“I don’t think Charles is seeing as well as he should,” Ida said to Joe over the supper table one evening in the spring of Robert’s second-grade year. “He’s having trouble reading what Mrs. Winegardner writes on the chalkboard. I think we should take him to see the ophthalmologist.”
An appointment was made not only for Charles but also for Robert (just for good measure), and, on the given day, Ida took the boys to Lafayette.
Robert enjoyed his time in the ophthalmologist’s office. He thought the experience of having his eyes dilated was sufficiently novel to keep his attention. When he sat in the chair in the darkened room that was painted a deep green, he could have fallen asleep because everything was so restful. … but he remained awake to answer the doctor’s questions, spoken in a low voice.
“Now look at the row of letters beginning with L and P. Do the letters look better like this or like this?”
The doctor had arranged the big machine that stretched across Robert’s face so that only one of Robert’s eyes was peering at the wall chart, which seemed to float in the air and to glow with an inner light. A whispering sound near Robert’s ear of a lens sliding into place accompanied the doctor’s words “like this,” and another whispering sound of another lens sliding into place occurred when the doctor repeated “like this.” Initially, Robert could see a difference and could reply with “the first one” or “the second one,” but, eventually, he could detect no difference. “I don’t know,” he would say. “They look the same.” … and the doctor would take a note somewhere in the darkness.
“This or this?” “This or this?” The pattern continued until both eyes had been tested.
Then there were more eye drops to stop the dilation and to return Robert’s eyes to normal.
Charles had already been tested.
In the outer office, while the boys waited for their eyes to begin to adjust, the doctor said to Ida, “Both boys are nearsighted and will need glasses.” He recommended a shop where they could be fitted with frames and lenses made to his prescription.
“I didn’t know Robert was having any trouble,” Ida said to the doctor.
“His eyes are similar to his brother’s, but, naturally, his nearsightedness has not advanced quite as much yet.”
The doctor handed the boys dark plastic glasses with white cardboard temple pieces that hooked over their ears. Ida walked them to the car.
Robert felt amazed that the whole world looked so fuzzy!
In a little over a week, the boys had their new glasses.
One of the first sights that Robert saw through his glasses was a century-old steam locomotive.
The United States was commemorating the Civil War, which had taken place between 1861 and 1865.
Joe, who had been a valedictorian and who read avidly about history, said to Charles and Robert, “A century may sound like a long time, but bear in mind that I talked with veterans of the Civil War who were farmers around Pine Village. I wasn’t very old, but I remember those men very well. You had several ancestors that served in the war; some were on one side, and some were on the other. Your great great grandfather was a musician in the 100th Indiana Volunteers. He played a fife. The musicians also were soldiers who fired their guns during the battles.”
The 32-year-old Daniel M. Fenton, who stood five feet six inches tall and had a fair complexion with light hair and blue eyes, was mustered into Company G of the 100th Indiana Volunteers on September 27, 1862, at Indianapolis, whereupon he was paid a $25 bounty. Indeed, musicians in the Civil War often joined in the fighting, and, apparently, Daniel was no exception. The 100th Indiana Volunteers supported at Vicksburg and Knoxville. The regiment fought in the most exposed location on Missionary Ridge and in a similarly deadly position at Kennesaw Mountain. The 100th supported again at Atlanta and experienced yet another sharp battle at the beginning of General William T. Sherman’s march toward Savannah. It was at Grand Junction, Tennessee, in February of 1863 that Daniel faced the privations of a cold winter in the field.
Fifers such as Daniel played music to march the armies toward battle and helped to clear the field of the wounded and dead after battle. Daniel saw more than he wanted to see of the terror of warfare, and, physically, he broke down. For the rest of his life, he complained of chronic diarrhea and rheumatism from the exposure he suffered in Tennessee. He had jaundice and disease of the liver.
All of these facts Joe narrated and explained to his sons.
Joe also said that Isaac Belew had been a member of the 100th Indiana and was the great grandfather of Glen J. Brutus, with whom Joe shared an enthusiasm for agricultural steam engines. Further, Joseph D. Farden had served in the 100th; Joseph’s son, Millard, was a leader in local businesses, and Joseph’s daughters, Flora and Fairy—both 1899 graduates of the Pine Village School—became teachers.
As part of the nation’s observances of the conflict that temporarily tore the nation apart, the locomotive named The General was coming to Lafayette on its way to Chicago from Nashville, Tennessee.
On April 12th in 1862, civilian James J. Andrews and twenty Union volunteers, acting on orders from General Ormsby M. Mitchel, sneaked through Southern lines and succeeded in seizing The General and three boxcars at Big Shanty, Georgia. The raiders drove the train northward toward Chattanooga, cutting telegraph lines, prying up rails, and attempting to burn bridges to sever Confederate communications. Unfortunately for the raiders, the conductor of The General and Confederate troops closely pursued them, and rain defeated their efforts to set fire to bridges. With journals close to the melting point, The General eventually ran out of fuel and water. The raiders abandoned the train but were rounded up and imprisoned. In June of 1862, James J. Andrews and seven of the raiders were executed by hanging. Engineer William Knight and eight others escaped and found their way back to Union lines. In 1863, the rest were released in a prisoner exchange. Six of the raiders received the nation’s first Medals of Honor. Fess Parker starred as Andrews in Walt Disney’s movie The Great Locomotive Chase only five years before Robert and Charles stood beside The General in Lafayette.
Robert thought that the storied locomotive, which had been the subject of so many books, was enormous! Steam sighed from the cylinder cocks, and moisture sizzled around the hot boiler of the elegant machine.
The engineer finished oiling the boxes. He turned to my father and said, “Would your boys like to climb up on the platform to see the firebox?”
“I’m sure they would,” Joe replied.
Robert was too shy to take a step forward, but Charles jumped at the opportunity. Joe helped Robert up the tall steps. The engineer swung open the firebox door, exposing the orange flames within. After staring at the fire through his new glasses, Robert’s wide eyes took in the shining brass details of the cabin. Years later, he could instantaneously recall the scents of oil and smoke, the sounds of crackling and hissing. The visit to see The General made a profound impression on him: an impression made all the more indelible because he could see every detail so clearly.