Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, August 26, 2018

32. The Paddle and the 4-H Club ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

Robert so admired Mrs. Arvin that he was sad to leave her second-grade classroom. He moved on to Mrs. Moyers’ third-grade room. Mrs. Moyers was a dignified teacher with a heart of gold. Attired in slender skirts of pleated brown plaid with matching fox-brown blouses and jackets, Mrs. Moyers appeared to be as sophisticated as she indeed was. She collected birds’ nests, several of which adorned her shelves. She was happy to be asked about them, and she delighted in describing how she baked them to eliminate insects, mold, or mildew.

Every elementary teacher could wield a paddle, but Robert could tell that several of them greatly preferred not to resort to paddling a student. Mrs. Moyers was one who truly disliked her paddle, but, with Robert’s class, she encountered a difficulty.

Who knows why? For some reason, Robert’s class had a tough time memorizing multiplication tables. Mrs. Moyers tried every strategy she could apply toward helping the students remember such products as 9 times 7, 9 times 8, and 9 times 9. Finally, in desperation, she said, “I will paddle anyone who answers incorrectly when I ask for a product resulting from the multiplication of two factors.” She arranged each day so that, in the final period, she could go up and down the row, asking students, “What is the product of seven and eight?” or “What is the product of six and nine?” When a student gave the wrong answer, she walked toward her desk, slowly removed the paddle from its drawer, and turned toward the student. Then she would say, “The period is nearly over, and I’ve yet to give the homework assignment; for that reason, I’ll postpone paddling you for giving the wrong answer.” … and, the next day, she seemed to have forgotten that she was to have paddled someone!

One afternoon, she came to Robert’s desk. “What is the product of nine and six?” she asked. Suddenly, Robert felt confused. He remembered the product of nine and five: forty-five. He recalled the product of nine and seven: sixty-three. He could not—for the life of him—remember the product of nine and six. He blushed. Ultimately, he said, “I forget.”

He felt his classmates’ eyes staring at him—burning into him—from all sides. He pictured how it would feel to be marched to the front of the room, to be commanded to bend over, and to receive the humiliating blows of the paddle across his backside.

Mrs. Moyers glanced up at the large clock on the wall of her room. “Well, Robert, the period is almost over. I still need to give the homework assignment for tomorrow. You’ll have to wait to be paddled another day, but I want you to be sure to tell your mother that you do not know your nines.”

All the elementary teachers respected Robert’s mother because she, too, had taught elementary school for some fourteen years before Charles was born, when she quit teaching. When Robert returned home from school, he walked up to his mother and said, “Mrs. Moyers told me to tell you that I do not know my nines.”

Ida was rolling pie dough. Flour was clinging in dusty patches on her forearms and her apron. She stopped in mid-roll and stared at Robert.

“What do you mean? You don’t know your nines?”

“I forgot the product of nine and six today.”

“Mrs. Moyers called on you, then? Is that it? And you couldn’t answer her question?”

“Yes,” Robert said meekly.

“Sit down here at the table while I finish the dough.”

Robert took a seat on one of the bentwood chairs.

“Let’s go through the nines,” she began. “What is” she pushed the roller forward “nine times two?” she drew the roller back.

“Eighteen,” Robert answered.

“What is” she pushed the roller forward “nine times three?” she drew the roller back.

“Twenty-seven,” Robert answered.

Ida went all the way through the nines and made three circles of dough for pies while Robert responded to the drill.

While she prepared the pie fillings, she took him through the sevens and the eights. Then she went back to the nines to see if he would forget any of them. Luckily for him, he remembered all.

Then Ida sat down across from him. She looked him straight in the eye and said, “Are you embarrassed that you didn’t know the answer when Mrs. Moyers asked you?”

“Yes, very much so,” Robert replied.

“See that it never happens again,” she said, and, after a stern moment, she smiled her trademark smile. “You know the answers now, and you need to know them for the rest of your life.”

After that day, Robert never again came close to a paddling in school.

One of the greatest experiences of that school year was joining the 4-H Club, of which Charles was already a member. The sponsor was Mr. Coffman, a jolly elf of a man with a huge smile for everyone and every occasion. He was not terribly tall and a tad roly-poly. He wore black rimmed glasses through which his honest eyes sparkled, and his black hair was always cut somewhat short. He taught agriculture and shop classes, and he was the Future Farmers of America advisor, to boot. The 4-H meetings were held in Mr. Coffman’s classroom in the basement of the gymnasium that opened out to the track and field to the north. A carved wooden owl for FFA meetings stood at the front of his desk. Thanks to the owl, he had gained the nickname “Bird.” Everyone liked Mr. Coffman, and, before 4-H meetings were called to order, someone would say, “What’s the word?” To this question, the universal reply was “Bird!”

Robert quickly memorized the 4-H motto: to make the best better. He soon mastered the promise: I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living for my club, my community, and my country.

Robert and Charles’ father, who had been in 4-H when he was a boy, decided to enter Charles in several projects that year, one of them the raising of a dairy cow. Robert, meanwhile, was enrolled in swine and gardening (plenty for a boy his age). Joe had a promising Holstein calf that he thought might do well in the judging. Charles was given the responsibility of training her to be exhibited in the coliseum that coming summer. Robert helped Charles because both boys thought the world of the calf.

Her name was Buttercup. She was as gentle as a lamb, but her personality was as powerful as a lion. She loved to be around people, and, at times, she seemed human, herself! Her coat of velvety black and purest white was always shiny (from the frequent brushings she received), and she fluttered her long lashes in a way that was most becoming.

Joe hoped Buttercup’s conformity to the expectations for her breed would earn her a strong showing at the 4-H fair. She was duly registered as a purebred Holstein.

With thanks (in part) to Robert’s 4-H project, Ida would have an extra helper in the garden that spring. His parents would teach him to keep exact records as he went along. Robert could hardly wait to see the vegetables grow!     

Saturday, August 18, 2018

31. The Handwriting and the Soap ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

“Make your loop come back to the line before you swing out,” Ida said to Robert. She was making Charles and Robert practice their cursive handwriting.

The boys were sitting at the kitchen table. Ida had given them ball point pens and yellow paper with thin blue lines, and she was having them practice the letter l over and over again.

“Your father has beautiful handwriting, and I want you to have beautiful handwriting, too,” Ida reminded them. “Robert, you’re not bringing your loop all the way back to the line first.”

Robert found these exercises intensely boring. His mother would go for weeks without making him sit down for a session of cursive practice, then, for some reason, she would get the idea of forcing him and his brother to fill line after line with the same letter of the alphabet. Robert could only imagine how bored his older brother must be. Charles had already been using cursive for two years. How could he stand to sit there for an hour or more while forming the letter e endlessly?

The numbers were even worse—or so it seemed to Robert.

“Robert, you’re not closing your zeros at the top. Let me show you,” Ida would say, as she took the pen from his hand and, reaching over his shoulder, demonstrated a proper zero. “See? Make sure your loop comes all the way back again so that the top of the zero looks exactly the same as the bottom.”

Robert would take up the pen and write 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0—filling the line.

Not quite all the letters and numbers in the book were designed in quite the same way as the foot-tall white letters and numbers printed on heavy cards with dark green backgrounds that lined the tops of Mrs. Arvin’s chalkboards, but they were similar enough to meet the teacher’s demanding standards.

One sunny Saturday afternoon, when the family had returned from the boys’ piano lessons in Lafayette—and Ida’s shopping spree—Ida said to Charles and Robert, “We’re going to make soap today.”

The family did not have to make soap. Ida bought bars when she shopped. Once, she had permitted the boys to use paring knives to carve Ivory bars into the shapes of recumbent lions such as the concrete ones that lined the driveway of the occasional house. Ida had clipped the lion pattern from a magazine. When the lions were finished, she had made the boys wait to float them in the bathtub. Ida wanted to be sure that Grandma Rhode and Aunt Margaret saw the lions first, before they were rubbed into sudsy lumps.

Always the teacher, Ida had a reason for making her own soap: she wanted to show the boys how it had been done when she was a girl. She skipped the step that Grandma Rhode and Aunt Margaret would have followed of boiling hardwood ashes for half an hour in rain water, then skimming the lye off the top. Ida reached for her can of Gillett’s Lye, which she had purchased at a grocery store.

While Ida tied on her apron, she put Charles and Robert to work in the kitchen.

“Charles, how many pints are in a quart?” Ida asked.

“Two,” Charles answered.

“How many cups are in a pint?”


“Then how many cups are in a quart?”


“That’s right. Measure out four cups from this gallon of lard,” Ida said, handing Charles the tin measuring cup and a butter knife to scrape the lard level at the upper edge of the cup.

Meanwhile, Ida measured slightly less than 4 1/2 ounces of lye, which she accurately weighed on the kitchen scale. She handed Robert a Pyrex 4-cup measure and a pitcher of water from the hydrant beside the well in the front yard.

“Robert, pour the water up to the 10-ounce line here,” said Ida, pointing to the line.

Next, she carefully carried the water, the lye, and a heavy Dutch oven outside.

“Never pour the water into the lye,” Ida warned. “When I pour the lye into the water, the bowl is going to become very hot. Don’t touch anything!”

Robert and Charles kept a safe distance while Ida slowly poured the water into the Dutch oven and the lye into the water.

“We’re going to let that cool,” Ida said. “Let’s go back to the kitchen.”

Ida melted the lard over low heat on the range. Then she told the boys to remain in the kitchen while she brought in the lye and water mixture.

She set the Dutch oven on the table and handed Robert a big wooden spoon.

“You’re going to wash that spoon in this clean bowl,” Ida said, as she poured clear vinegar in the bowl. “Scrub the spoon with this Ivory soap and keep rinsing it in the vinegar until I tell you to stop.”

“You can quit rinsing now,” Ida said after a few minutes. She took the spoon from Robert and ran water over it from the faucet at the kitchen sink.

“Stand back, while I pour the lye and water into the lard,” she instructed. She slowly poured the contents of the Dutch oven into the lard that had been melted on the stove and kept hot. Lifting the wooden spoon from the towel where the spoon had been drying, she quickly began stirring the lye and water into the lard. “Watch what happens!” she said.

Robert and Charles looked on while the mixture turned into something resembling cake batter. Ida kept lifting the spoon and dribbling some of the batter across the surface. After about five minutes, the dribbled line kept its shape for a time before becoming submerged. Ida put a lid on the pot and kept it hot for an hour. Then she called the boys back into the kitchen.

They watched while she poured the mixture into a sheet cake pan.

“Now we’re ready to wait until tomorrow,” Ida said.

The next day, Ida used a sharp knife to cut the soap into large rectangular bars, which were a deep tan color from the Gillett’s Lye. One bar lasted for months and had a pure scent unlike store-bought soaps.

Joe stepped into the kitchen and admired the bars of soap.

“I think you boys deserve a treat after helping Mom make soap,” he said. “I have to go to the elevator, so you come along, and you can have a Coke.”

Charles and Robert happily climbed into the pickup, and Joe drove east on State Route 26 to the elevator.

Usually, the boys had to split one small bottle of Coke, but their father generously let each have his own bottle. Further, each could choose what kind of pop he wanted: Coke, root beer, orange, cream soda, or grape.

Joe dropped the coin into the slot at the left and opened the lid on top of the cooler. Charles went first. He wanted root beer. He took hold of the fluted cap and the bulged neck of the bottle and slid it along the slot in the metal channel that held the bottle upright. He continued to guide the bottle into the opening where he could lift it up and it was his. He inserted it into the enclosure where he could pry the cap off. Then (as he had been taught) he checked the top of the bottle to make sure the glass was not chipped. Had it been, he would have told his father, who would have told Mr. Hail, who would have given Joe a refund.

Robert wanted a grape soda, but it was blocked by bottles containing other flavors.

“Let me help,” Joe said. He slid bottles along channels and moved them out of the way like railroad cars at a switchyard until he could guide the grape bottle into the opening. He pried the cap off and handed the bottle to Robert. Finally, Joe helped himself to a Coke.

Nothing could have been better, unless Robert could have had a “black cow.” The float was made at home by combining vanilla ice cream and Coke in a tall glass. All the same, the grape soda was a delicious reward for helping his mother in the kitchen.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

30. The Summer Plays ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

For several years, Charles and Robert had been enrolled in Mrs. Elizabeth Clements Sharpless’ Children’s Summer Theater at Columbian Park in Lafayette. Robert would never forget the first day that he attended. Back then, he was not yet in first grade.

With hopes that Mrs. Sharpless might help Robert to finish overcoming his inability to “say his r’s,” Ida had deposited Charles and Robert at Rush Pavilion overhanging the lagoon.

Columbian Park was a magnificent facility sprawling over a triangular area in between Scott Street, Park Avenue, and Main Street. A zoo with a large animal house occupied one end. The animated conversations of monkeys often rose above the tranquil lapping of the water in the lagoon. Buddy the Chimpanzee frequently accompanied the engineer of the miniature locomotive that pulled a train on the well-built tracks weaving around the park. Zebras roamed a fenced enclosure.

In the main room of the pavilion, Mrs. Sharpless reigned. Her dynamic personality was constantly in evidence. On that first day, she assigned one of the Best sisters to teach Charles and Robert the words to “Frère Jacques,” which they and other children would sing while dancing in a circle as part of one of the stage productions. Breezes from the lagoon wafted through the large open windows of the room, otherwise faintly redolent of the leotards and ballet slippers that the children were required to wear during rehearsals.

A painter widely recognized for her watercolors and her oils, Mrs. Sharpless was also a gifted musician and director. Over the years, Robert’s appreciation of her enormous talent only grew. In Robert’s second-grade year, Jenks Memorial Rest Center, otherwise known as “Jenks Rest,” was built. It was a new facility with ample room for rehearsals of the large-scale productions for which Mrs. Sharpless was revered. A winding walkway dividing the lagoon connected the pavilion and Jenks Rest. Robert and another budding actor also named Robert—Robert Eugene Pechin III, to be exact—collected the green, heavy seed pods from the lilies that filled the edges of the lagoon with spectacular colors. With the other Robert’s penknife, they and their friend Tim Funcheon carved out part of the pods to form canoes, which they set afloat. They watched their miniature boats drift lazily away until the Roberts were called back to rehearsals.

Mrs. Sharpless had assembled a vast staff. There were set designers, lighting and sound experts, costume designers, seamstresses, and musicians. One pianist among them could play as well as Jo Ann Castle on The Lawrence Welk Show. The beloved Mrs. William F. McDill, whose children Sandy and Sherry were cast members, worked wonders with costumes, which she oversaw while assisting Mrs. Sharpless in the countless other ways that a schedule of five plays per summer demanded.

Young people who were really young adults customarily performed the major roles, so the theatrical productions often attained the stature of full-blown plays and musicals.

Each summer featured three or four large productions, and Robert found himself memorizing lines for the next show while still polishing lines for the current show.

Over the years, he absorbed and learned volumes of information from crew members. For a production set in Arabia, the artists on the staff painted many plywood cutouts in such a way that they appeared to be three-dimensional vases, some of them taller than a human being. Robert paid attention to the shading and the highlights that made the vases seem to be glazed pottery.

He was taught how to project his voice toward the microphones, some of which hung above and others of which were amid the footlights.

During one afternoon rehearsal when the lead actor was called away, Mrs. Sharpless asked Robert to read the actor’s part from the script, thereby helping the rest of the cast to practice the scene. Robert thought that this was his chance to show Mrs. Sharpless how well he could do in a lead role. He reached a moment when the character was taken by surprise. Robert gave a shout into the microphone. He heard his exclamation reverberating from the speakers around the park. “No, no!” Mrs. Sharpless snapped. “He would not scream like that! Quite the contrary! He would remain silent! Always remember that less is more!”

On the evenings when the shows were presented on the great outdoor stage that was on Memorial Island at some distance from Rush Pavilion, electricity was in the air as performers changed into their costumes and the aroma of greasepaint filled the porches of the pavilion, which served as headquarters. As the lights on the great outdoor stage came up, the large audience grew silent, and the music (either live or recorded) began, Robert’s heart beat fast.

Dennis, one of Robert’s friends in his class at school, often visited an aunt who lived near Columbian Park, and he could be found in the audience. Robert always tried to do his best to entertain everyone, including Robert’s parents and his classmate.

Tom Sawyer featured scary scenes. The graveyard was so realistic as to be downright spooky, and the cave with Injun Joe was truly frightening. The actor who performed Muff Potter looked nothing like himself in real life. For his role as the drunken misfit, he had wild red hair and a scraggly beard, thanks to the excellent make-up artistry that Mrs. Sharpless could command.

When talented singer and actress Roberta Preston donned her elaborate mock turtle costume for Alice in Wonderland, Robert knew that the production would be a huge hit.  

Babes in Toyland offered enchanting sets with fascinating effects of lighting. Robert’s big line was “Oh no! It’s the water from the Laughing Water Well!” Then (as scripted) Barnaby made the mistake of drinking the water!

Poor Ida drove the twenty miles to and from Lafayette at least once a day and often twice a day almost every single day during those summers when Charles and Robert were in Mrs. Sharpless’ plays.

There were many amusing moments backstage. During the Mikado, the minstrel was in the midst of a story he was telling to crew members when he heard out front the music to the song he was supposed to be singing to the audience. Robert never saw someone run so fast! In that same production, Robert carried a bamboo umbrella above the emperor, ably—and nimbly—performed by Kevin McGuire. Robert’s job was to keep the umbrella high above the actor’s head, no matter where he walked. At one point, the emperor began to dance. He flung his hand holding a fan straight up, and the fan struck against—and broke—several of the thin wooden arms supporting the umbrella, which suddenly folded down around the emperor. He ducked from beneath the ruined umbrella and adlibbed a look of displeasure before resuming his dance. The audience roared with laughter. Robert felt the deepest chagrin, but, as soon as the number was completed and he carried the collapsed umbrella backstage, Mrs. Sharpless ran over to Robert and said, “Did you do that on purpose, or was it an accident? Never mind! It was brilliant! We’ll rig the umbrella to collapse that same way every time!” Robert abruptly felt huge relief.

One night, Mrs. Sharpless walked onto the stage shortly after the show had begun. No one—not even the performers—knew what she was doing. She gestured for a staff member on the ground level to hand up a microphone over the footlights. Then, in a measured voice of reassurance, she said, “We have received a report that a tornado is approaching Lafayette from the southwest. We ask that you calmly walk to Jenks Rest, where you can take shelter. Everyone needs to vacate this facility at this time.”

Robert and Charles met up with their parents. As they strode briskly toward the building at the end of the winding walkway, Joe said to Ida, “We’re parked near Jenks Rest. Why don’t we go to the car and drive home?” Ida agreed, so the family hurried to the Chevrolet. As Joe was driving through Lafayette, the evening sky turned a greenish black. Ida kept looking up through the passenger window. Joe decided to head south, rather than west. He made the right choice, as the car passed quickly from beneath the threatening wall cloud. Fortunately, the funnel did not descend on Lafayette.

For the bright lights of the stage, relatively heavy makeup was deployed. Once, Mrs. Sharpless was running past where Robert was having greasepaint applied. She whirled around and said, “Make him darker.” She rummaged among the tubes and found a particularly dark one. “Use this one,” she told the makeup artist. “He’s so bloomin’ fair, he’s a ghost on stage!”

Robert long remembered those summers at the park with billowy cumulus clouds almost motionless in a sky of vibrant blue, the actors in small groups rehearsing lines outdoors, the vivid orange and yellow and purple flowers everywhere, the exotic ducks preening beside the rippling waters of the lagoon, the indolent warmth, and the faraway chatter of monkeys.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

29. The Sow and the Drive-In ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

Early that spring, sows were farrowing, and Joe had one sow left over after filling all his individual hog houses. He arranged panels wired to metal fence posts to form a narrow chute to help guide the sow from the hog lot to the stall in the southwest corner of the barn. Unbeknownst to Joe, Robert was hiding near the chicken house. Robert held a corn cob that he planned to throw at his father in an ambush whenever Joe might walk within range. Joe often entered into the fun of such mock attacks, and Robert looked forward to the surprise.

Meanwhile, Joe was ready to steer the sow toward the barn. He stood behind her, and he took hold of the top edges of the panels to steady himself, should the sow try to back up. He began nudging her forward.

“Go on! Get on up there!” he spoke sharply to the rather reluctant sow. Just as the hog had reached the high threshold of the open Dutch door, she balked.

“Come on! Get up in there!” Joe shouted.

Suddenly, the sow flexed her fat body, bringing her front legs around to her left and placing them on the edge of the panel, as if she would attempt to jump over the panel.

“Pshaw!” Joe exclaimed, as he struggled to shove her legs off the board.

No sooner had he dislodged the sow than she whirled to her right and tried to leap over the tall panel.

“Dog my cats!” Joe yelled while making a superhuman effort to shove her front legs back down to the ground. In the process, he scratched his forearm on the end of a baling wire, and blood trickled down to his elbow.

Robert watched, wondering if he could do anything to assist his father.

Joe managed to get the sow oriented in the right direction, and, with a mighty push, he made her jump up over the tall threshold and into the stall. Working at breakneck speed, Joe swung shut the bottom half of the Dutch door and locked it in place. He breathed a sigh of relief and climbed over a panel to tend to matters outside the chute.

All at once, with a splintering crash, the sow flew through the air and fell to the ground. She found her legs and bolted for the hog lot. The remains of the broken Dutch door hung from the hinges.

Joe uttered a word that Joe never said.

Robert remained hidden. Robert’s eyes were wide. He knew the word because some of his classmates at school had kindly taught him what it meant, but he never expected to hear his father use it. His father never used a naughty word!

Robert slunk away, so that Joe would never know that his son had overheard his father’s transgression. Robert would keep the secret for years to come, and he never divulged it to anyone. Robert felt certain that his father, who taught the adult class at the church on Sundays, had instantly repented!

The sow that had escaped the barn held off having her litter. Joe felt that the litter by the first sow to have had pigs in the present round was old enough to be released into the hog lot, and he readily confined the stubborn sow in the hog house vacated by the oldest piglets and their mother.

To trim down the number of pigs on the farm, Joe later loaded three pigs in his GMC pickup. He could haul them to a variety of nearby markets: Boswell, Attica, and Lafayette were the principal outlets. On that Saturday, he chose Lafayette. Charles and Robert accompanied him. After unloading the pigs at the stockyard, the morning had been spent. Joe and the boys were hungry, so Joe pulled into the Park ’n’ Eat, a drive-in restaurant on State Street with the Tastee-Freeze and the Cities Service station on the east side and the Standard gasoline station on the west side.

When the waitress stepped up to the truck, she made a face. “Pew!” she said in disgust, as she smelled the hog manure in straw lying in the bed of the pickup. Without saying another word, she turned and went back to the dining area.

“I wonder what the hold-up is,” Joe said.

Before long, the owner of the restaurant walked out to the truck. With an apologetic smile, he said to Joe, “I’m sorry. I’m afraid we can’t serve you. The smell of the pigs is too strong and will scare away our other customers.”

Robert felt embarrassed. He understood the owner’s point, but Robert knew better than to say anything.

With a sharp look in his eye, Joe returned the owner’s smile and said, “That’s the fragrance of money. I just sold three pigs, and I have good American money to spend on three of your hamburgers.”

The owner shrugged his shoulders and enhanced the apologetic look on his smiling face. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I have to ask you to drive on. If you will come back in your family car, I will personally ensure that your meal meets your expectations.”

“You needn’t go to such trouble,” Joe replied over his shoulder, as he backed out from under the roof of the drive-in and headed home.

“I’m sorry you boys have to wait a while longer before we eat,” he said. Robert and Charles didn’t mind, but they could see that Joe was seething.

It came as no surprise that the family never returned to the Park ’n’ Eat.

The occasion when the sow broke the barn door and the occasion when the restaurant refused service were the only two occasions when Joe was angry—at least, they were the only two times when Robert could detect Joe’s anger. Joe was otherwise consistently peaceful, even amicable at all times! Robert concluded that pigs were the ingredients to upset his father’s proverbial apple cart. After all, hogs were the common denominator in both incidents. Robert developed the misgiving that, in working with swine, situations could arise that would inspire ire; for that reason, he always tried to keep his equanimity and his sense of humor when feeding pigs or helping care for new litters. Robert had reached the conclusion that pigs were catalysts for disaster.