Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lucky Breaks: Blizzard on I 70

It was February 1, 1981—a Sunday. I had been visiting a friend in Columbus, Ohio, and was ready to return to Bloomington for the beginning of my last semester at Indiana University. I anticipated an uneventful trip along Interstate 70 to Indianapolis and State Route 37 to Bloomington. As I passed Springfield, Ohio, the wind picked up, and the first ominous snowflakes struck my windshield. North of Dayton, gusts rocked my Cutlass while the snow fell so fast that my windshield wipers could not keep up. Darkness quickly descended, and the snow was accumulating in such a way that I could no longer see the white line along the edge of the highway.

Blinding Snow and No Good Options
Courtesy goingslowly

When I reached Richmond, Indiana, traffic had slowed to a crawl. My car heater was unable to conquer the chill from the bitterly cold blasts. I wondered how long it would take me to get to Bloomington, and I worried that the snow on 37 would be a problem. The audacity of the impatient truck drivers amazed me, as the semis rumbled past within inches of my car. I knew they could not see any better than I could, and I could barely make out the taillights of the automobile ahead of me. The squalls were increasing to blizzard intensity as I crept along at five or ten miles per hour. I could see nothing but a hypnotizing pattern of snow as if my car were the Enterprise abruptly entering warp speed. Now and then, red lights flashed just ahead of my bumper, and I slammed on my brakes so as not to hit the car in front.

Somewhere near an overpass, the car ahead of mine stopped completely. I followed suit and waited nervously until the car behind me stopped. When I saw the driver emerge from the automobile in front, I released my seatbelt and got out. Drivers were walking forward, their heads down to shield their faces from the driving snow. We found a fender-bender had occurred, and one of the cars was disabled. We pushed the immobile car off to one side, and the driver of the working car kindly gave the other driver a ride. Fortunately, both had the same destination. We returned to our vehicles and slowly restarted our blizzard caravan.

When I came to Indianapolis, my radio announced that the state police had closed Interstate 70 because of the number of accidents, including a jackknifed semi, which was behind me. I had never been on a closed interstate before, and I wondered what the consequences might be. I approached a sign for the road where my brother lived and decided I would stay overnight with him, but, when I saw the condition of the exit ramp, I chickened out. It looked impassable to me. I had visions of becoming so mired in the snow that I would slide off the ramp. As I left the exit behind, I confronted the stark reality that I had no options left.

I knew that I would never make it to Bloomington, but I had no idea where to stop in Indianapolis. I saw a street sign with a name I recognized. I had once visited the home of a friend of mine in the IU Marching Hundred Band, and I remembered that he lived on that street. I wondered if I could find his house.

The exit ramp was level, and cars had bulldozed a lane along it. I took the exit. In the blinding snow, I kept watching for landmarks that might be familiar, even though I had been that way only once before. I could not believe my good fortune! I spotted the house, "a refuge from the storm"! I slid my Cutlass to a stop in the half foot of snow, hopped out, and rang the doorbell.

My friend’s parents were surprised to see me, but they quickly grasped my dilemma. They said it would be no trouble to put me up for the night. The mother brought me a cup of coffee—about the best coffee I ever had, especially because I was still shaking from the cold and from spending several hours in anticipation that my car would be involved in a crash. I joined my friend’s parents for dinner, and we passed the evening in conversation and laughter. As soon as I climbed under the covers of the bed in the guest room, I fell asleep and slept like a baby.

I had breakfast with my friend’s parents and stayed at their home until I felt certain that the streets were clear. To this day, I am grateful to them for sheltering me from the storm, and I consider it a lucky break that I could find my way to their house.    

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lucky Breaks: My Experience in Salamander Cave

When a friend from high school knocked on my dormitory door at Indiana University, I was surprised twice. My first surprise was his visit, which came with no warning. My second was his suggestion that we go spelunking. I asked him where we would find guides, and he replied that we needed none as he was an experienced caver.

Aaron Valandra in Salamander Cave
Posted by Richard Vernier for Indiana Cave Capers on Facebook

Before long, we had parked our car and had hiked to the entrance of Salamander Cave. The crevice lay beneath layers of limestone. Almost immediately, the squeeze was tight. We twisted this way and that. We crawled. We hunched over. We went on our knees. Eventually, we broke into a large room.

Our world now consisted of cold, pasty, yellow clay, but our flashlights revealed an indefinable beauty in the surface undulations. I felt we had broken into a vault that God had hidden. The cool air made me shiver. We dashed ahead to see what the next passageways and rooms might conceal.

There were bats in groups. They seemed only shadowy smudges on the ceilings. Whenever we encountered a choice of two paths, we tried to memorize whether we had turned left or right.

A growing fear gnawed my insides. I was not yet in a panic, but the onset of claustrophobia had definitely begun. Finally, I summoned my courage and said, calmly, “I suppose we should be retracing our steps soon.” My friend agreed. We started back.

… but we could not find where “back” was! Nothing—and everything—looked familiar. Confronting alternative passages, we asked each other, “Did we come that way or the other way?” Our memory failed us.

I eventually had to admit to myself that we were lost. We trudged onward for a long time. We found ourselves in a narrow channel with a foot of water in the bottom. Our shoes slid on the slippery bottom of the groove. The water deepened and deepened until it came up to our chins.

The batteries in one of our flashlights died, and we had brought no food. Angry thoughts flashed through my mind. Why had he claimed to be experienced, when clearly he was not? Why had I been so stupid as to agree to this nightmare?

When we came to a wall, we felt despair. We could hardly go back again, as the volume of water was increasing slowly but surely, and neither of us could swim. We gave no utterance to what we were thinking: that we were going to drown. I suggested that my friend switch off the flashlight to save what was left of the batteries.

We stood there in the silent water for many minutes. I began to imagine I could see a faint light high above my head. I assumed I was hallucinating, but I fished around for the claw hammer hanging from my belt all the same. I asked my friend to shine the flashlight on the wall, and I used the claws of my hammer to dig toeholds in the clay. With all the effort I could muster, I scaled the wall by digging toeholds as needed. I was seeing light! That day gave me a deep understanding of the biblical quotation “And the light shineth in darkness.” At the top, I found a horizontal gap just tall enough for me to slither through.

My friend followed my lead. The light grew stronger, and, sure enough, we escaped from the cave.

It was late afternoon. A steady rain was falling. We were no longer in the woods where we had entered the cave; instead, we were standing in a pasture with a few clumps of trees and brush. The drops falling from the branches looked like diamonds—the more exquisite because I was still alive to see them!

We had no idea where we were or how far away our car might be. We strode through the meadow and came to a road. We made a fortunate choice and walked in the right direction. After a few miles, we came to a crossroad that we recognized. Ultimately, we regained our vehicle.

As my “experienced” friend had broken every rule in the spelunking book, I was not too sorry to bid goodbye as he returned to the college that he was attending. I was unable to wash out the yellow clay stains in the white jeans I had worn, and I had to throw them away. Tossing the jeans in the trash was just a bad outcome of a bad business, though with a happy ending! I never went caving again. As of today, Salamander is a closed cave—off limits to amateur cavers.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mysteries of Warren County, Indiana: Panoramic Photographs of Steam-Powered Threshing (Last Installment in This Series)

In 1999, my father and I drove in search of the locations of four panoramic photographs of steam-powered threshing taken by Lighty Photo Company of Williamsport, Indiana: a studio recognized for its panoramic images, many of which are in online collections. Brothers Lewis E. and Charles A. Lighty were the photographers. I had obtained prints of the panoramic photographs in Lafayette from Berry’s Camera Shop, which, incidentally, went out of business in 2012 after sixty-four years. My father and I found where three of the four photos were taken. The location of the fourth remains a mystery.

In the time when Lighty produced the photos in the county seat of Warren County, steam engines that powered threshing machines traveled from farm to farm on a ring, or run. The threshers separated grain from the stalks on which it had grown and cleaned the grain, such as wheat or barley. Long thereafter, the generations that had participated in steam threshing, or “thrashing” as the word was often spelled, fondly recalled the season. Families collaborated in the harvest and sat down to tables laden with food during “dinner,” which took place when the whistle blew at noon. My book entitled The Harvest Story: Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen (Purdue University Press, 2001) commemorated the threshing era in all its glory. The Lighty images captured much of the excitement of yesteryear on Hoosier farms.

(Above) Gus Gephart’s J. I. Case Steam Engine
And His Nichols & Shephard Red River Special Threshing Machine
At the Clapham Farm on Bethel Road East of Attica, Indiana
Photograph by Lighty Photo Company, Williamsport, Indiana

(Below) My Photograph of the Same Location in 1999

My father and I discovered that the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company engine and two-wheel tender, and the Nichols & Shepard Red River Special thresher belonged to Gus Gephart. Gus had the outgoing personality of a promoter. In the 1909 Case catalog, Gus is quoted as saying, “The Case coal tender and tank are convenient, and you never need to wait for water. I would not be without a 2-wheel tender tank if I owned a dozen outfits.” Gus hailed from a farm near Otterbein in Benton County, and he rented a farm near Attica in Fountain County. The photo was taken at the Clapham Farm just west of Bethel Cemetery and east of Attica. In the late 1920s, Gus moved back to the Gephart homestead near Otterbein. Gus held rodeos on the family farm and hired Charles Albert “Charley” or “Cobbie” Cobb’s band to perform music for the rodeo crowd. Charley was my grandmother’s brother. As I recall, the name “Bethel” was written on the back of the original panoramic print. Given that clue, my father correctly guessed that the Lighty image was taken near Attica.

(Above) E. H. Wilson's Baker Steam Engine Threshing
At Charles Weigle’s Farm Near Green Hill, Indiana
Photograph by Lighty Photo Company, Williamsport, Indiana
Photo Reproduced on Pages 102 and 103
In The Steam Tractor Encyclopedia: New Expanded Edition
By John F. Spalding and Dr. Robert T. Rhode
Available on Amazon

(Below) My Photograph of the Same Location in 1999
Barn and Silo Hidden Behind Trees

Charles Weigle’s farm, three quarters of a mile east of Green Hill, was the location of Lighty’s photo of a Baker steam engine and accompanying machines owned by E. H. Wilson. My father knew where Charles Weigle had lived, so it was easy to find where Lighty set up his camera.

(Above) Keck–Gonnerman Steam Engine Threshing
At Henry Lohmyer’s Farm in Warren County, Indiana
Photograph by Lighty Photo Company, Williamsport, Indiana
Photo Reproduced on Pages 42 and 43
In The Harvest Story: Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen
By Robert T. Rhode
Available on Amazon

(Below) My Photograph of the Same Location in 1999

Henry Lohmyer’s farm was the scene where a Keck–Gonnerman outfit was threshing. While my father napped in the car beside the Williamsport–Washington Township Library, I researched the location of the Lohmyer farm and found it in a turn-of-the-century map. The Lohmyer home was two miles north of Hedrick and two miles west on the Illinois state line. We drove directly to the site and recognized it at once.

(Above) Nichols & Shephard Steam Engine Threshing
At Unknown Location in Warren County, Indiana
Photograph by Lighty Photo Company, Williamsport, Indiana

The background of the unidentified photo features a road that runs between a fine brick house at the left (a small part of which can be seen close to the smokestack of the Nichols & Shepard engine) and a white house with a porch and two dormer windows at the right. If anyone recognizes where the photograph was taken, let me know.