a youngster, most farms were far smaller than they are today, and they were diversified in old-fashioned ways that now seem quaint. By diversified, I mean that farms raised crops but a wider variety of crops than they now raise and that farms raised livestock—which many farms no longer raise. I recall fences. Lots and lots of fences. They were necessary to discourage cows and pigs and sheep from straying into the gravel roads. I recall hardwood trees amid the fences bordering the edges of fields; today, most of those trees have been removed to enable huge farm machines to till the soil as close to the edge of the roads as possible. I recall chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea hens, some of which did stray into the gravel roads. … but most cars and trucks traveled at slower speeds back then, and most drivers were more alert to the possibility of encountering chickens in the way.

Oh, such courteous and civilized drivers as there were in those days! Friendly drivers, who waved at you, and you waved back. Kind drivers, who left a respectful distance between their front bumpers and your back bumper. … but I digress.

When my family drove anywhere, our car passed several creeks, often ornamented with cows, which I have always considered especially sculptural. The bodies of cows are graceful, and their tranquil eyes can melt the hardest hearts.

A chore that I enjoyed was encouraging the dairy cows to come to the barn for milking in the evening. I think back to summer evenings steeped in a golden haze. I strode to the east of the barn along a curving dusty path that the cows had made. To both sides were meadow plants, which, in the heat of the day, had the fragrance of a rich tea. I found the Holsteins gathered in the shade of an oak. Chewing their cud and casually switching their tails at flies, they looked at me expectantly. Soon, the lead cow, who had assumed the dignified station of leading the rest, came toward the serpentine path on which I stood waiting. One by one, the other cows fell into line in an order that they recognized among themselves. I brought up the rear. As the cows and I walked back toward the barn, I gazed ahead. The black-and-white hips of the cows gently swayed from side to side, and I heard the muffled beat of hooves in the thin dust. When the parade reached its destination, my father guided the pets into their stalls, and the milking began. I used the word pets just now because my father treated his dairy cows as pets, and they were as coddled and affectionate as dogs.

Accordingly, whenever I see this rustic print, all such reminiscences—and more—flow back to me. No wonder I appreciate such illustrations from earlier eras!