Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, January 28, 2018

2. The Incubator ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

For hours each day, Robert played with the kitten he had named Fuzz. Robert tantalizingly pulled a long piece of yarn, and Fuzz pounced on it, over and over. Robert sat with his pudgy knees out. His feet hurt too much to stand. Once, he overheard his mother speaking in worried tones to his father about how Robert was becoming too big to carry and that, at two years of age, he should be walking. After all, he was tall enough to see over the edge of the kitchen table! Ida thought Robert would not understand what she was saying. In her diary, she had expressed her fear that Robert was not as bright as his older brother, Charles. “Robert doesn’t say much,” she wrote. She acknowledged that, at the same age, Charles had been quite talkative.

But Robert did comprehend what she was saying, and he knew that, inevitably, he would be taken to Dr. Virgil Scheurich in Oxford, the town five miles to the north of Pine Village. During the consultation, Dr. Scheurich advised Ida and Joe to consult with a doctor in Lafayette who had enjoyed success with youngsters who could not walk.

Within a few days, Robert and his parents were seated in the office of the doctor, who said, “Why, his arches are as flat as pancakes! He needs corrective shoes with arch supports.” Right then and there, Joe drove to the B & W Shoe Company on the east side of the square. Proprietor Mr. Marion R. Baker took measurements of Robert’s feet and wrote an order for the shoes. Charles likewise was to receive a pair.

Several days later, when Mr. Baker ensured that the boys’ shoes fit them, Robert took his first walk in the style of black shoes with arch supports that he would wear until he entered college. (He continued to wear a pair when he performed as a member of the Indiana University Marching Hundred.) As a toddler, Robert found that he could walk without the same degree of pain that he had been feeling. With wide eyes, he looked up at his father, as if to say, “It’s a miracle!” Soon thereafter, Robert was walking routinely, and his parents did not have to carry him.

What of Robert’s reluctance to speak? Again, there were conversations in undertones between his parents. They decided to take him to a Lafayette clinic specializing in speech defects. He was tested, but so was his brother. Charles’ answers were to serve as a comparison. After the testing, the expert sat down with Ida and Joe. He began by saying, “There is nothing wrong with Robert’s intelligence. He recognizes more words than his brother knows—probably because Robert has been listening carefully. Robert’s reticence originates in his having a palate that is a bit higher than normal; for this reason, he says ‘wabbit,’ instead of ‘rabbit.’ You can help him to say his r’s by asking him to say ‘er’ first, then the rest of the word. ‘Er’-abbit, for ‘rabbit,’ or ‘Er’-obert, for ‘Robert.’ Avoid correcting him for mispronunciation; that makes him afraid to speak.”

Ida and Joe took the specialist’s advice to heart, and, little by little, Robert began talking without hesitation. At first, his “er” was drawn out, but, gradually, it shortened. Eventually, he was uttering the proper sound of the r at the beginning of words such as “reading.” He always felt a trifle self-conscious of the r sound whenever it fell at the beginning of a word, and that feeling never left him.

All too soon, Robert celebrated his third birthday. That Thursday, Ida invited his grandmother, named Kosie Rhode, and his great aunt, named Margaret Goddard, to the noon meal, called “dinner.” Everyone gathered around the five-leg drop-leaf table covered with an oilcloth in the kitchen. There was barely room for the six people to pull up their chairs. The windows and doors were open to permit the faint breezes of late July to waft through the hot room. On the table were platters of steaming roasting ears, fresh yeast rolls. Big bowls were filled with fluffy mashed potatoes and glistening green beans fresh from the garden. In the center was a mound of fried chicken. Sweet iced tea was poured over crackling ice cubes in the glasses with weighted bottoms that were used only for special occasions. Using a wooden mold, Ida had made a big block of butter from the fresh milk of the Holstein cows, and the yellow brick was topped with the shape of a rose. Beside it stood dishes filled with Ida’s crabapple jelly and wild grape jelly. The conversation flowed freely, with beloved Great Aunt Margaret telling stories from her childhood so humorous that laughter repeatedly burst forth. She had the gift of making any story amusing. Grandma Rhode listened intently and smiled prettily. Great Aunt Margaret’s first husband had been Grandma Rhode’s brother, who passed away many years earlier. Margaret’s second husband had been the veterinarian in town, and he, too, had gone to his reward. Grandma Rhode and her husband, Seymour Alfred Rhode, had divorced, and he lived in Indianapolis.

Dessert was an angel food cake with pink peppermint icing, which became Robert’s favorite cake, requested for his birthday year after year thereafter. Not long before the 25th of July, Robert had learned a stunt of which he was very proud. He would begin on all fours then lift one leg into the air. He would then waddle as quickly as he could on both hands and one foot while keeping the other foot as high as he could. He wanted to show Great Aunt Margaret and Grandma Rhode his newly acquired skill, so, after dinner, his mother moved her rocking chair to one side, thereby opening just enough floor space for Robert to demonstrate his acrobatic talent.

“Look at him go!” Great Aunt Margaret exclaimed. After taking a few rolling and rollicking steps on two hands and a foot, Robert stood up and accepted the gracious praise of his great aunt and grandmother. The company retired to the living room, but, finding it too hot for comfort, everyone gratefully sat down on the front porch, which faced the north and was less steamy than anywhere else. The adults took the metal chairs and the swing that hung from the ceiling, while Robert and Charles sat on the cool concrete floor. Family stories poured forth—tales of long ago that Robert and Charles absorbed and would remember years hence.

After Robert turned four, he began to feel as if everything were even more memorable than before. His life on the farm in Pine Village seemed permanent and secure. One morning, he awakened to the touch of something lightweight and soft brushing his face.

“Peep, peep, peep,” went the something.

Robert slowly opened his eyes. He saw his mother’s smiling face above an indistinct yellow blur. He focused on the blur. Just then, it moved.

“Peep, peep,” the blur said.

Robert focused more closely. The outlines of a duckling taking its first steps on the edge of the covers that Robert had pulled across his chin became clear.

“Careful!” Ida urged, as Robert abruptly slid upward to free his arms. “Don’t squeeze him! Hold him in the palm of your hand.”

Robert’s mother had a large Farm Master incubator, in which she hatched ducklings, goslings, and some of the chicks that Joe raised in his chicken business. Robert’s father purchased the majority of his chicks from Henderson Poultry in Oxford.

“He just hatched,” Ida said, while Robert held the downy yellow duckling in the palms of his hands. Its bright eyes sparkled. Its orange bill curved upward in what appeared to be a smile. “Come see the others,” said Ida, taking the duckling from Robert’s outstretched arms.

Robert followed his mother to the breezeway where the incubator stood. An early summer breeze carried the not unpleasant scent of eggs hatching in the warmth of the brown wooden box on green painted legs. Ida unlatched the door with its slender glass window on one side of the box and let it swing downward on its hinges. She slid the tray forward. Among the eggs on the tray were several that were pipping: that is, the bills of the ducklings inside were breaking away the shell on one end, so that the ducklings could emerge from the eggs. Robert stared in wonder at the tiny bills pushing at the inner lining where bits of the outer shell had fallen away. One damp duckling was all the way free and was drying while resting from her effort to escape.

Ida soon slid the tray back into position and swung the latch around. She had removed the damp duckling, which she gently set in the same bushel basket where she had placed the happy creature that had awakened Robert. Even though the morning was warm, a red heat lamp hanging by its black cord from a hook in the ceiling was suspended not far above the basket, which was lined with newspapers.

“Peep, peep, peep,” said Robert’s duckling. “Peep, peep,” replied its slightly damp, tired nest mate.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

1. The Discovery ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

This novel is dedicated to my dear friend Eleanor Yeager Stewart, who helped me realize that the worlds of our childhood were never somewhere else but always right within us. Here is part of my childhood world—almost exactly the way it was!

The tall foxtail of July waved like ornamental grasses above him. Across the road to the northeast stood the school with the grades and the high school all in one building made mostly of metal. Two long, angling sidewalks approached the two sets of doors spaced along the south front of the red-roofed one-story school. The white paint on the exterior walls made dusty spots on the fingertips when it was touched, and the scrubby evergreens along the foundation gave off a pleasant mid-summer scent. Straight to the north, dappled shadows played across the porch of Beulah Jones’ house surrounded by old maples. The drive to the parking lot between the school and the gymnasium curved past sawed-off poles spaced to deter traffic from entering the playground. Behind the gym was a fringe of trees bordering Pine Creek. Had he been taller, he might have seen Beulah in the vegetable garden tucked behind her home. She wore a straw hat and pretty gloves made for gardening. Her white hair curled stylishly beneath the hat’s broad brim. She seemed perfectly at ease bending over her tomatoes and hunkering down to pull the weeds among her onions.

The sky was the pale blue shade of a hazy summer. Rows of cumulus clouds floated slowly toward the east—so slowly that their motion was almost undetectable. Now and then, the rasping crescendo of a cicada in the nearby catalpa tree caught his attention before the sound trailed away. His mother, Ida, was hoeing industriously in her large garden. Plenty of hoeing was needed in July, for the ground had hardened under the baking sunshine and firmly gripped the roots of the weeds that were shooting upward and outward at an alarming rate each day. Unlike Beulah, his mother wore no hat. The tight curls of her “perm” glistened black while she threw her sun-reddened shoulders into the work of hacking away at the pigweed and the lamb’s quarters.

He couldn’t see his mother, either, even though she was only thirty feet away. He couldn’t see the houses of Pine Village in an arc from the north to the west. His mother’s garden on the south side of State Route 26 and the playground on the north side defined the east edge of the town. The cozy homes nestled securely among the shade trees. Robins sailed down from the low branches to pull worms from the lawns, and katydids droned pleasantly in the foliage. Occasionally, pickups with curving fenders and livestock panels around the beds ambled along the highway. Horses in the narrow meadow behind Jim Eberle’s house whinnied happily.

He saw only the nodding brushes of the foxtail all around him and a spot of blue sky and white cloud above. Ida had stamped her sandaled feet in the thick growth of foxtail until she had hollowed out a “playpen” for little Robert, who had just turned two. The weeds were impenetrable there in shade of the lone catalpa on the south edge of the garden, and she knew that Robert could go nowhere. He sat with his feet almost together and his dimpled knees to either side. He indolently played with the long stems that his mother had trod.

Suddenly, the weeds parted and eyes stared at Robert. His blue eyes must have registered just as much surprise as he saw in the blue eyes that looked back at him. To get his mother’s attention, Robert shouted. She dropped her hoe and came running as fast as she could between the rows of potatoes. Soon, her face with the glasses almost slipping off her nose peered down from the circle of sky above Robert.

“It’s a kitty!” she exclaimed, reaching downward and scooping up the ivory-colored kitten, which mewed, much to Robert’s delight. The fur was scarcely any lighter than Robert’s hair, for he was a towhead. Ida set down the kitten only long enough to lift Robert in one arm while she reached for the kitten again with her free hand. Taking long strides so that Robert wouldn’t get too heavy, Ida rushed toward the house. When she reached the gate that leaned from the corner of the old smokehouse, her steps were easier in the mowed grass on the other side. She swung open the screened door of the breezeway between the smokehouse, now a storage room, and the kitchen. She was glad to set Robert down while she kept a firm hold on the kitten.

“We’ll feed him some cream,” she said, disappearing into the kitchen and soon reappearing with a saucer in hand. There in the breezeway, she placed the saucer before the wobbly kitten and poured a little cream that she had drawn from the separator just that morning. It was a Marvel Gravity Dilution Cream Separator made by Superior Sheet Metal Works Company of Indianapolis, as a silvery plate on the dark blue three-legged can proclaimed. Even though Robert’s feet hurt, as they did whenever he stood, he hardly noticed the ache because he was so entranced with the kitten, which overcame its fear and flicked its little pink tongue into the fresh cream. “After he has drunk all he wants, you can pet him a little,” said Ida.

Silently, she and little Robert watched the kitten contentedly lapping the surface of the liquid. It drank almost every drop. Then Ida showed Robert how to pet the creature lightly so as not to hurt it.

“What shall we call him?” Ida asked Robert. Because the kitten was so soft, Robert said, “Fuzz.” Ida laughed. “That’s a good name for him!” she agreed.

At that moment, Robert’s father came to the porch on the opposite side of the kitchen from the breezeway. “Joe, come here,” Ida called to her husband. “Look what Robert found!”

In his dark blue overalls and short-sleeved shirt, bleached almost white, Joe hurried through the kitchen and out to the breezeway. He took off his seed corn cap and ran his hand over his balding head. His eyes twinkled and his face broke into a smile. “Well, where did you find a kitten?” he asked his wife.

“Robert found him,” Ida explained. “I heard Robert yell, and here was the kitten standing by Robert in the weeds. His name is Fuzz. Robert named him.”

“We’re going to keep him, are we?” Joe wanted to know.

“He’s Robert’s kitten,” Ida answered.

Robert looked up at his father’s merry eyes and his mother’s big smile. He could hardly believe his luck in getting to have such a miraculous thing as a soft, warm kitten, which had begun to purr under his careful touch. Robert would remember that day for the rest of his life.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Distinctive Museums 6: The British Transportation Museum (Last Installment in This Series)

The British Transportation Museum is intentionally a work in progress. (See Vehicles in various states of repair line the spacious floor of a decommissioned factory building in Dayton, Ohio. Some are rallied; others are not yet that far along in the process of restoration. Taking a leisurely tour with President Pete Stroble offers a great way to learn “about the engineering, design, and history of the vehicles,” as the museum’s brochure promises. Automobiles of all sorts and bicycles, too, are arrayed for the enjoyment of enthusiasts and novices.

British Transportation Museum's 1936 Austin 20/6 Mayfair Limousine

I am definitely a novice. At the outset, I said to Pete that I knew nothing and that anything he could tell me would be welcome news to me. He laughed but took me seriously. As we strolled along, he pointed out fascinating facts that, I am sure, were rudimentary to him. Whenever I asked questions, he took the time to give full answers and often opened a car door or a hood to show me what he meant.

Irish Currach Boat

The collection even includes a currach boat—from Ireland, naturally, although such boats can just as easily be from Scotland! Canvas is stretched over a wooden latticework frame consisting of hoops and stringers. A coating such as water-repelling tar covers the canvas and seals the seams. My Irish DNA was dancing while I made a close examination of the currach.

Morris Mini Van

A TE-A-20 Ferguson tractor rounds out the collection. For readers wanting more information, here is expert Robert Sybrandy’s explanation of variations among Ferguson tractors: “There are actually three basic versions of the gas engine Ferguson 20: the TE-20, the TE-A-20 and TO-20. The TE-20 was built by Standard Motors in Coventry, England, beginning in 1946. The TE-20 used a Continental Z120 engine imported from the U.S. TE-A-20 was also built by Standard Motors in Coventry, England, beginning in 1947 and was produced alongside the Continental engine–equipped TE-20 during 1947–1948. The TE-A-20 uses a Standard Motors engine. Production of the TE-20 with the Continental engine was supposed to have ended by 1948, but there is evidence a few additional Continental engine TE-20s were built after 1948. The TO-20 was built in Detroit, Michigan, beginning in October 1948. The TO-20 used a Continental Z120 engine and was built through 1951, when it was replaced by the TO-30. All the TE models (the TE-A-20 and others including the TE-B, TE-C, TE-D, TE-E, TE-F, TE-G, TE-H, TE-J, TE-K, TE-L, TE-M, TE-N, TE-P, TE-R, TE-S, TE-T, TE-Y and TE-PT, TE-TT, TE-PZD, TE-PZE, TE-TZD, and TE-TZE) use Lucas electrical components. The TE series was built through 1956, when it was replaced by the FE-35, an English version of the U.S.–built TO-35. TO models including the TO-D-20 use Delco Remy electrical components. While looking similar, the TE and TO series have other differences including the steering, clutch, transmission, brakes, engine bracing, hood and grill, and different materials for the transmission and steering gear case castings, etc. The TE series was built in many variations including narrow and vineyard versions, industrial versions, multiple fuel engines, and diesel engines. Nearly all TO series were equipped with gas engines, though a few TO-D-20 versions that use kerosene or distillate were also built.”

Phill Stewart Visiting British Transportation Museum

The British Transportation Museum was founded in 1998 and is an entirely voluntary organization. From the moment my friends and I met Pete Strobel at the door until we thanked him for showing us around the museum, we had a delightful time discovering the intricacies of British vehicles covering a broad span of years.

Bicycles on Display at British Transportation Museum
Packard Undergoing Restoration
Sunbeam Resembling Car Driven by Sean Connery's James Bond in Dr. No
Peerless from 1960 in British Transportation Museum
British Transportation Museum in Dayton, Ohio

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Distinctive Museums 5: The Pennsylvania House Museum

The Pennsylvania House Museum in Springfield, Ohio ( offers tours worth taking! Sponsored for many years by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the rambling building, now a museum but once an inn, is filled with antiques representing stories from the past. When my dear friend and co-author Eleanor Y. Stewart and I visited, we were joined by several other visitors, forming a large group ably led by a docent with a talent for voicing those stories. Our tour guide highlighted two or three items in each room. Eleanor and I found her narratives fascinating. Our visit was long but did not feel long; in fact, Eleanor and I wish that we could have learned about dozens of items in every room!

The Pennsylvania House Museum in Springfield, Ohio

The structure was begun in the early 1800s with wings added through the 1850s. When he was a lad, Dr. Isaac K. Funk, a co-founder of the Funk & Wagnalls dictionary, lived in the Pennsylvania House, which his father ran as manager. Carefully researched colors of paint, architectural features throughout the museum, and original floor boards on the third floor transport visitors back to the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Once an Inn on the National Road, the Rambling Pennsylvania House

Agricultural tools, such as grain reaping sickles, exemplify the days when livestock drovers stopped at the inn, which stood at the Springfield terminus of the National Road before the highway eventually pushed on westward. Various goods symbolize the general store that once occupied part of the inn. Cooking utensils epitomize the food preparation for the many guests of the inn’s first decades. From crystal to coverlets, from silver to sewing, from dressers to dolls, the Pennsylvania House archives more intriguing items than eyes can take in while walking from room to room. Artifacts testify to the genius of our ancestors.

Building and Grounds Donated to D.A.R. in 1939

An unanticipated bonus of the tour is the room devoted to a huge collection of buttons. Prior to our visit to the Pennsylvania House, had anyone asked me if I cared to see a button collection, I would have politely declined, but the buttons are so wonderfully displayed and so amazingly diverse that they capture everyone’s fullest attention. Buttons from a wedding dress contained miniature tintype portraits of the wedding party. Asian buttons presented entire scenes painted with consummate talent.

The Pennsylvania House on National Register of Historic Places

A few items from the 1700s, countless items from the 1800s, and significant items from the 1900s speak volumes about yesteryear. If you have not toured the Pennsylvania House, be sure to put it at the top of your “to do” list.

Eleanor Y. Stewart Outside the Pennsylvania House Museum