Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Spare Moments at My Folks' Farm 3

West Lafayette and Lafayette, Indiana, offered my parents many opportunities. We attended concerts and plays at Purdue University, and we frequently ate at the Union Building on the Purdue campus. In Lafayette, I took lessons on piano and clarinet. (I wound up passing my audition for the Indiana University School of Music as a piano major, although I later switched majors to English, and I played clarinet in the IU band program for nine years.) When I was very young, I performed in plays at Columbian Park. As we were often in Lafayette or West Lafayette, Smitty’s was a frequent destination. It was an independent grocery store that was big for its day. Following my parents up and down the aisles felt like being in a spacious state-of-the-art facility with every food on earth conveniently displayed.

My Photograph of Miss Ella Beegle
My First Piano Teacher
In Front of Her Home in Lafayette, Indiana

One of my childhood memories is having seen Purdue freshmen wearing beanies (a tradition at the time). In the throngs of people that crossed State Street were numerous international students, often in clothing from their countries. I was conscious of the fact that the world had come visiting a campus so near to my home. I knew I was destined to attend college. My mother insisted on my doing so. But I never dreamed I would earn three degrees, including the PhD in literature and would teach in a university for thirty-four years!

At Top Left, One of Miss Ruth Jamieson’s Windows
Above the Bank Designed by Louis Sullivan (1914)
When Ruth’s Father, George Andrew Jamieson, Was Cashier
As Well As County Auditor
And on the Board of Trustees of Purdue University’s School of Pharmacy

My first piano teacher, Miss Ella Beegle, had a studio at the top of a building that housed Allen’s Dance Studio across from the Journal & Courier newspaper headquarters. She was considerably older than my parents and was a kind, gracious woman who could hardly bring herself to correct a student. Eventually, she offered lessons from her home in half of a large, white house opposite the public library. While my brother took his lessons, I read books by Gene Stratton–Porter while seated in a deep window at the back of the library stacks. When Miss Beegle retired, I still had two years of high school ahead of me. (My brother was already attending college.) She recommended that I continue my training with Miss Ruth Jamieson.

Miss Ruth Jamieson’s Photograph of Me
Playing the Piano in Her Apartment in 1972

What a huge change! Miss Jamieson had a small apartment above a men’s clothing store near Purdue. I trudged up several flights of stairs that snapped as if they would break. In the gloom at the top, a dim light bulb, yellowed with grime, hung with no shade at the end of a dirty cord. I knocked, and Miss Jamieson swung open the door with her characteristic impulsiveness. Her piano was a reddish upright, nothing like the twin grand pianos that Miss Beegle owned. Miss Jamieson’s reading material lay wherever it fell on the sofa or on the carpet. Strings of beads separated her tiny living room from her kitchen, and, every now and then, she unexpectedly leapt up from her rocking chair, dove through the beads (which tinkled against one another), and returned with a heavily scented hand cream that she rubbed vigorously between her palms. For the first year of lessons, she negatively criticized every facet of my playing. Quite often, as I stood on a windy street corner waiting for my parents to pick me up after a lesson, I thought about quitting. At the beginning of my training under Miss Jamieson’s sharp tutelage, I could hardly have predicted that she would occupy the same place in my affections as a dearly loved aunt or that she would build me back up after tearing me down, transforming my playing until I was one of two students out of twenty accepted into the prestigious School of Music at IU on the day that I auditioned.

Photo of Me on Stage in Recital Hall
At Indiana University
Photograph by Randy Prange

In the beginning of my studies with Miss Jamieson, I often stumbled. At my first recital in Duncan Hall, I became lost in the movement of the Beethoven Sonata that I had memorized. My fingers flailed around, striking wrong notes in all directions. Instead of feeling horror or shame, I smiled. Why? Because, in my mind’s eye, I could just see the dramatic Miss Jamieson backstage, groaning, swooning, and falling to the floor.

Miss Jamieson designed separate exercises for each of my fingers, and she coined fascinating expressions to help me overcome difficult passages in the music. For a rapid run in a Beethoven Sonata, she said, “It’s like small monkeys scurrying up trees in the jungle.” Somehow, that description made it possible for me to play the run accurately every time. When she was young, she had studied in France for a lengthy period, and she affected a French manner, calling me “Ro-BAIR,” instead of Robert. As I look back, I think, “What a character!” She has been gone for many years, and I wonder how the earth can get along without such a powerful personality!   

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Spare Moments at My Folks' Farm 2

Attica, Indiana, was a frequent destination for my parents. My father’s father had graduated from high school there, and it was just across the Wabash River—and the county line—from our home. For several childhood years, I visited a dentist (Dr. Sullivan?) whose office stood at the top of a series of creaking stairs. His building was near the dime store. I still have a tin jet on wheels that came from the dime store after a trip to see the dentist. I think my parents, both of whom wore false teeth, understood that dentistry could be painful and wanted me to have a reward after sitting in the dentist’s chair: hence, the purchase of a toy at the dime store. I will add that, as a child, I considered such variety stores the best stores on earth—with their tables crowded with trinkets, their shelves laden with toys.

Attica, Indiana, As I Remember It

Afternoons in Attica found us at Sam Newmark’s, a clothing store. As I recall, most of my wardrobe came from Newmark’s, including the leisure suits I proudly wore on special occasions when I was in high school. My polychromatic shirts put the “poly” in polyester!

Back when I was in junior high, I participated in an art show at the Carnegie Library, one of Indiana’s fine buildings instituted by funds from Andrew Carnegie. My art was juvenile. Come to think of it, my art today remains juvenile, despite my having enjoyed a side career as a freelance illustrator for over forty years. I guess I am “among the very young at heart,” as Frank Sinatra sang.

While I was growing up, my parents often took in a movie at the Devon Theatre. In those days, great movies that had not been seen for several years returned to theaters. I saw Ben Hur when it played again at the Devon.

Before heading home, visits to Attica frequently included a stop at the IGA to pick up supper ingredients. The grocery was located near the bridge back to Warren County.

One of my favorite memories of Attica was formed after I had become a pianist and was about to graduate. I played in the pit orchestra for a follies performed on the stage at one end of the gymnasium of the high school in Attica. There were numerous rehearsals. As a high school senior, I felt very grown up when I drove my 1953 Packard from Pine Village High School (my school) to Attica High School, grabbed a quick dinner at a restaurant nearby, and practiced the show until late at night. I could not have foreseen how often I would find myself practicing for other performances as a piano major at Indiana University down the road.

If I had a time machine, I’d like to revisit Attica’s darkened gymnasium and brightly lit stage, take my place at the piano, find the tempo in my mind, and begin the opening production number.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Spare Moments at My Folks' Farm 1

While I was in grade school, junior high, and high school, my parents often drove five miles north from Pine Village, Indiana, to shop in Oxford. My father dropped off my mother at Thelma’s Beauty Parlor where Mom received the tightest permanent on the planet. Thelma ran her business from a room in her home. To enter Thelma’s realm meant smelling the permanents being heated beneath the dryers that looked like astronauts’ helmets. Women, some of them delicately holding cigarettes, paged through magazines while sharing what my mother called “the best gossip.”

Oxford, Indiana: A Destination Away from the Farm

Having been born in the teens, my mother was in a generation of women that generally preferred curly hair to straight hair. As Mom’s hair was as straight as straight gets, she relied on “perms” to put her in the proper style. … and she wanted her hair curled closely to her scalp! Mom knew she could rely on Thelma every time.

My Father Posing with Chicks for Purina Ad

While Mom was in the beauty chair, my father and I were at Henderson Poultry to sell eggs. Dad and Mom had worked side by side to clean the eggs and to sand any imperfections from their shells. Henderson’s business was near the railroad track not far from the stable of the legendary Dan Patch, a famous pacer. (See my blog post on Dan Patch at Dad brought several crates of eggs to Henderson’s at any one time. After delivering the eggs, he and I might swing by the State Bank of Oxford with its polished woodwork gleaming in the sunshine that streamed through the front windows.

Items Used in My Father’s Chicken Business:
Hanging Scale Tested and Sealed by State of Indiana
Egg Weigher
Kitchen Scale

After Thelma had made Mom beautiful, Mom, Dad, and I might visit Messner and Sons Department Store, which was the quintessential clothing shop of an earlier time. I remember the shiny bronze cash register, the lightly creaking hardwood floors, and the ladder by which clerks could retrieve hard-to-reach items. Shirts and slacks were only two of many forms of merchandise on view around the room. I always felt proud to wear the clothes that my parents bought for me at Messner’s.

As a kid, I hoped that Mom and Dad might want something at Stam’s dime store, where I could walk up and down the narrow aisle and feast my eyes on the incense burners (which fascinated me) or the Christmas Nativity figurines. Occasionally, my joy knew no bounds when my parents bought me a kite or one of the balsa airplanes that snapped together.

A day in Oxford might conclude with the movie theater. Walt Disney animated films and Rogers and Hammerstein musicals were favorites, but, frequently, we watched Ma and Pa Kettle, as well as Francis the Talking Mule. If I were in good luck, my parents bought me a roll of NECCO Wafers or Life Savers. I held each wafer high enough to catch a little of the light from the screen so as to guess its color and flavor before nibbling on it.

Except for appointments at the doctor’s office or the dentist, trips to Oxford gave special meaning to the word “fun.”