September 1, 2017

Vagabond Traveler: Fifty-Six Years…

Category: News — admin @ 5:32 pm


It seemed to him that all man’s life was like a tiny spurt of
flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying
darkness, and that all man’s grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic
glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew
his life was little and would be extinguished, and that only
darkness was immense and everlasting.

—Thomas Wolfe

I never paid much attention to the date as it snuck up on me. Well, I kind of glanced at it sideways, now and then, as the shadows of the day lurked close. But still. It just was what it was, and it would be what it would be. I didn’t figure it would hit me hard, like it did. But it did. Last week, I turned fifty-six.

And what’s the big deal about that? One might ask. Indeed. Every day, lots of people turn fifty-six. Well, I was surprised. And a little shocked, at the emotions that came rolling through me like a flood. I’ve lived intensely. And there were a few close calls, along the way, where there was a pretty good chance that I would never see that day.

And I thought about it, the night before. I felt pensive and a little sad. It had been a long time since it closed in on me like it closed in that night. It had been a long time since I felt as alone as I felt that night.

And now, now the day had arrived. Fifty-six. It’s a completely harmless number. I mean, there is little specifically attached to it, one way or the other. Still, I could feel the weight of it, heavy on me. And that day, I felt old and tired. You’re as young as you feel, the saying goes. Well, I feel my age.

A part of it, I think, is that I can look back to the past and clearly remember my father when he was my age. At fifty-six, he had just uprooted his family, and moved from Aylmer to Bloomfield. At fifty-six, he had a seething young son, who had just turned sixteen. At fifty-six, the old lion and the young lion faced each other, and prepared for battle. And the young lion prepared to rebel, to break free, to go out and wander the earth. That’s what my father saw when he was exactly my age. It’s all just a bit jolting, to absorb. At least, for me, it is.

When he was my age, my father was a giant among his people. He had seen so much, he had felt so much, he had lived so much. And he wrote what he saw and felt and lived. In his own voice, he did that. And in a strong sense, I guess, I feel honored to have lived as many days on this earth as my father had seen in a time that I clearly remember. Fifty-six. I feel it, every day of it. I have not seen and lived the things my father saw and lived, but I have walked a lot of miles. I have felt my full number of years, I have seen hard roads. And I feel tired and alone.

My actual birthday was pretty much uneventful. Most of my siblings called, and I got most of them answered as I was working. A short few minutes to chat with each one, as they wished me a happy day. We call each other on our birthdays. That’s my family, right there.

Titus called from Bloomfield. We got to talking. I told him. I’m a little awed, to think that I have seen as many days in life as my father had seen when he moved his family from Aylmer to Bloomfield. I guess the next generation always encroaches, as the old generation fades away.

And my older brother Joseph called, too. The Amish preacher. He lives in Kentucky. After wishing me a happy day, he told me. He had been up to Aylmer, to see Dad, a few weeks back. How was he? I asked. “He seemed well, for his age,” Joseph said. And I asked. Did you stop to visit David Luthy? Yes, he had. How is he doing? As well as could be expected, Joseph thought. He is old, now. And living alone. And I asked another question. Did you preach, at church? Yes, he had preached. And we talked about it. Because of his health issues, he has to kind of prop himself up behind a chair, to stand. When he no longer has the strength to do that, when he has to sit down to preach, that’s when he’ll be done. That’s what Joseph told me. I thanked him for calling. We hung up.

Bouncing around now, and looking back to another place and time. Ten years ago, I had just started this blog. I had been writing for a mere few months. And I turned forty-six that summer. That seemed old. And here are some excerpts of what I wrote back then. At forty-six.
And so, at forty-six, I take stock. Personal life: Holding on. Marriage: A shambles. Job: Good. Health and diet: Better than ever as an adult. Fitness: Better than ever. State of mind: Fluctuating. My faith: Lord I believe. Help me in my unbelief.

In the wreckage-strewn fog of recent events, I consider and weigh the circumstances now surrounding me. Once more, a new stage has begun. It has been set for some time, and the curtain rises. It reveals one more road to travel. One more fork on that road. Choose. To the right or to the left. And then, a thousand more choices, or none at all, which is in itself a choice. Forty-six and alone. Again. Like I’ve been for most of my life.

Every life is laced with sorrow and loss and broken dreams. Circumstances vary from person to person. Each journey is distinct. Each destination, a choice.

The people that comprised my world as a child are now scattered to the winds. Or have passed on. I think back on some of my earliest recollections and remember. The colors and the smells and the tastes. The characters, floating in and out of my mind through the fog of years, the parameters of that childish world, so provincial, so confined, yet so vivid and alive. And always, it seemed to me, as my awareness and imagination increased with age, that I was simply an observer, a chronicler, and not really a participant in that world.

I can tell you the story, I can sing you with words, I can soar you to the heights, I can lament to you a tale of lost time and past worlds. I can tell you of life’s culmination in suffering, knowledge and death; the plower plowing, the sower sowing, and the reaper reaping. I can weigh the cost to the last tenth-ounce, a father’s angry and unspoken sorrow, a mother’s silent pain to the last teardrop, the unutterable heartbreak of a wounded child.

I can tell you of betrayal so deep it stabs to the core of the heart, of the foundation of years brushed aside like so much dust, of pain so keen it numbs the brain, of walking amid ruins enveloped by dust and ashes and fog and noise. I can tell you of doubts and fears and regrets that could haunt a man to his grave.

I can tell you the sound of thunder and rain in soggy fields and the sound of cornstalks crackling as they grow from black river bottom on a muggy summer night, of the pale shadows cast by the harvest moon over stubbled fields and shocks of grain. I can tell you the particular slant and warmth of the summer sunlight and the feel and texture of the ancient and massive boulders beside our barn’s loft ramp. I can tell you the people and places and events that I have known and lived. I can tell you of life from the eyes of a wondering child, the wild stirring passions of an agonized youth, the hopeless quiet despair of a restless and deeply frustrated man.

I can tell you things that have never been told.

But, as I look back and reflect, I realize that the singer hasn’t sung, the chronicler hasn’t chronicled, the lamenter has internalized his lament, and joy was absent. And that cannot and will not stand.

The gifts we have will disappear if not honed and used, and I have not used my talents for far too long. For many years, I could not find my voice. But the words are there, inside, where they’ve always been. They may be a bit rough and uncut at times. The tune may be flat in spots and the melody dissonant.

But the voice is forming. It’s not too late.

I will move forward. The voice is forming.

And it will sing.
And there it was. My voice at forty-six. At that time, I had posted twenty blogs. Been writing for less than half a year. But still. I knew instinctively. Whatever was inside me was going to come out. I knew that. And I look back from here, from fifty-six. I did sing. My story was my song. I told some things that had never been told before. I could not have imagined the journey of the book, twenty weeks in. But I knew that I would write my story. Somewhere. Right here, on the blog, if nowhere else.

It’s funny. I thought I had seen all there was to see, back then. All the dust and ashes and fog and noise any person would ever get to walk through. I was very naive. Today, I got so much turmoil swirling around me, about things I thought I knew, but obviously didn’t. But I’ve seen and learned a lot of good, life-altering things, too, in the last ten years. Bottom line. The Lord is who He claims He is. I walk along, clinging to a mustard seed of faith. It’s been a wild journey. I’m sure it will continue to be.

The Lord has shown me so many good things, so much I could never have envisioned. And yeah, I have meandered down my own paths, way too often. Kind of drifted off. When I’m on the wrong road, I usually walk until I smack into a wall. Then I stop. Look around, kind of startled and surprised. Then I look up. Umm, Lord, I guess you don’t want me going this way. OK. My bad, It was a wrong choice. Show me the right road.

His response is always gentle and composed. Do not be afraid. You are my child. You will never not be.

And so, at fifty-six, I take stock. Down the list, like I did ten years ago. Personal life: There’s some heavy fog out there. Marriage: It went away, long ago. I’m alone. Job: Good. Health and diet: Needs work. Fitness: Definitely drooping. State of mind: Relatively calm, from experience. There’s not much I haven’t seen. My faith: A mustard seed. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.

There’s been a fog in my head, the last while. I just can’t seem to shake it off. Can’t seem to see straight. There has been a mask for all the pain rising up from deep places. Pain that waits, latent and brooding, until some trigger wakes it up. And I’ve always gravitated to one method of dealing with pain like that. Until you don’t know why you’re even doing it anymore. And then one day you wake up. I just woke up. I’m shaking the cobwebs from my brain. And I’m looking for the morning light.

It has struck me deep again, the clarity of it all. Life is about choices. Right or wrong. And I have been going down the wrong road, lately. Still. Even that was about choices. I’m starting to see more clearly now, a new road rising.

And so, to quote myself, from ten years back. Once more a new stage has begun. It has been set for some time, and the curtain rises. It reveals one more road to travel. One more fork on that road. Choose. To the right or to the left. And then, a thousand more choices, or none at all, which is in itself a choice.

I’m fifty-six. That’s not old. And it’s not young. It’s just where I am.

I am not afraid. I’m just tired. But not too tired to keep walking. And I can’t help but wonder. Can’t help but turn the thing over in my mind.

Maybe soon another song will come.

August 11, 2017

The Last Ride of Devon Gingerich…

Category: News — admin @ 5:04 pm


Faint, far, and lonely as a dream, it came to him again through that
huge spell of time and silence and the earth, evoking for him, as it
had always done…its wild and secret cry of joy and pain, and its
intolerable promises of new lands, morning, and a shining city.

—Thomas Wolfe

It didn’t jolt me all that bad, when the news first came trickling through. Probably because there was so little connection. It came from Old Bloomfield, the place I grew up in, and left, a lot of years ago. Nelson and Mary Esther Gingerich, I remember them faintly. The news was about their son, Devon. A son who had left home some time ago. A horseman, and a bull rider. He got stomped on by a bull at a rodeo in Nebraska. He died from his injuries a few days later. He was nineteen years old.

It took almost a week, for all the details to develop. And somehow, that final news hit me in a deep gut blow, even though I never met Devon, and wouldn’t have known him from any other stranger on the street. A clean-cut kid, from everything I’ve been told. He was tall and lithe and handsome. Polite and well-mannered. Quietly focused on pursuing his dream of being a professional bull rider. And just like that, he was gone.

I don’t know the exact details of what happened. And they’re not that important. But it hit me hard, the almost unspeakable tragedy of the loss. A young man, in the prime of his life. With so much before him. And now, his parents would have to bury their son. And that was the other thing that struck me, that I thought of. This was new territory for a lot of people. For a whole Amish community. Because for the first time in its 45-year history, the Amish community of Bloomfield, Iowa, was bringing a wandering son home, to be buried among his people. It was a powerful and brutal and touching thing to witness, even from afar, like I am.

And I thought of his parents. Nelson and Mary Esther. I knew them both, a lifetime ago. Nelson was a bit younger than me. His older brother, Mervin, was one of the original gang of six, in my book. Nelson always tagged along with the boys the next size down. I can’t remember that he ever made any problems for anyone. And Mary Esther. I can still see her as a slim and lovely young girl. The two of them met in grade school, way back, at the Amish school house in the North district, if I remember right. They fell in love then, and they never had eyes for anyone else since.

I can’t remember the last time I saw either of them. It’s been a long time. I do remember hearing it told, when I stopped back in the area, over the years. Nelson was a very good businessman. Some kind of sawmill, I think he started up. He employed a lot of people, over the years. And stored up a good bit of wealth. Which is totally fine. I admire that. You either got it, or you don’t when it comes to running a business, and building it up like Nelson did. And they raised a family, the two of them. Three sons and five daughters. Devon was the youngest son. He had two younger sisters.

And now, now they had lost a son, Nelson and Mary Esther. A son who had left home and the community, to pursue his own life. And it closed in on me like a flood, the emotional devastation of it all. How do you even tell a story such as that? How do you imagine the grief and loss and pain of these parents? From the cultural aspect of the Amish, the whole thing is especially brutal. How do you go and carry back the body of a son and a brother who left? What do you tell the weeping children? And how do I mourn with those who mourn in the world I came from, from so far away?

I don’t know, really. I guess you just tell the story.

The rodeo was in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Monday night of last week. A bit south of the Sand Hills of Valentine, where a young Amish kid struggled on a ranch, way back in another lifetime. And the thing is, I never saw much of Nebraska, other than the area around Valentine. I think the whole state is a lot flatter than the Sand Hills are.

I have few concrete details, because I didn’t really ask for them. You can tell the story, anyway. Devon was an up and coming bull rider in that particular circuit. From my own short stint as a cowboy, decades ago, I know one thing. Bull riders are a special breed. Modern gladiators. Fearless. Tough. Totally willing to take risks. I’ve always thought that maybe on another life track, that is something I might have tried. But I never got it done. Just as well, I guess.

Anyway, something went dreadfully wrong on Devon’s last ride. The bull plunged madly, as bucking bulls do. And he was thrown off. But his hand got stuck, got tangled up in the rope. I’ve seen it live and on TV. Riders getting tangled up when they get bucked off, and flung about like a rag doll. I don’t know the specific details of this particular incident, and I don’t need to. The bull finally shook him off. It was clearly evident that Devon was seriously injured. He was rushed to the hospital.

His parents were notified. Called, late that night. And the family dropped everything and traveled to where he was, in the hospital. Kept a sleepless vigil at his bed side. And there they remained, in shock, day after hopeless day. It could not be. Not their son. Not their brother. Not this young man, entering the prime of his life. It could not be. But it was. Devon never woke up. And last Saturday morning, he quietly passed on from this earth.

The story of the tragedy rippled across the vast expanse of the Amish world. And the ex-Amish world, too. I mean, the horror of it. People recoiled from such tragic loss of a life so young. And the news came then. He would be taken home. Back to Old Bloomfield. Back to where he was born and raised as an Amish child. Back to the land that held his blood. Back to his people.

And as I looked at all the circumstances around Devon’s last bull ride, I couldn’t help but see it. My own journey, so long ago. My own flight from home, from Bloomfield. I was a raw youth, rough and unpolished. And it could just as easily have happened to me, as it happened to Devon. Not that I ever rode a bull. But I did a whole lot of dangerous stuff, in a whole lot of other ways.

I thought, too. Of all those journeys, leaving home, all those years ago. The pain I inflicted on my parents, during my long and desperate struggle for freedom. And how easily that could have been me, coming home in a wooden box. Just as well as not, I could have been killed. But I wasn’t. I don’t know why. Life is random, like that. I do know it is a strange and fascinating thing to ponder. That a deeply troubled youth like me walked through the gauntlet, mostly unscathed. And that a quiet and focused and calm young man like Devon Gingerich got killed, doing what he loved. It’s like looking through a glass, darkly. One day, we shall know more fully, as we are known. This I believe by faith.

The Bloomfield community is a vastly different place than it was when I lived there. It has grown tremendously, exploding to thirteen districts, if I got that number right. It’s the largest Amish community west of the Mississippi. It generates its own economy. And now, after forty-five years of existence, it has generated its own customs, too. But this, this had never happened before, that a wandering son was brought home to be laid to rest.

And they came from all over the Midwest, the people. Friends. Neighbors. Relatives. Amish. English. Ex-Amish. I’ve said it before. An Amish funeral is one of the most unique experiences in the world. At least in the circles I come from. Because you don’t need an invitation. You can just go. And it’s like a truce, for a day. You are accepted, if not necessarily respected for being there.

I have close friends who went. It was a huge event. The viewing, the evening before. Bearded and dark clad men sitting and talking in somber knots. And the women, too, huddled in small groups across the room. You could hear the hum of hundreds of voices speaking in hushed tones.

And the next morning, they gathered, then. The main crowd assembled in a large machinery shed. For the overflow, a big tent had been set up. There would be two separate services. And the traffic clogged the roads. Buggies, by the dozens. Vans, hauling loads of Amish people from other communities. Cars and pickups, from both English and ex-Amish. They came, and they were ushered inside to row after row of hard, backless benches. And then the service. No singing. There never is, at an Amish funeral. Just two relatively short sermons.

They filed past the open coffin, then, all twelve hundred people who had come. Silently, somberly, for one last look. And then the family came and stood there, alone. Devon’s parents, and his siblings. They looked at him for the final time on this earth and wept in bitter sorrow. Young men in dark plain suits came then, and lifted the coffin. Carried it outside to the waiting horse-drawn hearse. It would be Devon’s last ride. Then the long convoy of buggies and cars snaked slowly to the graveyard. The dark crowd stood, surrounding the hole in the earth. The coffin was slowly lowered with straps, then the men with shovels stepped forward and set to work. And the Amish community of Bloomfield, Iowa, laid one of its young sons to rest. A man who had wandered the earth, but now was home for good. Such a scene had never unfolded before, not in that place.

And here was the end, then, of the young life of Devon Gingerich. A lot of people will think it, even though they might not say it. It was such a waste. It’s just too bad. It could have been different. It should have been different. It was a life so foolishly spent. But I disagree. It was not.

It’s better to do what you love to do, and die doing it, than it is to trudge through life all fearful and unfulfilled. It is better to live intensely, and really live, than to let your spirit thirst and wither on the vine. Devon Gingerich chose to live. He burned through life, doing what he loved. Now he’s gone. It just is what it is. Life is life, and death is death.

To his parents and his siblings, I have this to say. To Nelson and Mary Esther and all their remaining sons and daughters. Hold your heads high. Do not be ashamed of your son. Do not be ashamed of your brother. I know the code of conduct of your people calls for bowed heads and downcast eyes in a time such as this.

Don’t do it. Hold your heads high. Look people in the eye. Your son was a warrior. Your brother was a warrior. And he died, doing what he loved. He died, following his heart. That’s more than most of us will ever be able to have told about us, after we leave this vale of tears.

And to Devon Gingerich, the gladiator, now resting in silence in the earth, I say this. I never knew you. Never knew of you, except in death. Here, on my blog, I speak your name. I would have loved to meet you. And one day, I figure I will.

I hold my clenched hand to my heart, in salute to all you were in your young life.

And to you, I say. Strength and honor.

Devon Gingerich