Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, December 30, 2018

10. The Blacksmith and the Veterinarian ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

Sometimes, wires get crossed, and a person carries a memory that is really two or three memories that don’t belong together.

So it was with Robert, who always conflated a poem and two verses. The first was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith,” which begins

Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands …

The second was George Orwell’s twisted snippet of verse in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Robert read in high school and which goes

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

In grade school, Mrs. Thrush had taught Robert’s class a song based on a nursery rhyme that called upon the students to use rhythmic gestures with the verses. The song was repeated but, during each repetition, a line was no longer sung and was replaced with the gestures only, until, on the final repetition, there was no singing whatsoever and only the gesturing in place of the melody. The song went

Under the spreading chestnut tree
Where we sit both you and me,
Oh how happy we will be,
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

By putting the three together, Robert always remembered that one of the two people under the chestnut tree was a happy blacksmith. Whenever Robert thought of the happy blacksmith, he pictured Tony Arrigo, the blacksmith in Pine Village when Robert was growing up.

If Joe needed welding, he turned to Tony, whose good nature never failed to impress Robert. In his grimy welder’s cap and his heavy apron, Tony would greet Joe, Charles, and Robert with a smile that looked all the brighter for the smudgy dust that often necessarily accumulated on Tony’s face. The blacksmith shop had belonged to Joe’s relative Thomas “Tommy” Eleazer Fenton, who had passed away in 1929. When he was in the early grades, Robert played with the lengths of filler rod lying in the dust in front of Tony’s shop. Robert poked them in the ground to make palisades around imaginary forts.

Years earlier, Glen J. Brutus had driven to Rockville, Indiana, to see a 23–90 Baker steam traction engine that had been built in 1923. It was parked beside a jailhouse to act as an emergency heating plant. Glen had returned to Pine Village and had told T. S. “Windy” Stingle about the engine, which Windy had bought. The original flywheel had been replaced with a Reeves flywheel. Windy had stored the engine alongside Tony’s shop, where Windy had planned to put new tubes in the boiler. The engine had rested there for years, until Alvin Kline of Millersburg, Ohio, acquired it.

Tony didn’t seem to mind having the Baker become a permanent exhibit. He was always a happy blacksmith!

On a cold morning in the dead of winter, Joe drove to Doc Cullop’s home, and Doctor Richard H. Cullop, the veterinarian, followed Joe back to Joe’s barn. A cow was having trouble delivering her first calf. She was standing in the barnyard to the south of the barn. Doc was hurrying. The Holstein had been trying to deliver the calf for over two hours.

Doc lifted the calf jack from his pickup and handed it to Joe. Then Doc removed his winter coat and hat, placing them in the front seat of his truck. Robert wondered why Doc had taken off his coat. Next, Doc took off his flannel shirt. He was wearing only a T-shirt. He hauled out of his truck a bucket of sudsy water and washed his hands and arms repeatedly in the steaming liquid. He dipped a new sponge in a second bucket and swabbed the area where the calf should have appeared.

Robert could hardly believe his eyes as Doc then thrust his arm deep within the cow—all the way up to Doc’s shoulder. The way he struggled made Robert believe that Doc wished his arm were longer.

“Its hind legs are trying to come out first,” Doc said to Joe.

Doc struggled for several minutes. He had to push the hind legs back from the canal, find the front legs alongside the hind legs, and pull the front legs forward before spinning the calf into an upright position.

“Let’s see what she’ll do now,” Doc said, standing back.

To his experienced eye, the cow appeared to be unable to deliver the calf.

“Alright,” Doc said. “We’ll have to pull it.”

The hoop was lifted into place and suspended across the back end of the cow. Doc reached the small chains within the cow and attached them to the calf’s front legs.

“Joe, you start,” Doc said, watching carefully.

Robert’s father ratcheted the first chain.

“Wait,” Doc said, reaching in. “Alright. Another!”

Joe ratcheted the second chain.

“Wait,” Doc said, again reaching in. “Alright. Another!”

Robert’s father ratcheted the first chain.

“Keep going!” Doc said.

Joe ratcheted the second chain.

In this way, first one leg of the calf came into view, followed by the other leg. Joe later explained to Robert that the calf’s shoulders are the widest part and can become wedged in the mother’s pelvis, unless one shoulder comes through ahead of the other shoulder.

The nose of the calf was showing.

“Alright, I’ll take over,” Doc said, trading places with Joe.

Doc ratcheted the jack a little faster, a little faster, and a little faster. Here came the calf!

“Joe, get ready to break its fall,” Doc said.

Just then, the cow groaned and sank onto her front knees.

“It’s alright, Joe. They sometimes do that. It’ll just be a little harder for me. That’s all,” Doc said.

The cow’s back legs buckled, and the cow dropped the rest of the way to the ground.

Doc touched the frozen earth with his end of the calf jack rod and ratcheted again.

“I wish I could get a little more angle,” Doc said. “Joe, tug lightly on the calf’s front shoulders. That’s good!”

Doc lifted the rod a little and ratcheted quickly. He lowered it again, still ratcheting.

He lifted and lowered, lifted and lowered, until, quite suddenly, the calf slithered all the way out. Joe was kneeling and caught the calf’s hind quarters, guiding them gently down.

“She’s a girl!” Doc said.

Robert marveled at how bright the white and black fur of the calf looked. The white was as pure as new snow.

Doc ensured that the calf and cow were in good condition all around before washing his hands and arms, drying off, and putting on his shirt and coat and hat. Joe, meanwhile, scattered a bale of straw around the calf as a temporary measure.

“I’ve seen calves in worse positions,” Doc said, when he had loaded his truck and was ready to return to his clinic. If they’re going to be presenting wrong, I’d prefer they be like this one. Still, it’s a job to push those hind legs and that butt back over without losing hold of the front legs, which are crisscrossed with the back ones.” While he was talking, Doc was gesturing to demonstrate the effort that he had made deep within the cow. “Getting the calf to come on around isn’t as difficult. It looks like you have a good calf there.”

Robert asked, “Will that cow always have trouble having a calf?”

Doc smiled. “That’s a good question,” he said. “Most likely, she’ll have easy deliveries after this one. She’s just young and a little small. That’s a nice big calf!” Doc turned toward Joe. “If she does have trouble the next time, can we make it a warm day, Joe?”

Robert’s father laughed and shook his head. “I’m sorry she was due this early,” Joe said. “I usually get their dates worked out so the bitterly cold days are over before calving begins.”

“I’m only razzing you,” Doc said. “Let me know if you have any more trouble.”

After Doc’s truck pulled away, Joe said to Robert, “Help me encourage her to get up.” As the two of them walked toward the cow, she stood of her own accord, turned around, and began licking her calf. Within a few minutes, the calf stood on its own!

“Now that the calf’s standing, I’d like to get them in the barn,” Joe said. “You stand back and encourage the cow a little if necessary.”

Then Joe slowly approached the cow while talking gently to her. He bent over, putting his arms around the calf’s chest and hind quarters. In this way, he helped guide the calf ten feet to the barn door. The mother muttered but did not become belligerent. She followed along, her nose inches from her newborn. In no time, Joe had both within the stall. He and Robert put in extra straw bedding to help ward off the cold.

Watching Doc at work had deepened Robert’s appreciation for expertise gained through long study and broad experience.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


Mrs. Russell introduced a playground game that she had known when she was a child. Children from all the grades could participate. The group was divided into two teams of perhaps twenty each. One team formed a line along the sidewalk on the south side of the gymnasium; the second team, along the sidewalk on the north side of the school building. A designated student stood in the middle of the parking lot between the two sidewalks. He or she was “it.” At a signal given by Mrs. Russell, the two teams ran toward each other, passing one another to gain the opposite sidewalk. Meanwhile, “it” was tagging as many students as possible before they could gain the safety of the sidewalk. Once students were standing with both feet on the sidewalk, they could no longer be tagged. Those that had been tagged had to remain with “it” and tag more students when the two lines ran toward—and through—each other the next time. When only one runner had not been tagged, that runner’s team was declared the winner, and that runner became “it” for the next round.

Robert couldn’t play the game often enough! He loved racing pall-mall for the safety of the opposite sidewalk—all the while dodging students who were trying to tag him. From his peripheral vision, the sprinting students seemed like clashing armies in the movie Khartoum. Whenever the two teams ran, the pounding of feet echoed between the gym and the school.

The game was the last that Robert would recall from his grade school years. When he would enter the seventh grade and move from classroom to classroom, there would be no more recesses on a playground. Mrs. Thrush, who taught music and art, would no longer push her upright piano into the classroom to lead the students in singing such rounds as this one that enshrined the cries of a mender of chairs, a fishmonger, a ragpicker, and a skinner in the streets or marketplaces of Old England:

Chairs to mend! old chairs to mend!
Rush or cane bottom,
Old chairs to mend! old chairs to mend!
New mackerel! new mackerel!
Old rags! any old rags!
Take money for your old rags!
Any hare skins or rabbit skins!

… or this one, sung by carolers at Christmas time in England as long ago as the 1500s:

Hey, ho, nobody home;
Meat nor drink nor money have I none,
Yet will I be merry.

Robert vaguely sensed the transition that was approaching. In small increments, his childhood was receding into the past. Like swans, the years were slowly slipping away.

On the Fourth of July, Joe gently nosed the car into the weeds along a gravel road just south of the park in Fowler where the fireworks were displayed. Ida spread blankets on the ground, and everyone sat together as a family. Other cars came to line the road, and other families sat on blankets. Joe poured a cup of coffee from a thermos and handed the cup to Ida. Robert said, “Coffee always smells so good!”

Ida asked Joe, “Are you going to let Robert taste yours?”

“I don’t know. Am I?” Joe asked in return.

“I think he’s old enough,” Ida replied.

Joe poured a small amount into his clean cup and handed it to Robert, and Robert sipped the nutty liquid. He was hooked on coffee then and there.

As darkness fell, the family 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!

Everyone oohed and ahed, comparing colors and effects to choose favorites. At their distance from the park and from their vantage point behind the show, Joe, Ida, Charles, and Robert 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.

The finale was grand enough with several bursts of brilliant color occurring in rapid succession in the night sky.

That same summer, a brash Barred Rock rooster had assumed leadership of Joe’s flock. Whenever Charles or Robert entered the chicken yard, the rooster ran toward the boy, leaped in the air, thrust its legs forward, and raked the youngster’s legs with its talons while flapping its wings against his knees. “Ow! Oh, ow!” Robert exclaimed on many occasions. For some reason, the attacks of the rooster made him forget the option of escape, and he stayed rooted in one spot while the Barred Rock flapped him again and again, leaving wicked scratches in the seasons when shorts could be worn. Only Joe’s intervention could save the boy. Every time the rooster got Charles, Charles merely scowled while running away. Both boys appealed to their mother.

“He’s mean!” Robert emphasized.

Ida laughed.

“That rooster’s becoming a nuisance,” Charles said.

Ida chuckled.

“You wouldn’t laugh, if he flapped you,” Robert said, brows lowered.

“I wouldn’t let him!” Ida said, holding her sides and wearing the biggest grin! “You have legs! Use them! Run away from the rooster! You’re faster than he is!”

“He’s mean!” Robert repeated, but he could see that he wasn’t getting anywhere with his mother. Charles had already given up and had gone to his room to work on some project.

So the attacks of the rooster continued. Robert would enter the chicken yard with extreme caution. He would look left. He would look right. When he thought the coast was clear, he would begin walking through the yard to the gate that led to the barn. Suddenly, from nowhere, the rooster would come running, lurching from side to side as he raced. Robert would freeze. Whoosh! The rooster would kick, rake, scratch, and flap Robert’s legs.

“Ow! Oh, ow!”

Joe would appear in the barn door. He would size up the situation and would stride toward the rooster, eventually shooing it away. The rooster would strut arrogantly, its beak forward as if he had been declared the champion fighter. Then it would take a pose, lean its head back, wag its wings, and crow noisily.

“He’s so mean!” Robert would say.

“Don’t go near him,” Joe suggested.

“Don’t think for a minute that I want to go near him!” Robert said, almost pouting. “He hides until he sees me, then he comes running at me!”

“I doubt that he’s hiding from you,” Joe said.

“Yes, he is!” Robert said, before he was aware that he was contradicting his father—which he had been taught never to do. “I mean, he surely seems to hide because I look for him before I come through the gate. Can’t you sell him?”

“No, he’s a good rooster. Your hens earn blue ribbons at the county fair because we have good stock, and that rooster is good stock,” Joe answered.
“I guess you’ll have to try to run faster to get away from him.”

Almost every time that Robert entered the chicken yard, whoosh! “Ow! Oh, ow!”

Robert began searching for other pathways. He hacked a meandering trail through the giant ragweed and gypsum south of the chicken houses, but the trail ended in an open stretch of some thirty feet before he could reach the gate leading to the barn. While still hidden among the weeds, he would peer out. “No sign of him,” Robert would whisper, to reassure himself. Then he would leap to his feet and make a mad dash for the gate.

Whoosh! “Ow! Oh, ow!”

One day, Charles said to Robert, “Look! We have to go the barn to help Dad. That means going through the chicken lot, and that means the rooster will flap you.”

“He could flap you,” Robert said.

“That’s what I was about to suggest,” Charles continued. “I’ll go first. You stay right behind me. When the rooster flaps me, you run around me and through the gate into the barnyard.”

“Alright!” Robert agreed, smiling. Then his smile faded. “But do you really want to get flapped just so that I don’t have to be flapped?”

“I’ll take the flapping this time, and you can do the same for me the next time,” Charles said.

The boys entered the chicken lot and walked about half of its length. Robert stayed close to Charles. Then the rooster ran up behind Robert.

Whoosh! “Ow! Oh, ow!”

On another day, Ida took the egg basket on her arm. She sang softly to herself:

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses,
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses.

And (Ida paused, holding the note.) he walks with me
and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other has ever known.

Repeating the song, she gathered the eggs. Just as she stepped outside the chicken house, here came the rooster!


The egg basket, which was nearly full, went flying. After the rooster had his fill of flapping, he strutted to the side, leaned back, and crowed.

The next day, while Joe was reading the newspaper and Ida was ironing, Joe turned to her and gently opened a topic of conversation: “I happened to notice that the rooster didn’t crow this morning.”

Ida set the iron on its heel, sprinkled water from her yellow bottle onto the sheet she was preparing, and resumed Ironing. “No?”

Joe hesitated, thrown off by her one-word response. “No, no crowing today. I wonder if he might be ill.”

“Ask Mrs. Bowen,” Ida said.

Joe stared at the newspaper and read the same sentence three times while he tried to second-guess why he should ask Mrs. Bowen. He cleared his throat. “If I were to ask Mrs. Bowen, what do you suppose she would tell me?”

Smoothing the sheet while tiny clouds of steam rose around the iron, Ida replied, “Mrs. Bowen would tell you that Mr. Rooster is alive and well and taking good care of her flock.”

Joe let the paper fall on his knee. “Do you mean to tell me that you gave Mrs. Bowen our rooster?”

Ida glanced at Joe. “It was mean,” she said.

“Will Mrs. Bowen still be speaking to you tomorrow?” Joe wanted to know.

“Oh, I told her it was mean,” Ida explained, “and she said, ‘The meaner the better! The mean ones can fight off the skunks.’”


Saturday, December 15, 2018

8. The News and the Visit ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

While Robert was in Mrs. Russell’s class, the televised evening news on ABC, CBS, and NBC was spoken by a small fraternity of newscasters whose careers (for the most part) had started in radio. Headed by the most-watched Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (David not having worked in radio first) at NBC, the up-and-coming Walter Cronkite at CBS, and the least-watched Peter Jennings (who took over from Ron Cochran in mid-year) at ABC, the networks gave brief but effective summaries of world and national news. NBC and CBS devoted a half hour (6:30 until 7:00 on weekdays) to news, and ABC tried to compete with fifteen minutes. Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite were recognized for their perfect command of language. In tones honed through experience in radio after World War II and sharpened by tough competition, they told of upheaval in Cuba, Pakistan, and Rhodesia. They described the suffering of refugees. They reported on President Lyndon Johnson’s repeated warnings about keeping troops in Vietnam until Communist threats were eliminated there. They covered the election of a woman named Indira Gandhi in troubled India (She would visit the United States in March.) and Leonid Brezhnev’s rise to the powerful position of General Secretary of the Soviet Union and Leader of the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R.

Robert’s perceptions of the news probably were shaped by the fact that, at age 11, he was beginning to understand much of what Huntley, Cronkite, and others said. He felt increasingly weighed down by news. People older than he likely took the news in stride, for many of them had lived through such traumatic events as the Great Depression, world wars, and, more recently, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. Yet, from Robert’s perspective, the news was becoming more and more unsettling. In the fall and spring of 1965 and 1966, there were massive protests against the Vietnam War. There was racial unrest. The more the rock stars sang about love, the less attainable love became.

On December 9th, A Charlie Brown Christmas aired. Robert and his father were great fans of the Peanuts cartoon strip, and they and the whole family stayed glued to the TV set for the half hour of animated entertainment. Characters such as Lucy, Linus, and Snoopy moved and turned in ways that brought Charles Schulz’s two-dimensional newsprint cartoon drawings to life, and the voices sounded just right! The music was instantly memorable. When Linus stood on the stage and recited the Christmas story, it was a magical moment in television. Linus seemed to be trying to reassure a frightened, distressed, agitated nation that “tidings of great joy” were not fictional but real.

Ida announced that her friend Emmajeanette and Emmajeanette’s husband, Andy, were going to visit from their home in Westville. Such good news eclipsed the evening news, and Robert eagerly looked forward to seeing Andy and Emmajeanette.

When they parked their blue 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air under the sheltering arms of the giant catalpa tree, Andy hopped from the driver’s seat, strode around the front of the car, and opened the passenger door for Emmajeanette. She was wearing a long coat while Andy wore a jacket. With her half-clear glasses frames with darker tops that imitated the arch of her eyebrows and with her dark hair pulled in fashionable waves at least three inches up and around her face, Emmajeanette looked as if she had just stepped from a glossy advertisement in McCall’s.

Andy wore a pure white shirt beneath his jacket. A gold Speidel Twist-O-Flex watchband gleamed on Andy’s wrist. The tall and elegant Emmajeanette, who had worked as an office secretary, always smiled; the short and wiry Andy, who had worked in the post office, was always about to smile—as soon as he knew whether anyone had caught his joke! He had a squinting yet penetrating gaze from behind his glasses, as if he were sizing up his audience. Andy meant great fun!

With his hand lightly on Emmajeanette’s arm, Andy guided the love of his life through the front gate and up to the door of the house.

While Emmajeanette and Ida clasped hands and exchanged fond hellos, Joe greeted Andy with “That’s a good-looking car!”

“Luckily, it runs well, too!” Andy responded. “How are you, Joe?”

“I’m well,” Joe answered. “I’ve been thinking of buying a Bel Air. The Dowden family here in town wants to sell a 1963.”

“What color is it?” Andy inquired, turning to his wife. “I’m sorry,” he said to Emmajeanette. “I asked before you could.”

Emmajeanette smiled and said nothing.

“It’s white,” Joe replied.

Milton L. “Milt” Dowden could hang wallpaper better than anyone! Milt’s wife, Elsie, had given Ida a recipe for sour milk drop cookies that Robert’s mother included among her favorite desserts. Joe and Ida respected—and liked—the Dowdens very much. Robert sensed that his father had already decided to buy the car.

“A Chevrolet is a dependable car,” Emmajeanette offered.

“Joe, what do you call a Ford at the top of a hill?” Andy wanted to know.

Joe grinned and shook his head.

“A miracle,” Andy said, eyes twinkling.

Joe laughed.

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred Fords are still on the road,” Andy stated, eyes sparkling narrowly. “Only one could still be driven to the service station.”

Joe laughed even more loudly.

“And I haven’t even said hello to Charles and Robert,” Andy commented, turning to the boys. “Hello, Charles and Robert!” Taking everyone in a glance, Andy said, “Remember when we were at Brookfield Zoo? Robert, you were too little to remember. Charles was pulling Robert in a little wagon, and Charles started up too fast. Robert took a tumble out the back onto the sidewalk, and Charles turned around, saw what he had done, and said, ‘Oh! Pardon me, Robert!’ Charles was ever so polite after dumping Robert on the ground. ‘Oh! Pardon me, Robert!’” Andy chuckled.

Joe, Ida, and the boys followed Andy and Emmajeanette into the house.

The conversation flowed effortlessly for hours. In those days, most people did not lack for topics to talk about, and they had well-developed personalities shining through their sentences.

Ida stood to prepare the dinner.

“May I help you?” Emmajeanette asked, as she stood and followed Ida into the kitchen. Ida handed Emmajeanette a freshly ironed apron.

“Why don’t you make the rolls?” Ida suggested. “I was going to have your toffee dessert, but I ran out of chocolate and forgot to buy more. So we’re having sugar cream pie instead.”

Emmajeanette’s toffee recipe, which Ida’s family called “Emmajeanette’s dessert,” was a sweet concoction featuring crushed vanilla wafers, a rich mousse-like layer of chocolate that began as uncooked separated eggs, and whipping cream on top.

“I can make the toffee dessert at home,” Emmajeanette said, “and you make the best sugar cream pie I’ve ever tasted! I, for one, am delighted we’re having the pie!”

After a big dinner with everything except the iced tea having been grown on the farm, Andy and Emmajeanette had to leave to make what was then considered a fairly long drive back to Westville, the town where Ida held her first teaching position after graduating from Indiana State Teachers College and where her surrogate father, the Reverend Lowell Everett Morris, had served the Methodist Church. In those years before Ida had met Joe, she and Emmajeanette had struck up a lasting friendship. Later, when Emmajeanette had married Andy, she had simply iced the friendship cake with a husband having a wonderful sense of humor.

The house seemed unusually quiet without Andy and Emmajeanette, but it was a clean house! For several days before the visit, Ida had enlisted the help of Charles and Robert in scrubbing the house thoroughly. Joe needed to drive into town to place an order at the feed store, and Robert rode along. Whenever Joe’s pickup was about to pass an approaching vehicle, Joe raised his right hand and waved at the occupants of the car or truck. They waved in turn. When Joe pulled into the alley beside the feed store with its checkerboard paint scheme, Robert thought the news couldn’t be too menacing with such courteous motorists and amusing friends.