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.