The recent article in the Rome News-Tribune about Robert Rakestraw brought a flood of memories. I probably met Robert when I took ballroom dancing taught by his wife around 1955. A couple years later I joined the Rome Art League where he was an active member and one of the many people in that august body that influenced me as a want-to-be artist. Jump forward to 1966 when I graduated from college and returned to Rome and was again active in the art league.
Discussions at art shows and Rome Art League meetings led to other aspects of this Renaissance man. He was a fine musician and music teacher as well as dance teacher and art teacher. He was interested in obscure things like the “golden mean,” which was a Greek philosophical concept based on the shapes of conch shells and other natural things that had a particular mathematical progression. Never forgot his discourse on how he attempted to put this concept into his paintings.
Next came his inventions. He had a number of patents on simple toys that he manufactured by hand and sold by mail from his home. Fiercely independent and never wanting to work for “the man” he found a myriad of ways to support himself and his wife. On several occasions I was invited to dine at their house to discuss various joint projects. They were the first people I ever knew that believed a spoonful of vinegar with a meal would balance the body. It is now a widely held belief in many health forums but not so much in the 1960s.
He enlisted me as a collaborator on a couple of his major inventions. First we built a solar generator of sorts. A 40-foot wall of my barn was covered in tar paper to absorb heat. A 20-foot by 40-foot plot of ground next to the wall was covered with tar paper. The 20-foot rafters went from the ground to the top of the wall. Next we built a 20-foot tall exhaust tower. Everything was covered with chicken wire and clear plastic. A small pipe went into a dark room of the barn. A fan was set in the pipe attached to a small generator. The cold air from the barn was heated in the large solar collector on the south side of the barn and the hot air was pulled up by convection through the stack. Lo and behold, the little 60 watt bulb attached to the generator came on. Such jubilation about a small achievement. Visions of giant generators never came to fruition but, again, 50 years ahead of his time.
My favorite invention was a geodesic dome that was not made of nexagonals like Buckminister Fuller and everyone else, but of circles. We took flexible black plastic water pipe and made hula hoops following mathematical formula Robert had divined. Wooden dowels were used to put them together and were stapled into place. The hoops were attached to each other by aluminum wire. The dome we made had a 20-foot diameter and could be rolled up and tied to the roof of a van, which I did as I used it as a cover at art shows. At the time I think I had less than $20 in the whole contraption. It had many uses as light-weight car ports, pool covers, pavilions, etc., but we never devised a suitable cover and were soon off to new things.
Next was a trip to Japan to visit Rome’s sister city. Long plane ride with lots of discussions. Most impressive was watching 500 Japanese school children watch Robert dance on a stage and his graceful movements with his long limbs flowing.
I have often wondered how a man could smoke all these years and not get cancer, then it hit me. The pipe that takes so much work to light and keep lit is a very calming thing. I never saw Robert in a hurry or stressed. Looking forward to talking with him again and putting that dome into production.