Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, November 25, 2018


On a warm summer’s evening, Joe brought Robert along in the 1951 GMC pickup through the barnyard and through the pasture to the edge of the cornfield. Robert opened and closed the gates for his father. Joe then began using a machete to cut cornstalks, which were still green but had well-formed ears. Robert lifted the piles of cornstalks in the back of the pickup, which had the tailgate down. The Holsteins in the pasture could foresee the treat that was coming, and they gathered near the gate that the truck would pass through when it exited the cornfield. With the stalks about three feet deep, Joe climbed back behind the steering wheel, and Robert stood by the gate. Joe drove into the pasture, and the cows strode over to mill about the back of the truck. Robert jumped onto the running board, balanced his knee on the hot metal of the rear fender, steadied himself, and climbed over the short side panel into the truck bed.

“Ready?” Joe asked through the open window.

“Yep,” Robert replied.

The GMC crept forward, and Robert slid three cornstalks over the edge of the tailgate. No sooner had the corn fallen to the ground than the lead Holsteins were standing over it, finding the sweet green ears. Meanwhile, Robert shoved a few more cornstalks onto the ground in front, and cows of lesser status in the pecking order came around to take their turn to feast on the corn. The GMC kept inching along until all the corn had been shoved out. The herd would keep working on the corn until only traces of it remained.

Next, Joe and Robert drove through town to feed the Hereford herd at the Old Barn. Joe’s farm on the east side of Pine Village was really two farms joined catty-corner. The smaller farm bordered State Route 55 and could be accessed from the farm that bordered State Route 26 by driving along dusty farm lanes, through many gates, and across the corner that joined the two farms, but driving through the town meant having to pass through only two gates.

Before Joe was born, the Gady brothers ran a butcher shop just north of the intersection of the two main highways in Pine Village. Elmer Gady bought the stock and Bill Gady prepared the meat, which the Ogborns sold in their grocery. The Gadys had a large barn on their farm just south of town. Elmer always thought “big.” He shipped in western lambs that were fed in the barn, which boasted nearly 6,500 square feet under roof on the first floor alone. To accommodate more and more sheep, Elmer added wing after wing to the barn, making a large barn a huge barn. He and Bill were earning handsome profits.

Elmer decided he could afford to mortgage his farm and speculate on the Board of Trade. Elmer lost his farm and the butcher shop. He became a day laborer. Bill, meanwhile, moved to Chicago to work for a big farm, but Bill fell from a streetcar and broke his back. He returned to Pine Village. He walked stooped over. Frank Ogborn’s department store and grocery hired Bill to take orders and make deliveries.

The Old Barn, as Joe referred to it, was still standing, although it had not seen paint in so long that the boards were silvery gray, the roof rusty red.

Just outside the barn on the east side was a stock tank that once featured a windmill to pump the water. Now the pump was electric. Joe kept a long stick, which he used to push up the curled rod on the side of the switch box that started the motor. The box was affixed high on a pole, so that cattle could not accidentally start the motor by rubbing the box. The pipe that delivered the water to the tank was rusted through in several places. By covering the end of the pipe with his left hand, Robert made a water fountain through a quarter-sized hole in the top of the pipe. He drank the clear water that came from so deep down that it was icy cold.

South of Pine Village stood a large building that housed a rest home for elderly patients. Despite its size, the building was only the small remnant of what earlier generations had known as a vast spa named Mudlavia: nearly all of it long gone by the time that Robert’s family visited. Joe and Robert often stopped by Pig Gady’s room. Ernest Alvin Gady, a 1910 graduate of Pine Village High School, had acquired the nickname “Pig,” and it was just too good not to stick. Everyone knew him as Pig, and many had forgotten that his real name was Ernest. Pig was Elmer Gady’s son and had played in the Old Barn when he was a lad. For a brief time, Pig had taught lower grades, but his father’s downfall prompted him to seek independence. In 1913, when he celebrated his twentieth birthday, he decided upon the life of a transient laborer and lit out for the West.

When Robert and Joe visited him, the 74-year-old Pig wore brown plaid flannel shirts and jeans. Whenever he saw Robert, his eyes lit up.

“Say, what do you know?” Pig asked, grinning and slapping his knee. Then came the best part. Pig would lean forward and begin telling stories of his train-hopping days as an itinerant thresherman. The walls of Pig’s room in Mudlavia faded away, replaced in Robert’s imagination by the broad expanse of Kansas wheat fields and Kansas skies.

Pig was running for his life down an alley in Burlington, Kansas. He clutched a broad-brimmed straw hat in one hand and seemed to be swatting at hornets, he was sprinting so fast! He kept glancing over his shoulder, until he was sure he had lost the Industrial Workers of the World members who were chasing him. Pig slowed to a walk, his sides aching, his heart pounding. The nest that Pig had accidentally run into was not a nest of hornets but a nest of I.W.W. men, otherwise known as Wobblies. They had made vague threats to try to force Pig to join their socialist order. Pig wanted nothing to do with the I.W.W. because he would not hide shrapnel inside wheat bundles to wreck threshing machines and bring work to a halt. “Why would anybody want to bust up a separator?” Pig wondered, shaking his head in consternation. Higher wages for workers was one thing, but sabotage was another—and sabotage was criminal!

“What am I gonna do?” Pig mumbled, sauntering along. A colorful poster for the Barnum & Bailey Circus caught his eye. It was plastered to a tall fence made of rough-cut boards. With his pocketknife, Pig cut a small red rectangle from the poster. He slipped the card into the pocket of his shirt. He smiled and strode confidently along. Heading north on Third Street to find work as a thresherman, he encountered two men he thought might be Wobblies. He flashed the corner of the red rectangle and winked. One of the men produced an I.W.W. red membership card from his pocket and nodded. The Wobblies paid Pig no further notice. He strode past them and began whistling a merry tune.

Pig was fortunate enough to find employment as a spike pitcher for threshing rings in eastern Kansas. “Much of the wheat out in Kansas was winter wheat,” he told Robert. “It was spiky and tough, but it sure did grow well there.” He fondly recalled the steam engines belted to the threshing machines in the barnyards, but, in western Kansas and in states farther north, he came to know threshing on a vast scale with fields of wheat shocks stretching toward the horizon and with half a dozen columns of smoke indicating the locations of various steam engines and crews under the command of custom threshermen. Pig slept beneath the stars. He slept the sleep of a young man who has done hard work, honest work.

Pig’s stories often led back to 1913, and, in his mind, Robert was there, too, jumping down from the boxcar and looking for work. A custom thresherman, scrutinizing the hopeful unemployed men who had gathered near the train station in some Kansas town, chose Pig (and Robert) to pitch bundles. Pig (and Robert) climbed into a wagon and was hauled to where the work was to be done. Pig (and Robert) was doing what he loved best: lifting sheaves high above his head and expertly dropping them for the bundle loader perched atop the wagon.

When Joe and Robert would leave Mudlavia after visiting with Pig, Robert left with his vision expanded. Walking past the goldfish ponds of the once lavish resort, Robert peered at the flashing orange fish beneath the rippling surface that reflected the clouds. He thought of Pig flashing the red card and grinning. To Robert, the past appeared to be separated from the present only by a rippling film.

Robert thought of Pig while helping Joe load the pickup with freshly cut corn stalks for the herd of Herefords that had gathered in the pasture beside the Old Barn. Then Robert repeated the process of scattering the stalks while Joe drove the GMC slowly forward.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


With her placid nature and good outlook, Vicky, the polled Hereford heifer, was easy to train for the 4-H show ring. Robert had merely to touch a hind hoof with the long pole made for the purpose, and she adjusted her leg to present her form in the best position. Diane, the name Charles had finally chosen for his heifer, was another story. She fought the halter, she held her head down as if she would prefer to butt anyone who came near her, and she kept spinning sideways while planning her getaway. Poor Charles! Diane stepped on his boots again and again.

When the Warren County 4-H Fair in Williamsport rolled around, Diane was no calmer. Joe had to take her in tow to lead her to her stall in the north end of the coliseum building. Once she found that she was tied next to Vicky, Diane felt a little better, but she continually watched over her shoulder and mistrusted the movements of the fairgoers who strolled behind the cattle. On the day when Charles led her into the ring for judging, she bucked and reared. The farmers who volunteered to help with the beef competition had to take charge of Diane—but not before she had stepped on Charles’ toes! She earned a red ribbon for her pains.

Vicky, though, peacefully joined in the fun of the contest. Each time that Robert brought her to a stop in the ring, she needed no prodding from him to place her hooves in exactly the right places. Robert could take the precious seconds when he might have been working with her feet to brush up the curried horizontal rows of fur along her thigh and across the back part of her barrel, making her appear just that much more rectangular. When the judge handed Robert not only a blue ribbon but also a reserve champion purple ribbon, he was proud as punch and happy for Vicky!

At the fair, each township took a turn running the cafeteria. Adams Township had Wednesday evening, one of the busiest suppers of the week. Joe and Don finished watering their pigs just in time to wash up and ready themselves for many hours of shucking sweet corn outside the back door of the cafeteria building. Ida joined Mary in doing dishes and keeping the food line supplied. Ida assigned Charles the task of assisting the men, usually by carrying trays of buns to the grillers or by bringing pans of cooked sweet corn to the line. Ida considered Robert old enough (and responsible enough) to help out; he was assigned a gray rubber tub to collect dishes, and, like Tom Sawyer’s friends, he found collecting dishes a wonderful activity! Long before, he had learned a lesson about which he would remind himself for the rest of his life. Work can be fun, but fun can never be work. Most of the farmers shared a great sense of humor. Some contributed to the general amusement by performing as comics, although not on a stage and not for a salary.

Among the happy farmers was Fred Sundqvist, Sr. Smiles emanated from his face like rays of sunlight while his eyes sparkled behind his glasses. In the 4-H cafeteria building, he was ubiquitous, bringing sunshine wherever he went. Here he was wearing his broad white apron and flipping hamburgers on the big grill. Yet here he was razzing Don and Joe about their shucking of the corn. But here he was bringing laughter to a long table full of friends, some of whom he had just met for the first time. Now here he was by the door, discussing swine culture with a foremost hog breeder. He was everywhere!

And Fred even stood before little Robert. “Need a hand with those dishes?” he asked, gesturing with a thumb toward the pile of plates in Robert’s gray tub.

“No, I think I can carry them,” Robert replied.

“They’re not too heavy?”

“No, sir.”

“Are they getting heavier while I stand here asking you questions?”

Robert didn’t know what to say. Fred laughed, and Robert laughed, too.

While Robert was unloading his tub, he saw Fred cutting pies. “How did he get over there that fast?” Robert silently wondered.

Earlier in the day, Fred had been similarly everywhere at once. During the hog judging, he could have been seen leaning on a panel beside the ring with one brown work shoe up on the bottom board. Then he had been back by the pens, persuading pigs to move peacefully down the aisle to be exhibited. Soon, he had been joking with Charlie Coffman about hamming it up at the keyboard of the organ that Charlie played on the platform of the coliseum.

There was no harder worker than Fred Sundqvist, who understood that work can be fun.

… but fun can never be work. Those who had to work at having fun or being funny seldom had fun and were definitely not funny. Confronting the exigencies of daily living began with a sense of humor originating in the heart. Well acquainted with the caprice of the weather—which could make or break farm profits—farmers had to love long hours and hard work that most often took place outdoors in all kinds of weather, and they were most successful when they learned to accept loss with wit, if not a smile.

While Robert picked up dishes in the 4-H cafeteria, he encountered men and women who had spent seven, eight, or nine decades on farms. No matter how self-reliant, they respected the importance of the collaboration that placed rural communities on firm foundations. They were genuinely grateful when Robert cleared a place for them at one of the tables that were arranged in long parallel lines down the length of the building. With keen glances from faces that revealed their years in sun and wind, they politely thanked him with a “much obliged, young man.” Robert felt that, in the simple act of lifting plates into a tub, he had helped make the evening more pleasant for others who had spent decades helping shape and form the good world that he was enjoying.

On Thursday evening, Ida and Charles made a quick trip from the fairgrounds to Pine Village to feed Spot and the ducks while Joe and Robert took care of the family’s livestock exhibited at the fair. Joe and Robert finished early, so Robert’s father suggested that they take a look at the new farm machinery on display.

They walked up and down rows of shiny tractors and various implements exuding the indefinable fragrance of new equipment. As dealers in farm machinery were enjoying a huge increase in sales over the year before, they brought plenty of exhibits to the fair. The newest tractors were more rugged in appearance with heavier gearing.

Joe glanced over to the Ferris wheel. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked Robert, who had to ponder the offer.

Robert was deathly afraid of heights. Once, on a trip to visit Andy and Emmajeanette, the family had scaled the limestone Observation Tower—seventy feet tall—at Washington Park in Michigan City, and Robert had just about passed out from fear when he reached the top. At the farm in Pine Village, a sugar maple in the hog lot had a tempting lateral branch about six feet off the ground, and, time and time again, Robert climbed the trunk so as to sit on the limb but lost all resolve to climb back down. Patiently, he waited for his father to appear in the chicken lot or the barnyard, and, when Robert saw him, he yelled for Joe to come rescue him. Joe had to bring a stepladder to retrieve his son; somehow, Joe never lost his temper at the repeated instances when Robert became stuck on the limb.

Reluctantly and meekly, Robert said, “Yes.” Joe paid the attendant the price of the tickets, and Joe and Robert strapped themselves into one of the Ferris wheel’s seats. Up and up they went. When they were exactly at the top, the wheel stopped.

After several seconds, the attendant shouted up that the ride was not getting electricity and that he would run up to the main electrical box to see if he could determine the cause.

Robert was ready to panic, but his father spoke reassuringly, “There’s nothing wrong where we are. We’re safe. He’ll get the motor going again, and we’ll be on our way.”

Hushed breezes passed by while the seat rocked lightly. Robert and Joe looked down on tractors that they had looked up to only a few minutes earlier. They could see the roof of the coliseum. The conversations of fairgoers seemed strangely nearby for as small as the people appeared from high atop the wheel. Robert and Joe gazed up at fluffy white clouds that were almost immobile, only now and then taking a step forward, and Robert and Joe gazed down on the life of the fairgrounds.

Robert marveled that his father was calm, but Joe understood and trusted the machinery. Taking a deep breath, Robert relaxed and waited for the wheel to roll on.

Shortly, the attendant returned. He shouted, “It was a breaker in one of those new circuit breaker boxes!” The motor hummed back to life. The wheel creaked and began to orbit again.

Before long, Robert and his father were back on terra firma, their Ferris wheel ride enshrined in their memories.



Sunday, November 11, 2018


Earlier that spring—before the exciting trip to Indianapolis for the band competition—the weather suddenly turned hot. It was the morning of the 11th of April—Palm Sunday—and Ida had an idea! Why not take advantage of the warm weather and invite Don and Mary to have a wiener roast in the yard? Don and Mary were Joe and Ida’s close friends. Don and his father had been members of the same threshing ring that included Joe and his grandfather, and Mary Ann and Ida never lacked for conversation.

As Joe and Ida had no telephone, Joe drove to Don and Mary’s house to ask them to come over in the afternoon. They readily consented. It would be three more years before a phone would appear in the Rhode home. Both Ida and Joe considered phones to be expensive nuisances. Whenever they needed to receive a call, they asked (with Beulah’s permission, of course) that it be placed to the phone of Beulah Jones across the street, and Beulah dutifully walked across the highway to deliver a message that she had taken on her phone. Whenever Joe and Ida had to place a call, they asked Beulah if they could borrow her phone. The rest of the time, Robert’s parents got along just fine without a telephone.

In those days, almost every town with a population of a few thousand had everything a person could want; for example, Attica, a town of 4,300 people, boasted several blocks of thriving businesses and professional offices both upstairs and down. There was no need to phone ahead to see if a store carried a certain product. If such a product could not be found in Attica, nobody needed it. Even the smaller villages had plenty of business activity from hardware stores, through blacksmith shops, through lumber yards, through elevators, through feed stores, through electrical supply shops, through grocery stores, to clothing stores.

Before Don and Mary arrived with their family, Robert and Charles picked up limbs and piled them in the ash-covered, brick-lined area of the yard that was dedicated to roasting hot dogs. Soon, the boys had a tall pile of sticks.

“That’s plenty!” Ida said, wiping her hands on her apron as she came through the screen door. “We wouldn’t be able to get near the fire if you would pile another twig on it.”

Don and Mary’s car pulled into the half circle drive by the front gate. With her big smile, Mary flung open the passenger door, jumped out, and turned to reach a casserole dish in the middle of the seat. By the time she stood with the dish in her hands, Joe and Ida had come down the sidewalk to open the gate. Mary arched her left eyebrow and said to Ida, “You’ve been helping Joe in the fields, haven’t you? I can tell by your healthy tan.”

“I could say the same about you,” Ida retorted.

Mary looked shocked. “I haven’t been helping Joe!” she remonstrated.

“I meant Don,” Ida said, laughing.

“I know,” Mary reassured her. “I was just kidding, but I can tell you who’s going to be married this summer. Wayne Whitlow, and, no, I’m not kidding! He’s marrying Peggy Thomas.”

From somewhere in the shadow cast by the brim of his cap, Don winked at Joe. “I believe they’ve already started gossiping, Joe. We may be in for a long evening.”

Meanwhile, Don and Mary’s boys, Matt and Lon, had joined Charles and Robert for a game they had invented that might be described as “hide-and-seek meets Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Matt and Lon brought their own cap guns, and Robert and Charles had toy guns resembling a pair of pearl-handled pistols. Wearing cowboy hats, the boys formed two teams that hid far apart among the farm buildings and sought one another while hoping to be the first to fire. Anyone fired at was “dead,” fair and square. About ready to enter the eighth grade, Charles was becoming too old for the game, but he played along just to be neighborly.

The temperature had soared into the eighties. By late afternoon, dark clouds were rolling overhead.

“I think it’s going to rain,” Ida said, after she had stepped into the yard to get a feel for the weather.

Mary said, “We probably should cook the wieners on the stove.”

Joe said, “We could get the fire going in a hurry. It doesn’t take long to cook a hot dog over a fire.”

Ida looked concerned. “We don’t want a wind to come up and blow the embers around. What would you do, Don?”

“I think you should cook the wieners on the stove.” He glanced at Joe. “That was the right answer, wasn’t it?”

“Joe, call the boys,” Ida said.

Joe strode through the gate into the chicken yard and found Robert and Lon hiding near the east chicken house. “We’re ready to eat, so come in and wash your hands,” Joe said. The smiling heads of the second team popped out from concealment behind the twin oak trees.

“Were you there all along?” Robert asked, with every tone of disappointment.

“I knew they were hiding there,” Lon said in a stage whisper. “I was just getting ready to tell you.”

“Sure you were!” Matt said.

The boys filed to the bathroom sink to slip the heavy bar of lye soap over their hands.

While everyone was eating, Ida said, “As bad as it looks outside, I think I ought to turn on the television to see if anybody is saying anything about the weather.”

Ida excused herself from the kitchen table and walked over to the Zenith, which stood high on a green “crushed ice” Formica table with metal legs. She switched on the set just in time for everyone to hear a tornado forecast that had interrupted the regularly scheduled program. The announcer reading the bulletin said there were many reports of tornadoes in northern Indiana.

Mary’s face wore a look of concentration. Then her brows arched up, she sighed, and she said, “Well, maybe we should go home—after dessert, that is.”

Everyone laughed. Joe made the “black cows” with generous scoops of vanilla ice cream covered in Coke, which foamed up and dripped temptingly down the sides of the thumbprint pattern jelly jar tumblers.

The evening ended too early, but, sometimes, the most memories are made when the fun is interrupted at its peak.

Unfortunately, the memories of that evening included the news that came in sad doses the following day. In one of the worst outbreaks of the kind, forty-seven tornadoes had touched down in Indiana and nearby states. Hundreds of people had lost their lives. The closest destruction was around the town of Mulberry. The skies above Pine Village had looked threatening, but no funnels had formed there.

Later, Mary said to Ida, “I feel bad that we were having such a good time.”

Ida said, “News like that makes you want to put your arms around your family—”

“—and hold them tight,” Mary completed Ida’s thought.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

2. The Cows and the Clarinet ... THE FARM EAST OF PINE VILLAGE

“Let’s visit the Nesbitt Farm,” Robert’s father, Joe, suggested on a bright winter morning. Robert and his brother, Charles, got bundled up for the drive north into Benton County, Indiana. Joe had been talking about buying two purebred Polled Herefords, so that each boy would have one to show at the county fair and so that each could start his own line of pedigreed Herefords to help pay for college tuition years later.

Mr. Nesbitt stood tall beside the door to his kitchen. He wore a pleasant smile. Stretching as far as the eye could see, Mr. Nesbitt’s flat land resembled a tan tablecloth set with blue willow ware plates, which were islands of snow with sapphire shadows. A herd of white-faced, cinnamon-colored calves that had been weaned stood facing the same direction in a fenced enclosure just beyond a clean, well-appointed barn. A child’s coloring book featuring life on the farm would have done well to depict Mr. Nesbitt as the ideal farmer.

“We might be in the market for a couple of heifers,” Joe began, as he shook hands with Mr. Nesbitt.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” Mr. Nesbitt replied agreeably. “I have plenty of heifers for you to choose from.”

Mr. Nesbitt guided Joe, Charles, and Robert toward the pasture.

“Are the heifers for your boys here?” Mr. Nesbitt asked.

“Yes, sir,” Joe answered. “They’re in 4-H Club.”

“I would have guessed that,” Mr. Nesbitt said, chuckling. “Well, these are young heifers that would make good 4-H entries.” Wearing a yellow glove, Mr. Nesbitt waved his large hand in a sweeping gesture to indicate the calves, all of which were peering at the newcomers and blinking their long-lashed eyes. 

In his mind, Robert had already selected one, and he hoped his choice would be one of his father’s top picks. The heifer had a happy expression, almost as if she shared Mr. Nesbitt’s jovial smile.

“Could we buy her?” Robert asked his father while pointing toward the merry calf.

Mr. Nesbitt said, “You have a good eye, son. She’s a blue-ribbon heifer if I ever saw one.”

“With your recommendation, we can’t go wrong,” Joe said. Turning to Robert, Joe asked, “Do you have a name for her?”

“I think she looks like Vicky!” Robert replied enthusiastically.

“Vicky?” Mr. Nesbitt chuckled. “Well now, that’s a good name for a cow!”

“We’ll be back to get her on a warm day. Do you need to mark her?” Joe wondered.

“No,” Mr. Nesbitt responded. “I’ll remember which one she is. She has buttons where horns want to form. That sometimes happens with polled Herefords. I’ll take care of the buttons so she looks true to breed. Which calf does your other boy want?”

Charles could not decide. Finally, he pointed at one.

“Now, that’s a good heifer,” Mr. Nesbitt said.

Robert felt uncertain about the choice, but he kept his opinion to himself. Skittishly hurrying to hide behind other calves and nervously changing direction, the heifer had a wary look in its eye.

“Do you have a name for her?” Joe asked Charles.

“No. I’ll think of one later,” Charles said.

Mr. Nesbitt invited Joe, Charles, and Robert into his kitchen, so that Joe could sign the paperwork.

On a table was a clarinet in a tan case. Robert stared at it as if mesmerized. For some time, he had wanted to learn to play the clarinet. When the members of the Pine Village High School Band performed in their blue uniforms with white braids, white stripes, and silver buttons, the clarinetists sat toward the front to the director’s left. Robert enjoyed watching them work the silver keys of their instruments. His cousin Connie was the first chair, and he wished he could grow up to take her place one day.

“Say,” Mr. Nesbitt said, reading Robert’s mind, “you wouldn’t know of anybody in the market for a clarinet, would you? My daughter wants to sell hers.”

Robert thought it was too much of a good thing to be gaining a lovely heifer, already a pet in his mind, and a clarinet—all in the same day! Robert said nothing, but Joe understood how powerfully he wanted a clarinet. One look at Robert’s not-daring-to-hope face told Joe all he needed to know.

“I guess we could consider the clarinet, too,” said Robert’s father. “How much do you want for it?”

“Fifty dollars,” replied Mr. Nesbitt.

All the way home, Robert carried the precious clarinet in his lap. His heart was racing. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He needed no further proof that he had the greatest dad in the world!

Back at home, Robert figured out how to slide the sections of the clarinet together. As he had no way of knowing how to arrange a reed on the mouthpiece, he could not play a note, but he considered the clarinet to be a glorious instrument. 

Learning to play the clarinet, though, was a struggle. Robert’s parents enrolled him in lessons at Mahara’s Music Center in Lafayette’s Market Square. For the first several weeks, Robert’s teacher, a young man named Mr. Baker, kept trying to help him make a note on the instrument. Robert’s breath escaped around the mouthpiece. The only sound was puff-puff-puff. Robert had that tingling in the cheeks that one gets from blowing up too many balloons. Finally, on a glorious afternoon, the clarinet emitted an enormous squawk! What a thrill! Mr. Baker breathed a sigh of relief, and Robert smiled from ear to ear.

From that day forward, Robert’s abilities rapidly progressed. That summer, Mr. Lee Davis, nicknamed “Weird Beard” because of his goatee that was similar to that of Skitch Henderson or Mitch Miller, began adding younger musicians to the high school band he directed so as to make it as large as possible for the competition at the Indiana State Fair. He accepted Robert into the ranks. Robert was going to get to wear the blue uniform with the silver buttons and white braids long before he was old enough to attend high school!

All summer, the augmented band rehearsed on a parade ground that had been marked off with lime stripes on the west edge of the school playground. The competition consisted of parade shows, not football field shows. The parade strip had been measured to conform precisely to the judging area the band would encounter at the grandstand in Indianapolis during the fair. From the moment when the front rank of the band crossed the starting line until the back rank stepped over the finish line, a stop watch counted the seconds. Going overtime would cost precious points. Mr. Davis had built an observation platform accessible by a ladder. From the platform, he looked down on the band to see if the lines were straight and to make sure that everyone was in step. Mr. Davis combined the best attributes of a disciplinarian, a musician, and a friend. He knew exactly when to crack the proverbial whip and when to sit back and laugh good-naturedly. Eager to please Mr. Davis, the band, over the weeks of practice, pounded the grass into powder. The white stripes that were formed with lime disappeared into the dust and more had to be laid down.

At one point in the music, the band members had to stand in place and slowly revolve until they were crouching; then they had to spring back up and begin marching again. The 360-degree spin was practiced over and over, until everyone’s hamstrings were sore.

The day for the bus trip to Indianapolis arrived. In the pre-dawn hours, band members arrived in the school parking lot. Clusters of students talked excitedly while parents milled about their cars.

Robert felt that the trip to Indianapolis was a dream come true—except when he gagged on the girls’ hairspray as they tried to force their big hair under their blue band caps with the white bills. Robert disembarked as quickly as he could and stood breathing the fresh air until his lungs cleared. He made sure that the decorative braided cords around the shoulder of his uniform were in the right place.

The long wait began. The line of bands wove like an anaconda among the buses parked all the way to the horizon. In those years, over a hundred bands of smaller schools competed on the day that the Pine Village band took part. Ranks and files of uniforms of every hue filled the vision.

The bands crept forward and waited, crept forward and waited. Ultimately, there were no more bands in front of the Pine Village High School Band. The track passed before a towering grandstand filled with spectators. Robert took a deep breath. Mr. Davis smiled encouragement to his musicians. Suddenly, the parade show started. Robert performed the notes and steps like a machine with no need to think about what he was doing. The instant the show was finished, Mr. Davis came running. “We didn’t go over!” he shouted, tapping his stop watch.

Later that day, the band learned that Pine Village was ranked in the top third, coming in ahead of far larger bands at far larger schools.