December 5, 2014

The Great Moonshine Plot…

Category: News — admin @ 6:30 pm


Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.


I don’t exactly consider myself a connoisseur. But I like to have a jar of moonshine around, now and then. I’m fascinated by the history of the drink. Farmers, getting the best possible price for their corn. And I’m especially respectful of the drink, because it’s illegal. That makes any moonshine worth drinking, all on its own, that little fact right there. The guys who make it are thumbing their noses at the evil, invasive nanny state. Yeah, it’s against your laws. But I’ll make it, and I’ll sell it anyway. Do what you can to stop me. You gotta respect a man who does that.

Like I said, I’m no expert. I’ve got a contact, here and there, where I can pick up a jar now and then. The clear stuff, usually. And about 95% of clear moonshine leaves you gasping, when you take a shot. And it tastes like kerosene, most times. I’ve had only one jar, ever, that came out of West Virginia, that didn’t make you gasp. That stuff was smooth as silk, with no aftertaste whatsoever. I shared it joyfully with my friends. I drink alone, because I drink when I write. But I never drink moonshine alone. That stuff’s made to be shared. And it’s made so you only take one shot. Much more than that, and you’ll soon be sitting on your butt, your head spinning.

The seeds of this little tale go back, oh, I’d say six weeks or so. I got a call at work from a redneck builder down south in Maryland. (To me, “redneck” is a fond term.) The guy’s been buying metal roofing from me for years. And we’ve developed a real friendship. Anyway, that day he was on the road. He wanted to place an order for metal roofing for a house, a job he’d just landed. And he told me all the lengths, all the trim and accessories he needed. I’ll order the metal in, I told him as we were wrapping up. And I’ll put you on for delivery for next Thursday. “That’ll work,” he said. “But I’m heading out of town. So call me the day before you deliver, just to make sure I’m ready for the stuff.” I’ll do that, I said. And then I asked him. Out of town? Where are you heading?

“I’m goin’ to Tennessee,” he told me. “And I figure to be back next Tuesday. That’s why I want you to call, just to make sure I’m ready for the metal.” I locked in. Tennessee? I asked him. Well, you know what you can bring me. I’ll sure take a jar of ‘shine from down there, if you can find a still. He rolled right with it. “That’s what I’m plannin’ to do. I figured I’d bring you a jar.” Hey, thanks, I said. I’ll look forward to it.

I called him, the next week, on Wednesday. The day before his delivery was scheduled. Yes, he was back. And yes, bring the load. He added a few more small items he’d thought of. All right, we’ll be out there first thing, I told him. And then I asked him. Did you get me some ‘shine? “Yup,” he said. “I got the clear, and I got the Apple Pie. Which do you want?” I’d rather have the clear, I said. I’m suspicious of Apple Pie. I got a few jars of that once, and it slushed up on me, when I put it in the freezer. That’s the way you test it, to see if it’s real ‘shine. It better stay all liquid, when you put it in the freezer.

“OK,” he said. “I got a jar of clear for you. Shall I send it back with the driver?” Nah, I said. I don’t want any Graber trucks stopped for running ‘shine. Just drop it off, sometime when you’re around. I’ll pay you for it. “I will,” he said. “And I don’t want paid for it. I want a signed copy of your book.” I’ll be happy to trade, that way, I said. But I’ll sure be getting the best deal, of the two of us. I mean, my book ain’t worth what you paid for that ‘shine. “I don’t care,” he said. “I just want a signed copy of your book. And I’ll trade, straight across.” Sounds good to me, I said. I’ll look for you, one of these days.

And he walked in, a couple of Fridays back. I saw him coming. He was carrying a little brown paper bag. I got up to greet him, and we stood there and talked across the counter. You’ll all dressed up, man, I said. Pretty slicked up. What’s up with that? “Yeah, today’s my birthday,” he said. “So I’m going out to celebrate a bit.” We chatted a bit more. And then I asked him. I see your bag. Did you bring my moonshine?

“Yup,” he said, handing it over. I opened the bag. Inside was a little plastic bag, wrapped around a cold jar. “I’ve kept it in the freezer,” he told me. I took the jar out. Unscrewed the lid. Sure smelled like the real stuff. We might as well have a taste, I said. I handed him the jar. You go first, you brought it here for me. He took it from my hands, and took a sip. Then he solemnly handed it back to me. I took a sip. We had moonshine communion, right there. That’s pretty good stuff, I said. Very smooth. Don’t taste like kerosene at all. “I told you it was good,” he said. He seemed pretty proud of his contacts, down in Tennessee.

He likes to stand and talk a while when he comes, so we stood and talked about things. Then I reached under my desk and got out a copy of my book. I opened the front cover, and signed the book over to my friend. “You know, I’m gonna try to get it read,” he said, as he took it from me. “I always fall asleep when I sit down to read something. Even when it’s a hunting magazine, something I’m interested in. I just fall asleep. But I’m sure gonna try hard to get this read.” Don’t worry about it, if you don’t, I told him. I never ask anyone if they’ve read it, after I give them a copy. I figure if they want to tell me they did, that’s fine. But I don’t ask. I won’t ask you, either.

He picked up a few tubes of caulk for that roofing job, then. Thanks again for the ‘shine, I said. We shook hands, and he walked out. A real good guy, right there, I told Andrew. Look. He brought me some ‘shine from Tennessee, for a copy of my book. Andrew seemed pretty impressed.

And right here, I might as well insert this. I don’t know any better place to say it. Things have changed a bit, lately, at Graber. Reuben wanted to get away, be less involved in the day to day business of things. So he hired a guy to be “him,” a guy who oversees every detail of every aspect of the business. He came along about a month ago. His name is Rodney. We were all kind of freaked out, those of us who’ve been there a long time. What’s this? Change? We don’t like change. Who is this guy, and what’s he gonna do around here?

Well, I must say it’s all been rolling along pretty smoothly, so far. Rodney didn’t come in and throw his weight around, right off. We just didn’t know, how it would be. He met with each employee, individually. And he just talked to each one. He’s upbeat, to a fault, almost. He’s a guy who ran a large nonprofit, before he came to Graber. Actually, I think he was overqualified for the job. But he took it. And he came right in there, and stamped his nonthreatening personality all over the place. Slowly, but relentlessly.

He likes to talk about “teamwork” a lot. Beyond anything any of us had ever heard before. And he was all cheery, as the Christmas season came down at us. Christmas cheer. Let’s hear it. I grumbled at him. I’m a grinch. Leave me alone, when it comes to Christmas. And one day, Rosita cranked up the one Christmas song she knew I despised. Dominick the Donkey. It’s a silly little senseless tune. She tortures me with it every year, and has for years. And I grumbled loudly at her. Shut that song off. I don’t want to hear it.

Rodney overheard us fussing. And he stepped right out, and inserted himself. “Why don’t you like that song, and why don’t you like Christmas?” He asked. It’s a silly song, and I don’t have to like Christmas if I don’t want to, I said. Just let me fuss at Rosita. Well. That was certainly the wrong thing to say. Because the man decreed that Dominick the Donkey will be played loudly every afternoon, right up through Christmas. I grumbled savagely. You’re inflicting pain on me, here. And every afternoon, right around 2 PM, they rolled out the song. I hunched in my chair, as they all made snide remarks at me.

And somehow, I managed to negotiate some terms. Look. I don’t feel like I have a voice, here. Let’s make a window. Say, between 1:30 and 2:15. The song has to be played in that window. If we get all busy, or if you all forget, I get to have peace that day. Rosita and Andrew scoffed. But Rodney listened. “OK, that’s negotiating. That’s a better place than you were before. So it has to happen, in that forty-five minutes. Or the song won’t be played.” I can accept that, I said. And believe me, I won’t be reminding anyone about anything in those forty-five minutes.

Back to that Friday afternoon. I forget if the abominable song was played, but I’m pretty sure it was. I didn’t care much, that day. I was excited, because Janice was coming around. She was working in Philly, and had reserved rooms at Cork Factory Hotel. One room for me, and one for her and Wilm. It’s been a while, well, back at the beach in September, since we’d hung out together, the three of us. And I was looking forward a lot, to seeing her again. I set the jar of ‘shine on the floor behind the counter, so I wouldn’t forget it when I left. And at some point, I invited the others. Let’s all have a sip. I even poked my head around the corner and asked Rodney, if he’d like some. “Sure,” he said. And we all huddled together.

We held out our little pointy white paper water cups, and I poured us all a little shot. Even Rosita came and participated. We saluted. Cheers. They probably said “to Christmas.” I didn’t. And then we gulped it down. The second moonshine communion I had that day. You’d think you could trust about any group you just drank moonshine with, especially if you supplied it.

I left a little early, then, around four. I had to run home, finish and post the blog about Bear Stoll, and then head on over to Cork Factory Hotel. I was winding my way through Gap, when I looked, and realized something. The ‘shine. I’d forgotten the ‘shine. Drat. Oh, well. After getting through town, I called Andrew’s cell. He didn’t answer, so I left a message. Hey, Ira here. I forgot my moonshine. It’s sitting there, behind the counter. Save the paper and plastic bags it’s in, but put the jar in the freezer. I’ll take it home on Monday. Andrew texted me back, when I got home. “Thanks. We’ll have a real big party over the weekend.” I know exactly how much ‘shine is in that jar, I texted back. And it better be right where it is right now.

Somewhere in the Old Testament, there is a verse that speaks of how desperately wicked the human heart is. I suppose my own heart is as depraved as anyone’s. Actually, I know it is. But for the crew at the office there at Graber, I’ll tweak that verse just a bit. They, at least the ones who were present that Friday afternoon, their hearts are desperately devious. That’s all I can say. And I’ll tell you why a little bit later.

The evening rolled right in at me. And the weekend. I posted my blog, then headed on in to meet Janice and Wilm, at Cork and Cap for dinner. Janice had been all busy. And we were joined by Reuben, and a few other local friends. We all sat around a large table, and just had a real good time. Later, we sat at the bar, in a long line, and just caught up. It was family and friends time.

The next morning, we got up late. Just lounged around. After coffee, Janice headed out with me, back to my home turf, to run some errands. It’s so rare, that she and I just get to drive around and talk. And we just chatted about things. How the year went, how hard it was, a lot of it. I’m in a pretty good place, when you think about how it all went, I said. But as Christmas is coming up, I’m a little sad. I think back to last year this time, and how I was all excited about a special gift I was getting together. You were with me, when I went to pick it up. It was the first time we stayed at Cork Factory. We picked it up that Saturday afternoon. And you remember how proudly I showed it to you, the gift. I look back at how excited I was about it, what a surprise it would be. And I look back now at what all has happened since then. This year, there is no special gift to send to anyone. And it just waves through me. Not heavy sadness. But still, the memories flood in, and this year, this Christmas, I’m a little sad. Janice nodded. She knew what I was talking about. She’s been a rock of support from the instant that particular world crumpled around me. “It’s real, how a season can do that to you. Even a season like Christmas,” she said.

We stopped by an Amish farmer’s place to pick up a gallon of fresh Jersey milk. Every other Saturday, I stop and buy a gallon from the guy. A big old glass jar, sitting there in the ice cold water in the tank. I take it on over to my friends, David and Esther’s place. Esther takes that raw fresh Jersey milk and makes four quarts of totally natural yogurt. I stop back, usually on Sunday afternoon, and pick up two of those quarts of delicious natural yogurt. And she keeps two. It’s a real nice little deal we’ve had going for a while, now. Esther smiled and welcomed Janice. Her married daughter, Emma was home, with her two-year-old daughter. The girl was just a little live wire, and Janice connected immediately with her. The two of them talked in PA Dutch. The little girl was all proud that her hair was long enough to make a bun. “Look, a bun,” she said to Janice, turning around and pointing to her bun of hair. Janice made much fuss about that bun. I watched the two of them connect, and it pierced my heart a bit. Because I knew Janice was seeing little Abby in that little girl.

All right. Meandering here. But I guess I can do that, because this is my blog. We headed back to the city, then, and met Wilm at the Hotel. Janice drove us over to Central Market. The oldest continuously open Farmer’s Market in the country. Right in the middle of downtown Lancaster. It’s a teeming place, with all sorts of every imaginable goody. Food, fresh food. Fruits, fresh fruits. And all kinds of delicious things to eat, from the lunch stands. We puttered around for an hour, as the place was winding down. As full as it was, even then, I’d hate to be around when it opened on a Saturday morning.

Janice and I bought some food at a Cuban stand. And Wilm bought some Thai pasta of some kind. It was time to leave, then. Janice told me. “Wilm and I want to go shopping at TJ Maxx. Do you want to come along, or should we drop you off at the Hotel?” Oh, I’ll go along, I said, all innocently. I need a few things. She looked a little dubious, but I insisted. I’ll go along. So off we went, to TJ Maxx. I was about to learn a few things, I must say.

I puttered and putzed around, over in the men’s section. For about twenty minutes. And then I went to hunt up the girls. I’m going over to Ollie’s, for a while, I said. Text me when you’re ready to leave. “OK, we will,” they said. And off I wandered, to Ollie’s, a quarter mile away. A big discount warehouse, that’s what Ollie’s is. I wandered through the place. For a long time, probably half an hour. I checked out their book section. One of these days, my book is gonna hit the discount section. But it wasn’t there, at Ollie’s, not that day. I kept checking my phone, for a text. Nothing. Finally, I gave up. Walked the quarter mile back to TJ Maxx. Surely the girls would be checking out, by the time I got there.

I walked back into the store, and looked and looked for Janice’s dark red hair. I mean, I scanned the place. Walked all over, looking and looking. No mane of dark red hair to be seen anywhere. So I parked out, close to the exit. Just stood there, and lounged. And lounged. Wandered in circles. I noticed, that the clerks close by were eying me strangely. A tall guy, standing and wandering. What’s he doing here? I figured they thought I was about to rob the place. So I finally texted Janice, in desperation. Where are you? I’m back, in the store. She texted right back. “We’re in the dressing room.” A few minutes later, they emerged, Janice and Wilm. Chattering about the jeans they’d tried on, and all about how much more stuff they wanted to look at. It was pretty clear that they had only begun shopping.

I stood and faced them both. Look, I said. I’m done. Here’s my offer. If you take me back to the Hotel, I promise that I will never, never go shopping with you again. They took up my offer. Half somberly. Janice couldn’t stop laughing, all the way back, though. “You poor man. Going shopping with me and Wilm.” And they dropped me off, at Cork and Cap. And went back to their shopping. I nursed my wounds, at the bar, with a drink. And then I went back to my room, until the girls came back to take me out for dinner. At a very nice little French restaurant. I never knew such a place existed in Lancaster. But then, why should I? I abhor the evil city. But that night, it was a good place. And later we hung out with Joe and Moe, the bartenders at Cork and Cap.

The next morning, we woke up late. And we had brunch, at the restaurant. If you ever get to Lancaster, look up two places. Vinola’s, my bar in Leola. And Cork and Cap, in Lancaster. I’d stack those two places against any place you suggest to me. They’re real. The people are real. And they both got real good food and drinks. After brunch, we all got a little sad. Janice had to head right to the airport, to catch her plane west. We all hugged. And parted again, one more time. Until the next time.

OK. I’m done meandering, now. Back to the moonshine. I got to work, that Monday, after all that fun. And I was feeling pretty good. I asked Andrew, sometime that morning. Did you put my moonshine in the freezer? “No,” he said. “I just put it in the fridge.” I thought I told you to put it in the freezer, I said. Oh, well. We’ll have a taste again, before I take it home tonight. He looked all eager, to have a taste.

And right here, I’ll repeat myself. I’ve never done this before. But this time, I will. I will repeat myself. Somewhere in the Old Testament, there is a verse that speaks of how desperately wicked the human heart is. I suppose my own heart is as depraved as anyone’s. Actually, I know it is. But for the crew at the office there at Graber, I’ll tweak that verse just a bit. They, at least the ones who were present that Monday after lunch, and maybe at least one other person who wasn’t present, their hearts are desperately devious. Or at least those hearts were desperately devious, that day.

Andrew had to leave at two that day, for some appointment. So about fifteen minutes before he left, I got all generous again. I would share what I had with my friends. Let’s have another shot of ‘shine before you go. They both seemed all eager, Rosita and Andrew. Rodney wasn’t around right then. I’m sure he would have been all eager, too.

I had walked out a bit earlier, and stuck the ‘shine up in the freezer, so it would get real cold. That’s the best way to sip it. Ice cold, straight from the freezer. When I went back to fetch it, little icicles were forming on the inside of the jar. What the heck was that all about? I wondered. My redneck friend had told me he kept it in the freezer. Maybe it’s not as pure as he thought it was. I carried it out, to where the others were waiting.

I opened the jar. The moonshine smell whooshed right out. This is real good stuff, I said as I poured us each a shot. Cheers, we said to each other. Then we all tossed it back. That’s pretty smooth, I must say, I said. “Yes, yes,” they both agreed, although I think Rosita coughed a bit, pretending to choke. “It’s real smooth.” And I sat back in my chair, all satisfied at having shared my ‘shine with such good, true friends. Nothing like a little shot of good ‘shine, after a meal, I told Andrew. He agreed, as he was rushing out to his appointment.

I carefully placed my jar of moonshine back into the fridge. Not the freezer. It had slushed up, earlier. And I was perturbed about that. Maybe the stuff was diluted. As I left work, I carried my precious jar of ‘shine out to my truck with me. David, Andrew’s older brother, was walking out to his car, too. “Oh, what do you have there?” he asked, all interested. I got some real good, smooth ‘shine, I said. Do you want a taste? “Sure,” he said. I unscrewed the lid, and again shared my ‘shine with a friend. He took a small sip. “That’s pretty smooth,” he told me. Yeah, it sure is, I said. I got it from a redneck friend. He traded it for a copy of my book. I took that jar home, and put in the fridge. I’m not trusting it not to freeze, I thought to myself. I’ll just keep it down here, until I figure out what’s going on.

And the next day at work, Andrew and Rosita told Rodney. “We had a shot of Ira’s ‘shine yesterday, again. It was real smooth.” Rodney looked all grieved, that he’d missed it. But he told me. “I’ve got a jar of ‘shine, here. Do you want to try it?” Sure, I said, all eager. It was after lunch, I think. Not real clear on some specific details. So he brought the jar down, from the fridge upstairs. A nice cold jar, looked like. We stepped into a back room, and poured out shots into those little pointy white cups again. Saluted each other. And drank the ‘shine.

It’s was a little rough, I thought. That’s not the quality of my ‘shine, I told Rodney. You need better sources. He looked all sad, like he was all disappointed. “It’s not as good as yours?” he asked it plaintively, over and over again. Nope, I said. It’s definitely not as smooth as mine. We all settled back to our stations again, then. But Rodney hovered. He had something to say, yet, seemed like. Maybe he was going to make that awful Dominick the Donkey song play, again.

“This is your moonshine,” he said, handing me the jar. I figured he was being gracious and giving me a gift of inferior stuff. Well, thank you, I said. I appreciate that. “No,” he said. “This is your moonshine.” Yes, I know that, I said. You just gave it to me. “This is your moonshine,” he repeated again. And then it finally sank through my brain. He was handing me my own jar of ‘shine, the jar my redneck friend had brought me. The jar at home in my fridge, that stuff was icing up, because it was water.

I don’t trust people, real easy. But when I do, I trust them pretty much completely. If I trust you, and you tell me you’re gonna be somewhere, I figure you will be there. If you’re not, well, I probably won’t ever trust you again. And if you tell me you saved my ‘shine in the fridge, and you trot it out, and we have a sip, I figure you’re telling me the truth. And when it’s not the truth, well, water will taste like moonshine.

Because that’s what they did, that Friday afternoon, after I forgot my jar of ‘shine. They switched it out, for water. I’m not quite sure who’s idea it was, who came up with it. I tried to get them to go back and remember the details. They were all vague, all of a sudden. But there was a whole lot of teamwork going on, all of a sudden, too. A whole lot of plotting. And when I opened that jar, when we had that sip, Andrew and Rosita and me, it still smelled just like moonshine. And because that’s what I was totally expecting, my brain told me that’s what I was drinking. I kept exclaiming how smooth it was. Of course it was smooth. It was water. I would never have believed such a thing could be, had it not happened to me.

At least one person claims my face paled, when the truth hit me. I don’t think it did. I was had, and I was had real good. I can’t believe this, I kept saying over and over again. And I laughed, too, because it was all so ridiculous. Y’all are a bunch of thugs, I said. Just because I’m a grinch, you do this to me when my back is turned? I’ll get you back, I will. And it came to me, right about then. Tell the story. That’s how you get back at a devious prank like that. Just tell the story.

And I told them. You think I’m gonna slink down, and hide my face about this? Do you really think that? This story’s gonna haunt me all my life, if I run from it. Tell you what. I’m going to write it in my next blog. And right there, I think, I got back at them a little bit. I’m sure that was the last thing they were expecting.

And really, it all is pretty funny, when you think about it. It’s a classic. They turned ‘shine into water on me. And they turned water back to ‘shine. I don’t know that such a thing has ever happened before. That’s the kind of world I live in, I guess. A world of miracles.

And that right there is the story of the Great Moonshine Plot in this the year of our Lord, 2014. Are there any lessons in there anywhere? I don’t write to preach, to tell you what to learn. I just write, to tell the story. I’m sure the first lesson a lot of people would tell me is this. Don’t drink moonshine. Then such a thing wouldn’t happen to you. OK, then. Other than that, I ain’t got a whole lot of specific lessons to tell. If there’s any life lessons to be learned from the Great Moonshine Plot, figure them out yourself.

November 21, 2014

The Deacon (Sketch #17)

Category: News — admin @ 5:31 pm


And forever the river runs, deep as the tides
of time and memory, deep as the tides of sleep,
the river runs…

Thomas Wolfe

It’s been one of those weeks, when nothing was coming, writing-wise. And by Wednesday, I was pretty resigned. There would be no blog post this Friday. I can’t force this stuff, and I won’t. So if nothing comes, nothing gets written. Then, that afternoon, my iPhone pinged. A text message. I was on the office phone with a customer. A few minutes later, I hung up. Then I looked at the message that had come. It was from my sister, Rachel. One line. Stephen Stoll died this morning. And right there, it all slid right in, the tale to tell.

Stephen Stoll. A dark man, a dark legend in my childhood world in Aylmer. He was the deacon, the enforcer of the rules. Many a strong man paled and trembled when he came knocking on the door. He wasn’t there to socialize, usually. And he wasn’t all that good at small talk. He was real good, though, at carrying out the job he was ordained for. Keeping people in line, making sure the church “Ordnung” was enforced.

I can’t remember seeing him ordained, although I probably did. I was just too young, to grasp what I was seeing. He’s among my earliest memories of church, though. Getting up between the sermons to do his job, read the Scripture of the day. He was kind of clean-cut back then, as I recall. As a real young child, I liked the man. He seemed pretty nice, to me.

I suppose it took him a few years, to reach his stride. And then, in the early 1970s, he moved with his father, Peter Stoll. All the way down to Honduras, to convert the natives. I was always kind of fascinated, that Stephen went. I guess he had that Stoll heart of his father, deep down. He wanted to spread the gospel to those who were lost. That’s why Peter went, that was his vision. And Stephen and his brother Joe and their families moved with their father.

He was out of my life, for a few years, then. But the Honduras venture was doomed to fail, as it did. And within a few short years, although they didn’t seem all that short back then, the Stoll brothers were trickling back up to Aylmer. They moved back. And when you’re a deacon, you’re a deacon, wherever you are. Stephen Stoll stepped right back into his old role in Aylmer.

I remember how startled I was, when he first stood up to read Scripture in church. He was not the man I had remembered, from back when they left. He looked all different. Dark, somehow. His beard was a huge, untrimmed jumble. He had stubble for a mustache, one of the Stolls’ pet peeves. They believed in mustaches. And Stephen, I would say, had a clearly distinct one. I was startled, too, by his voice. It wasn’t mellow, like I’d remembered. It was fuzzy, somehow, kind of gruff. And he read the Scripture that day. I don’t remember where church was. But I can still see him, standing up there, with that big old German Bible in his hands.

And I told my brothers that afternoon, after we got home from church. The man looks like a bear. He sounds like a bear, too. Grizzle, grizzle, growl, growl. That’s how he sounded. And Stephen and Titus agreed. He looked and sounded like a bear. And from that day forward, right or wrong, Stephen Stoll was known as “Bear” Stoll in our world. It just fit, the name. And, yeah, we were derisive, speaking it, labeling him like that. Yes. We were. I’m not here to make any excuses about who we were or what we did. Just trying to tell a story of a man.

He was Elmo Stoll’s older brother, Bear Stoll was. And I’ve often marveled, that those two men were born of the same mother. At least when you heard them speak. Elmo had the golden, gifted tongue. He could make you like him, even as he was taking away your rights to please his furious, frowning God. Stephen couldn’t speak publicly, to save his life. He stumbled and muttered and growled. But they made the perfect team, when you think about it. The gifted leader always needs an enforcer, to carry out his strident decrees. Stephen was Elmo’s enforcer. And he was real good at what he did.

They were just human, the two of them. And I want to keep that in mind. But they also hurt a lot of people, hurt them deeply. There’s simply no denying that. All because of the vision of righteousness that Elmo saw and Stephen enforced. Probably because he saw that vision, too. Aylmer would be pure. Aylmer would be perfect. That’s what they believed as they strode through life, all bold and confident.

He had one redeeming factor, Bear Stoll did. Talking through a child’s eyes, here. And that was this. He never, never preached a sermon. A deacon’s job is to get up, and read the Scripture. Way too many Amish deacons seize that moment in the sun. Here’s their chance, to get their voice in. Here’s their chance, to say something profound. It’s probably a big temptation, and I don’t judge them like I used to, back when I had to sit quietly on a hard bench and listen to a third sermon in church, when there were only supposed to be two. And to an Amish child, it’s a big deal, that a deacon sits down on time. And that a preacher does, too, come to think of it. You respect a deacon when he pretty much just does his job, at least when it comes to reading Scripture.

Bear Stoll always, always spoke his favorite Bible verse, leading up to the reading. “Ich habe Meine Augen auf zu denn Bergen…” “I hold my eyes up to the hills, from whence cometh my help…” He also had a few short stories, that he liked to share. He took only a minute or two, telling them. And the one he told over and over was this. He was born in Daviess, where his father was born. And he grew up there, before Peter moved out. And he and his brothers loved basketball. They loved to play it and watch it. And there was some big rivalry game going on one night, at the local high school. Probably Barre-Reeve. And Stephen and his brothers wanted very badly to go watch that game. After school, they approached their father. If we work fast, and get our chores done early, can we go watch the basketball game? His father looked real grieved, Stephen said. And he didn’t say anything for a little while. And then he asked his sons. “Is that where you would like to be, if Jesus came back tonight?” By this time, tears were always trickling down Bear’s dark and bearded face. And he always sobbed a little, in the telling of it. His closing line was always the same. “That was enough of an answer for us.”

That’s where the Stolls come from, from a world like that. Where a father asks his sons if they’d want to be watching a basketball game, if Jesus came back right when they were doing that. It’s a messed-up place, such a world. And that’s the world I came from, too, now that I think of it. Actually, Stephen and his brothers were far bolder and far freer with their father, than me and my brothers could ever hope to be with Dad. We would never have dreamed, never have dared, to even ask such a thing of him. Can we go to a basketball game? We would never have asked, because such a question was never even a remote possibility in our world.

I never was a church member in Aylmer, so I never had to experience the terror of a visit from the man. Still, what he pulled off now and then affected me. And I remember one particular incident. Some youth were visiting from another Amish community in Indiana. And they got the grand idea, my brothers and sisters, and their friends from Indiana. Let’s all go to the Sand Hills, one evening. We can hire a bus to take us. We’ll have a big picnic. And we’ll play softball, on the diamond, there. We figured to spread the word around, to all the other youth. Well, I wasn’t sixteen, but I was old enough to go along to a place like this. And we sent Titus out on the road, the day before, spreading the news. We’re going to the Sand Hills with our Indiana friends, tomorrow evening. And Titus made one big, innocent mistake. He told people, including Bear Stoll’s sons. Bring your softball gloves. We’ll have a good game, playing together.

The next day came, and we were all looking forward to it, eagerly. The Sand Hills. A big old cookout. And a softball game. Stephen Stoll was greatly perturbed, when he heard the news from his sons. And that day, he took his horse and buggy on the road. He stopped to see people, the leaders of the church. He grizzled and growled. And by late that afternoon, late on the afternoon of the very day we had planned our picnic, he had triumphed. He had called it off. Boys and girls should not be playing softball together. It might lead to lust. I remember vividly how shocked and disappointed I was, hearing the news. I was probably fourteen years old, right then. And the bitter thoughts and bitter words that flowed from me had pretty much the reverse effect that Bear Stoll had expected from his holy stand. I despised the man, deeply. Right there, at that young age, if you despise the deacon in your church for pulling off a stunt like that, someone’s in trouble. Either me, or the deacon.

That’s where the Stolls come from, a place like that. And no, this time I can’t identify. I think even my father was perturbed, that the picnic had been canceled on such a flimsy pretense. You think about it. There is no way you’re not serving a furious, frowning God, when you pull off something like Bear Stoll pulled off, that time.

And time flowed on, and brought what time usually brings. We moved out of Aylmer, my family. Dad did what he thought he needed to do, to keep his sons Amish. And I didn’t see much of Bear Stoll, after that. Not for years. I held the bitterness of who he was in my heart, though. They all became “Bears,” the Aylmer leaders. Anyone in my circles knows exactly what I mean, when I mention that term. Bears. Dark men, dark people, with dark hearts, pretending to live in light, up there on that shining city on a hill.

When you pretend to live all perfect like that, it’ll catch up with you. It just will, when you proclaim your purity like the Aylmer Bears did. And it caught up to them, back in the 1990s. I don’t remember the exact dates. But there were scandals, up there. Big, big sandals. I won’t go into detail. Let’s just say it was all pretty humiliating, for people who had projected all the answers before, to their world. And there was lots of humility, going on. I was pretty bitter, when it all came down. I ignored their humility, and smirked. Yeah. Take that. You deserve it.

Time has a funny way of changing how you look at the past, though. And it’s been pretty strange, looking back. The Bears of Old Aylmer are no longer what they once were, when I look back. They are human, and they are people. They always were, I suppose. I just couldn’t see it. They were people trying to live their lives before the Lord, as best they knew how. Sure, they were flawed, deeply flawed. But then, who isn’t? And from where I am today, I can see that so clearly. It’s all so plain. It doesn’t mean people don’t hurt people. They do. It just means you can let it go. And in the last decade or more, it’s been almost a fond term, to those of us who came out of that world. Bears. Aylmer Bears. It’s a connection. If you understand the term, you came from where I was.

He moved out of Aylmer for the second and final time. I don’t remember exactly when that happened. Early 1990s, maybe. A group of Aylmer people wanted to be more plain, live a more holy life. So they moved up north a ways, to Lindsay, Ontario. To set up an even more perfect place than Aylmer was. It was a disaster from day one, Lindsay was. The place has been plagued with dissension since the day of its inception. That’s neither here nor there, I guess. It’s just the place where Stephen Stoll lived out his final days.

I remember the first time I faced those men, and they looked at me without judgment. It was after the scandals. In the late 1990s. Reuben and me, and my nephew, John Wagler, snuck up there for my nephew Ivan Gascho’s wedding, on Reuben’s plane. We weren’t invited, because they’re not allowed to invite you. Somehow, I had let them know. We’re coming. And when we got there, they had a bench for us. And later, they had food, too, on a table, waiting for us. Everyone was very welcoming.

The thing I remember about that day, though, is this. They came and spoke to us, the Bears of Aylmer. And they spoke to us with no judgment on their faces. This was way before I had a writing voice, so it wasn’t fear that made them act that way. It was their hearts. They meant it, it was real. I remember especially that Stephen Stoll, and his brother, Joe, made a special effort to come to where we stood. And they just smiled and talked. Visited. I don’t remember what we talked about, much. Just that we talked.

And since that day, I saw Stephen Stoll probably three or four times. I was always increasingly shocked, when I saw him. He was gray and bent and feeble. Just an old man, struggling along. And I wondered. How could such a man as this ever strike terror in anyone’s heart? It’s the passing of time, I guess, that changes things. For both sides. For those who instill fear with force. And for those who felt that fear and force.

The original “Bear” of Old Aylmer mellowed tremendously in his old age. And I’ve heard he spoke it. He would do some things different, if he had them to do over again. He would do some things different. He realized what he’d done, the people he’d hurt. He regretted it. And he spoke that regret.

He was old and gray and frail, the last time I saw him. At a funeral. And he usually made it a point, to come over and speak to me when he saw me. And I never sensed any judgment in the man. Only kindness, and perhaps some sprinkling of regret. He smiled and talked to me. And I smiled back and talked to him.

I had heard his health was bad. And now he has passed away after a long struggle with cancer. He was seventy-seven years old.

Stephen Stoll, Rest in Peace.