Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, May 27, 2018

19. The Flu and the Visits ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

Robert’s class rehearsed a Christmas song to be performed during a school-wide convocation to occur just before school was dismissed for a few days during the holiday season. Robert struggled to find the correct pitches when he and his classmates were singing a wide variety of incorrect pitches. He worried about what the quality of the song would be on the day when the class had to sing it before the school.

He need not have worried. A day before the concert, Robert came down with the flu and had to stay home. He hated missing school almost more than he hated being sick. He felt he was letting down his classmates, but nothing could be done about the situation. He was sick, and that was that.

This, moreover, became a pattern for almost all of the six years of grade school. Robert would come down with the flu just before the school’s observance of Christmas, and he would miss the convocation. After the first few years of catching the flu, he began to dread the beginning of rehearsals of the school’s Christmas programs, for he knew he would become ill. And, like clockwork, he caught the flu bug at that same time year after year.

“No, you’re going to be well this year,” his mother would reassure Robert.

Shortly thereafter, the fever and the sneezing would begin.

“You’ll have to stay home,” his mother would have to admit.

Year after year …

When 1961 began, Joe took the boys to visit Jim Hooker. It was a short drive into town; if it had not been so cold, they could have walked. Jim accompanied them to his workshop in the small barn beside his house. Windows along the south and east walls met in the corner where the door was. Inside, heavy work tables stretched the length of both walls. The tables were laden with homespun wood carvings.

Jim stood back with his coat open enough for him to rest his thumbs under his red suspenders. He grinned with pride while Robert and Charles stared in wonder at Jim’s creations.

Robert felt he could spend all day looking at the carvings and not grow bored. They were intricately detailed yet not photographically real. Each displayed an element of Jim’s fanciful imagination. There were miniature wagons with working wheels that were pulled by twenty teams of mules. A few of his earlier renditions of the theme had mules that were more or less alike, but his later versions featured mules that were all different, with some glancing to one side and with others switching their tails.

Many Conestoga wagons stood among the carvings. They were covered in canvas and pulled by oxen yoked together. Teams and teams of draft horses were hitched to a variety of farm wagons.

Robert did not want to possess a carving as a toy. He understood that these were works of art not to be played with and to be treasured for their beauty. They revealed the talent and the skill and the genius of their creator.

While the boys ogled the mules, horses, oxen, and wagons, their father talked with Jim about the news from around town. Robert paid no attention to their conversation; he studied the carvings with rapt admiration. Although he remembered seeing them when he was younger, he felt he was seeing them for the first time. He had arrived at an age when he could appreciate the deft movements of Jim’s carving tools recorded in the wood of the figures.

Next, Joe took the boys to see their great aunt Margaret. With a big smile, she invited them to step inside her warm kitchen. The air was balmy with the fragrance of raisin cookies, which she was baking in her black iron oven. A coal oil lamp that had been converted to electricity hung on the wall above an antique table. The light bulb within the glass chimney gleamed brightly because a mirror-like reflector fanned out behind it. The light hurt Robert’s eyes, but, as long as he kept his back to it, there was no problem. He enjoyed looking out the windows and seeing the well-manicured houses across the street. Traces of snow clung to their eaves. One large house was Dutch Colonial and featured a gambrel roof with dormers.

Aunt Margaret offered everyone a cookie as big as a saucer. She leaned forward to hand Robert his cookie. He thought her happy face above her starched apron resembled her cookies. Here and there were little wrinkles embroidering her countenance, and her eyes gleamed in the same way that the raisins sparkled in the bright light from the coal oil lamp!

“The meat should be ready in Otterbein,” Joe said. “In the next day or two, I’ll drive over to pick it up, and I’ll bring you the cuts you wanted.”

“Just this morning, I was wondering what I was going to cook this week,” Aunt Margaret said. “I had about made up my mind to walk up to Terrell’s Market to buy some pork chops, but I’m glad I put it off. Come see my Christmas cactus.”

Aunt Margaret led the group into her living room. In the south window on a fern stand was an enormous Christmas cactus with many magenta blooms.

“It was the fullest just before Christmas,” Aunt Margaret said, “but it’s still giving a good show.”

The notched branches hung in all directions. The plant was larger than a bushel basket. The blossoms were white near their centers, but the rich magenta hue was what caught Robert’s eye.

“You certainly have good luck with your Christmas cactus,” Joe said.

“I don’t know why it does so well there,” Aunt Margaret said, “but it seems to like that window. All I have to do is to remember to water it.”

“I’m considering driving up to Claude Martindale’s to see if he has any apples left. Ida wants to bake a pie.”

“If he has any, could you get me a dozen?” Aunt Margaret asked. “Did I ever tell you what Claude did when we were children? We attended the same one-room school out there not far from Marshall Rhode’s house. Claude got the idea to tie a kernel of corn to a piece of string. It was warm outside, and the window was open. When the teacher wasn’t looking, he threw the kernel out the window and held onto the string. There were chickens all around the school. He would tug a little on the string and tug a little more on the string. Before long, he had the kernel up on the window sill. Right then, a big fat chicken that was trying to get the corn flew up, grabbed hold of the sill with its talons, and squawked. At first, everyone was so startled that nobody said anything, then the children were so tickled that they laughed and laughed. The teacher made Claude stand in the corner.”

Robert and Charles chuckled along with Aunt Margaret.

“Well, I suppose we should be going,” Joe said.

“Don’t stay away so long the next time,” Aunt Margaret chided in a joking fashion.

The boys and their father climbed back in their car for the short drive to Claude Martindale’s orchard in “Oklahoma,” the nickname for a group of houses near where there had been a railway that passed the elevator east of Pine Village. Claude wore his customary black cap that resembled those the newsboys of an earlier generation had worn. His blue denim coat hung loosely on his overalls.

“Yes, I still have some cooking apples in my cellar,” Claude said in reply to Joe’s question. While the boys stamped their feet to keep them warm, Joe waited until Claude reappeared with a basket under his arm.

“These are mostly winesaps,” Claude said, as he handed the half-full basket to Joe.

“Claude, there are many more here than I asked for,” Joe said.

Claude raised his hand and shook his head slightly. “I have more than I can use before they go bad,” he said.

“What do I owe you?” Joe asked.

“This late in the season, you owe me nothing,” Claude said. “Just tell Ida to bring me a slice of her pie.”

“Well, thank you most kindly,” Joe said. “I’ll make sure you get a piece of pie.”

Joe set the basket in the back seat. There would be plenty of apples to divide with Aunt Margaret and with Grandma Rhode, as well.

Joe, Charles, and Robert had enjoyed their visits. Robert had learned that people are makers. Jim Hooker made carvings, Aunt Margaret made cookies and Christmas cactus blossoms, and Claude Martindale made apple orchards and baskets of apples that appeared from his cellar.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

18. The Piano and the Pictures ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

Earlier that year, Robert and Charles had begun taking piano lessons from Miss Ella Beegle, who had a studio at the top of a building that housed Allen’s Dance Studio across from the Journal & Courier newspaper headquarters in Lafayette. Older than Joe and Ida, Miss Beegle was a kind, gracious woman who could hardly bring herself to correct a pupil. She was well-dressed and well-spoken. After awaiting his turn in a room filled with wicker furniture, Robert would hear Miss Beegle saying goodbye to Charles as the two of them walked down a short hallway. Then it would be Robert’s turn to follow Miss Beegle into her studio.

Robert enjoyed the lessons, although he seldom practiced enough. By this time in his first-grade year, he could begin to read simple scores in the beginner’s book. One of the short pieces had an illustration of kittens that Robert liked because he had found kittens in his father’s barn on more than one occasion. Each week, Miss Beegle asked Robert to write another scale in his booklet of music paper. Robert tried his best to form each note perfectly. “Your scales are better than print,” Miss Beegle often said, complimenting Robert’s handiwork. Of course, his notes were not better than print, but it was Miss Beegle’s method to be unsparing in her praise of a pupil’s accomplishments.

Miss Beegle’s studio boasted a grand piano. At home, Robert and Charles practiced on an old upright piano that was taller than many similar instruments. To Robert, it seemed harder to play than Miss Beegle’s grand. The keys of the old upright offered a little more resistance.

Ida was proud of her sons’ progress on the piano, and she insisted that they practice—although both slipped off the piano bench all too soon every day. Whenever Ida and Joe entertained guests, the boys had to play one song each on the piano. While the poor playing in general and the wrong notes in particular must have made it difficult to listen, everyone always applauded rapturously afterward.

Robert spent his time at the piano learning to read music, rather than playing “by ear,” as the saying went. He never developed the capacity to reproduce at the keyboard any song that he heard. He had a penchant for exactness, and playing a musical score required the satisfying precision that Robert felt would be lacking, were he to indulge in playing by ear. Many years later, he would wish that he could automatically play any song that he could hear.

For Robert, music lay at the heart of drawing. Ever since he could remember, his mother had provided a seemingly endless supply of crayons, pastels, and watercolor paints. Ida bought numerous large packs of oversized paper and encouraged the boys to make as many pictures as they could. When Robert was three, he sketched Grandma Rhode, and it actually looked like her! He felt that, if he could “hear” the inner music of a surface accurately, he could reproduce that surface in a two-dimensional drawing. No actual sounds were emitted from such surfaces; Robert had to imagine the sounds each surface would make. If he wanted to draw someone’s nose, he peered intently at the way the skin stretched across the bridge and imagined what sounds would best express the skin as it came over the bridge and swept toward the cheek—as a stream or a breeze might do. When he heard the sounds as clearly as possible, he put his pencil or his crayon or his paintbrush on the paper and made his hand move in harmony with the sounds he was hearing. Essentially, he was transferring the sounds to the paper, which, in turn, changed three dimensions into two.

So music and visual art were really the same! Visual art was music seen in shading and lines.

Robert had a small chalkboard that had been part of an easel but was now separate from it. He spent many hours drawing with white chalk on the dark green chalkboard.

He sat in a large armchair upholstered in a fuzzy fabric that was nearly knobby and bristly. With the chalkboard across his knees and steadied by his left hand, he drew sequential pictures to accompany stories that he invented and told himself. As soon as one was finished (sometimes even before it was finished), he erased it with a handful of dusty tissues and continued on to the next. The drawings were like the major pictures in an animation storyboard. Quite often, he took his inspiration from the TV westerns and from Disney movies. He drew stagecoaches in the desert with mountains in the background, log cabins, forts, and Indians. He never missed an opportunity to sketch Indians and frequently made portraits of them with their feathered headdresses.

Making countless chalk drawings meant that a thick ridge of white dust developed across his jeans. Where he set down his tissues, a broad pile of dust formed on the fabric of the armchair. Mysteriously, his mother never complained about the chalk dust permeating the chair. She periodically brushed and vacuumed the dust away. Robert gained the impression that visual art was approved, no matter how messy it might be.

On many joyous occasions, Ida sat down with Robert and his chalkboard on a davenport in the living room. She invited him to tell a story aloud while he illustrated it, and he complied.

“Your story needs an ending,” she always said. “You’re reaching a place where you stop, but that’s not an ending.”

“What should it be?” Robert always asked.

“You can end a story in many ways,” his mother would answer. “You can surprise whoever is listening to your story.”

“What would a surprise be?”

On one such occasion, Ida replied, “You could have the tribe make the boy in your story an honorary member because he rescued their pony from the deep hole that his father had dug.”

Robert quickly drew a picture of smiling Indians standing around the boy and the pony.

“That’s right,” Ida said. “Another way would be to make a point. You could tell why it’s important to keep fences around deep holes so that ponies don’t fall into them.”

Robert hurriedly rubbed away the existing sketch, set the handful of tissues to one side, and drew a hole with a fence around it. For good measure, he added several trees in the background.

“That’s good!” his mother said. “You could also return to what you said in the beginning and make it mean more at the end. Do you remember when you said that the boy wished he could do something for his Indian friends?”

“I see,” said Robert. “‘So the boy got his wish,’” he proclaimed in a louder voice, to show that the sentence was his ending. At the same time, he drew a close-up of the boy’s face with a big grin next to several faces of Indians, also with big grins.

“That’s very good!” his mother said. “Whenever you begin a story, think what your ending is going to be. Make everything in the story count toward the ending.”

Robert smiled with satisfaction. “I will!” he agreed, but, by the next time his mother sat with him and invited him to tell a story with his chalkboard, he had forgotten about endings. Patiently, Ida would guide him through various ways to end whatever story he had been telling her.

Eventually, there came a day when he remembered.

“And the puppy that nobody had wanted had grown up to be the prettiest dog of all!” he said, as he put the finishing touches to his sketch of a dog. He could hear the music of its pointy ears, its soft nose, and its twinkling eyes.

Ida smiled and said, “Now you know how to end a story!”

Saturday, May 12, 2018

17. The Persimmons and the President ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

American persimmon trees grew naturally in southern Indiana. Before Robert’s memory, Joe and Ida had brought one to their yard, where it grew a nice, tall, straight trunk.

That autumn during Robert’s first-grade year, Ida chose an ideal time to make persimmon pudding. The first frost had not yet arrived, but it was not far off. The nights were becoming chilly but the days were still warm. Ida, Robert, and Charles gathered the persimmons from the ground while their mother shook the slender tree. The fruits were relatively hard, and their skins were frosty orange with a purplish or bluish tint. They were too bitter to bite into. Ida divided the persimmons into quart size strawberry boxes made of thin wood with eight staples around the upper border. Robert and Charles helped. Robert caught a thumb on the point of a staple. “Ouch!” he exclaimed, putting his thumb in his mouth. The persimmons spent a few days in their cartons on the enameled counter of the Hoosier in the hot kitchen. Then they had become fully ripe and soft. It was time to make pudding!

When the delectable fragrance of the pudding, with its cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, arose from the oven, the tantalizing scent permeated the house. Then, when the dark, rich pudding was spooned, still warm, into bowls and topped with whipped cream from the family’s milking cows, manna from heaven would have had tough competition!

Near the beginning of November, Ida announced to Robert that he would be keeping an appointment with Dr. Scheurich that afternoon for his last booster shot. When Ida drove Robert to the white house in Oxford that was Dr. Scheurich’s office, storm clouds were already overhead and rain was beginning to fall.

Robert knew he could not escape what was about to happen to him, so he went along compliantly. He sat on a red-upholstered chair in the waiting room on the south side of the house. When the familiar nurse stepped up to the counter, looked at a clipboard, and called his name, he went with his mother into the inner office, which reeked of cigar and rubbing alcohol. Had Norman Rockwell been invited to paint an ideal image of a small-town doctor, he would have painted Dr. Scheurich. Even though Dr. Scheurich wore a serious expression on his face and peered through his glasses sternly, he was as roly-poly as Santa Claus. The belt to his trousers was almost lost beneath the bulging white shirt that was always decorated with a stethoscope hanging around his neck. Ida chatted with the doctor while holding Robert’s coat. Quickly and efficiently, Dr. Scheurich brought out the large stainless steel device terminating in its long needle. He sat heavily down on his swivel chair while Robert loosened his belt. Before long, the shot was administered. It hurt like the very devil!

With tears in the corners of his eyes, Robert walked down the concrete steps leading to the front door of the doctor’s office and into the car. His coat was wet from the rain.

While Ida drove back to Pine Village, the sky grew darker and the rain fell faster. The landscape was forlorn. The trees had lost their leaves. They stood gray and rain-soaked. Flat land stretched far away until becoming lost in sheets of rain.

When Ida reached home, she told Robert to wait in the car while she got Charles. Robert wondered what was to happen next. Soon, Ida and Charles ran out to the car. Ida drove the short distance to Joe Dan’s Restaurant in town. By the time the three of them had taken their seats in a booth near the window, the sky was almost as dark as night. Rivulets of rain glinted down the plate-glass window.

Robert felt that the day had definitely taken a turn for the better. Even though his posterior still felt sore, he knew he could have a breaded tenderloin sandwich with mustard: one of his favorite treats. He could also have a chocolate milkshake.

For some reason, Ida ordered a sandwich for the boys’ father, even though he was not there. At about the time the sandwiches were served, Robert saw a figure running across the street from the volunteer fire station. It was Joe, who slid into the booth beside Ida.

“I’m supposed to be using the restroom, so I have to gulp this down,” Joe said. When Joe hung up his coat, Robert noticed that his father was wearing good slacks and a Sunday shirt. The slacks were wet up to the knees. “The plumbing at the station broke yesterday, and the election board decided we could take turns coming to the restaurant to use the restroom.”

Joe lifted his sandwich and took a big bite.

“This rain may keep voters at home,” Ida said. “It’s been raining cats and dogs ever since I took Robert for his booster shot. He was good about it this time. He didn’t cry. Doctor Scheurich said Robert’s shots are all up to date.”

“Did it hurt?” Joe asked Robert.

“Yes,” Robert said before trying to suck chocolate milkshake up through the big paper straw, which collapsed.

“You need another straw,” Joe said.

“You may have to use your spoon,” Ida suggested.

Gusts of rain beat against the windowpane.

Having overheard the conversation, Joe Dan, the owner of the restaurant, brought Robert another straw from a tall glass container full of straws and topped with a silver lid. The container stood on the horseshoe counter surrounded by silvery stools that could spin around.

“Who’s winning?” Ida asked Joe.

“You know we’re not allowed to discuss anything about the election,” Joe said, grabbing another big bite of his sandwich.

Ida nodded, accepting his answer.

Then Joe said, “I can tell you that the early reports on the radio say the election’s close.”

Joe had wolfed down his sandwich. He excused himself from the table, dashed to the restroom, returned to get his coat, wriggled into it, and splashed back across the street to the polling booths in the fire station.

Later the next day, Robert learned that the new President of the United States was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. After having seen only President Dwight David Eisenhower, who looked old to Robert, Robert was surprised that a person as young as Jack Kennedy obviously was could be elected President of the United States.

The sun was shining. Robert’s parents talked about how the election was the dawn of a new era. They were excited about the prospects of a bright future, which Alan Shepard’s flight in a spacecraft in May seemed to promise.

No one could foretell how dramatic events would dampen those prospects. No one could predict the assassination of the young President in 1963. The slow turning of the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War, the escalation of the Soviet threat, the racial unrest, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the massive demonstrations in cities and on campuses were storm clouds on the horizon, but no one saw them yet.

Instead, life on the farm in Pine Village seemed a happy continuation of the happiness at the end of the 1950s. Everything seemed secure. Everything seemed like an innocent way of living not destined to change.  


Sunday, May 6, 2018

16. The Junior Fire Marshals ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

Robert and Charles thoroughly enjoyed the Hartford Junior Fire Marshal Program. Joe might have been less enthusiastic, but he didn’t let it show. A member of the Pine Village Volunteer Fire Department visited Robert’s first grade class and Charles’ third grade class to explain that all the students must take a thick booklet to their parents, who would help them examine their homes for fire safety violations. When the booklets were returned, the students would be declared Junior Fire Marshals.

Robert and Charles skipped happily homeward that evening. Joe, who had already been through the process twice for Charles, was not necessarily looking forward to a third occasion. He hurriedly milked the cows and fed the chickens and other poultry while Ida set the supper table early. Fortunately, she did not serve homemade cottage cheese! Robert was ready to take part in the examination of the house as soon as the supper dishes were cleared.

“Alright, boys,” Joe said, “we’ll start with the bathroom.” The bathroom had been added on to the old farmhouse, and it jutted out beyond the main wall as a tiny room all to itself. When the snowflakes were flying, the space was always cold. Joe had the boys look at the light fixtures and the one outlet, which passed their inspection.

“Isn’t that a violation of fire safety?” Charles asked, pointing to a heat lamp that Joe kept hanging above the pipes of the water heater during the winter.

“Well,” Joe said, “nothing can go wrong with it, and we use it only when it’s cold enough to freeze the pipes. Let’s assume the inspection is trying to find longstanding problems.”

“So which box do I check?” Charles asked.

“Check that the bathroom passes our inspection,” Joe said, removing a pen from the pocket of his overalls so that he could check the box in Robert’s booklet while Charles checked the box in his booklet.

The three moved on to the corner of the kitchen where a toaster, an electric wall clock, and a coffee percolator were plugged in.

“Could the circuit be overloaded?” Charles asked.

“Well, we’ve never blown a fuse, and the circuit is designed to carry enough watts to permit what you see there.”

“Do I check that the kitchen has a safety violation or not?” Charles asked.

“Check that there is no violation,” Joe said. Again, he took the pen from his pocket so that he could do the same in Robert’s booklet.

Robert had already concluded that you had to be older before you could understand the intricacies of electricity. He had no idea what a circuit or a watt was. Robert wondered if he would comprehend the safety of electricity by the time he was in third grade.

The group moved on to the heating stoves with their pipes that went up and over to the chimneys. Where the pipes entered the chimneys, doughnut-shaped metal plates that were painted in ornamental designs surrounded the pipes.

“If we weren’t already using the stoves,” Joe said, “we’d take off those rings and pull the pipes out to see if there might be any obstructions in the chimney or where the pipes make that angle, but the pipes are already hot. Besides, you’ve seen me clean them every spring at the end of the heating season.”

“So there’s no violation, right?” Charles asked.

“That’s right,” Joe said. Again, he marked Robert’s booklet.

Eventually, the three of them had reached the attic. Robert was a little afraid. One night three years earlier, the fire siren had sounded from the station in town. Joe and the boys had run to the GMC pickup to try to catch up with the firetruck. It was heading west on State Route 26 toward Rainsville. Where the road made a bend, a house was afire. Others who had chased the firetruck parked their vehicles and stood watching and conversing in groups. Although no one was hurt in the fire, the event was frightening. Robert vividly remembered the smoke filled with sparks and the orange flames casting weird shadows that danced in demonic patterns on the cars and the outbuildings. In his recollection, Robert could see the hoses spraying water to save the barn as the trees caught flames in their branches that were too near the house. He recalled glass in the upstairs window of the home shattering and a ball of flame rolling out. Now he glanced worriedly at the window in the upstairs of his house.

Joe, meanwhile, had slid the attic entry panel to one side. He switched on his flashlight and aimed it into the darkness. There was a conch shell that a relative had brought back from Florida. There was a Gilbert wind-up clock from the late 1800s. A dusty violin lay near the clock. A potato bug mandolin with broken strings caught the beams from the flashlight. A pair of antiquated tennis rackets leaned against the wall. There were so many interesting items, all stacked and piled together, that Robert almost forgot his fear.

“This cord,” Joe said, “runs from one side of the house to the other through the attic.” He pointed to the cord, which was attached to the rafters. “The electrical service divides fairly evenly with half of the fixtures on one side of the house and the other half on the other side of the house. My uncle Charley—your great uncle—probably had a say in the plan, which is logical and sensible. Also, there is almost nothing hidden that we need to see for our inspection.”

The inspection had lasted until bedtime.

Joe, Charles, and Robert felt much better, knowing that everything was in tiptop shape.

When the boys submitted their booklets, they received badges made of red plastic with gold lines radiating outward from a black circle proclaiming the words “Junior Fire Marshal.” In the center of the circle stood a white stag against a red background; it was the symbol of the Hartford Insurance Company. Charles and Robert also were given red plastic hats shaped like those that real fire fighters wore. The front of the hat had the Hartford trademark, as well as “Junior Fire Marshal” in large letters.

Every afternoon, the boys played “fire marshal” by wearing their hats and putting out imaginary fires outdoors. Soon, the hats cracked and were no longer usable, but they had been fun while they lasted.