Who owns the earth? Did we want the earth, that we should
wander on it? Did we need the earth, that we were never
still upon it?
There’s only one way to take a road trip, the way I see it. Well, there might be more than one way, but there’s only one best way. You take a road trip alone. You travel with no baggage of any kind but your own. That’s how it’s worked for me, anyway. You live alone. You walk alone. And you travel alone.
I was feeling pretty relaxed about life, that Monday morning after the Great Bloomfield Amish Reunion. Well, mostly, anyway. I checked out of the Southfork Motel soon after eight. The nice desk lady smiled and we chatted. I’m heading out, I told her. Heading to points south. She wished me well, and thanked me again for the book. She had asked about it, and I had sold her one the day before. I hope you enjoy it, I told her. She was sure she would. After gassing up the Charger at the Casey’s down the street, I headed west on Highway 2 for Rt. 63 South.
There’s a huge trading post there now, by that intersection where 2 and 63 connect. Dutch Country General Store. And I mean, it’s huge. Someone cranked out a lot of capital to make that happen. It seems strange, to see such a thing in that area. Don’t seem like there’s enough people living around there to support it. Not unless it becomes a tourist destination in and of itself. Which might happen. I hope it does. Anyway, the place is pretty breathtaking. Large signs line the road. Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. Bulk Foods. And the one that pulls in lots of passers-by, I suspect. Free Soft Ice Cream. I had checked out the place, the week before. It’s just amazing what all they have in stock. Everything from groceries and meat to bulk foods to large stuffed animals. Trinkets, signs, you name it. I’m pretty sure you’ll find it there.
And that morning, I stopped in as I was heading out. I wanted to talk to the proprietor, a very friendly young Holdeman Mennonite. I had chatted with him when I stopped in before. He knew my brother, Titus. And he claimed he occasionally checked out my blog.
This morning, I wanted to do a bit of hawking, something I rarely do. I’ve never pushed my book on anyone. Today I would. I walked in shyly, clutching a copy. He smiled when he saw me. And I showed it to him. This book happened right here, in the area, I said. I think you should stock it. I have some in my trunk. I’ll sell you a few, if you want. He took it from me and looked at it curiously. I showed him the back cover. Right there. It happened in Bloomfield, Iowa. Right around you, here. I know they’d sell.
He smiled again. “We have to check out any reading material, before we sell it,” he said. Great, I’ll sign this copy and give it to you then, I replied. And if you decide to sell them, you can order direct from Tyndale. So that’s what I did. He took it from me willingly enough. I’m not sure what he’ll think of it, or thinks of it by now. Or if he’ll stock it. He may not want to offend his Amish customers. So who knows? But hey, I tried. I guarantee that book would sell in his store. Just thinking aloud, here. If any of you happen to pass through there, stop by and ask for it. A little pressure is always a good thing.
And then it was off, down Rt. 63 South. Toward the Missouri line. I can’t remember thinking about it right at that moment, but this was the same stretch of road where three scared and desperate boys rocketed along in an old green Dodge late one long-ago Sunday morning. Same road. Same scenery, just a little more built up.
Into Missouri then, toward Kirksville. I dreaded that little slog, through that city. I remembered it had a hundred stop lights, or so it seemed. When I approached, though, there was a delightful surprise. A bypass, right around the east side of the city. It was pretty new. My GPS kept screaming at me to turn right onto side streets, to the old Rt. 63. I ignored it, and very shortly Kirksville was behind me as I headed on south.
And I thought about it, as I drove along. The news we had heard last night, while I was out at Titus and Ruth’s home for supper. I think my sister Rachel texted me. And I called her, and we talked. It was about Dad. He had attended the funeral of little Abby, the day before. They drove straight through, to get to Kalona from Aylmer. And soon after the funeral was over, that afternoon, they drove all the way back home, straight through. The next morning, Sunday, he was pretty tired. So he told Rosemary he wanted to stay home from church, and rest. Which was fine, but unheard of, such a thing coming from Dad. He used to drag us to church when we were more than half sick, years ago. So something was dreadfully wrong, for him to decide not to go. There had to be. And there was. When they returned that afternoon from church, they found him over there in his little Daudy house. On the floor, incoherent. Of course, everyone’s first thought was that he’d had a stroke. He was rushed to the hospital in Tillsonburg. And the diagnosis came back. I heard it that day, that Monday as I was driving along. No stroke. He has a severe infection in his leg. Good. No stroke. But still, he was in pretty bad shape.
And it was almost more than an exhausted mind can take, to consider the loss of one more person in the family. No. Not now, Lord. Not now. We’re all tired. Weary, beyond words. I’m so weary of death and loss. And I’m so weary of writing about it. Can’t you just hold off, on calling my father home? And yet, I thought of the logistics. I was on the road. And I had my black suit and white shirt right with me. Funeral clothes, if I needed them. Whatever came, I would walk into it. That’s all you can do. But still. Lord, please spare my father for a little while.
The Charger cruised along into the beautiful sunny day. I-70 West for an hour or so, then south toward Springfield. Then off on little two lane highways, over toward Dunnegan. There’s something unique and very calming about the Missouri countryside. You can tell it’s Missouri land. Grass fields, kind of sparse and bleak. But it all seems so very laid back. Little towns sprout up, and you cruise slowly through them. Check out all the little stores on the square, half of which are boarded up. They once pulsed with life, those little towns. They once were worth building. Now they’re barely hanging on, most of them. Barely worth maintaining. I guess it’s some kind of symbol of some kind of cycle of life. But me, I’d rather have been around those towns when they were alive.
And I arrived at the ranch in Dunnegan, right at two o’clock. They welcomed me, Elmer and Naomi. My good friends, from back home. They bought the eight hundred acre ranch a few years back. Their sons, Raymond and Allen live there. Raymond works full time with the cattle and sheep. Elmer and Naomi go out for a few weeks at a time, a few times a year. I had told them when I’d be coming through, and it just happened that they had some business affairs going on about right then, at the ranch. So there they were, my friends from Lancaster, welcoming me to their sons’ home in Missouri.
After unpacking in the large spacious guest house, I went on a tour of the place. Elmer showed me around. Eight hundred acres is a lot of land. Miles of it, practically. There’s lots of lanes and ponds and woods. And everything was so green. Usually the grass is brown in Missouri in July. Not this summer. They had an abnormal amount of rain, always coming down right at the right time. We went first to see the sheep. I have a particular soft spot for sheep; I used to raise a few back on the old home farm in Bloomfield. Raymond runs about four hundred “hair” sheep, total, with the lambs that came this spring. He does the natural grazing thing, with electric fences that he moves every day or every few days. Then on to the cattle. Red Angus and another brand I don’t remember. Cattle that can take the heat. Raymond grazes those the same way, moving the electric fence to new grasses every few days or so.
That night, after supper, I did something I hadn’t done in far too long. I went fishing. There was a pond across the pasture, with a dock. Elmer and I walked up, and we baited our hooks. I cast a line into the water for the first time in probably seven or eight years. And we just sat there and talked, two old friends. I think I caught one. Elmer caught half a dozen or so. We threw them all right back in. And as dusk settled around us, it was all so peaceful and country and quiet. And I thought to myself. It’s been way too many years since I fished a pond at sunset.
The next day, we just putzed around, running errands in town. And checking out the area. I could live in a place like this. I really could. We stopped by a little country flea market. It was so totally Missouri and so totally comfortable. Wandering through, poking at stuff laid out on tables. Chatting with the vendors. The day passed, and that evening a group of friends and family came around. Homemade pizza and salad, is what we had. It was all a good thing.
The week was moving right along. The next morning, I left my friends. On then, to the next stop. My nephew, Andrew Yutzy, lives in the Warsaw, MO, area with his family. They had been at the reunion in Bloomfield. That’s where Andrew was born. I had asked him. Mind if I stop by and see you for a day or so? He was adamant. Absolutely. We don’t get much family company. Stop by, we’ll hang out. And by late that Wednesday morning, I pulled into their little farm out in the country.
I met all the family, and was welcomed. Andrew took me around the place. Lovely little farm, over a hundred acres, I think. That afternoon, we drove around the area, and he showed me around. Land that was for sale, a farm here, a little acreage there. I felt the same as I had back in Dunnegan. I could live here, back in the Midwest. I really could. And one day, I probably will. Thing is, I just don’t know what there is to do for a living. If I could figure that out, I’d be out there a lot sooner than later.
It was pretty warm that afternoon. But Andrew insisted I would catch fish, if I wanted to, out by his pond close to the house. So we took lawn chairs out. The children came too. Andrew hooked up one of his rigs, and I started casting. Like I said, it was a real hot day, when fish don’t usually bite much. His pond must have been swarming with hungry fish, because for over an hour, I pulled them out, one after another. And threw them right back in. Nine, ten inchers, little bass. But it was a lot of fun.
We talked about the latest news about Dad, Andrew’s grandpa. After one night at the hospital, he had insisted on going back home. So he was released, that Monday. It was a very poor decision. That night, he tossed and turned, and called out, delirious. And the next day, they rushed him back in. His leg had swollen to twice its normal size, and was dark red. Cellulitus. The doctors instantly hooked him up to IV medications and oxygen. And there for a day or so, he drifted off right into that gray area between life and death. He was still hanging on, when I was at Andrew’s house. But we figured there was about a fifty/fifty chance he’d make it.
Andrew had fired up the smoker, way earlier in the day. And he proudly served smoked brisket for supper, a delicious feast. His wife, Marnita, and the children all went off to Bible School at their church, then. The children were all excited and eager to go. Andrew and I hooked up his boat to his pickup, and went off to a nearby lake to do some more fishing. It was the first time I’d ever done such a thing, I think. We pushed off, and Andrew headed a few miles to his favorite spots. We sat there and relaxed and cast in our lures. I caught one large Crappy. Andrew caught a bottom feeder of some sort. We just talked and caught up. About life, and how it goes. And how it is, sometimes. Andrew has a very nice little family. I look at that, and feel a twinge, now and then. I will never see, never experience such a thing. After dark, we headed home. The children were just going to bed. We sat around a bit with them. And then Andrew and I walked out to his pond and relaxed on the lawn chairs and just chilled.
The next morning, after a scrumptious breakfast with the family, I was on the road by 9:30. Heading back east now. Next stop, May’s Lick, Kentucky. My brother Joseph’s home. I’ve referred to it, but never explicitly told it, here on this blog. Because Joseph asked me not to. But now, he told me I could. The man has been seriously ill for about five years or so. Multiple Myeloma. A cancerous blood disease. A lot of people afflicted with it live for a good many years. You can manage it, if you’re careful. Joseph has been very careful, but there’s been more than a few times that he came just that close to leaving us. Earlier this spring, or maybe it was late winter, he got pneumonia. And it came within a hair’s breadth of taking him. He barely pulled out. Which made it all the more of a miracle, that all of my family was gathered there in Aylmer when we buried Mom.
And he tires easily, Joseph does. He has seen a lot, and suffered a lot. I had called him before leaving home. Told him I’d like to stop by, on my way back home. He was very welcoming. So now, on this Thursday of my week on the road, I drove the Charger east. All day, around St. Louis and on through Indiana. And by 6:30 or so that night, I checked in at a Holiday Inn in Louisville. I love Holiday Inns, not the Express ones. The real old ones, because they always have a pub attached. You can check in and unpack, and walk down for some food and drink. And that’s what I did that night.
The next morning, I headed on east. Looked like I’d arrive in May’s Lick around eleven. I hadn’t figured on the road construction, though, on those two-lane highways. I puttered and putzed around, through small town after small town. And shortly before noon, I arrived at my brother’s place.
His married daughter, Laura, and her husband and family live in the big home house, now. Joseph and Iva have moved over to the little attached house, where Dad and Mom used to live a few years back. I shook my brother’s hand, and they all welcomed me. Lunch would be served soon. And Joseph and I just sat there and caught up. It’s been a while since we’ve had a real one on one conversation, face to face.
He had a couple of funny stories to tell me. And we laughed together, about them. “I’ve been asked by about five different bishops about your Elmo Stoll stories,” he said. “They ask. Are these stories true? And I tell them. My brother was fifteen years old, when he saw these things. Just a young boy. Reacting to a powerful leader.” I laughed. What were their reactions? I asked. “They smiled and looked real wise,” Joseph answered. I laughed some more. I tell you, I wrote it as it was, I said. Not that you or any of them will ever agree with what I wrote. But I did. I wrote it like it was.
We visited about this and that. And soon, he told me another funny little story. He was talking to some plain Mennonite from right here in PA, recently. And the guy asked him. “Was that your brother who wrote that book?” Joseph shriveled a bit, then admitted that it was. “Well,” the plain Mennonite announced loudly. “I read it, too. And I’m sure never going to let any of my children read it.” I sat there and roared. What did you say, then? I asked. Did you agree with him? Joseph just smiled sheepishly and refused to answer, but I’m pretty sure he did. Which is totally fine. But I told him. You can’t keep your children from reading a book, once they get older. And this guy won’t be able to, either. The more he rages against my book, the more they’ll want to read it. And one day, I think they will, or at least some of them will. But hey, whatever works. If he thinks he can control them like that, more power to him.
We talked about Dad, too, and how it was going up in Aylmer. He was still in the hospital, there in Tillsonburg. The swelling had gone down, in his leg. I think they pulled him back from the edge, I said. And we talked about how close it had come. To us losing him that week. One of these days, and it won’t be long, he’s gonna leave us, I said. Joseph agreed.
Laura and her sister, Rosanna, had prepared the noon meal. And we walked over to eat. It was a haystack meal. Delicious. Corn chips. Cooked ground burger. Shredded cheese, and all the other toppings. We loaded our plates, and sat at the table to eat. Talking and laughing all the while.
And by three o’clock, our visiting was done. Joseph had an appointment somewhere, to go to. And I needed to be moving on. I wanted to get some miles behind me, before stopping for the night. Because I didn’t want that last stretch for home tomorrow to be too long.
And last Saturday night, it came down. The Great Annual Ira Wagler Garage Party. I had invited more people than ever before. And almost all of them came. A few pulled out at the last minute, but they told me why. And that they’d love to be here next year. I lugged home fifty sausages from Stoltzfus Meats. My friend Paul grilled them over charcoal. Usually, there’s ten or a dozen left over. Not that night. After the last person had left, around midnight, there were five measly sausages in the pot. Almost, I had cut it too close.
A huge feast showed up like magic, as people arrived. Dishes of this and that. Delicious stuff, all of it. We sat around, and ate and talked. Just like usual. Around 7:30, it started drizzling. I couldn’t believe it. Rain hadn’t been in the forecast. It was supposed to be clear. But then a funny thing happened. Everyone crowded inside. The Hi-Lo card game was going on over at the bar. I hovered, keeping an eye on it. And at one point, the pot reached heights never seen before in my garage. One of these years, a SWAT team is gonna raid my party. And because we were all inside, people stood around and sat around, real close to each other. And you had to talk to the person next to you, or it would have been rude. So overall, I think, the rain actually was a good thing. It stopped, after about an hour, and the lawn chairs were soon spread in a half circle outside again.
My friend from Missouri didn’t make it like he’d promised, though. I was pretty disappointed. That’s the one thing that’ll always evoke a visceral reaction from me. If you tell me you’ll be somewhere to get together, and then you back out. I don’t know why. Must be some deep seed down there that triggers it, a seed that recoils at the slightest hint of rejection. If you tell me you’re gonna be there, be there. And if I ever figure out that you never intended to show up, if I sense that you were always just pretending, I get pretty livid. Some of my father’s rage bubbles and boils hard, down deep. Yeah, maybe I could use some counseling. But that’s just the way it is.
I contacted the friend I’d never met, the one who had promised to show up. I thought we had an understanding, I told him. I even wrote on my blog that you were coming, trucking in all the way from Missouri. Bragged about it. He was extremely apologetic. And he had a very valid reason for not showing up. He was haying. All that rain they had out there all summer, all through July, that rain kept him from cutting his crop. He needed four straight days of drying weather when the ground was bone dry. And those four magical days aligned, the very week of my party. He had to make hay when the sun shone. And I fully understood that. I come from the farm. All right, I messaged him. You’re still invited next year. I hope to see you then. But consider yourself on probation. If you don’t make it next time, I’ll have to rethink things.
Dad was released from the hospital about a week after I got home. A very different man than he was when I last saw him only a few short weeks ago. He’s bedridden, and a little befuddled in his mind. He can’t walk. At one point, and maybe even still, they had to feed him. It was too much, for my sister Rosemary to worry about, to have him back in his little house. So her oldest daughter, Eunice, and her husband David, offered to take him in and care for him. They have a row of daughters. Lots of help. And so now, there Dad is, with the family of one of his granddaughters.
And they told me a little story, from when Dad was in the hospital. One evening, as they were there with him, he saw a man across the room that slightly resembled me. And Dad took a notion in his head that it was me. So he told them. “Tell Ira to come over here. I want to talk to him. There he is. Tell him to come over.” They tried to tell him it wasn’t me. But he kept calling out my name. And he did it a time or two in his delirious states, too, when he didn’t even know what he was saying. He called out my name from where he was.
What do you do with that? Where can you take it, in your head and heart? How can you balance that out against all the pain and heartbreak and rejection of the past? I don’t know. The man’s writing days are over, I think. The thing that was dearest to his heart is gone, now. And I’m thinking that one day pretty soon, over a weekend, I’ll be driving up to see him, probably for the last time. I have a clear picture in my head of who he was, and how we spoke to each other the last time I saw him, there at Abby’s funeral. And a clear memory in my heart.
It’s a beautiful picture in my head. And it’s a beautiful memory in my heart. I’m not sure I want to ruin any of it.
I guess I’m in a strange kind of place. And I can’t really explain it. But this is how it is. If he leaves before I get there, then so be it. And if he’s there when I get there, then so be it, too.
But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home?…
He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like
water, and that one day men come home again.
I thought about it, as I headed out south and west in the Charger that Saturday afternoon. It sure is a strange day, all around. In the morning, you attend the funeral of your niece’s little three-year-old daughter. And now, that was over, there in Kalona. And now, it was on to another place. An event I had long looked forward to, because there were a lot of people there I wanted to see and hang out with. The Bloomfield Amish Reunion.
It comes only with time, that a group of misfits gets large enough and confident enough to where there can be such a thing as a reunion. Or a second one, as this one was. Back when I left, in the late 1980s, probably less than a dozen renegades had done something so shockingly wicked as to leave it all behind. And set out on their own roads. The community was small then, only two districts. And when someone drifted off like I did, there was lots of talk. A lot of clucking and shaking of heads. The poor boy. He’s so lost. Let’s hope he finds his way back, even though this is the fifth time he left.
That was then. Now, the roads of Old Bloomfield are gone. At least the world you saw from those roads is. It’s no longer the obscure little Amish community in the sticks it once was. And a lot happened, as it grew during those years after I left. A lot of young people came up through, and some of them created scandals that made any wild thing I ever pulled off seem pretty calm in retrospect. No use going into much detail about any of that. But let’s just say that the Bloomfield Amish community has seen close to everything there is to see, when it comes to rebellious youth. Not everything. Daviess has stories from way back, stories that would make any face turn pale. No one in Bloomfield ever came close to trying to blow up a silo with dynamite, as some crazy wild Amish youth did in Daviess, decades ago. But still. Bloomfield has seen a lot.
The second Great Bloomfield Amish Reunion was the brainchild of one person, mostly. Ed Yoder. My nephew John was also very involved in making it happen. But it was Ed’s idea, originally. I remember him from way back. He was a problem child, an extraordinarily mean little kid. It was his energy, I think, that made him act like that. He was totally out of control. I don’t remember his parents’ names. But they moved in from the troubled settlement of Jamesport, MO.
I don’t know how much younger Ed is than me. Maybe ten years or so. But I remember a thing that happened one Sunday afternoon. Church was at our house. And that afternoon, I was out there, in the barn. Ed and a few of his friends were getting underfoot and making a lot of noise. I’m talking eight to ten-year-olds. And somehow, he mouthed off to me quite insolently. I didn’t hesitate. I just reached out and grabbed that boy. Held him upside down, and dangled him by his ankles, right there in the cow barn. And admonished him a bit about how he needs to learn to respect his elders a little better. I think Ed remembers that particular experience. We’ve laughed about it, since. He mentions it, now and then. We’re good friends now, we see things the same, politically. Which means he’s an anarchist, too. He’s a real good man, with a real nice family.
Anyway, people in Ed’s generation walked away from Bloomfield, after I did. And people after him left, too. They all have their own stories. They all went through their own hard times. I know Ed walked some hard roads. They all did.
This is how it goes, though, when you leave a place like Bloomfield. With the passing of time, you settle in, and settle down. That’s what happened, to all those kids that came after me. They settled down. Moved on with their lives, and with their families. And in time, there came a strong pull for a lot of us to go back to the place we left. Not individually, but as a group. To assemble there. To go back and reconnect. With the place and with each other.
I pulled in at the Southfork Motel around four. Right out along Rt. 63. It used to be a dive, Southfork. But John had told me it had all been redone, remodeled lately. So I took a chance and booked a room. The nice lady welcomed me when I walked in and told her my name. I’m here for the reunion, I said. Has anyone else checked in for that?
She smiled. “Yes, there are a few. Your friend Vern has a room here.” She handed me my room key. And yes, I mean a real key. I gaped at it. A key? She laughed. That’s how we do it here,” she said. “I do all the reservations by hand, too, on paper.” I thanked her and unloaded my luggage and checked out my room. John had been right. It was just like new. Big king bed, and real nice furniture. After unpacking, I walked out to head on out to Lake Fisher. That’s where the reunion was. I chatted a bit with the desk lady on the way out.
“So you wrote a book?” she asked. Who told you that? I asked. It was Vern, wasn’t it? That guy. I think he likes to tell people he’s in a book. She laughed again. “Well, he did tell me a little bit about what you all used to do around here,” she said.
Lake Fisher is just west of Bloomfield, less than half a mile. Along a gravel road. I drove in and followed the long, winding lane to the pavilion in the back. A bunch of vehicles were parked there. Small knots of people milled about. A softball game was happening on the diamond. I walked in to the pavilion, where a few people lounged about. I saw my friend, Ed Yoder, and walked up to him. We shook hands. A few others smiled and greeted me as I walked around and shook their hands as well. I can’t remember everyone who was there, and I didn’t know everyone who was there. So if you were, and I don’t mention your name, don’t be offended.
It was a real nice place for a group like this. A large glass electric cooler sat in one corner of the pavilion, lighted and loaded with food. I soon strolled out to watch the ball game, and met my old friend and blood brother. Rudy. He walked up, smiling, and we hugged. He led me around and introduced me to the people I didn’t know. We sat on the dugout bench and talked.
Supper was to be served at 6:30. I had originally been asked to speak a few words at the noon meal, but since I wasn’t there, that didn’t happen. John and Ed asked me if I’d MC the evening meal. I’m not particularly a public speaker or anything, I said. But yeah, I guess I’d be honored. And about then, I saw him out in the parking lot. Vern. He and his lovely wife, Kim, had left earlier for their motel room to rest a bit. I had actually met them on the way in. I walked up and we greeted each other and hugged.
The women bustled about, and soon a large feast was spread on the long picnic tables. Pulled pork, crispy grilled hot dogs (I love crispy grilled hot dogs), and large array of side dishes, beans and salads and such. Ed came and told me to get things rolling, to get people ready to eat. So I stood and hollered loud to get everyone’s attention. Everyone got real quiet and looked at me. Supper is ready real soon, here, I said. But before we start, let’s all introduce ourselves. Starting in the back corner over there, stand up and tell your name and where you live. And introduce your family if they’re with you. I can’t remember how many people were there. I think the rough count later was around 150. And they all stood, one by one, or in groups of families, and told us who they were and where they live now. But not where they came from. We all came from Bloomfield.
After that was over, I had a few announcements. And I’d been asked to speak a few words. They were brief, as my words usually are. It’s really great to be here, I said. It’s also great to see all of you, so many people. A lot of you, I don’t really know. You were here after I left. Our connection is this place, this community. We all had our own journeys, and they were all different. But now, tonight, we are drawn together, here. Bloomfield is no longer the same place it was, but we all have our own special memories. And now we all are here. And I am very glad to be here with you.
I asked Orie Helmuth to bless the meal, then, and he stood and prayed. Then we ate. The food was just outstanding, all of it. It took some real effort, to plan this event, and to assemble all that food. It really did.
Afterward, we lounged around and talked. The youth went out to play volleyball. There was one thing I wanted to get done. So I walked around and bugged the others until I got us all together. And we stood out there by some trees with the lake behind us. Four of the original “Gang of Six.” Marvin, Rudy, Vern, and me. We handed our phones to my sister Rhoda, and Kim, Vern’s wife, and a few others. They took a bunch of pics. The first time in thirty-two years that the four of us had all been together in one place. And the first time in thirty-two years that we had our pictures taken together.
From left: Ira, Vern, Rudy, Marvin
After that was over, I asked them. Do you guys want to go ride around the community together? They all agreed instantly, and we got into Rudy’s big new Ford pickup. Marvin and I sat in the back seat, Vern rode shotgun. And we headed out.
It was dusk when we returned. People were sitting around outside, around a nice big old roaring fire. John had hauled in a bunch of good dry wood. We joined them for dessert. I’m not much of a dessert person. But I was that night. My nephew David had baked several big pans of peach cobbler over the open fire. And there was homemade ice cream, too, dipped from a huge five-gallon freezer John had rented and hauled in from Arthur, Illinois. It was all just flat out delicious.
We sat around in a large circle and just communed with each other. Ed Herschberger, Vern’s younger brother, set up with a loose group of musicians. They had guitars and a banjo of some kind. Ed strummed away at a large stringed instrument as tall as he was, a Double Bass. It made the sound of drumming. And they sang and sang, as we sat around and talked outside. It was peaceful, it was very calm. And very comfortable. By 10:30, I headed back to the motel, about the same time as Vern left with his wife. Their room was right across the hall from mine. I invited them over. They brought a couple of beers, and I sipped some scotch, and we sat in my room and talked and just caught up.
The next morning. Sunday. They had planned that day, too, Ed and John. There would be a church service, out there under the pavilion. Ed Herschberger and the boys played a few real good old-time tunes, including a fast English version of the Lob Song. We all joined the singing. And then the preacher stood to preach.
John had proudly showed me the nice little sturdy podium he got made. A 4×6 pole from one of his pole barn jobs, with a chunk of 2×12 lumber slanted across the top. His brother, Glen, had nailed it together. And now, Gideon Yutzy, Rudy’s younger brother, stood there with his bible and notes. Gideon lives in Montana somewhere, with his family. And John had somehow cajoled him to make that long journey to the reunion. “We need a preacher for Sunday morning,” John told him. And eventually Gideon relented, and they came. I had not seen him in a lot of years. He looked a little grayed and older, like all of us did.
He started in, and he was a good speaker. His message. How do you deal with that big void in your heart? He was talking to a lot of people who came from places where there were big voids in the hearts. And he spoke it, a brief and simple gospel message. After that, a few more songs. And then the MC, my nephew David, asked Rudy and Marvin to say a few words. Rudy spoke first, about how he appreciated being there, and appreciated the message. And he spoke a few memories. And then Marvin stood, too. He spoke along the same lines as Rudy had. He wrapped it up with a little humor, though. “Talking to the younger ones, here,” he said. “Be careful of your actions, because one of your friends might go out years later and write a New York Times Bestseller book about what all you did.” Everyone roared. I laughed, too. “Yeah,” Rudy said. “He never even asked our permission. We want a cut of the money.” Nope, no way, I said. After that, Herman Kuhns prayed the final prayer, and we were dismissed.
But we didn’t leave. There was one more important ritual. The noon church meal. And I marvel here, some more, about all the work that went into getting everything ready. John’s wife, Dort, and the other ladies scurried about. And soon they had all the long tables loaded with the classic Amish church meal. Amish peanut butter. Homemade bread. Pickles. Cold red beets. Tubs of Smear Kase. Plates of sliced bologna. And there was even an extra, that I don’t remember from those meals. Fresh delicious egg salad. You pile all that stuff on a slice of homemade bread slathered with real butter, and you got yourself an authentic Amish church meal. And one big whopper of a sandwich. We sat and ate and feasted. And washed it all down with cups of steaming black coffee.
After the tables were cleared, most of us sat or stood around and visited. I mingled, here and there. John had told me to set out a few copies of my books, at a side table. And for a while, it looked like no one was interested. But as people started trickling out, one or two of them sought me out. I want a copy of your book, signed. So I sold a few. Gideon, the preacher, told me he wanted a copy. He had one, and he had read it and liked it a lot. But it wasn’t signed. So I signed a copy to him and his wife, Anna. He reached for his wallet, but I stopped him. You flew all the way out from Montana to bring us a sermon, I told him. The least I can do is give you a copy of my book.
Vern and Kim took their leave soon, too. They were driving back to their home in Tennessee that afternoon. A good long drive. Marvin and Rhoda headed out, too. And by three or so, I headed back to my motel room to rest a bit. Tonight, I was invited to Titus and Ruth’s home for supper. And tomorrow morning, I planned to meander south into Missouri.
And that was about it for that day, as far as the reunion was concerned. I’ve thought back to it a lot, that bunch of misfits who assembled back there at the Lake Fisher Park in Bloomfield. The memories are all good, and there are so many. A couple of things stand out in my mind, though, a couple of things I want to say.
The current Bloomfield Amish church, or at least its leadership, is extremely hostile to the reunion gathering. They don’t want any of us around. They strictly forbade anyone from the Bloomfield Amish to attend the event. On pain of harsh discipline. That’s a pretty big old hefty club, to keep people in line, people who would have loved to attend and hang out with family. And those people are there, in Bloomfield.
Talking now to the leaders of the Bloomfield Amish. Don’t kid yourself. A whole lot of your wounded members would love to hang out, when us misfits come around. You won’t let them. And that’s fine. It’s understandable, what you decreed, at least from your perspective. I’m not gonna get all high and holy on you. You are who you are. And it’s certainly understandable, that you just want to be left alone.
The thing is, we did leave you alone. You just can’t seem to get it out of your heads, the thought that we are getting together to talk about you and mock you. Somehow, that’s a heavy burden you choose to lug around. Yes, we did talk about our memories. We did talk of how hard the journey was. And some of our talk wasn’t all that flattering. But we have a lot of good memories, too. And we spoke those, too. Somehow, you Bloomfield people, or at least the leaders, have a real flawed concept of what happens at these reunions. I think you think it’s all one big party, one big beer bash. I heard that someone in Bloomfield even dubbed our gathering as “Woodstock, 2014.” What’s that supposed to mean? That we’re all hippies standing out there in the rain, getting stoned? Cheering wildly for whatever band is playing? It’s just totally silly, that comparison. And a little bitter.
If you know who you are, you will not need to be afraid to hang out with anyone. If what you’re living is true, it should be strong enough to mingle with any misfits. No matter where they came from, and no matter where they are. And that little truth applies to anyone, Amish or not.
The second thing I remember vividly from the reunion is this. The ride I took with my friends from the “Gang of Six” that Saturday night in Rudy’s truck. We talked right along as Rudy cruised out on the gravel roads, and turned right onto the highway. Toward the big hill that leads to Drakesville. Thirty-some years ago, we drove that same highway, up that steep old hill, in our steel-wheeled buggies.
We talked about that hill, how small it looked when you’re not in a buggy. And then we pulled into Drakesville. Rudy parked on the south side of the little square. We got out, and stood there and talked. On the north side, Bea Cormeny’s old convenience store sat huddled in beside other decrepit hulks that once were alive with commerce. It’s been boarded up for years. It looked so very small, the place where we’d sneak in of a Sunday afternoon and furtively buy a few six-packs of beer. Bea was an angel to us. I never knew her that well, she seemed old and stern to me. But she did what people did back then, when you could legally drink at eighteen. Back before MADD got all crazy drunk with power, back before all those draconian drinking laws were passed by the nanny state. She wouldn’t do it today, because she wouldn’t dare. But she did it back then. She sold us beer when we were seventeen. It was so long ago. We were so young. And I’m glad I was seventeen when I was.
And Vern stood there and spoke. The Vern of old. He told us of how he left, on that long-ago Sunday morning. He sneaked out of the house at midnight, and walked the three or four miles to town. He arrived way before dawn. He had hours to kill before he could call an English friend to come and fetch him. So he hunkered down in the phone booth, there in the middle of the square. You couldn’t see through the bottom few feet of those old phone booths. He crouched there, hidden from passing prying eyes, until the sun finally rose. Then he fumbled some quarters into the pay slot and called his friend, who came and took him to the bus station in Ottumwa. There, he boarded the bus for Valentine, Nebraska.
The phone booth is gone now. Only a little concrete slab remains where it once was. Vern walked over and stood on that little slab, and I snapped a few pics. The very spot where he had sat, all cold and miserable and scared and alone, way early that Sunday morning. But he sat there for as long as it took to break out of that place, that community. He sat there because he wanted to be free.
And we talked about it, how strange it was. Vern was fifteen years old, when his family moved to Bloomfield from Arthur, Illinois. He was sixteen when he first ran away from home. And after we all returned home to Bloomfield from Valentine, Vern left, soon after that. He might have been seventeen, or close to it. He never returned. We knew him, ran around with him, for only two short years. Which seemed like an eternity, back then. It was a pretty intense and bonding experience for the six of us, that journey we took together. And right now, this moment, four of the six were standing on one spot, remembering. It was a beautiful thing. And it was kind of haunting and sad, too.
Thirty-two years is a long time. Back in the day, none of us could have imagined it would ever go that long. We could not have imagined that we’d ever see the things we’ve seen since, or that we’d ever do the things we’ve done. It was so long ago. We’re getting older now, all of us have reached and passed fifty. About the age some of our fathers were, back when we caused them all that grief.
We talked about it, standing there around the bed of Rudy’s pickup. How deeply we had hurt our parents. Especially our Mothers. It’s not like we were loaded down with tons of regret and guilt. It was just somber talk. Of who we were, and what we did. The choices we made. Of how desperately we wanted to be free, how desperately we grasped for it, no matter the cost. It was what it was, all those years ago. Nothing can ever change any of what happened.
We loaded up and headed west then, along the highway. Cruised slowly past Vern’s old home, on the right. He spoke a lot of old stories. Spoke the old memories.
Then Rudy turned left, onto a gravel road. Toward my old home place. Bloomfield is sure built up, these days. Places that used to be English are now Amish. Plus, a hundred little new homesteads have popped up, where only bare fields lay before. We approached my home place from the south, because the bridge was out from the north. And Rudy turned in. We slowly drove the half mile to the house. This is the lane I walked out of, I told them. That night I left, when I was seventeen. The heavy black bottom fields were spread out around us. The fields I used to plow.
We drove up to the buildings. The family was seated out on the deck, on the south side of the house. Rudy turned the truck around. We waved at the people by the house. They waved back. It’s not that unusual, what they were seeing. A vehicle pulling in, then turning and leaving.
Over the gravel roads, then, through the community. Over Monkey Hill, past Henry D. Yoder’s old homestead. That poor man died destitute and lonely, just like he’d lived all his life. We talked about how it all happened, how he’d moved with his family from Bloomfield to a new settlement he founded, somewhere in some remote place in Missouri. He shook the dust of Bloomfield, and spoke boldly of that shaking. He was heading out, to live right. Bloomfield was too corrupt for him. So he moved. And then he took sick and died, soon after that. A tired, worn-out man with nothing. The Bloomfield people went down to his sad little new “settlement’ and buried him. Because there was no one else to do it.
And then we drove past Bishop Henry’s farmstead. And Jake Beachy’s sawmill, on the right. Jake moved out, years ago. Ervin Mast, I think that’s his name, took over Jake’s operation. But back to Bishop Henry. He passed away from cancer, six or seven years ago. Nathan and I stopped by see him, a few months before he left this earth. He was an emaciated shell of the man I knew, but he smiled in welcome and shook my hand. “The Waglers have been well-represented in coming to visit me,” he said. The old house still stands, his widow lives there now, I think. A new house stands there, too. His son, Paul, has the home place now.
A few more miles, then we approached Marvin’s old home. I looked for it, in the field west of the house. It’s a little mud hole, now. The pond where Titus dived. The place where he took his last steps, ever, on this earth. There it is, I said. And Marvin and Rudy told us their vivid memories of that night. The house loomed, then, and Rudy pulled in. No one seemed to be around. Marvin’s younger brother, Elmer, owns the farm now. And it was at the same place, the old hitching rail where I tied up my horse, when I came around so many times, hanging around with my friend all those years ago. The shop and barn looked about the same, too. Everything in good repair. Rudy slowly edged out of the drive, and we headed east to the Drakesville Highway.
We had one more stop. Rudy’s old home. His father, Dave, used to have a harness shop. A place where we’d all hang out when we could. He sold shoes and boots, a lot of general stuff like that. I bought more than a few pairs of work boots there. The place is built up a bit now, we saw as we pulled in. The old house was torn down years ago, and a new one built. Rudy’s cousin, Harley, bought the place from Rudy’s Dad. Harley died from cancer a few years back. His widow now lives there with their children. Rudy talked his memories. Of all the big old trees in the front yard, only one remains. After a few minutes, we left, down the highway, and off to the right onto the gravel road. We’d made a big circle. And now, back to the park and the reunion.
Dusk was settling into darkness when we got there. People lounged about in little knots in the pavilion and around the crackling fire. Rudy parked the truck, and we walked to join them.
My sister Rhoda met us in the pavilion. “How was your ride?” She asked, smiling.
It was a good ride, the four of us agreed. It was real good, I said. It was a ride we waited thirty-two years to take.
And only later, when I was mulling over things, it came to me, where we had been on that ride. We had traveled the roads of Old Bloomfield again that night.
I can’t hardly believe it’s that time of year again. The Great Annual Ira Wagler Garage Party is just around the corner. Once a year, I invite a large group of people to my house, for a cookout. Once a year, I spread wood chips on the floor of the garage. Set up a rickety little bar I picked up years ago at a yard sale. And fire up my charcoal grill, to cook up the finest sausages from Stoltzfus Meats. Guests are instructed, along with their invitations, to bring along salad or dessert. All kinds of wild and delicious food always shows up. It always balances out pretty well, amazingly, what people bring. Well, it has so far, anyway.
And every year, the crowd keeps expanding. This year, I fear there will be a serious parking shortage. A pretty good handful of first-timers claim they will be attending. And one friend I’ve never met, other than on Facebook, plans to truck all the way in from Missouri to be here. I’m very much looking forward to meeting him and hanging out.
I’m looking forward to all of it. It’ll be a big bash. For one night. And then it’ll be over for one more year.