With a pipe he made himself, Robert Rakestraw sat in Old Havana on Saturday surrounded by the Brothers of the Briar, a local pipe club, to celebrate his life of playing music, dancing, making art and, of course, smoking pipe tobacco.
The Roman talked about the changes to Rome he witnessed over his lifetime, including the era of strip shopping malls that all but sucked the life out of Broad Street.
“Broad Street was the thing to do downtown,” he said. “The malls came in and the stores moved out ... they had better parking over there.”
Rakestraw also talked about his time in the military during the second world war where he served as a Marine in the Pacific Theater. He trained with machine guns but was transferred to the band when higher ups learned he played the trombone, he said.
It was a move that probably saved his life.
“I guess God didn’t want me to die,” he said.
At the age of 19, Rakestraw joined the war effort in 1942 and after being transferred to the 22nd Regiment Band, Sixth Marine Division, he was deployed to Okinawa and also participated in the second battle of Guam.
In a guest column to the Rome News-Tribune Rakestraw wrote in 2009, he described his duties as a band member in the Marine Corps as more than providing accompaniment to his fellow Marines.
He wrote: “In combat, band members had two jobs. During the day we located killed Marines, some of whom were covered by dirt thrown up by exploding enemy shell-fire; at night we guarded Headquarters Company. One foxhole mate would watch for two hours, while the other slept. We were armed with 30-caliber carbines equipped with night-vision scopes.”
After he was shipped back to the U.S. in 1945 he served as a bell boy at the Third Avenue Hotel. It was there he met his Bobbie, who he said was “a beautiful ballet dancer.”
Rakestraw said they talked for awhile and she asked him if he could help her paint her studio and he agreed. The pair were married for 52 years and ran the Bobbie Roberts School of dance.
Along with dancing, Rakestraw was also an active artist.
He told about the time he took his works to the Cave Spring Arts Festival and sold so many pieces he had to raise his prices.
He has also served in the Rome Symphony Orchestra and is a current member of the Georgia Mountain Music Club where he plays the bass.
Fellow Brother of the Briar Pat Kelly said Rakestraw happened into Old Havana one Saturday and has stuck around ever since.
“The best way to get him to open up is to smoke a pipe with him,” he said.
Around 3 p.m. Rakestraw packed up his handcrafted pipe in a box made to look like the book “The Old Man and the Sea” by author Ernest Hemingway. On the inside of the box a friend or family member had written “Happy 80th birthday Robert!”
On his way out the door Rakestraw put aside his walking cane and treated those in the downtown cigar shop to a jig, something he has become known for around his friends and family.