Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lincoln's Birthday

In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act established three-day weekends for all major holidays and annual commemorations. In many states, Presidents Day became associated with one of the weekends. Before 1971, my hometown in Indiana celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday on the 12th of February and Washington’s Birthday on the 22nd of the same month. (The 22nd is an adjustment made when the country switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which is explained on several websites.) When I was in grade school, we took time to honor Lincoln on his day and to honor Washington on his.

A Pencil Sketch of President Abraham Lincoln
That I Drew in 1965—Similar to My Pastel Portrait
That Won the School Art Contest

Every year, the art teacher invited the junior high and high school students to make portraits of Lincoln that were judged, with the announcement of the winner during the Republican Lincoln Day Dinner in the gymnasium. Several of the older students were blessed with artistic talent and skill, and their portraits of Lincoln were exceptional. The best of the best were displayed in the cafeteria, and I admired them. When I was in seventh grade, I was determined to create a portrait that could compete with those of the high school students. I chose pastel chalk as my medium, and I spent hours and hours meticulously forming Lincoln’s face. I refused to permit myself to hurry (my natural tendency), and I devoted many evenings to the slow development of my art. I compared several images of Lincoln that I had collected at school. My portrait was not a direct copy of any one of them but a compilation of features I observed in several of them.

As my mother spoke glowingly to me about my finished work, I developed confidence that I could enter my portrait of Lincoln in the contest. Even though my mother had reassured me, I was shocked through and through when the art teacher confided in me that my art had won the competition!

I wore a suit and tie to the dinner, and, blushing with joy, I stood before the applauding audience while my portrait was announced as the contest winner.

I often think back to that occasion and also to the days when my classmates and I worked with crayons to color purple-dittoed American flags while listening to our teachers as they read to us about Washington and Lincoln. Such activities instilled in me a respect for the dignity of the President of the United States and a patriotism that I feel today. Somehow, I can hardly help questioning whether the abandonment of Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday in favor of Presidents Day in 1971 may have caused important values to have become lost. I wonder if February comes and goes without stirring the hearts of children the way my heart was stirred when, so many years ago, the red, white, and blue month of Lincoln and Washington rolled around.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016


A child in the late 1950s, I was accustomed to Christmas presents that were fewer and less expensive than those received by children of the generation after mine. One of the best presents that Santa left for me was a collection of hand puppets. For years, I told stories with them. Those cuddly toys helped me become a writer later in life.

My Family Visiting Santa at Sears in the 1950s

But I am ahead of myself, for this blog is about the days leading up to Christmases when I was a kid. Each year, the music teacher at the school planned a program of celebration, and, as a piano student, I was expected to perform. Each year, in the week before the event, I fell ill with flu and stayed home. Throughout grade school, I was never well enough to attend the Christmas program. I was not shirking my responsibilities; I was just a flu target.

I always recovered a few days before Christmas. Every year, my parents zipped my brother and me into our parkas, bundled us into the back seat of the 1957 two-door Chevrolet Bel Air, and took us to see the Christmas lights in Pine Village and Oxford, Indiana. As I could get car sick in the back seat, I had to take precautions, secretly rolling down the window a little so as to obtain fresh air, but I always enjoyed seeing the lights. In those years in such small towns, the light displays were modest. Outdoor strings featured large bulbs in primary colors. Wrapped around a living pine tree, such lights filled my heart with delight. Often, we could see the family Christmas tree with smaller lights and lots of crinkly metallic tinsel just inside a bay window or a picture window. I still remember the year when the Oxford doctor outlined the roof and windows of his ranch-style house in blue lights. We marveled at the color, as we had previously seen only multiple-colored strands. Also, we had rarely run across a house with its architectural features outlined in that way.

A day or two closer to Christmas, my parents took my brother and me to the Masonic lodge rooms on the second story of an old building on State Route 55 in town. The stairs were in the back and were dimly illuminated. I found them scary, creaking at every step. When we entered the main hall, we found the huge pot-bellied stove radiating tropical heat, melting the frost on the tall windows. The chairs were pushed back around the walls, and we kids sat quietly, waiting for Santa. Soon, we heard him ho-ho-hoing. He burst upon the gathering to the applause of the adults. Quickly, he handed small toys and candy to the assembled children. I looked upon him with awe.

On Christmas Eve, my family visited the Methodist Church. I recall the flickering light of candles in the stained glass. The scent of evergreen wafted into the sanctuary. In the candlelight, everyone’s eyes appeared large and mysterious. The adults wore smiles but were quieter than they were at a typical service. In the hush, the minister invited the congregation to sing carols to the tune of the organ. Tears well up in my eyes when I recall my mother’s soprano voice singing good old Christmas songs while she stood beside me and held my hand in that church so long ago.

At home in bed that night and barely able to shut my eyes from anticipation, I was always surprised to discover that I had fallen asleep and that the sunshine of Christmas morning was streaming through the windows. Tossing the covers aside, I dashed into the living room to find that Santa had indeed visited our house and had left presents for my brother and me!

My father in his overalls had already done his chores on the farm and had shaken the snow from his boots. He sat in a chair beside the Christmas tree with his coffee cup in his hand. My mother had already served breakfast and helped us kids to open our gifts. My grandfather, who lived in Indianapolis, was on hand. His eyes sparkled with the joy and hope of the holiday. I wish I could help you see them all as I see them in my vivid memory, for they were wonderful people. Later that morning, my grandmother and my great aunt joined us for “dinner,” as the noon meal was called. And what a magnificent dinner it was, with yeast rolls, fresh butter from our dairy, ham, peas, carrots, corn, and every good thing that my mother had canned from her garden.

If only I could return to that close family circle again! The promise of the Christmas story is that, one day, I can, and I hope I will.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


In the 1950s, when I was a child, relatively few facets of life were commercialized. Take Halloween, for example. Almost no parents in my hometown bought costumes for their children. Masks may have been purchased at a dime store, but parents helped their children to build their own costumes around the store-bought masks. Hoboes might wear jeans with holes at the knees and carry poles with bandanas of belongings tied at the ends. Cowboys might wear hats and holsters. In my family, wrapping in a plain white sheet was considered costume enough, even if the mask had nothing to do with the sheet.

Carving Jack-o'-Lanterns on Halloween in the 1950s

One Halloween, my mother was shopping in Lafayette when I noticed a plastic mask resembling a collie’s head. The plastic’s outer surface felt fuzzy to the touch. I politely asked my mother if I could have the mask for Halloween. What joy! She consented! That year, as I skipped along the sidewalks of Pine Village, I wore my white sheet and my dog mask with tremendous pride.

We kids designed our own trick-or-treat bags from the brown paper bags that came from the grocery stores, such as the IGAs in Attica or Oxford, Smitty’s in West Lafayette, Marsh’s in Lafayette, or the A&P in Lafayette. Jack-o'-lanterns in orange and black crayons were favorite motifs, as were witches, black cats, owls, skulls, ghosts, and moons.

My classmate Alan introduced me to a noisemaker. He cut notches in the edge of a wood spool, which rotated on the end of a stick. When he pulled a string wrapped around the spool, the notched edge made a startling noise against a window pane. Of course, I had to make one immediately!

My parents preferred that my brother and I visit the homes of relatives and family friends, rather than asking for candy at the doors of people less well known. Even with such restrictions, we came away with bags containing more than enough candy! Three Musketeers bars were my favorite, but there were treats more exciting than commercially available candies.

My grandmother and my great aunt made popcorn balls that were out-of-this-world delicious! They were enormous, to boot! It seemed you were eating a popcorn ball almost as large as your head! Years later, I tried making popcorn balls. They were not nearly as good. In the process, I came to wonder how my great aunt and grandmother avoided burning the tips of their fingers, for I surely did! As far as I can tell, there is no way to form popcorn balls without coming into contact with the hot syrup. Could my ancestors have worn gloves? I doubt that they did. At any rate, the homemade popcorn balls far outdistanced the candy bars in flavor.

I recall the delightful strangeness of trick-or-treating. In the darkness, it was difficult to see where the roots of the old trees had tilted the squares of concrete in the sidewalk leading to my grandmother’s house, and I would invariably trip on them. Clouds raced across the moon, sometimes hiding it altogether. In front of my great aunt’s house were bushes that thrashed about in the cold wind. I felt there could be ghouls lurking behind them. One year, Elwyn Gray’s barn had burned not long before Halloween. The structure still stood, but there were large gaps among the blackened boards. The eerie shell stood across the street from my grandmother’s house. I was ill at ease from the scent of burned wood and the moonlight flickering between the cracks in the sides as I hurried past.

Eleanor Y. Stewart and I included many of my Halloween memories in the opening chapter of our middle grade novel Maggie Quick. Those Halloweens that I experienced in a less commercialized era are now enshrined in a book that has earned top reviews!        

Monday, May 9, 2016

Independence Day

Independence Day was pure sunny fun when I was growing up. A few days before the Fourth of July, my family attached two small American flags to the posts flanking the gate in the white board fence surrounding our yard. We wrapped red-white-and-blue crepe paper around the four cylindrical wooden posts of the front porch. On the day itself, we gathered sticks, started a fire, roasted hot dogs, and toasted marshmallows.

Fox Terrier Named Spot and I Celebrating Fourth of July in the 1960s

The big event, though, was in the evening. My mother loaded the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air with a basket of cheese sandwiches, a jug of orange juice, a thermos of tomato soup, and another thermos of coffee. We were off to the fireworks in Fowler, Indiana! Almost always, my father gently nosed the car into the weeds along a gravel road just south of the park where the fireworks were displayed. We spread blankets beside the Chevrolet, which was tilted toward the ditch, and sat together as a family. We enjoyed our supper, just as other families were enjoying theirs up and down the country road.

In about 1966, my father poured a cup of coffee from a thermos and handed the cup to my mother. I commented on the pleasant aroma. My mother asked my father, “Are you going to let Robert taste yours?” “I don’t know. Am I?” my father asked in return. “I think he’s old enough,” my mother replied. My father poured a small amount into his clean cup and handed it to me, and, from that Independence Day onward, I have enjoyed coffee.

As darkness fell, we watched for pink lights, which were the wands the volunteer firemen carried to light the fireworks. In the gathering haze of a hot summer’s night, the pink lights began to fan out mysteriously. Then, with the sound of the air being punched, a nearly invisible rocket slithered up and up. Suddenly, a giant flower of light bloomed overhead! What satisfaction!

We oohed and ahed, comparing colors and effects to choose our favorites. At our distance from the park and from our vantage point behind the show, we could not always discern what the displays on the ground were intended to be, but the waterfall was always obvious and always appreciated for its dazzling white, its smoke drifting to one side, and its noise not unlike a cascade.

While fireworks displays, like so many other forms of entertainment, have become increasingly dazzling since those days when I was growing up, the displays back then were as thrilling as anyone could have wished! The finale was grand enough with several bursts of brilliant color occurring in rapid succession in the night sky.

As we drove back home, our joyful thoughts centered on how proud we were to be Americans.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Decoration Day

When I see stacks of family photographs in antique malls, I regret the forgetting of lives. Unnamed, the faces stare back from late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century photos, and their descendants have lost their connection to the past.

My father strove to forge strong links to his family history. Every Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, began the same way. Early in the morning, my father finished milking the cows and feeding the chickens. He changed clothes so as to be more presentable. Then he lined up buckets by the hydrant in the yard of his house in Pine Village, Indiana. He filled the buckets with water. Next, he and my mother roamed about the yard to collect bouquets of flowers.

A Decoration Day Favorite of My Father: Iris Blossoms

Into the buckets went long-stemmed iris blossoms and nodding heads of peony bloom. Snowballs were tucked into bunches. Sprigs of lilac and bridal veil drooped around the handles. Soon, my father had loaded the buckets in the trunk of the Chevrolet, and we were on our way to the cemetery.

An annual lesson in genealogy was taught as my father led my brother and me from grave to grave of ancestors. At each marker, my father knelt, carefully selected flowers, and spread them on the ground in an artistic arrangement. With his trademark tranquil voice, he told stories about the person being honored. I was just a kid blissfully unaware of how important my father’s stories were, but they were soaking into my memory year by year. Along with his memories came values such as respect for the wisdom of elders.

Beside my great great grandfather Daniel Fenton’s tombstone flew an American flag. The 32-year-old Daniel M. Fenton was mustered into Company G of the 100th Indiana Volunteers on September 27, 1862, at Indianapolis, whereupon he was paid a $25 bounty. Daniel stood five feet six inches tall. He had a fair complexion with light hair and blue eyes. He was a musician. I have Daniel’s fife, but it is no longer playable. The 100th Indiana Volunteers supported at Vicksburg and Knoxville. The regiment fought in the most exposed location on Missionary Ridge and in a similarly deadly position at Kennesaw Mountain. The 100th supported again at Atlanta and experienced yet another sharp battle at the beginning of General William T. Sherman’s march toward Savannah. It was at Grand Junction, Tennessee, in February of 1863 that Daniel suffered from the privations of a cold winter in the field. Fifers played music to march the armies toward battle and helped to clear the field of the wounded and dead after battle. Musicians in the Civil War often joined in the fighting, and, apparently, Daniel was no exception. Daniel saw more than he wanted to see of the terror of warfare, and, physically, he broke down. For the rest of his life, he complained of chronic diarrhea and rheumatism from the exposure he suffered in Tennessee. His medical record indicates that he had jaundice and disease of the liver. Captain Eli J. Sherlock’s 1896 book entitled Memorabilia of the Marches and Battles in Which the One Hundredth Regiment of Indiana Infantry Volunteers Took an Active Part (available online at provides an excellent summary of the 100th Indiana. In his roster for Company G, Sherlock describes only three of the men. He gives this account of Daniel: “Fenton, Daniel M. Served during the war; mustered out June 8, ‘65. He was a brave soldier and enjoyed the respect of his superior officers and all who knew him.” Daniel attended many reunions of Civil War veterans. In Sherlock’s photograph of a reunion in Auburn, Indiana, Daniel is second from the left in the back row.

Every Memorial Day, my father helped me appreciate the fact that Daniel was not a stone in a cemetery but a human being who had lived a brave life. At each marker where my father placed the purple iris and the pink peony, I absorbed reverence for forebears and reverence for life.