July 21, 2017

Sons of Daviess…

Category: News — admin @ 5:15 pm

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Of wandering forever, and the earth again…For what?
For what? For the wilderness, the immense and lonely
land. For the unendurable hunger, the unbearable ache,
the incurable loneliness…For a million memories, ten
thousand sights and sounds and shapes and smells and
names of things that only we can know.

—Thomas Wolfe
__________________

I remember how it all came down. Right at nine years ago, I think it was. Not that long after my own world had exploded into dark skies of dust and ashes. And not long after I started writing. The news came trickling through the family grape vine. Joseph was not feeling well. My oldest brother. The Amish preacher. He was tired a lot. Something seemed to be wrong. And soon enough, another message came. There was something seriously wrong. He had a deadly blood disease. Multiple myeloma. It was a harsh and heavy thing.

He staggered with the blow. Took it pretty hard. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s tough, to face your own mortality. To see death lurking near, stalking close. And he grieved, as it all sank in. Wept quietly and intensely. He had just passed sixty. And he had so looked forward to settling in, when old age came. To take care of his wife, Iva Mae, who had dealt with her own health issues over the years. And now, now all those dreams were threatened. And he told his sons. If he could only last until seventy, that would be enough. It would be a tough slog. People with multiple myeloma usually hold on for a few years. It’s a semi-manageable disease. But nine or ten years would be a stretch.

Still. You can only do what you can do. He got up and washed his face. And turned determinedly forward. He would follow the doctor’s orders to the letter. He would fight for every day. As long as there was life, he would live it. This he purposed firmly in his heart.

It’s been a long journey since that moment, with plenty of hard, tough roads. The disease courses through his blood and saps his strength and weakens his bones. More than once, Joseph came very close to moving on. In November, 2015, as I walked up to the gates of death, well, we didn’t quite meet up with each other there. But we could have. At that very moment, Joseph was also in the hospital with pneumonia. He was barely hanging on. And it almost got him, before he pulled back. When my father was told that two of his sons were at death’s door, that they may not survive, he spoke in heaviness and sorrow. “I feel like Job, in the Bible. My sons are falling all around me.”

We made it back from the edge of the abyss. Both of us did. And now it is today. Joseph is still with us. He’s actually doing pretty well, considering everything. He takes care of himself. Rests a lot. He goes to Florida for the winter. He gets around in a little battery- powered cart. And perhaps most significantly, his seventieth birthday is approaching this winter. He hasn’t quite made it, yet. But the chances are looking pretty good that he will.

And a few months back, the word came from Joseph’s children, his sons and daughters. There would be a celebration. For their father’s seventieth birthday. It would be a few months early, in the summer, when it’s warm. The Yoder Reunion in Daviess is always on the third Saturday in July. The Joseph Wagler celebration would be the evening before, at his son David’s place in Worthington, Indiana. Just north of Daviess, where the Yoder Reunion was held last year. That way, you could come for the celebration on Friday night, and stay for the Reunion the next day. Or the other way around. It didn’t matter. Just come if you can. This will be a very special time for our father. That was the message from Joseph’s sons and daughters a few months back.

Well, I figured to go, back when the invitation came. And I didn’t think much about it as the date approached. And it snuck right up on me. The night before, I strolled into the Enterprise place in New Holland to pick up the car I had reserved. I whistled pleasantly to myself and smiled a secret little smile. I had reserved a compact car. But I had a coupon for a free upgrade in size. I fully figured to drive a Charger or some similar powerhouse car off the lot that evening. Maybe even a black Jeep. Who could tell, what surprises awaited me?

Sadly, things did not go well, right from the first moment. The young Enterprise man looked all harried as I walked up. I greeted him and told him my name. He punched at his iPad. Yes, he had a car for me. A compact. I have a coupon, I said brightly. Free size upgrade. He looked grim, as well as harried. “I have one car on the lot, and that’s the one I saved for you,” he said. My pleasant smile faded real quick, just like that. Ah, come on, I said. I have a coupon. It was no use. He rushed out to bring up the car.

I walked out. The car was a Hyundai Accent. A partial hybrid. It looked exactly like a little red jelly bean. I was just flat out horrified. Look, I said. I can’t go out to attend family events in a car like this. I’ll never hear the end of it. I got an image to protect. The young Enterprise man had lots of things on his mind, apparently. He wasn’t all that interested in any real solution. He told me I could call and stop at any Enterprise dealer, and they would switch me out. Now, go away. He didn’t say that, but he clearly thought it. I wasn’t very happy about any of it, but I squeezed myself into the red jelly bean and took off.

And then I frantically called all the local Enterprise places in the area. I have a compact car, I just picked it up. I have a coupon for a free size upgrade. Do you have anything for me? And every one of those places sang the same sad refrain. They had SUVs. They had pickups. But not a single place had a car I could upgrade to. At least that’s what everyone claimed. I grumbled savagely to myself. Enterprise, I have always been loyal to you. I’ve always written and spoken highly of you. Give me a break, here. If I have to drive a red jelly bean to Indiana, that’s going to make me a grumpy man.

Well, there was nothing else to do the next morning, except load up and hit the road. The jelly bean actually had interior space for my head. It was getting in that was hard. I could not do it without banging my head on the door frame every time. I merged warily into the flow of traffic on Rt. 30, then headed west on 283. The skies lurked in the west, looking sullen and angry. And sure enough, half an hour in, the heavens opened and the rain swept down in sheets. You could not see forty feet ahead. I slowed way down and just followed the tail lights of the car ahead of me. Huge tractor-trailers sloshed by, sweeping cascading waves that washed over the jelly bean like a flood. Around Harrisburg, the rain slowed. And the pavement gradually dried as me and the jelly bean skittered west on the toll road.

And on and on we went. In western Pennsylvania, the sun came out for the first time that day. The car didn’t have a lot of zip, I had to rev it up and slingshot around if I wanted to pass. Kind of like a Nascar driver, I thought. And by the time I reached the halfway point and stopped for fuel, I had figured out a couple of things. If the jelly bean had cruise control, I could not locate it. And the car apparently ran on nothing. I filled up the tank for $18.00, and kept pushing west. Through Ohio, into Indiana, then on through Indianapolis. Then about forty miles west, then south to Worthington, and my nephew David’s place. I pulled in right at six. Eleven hours on the road, riding alone.

The place still looked the same as it did last summer. Except the pond had been pushed in. I remembered David had posted about that. The pond was leaking, so he just got rid of it. Just as well, I guess. David and Barb have small children. No sense tempting the water gods. They are always lurking, looking for an easy sacrifice.

A good-sized crowd was already seated around a large camp fire. I pulled up behind the house to the shop. David’s older brother John met me there. I parked the jelly bean. John glanced at the little car, but refrained from snide comments, at least for the moment. We carried my bags into the shop. David really has that place fixed up. On the one end, there are four or five little rooms, completely self-contained. Complete with bed, a small bathroom and shower, and a tiny kitchenette. The air conditioner hummed from the window. Wow, this sure is nice, I said to John. We chatted as I hung up my shirts and washed up a bit. Then we walked out to the campground to mingle with the other guests.

John told me as we walked out. The whole gathering was a total surprise for Joseph. He and Iva planned to come and stay with Davids, then attend the Yoder Reunion in Daviess the next day. They arrived, and soon the guests started arriving, too. Joseph still wasn’t quite grasping what was going on, that a large event was about to come down in his honor.

We walked out to the large circle of people. Joseph and Iva were seated over close to the pavilion where the food would be served. The seats of honor, I guess. I walked up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. He looked up. Surprised, I think, to see me. He’s looking pretty good. All gray haired, now. Which is no big deal, I got mostly gray hair, too. We chatted for a few minutes. I greeted Iva, too. She looked better than I’ve seen her in a long time. She lost over a hundred pounds. She took my hand and smiled and smiled. I glanced at the people seated around. Most were unfamiliar. Oh, well. Might as well do the Amish thing and walk around. So I did. Slowly made the circle, shaking each person’s hand. I wasn’t recognized by very many of them. Well, I’ve got gray hair, like I said. And a beard. And I’ve gained a few pounds. I ended up behind Joseph and Iva, seated in a lawn chair.

Picnic

My sister Maggie and her husband Ray arrived, then. Me and Maggie were the only ones who made it of all the siblings, and from all the extended family. That’s just how things work, sometimes. I greeted my sister, and we hugged. I’m so glad you made it, I told her. She held me tighter.

Supper would be served soon. Grilled chicken by the master griller, Marcus Marner. Turned out we were waiting on a busload of Daviess people. They were running late. David had set up a speaker with a mic, and he started the festivities. All of Joseph’s children who were present were called up. Almost all of them made it. John, David, Reuben, Glen, Laura, Mary, and Samuel. Three were missing, I think.

I can’t recall the exact sequence of events, but at some point all of Iva’s siblings who were present and their spouses came and sang a song. The Monroe Hochstetler family. Monroe and Mary lived in Aylmer for a few years when I was a child. That’s where Joseph and Iva met. Some in that family I had not seen in many, many years. We reconnected that night, and the next day. Anyway, then all of the grandchildren who were present came up and sang songs to their grandpa and grandma. Glen’s wife, Luann, had coached them well. Their eager childish voices rang out. Joseph smiled and smiled.

David had called me that day on the road. And asked. Would I say a few words tonight, just before we eat? Something in honor of my brother. I felt dubious, but didn’t let on. Sure, I said. I’d be honored. If I was going to say a few words, I’m glad he told me when he did. That way, I would mull over things, and figure out what to say. My time with the mic would be brief. I don’t like long-winded speeches.

After the children sang, David spoke again. In the meantime, the bus had arrived from Daviess. A large crowd of friends and relatives emerged and lurked at the back around the edge of things. David introduced me. I walked up and took the mic. And I spoke a few words.

That day, on the road, I thought of a little incident between me and Joseph. Way back when I was eight or nine. I was saving up to buy a BB gun. Nickels, dimes, quarters, any kind of change I could hoard to reach that distant goal of ten bucks. And one day it was discovered. Joseph had a box of candy bars in his closet in his room. It was Titus, I think, who told me. “He’ll sell you one for ten cents.” So that evening, I approached Joseph, clutching a precious dime. Can I buy a candy bar? I asked shyly. Joseph smiled. “Yes. Yes, you may,” he said. I gave him my dime and he gave me a candy bar. A few days later, I went back for another candy bar, splurging another precious dime. And a few days after that, again. Joseph was always patient and kind. Somewhere along about the fourth time, he kindly suggested something. “Do you think if you keep buying candy bars, that you’ll ever get enough saved to buy that BB gun?” I don’t remember much else, but I remember those details.

And that’s what I spoke, there with the mic. And then I told Joseph I have always admired him in many ways. And I wished him health and happiness for many years to come. The whole thing took no more than a few minutes. After I was done, David called on my cousin, Thomas Schrock, to speak the prayer and blessing. Thomas took a minute in the prayer to thank the Lord for Joseph, that he was still with us. And then it was time to eat.

An enormous feast had been spread on the tables under the pavilion. Grilled chicken and all the fixings. I wandered about as the line formed for the food. Iva’s brother Sam Hochstetler walked up to chat a bit. “I read your book four times,” he told me. I was mildly astonished. Well, there must be something in those pages, if you got drawn back to read it four times, I told him. And I thanked him. There are a million other choices out there, when it comes to books. If you choose to read mine, I’m always grateful.

All right. Moving right along, then. Or this blog will get way too long. As I mentioned, a lot of people from Daviess showed up. John and David had invited many relatives and many of Joseph’s friends. One of the more notable things. Mary and Eva Sue Wagler, the spinster daughters of my late Uncle Noah and Aunt Fannie Wagler, were among those who came from Daviess. Those ladies had not crossed the border line out of Daviess County in more than thirty years. Until tonight. They came to honor Joseph. We all greeted them with joy and wonder.

And Aunt Sarah, Mom’s younger sister, held a seat of honor, too. After getting my food, I sat beside her at a table. We chatted. Sarah is as sharp as ever. She recognized me, even with my gray hair and beard. The Daviess people had fetched along three large tubs of homemade ice cream. Few desserts are more tasty than hot fresh cherry cobbler and homemade ice cream.

Celebration food

After supper, I just wandered here and there, visiting. Off to one side, my nephew John was holding an animated conversation with some Daviess people. I walked up and inserted myself. Turns out the Daviess guys were my cousins, from Dad’s side. Kenny Wagler and his brother Loren. The sons of Wallace (Wally) Wagler, the son of Dad’s late sister Magdalena and her late husband, Joe. I think I got that untangled right. Anyway, John and Kenny were deeply immersed in a discussion about Daviess blood and the Daviess people. My ears perked up. John introduced me. And we all sat around and talked.

Kenny knows a lot of people from a lot of places. His passion is genealogy. And I soon realized that I have only one other friend as knowledgeable about such things as Kenny was. My friend, Amos Smucker, the horse dentist, right here in Lancaster. He can give you names, dates, places, what blood crossed what blood, and family lineages that go back generations. He never gets tired of talking about any of it. Some day, I’m going to connect those two guys, and stand aside and listen.

When it comes to Daviess, there’s not much Kenny does not know. Daviess has the most concentrated blood in this country, he claimed. There are only four bloodlines, from which all the Daviess people come. Wagler. Graber. Knepp. And Lengacher. Every single person who was born in Daviess, or has parents who were, like I do, comes from those four surnames. That blood has crossed so many times that Daviess now has its own unique medical problems, just like Lancaster County does.

The Daviess people took off for home before too late. Before they left, John had made arrangements with Kenny and his father, Wally. Tomorrow afternoon we would drive down to Daviess and pick Kenny up. We would then go over to visit the Stoll graveyard, where many of my ancestors rest. That will be exciting, I told them both. I’m sure looking forward to it.

After the crowds had drifted on, we sat around the campfire, just the extended family. I caught up with my sister Maggie. Off to the side, David and half a dozen other people picked guitars and sang. And there was a harmonica in there, too. The setting was calm and peaceful, the kind of thing you remember for a long time.

Saturday morning. Breakfast would be around the campfire around nine. I showered and wandered out for coffee. John had a large black pot hanging over the open fire. I lifted the lid and peeked in. Sausage was simmering. There would be gravy. I looked at John suspiciously. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? John looked indignant. Of course. We sat around and drank coffee and munched on homemade Amish donuts. John soon added flour and milk to the sausage and stirred the whole mess with a great wooden spoon. I was impressed. I didn’t know the boy had it in him, to cook up a batch of gravy like that.

Campfire gravy

Reuben Wagler and his wife, Barbara, came from the house, then, carrying large pans of fresh biscuits and scrambled eggs. John carried the large black pot over and set it on the table. And we feasted on a good old country campfire breakfast. Crumple the biscuits on your plate, throw some scrambled eggs on the side, and cover the whole thing with rich thick sausage gravy. Spread ketchup liberally over the top, and you got some food seriously worth eating.

We lounged around then, just catching up. Soon after one, David brought his big new bruiser of a van around. We piled in, all the guys. David drove, I rode shotgun. John, Rueben, and Glen sat in the back. The rich southern Indiana corn fields flashed by as we approached it from the north, the land of my father’s blood.

Off onto a small gravel side road, then, to pick up Kenny. The Daviess Amish keep their places neat. Not freakishly clean, like the blue bloods of Lancaster do. But nice and kept up. We pulled in past the big shop where Kenny and his brother manufacture little sheds and barns. Kenny came bounding from the house in a few minutes, clutching a book of some kind. The Amish in Daviess County, Indiana, by Joseph Stoll, my cousin. “The most informative book ever written about Daviess,” Kenny claimed when I asked him about it.

We drove south on Montgomery Road, then east, past K&K Trusses. Then down a side road and over. And there it was, on the right. The Stoll cemetery. I had seen it before, but not for years.

We pulled up and parked just outside the ancient double gates. Metal framed with mesh wire. It was a beautiful, beautiful sunny day. A little over warm, even. I unhooked the chain, and we walked in. And I absorbed the breath and feel of that place. Here. Here they were buried, so many of my ancestors. Here was their final resting place. John S. Wagler, the original migrant from Canada. His sons, including Christian, who died by his own hand. A serious stain on the family name, that was. And Joseph K., my father’s father, who got overheated and died on the threshing wagon, unloading bundles onto the threshing machine. Waglers, Stolls, Grabers, Lengachers, Knepps, and a host of others. All of them slept here, on this hallowed slab of land.

graveyard gate

The night before, Kenny had told us a little story. Well, there were many stories. This was one. A long time ago, there was a certain man who lived in Daviess. Kenny spoke his name. Peter Wagler. The son of John S. Anyway, Peter decreed that he and his wife did not want their graves marked. No gravestones at all. He felt too humble to be remembered like that. I stared hard at Kenny, when he spoke the story. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, I said. I think it’s silly, for any man to say such a thing. You should never be ashamed of your identity. Kenny looked grieved. He thought Peter was very humble. Nah, I muttered to John. That was actually a form of pride, if you ask me. Peter was proudly humble.

The man wanted to be obscure and forgotten. So no gravestones were ever set above him and his wife. That of course assured that his story is told and retold today, just like Kenny told it to me. And those plots were among the first ones pointed out that day, out by the fence under a tree. “Here they are buried,” Kenny told us. “Peter and his wife.” And it struck me again how requesting an unmarked grave could well be and probably is a form of pride.

Soon after we arrived, Kenny’s father, Wally came striding over from his farm across the road from the graveyard. Wally carried the same book about Daviess history that Kenny had with him. So we had two copies to consult. Wally is the man who oversees the graveyard. Makes sure it is maintained and mowed. He lives right across the road. He’s been involved in that work for many years.

We wandered about. Here was my great grandfather, Christian Wagler. The man who shot himself in the head at age thirty-six. Wagler blood is brooding blood. And Christian carried the curse of that brooding blood to the ultimate conclusion. I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. I sure wish someone at the time would have taken the time to just simply write the details of Christian’s death. He was a deeply haunted man, that much is clear. Still. What was he like, in the last months? The last weeks? The last days? Who saw and heard him speak in his last hours? No one knows. All of it is lost, the journey of his tortured soul. And here is where they laid him down for the final time. Right here, on this spot.

Wally and Kenny led us here and there. Toward the back of the graveyard. We stood, and listened to them speak. Story after story flowed from them. There was one irritating factor. Directly beside the graveyard, and I mean right on the property line, there was a long, new building. Amish neighbors. The new building was a dog kennel. Little yapping dogs ran in and out of their exercise areas. Barking and barking and barking like demons. The incessant noise was beyond annoying. It was maddening. John and I grumbled pretty savagely at Wally and Kenny. Those dogs should NOT be right beside the graveyard like that. I mean, what are people thinking?

Reuben and Kenny had connected the night before, at the celebration. They both love genealogy. Reuben long ago subscribed to Ancestor.com. And as he and Kenny discussed a certain name on a certain gravestone, Reuben got out his smart phone and did some quick research. I saw him and Kenny hovering over the phone, discussing what they were seeing in lots of detail.

And over here, kind of toward the front, there was a nice new gravestone. Replacing an old worn one. And it connected, when I saw the name. Sarah Lengacher Wagler. My grandmother. Dad’s mom. She died in 1963. And I stood beside the grave and reflected that I had stood close to this spot before, way back when I was two years old. It’s one of my very earliest memories. Not standing right there. But attending Grandma’s funeral.

I don’t remember Dad’s mom as a person. I do remember seeing her lying in a coffin, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. And I remember the train trip to the funeral, from Aylmer to Daviess. We traveled through the night, and there was no water to drink. I cried and cried and begged Mom. I want water. She sliced an apple and gave that to me. It was the closest thing she had to offer as water. And now, here I stood, at the grave that was filled that day so long ago.

We had to be moving on. We had another stop to make, then the Yoder Reunion at five. Still. We walked around, stopping now and again to check out another gravestone and listen to another story from Wally or Kenny. Under an evergreen tree up close to the front, Kenny pointed it out. The gravestone of John S. Wagler, the original Wagler who migrated from Canada to Daviess. It was a tiny, nondescript stone. And Kenny told us a little tale.

When he was a young man, he talked to a 90-year-old woman in the Daviess community. She was still sharp, Kenny claimed. And she told him. When she was young, she saw and knew John S., the Wagler patriarch in Daviess. The original Wagler. She told Kenny. John S. was a small man. Shorter than his wife. It was all just astonishing to me. Here stood Kenny Wagler, my cousin. And he had connected with a woman who knew the original Wagler in Daviess. It’s just fascinating, to think about that.

We could have spent much more time there, seeing our ancestors. And listening to the stories. But we had another stop. The old home place, where Dad was raised. It was about four miles away, right around the corner from Parson’s School. I wanted to stop by the old home place, because of something I had heard was there that I had never seen before.

My brother Stephen told me, a few years back. He had stopped by. And out behind the barn, he had seen it. Way back, an addition had been attached to the original barn. And in the mortar between the blocks, Stephen told me, there were some initials scratched. The addition was attached to the old part of the barn back in 1933. When Dad was twelve years old. He and his brother Abner had scratched their initials in the mortar. It was all inside, all protected from the weather. And you could see it clear as day, Stephen claimed. And that’s what I wanted to see. My father’s initials that he scratched into the mortar between the blocks when he was twelve.

Wally made noises to walk back to his home, but we invited him to come along. We’ll bring you back. It’s not a problem. So he agreed, and got in the van with us. We cruised through the Daviess countryside, and pulled into the old home Joseph K. Wagler place. I had been here before, many times, but not for years.

My cousin Ray Wagler, who now owns the home place, ambled out to greet us. We had seen him the night before, at Joseph’s celebration, and we had told him we were stopping by. I guess we kind of invited ourselves. We all piled out of the van. And the first thing we talked about was the death of Joseph K., on that long-ago day when they were threshing. Wally and Kenny and Ray pointed out the spot in the barnyard where the threshing machine was set up. Joseph K. was working on the straw stack. He got real hot, and wanted to get down. He started walking to the house for some water. His youngest daughter, Rachel, met him in the yard. She was heading to the fields with water for the men working there. Joseph K. took a long drink of the water she had with her. She left. And Joseph K. got up onto the wagon beside the threshing machine, to help unload. Within minutes, he collapsed there on the bundles. His son-in-law, Peter Stoll, grabbed him as he slid off the wagon. He was carried to a little shed nearby. It was too late to do anything. He was gone. It was surreal, to stand on the spot where all of this had come down.

Ray then led us through the barnyard to the addition on the back. And there, in the mortar between the blocks, there they were, clear as the day they were scratched in, 84 years ago. My father’s initials. DW. And his brother, Abner’s. AW. And the date. 1933.

Dad's initials

It was time to wind down this part of the day. We loaded up, and headed out to take Kenny home. And I asked him. What’s the most common Amish surname in Daviess? He didn’t hesitate. “The most common blood is Knepp. But the most common surname is Wagler,” he said. “The Waglers had more male children, to carry on their name.” I marveled. Daviess has right at thirty church districts, if I remember right. And Daviess has to have the largest concentration of Waglers anywhere in the world.

I shook Kenny’s hand as he got out. Thanks for the time. This was a fascinating day. And then, back to Wally’s home. We dropped him off. He was telling stories pretty much right up until the time we pulled into his drive. We thanked him, too, for his time. Our Daviess cousins who we never knew. I mean, how does such a thing ever come to be? Better to connect late than never, I guess. It had been a very memorable afternoon.

And then, we drove over a few miles to the church where the Yoder Reunion was fixing to come down. Just before five, we pulled in. I saw many of the people I had met at last year’s Reunion. Aunt Sarah was there, smiling as always. And soon we were feasting on food that could only have come from Daviess County, Indiana. Their cooking is absolutely unique. It’s the food my mother raised us on. Some of the most delicious food in the world.

We left before it got late, then. The Yoders don’t usually hang around long, at their Reunions. By nine, we were back at David’s home in Worthington. With Joseph and Iva, and all their children who made it. And Maggie and Ray. And me. We sat around the campfire and talked. I could feel the tiredness sapping into my bones. I headed for my room and bed by eleven. Tomorrow, the jelly bean and I had a long drive ahead of us.

I slept fitfully that night. Tossed and turned a good bit. The alarm rang right after six. I groaned. I don’t feel like getting up. But I did. No one else was stirring, after I got cleaned up and loaded my car. No one else but one man.

It was my brother, Joseph. I had told him I would leave around seven. And he was out there, puttering around in his little battery-powered cart. Waiting for me. After I got loaded and was pulling out, I stopped close to where he was. He pulled up to my driver’s side window. We faced each other in the fresh morning dew.

He held out his hand. I reached out and grasped it. He thanked me again for making the long trip. Eleven hours. Stay one day. Then eleven hours back. He was still coming to grips with the fact that all those people had assembled on Friday night, just for him. I wanted to come, I told him. I wanted to be here. We chatted for a few minutes. And then it was time to leave.

I pulled out of the drive and pointed my car north, to the interstate, then east. Home is where the heart is. And I was heading home. But now and then, the heart will roam far and free to hang out with family for one day.

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June 23, 2017

The Child in Town (Sketch #18)

Category: News — admin @ 5:27 pm

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You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,
…back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for,
…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed
everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the
escapes of Time and Memory.

— Thomas Wolfe
______________________

They walked in that morning at work, about a week ago or so. An Amish father and his son. I greeted them cheerfully, just like I try to greet everyone who walks in through those doors. They walked up to where I was, the father and his son. And the man told me. He needed some trim, to cover the sliding door track out by the silo, where he fed his steers. That made him a farmer. And we chatted right along about farming and such as I wrote up his invoice.

The boy hovered close to his Dad. Subconsciously. He wasn’t scared. Just in a strange world. And his eyes were drinking in every detail around him. There was something so symbolic about the two of them, standing there in front of me. And in that instant, it kind of rolled back on me, how it was in my own childhood, when it was my turn to go to town with Dad. I saw it again, in the wonder in the little boy’s eyes. Today it was his turn. He was enjoying every second of his adventure. And he would have all kinds of tales to tell his brothers and sisters, when he got back home.

I couldn’t help but smile at the boy. He was probably six years old, a miniature of his father. Galluses and straw hat, even down to the same color shirt. I smiled to myself about that. That must be a hifalutin’ Lancaster County thing, that any mother had the time or inclination to make sure her husband and son were dressed alike, right down to the same color shirts. Mom was way too busy with other things to ever worry about whether my shirt was the same color as Dad’s, back when I went with him to town. She never worried about anyone’s shirt colors, except on Sundays. That day, she made sure we wore white. Because that’s what she saw the men in her world wear, as she was growing up. It’s Amish tradition.

And it’s kind of funny, why a white shirt on Sunday was a big deal to Mom. She was pretty adamant about it. Because that little issue was a pet peeve of the Stolls of Aylmer. They were always poking and prodding around, trying to dig up ever more strict and strident ways to please the Lord. And somehow, they worked up a grudge against wearing a white shirt to church on Sundays. I suppose they were that way in part so they could separate themselves from some of the traditions they judged useless. Sinful, even, they told themselves. And so it came to be. The Stoll men liked to wear a blue shirt to church.

Mom wasn’t having any of that. White is what her boys wore to church. Always. White.

And I’ve thought about it now and then, over the years. Pondered things in my heart. It never really made any real difference, when it came to pleasing God. Whether you wore a blue shirt or a white shirt to church. It was just the idea, that the Stolls kept stirring around, and stirring around. Nothing was ever quite good enough, and nothing was ever really stable. It was all a lot of shifting sand. I think that’s why Mom reacted as strongly as she did.

Peter Stoll and his sons were among the original settlers of the Aylmer Amish community. And that community would be forever stamped by the wild strange deeds of their wild strange Stoll blood.

Aylmer was a great shining city on a hill, at least in a lot of people’s minds. The Stoll blood was a big part of the pride and passion of that shining city. A preacher and a deacon and more preachers were ordained from that family. Elmo Stoll was ordained to the pinnacle of power in the Amish world. A blue-shirt guy who became a bishop and a powerful leader. He wrote great moral lessons, instructing us all. As did others of the Stoll blood. Sadly, there was no referee there with a whistle, when the Stolls were riding high and strong those many years. I guess the referee was late, getting to the field.

Be that as it may. Back to the father and his son who were dressed alike in Lancaster County one day last week.

The boy hovered close to his father, but his eyes were drinking in every detail around him. And when I say hovered, I don’t mean he was clinging to his father’s shirt tail. He wasn’t. He wandered off the side on his own, there at the counter. To the next space over to my left, where I keep my little model pole barn. I had it built to scale, way back when. And we all use it to sell buildings, to point out construction details. I have a miniature tractor stuck in there, and a small horse stall, with a model horse. The little Amish boy was beyond fascinated by that little model building.

That thing attracted the boy like a magnet, pulled him away from that safe little radius he mostly kept around his father. He stood there and stared up into that little toy barn with wide and radiant eyes. You could tell. He was measuring the setup in his mind. Imagining how it would be, to have this barn at home. And you could tell he could tell it wasn’t going to happen. But, boy, did that kid have some stories to tell his siblings that night at home, I figured later.

And I looked at that little boy, and I watched him. And I saw it again, from the wonder that shone from his eyes. It came back to me, how it was in my own childhood, when it was my turn to go to town with Dad. It was a big, big deal. In more childhood worlds than just mine, apparently.

And I thought to myself. I sure remember how that was, back when I was his age. Just looking at that kid, there are a bunch of bunny trails I could go down, if I had half a mind to.

We took turns, me and my siblings, in the world we grew up in. We took turns at a lot of things. Of course we did. There were eleven children. A small army, when you think about it, that my Mother had to nurse and nurture, and my Father had to feed. And, of course, too, the older ones were meandering on into adulthood, by the time I came along. They knew what turns were. And I got to know, too, from the traditions that were established long before I was born.

I remember exactly how that was, to take turns to go with Dad, when he went to town. It’s a big, big deal, for any little Amish boy or girl to go to town. Dad usually headed out late on a Tuesday afternoon. He’d get his shopping done, then stop at the Aylmer Sales Barn on the way out. It was a huge deal, a great adventure, to go with Dad into the great and glittering world that was the town of Aylmer.

And you go from that world to the world I am in today. From what I see now, the town of Aylmer is practically a hovel. A bedraggled string of small stores lined up on the east and west sides of a crossroad with a stop light. We always heard that crossroad called a “square” when I was growing up. And that’s what I always thought a town square looked like. A crossroad. It wasn’t until we moved to Bloomfield, Iowa, that I ever saw my first real town square. All the stores were lined up around a city block, with the courthouse in the middle. That’s what a classic town square is. I never knew that, when we lived in Aylmer.

And I remember one of the first times I was ever allowed to go to town. It wasn’t with Dad. It was Mom who took me along. I’m talking memory, here. I’m sure Dad took me along before this memory, when I was very small. But on this trip with Mom, I was probably three years old. I’m thinking we went with an English driver. And I don’t remember a lot of the sights and sounds of that little excursion. Except one. The Canadian Tire store, just north of the square. Mom took me to the back of the store. And there, on the south wall, were shelves and shelves of shiny new toys. I remember the big bright plastic dump trucks.

I was a little curly haired Amish boy with large brown eyes. I stood and gaped at those bright new gleaming toys. And Mom smiled and gave me a dollar bill. “You can buy any of those toy trucks you want,” she told me. I remember that a clerk, or someone who worked in the store, came around and stood and talked to Mom. The clerk smiled and smiled as I picked out my toy. And when we got to the checkout, I proudly handed over my dollar bill. I’m not sure it was enough to pay for my truck. But I am sure Mom quietly paid the difference if it wasn’t.

And I took my toy truck home. And told anyone who would listen. Look. Look at what I brought back from town.

And now, back to the counter last week, for a moment. I smiled at the little Amish boy, standing there with his father. He smiled back, hesitantly. Almost, I was tempted. Say something to him in PA Dutch. His home language. That would surprise him, I bet. But I bit my tongue.

I’ve learned long ago not to let an Amish stranger know that I can speak his language. Nothing good comes out of that, usually. Besides, this guy looked like he came from the south end. He’d get all startled and suspicious if I spoke to his son in his native tongue. All kinds of awkward questions would follow. Had I ever been a member of the Amish church? Am I in the bann, excommunicated? It just wasn’t worth the time it takes to say, no, no, no. Yes, I was baptized Amish. No, I am not in the bann. They gape at you like you’re insane. I’m just done, explaining all that.

So I smiled at the little boy again, and turned back to finish my business with his Dad. Speaking all English, of course.

And right back now to the bunny trails. Taking turns was a good way to keep order and to keep life halfway fair, for us children. I see that, from here. And it was a good system. Dad always took one child with him. I rarely, rarely remember going to town with another brother or sister. It was just too much hassle for Dad, probably, to keep track of more than one of us at a time. And it was OK. The system worked.

Before you started school, you didn’t take turns, much. You were home all the time, and you got to slip along with Dad when your older brothers weren’t around. Only after you entered first grade did the real “turn” concept kick in. Near as I can remember, anyway.

And your turn was a sacred thing. I can’t remember that Dad ever denied a trip to town as punishment for the sometimes massive mischief we boys got into. I do remember the bitter disappointment of having a trip to town yanked out from under me. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. It’s just how it happened.

I was in first or second grade. Six or seven years old. And we had just gotten home from school one fine spring Tuesday afternoon. I think it was spring, because the sun was shining, and it wasn’t cold. And Dad was getting ready to head to town. The horse was hitched up to his rattletrap top buggy. And I guess he thought it was my turn. So he told me. “Get ready, you can go along to town.”

It wasn’t my turn, and I knew that. But the glittering vision of a trip to town with Dad made me less than honest. I never said a word. Just got all excited. All right. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here, before anyone can say much of anything. My brother Titus heard all the commotion, and he figured out what was going on. He came around, looking a little grim.

“It’s not your turn,” he told me firmly. “You went to town with Dad two weeks ago. It’s my turn.” And he turned to Dad. “It’s not Ira’s turn. It’s mine.” No, no, I protested. But I could feel the great shining adventure getting yanked right out from beneath my feet.

Dad looked at me, then at Titus. “Well, if it’s Titus’ turn, he can go along,” he said. I looked very sad. I don’t think I cried right there, as Dad and Titus trundled out the lane, and west on the gravel road to town. I did walk out behind the corn crib where no one could see me. And there I sobbed bitterly, wiping my eyes with a grimy fist. I shouldn’t have taken it so hard, probably. Titus was totally right. It was his turn. But that’s just how big a deal it was, to get to go to town with Dad.

And that’s how it went, as time went on. We took turns to go just about anywhere. Rhoda and Nathan entered the rotation when they started school. And eventually we grew out of that mode, too. I was probably twelve or thirteen, when I decided I was a little too big to ride with Dad to town. And by that time, my brother Stephen had turned sixteen and was running around with his own horse and rig. He slipped into town at least once a month, sometimes every few weeks. And it was just a matter of catching a ride with him, now and then. Never asking permission from Dad. Taking turns was for little children. And Dad never made much fuss as we grew out of that tradition. I guess he figured his boys were growing up and he wouldn’t interfere too much.

And back to the counter last week, one more time, for one more moment.

We finished up, then, me and the young father. He paid me, and I handed him his paperwork and told him where to go to load. They walked out the door, the little boy half a step behind his Dad. And no one thought much about any of all that. Except I couldn’t help but go back in my head, back to a little slice of life as it really was. And you see it when you see it. Some things never change.

Fifty years ago, a father and his young curly-haired son walked out into the beautiful sunny day, from some store in town. Fifty years ago, a young boy clung close to his Dad, as they stepped out into the street. His wide and wondering eyes drank in every detail around him. He was on a great adventure. And he was sure going to have some tales to tell his siblings when he got home.

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