Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, September 30, 2018

37. The Movie and the Cousins ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

As Joe took the family to the Wabash Drive-In near Attica to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, he slowed down and ran the right-hand wheels of the Chevrolet onto the berm when he passed Russell Mitchell’s farm. Joe’s eyes roamed across the Holsteins in the pasture. He worried that Russell’s sons might have a heifer so promising that she could challenge Buttercup for the championship at the county fair.

After eating his popcorn, Robert fell asleep for most of the movie. Ida considered waking him, but she found the motion picture so preposterously long that she thought a sound sleep might outweigh the historical value. To her, the extravagant scenes felt pompous and out of place with the mood of the country that the television was establishing. About a year earlier, the family had attended The Music Man at the Mars Theater in Lafayette, and Robert had eagerly watched every moment of that rousing musical. Now Ida glanced into the back seat to see Robert peacefully dreaming. She began to wonder if she would miss anything if she, too, were to take a nap during Cleopatra. The squawking speaker hanging on the edge of Joe’s window kept droning on and on.

The weekend arrived when Uncle Harold’s car crunched the pebbles of the half-circle driveway in front of the house.

“They’re here!” Robert called from his perch at the front window, where he had been vigilantly watching.

It was early Sunday morning, and everyone was dressed for church. The summer day had turned off blessedly cooler after a hot week—almost like the springtime!

Dapper Uncle Harold wore a neatly trimmed mustache and was one of the few mustachioed men in Robert’s experience. Uncle Harold escorted daughters Sally and Becky and Aunt Della through the front gate. Robert loved hearing Uncle Harold’s Georgia accent!

Wearing her new dress, which had just arrived from the mail-order house, Ida greeted her sister, who took Ida’s hand and held it closely in her own. Robert looked back and forth from his mother to his aunt and noted the resemblance.

“You look so pretty, Ida,” Della said.

“The dress is new,” Ida beamed. “Look how much your daughters have grown!” Ida turned to Sally and Becky. “You’re young ladies now,” she said.

Robert considered his cousins more beautiful than the girls in The Music Man.

Charles said, “After church, we can ride bikes!”

Sally laughed. “Charles,” she said “I wonder what I would look like wearing this dress and trying to pedal a boy’s bike?”

Joe said, “You know how much you enjoyed steering the tractor the last time you visited. I can put a blanket on the seat and we can go for a ride on the Minneapolis–Moline Z, if you want to later on.”

Ida said, “I think the girls may want to walk with Della and me around the garden and see the flowers this time.”

Meanwhile, Uncle Harold handed Ida a box full of oranges.

“You didn’t grow these in Georgia!” Ida exclaimed.

Harold smiled. “No, these are from Florida.”

“Well, they look wonderful,” Ida said, as she turned to carry the box into the kitchen. “We’ll be having a big dinner after church,” she called back over her shoulder. “Maybe we can add some oranges to the fruit cups.”

Harold and Joe drove their families to the Methodist Church, where Grandpa and Grandma Morris were waiting on the steps.

“It is so good to see you,” Grandpa Morris said, shaking hands with Harold while Fern quickly hugged Della.

“Aren’t your girls dressed so nice!” Grandma Morris said.

“They’re young ladies,” Grandpa Morris observed.

“That’s exactly what I said,” Ida commented.

In the car, Ida had put on her new white gloves and had adjusted her blue hat, which she had simplified to match the new styles. As Ida and Della walked down the aisle, Robert thought his mother and his aunt looked radiant and charming. He felt proud that his aunt was so becoming in her dove-gray dress and matching hat of the latest fashion.

Pastor David Richards invited the congregation to sing the first hymn. Although he felt that he did not sing well, Robert could easily read the music. He enjoyed listening to his mother’s clear soprano voice and his father’s resonant baritone voice. As a young man, his father had performed with a quartet, and his experience showed in his confident singing.

The sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows cast pastel patterns on the pews. While the Rev. Richards gave the sermon, Robert watched the pink, gold, and turquoise lights play across his mother’s gloved hands, which she held clasped together until it was time to lift the hymnal again from the varnished rack attached to the back of the pew in front. The spring-like weather made the day seem like Easter in the middle of summer.

Ida and Della had much to talk about over the lavish dinner that Ida had prepared. Sally, Becky, Charles, and Robert sat at a folding table beside the main table. (Joe had removed the davenport to make room in the crowded kitchen.) Grandpa and Grandma Morris, Harold, Della, Joe, and Ida sat around the big table, which had been greatly expanded with extra leaves. Both tables were covered with antique linen tablecloths that Ida had ironed until there were no traces of wrinkles to be seen.

After the meal, everyone sauntered into the yard.

Charles glanced longingly at the red bike lying on its side near the well, but he realized that Sally and Becky’s dresses prohibited riding. Ida’s summer flowers were in full bloom. Becky clapped her hands when she saw a hybrid tea rose covered with big yellow blossoms.

“I love this,” she said, gesturing toward a rectangular flower garden running almost all the way across the yard from the house on the west to the garage on the east. In the center was an arched trellis with a climbing rose that was enjoying a second blush of red blooms.

“I was standing by that trellis,” Ida said, “on the morning when Robert was born. I can hardly believe he’ll turn nine in a few days.”

“He’s already steering the tractor when I haul cornstalks to the cows,” Joe said, with a smile toward Sally.

“I’ll steer for you the next time we visit,” Sally said, smiling back. “Aunt Ida, what is this called?” Sally asked, pointing toward a large, tangled bush.

“Do you mean the Japonica?” Ida returned. “It blooms in the spring.”

“I think what I’m seeing is blooming now,” Sally said.

“Show me,” Ida suggested.

Sally found a way into the flower bed without stepping on a plant, and she pointed directly at what looked like a miniature ear of green Indian corn on a stem.

“Oh, those are the seeds of Jack-in-the-pulpit!” Ida exclaimed. “They turn red in the fall.”

“Has it already bloomed then?” Sally asked.

“Yes, it bloomed in the spring. The pulpit looks like the old-fashioned ones that had an ornate canopy overhead. Under the canopy is this same stem, only much smaller when the plant is blooming. His name is Jack.”

“Can you eat the seeds?” Sally wondered.

“No,” Ida said. “The plant is poisonous, but the Indians had a way of preparing it as medicine.”

“It’s beautiful!” Sally exclaimed.

“It’s so peaceful here,” Della said, peering intently at her sister. “Everything else seems to be in such turmoil these days.”

Ida nodded, not able to put her thoughts into words but fearing that the world that Sally, Becky, Charles, and Robert would one day inhabit as adults might not be so peaceful.

The time had passed too quickly. Uncle Harold, Aunt Della, Sally, and Becky had to leave. They were going to stay overnight in West Point before returning to Georgia the next day. Aunt Della hugged Ida. The sisters’ eyes glistened.

Uncle Harold waved from the driver’s window as he made a U-turn and headed east on State Route 26. Charles and Robert waved back. Robert felt sad to see them go, but he knew they would come again before long.

In the mean time, Joe changed into his work clothes and went to the barn to start the evening chores. He looked carefully at Buttercup strolling with the other Holsteins along the path in the meadow. She glowed in the honey and amber light of late afternoon. Had she grown into the young lady that would take the championship ribbon at the fair? Joe would soon find out.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

36. The Checkup and the Catalog ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

“Mr. Coffman’s here!” Charles announced, loudly enough for Joe, Ida, and Robert to understand every word, no matter where they were in the house.

By the time Charles reached the front gate of the white-board fence surrounding the yard, Mr. Coffman was already standing there with his friendly smile and a clipboard under his arm. His neatly ironed shirt was worn outside—not tucked in—as if he were at a picnic.

“Are you ready for me?” he asked, while Charles unlatched the gate.

“I think so,” Charles replied. “What do you want to see first?”

Mr. Coffman checked his 4-H clipboard. “I have Robert down for a gardening project. Let’s see the garden!” Mr. Coffman’s smile widened.

By this time, Joe and Ida had joined their sons. Everyone walked along the edge of the garden, Ida’s pride and joy.

The garden lay between the Rhode family house to the east and Cecil Gray’s house to the west. At one time, Cecil’s house had belonged to Joe’s mother’s family, and Joe had been born there. The rows of Ida’s overly large garden were arranged from south to north. As people drove past on State Route 26 or walked beside the school playground, they could look up and the down the rows of lettuce, beets, carrots, turnips, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages, beans of all sorts, pumpkins, and sweet corn. Throughout the spring and early summer, Ida worked tirelessly to plow and hoe the weeds, leaving clean, straight rows of vegetables. Now that Robert was in the 4-H Club and enrolled in gardening, she had a constant helper.

“Are you keeping good records?” Mr. Coffman asked Robert.

“Yes, I am,” Robert said proudly.

“That’s good!” Mr. Coffman smiled. “We like good records!” He turned to Ida. “Everything is coming along nicely.”

“The rows are starting to fill in,” Ida agreed.

“Will you can again this year?” Mr. Coffman asked.

“Yes,” Ida said with a smile as big as Mr. Coffman’s. “I always have more jars in the cellar than we can get to. I’m planning to make sauerkraut again this year. I didn’t make any last year because the cabbage looked wilted. I guess it wasn’t, but I didn’t trust it.”

“Do you make it in crocks?” Mr. Coffman wanted to know.

“Blue crown crocks,” Ida answered, “without lids. I keep them in the cellar under the smokehouse. I put plates on top and weight them down with bricks. Then I drape cotton towels over them.”

“The kraut you make yourself is so much better than the kind sold in the grocery stores,” Mr. Coffman said.

“The taste is different,” Ida agreed. “It’s not so biting. The flavor of homemade kraut is richer.”

“It’s more complex,” Mr. Coffman offered, “but subtle, too.”

“If my sauerkraut turns out well, I’ll make sure you get some,” Ida volunteered.

“That would be very nice of you,” Mr. Coffman returned.

Throughout this conversation, the group had been ambling up and down the garden and admiring the plants bathed in sunshine.

“You have a beautiful garden,” Mr. Coffman concluded.

“Thank you,” Ida said. “Robert has been a big help.”

Mr. Coffman turned to Robert and said, “You can take pride in a job well done.” Glancing at his clipboard, Mr. Coffman asked, “Dairy?”

“I have Charles’ heifer in the barn,” Joe said.

While Ida returned to the house, the rest walked the dusty path between the chicken houses, through the gate beside the raised gasoline tank from which Joe fueled his tractors, and into the center aisle of the barn. The air was redolent with the fragrance of new hay.

As soon as Buttercup saw Mr. Coffman, she walked right up to the front of the stall and held her nose over for Mr. Coffman to pet.

“She’s a friendly heifer!” Mr. Coffman said, as he patted her velvety nose.

“I think she looks good, too,” Joe hinted.

“Have you been taking good care of her?” Mr. Coffman asked Charles.

“I’ve been teaching her to lead,” Charles said.

“I wouldn’t think you’d have any trouble with her,” Mr. Coffman smiled. “She’s too friendly to be a nuisance.” He turned to Joe. “If there were a sweepstakes ribbon for congeniality, I’d give it to her.”

Mr. Coffman looked toward Buttercup. “The Mitchell boys have some good-looking heifers,” Mr. Coffman commented.

Joe’s smile flickered for a moment, as if a small cloud had passed before the sun.

“The Mitchells always have good stock,” Joe said.

“I think Buttercup will do very well at the fair,” Mr. Coffman said, rocking back on his heels and putting a big check mark on the page in his clipboard.

After Mr. Coffman had driven away, Joe entered the kitchen to have a cup of coffee. Ida looked up from where she sat at the table with the Spiegel catalog open to a page depicting a dress and hat combination similar to the style that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore.

“I’m thinking about ordering a dress like that,” Ida said. “I would have to get some new gloves to go with it on Sundays.”

With coffee cup in hand, Joe stood peering over Ida’s shoulder.

“Does the hat come with it?” Joe asked.

“Of course not!” Ida exclaimed, laughing. “If I order the dress in blue, I can wear my blue hat, which will be close enough, once I take off the beaded thingamajig and the veil. I am going to have to order gloves, though. Mine aren’t like these new white ones. It won’t be long before Della will be visiting the Cheesmans, and, when she comes here and all of us go to church, I’ll have a new dress that’s more in style.”

Della was Ida’s sister that had lived in Fort Lauderdale and had moved to Atlanta a year earlier. Della, Harold, and their daughters, Sally and Becky, were coming to see the Cheesman family in West Point, Indiana. Della had developed close ties to the Cheesmans long ago. Della’s family would be coming along to Pine Village afterward. In her letter, Della had said she was looking forward to seeing the Rev. Lowell Morris and Mrs. Morris.

Ida and her family always looked forward to visits with Della, Harold, Sally, and Becky. … and, on this occasion, Ida also looked forward to a new “Sunday best” blue dress and white gloves! 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

35. The Television ... THE FARM IN PINE VILLAGE

The television brought people face to face with a world far larger than Pine Village: a world that had hidden in the shadows of the imagination as farmers of the late 1940s and 1950s had listened to their radios and a world that, despite being described in detail in the dailies and the fat newspapers on Sundays, remained aloof. In the beginning, television’s limited news coverage imitated the highly crafted newsreels viewed in movie theaters, but, gradually, that coverage became better adjusted to breaking news with its raw qualities and lack of polished shapes. With televisions in more and more of the homes in town and on farms, the world no longer lay in newsprint on the kitchen table. There was the world! There, on the television!

Granted, the news occupied only fifteen minutes on weekday evenings. Joe and Ida’s Zenith TV brought in two of the three networks clearly enough. Although the networks already had a commercial stake in ensuring high numbers of viewers, the journalists who read the news, often taken from wire stories, strictly avoided opinion and, in perfect spoken English, offered only the facts as those facts could best be understood at the time.

Broadcasts and telecasts told of the agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to establish a hot line for the leaders to forestall nuclear war, and Charles, Robert, and their classmates were led in drills to kneel beneath their desks in the event of an exploding nuclear bomb, perhaps in Chicago, which was too close to Pine Village for comfort. In Joe Dan’s Restaurant, veterans of both World Wars openly speculated about World War III. They had seen the world and were wary of it.

The daily news increments may have been tiny, but television sets showed that troubles were not illusions. Radio news had enabled listeners to picture troubles in their minds, and, not infrequently, the troubles as pictured in listeners’ imaginations became either magnified or tinged with a fancy bordering on unreality. Televisions and the evening news came to be trusted as living room repositories of the stark truth: a truth not contaminated by the imagination and not shaped into newsreels. Turn on the set for the evening news, and there they were: true troubles in spoken words illustrated by pictures only a few feet away—just past the footstool! At first—with journalists that had undergone rigorous training and with exacting adherence to high ethical standards—TV news programs could legitimately claim to encapsulate the truth or whatever was carefully considered to be the most likely truth at the time. Little by little over several decades, entertainment with its penchant for shock value would nudge truth aside. Unfortunately, the trust would remain, even when the truth had vanished.

No one was so deluded as to dream that the rural community had been the Garden of Eden before TV sets arrived. The Great Depression had dealt poverty to many families that had no means of recovery. Lives lost in Europe, in the Pacific, and in Korea had left behind broken hearts that could not be comforted. In spite of their vigilance, some farmers had fallen victim to accidents that left grievous injuries. All the same, Pine Village had succeeded in giving its residents a foundational stability: the bedrock of continuity. The television was sending tremors through that substratum.

The television seemed to pose difficult questions. What was Pine Village to do with the threat of nuclear annihilation? What was Pine Village to think about the varieties of unrest that began surfacing in cities across the nation? What was Pine Village to be in a troubled world?

Meanwhile, Ida’s friend Mary Akers dropped her boys, Matt and Lon, in the yard, where they and Robert and Charles played cowboys and Indians with their Western toy guns while she entered the kitchen. Ida switched off the TV set.

“I brought my books,” Mary said, waving her right hand filled with several booklets, then waving her left hand filled with sheets of S&H Green Stamps, “and my stamps.”

Mary was younger than Ida, but they were fast friends. That spring, both had sunburned necks from driving tractors to help their husbands in the fields. They sat at the oilcloth-draped kitchen table and attached stamps to the pages of their booklets. Clerks handed the stamps to customers in grocery lines and at the checkout counters of other stores; the stamps could be redeemed for discounts on goods at a wide variety of establishments. While they affixed stamps to fill their booklets, they swigged instant coffee and chatted about events on the farms and in the town.

“Did I tell you what I did?” Mary asked.

“What did you do?” Ida returned.

“Last weekend, I came around the school driveway past where they’re building the new tennis court on the corner right across the road from you. The workers had left for the day, and I saw three Coke bottles lying in the grass. So I parked and picked up the bottles. I needed just that many to fill my last carton. That way, I had four cartons full.”

“You don’t say.”

“I felt inspired, so I drove straight to the IGA in Oxford and redeemed all four cartons. While I was there, I picked up a box of Crispy Critters for the kids and a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup for me.”

“What did Don get?” Ida wanted to know.

“He doesn’t need anything!” Mary joked.

Ida laughed.

That evening, Joe and Ida took Charles and Robert to Columbian Park to the ball diamond, where they sat on bleachers to watch a demonstration of traditional dances performed by members of the Miami tribe. Men and women, boys and girls, were attired in the clothing of Indians—not the often ridiculously flamboyant costumes of Hollywood Indians but the authentic dress of the various peoples of the Miami, such as the Wea and the Piankeshaw.

As musicians struck the deep-toned drums, a circle of dancers formed. Slowly the circle revolved as the men and women shuffled sideways. The dance was intended to ensure a good harvest. As Robert was enrolled in the 4-H gardening project, he hoped the dance would be effective.

Robert watched in fascination as the circle inched around and around. He wondered if Charles might be enjoying the performance as much as he was, but, when he glanced at his brother, Robert could tell that Charles was bored. Robert stayed focused on the dance after that.

In between dances, an announcer explained to the audience that, long ago, the Piankeshaw and Wea had lived on the land where Lafayette and West Lafayette stood. Robert suddenly felt transported back in time. He felt he was witnessing a culture that had arisen from the rivers, creeks, marshes, prairies, and woods that he knew. The circles formed by the dancers were cementing bonds among the performers and members of the audience while honoring not only the land but also what could not be seen but what could be profoundly felt: the spirit flowing around and through the water, the soil, and the air.

At the end of the exhibition, the audience gradually began applauding. It was not that people were reluctant to clap their hands to show their appreciation—it was that nobody quite knew whether applause was appropriate after such dances that the announcer had carefully placed in the context of Indian spiritual concepts. It felt as if a congregation were applauding after a church service. All the same, the children in the tribes smiled, as did several of the adults.

While Joe drove home, Robert pondered the dances and their meaning. For many days thereafter, Robert slipped away from the evening news telecasts. When he was by himself outdoors, he tried to perceive the natural world in front of him with enough precision to sense its vast spiritual backdrop. A rhythm—a music—lay within the wind. It was faint and came from far away. What was the meaning of that music? Robert tried shuffling sideways in imitation of what he had seen the Miami do, until he had traced a circle in the grass.