Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, February 25, 2018

6. Christmas Morning ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE




Robert was squirming to get out of bed long before anyone else was awake on Christmas Day that year. His wish to see what Santa had brought bordered on anxiety. When he heard his mother gathering dishes in the kitchen, he threw back the heavy covers and raced to the living room to be sure that Santa had left presents. Robert’s eyes grew round as saucers when he confirmed that Santa had paid a visit during the mysterious night of nights. Next, he sprinted to the kitchen.

“Shhh!” his mother said with her forefinger to her lips. “You’ll wake Grandpa!” The way the rooms of the house were arranged, Robert had run through his parents’ bedroom to get to the kitchen. He had dashed past Grandpa Rhode, who looked so much like Joe that Robert had assumed it was his father asleep in the bed.

“Santa came!” Robert exclaimed in a spluttering whisper.

“He did?” Ida responded, while she prepared fresh side meat for frying. Even though Robert preferred side meat to bacon, he could not be bothered to notice that side meat was on the morning’s menu. He was too excited to find out what Santa had brought him.

“Go back and put on your slippers!” his mother said quietly but emphatically. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”

Robert was prone to head colds with ear aches, so he took his mother’s command with extra seriousness. He tiptoed back to the room that he shared with Charles and put on his slippers before tiptoeing to the kitchen and resuming his conversation.

“I wonder what Santa brought me!” Robert said to his mother.

“Shouldn’t you be wondering what Santa brought everyone,” Ida prompted.

Robert understood that he was being selfish. “I do wonder what Santa brought everyone,” he acknowledged. “When can we open the presents?”

“You’ll have to wait ‘til after breakfast,” his mother said.

Robert was uncertain he could delay so long as that. For a moment, his face registered his dismay. Then he took joy in watching his mother creating biscuits from a mound of flour. Soon, the fragrances of baking and frying filled the kitchen. When Robert heard his grandfather roll over, he considered whether he might have awakened the family’s guest, but, when Grandpa Rhode suddenly snored loudly, Robert felt less guilty.

Robert wondered how Charles could be so calm as to remain in bed when there were presents to unwrap and fun to experience. Almost as if he were talking to himself, Robert shook his head. All at once, he realized that his father was sleeping on the sofa that squeezed between the heating stove and the kitchen table. Say, rather, trying to sleep amid the commotion! Joe sat up, yawned, and gradually pulled on his trademark blue overalls—right over his pajamas. Carrying his socks and other garments, he stepped inside the bathroom and closed the door.

The house was one of the first in town to have a bathroom with indoor plumbing. By now, the fixtures were antiquated, and the room was impossibly small. A person almost had to suck in the breath to shut the door. Robert heard his father bumping the walls of the bathroom while he dressed. Eventually, Joe struggled to open the door and slipped past it. He was wearing his customary farming clothes and was carrying his pajamas neatly folded over one arm.

“Robert, go get dressed,” his mother said. “Get Charles up and tell him to get dressed, too. We’re about ready to eat.”

“Had I better wake Grandpa?” Joe asked Ida.

“We’re going to eat soon, so I suppose you might,” Ida replied.

Robert walked quickly past his sleeping grandfather, returned to his room, and shook his brother. “Get up!” he ordered.

Robert wriggled out of his pajamas and into his flannel shirt and jeans. He was so excited that he had extra trouble tying his shoes.

By the time Robert came back to the kitchen, his parents had moved the sofa perilously close to the heating stove so that everyone could sit around the kitchen table. Wearing a white shirt, a green tie, and gray slacks, Grandpa Rhode took the chair Ida offered him. With a yawn and a big smile, Charles sat down next. Soon, everyone was ready for Joe to say grace.

“As we gather together this Christmas Day,” Joe began, “we remember the Christ child, the greatest gift of all. Lord, we ask thy blessing on this food and the hands that prepared it. We promise to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts throughout the year.”

Then there came platters of steaming biscuits, glistening side meat, and scrambled eggs. At each place setting was a half an orange—a real treat at Christmas! The biscuits were slathered in homemade butter and piled high with Ida’s jellies and jams. It was a feast fit for a king—with the promise of more only a few hours later!

Robert waited politely until the adults were finished eating breakfast—so slowly, it seemed to him!

“Well, should we open our presents?” Joe asked, finally!

Robert jumped down from his chair and practically ran into the living room. His parents and Grandpa Rhode came, eventually!

Robert sat near the Christmas tree, which scented the room with the lovely fragrance of pine. He took mental snapshots of the bubble lights and the ice bulbs. The ornaments were often doubled: one that was designated his and one that was designated his brother’s. The largest globes hung from the bottom branches. A large one with bands of magenta was Charles’ ornament, and a similar one with stripes of blue was Robert’s. At the top of the tree were tiny ornaments that had been on Joe’s first trees in the late teens and early 1920s. There were tiny bells and clusters of grapes made of glass. The oldest, Joe always said, was a delicate ornament with slender white and blue and cranberry-colored beads strung in a diamond shape.

Joe began to hand out presents. Suddenly, the room filled with the sounds of rustling paper and exclamations of surprise. Robert and Charles’ grandfather and father received new ties and monogrammed handkerchiefs. The boys’ mother modeled her new robe and pocketbook. Robert and Charles had a variety of toys, but the two that really caught their eye were relatively large, heavy police cars to which flexible tubes could be attached. Their hands held battery packs that were at the ends of the tubes. By pushing buttons on the battery packs, they could make the cars roll along the carpet. A light in the center of the roof of each car flashed red, and a siren whirred. The police cars were Grandpa Rhode’s gift to the boys. He always gave the best presents!

No one could have been happier that Christmas! 

Later that morning, Grandma Rhode and Great Aunt Margaret brought gifts and received theirs in turn before joining the family for “dinner,” as the noon meal was called. And what a magnificent dinner it was! The table was laden with soft yeast rolls made of flour that had been rising all night, ham, peas, carrots, corn, and every good thing that Ida had canned from her garden! Despite having eaten a huge breakfast, the family dug into the dinner with a will. Grandma Rhode and Grandpa Rhode spoke politely to one another but said relatively little directly to each other. They had been divorced for many years. Robert had not been told that fact, but he might not have understood it anyway. All he knew was that Grandma Rhode lived in a small house in town while Grandpa Rhode lived eighty miles away in Indianapolis. Later, Robert learned that his mother had told his father to make amends with his father so that the boys’ grandfather could take an active role in their lives. From Robert’s point of view, everything was exactly as it should be!

With his capacity for memorization, Robert took a long look around the table. It was as if he were a camera recording every detail in photographs that he would cherish many years from now. He wanted to be able to recall the happy faces, the laughter, the sunlight glinting from the glassware, the pattern of the china, the way the freshly ironed tablecloth fell in pleats across his knees.

In the window near Ida’s rocking chair hung a crinkly red cellophane wreath with a silver socket resembling a candle and a single orange bulb glowing. In his thoughts and feelings, Robert compared the wreath with the circle of his family around the dinner table and the orange light with the joy they shared. He wished he could express his analogy to everyone, but he lacked the words. He remained content to notice the correspondence on such an important day.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

5. The Holidays ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE




After Charles returned from school one day, he and Robert were playing Blob when their mother announced that they were going to the Masonic Lodge to see Santa Claus that evening. Blob was a game that the boys had invented. In previews at the movie theater in the nearby town of Oxford, enough of the plot of the movie by the same name had been revealed to suggest the game, without necessitating a viewing of the horror film—which their mother would never have permitted, anyway.

One of the brothers was designated “the Blob.” He covered himself with an old blanket and huddled on the floor while the other brother hid. Then the Blob searched for the hidden brother. While he searched, he periodically knelt and rolled around on the floor while keeping the blanket over him. When he found the brother, his object was to cast the blanket over him while making horrifying snarling sounds. If he failed to get the blanket to fall over his brother, he had to crouch beneath the blanket and make muttering noises until his brother had a chance to hide again. The search repeated. If he was lucky enough to drop the blanket over his brother, the brother became the Blob, and the proverbial tables were turned.

With a visit to Santa Claus in the offing, the brothers soon found themselves having to dress in their Sunday best. Because temperatures were chilly, they had to don long underwear. Robert had trouble folding the bottom of the leg of the underwear and stuffing it inside his sock. After he had pulled on his woolen trousers, he had to put on his corrective shoes and tie their laces. His mother had repeatedly demonstrated how to form a loop and to hold it in one hand while doubling the other end through the loop so as to form a second loop. Robert could almost achieve that much, but, when he tried to pull the two loops tight, the end of the one he had doubled invariably slipped through the first loop. He was left with one loop, a loose knot, and a long strand of lace that he would trip over, if he were to leave things as they were.

On his own, Robert had learned to form one loop in one hand and a second loop in his other hand and to tie the two loops together. He assumed (incorrectly) that speed was important, so he practiced forming the loops as rapidly as possible. That way, he could tell his mother, “See? My way is just as fast.” Ida wanted him to tie his shoes the way she had shown him, and she made him try and try again. Finally, Robert’s father said, “Ida, he gets his shoes tied just as nicely his way as our way. Why not let him have his way?” Reluctantly, she consented. (Robert would tie his shoes his way for the rest of his life!)

On this occasion, Robert tied his shoes successfully. Next, his brother and he had to zip up their parkas, put on their stocking caps, slip the hoods of their parkas over the stocking caps, wrap their mufflers around their faces, and put on their gloves. Charles and their mother climbed into the back seat of the 1950 Chevrolet, and Robert and their father took the front seat. Robert always got “car sick” in the back, so he had to ride in the front. His mother thought it was a reasonable concession to put Robert in front.

The boys were perspiring under their parkas, even after the short drive to the Masonic Lodge. The two-story building was on the south side of an alley that led westward from State Route 55 not far from the intersection of State Route 26. Some thirty years earlier, the first floor had served as Ray Ogborn’s garage and automotive repair shop. The boys’ grandmother Kosie had a brother, Charles Albert Cobb, nicknamed Charley or Cobbie, who died in 1931. His widow, Margaret Wagner, was the beloved family member that the boys and their parents called “Great Aunt Margaret.” She eventually had married the veterinarian, Doc Goddard, but he, too, died before the boys were born. Residents of the town continued to refer to her as Mrs. Margaret Goddard. Ray Ogborn had purchased the automotive business, but not the building, from Charley, so Great Aunt Margaret transferred ownership of the first floor to her sister Louise and Louise’s husband, Pete Thurman.

To reach the Masonic rooms on the second floor, the boys and their parents trudged down the dark alley. Robert kept turning his head from side to side so that he could see beyond the fake fur that surrounded the hood. Half dead vines shuddered in the cold breeze along the brick wall. Traces of snow highlighted the weeds along the foundation of the building across from the Masonic Lodge. The family passed through a doorway at the very back of the old building and started up the dimly illuminated stairs. Robert tripped more than once. Several of the steps creaked.

They entered the main hall. A huge potbelly stove stood in the center of the room. So much wood had been fed to it that it was glowing red in places and was radiating a tropical heat that melted the frost on the tall windows. Chairs were pushed back around the walls. The boys were thankful to remove their coats, but, even then, they were too hot. They waited patiently for Santa Claus. Well, they knew that this was not the real Santa. He came without being seen on Christmas Eve and left presents for the boys in their very own home. This Santa was a well-meaning member of the lodge. Soon, they heard him ho-ho-hoing. To the adults’ applause, he burst upon the gathering. He was wearing a flimsy Santa costume with a rather poor excuse for a cotton beard, but he was most certainly jolly! He handed small gifts and candy to all the children. The leader of the lodge said a few inspiring words about Christmas, and the event was over. The adults stood conversing with one another far longer than Robert’s patience could hold out, but he knew better than to tug on his mother’s sleeve. Eventually, Ida smiled down at Charles and Robert and asked, “Are you boys ready to go home?” They nodded politely.

On went the parkas, the stocking caps, the mufflers, and the gloves. Once the family was back inside the Chevrolet, Ida suggested that they see the Christmas lights. Joe drove around Pine Village, which took relatively little time, as the town was quite small. Next, he headed north on State Route 55 all the way to Oxford. The stores that year were carrying GE “ice bulbs,” which were pale blue Christmas lights that were shaped like globes and covered with “ice crystals,” as they were called, and Elvis’ recording of “Blue Christmas” had been playing on radio stations for two years. Even so, the family was surprised when Joe drove past Doc Scheurich’s ranch house in the woods just to the south of Oxford. All blue lights outlined the home! The blue was such a departure from the multi-colored bulbs that the boys and their parents were impressed.

Once the family was home, Joe played 45 RPM records on the Victrola, which resembled a piece of furniture and which had an honored place in the living room. Twin doors with ornamental ovals in the gleaming finish swung open to reveal a radio and record player, as well as a fabric-covered speaker, on the right and shelves for storing 45 records on the left. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was a favorite!

Christmas Eve fell on Wednesday, and the family went to the Methodist Church for the evening service. Joe’s father, Seymour, had come from Indianapolis to spend the holiday with Joe, Ida, and the boys. Grandpa Rhode gave everyone a ride in his black 1951 Hudson Commodore 8 Sedan. The family disembarked from the comfortable car and took the stairs to the sanctuary. For the remainder of his life, Robert would retain a detailed memory of how holy the church appeared that night. Candles stood in the windowsills, and their flames reflected from the undulations in the stained glass. Real evergreen boughs surrounded them, and the scent of pine filled the room. People spoke softly as they took their seats along the pews. Mrs. Brutus, the organist, launched into “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Everyone stood and began to sing. Robert long remembered the twinkle in his father’s eyes and the sparkling light reflected in the glistening eyes of his mother, whom the song touched deeply.    

Saturday, February 10, 2018

4. The Cow ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE




The blustery weather of November was at hand. The wind moaned beneath leaden skies, and the branches of the twin oaks near the barn tossed and creaked. Robert and Charles helped scatter ground chicken feed from a repurposed coffee can along the tin feeders inside the old chicken house. Next, it was off to the barn to milk the Holstein cows, which had already come in from the pasture on their own without having to be herded. Fuzz watched from the high threshold of the door of the corn crib within the barn while Charles and Robert used other discarded coffee cans to scoop ground feed from a sack and to pour it in the shallow boxes in the stalls. Their father said, “Watch out below,” and, shortly thereafter, dropped a hay bale through the rectangular hole cut in the bottom of the mow. He followed down the ladder that was nailed to the wall there and began to scatter last summer’s sweet-smelling clover and timothy in the deep hay boxes that ran the length of both sides of the alley down the middle of the barn and that held a shallow feed tray in each stall.

While Joe balanced on a one-legged milking stool and rhythmically squirted the milk into an enameled bucket, Robert and Charles sang songs in the alleyway.

I’ve been working on the railroad
All the live-long day.
I’ve been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away.
Can’t you hear the whistle blowing?
Rise up so early in the morn!
Can’t you hear the whistle blowing?
Dinah, blow your horn!

Dinah, won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn?
Dinah, won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow,
Dinah, won’t you blow your horn?

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah …

… and on went the rollicking song and others like it, until Joe had finished milking the few cows that needed to be milked. He had almost a full bucket, which he had to carry carefully so as not to spill a drop.

Back at the enclosed porch to the east of the house, the boys and their father unsnapped the line of buckles down their boots, kicked them off, and hung their wraps before sitting down to dinner.

Ida had prepared buttery grilled cheese sandwiches and a huge batch of chili. The conversation flowed without cessation while the four of them ate and ate.

After dinner, the television was turned on so that the family could watch Gunsmoke. All too soon, it seemed, everyone had to go to bed.

In the middle of the night, Robert slowly awakened to unaccustomed sounds. He rubbed his eyes and tried to comprehend why light was coming down the hallway from the kitchen to the boys’ bedroom. He heard his parents’ anxious voices.

Charles was already out of bed, so Robert tossed back the warm covers. Following his brother’s lead, Robert pulled his jeans over his flannel pajamas and put a flannel shirt over the flannel pajama top. In the cool darkness, he accidentally put pajama buttons through the shirt button holes and had to start over. By the time he had found his shoes and socks, he was well behind Charles.

Robert was frightened. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

“I suppose I ought to wake up Glen Bisel,” Joe was saying to Ida when the boys came running into the kitchen.

“What’s wrong?” Charles asked.

The boys’ mother replied, “The cows got out, and one of them fell in the hole.”

Robert suddenly became aware of a distant bellowing. The mournful sound seemed blown by the gusts of wind. The hole was almost as deep as a cow was tall and had been dug to fix a tile problem. It could not be backfilled until Joe could be assured that the difficulties had been resolved.

Joe put on his denim coat and his cap with the ear flaps. Soon, he was driving his GMC pickup to the Sinclair gasoline station to awaken his friend Glen.

Before long, the GMC returned. Behind it came Glen’s wrecker. Joe parked the pickup so that its headlights illuminated the scene. To Robert, the occurrence felt like a weird dream: beams from headlamps casting fantastic shadows, groaning wind, black-and-white cow mooing in distress, Glen carefully lowering his truck’s heavy chain with a canvas sling attached, struggling to position the sling under the belly of the terrified cow, and slowly lifting the cow from the hole that had swallowed it.

As the sling came away, the cow scrambled to trot away. Joe herded it and the other cows through the broken fence before setting a metal fence post and using pliers to splice new wire around the breaks.

“Would you come in for a cup of coffee?” Ida asked Glen.

“No, thank you,” Glen smiled in the light from his wrecker. “I think I’ll go back to bed.”  It was—after all—the middle of the night.

While Robert, Charles, and their mother trudged back to the house, Joe drove the pickup around to the driveway.

“I guess Dad should have listened to you,” Robert said.

“Don’t find fault with your father,” Robert’s mother warned. “Once there’s a problem, it’s time to fix the problem. It’s never the time to say, ‘I told you so.’”

Charles and Robert went back to bed while Ida and Joe had a cup of NescafĂ© instant coffee to settle their jangled nerves. It had been an eventful night. Robert lay awake for some time, listening to the roar of the wind. He thought about how his father was an excellent farmer, and Robert wondered how his father could sometimes make slapdash fence repairs that anyone could see would not hold back cows for long. Robert guessed that his father had much to do and could not give every task the same degree of attention. Thankfully, his father had fixed the fence properly on this night! Then Robert thought about how his father worked hard throughout each day, including hours before sunrise and after sunset, and Robert remembered what his mother had said about not finding fault. He felt embarrassed that he had been critical of his father’s fence-mending. With a sense of guilt, he tossed and turned until he finally fell asleep. Inspired by his mother’s frequent readings of Winnie the Pooh stories, Robert dreamed that a Horrible Heffalump had fallen in the hole.   

Sunday, February 4, 2018

3. The Stage ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE




Just then, Robert heard his father whistling as he opened the screen door to the east porch. Robert ran to help Joe put the round white filter in the special galvanized funnel that perfectly fit the opening in the top of the tall milk can. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s home from work we go,” Joe whistled, while he lifted the white enameled milk bucket with its red rim and poured the morning’s fragrant milk into the funnel. Robert heard the merry pinging of the filtered liquid dripping and splashing within the can.

Rubbing his sleepy eyes, Charles stood in the kitchen doorway and yawned.

“Let’s sit down to breakfast,” Ida said.

Tumblers of fresh milk with a layer of yellow cream having risen to the top were arranged around the table. Halves of pink grapefruits rested in bowls at each place around the table. Mounds of sugar on top of the grapefruits were slowly turning a pale gray as the juice mingled with the granules. While Joe, Robert, and Charles spooned out the pink segments, Ida fried eggs until the edges of the whites were crispy brown. As the toaster popped with a pleasant “ker-ching” sound, she quickly slathered homemade butter on the slices and distributed the hot toast to each person.

“Joe, I’m worried about the cows,” Ida said. “If they get out, they’ll fall in that hole.”

A deep hole ….

“There’s nothing to worry about,” said Joe. “They’re not going to get out. If they were going to break through the pasture fence, it wouldn’t be there. It’d be where that old panel is by the hog lot.”

By this time, Robert was walking well wherever and whenever he wanted. He was talking much more often and fluently. He had practically forgotten the fact that, only two years earlier, his parents had to carry him everywhere while his feet ached. He had indeed forgotten his preliminary reluctance to speak.

As Charles had begun to attend first grade at the school across the road from home, Robert wanted to go to school, but his mother said he couldn’t.

“You’re only four. You have to wait another year,” she said, repeatedly.

Every afternoon, Robert stood in the window in his parents’ bedroom and watched for his brother to come home from school. The window in that room commanded the best view of the long sidewalk that ran to the southwest door of the school from a point across the highway from the driveway where Joe’s 1950 Chevrolet was parked, and it permitted Robert to see Charles striding past the automobile in the driveway to the gate through their white-board fence into the yard, thence along a narrow sidewalk to the porch east of the kitchen. Robert could hear the new Zenith television airing a telecast from its position atop a green Formica table with silvery tubular legs in the kitchen corner.

The television had not yet entirely replaced the dark brown 1949 Philco Bakelite radio standing amid the strands of white pop beads on Ida’s dresser, but the newfangled “TV” had certainly captured the family’s attention.

While Robert pulled back the white gauzy curtains to wait for Charles to appear, he wondered what Charles was learning that day and why he, Robert, was not allowed to learn the lessons at the same time. He felt miffed that he had to stay home through the long mornings and the boring afternoons while Charles got to participate in what must surely be the pleasures of schooling.

Then Robert would see Charles walking down the driveway, and envious thoughts were shoved aside by eager anticipation of playing until suppertime. Robert would run around the foot of the bed, through the kitchen, to the porch to greet Charles as he came through the screen door.

On this day, Robert scurried to welcome Charles home from school.

“What do you want to do until it’s time for chores?” Robert asked.

“What did you learn at school today?” Ida asked.

Charles smiled while he unzipped his gray jacket and hung it up. “We learned to subtract, but then, I already knew how to do that,” he replied to his mother.

Ida, who had taught elementary school, cast a worried glance at Robert. “Maybe I’m teaching you too much at home,” she said.

Robert tried to get his brother’s attention. “But what do you want to do?” he prompted.

“We’ll make a stage out of Tinkertoys,” Charles finally answered.

While Charles changed from his school clothes to his everyday clothes, Robert poured the Tinkertoys from their cans onto the rug in the living room.

“We’ll need a way to hang curtains on both sides of the stage,” Charles said, as he began to place green sticks in plain wooden disks. Robert handed the stage-maker whatever parts he needed as he called for them.

In a short time, a representative proscenium arch and stage stood before them, although they did not yet know the term “proscenium arch.” It was rather unstable but functional.

Robert and Charles were familiar with stages because their parents had taken them for lessons at Allen’s Dance Studio across from the Journal and Courier newspaper office in Lafayette.

Charles brought two plastic toy cows from the shelves where the toys were piled, and he held one in each hand on the stage. To Robert’s delight, he made them dance.

“Now we need curtains,” Charles said. “Mom,” he called, as he strode into the kitchen, “we need curtains for our stage.”

Ida was up to her elbows in suds while doing dishes. She turned and smiled at her son while wiping her hands on a towel. She returned to the living room and admired the stage before going to her room to pull material from a basket. She cut the curtains from leftover lightweight cotton and showed Charles how to pleat it while Robert looked on. Next, she used a knitting needle to pull a string through the pleats of both curtains. When she held up the curtains by the string, both boys were enchanted.

Charles carefully tied the string to both sides of the proscenium arch. He and Robert gently pulled the curtains closed and applauded their work. Obeying Charles’ instructions, Robert pulled the curtains open while Charles held the dancing cows on the stage. The effect was dramatic! They could hardly wait to show their father when he came in to get them for the evening chores.

Joe was generous in his praise of the stage. He kindly sat through a matinee performance of the dancing bovines. Then he announced that it was time to feed the real cows. Robert thought that maybe, when all human beings were out of sight, the real cows danced.