Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

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.