This sequel to The Farm in Pine Village is also dedicated to my dear friend Eleanor Yeager Stewart, who helped me realize that the worlds of our childhood were never somewhere else but always right within us. Here is the rest of my childhood world—almost exactly the way it was!
The stars were aligning in a new configuration. Robert’s classmate Dennis had crowded among the 30,000 screaming fans in the Coliseum at the Indiana State Fair on Thursday the 3rd of September to hear the Beatles live on stage. Robert was not envious because the thought that his parents would have allowed him—under any circumstances—to attend a concert by long-haired musicians from England was so remote that he could not for a moment entertain such a wild notion. Joe and Ida had (however) permitted him to buy his first 45 RPM records, one of which featured “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on one side and “I Saw Her Standing There” on the flip side. Robert played the record over and over on his parents’ Victrola.
Leaving behind the steadiness of the unflappable Mrs. Winegardner’s classroom, Robert entered the topsy-turvy world of the mercurial Mrs. Leighty’s fifth grade. Mrs. Leighty was nothing if not passionate. Shorter than Mrs. Hail, Mrs. Arvin, Mrs. Moyers, and even Mrs. Winegardner, Mrs. Leighty had light hair that curled like comets away from her forehead and down the back of her head. Her eyes, from which tears could so easily spring, peered like suns behind fleeting clouds. Even more than Mrs. Moyers, Mrs. Leighty could not bear to paddle a student. She would catch a culprit disturbing the decorum of her class and have him stand beside his desk. Reaching her hands up to his shoulders, she would begin to cry. “Why do you make me discipline you?” she would ask with a meek, melancholy voice. Looking down at his feet and blushing from embarrassment, the student would mumble, “I don’t know.” “If you do that again,” Mrs. Leighty would say, tears streaming as her eyes roamed, searching his face, “I will have to punish you. Will you promise me that you will never do that again?” Still staring at his feet, he would say—almost inaudibly—“I promise.” “That’s good,” Mrs. Leighty would say, removing her hands from his shoulders, taking out a hanky, and wiping her eyes. “You may be seated.” Her method would work every time. What student could be so callous as not to be ashamed to have made such a sweet lady cry?
Robert absorbed Mrs. Leighty’s enthusiasm for learning. Like her, he valued education so highly that he deplored distractions.
One day after school, Robert came running down the driveway, through the white-board gate, through the side porch, and into the kitchen.
“We get to make the floats!” he exclaimed to his mother, Ida.
“Sit down here and tell me which states you have,” Ida said, while she stuffed “porcupines,” which were green peppers—she called them “mangoes”—filled with hamburger and other ingredients.
“I picked Wisconsin!” Robert said, swinging his knee up on a bent-wood chair and leaning his elbows on the table.
“You chose Wisconsin,” Ida corrected him. “You can pick a flower, but you can’t pick a state. Wisconsin is a good choice. I took summer courses at the University of Wisconsin after I earned my undergraduate degree at the Indiana State Teachers College. What’s your second state?”
“We don’t have a second state,” Robert said, resting his chin in the palm of his right hand and swinging his free leg. “Mrs. Leighty said our class is so big that each person can have only one state.”
“Charles had two states when he was in Mrs. Leighty’s class,” Ida said, spooning hamburger mixture into yet another hollowed-out mango.
“His class was only half as large as mine,” Robert said.
“Only half as numerous,” Ida corrected him again. “When your brother was in Mrs. Leighty’s class, the students were just as tall or as big as the students in your class.”
Attrition and the possibility of flunking out had done nothing to reduce the numbers in Robert’s class, which had presented Mrs. Hail, Mrs. Arvin, Mrs. Moyers, Mrs. Winegardner, and now Mrs. Leighty with the head-scratching problem of what to do with a room filled with too many students.
“You’ll be needing a shoebox,” Robert’s mother continued, pouring ketchup over the stuffed mangoes. “I think I have one. After supper, we’ll read about Wisconsin in the encyclopedia, and you can decide which industries to put on your float.”
“We have a long time before the floats are due,” Robert said.
“And there’s no time like the present to get started,” Ida said in her cautionary voice. “The early bird—”
“—catches the worm!” Robert shouted.
Ida’s face sank in a fake frown. “I ought to box your ears, interrupting your mother like that,” she said, holding up a fist, but bursting into a big smile.
“Do the fifty boxes parade around the room?” Ida asked, returning to the task of making supper.
“Mrs. Leighty said we line them up on tables and take turns talking about each one. I want my shoebox to look like a float in the Rose Bowl Parade.”
“You’ll be wanting bright colors then and maybe something that can move,” Ida commented.
After researching the State of Wisconsin on various occasions for the next few weeks, Robert narrowed down the choices of what he wanted to display on his shoebox miniature float for Mrs. Leighty’s class: the date when the thirtieth state was formed (May 29, 1848), a badger and a porcupine (animals not often seen in Indiana), a robin (the official bird of the state), a wood violet (the official flower), a sugar maple (the official tree), the Dells (rock formations cut by the Wisconsin River), the Port of Superior (loading ships with iron ore and coal), the Ringling Brothers Circus (Baraboo), the state’s eight thousand lakes, cranberries, and the dairy industry (especially cheese).
Robert’s mother provided supplies, including the shoebox, which she suggested he cover in eye-catching red foil to represent the University of Wisconsin. She taught him to fold the foil carefully into pleats to surround the bottom of the box.
“What can I do for the violet?” Robert asked, as he washed the Elmer’s glue from his sticky fingers.
“I have just the thing,” Ida said, disappearing into her closet and returning with a bunch of plastic violets protruding from a small white pedestal vase. Removing the violets revealed an air freshener within the vase.
Using his mother’s sharpest scissors, Robert carefully snipped purple violets, which he glued around the edge of the shoebox.
“What can I do for the Dells and the lake?” Robert asked.
“I have a round mirror that pops out of the compact case,” Ida replied. “You can attach it toward the front and let it be the lake. You can use a drop of Elmer’s to glue one of your plastic ducks to the mirror, and you can glue your plastic cow that has its head down so that it looks as if the cow is drinking from the water.”
“What about the Dells?” Robert shouted over his shoulder as he went to get his duck and his cow.
“You can cut the cliffs from corrugated cardboard stacked in layers, and they can go around the mirror. Why don’t you draw the badger and the porcupine on paper that you can glue along the sides of the float? You’re a good enough artist to draw those animals!” Ida said encouragingly.
“To have enough for both sides, I’ll draw the robin and the maple tree, too,” Robert said.
“Do you still have that sponge that was made to look like a wedge of cheese?” Ida asked.
“Yes!” Robert exclaimed happily. “I never put it in water, so it still looks like Swiss cheese.”
“We can put it on a skewer and stick it down through the cardboard cliffs,” Ida said. “That way, it can float above everything else and make a statement. Do you know what these are?”
Robert was setting his plastic cow and plastic duck on the table near the shoebox. He glanced over at his mother, who was holding a strand of red wooden beads in her hands.
“They’re beads,” Robert replied.
“Right now, they are, but, when we take them off the string, they’re cranberries.”
A huge smile lit up Robert’s face.
A yellow, blue, and red plastic freighter that had bobbed in the bathwater in the 1950s completed the float; when Robert flipped it over to see how best to glue it to the float later, he noticed the company name “Renwal” on the bottom.
“Instead of gluing it,” Ida suggested, “let’s tie a string around it. The string will go through a groove in the top of the box and will wrap around a spool hidden inside the box. Your father can use heavy wire to make a crank that sticks outside the box. When you turn the crank, the ship will move from one end of the box to the other.”
Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo the Elephant, and the Ringmaster (spelled as two words “Ring Master” on the lid) from Robert’s box of Disneykins represented the circus.
Robert devoted several evenings to the project of making drawings of fauna and flora and cutting cliffs from cardboard. He topped the cliffs with wooden pine trees from a toy collection he had outgrown.
All too soon, the day arrived when he was to take his float to school. To look upon the wonderful products of the creativity and the industry of his classmates confirmed Robert’s belief that he was a member of a great class. Mrs. Leighty was obviously pleased. She clapped her hands as each float took its place on the tables.
Before lunch, half of the students described their projects. Robert ran home for the noon meal and breathlessly told his mother how glorious the floats were and how he would have his turn to talk about Wisconsin after the lunch period.
Later that day, his ship cooperated when Robert cranked it forward, and he remembered everything he wanted to say about the thirtieth state. Throughout the two hours dedicated to the floats, Robert listened attentively to his classmates’ presentations about the various states, and he felt he learned a great deal in the process. The shoeboxes remained on display for a week, so that the other teachers would have an opportunity to view the students’ artistry. The experience was exhilarating and destined to be remembered for years to come.