Men do not escape from life because life is dull, but life
escapes from men because men are little.
It’s been a bit of an odd spring around here, so far. And it’s been odd all around, I think. First, the long vile winter just would not end. Kind of made me all brooding and cranky, that did. And then, March was what it was. Everything got all dark on me, so I couldn’t write. You just kind of stumble on through life, when that happens. And then, one of the main office guys got ill, at work. Dave Hurst. His legs just gave out, lately. So he can’t make it in to work. And all of a sudden, it just got real busy, what with the normal spring rush and all. And being short-handed, it’s been even more hectic than usual for this time of year.
The phone rings, right along. And people walk in, too. People wanting quotes, people placing orders. Seems like you can’t get much work done on those more complicated quotes without getting interrupted. And when you’re all busy like that, and it happens like that, it gets a little tense sometimes. And sometimes it’s easy to get a little short with a customer, particularly if that customer seems unsure of what he wants. And that’s how I felt one day last week, soon after lunch. Rosita and Andrew had not returned, yet, so I was all alone in the show room up front. And he walked in, right when I was in the middle of a getting some work done on a quote. I heard the door open, so I glanced up. Lord, I thought, when I saw how the man looked. Please spare me from any eccentric people today. I talk to God like that, right along, just about any time I feel the need to.
The man had been around. You could see that. He was an older guy. Short, and wiry. Wrinkled face, with flat sun-burnt hair and a thin mustache. A toothy smile. But the strangest thing about him was his boots. Moccasin boots that almost reached his knees. That, and his walk was strange, too. Kind of a shamble. He approached the counter, and I got up to serve. I must say. I hoped he just wanted a few pieces of lumber, or something simple like that. Because right that minute, I figured I had about as much chance to sell him a bridge as I had to sell him a building.
He smiled, a little unsure of himself. I smiled back, a frozen smile. Can I help you? I asked. Yes, he thought maybe I could. He needed a pavilion, a building with a roof, but no sides. We’ve built plenty of those, over the years. I forget the size he figured he needed, but I pulled up the template on the counter computer. He had a list of questions. I was pretty curt, answering. Just get this guy his price, and get him out the door, so I could return to my desk.
He stood there, looking a little plaintive, as I worked up his quote. And the questions just kept rolling from him. I kept answering, curtly. And right about then, something went off inside me, in my head. And I scolded myself. Here is a customer. A man, looking to maybe buy something from you. Sure, he looks all eccentric, but, good grief, cut it out with the grumpiness. Treat him as a real person, with real value. Don’t matter if he wastes your time or not. This is the market. And he just walked into your store. Treat him real. Treat him with respect. And just like that, I got a grip on myself. And I turned to Mr. Eccentric and smiled.
Help yourself to a donut, there, I said, motioning to the large Dunkin’ Donut box a sales rep had left on the counter earlier that morning. You might as well relax and enjoy a treat, while I’m working up your price. He smiled, all pleased. He shouldn’t, but he believed he would, anyway, he said. He opened the large flat box and helped himself to some cream-filled monstrosity loaded with white frosting and sprinkles at the top. And he stood there munching away quite contentedly as I worked. He kept wiping the frosting from his sun-burnt mustache. I went back to my desk, got a napkin from the middle drawer, and handed it to him. He took it, wiped his mustache, thanked me, and kept right on munching.
And I asked. Where do you live, as in where do you come from? “I’m from Jersey, but I live local,” he said. And I gave him his price, and he seemed all happy and impressed. “You know, that’s not too bad at all, that’s not bad at all,” he kept saying as he chewed on his donut. “Nope, that’s not bad at all.” Well, you know where I am, when you need it, I said. And then I leaned against the counter, to visit a bit.
You said you’re from Jersey, I said. Where in Jersey? We ship quite of bit of stuff down there. And he told me. “Over close to Philly, just over the line. I moved over to this area when I retired, back in 1997.”
Retired, eh? What did you retire from? I asked. And here it came, the mother lode. The gold mine. “I was a tugboat skipper for twenty-five years,” he said. A tugboat skipper? I half hollered. Wow, is all I can say. I’ve never met anyone like you before. This is just fantastic. And his face lit up, and he beamed and beamed.
I’ve met a lot of different people from a lot of different occupations, over the counter, during my fourteen years at Graber. All kinds of unusual backgrounds, I’ve seen. A few years back, a guy stood there and told me how he had been a train engineer years ago, for many years. I asked him a hundred questions, including if he had ever hit any vehicles that were crossing the tracks when he came blaring along. He had hit a few. “But I never killed anyone,” he said. “I never killed anyone crossing the tracks.” That seemed to be his measuring stick, on how successful he’d been as a train driver. And I could understand that. Who wants to have such a thing on his mind? Even if it wasn’t his fault. I hear that, I told the guy. And that’s so way cool. I’ve never met a train engineer before.
And here stood Mr. Eccentric, telling me he skippered a tugboat for twenty-five years. No wonder he walked funny, I thought later. He walked that way, from all those weeks and months and years of sailing the seas on his tugboat. And I just leaned right into the counter, and we talked, he and I, for the next ten minutes or so. And when you show genuine interest in someone’s life or occupation, most people are all too happy to get real chatty. They can tell, if you really mean it or not, with your questions.
And I asked the questions, rat-a-tat. I’ve always wondered. How big is a tugboat’s propeller? “Twenty to twenty-two feet across,” he said. Wow, I said. No wonder they can push and pull like they can. He worked the North Atlantic, that’s what he told me. Towing barges and pushing big old ships around. And sometimes, he towed barges full of flammable stuff, fuel and such. When that happened, he could stretch out the cables so the barge was three/quarters of a mile behind his tugboat. It was all just fascinating, what he was saying. And we wound it down, then. One more question.
How big was your boat? I asked. “One hundred and twenty feet long,” he told me. “With a crew of six.” And we just talked, the two of us, as he told me his stories. He took his leave, then. And I thought about it, as he walked out the door, with his strange sea-leg shamble. Just that close, I missed it, what all he had to tell me, because I was too busy and too grumpy to pay any real attention to an eccentric old man who came shambling into my office for a quote on a pavilion.
Just that close, I missed it.
Moving on, then. It’s been a while, since I’ve mentioned the tenant. We’ve wintered well, he and I. It goes weeks and weeks sometimes, and I never see him. I hear him walking around upstairs, but that’s about it. And now and then, we’ll run into each other, and catch up with what all’s going on. And no, near as I could tell, the man never had any idea that I ever wrote a book.
Until just last Saturday, that is. It finally caught up with me. Not that it was all that big a deal, one way or the other. I just didn’t want him to know I’m an author, until he had a real chance to get to know me. That’s all. It wasn’t any big plot or anything.
Anyway, last Saturday, I went and did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I went to a real, honest go gosh book signing. Not a talk. Just a signing. My friend, Amos Smucker, the horse dentist, has a variety stand at the Farmer’s Market in Trenton, NJ. Just past Philly. And he’s been wanting me to come, and sign books one day. So a few weeks back, I gave him my big old glossy poster, and he took about twenty copies of my book. Saturday, April 11th. That’s when I would come to sign.
And so I headed out, last Saturday morning. I had told Amos. I’ll be there from ten until two. And then I’m heading home. My GPS took me right to the place. Real nice, quite plain, the market’s been there for a long time. It goes way back. And in the back, there’s Amos’s store. Amish Country Store. He had my books laid out in the empty space across the aisle. And I settled in, and just enjoyed the feel of a good old-fashioned book signing, where no one has any idea of who you are or what you wrote.
Traffic was sparse, but steady. By two, I’d signed around a dozen books or so. I offered to take back the excess copies. Amos had me sign five, and I took the rest. And I just headed on out, and back toward home. It was a beautiful sunny day. The finest Saturday I had seen in a long time. Too bad, I thought to myself, that March didn’t have a few sunny, warm Saturdays like this. I could have stayed out of some of those dark places, I bet, if there had been.
Driving through New Holland, I stopped to see Dave Hurst, my co-worker who hasn’t been able to get to work. He looked a little better than when I last saw him. We sat and just visited for twenty minutes or so, and then I headed on home. The tenant had his car out in front of my garage, when I got there. The hood up. The man tinkers more with his two cars than anyone I ever saw. I parked Big Blue in the first drive and ambled over to chat with him. And we just talked.
And somewhere, along pretty soon, he asked me. “You’ve been gone most of the day. Where were you at? Working at the office?” It wasn’t that he was prying. Just making conversation. And I figured the time had come, to tell him. We chatted as he walked with me, back to the house. I reached into my truck and pulled out a copy of my book. Showed it to him. Did you know I wrote this? I asked. I was at a book signing today in Trenton.
He held the book in his hands, and looked it up and down, keenly. “No, I never knew you wrote this book,” he said. And I chuckled. Look at the very top, there, I said. It’s a New York Times Bestseller. I’m pretty proud of that. And no one can ever take that accomplishment away from me. No one. Don’t matter, what happens. And I told him the short version of how it all came down, the how and when of it. And how the book had taken me to Germany, to talk at a University, back in 2013.
He kept on looking astonished. “I never knew you wrote this,” he said again. “I remember a few times that you mentioned that you were up late, writing. I wondered about it, when you said that. Now I know what you meant.”
I signed the book. “To _____, the best tenant I ever had,” and gave it to him. He thanked me. Well, I said. I wanted you to know me as I am, not as a “writer.” He chuckled as he kept thumbing through the pages. “Oh, don’t you worry about any of that,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a hifalutin’ bestselling author or not. You’re Ira. You’ll always be Ira to me.”
You bet. That’s the way it should be, I said. And that’s how we left it.
And moving on, again. It was so strange, when I got back from Florida. I had every intention of writing all about the trip, and how it went with Dad. I hung out with the man for a week. And it all went pretty well, mostly. That first week home, I sat down to write it all out. And I wrote and wrote. A couple of dozen pages in all. And by late week, I saw it wasn’t working. Something inside me wasn’t wanting to get out right. My voice was all forced and taut. And when that first Friday came along, I just didn’t post. And when the next Friday came along, I didn’t post again. And the next. And the next.
It was hard, seeing a Friday coming, and I couldn’t write. But every time, when I realized what was actually going on, I drew back in. I will not post, if my voice ain’t right. I don’t care if my blog shuts down. I will not force my voice. I will not do it.
And now, from here, maybe that little father/son story will never get told in detail. I don’t know. Maybe it will, too, someday, when the muse hits just right. So I’ll leave it all for now. Except for one little thing that happened, one little story I want to say, right here.
I had told the Lord, when I went down there. I need some sort of blessing from this trip. I want one. It don’t have to be a spoken blessing from Dad, I’ve given up on such a thing a long time ago. He’s old, and where he comes from, you don’t speak a real blessing on your sons. Because you don’t know how. But I told God. Just give me something, some blessing I can grasp and hold on to. I’ll fight you, I’ll wrestle with you, until you bless me. Like Jacob did, in the Bible. Make me lame, if you want, just like you made him lame. But I want that blessing.
And there was a thing that came down that week, that certainly was a blessing. The first morning, during devotions, Dad asked me to read a passage aloud from Psalms. In German, from his German Bible. I was a little astounded to be asked, but I found a real short Psalm, and kind of stumbled my way through it. I still had it, the ability to read the old High German. I was just a bit rusty, that’s all. And every morning after that, it was my duty, to read a Psalm in German. That was a high place in my mind, an experience I never dreamed I’d get to see. I figured that was the blessing I had asked the Lord for. I figured my demand had worked, and I was pretty relaxed about it all.
And so I wasn’t even looking for it, when the real thing rolled right on down on me. Friday, around mid-morning. My last full day there. Dad and I were just lounging on the couch in the living room. I don’t remember where my sister Rhoda was. Probably bustling about, doing the laundry or something. Dad and I chatted sporadically. And right out of the blue, he just asked me a question, all of a sudden. “Is your book still selling?”
Well, yeah, some, I said, startled. We hadn’t talked about my book much, all week. And I told him. It’s still selling, mostly on Amazon. It never occurred to me that he might not know what Amazon is. And he didn’t. “What’s that?” he asked.
I had my iPad right with me. That’s what I used to stay connected on the trip, with my direct link to Verizon. I don’t need wireless. I can connect anywhere Verizon has service. And I pulled up my book on Amazon, on the screen. Showed it to him. See? There’s the book. The Kindle version is on sale for $9.99. And then it hit me. I could show him something so much more.
I’ve often wished that Dad could read some of my book’s reviews on Amazon. Just to get a taste of how totally disinterested (by that I mean disconnected) readers reacted. It was a fond, but distant wish for me, that my father could maybe see some feedback from outside people who appreciated the story, that he might glimpse the universal struggle of flawed fathers and their flawed sons, that he might let go of the hurt of his son speaking his story to all the world. Well, maybe that’s yearning for too much, that he’d let it go. But at least that he could read some outside perspectives. I never did think I’d see that day, though. And I sure never thought to ask the Lord for such a gift.
And now it was falling into my lap, the thing I never even dared to dream of. And sitting right there, I told him. I have 530 reviews on Amazon. Reviews, as in people posting their reactions. I’m pretty proud of that. Not many books have 530 reviews, anywhere on Amazon. And then I asked him. Do you want to read some of them? He never hesitated for a second. “Yes. I’d like that,” he said.
Almost in disbelief, I pulled up the page where the five-star reviews begin. I handed Dad my iPad, and he actually took it from my hands. I don’t think he was really aware that he was reading from the internet. He didn’t process it that far. So he just sat there and read. I showed him how to move the page up with his finger, on the screen. And I just sat there and reveled in that moment. He read and read, for probably fifteen minutes. And then I told him. Here. Let me show you. You’re reading all the five-stars. The top reviews. Let me show you a one-star.
I pulled up a short one-star, a vicious little screed about how the book should never have been written, how terrible the writing was all around, and how it would have been better for all the world had I never been born. Or something like that. One-star reviewers are a weird breed, all their own, because they expend all that energy to tear someone down. Dad took the iPad and read the review. “Har, har,” he chuckled, after he’d finished. “That person doesn’t like you very much, does he?”
And I chuckled, too. It’s OK, Dad, I told him. It’s the market. Not everyone’s gonna like what you write. It’s just how it is. Yeah, those one-stars stung, at first, because I took them personally. I’ve let all that go, a long time ago, now. It’s just not worth it. And I linked him back up to the five-stars, and the man just sat there and read and read and read.
And that right there is probably my most special memory of my trip to Pinecraft. Maybe I’ll get it all written sometime, a more detailed account of how it all went down there when I spent a week with my father. And maybe I won’t. If I don’t, at least I got this much told.
And now, winding down, here. Speaking of books and publishing. It’s pretty well known in the publishing world. Don’t ask Ira to endorse your book. He won’t do it. He will politely refuse. And it’s not that I got anything personal against anyone. It’s just that once you go down that endorsement path, well, I think that tune just keeps right on playing. So I flinched from it, instinctively, from the start. Besides, I don’t think endorsements do a whole lot of good, anyway, from what I’ve seen. Either the book will sell on its own, or it won’t. My words on the back cover ain’t gonna make a whole lot of difference, one way or the other.
All that to say this. A good friend of mine recently got her book published. And I told her, back last year when I read an early draft of the manuscript. Your story is raw, and it’s real. No, I won’t endorse the book. But I’ll write a short review about it. Or I’ll at least mention it on my blog. And that is something I rarely, rarely promise to anyone.
I was born into an Amish family in southern Ontario. Trudy Harder Metzger was born into a Russian Mennonite family in Mexico. I thought my life was hard, and I thought it was a hard thing, to break away from my culture. Well. Compared to Trudy’s journey, my life was a walk in the park, with maybe a nice little picnic lunch spread out on a clean blanket under sunny, pleasant skies. She comes from a tough and brutal place. And the miracle is, she survived. She not only did that. But today she ministers to the broken and wounded in plain Mennonite communities all over Canada and this country.
She grew up in a setting that was riddled with superstition. And riddled with abuse. Abuse of every kind. Physical. Emotional. Sexual. Some scenes in her book are so raw and so brutally harsh that I shrank from reading them. But I did. It’s a journey of grace, for all of us who come to know Jesus, and the healing and forgiveness He so freely offers. When you read the stories of what Trudy went through, you’ll grasp a much deeper understanding of what grace really is, how deep it flows, and how fully it can heal.
The book’s title. Between 2 Gods: A Memoir of Abuse in the Mennonite Community. My story was going to be written, whether it ever got published as a book or not. I think Trudy’s story is the same. It was going to get told, one way or the other. Like I said, it’s not a pretty read, in a lot of places. But it’s real and it’s raw. I deeply admire my friend for not only having the courage to speak her story, but to walk right back out into the wilderness she came from, searching for all those who are lost and wandering and wounded. And just talking to them. I’ve been where you are. I can show you a better place. Come. This is the path to healing and freedom.
Today, Trudy lives in Elmira, in southern Ontario (just up north of Aylmer an hour or so, actually) with her husband Tim and their five children. Her story of how she got to where she is, from where she comes from, is more than remarkable. It’s amazing.Share