Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, July 29, 2018

28. The Glasses and the General ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

“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.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


For that winter, Ida bought Robert and Charles new parkas. Robert asked if, rather than the usual dark blue or gray coats, he could have the red one on the rack at Sears, and—surprise!—Ida consented.

Robert loved his red coat! It was bright red throughout. Even the fuzzy stuff that took the place of fur around the hood was the same red! He could hardly wait to wear it on the playground at school.

He had fewer chances to wear it than he might have. The onslaught of childhood diseases had begun, and he had to remain at home with them, as well as being “quarantined” with what he eventually came to expect: his Christmas flu.

Over the next few years, Robert had the chicken pox, measles, mumps (on both sides), and a different kind of measles that was much more virulent than the first kind had been. He heard his parents referring to “the German measles,” so that must have been what the bad ones were.

Robert hated missing school and falling behind in his assignments—even while he tried to keep up from home.

… and he hated Vicks VapoRub. Whenever he had a cold or flu, his mother smeared the intensely aromatic VapoRub on his chest, covered the gooey mess with a square torn from a worn-out pair of flannel pajamas, and buttoned up his new flannel pajama top over the square. Even when she had pulled the sheet, the bedspread, the gray woolen blanket, and the crazy quilt with its thick batting up to Robert’s eyes, Robert could still smell the VapoRub. While he slowly baked beneath the heavy bedding, he felt sick because he smelled VapoRub, which he associated with feeling sick. It was a vicious cycle.

Robert was not terribly fond of the vitamins, either. They were in a brown bottle. Ida would pour the thick liquid into a teaspoon and hold out the spoon for Robert to take the vitamins, which had a strong aroma from the sulfur in the composition.

In the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink were other medicines. There was tincture Merthiolate for cuts. It was applied from a thin glass rod attached to the inside of the cap, and it colored the cut a glaring reddish orange. For inflamed membranes or rashes, the light pink salve from the tube of Taloin ointment did the trick. Rubbing alcohol cleaned scratches.

Whenever Robert experienced a particularly stubborn bout of flu, Ida took him to see Dr. Scheurich. The good doctor might or might not set his cigar aside long enough to insert a tongue depressor in Robert’s mouth and to peer down Robert’s throat. Then, invariably, he would hand Ida a bottle of little red pills. Did the pills help? Not that Robert could determine.  

Behind one of the upper hinged doors of the Hoosier was Joe’s arsenal of aspirin. There was also an extra tin of the udder balm, with which Joe soothed his cows’ sensitive skin after milking them. Joe and Ida applied udder balm to any dry patches that appeared on their hands, arms, or legs during the winter months.

Illnesses could not hold out forever, and—finally!—Robert got to wear his red coat on the playground! Alan and Terry led Robert’s class in building a beauty of a snow fort. Simultaneously, the two Steves of the class above Robert’s class guided their classmates in fashioning a most menacing fort within a snowball’s distance of the other fort.

One of the Steves yelled across the no-man’s-land, “I dare you to be the first to throw a snowball.” At the same time, to taunt Alan and Terry’s side, the other Steve stood on his head and waggled his legs.

“I say we attack ‘em now,” Terry advised.

“Have we made enough snowballs?” Alan asked.

“Sure! There are plenty.”

“They’re asking for it,” Robert said.

“Fire at will!” Alan commanded.

Suddenly, the air between the two forts was full of snowballs. With several allies from older and younger classes, each fort numbered as many as twenty troops. Steve the Taunter nimbly dodged multiple snowballs hurled in his direction. His arm was a blur as he gave back as good as he got, firing snowball after snowball at his opponents.

A snowball found its mark on the right side of Robert’s face, shattering lightly all about. Robert laughed as a chunk of the cold stuff went down his neck. Almost immediately, another snowball burst off the left side of his face, and more snow rolled inside his collar and down his neck. Robert was laughing so hard that he was almost incapacitated.

Gasping for air and laughing uncontrollably, he yelled, “Stop! Stop!”

Wham! Another snowball hit him on a shoulder.

“It’s your coat,” Terry shouted over the din of the battle. “The red is a target!”

Robert ducked behind the highest wall of the fort and regained his breath.

Nearby, Dennis jumped up to throw a massive snowball toward the enemy fort. At the same instant, he was hit full in the face.

“Oh, they got me,” he said, falling to the ground and pretending to be a casualty—but only for a second. Then he was back on his feet and sending snowballs through the frosty air.

Susan, Linda, Randy, and Jean had reinforced the fort. They scurried out the back, formed snowballs in their gloved hands, ran inside the enclosure, and threw them as hard as they could, many of them finding their mark.

Before long, the sides had increased to over thirty troops apiece.

Just when the fight was becoming the best in history, someone heard Mrs. Arvin calling. The recess was over. Laughing and chuckling, the students filed from both forts across the playground to the school building. There were no hard feelings. Students that had been enemies only seconds earlier were swapping tales of valor with one another on the way back to the classrooms.

As Robert thought about it later, it may well have been the best snowball fight in history. By the next day, an abrupt warming trend had melted much of the snow, and the forts were destined to disappear from the playground landscape. The bonds of friendship that the battle had only strengthened were strong enough to endure the vicissitudes of lifetimes.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

26. The Foragers ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

That fall, Ida drove Charles and Robert to “the secret farm.” She headed toward Rainsville. North of where the road made a bend, a farm had once stood. Nature had reclaimed the site. The buildings had long ago rotted into oblivion, leaving no trace above ground. Even the wagon tracks that had led from the location of the barn out to the road had vanished, except for two ruts that could barely be seen amid the tangled growth on the north face of a low hill. Somehow, Ida knew how to weave through islands of blackberry vines and not get scratched. The boys followed her exactly, so that they would not get scratched either. All three carried buckets.

In the vicinity of where the buildings had stood far back from the highway, Ida strode up to “her” crab apple tree. The bright red fruit was two inches in diameter. The tree had set on heavily that year. She helped the boys fill their buckets with crab apples, which she would later slice and boil to make a clear orange jelly that was Robert’s favorite of all the jellies his mother ever made.

“Look,” she said, holding a crab apple in one hand and cutting it open with a paring knife that she had brought in the pocket of her dark blue jacket, “what color are the seeds?”

“They’re brown,” Charles said.

“That’s how you know the crab apples are ready to be gathered,” Ida explained. “If the seeds were not yet dark brown, we’d leave them on the tree a little longer. See how white the apple is on the inside? That’s another indication that they’re ready.”

With buckets full of crab apples, the three made their way back to the car. They emptied the buckets into two bushel baskets in the trunk. Then they returned to the tree to get more of the red fruit. Robert noticed that the skins of the apples were a darker red where the sunlight bathed them.

They made two more trips to the car. By then, the baskets were almost full.

Next, Ida guided her sons to a slope to the north of the crab apple tree. There, she located “her” pawpaw tree.

“What’s a pawpaw?” Robert asked.

“I’m going to show you,” Ida replied. She reached up to loosen a brownish green fruit from the branch. She held it in front of Robert and teased it open with her paring knife.

“The inside is like a mushy banana,” she said.

“Can I eat it?” Robert asked.

“I don’t think you’d like it raw,” Ida cautioned. “The pawpaws might need to be a little sweeter for you. I’m going to put them in Jell-O.”

The small tree had only a few pawpaws, but they had reached the ideal ripeness. Ida carefully laid them in the bottoms of the buckets so that they would not bruise.

“How did you know the pawpaws were ready?” Charles asked.

“It’s just the time of year for them,” Ida said. “Now, you can look at them to see if they are just beginning to turn a little brown. That’s when they’re at their best. If they’re too brown, they’re past their peak and could be rotten.”

Soon, the family was headed home. Ida said, “I sure hope nobody else ever finds my farm.”

Ida was a skilled forager. When March winds gradually straightened the curls of her permanent, she could be found bent over in the yard while harvesting spring greens. She collected the mustard called “bittercress.” She made sure she had plenty of dandelions. Into her bowl went chickweed, the tiniest leaves of the early dock, and a few leaves of the broadleaf plantain. Many of these plants entered into her fresh salads while others were cooked and served steaming hot and generously peppered.

In the spring of the year when the crab apples had been so numerous, Ida would take Robert, Charles, and a friend back to the abandoned farm to collect a few sassafras roots to make tea.

The boys would use shovels to dig just below the surface of the rich soil to expose the thin roots of the shrub with its three distinctively different shapes of leaf, one of them like a mitten. Their mother and her friend then would kneel on an old blanket and gently cut sections from a few of the roots. These she would bundle together to bring home.

“There was an article in the paper not long ago that said sassafras has been banned because the chemicals in it can be harmful, but one not-very-strong cup should be good for us anyway. It’s a tonic that purifies the blood, which has been too lethargic during this long winter,” Ida would say.

At home that evening, Ida would steep the sassafras roots for a minute or two—until each of the four teacups contained a bright amber liquid. She would add honey, and the tea would be ready to drink. Robert would enjoy the flavor so much that he would wish he could have more of the tea.

“The roots are good for tea for only a few weeks, aren’t they?” Joe would ask. Ida would nod. “I wonder,” Joe would continue, “if the government studies were conducted with roots that were past the time when they could be boiled for tea. Maybe the properties change in the other months of the year.”

On another occasion that spring, Ida would take the boys and her friend mushroom hunting at the old farm. She would collect only the morels, which she would dredge in flour and fry in butter.

Back in that same autumn when the crab apples were so numerous, Mrs. Bowen, one of Ida’s best friends, was visiting with Ida over a late afternoon cup of coffee in Ida’s kitchen, and the topic turned to mushroom hunting. Mrs. Bowen’s name was Irene, but Ida always called her “Mrs. Bowen.”

Mrs. Bowen said, “I’ve been giving some thought to that old neglected farm out there by Rainsville. I’d bet you there might be mushrooms back in there.”

Ida gulped. She opened her mouth to say, “No, there aren’t any. I’ve been back there, and you’d be wasting your time.” She hesitated, instead.

Mrs. Bowen’s sharp features sharpened further. She peered into Ida’s soul. “I do believe you were about to say something,” Mrs. Bowen said, meaningfully.

“Oh,” Ida sighed. “I want to let you in on a little secret. Yes, that old place is where I find my morels. It’s also where I get my blackberries, my crab apples, and my pawpaws.”

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Mrs. Bowen said, setting down her coffee cup with a loud bump on the table, as if she were a queen affixing her seal to a court document. “Just make sure you come get me every time you go out there!”  

“I will,” Ida said. … and, as already implied, Ida would be true to her word, taking her friend with her to “their farm.”

Saturday, July 7, 2018

25. The Rev. Lowell E. Morris ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

“Your Grandpa and Grandma Morris are coming to dinner today,” Ida reminded the boys. “Robert, I need you to dust, and, Charles, I want you to straighten up your room and put all your toys away.”

Whenever the demands of a farm permitted, the family traveled southeast to Kirklin, Indiana, to visit Grandpa and Grandma Morris. He was the minister of the Methodist Church there. Before Robert could remember, the Morrises had lived in Westville, Indiana, where Ida taught school for the first time after earning her teaching degree at Indiana State Teachers College. Throughout his long working life, Grandpa Morris had taught school in Kentucky and Montana, and had served as minister in such Hoosier towns as Circleville, Frankfort, Hillsboro, Indianapolis, Newtown, Pence, Pittsboro, Waveland, and Wheatfield.

The Morrises came to see Ida, Joe, Charles, and Robert whenever a busy minister could find an opportunity.

Robert's mother had told the boys, “They’re not related to you the way grandparents usually are, but they’re your grandparents, all the same.” Robert had failed to understand what such a cryptic statement meant, but, just by listening to the adults’ conversation, he had discerned that the Reverend Lowell Everett Morris was Ida’s surrogate father who had taken her under his wing when she was a thirteen-year-old girl in the Methodist Children’s Home in Lebanon, Indiana.

Using the dust cloth that his mother handed him, Robert carefully cleaned the surfaces of the furniture in the living room while Charles repeatedly filled a cardboard box with toys that he then deposited in a small room at the foot of the stairway.

Robert enjoyed visits from Grandpa Morris, who was an educated gentleman with thick glasses, thin nose, thin face, thin hands, a ready smile, and … a toupee. Robert’s father had said that Grandpa Morris gave the best sermons of any preacher Joe had heard because Grandpa Morris researched his topics thoroughly, wrote compellingly, and spoke eloquently. Robert had never heard him in the pulpit, but, when Joe married Ida, the Rev. Morris was the minister at the Methodist Church in Pine Village, and he officiated at their wedding, which took place at the parsonage. Robert had no reason to doubt his father’s assessment of Grandpa Morris’ abilities as a scholar, a writer, and an orator. At all times, Grandpa Morris’ intelligence and his intellectual attainments were obvious to Robert. (Many years later, Robert had the opportunity to hear Grandpa Morris give a guest sermon at the Methodist Church in Pine Village, and Robert was appropriately appreciative. Grandpa Morris quoted great literature while constructing an argument of biblical interpretation worthy of an English department degree in a leading university. His delivery was impeccable!)

Before long, Ida greeted Grandpa and Grandma Morris at the front door and welcomed them into the living room. Grandma Morris’ name was Fern. She was Grandpa Morris’s second wife. His first wife, Ella, had died many years earlier.

While Joe put the guests’ coats on the bed in the main bedroom, Ida asked about their drive.

“We made good time,” Grandpa Morris said. “We talked about little else other than how much we were going to enjoy another one of your home-cooked meals.”

Ida excused herself to return to the kitchen while Joe, who taught the adult class at the church, talked to the Rev. Morris about recent class activities. Soon, Ida called everyone to the dinner table.

Grandpa Morris said the grace: “Father, we ask that you bless this food to our good and us to thy service, and we ask a special blessing for the hands that prepared this dinner.”

Then a heaping platter of fried chicken was passed to Fern. Next came bowls of mashed potatoes, lima beans, and corn. A gravy boat made the rounds. Side dishes included strawberry Jell-O with banana slices. Ida had made her yeast rolls for the occasion. They were fat and fluffy! The conversation flowed effortlessly, with Grandpa Morris talking about various churches he had served, including Flackville near Indianapolis. Ida had lived with the Rev. Morris and Ella in Flackville while Ida taught elementary school in Indianapolis. Grandpa Morris also spoke about his service to the settlement schools in eastern Kentucky when he was a young man starting out. Robert listened intently to the Rev. Morris’ stories about the mountain boys and girls that, so long ago, had attended the Red Bird Mission School to learn skills that could readily be put to use.

While the dessert of angel food cake was being served, Grandpa Morris said, “I have good news. Fern and I will be moving back to Pine Village.”

Ida beamed and glanced happily toward Joe, as he said with a big smile, “You don’t say!”

“Yes, I do say!” Grandpa Morris confirmed with a smile bigger than Joe’s. “I have decided to retire from the active ministry, and Fern and I want to live here. A house is available less than a block south of the Methodist Church, and we intend to sign for it.”

“It’ll be so nice to have you living nearby!” Ida exclaimed.

“We wanted to surprise you,” said Grandpa Morris.

“You’ve done that alright,” said Ida.

“I’ve always felt a special connection to the church here in Pine Village,” Grandpa Morris continued. “This is Fern’s hometown, and we want to be near you and your family.”

A few months later, the Morrises moved into a tidy white house on the east side of Jefferson Street. A few steps led up to the front porch. The front door opened into a cozy living room. Quite often, Robert’s family looked in on Grandpa and Grandma Morris, who were frequent guests at Sunday dinner. Grandpa Morris usually could be found sitting in an easy chair with his feet up while he was reading a book or a church magazine. Robert liked visiting the Morrises because Grandpa Morris had a special place in his heart for Robert and Charles.

Once, on a hot summer day, Grandpa Morris walked up to see Ida and Joe. He found Robert trying to saw a board that Robert wanted for a birdhouse that needed a new bottom. The handsaw’s teeth had become flattened through hard use, and Robert was making only slow progress.

“Let me show you how to saw,” Grandpa Morris said. Robert gladly let the Rev. Morris take over.

“You want to move your arm straight back and forth from the elbow,” Grandpa Morris instructed. Then he began to demonstrate.

The saw caught and bowed, so Grandpa Morris pulled back on it to straighten it out. He slowly drew the saw in the groove to give it a good start. He again tried to demonstrate how to work the saw forward and back, but it snagged as before.

The saw kept jamming up. Beads of perspiration were forming on Grandpa Morris’ forehead and trickling down his neck. He unbuttoned his outer shirt, removed it, and draped it across the clothesline. In the process, he bumped his toupee, which slipped to one side. He straightened it, and then, with his undershirt clinging to the perspiration, he threw himself into the project with all his strength. By the sheer power of his will, Grandpa Morris finally managed to saw through the board.

He grinned, handed the saw back to Robert, reclaimed his shirt, put it on (this time carefully, so as not to dislodge his toupee), and buttoned it up. “As Ecclesiastes says,” Grandpa Morris began, “‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might!’ I think I will ask Ida for some of her sweet iced tea now.”

Robert thanked Grandpa Morris for the lesson.