Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

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.


  1. School bands were such an important part of most high schools!

  2. Eleanor, thank you very much for your observation!