February 16, 2018

Old Order Mennonites and Me…

Category: News — admin @ 5:32 pm

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We are the sum of all the moments in our lives – all that
is ours is in them: we cannot escape it or conceal it.

—Thomas Wolfe
_____________________

It was a nippy spring morning, almost twenty years ago. Still early enough in the year to be cold. Mid to late March, if I remember right. And I had a “home” appointment that morning, over close to Ephrata. The client had called. He needed a Will, and he wanted someone to stop by. We made arrangements. And I set out from the office where I worked as an attorney, in suit and tie every day. Not that I would have needed to be all dressed up. Where I was going, they wouldn’t be that impressed. That’s because my client was an Old Order Mennonite.

I trundled down Rt. 322 in the little white Dodge Spirit I was driving at the time. And then off on a side road. There was no GPS back then, so I slowed as I got close. Looked for the mailbox number. And there it was. The farm. A little more raggedy and unkempt than neighboring Amish farms. The Old Order Mennonites don’t rush out with a rake to attack every leaf as it flutters down from a tree, like the Lancaster Amish do. So their farms look a little more rough. More like the places I grew up in. Well used. Make do until it wears out. The barn roof might well have two or three different colors of metal. The OOMs are more about functionality, and less about neatness. Which is totally OK. I understand the concept, and I understand the mindset.

I pulled in the drive and parked. Got out. Straightened my suit coat and tie. Then I walked up the cracked and uneven walkway to the house. It looked battered and old, like the barn. A few lean cats lurked about. And a dog, too, whined inquisitively. Not that great a watchdog, are you? I muttered. I walked up the steps and stumped across the wooden porch floor. Knocked on the weathered wood door. From inside, the sound of faint stirrings. And then the door opened. An old man stood, peering out at me. Well, he wasn’t old, necessarily. Older, I’d say, in his sixties, probably. Beardless, in plain shirt and barn door pants with galluses. He was lean, and you could tell he was fit. He looked at me with a half-smile on his wizened, stubbled face.

I greeted him. I’m Ira Wagler. I have an appointment about a Will. “Oh, yes,” he said. And he opened the door wider and motioned me in. “Come on in, and we’ll sit at the kitchen table.” I thanked him and stepped through the door into another world.

The room was drab, colorless. It was nippy outside, and it was downright chilly inside. Near as I could tell, there was no heat at all anywhere. By the wall in the kitchen stood an old dry sink. And it was ancient, probably worth a small fortune. Still used every day, just like it had been since the time it was made. The housewife smiled from across the room, where she was working at something, sewing or ironing. She got up and walked over to join us. Over in the corner, an old woman sat motionless, as if frozen, huddled in a shawl. She was actually old, and she looked cold. No. She was cold. The grandmother of the house. I didn’t see any grandfather. Probably passed on. The OOMs take care of their own, like the Amish do. It was like stepping into a Whistler painting, that moment. Stark contrasts and stark shadows, but only in the earthy tones of black and shades of brown and pale green.

We sat there at the kitchen table, me and the man and his wife. The old crone in the corner sat, huddled, silent, unmoving. I sneaked a glance her way now and then, as we talked there at the table. The whole scene kind of gave me shivers. It was a threadbare existence, the lives these people lived. Threadbare, like this old house. And I am not criticizing. I’m simply opining, from what I saw that day. What you are is how you live.

We chatted. Made small talk. I think I spoke in PA Dutch, at least some. I do that a lot more freely around the OOMs than I do around the Amish. The Amish glance at you, all startled, if you speak to them in their language. And then they start mumbling uncomfortable questions about whether you ever were a member of their church. If you were, are you now excommunicated? If you are, we can’t deal with you. That’s how it goes, with the Amish. The OOMs could not care less, if you were ever a member of any church but their own. And it’s pretty plain to any insider that I wasn’t. So I let down my guard and speak PA Dutch to them a lot more.

I went through the usual list of things I need to know to write a Will. Full names, including middle initials. Full names of the Executors, Guardians, and Trustees, if there are any. After I took down all my notes, we visited a little. I asked a bit about their history. Their lives, their stories, who they were. And somehow, the old man got to telling me about the day he bought this farm, way back when they were young married.

It happened a long time ago. The farm was sold at auction. And it was located right in the community where the young marrieds lived, or wanted to. The old man leaned in, across the table, as he talked. He was sitting right there, across from me. But in his mind, he was seeing a big thing that happened a lifetime ago. The bidding went hard and fast that day. And before he knew it, the price was up and above what he had planned to pay. But he counseled with his wife. And his Dad. They kept bidding. Higher and higher. And then the sale was knocked off. The old man had done it. Back in that day, when he was young, he paid a record price for a farm in that immediate area. He spoke the price. I forget what it was. Compared to the farm’s value today, it was barely a pittance.

And it was what happened after the sale, it was what happened then that the old man remembered. The wound stabbed down deep, and he felt the pain as vividly on the day he told me as he had felt it forty years before, when it happened. He and his wife were standing around, after their high bid on the farm. Kind of shy and unsure of themselves. And a neighboring OOM man came up to them. I think the man’s name was mentioned, but it wasn’t important to me. What was important was what the neighbor man said.

That day, that morning, the old man leaned across the kitchen table, as close to in my face as he could get. His wife sat, smiling self-consciously. She had heard this tale a thousand times before, over the years, I have no doubt. And the old man asked dramatically. “Do you know what that neighbor man told me, that day? Do you know what he said?” No, I said, shaking my head, but not acting too eager. No, I don’t know. What did the neighbor man tell you?

The old man paused, once again. He was back there, and he was reliving a pain he had dragged along with him through all the ensuing years. And the words came rolling from him, he almost spit them out. “He said, he told me. The neighbor man said, You’ll NEVER get this farm paid for.”

And the old man leaned back, sitting there at the kitchen table, looking for me to make the proper noises. Obviously, he had paid the farm off. He would have worked himself to death if he had to, just to prove that neighbor man wrong. He didn’t have to. Not physically, anyway. Emotionally, I think something had died in the old man a long time ago, because he had allowed the cruel words someone said to take root in him in a way that deeply affected him all through his life. You gotta feel a little sorry, to see someone suffering so senselessly like that.

Still. What he had told me, well, I just gaped at him. Good Lord. Why would any person go up to a young couple who just bought a farm at auction, and spew such brutal words? It didn’t surprise me all that much, though. That’s the kind of thing an Old Order Mennonite might say. They can be blunt and cutting. That’s what I thought to myself.

Old Order Mennonites. They’re a strange breed of people. And yeah, I know. That’s a mouthful, coming from a guy who came from the Amish. I mean, how much more strange are you going to get than that? But the OOMs are different, there is no question. What that means to you depends entirely on your experience and perspective. I see them as people who are a little peculiar in their ways. As they see me, I suppose, and as they have every right to do.

It’s different blood. Way back, before the radical firebrand, Jacob Ammon, got all slap-happy with his banning and shunning of any group he had the slightest conflict with, way back then, it was all one big happy family. Then Ammon broke away. And the people who followed him became a distinct people, all on their own. The Amish. The Mennonites who didn’t leave, they slouched back and licked their wounds. Ammon cut a wide swath with his condemnations. You don’t agree with me? I’ll show you. You’re excommunicated, you and all your blood. And shunned, as worse than a whoremonger. I banish you to judgment and hell. That’s how Ammon worked. He was not a nice man.

And today, you got lots of levels of Mennonites out there. Lancaster County has them all. From high-strung, whack-job, leftist, state-worshiping gun grabbers, all the way over to Plain horse and buggy Old Orders. And every shade between. All claim the heritage and legacy of good old Menno Simons, who would be extraordinarily startled, I think, could he return for a day and see for himself who his “followers” are.

I don’t know the detailed history of the Old Order Mennonites. I suppose one could google much of it. I can only speak from my perspective, and the things I have seen and lived and felt. The OOMs have surnames that are nonexistent or extremely rare among the Amish. Names like Horst, Hurst, Hoover, Martin, Weaver, Sauder, Shank, Reiff, Nolt, Shirk, Newswanger, Oberholtzer, and a host of others. Their culture is distinct, as are their physical builds and the bone structures of their faces. You leave either group, the OOMs or the Amish, and I can usually tell that you did, no matter how long ago you left or how English you try to look. I can tell which group you came from by how you act and how you talk. Almost always, I can. It’s just an insider’s perception.

It’s fascinating to me, that another group held onto a Plain lifestyle, all on its own. The defining moment in the OOMs, as with the Amish, happened when the group rejected the automobile. That was one of the few things in the two groups that were similar. Otherwise, both developed on their own. And they sure developed different.

They were there in my Aylmer world from my earliest memories, the OOMs. I think they have numerous settlements in Ontario and a few other locations in Canada. Elmira is the place I remember. They connected with Dad, at least a few of them did. And they visited back and forth some, my parents and their OOM friends. I remember the men as wiry and lean and dark clad, with hard thin faces shadowed from the stubble of decades of shaving. They wore short-brimmed black hats and spoke in singsong voices. Their women tended to be plump, and they wore patterned, flowery dresses and white head coverings and funny little pointed black bonnets. Dad and Mom went to the OOM church services, even, when they visited there. I remember them talking about how it went. It was all very different than Amish services. Starting with a church house. OOMs congregate in church houses.

A little bit of an aside, because now my memory roams ever wider back there in my childhood in Aylmer. There was a fairly strange Mennonite man named Menno Sauder who used to come around in his little black car. He looked and talked exactly like the OOMs, except he drove a car. I don’t know if Menno had joined a “Black Bumper” car church, or if he had just struck out as a renegade on his own. He was an intellectual eccentric. A writer of sorts. He cranked out little religious tracts and exceedingly dry tomes of dogma and doctrine. I can still see his little black car parked under the trees by the sand box beside our looped gravel drive just west of the house. I don’t think he ever stayed for the night. But he came around often enough that I remember his name and his face.

When Menno Sauder died, Dad and Mom went to his funeral. I think this was before we moved out of Aylmer, although I can’t say for sure. It doesn’t matter, I guess. I know my parents went, and I know Menno got a full-fledged OOM funeral. Maybe he had recanted and rejoined before passing. I think that’s what happened. Anyway, Mom told us what the preacher had said at Menno’s funeral. In his sermon, the preacher proclaimed that Menno always was so faithful and tireless in his efforts. He fished and fished. Nobody fished harder than Menno. But sadly, he always fished from the wrong side of the boat. That’s what the preacher said. The wrong side of the boat. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but I never forgot that phrase. And Mom never really let on, whether she agreed with the preacher man or not. She was just telling us what he had said.

My family moved to Bloomfield, Iowa, in 1976. And we left the world of the Old Order Mennonites behind. There were none in the Midwest. Well, that’s not quite accurate. There was a fledgling Black Bumper settlement just south of us, in Rutledge, Missouri. Black Bumpers are pretty much OOMs with cars. Kind of like the Beachys are Amish with cars, I guess. Back then, there were no OOM settlements anywhere close to Bloomfield. There have been several large groups settling in Kentucky, I’m not sure of exactly where in that state. And in central Missouri, too, I know there’s at least one settlement. The lure of cheaper land led many OOMs on an exodus from Lancaster County to places like Virginia and Kentucky and Missouri and Penn Yan, New York.

We moved to Bloomfield in 1976. I broke away for the final time sometime in 1988. A twelve-year stretch, there, where I saw enough personal turmoil to last several lifetimes. And during those desperate years of hard and frantic running, the OOMs were just about as far removed from my mind and consciousness as they could have been. And they stayed that way until I wandered into the historic, blue-blooded lands of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

It’s seems a little astonishing, looking back. After more than a decade of angst and turmoil and hard running and fractured dreams, I finally broke free from my people. And within two years, I meandered right back into one of the oldest and largest Amish communities in the world. Lancaster County. I liked it. Here, I thought, here at last is a place where I can rest. I will never live the life of my people, but at least I can live among them. It was a comforting and natural thing.

I connected with the youth group at Pequea Amish Mennonite Church. Beachys. The youth were polite and accepting of me, a traumatized guy who had drifted in from the Midwest. I will always remember those first few summers as some really good days. I enjoyed the youth, and I enjoyed their activities. I participated in organized softball games for the first time ever, in my life. The Pequea church was always cutting edge Beachy. Always on the forefront of hard-won progress. They still are, from what I hear told. Not that I hang there, anymore, anywhere close to that world. Haven’t for decades. I recently heard that the Pequea Beachy Amish church allowed its women to discard their covering strings. Just snip them off and throw them away. Oh, my. Slipping fast, they are, there at Pequea. Like Waylon sings. Slippin’ and a’sliden, playing dominoes.

Anyway. I soon became aware, after I came to Lancaster. There is a large community of Old Order Mennonites here. They settled back when the Amish did, or real close to that time. So the footprints of these people and their ways are woven into the very fabric of the land. The Pequea youth had a term for the OOMs. Maudy. Which is Martin, in PA Dutch. It was a derogatory term, kind of. When you called someone a Maudy, you were talking trash a little bit. And you were calling that person a few different things, none necessarily pleasant.

Some years ago, I heard where the term came from. Maudy. The Amish are scattered pretty much all through the county. The OOMs live up north. North of Rt. 23 is their country. The further north you go, the thicker they get. The Amish and the OOMs live side by side a lot, where they overlap. And mostly, they get along. They share their school houses, send their children to the same schools. They mingle there, but that’s one of the few places where they do. They never, never intermarry, not unless they leave the Plain culture. Even then, it’s very rare for someone from Amish and OOM blood to connect in marriage. It happens, but just not often. The two cultures are too different, I figure. And there is an undercurrent of one-upmanship out there, too. Not with the older people, so much. You get battered by life, and you let such things go, mostly, I think. But with the youth, there is. And this is the story I was told.

At the local farm sales and mud sales in spring, the Amish youth and the OOM youth played Cornerball, a form of Dodgeball. It was a tradition for generations. I think the game recently got banned in some venues, because it got too violent. And in the heat of these competitions, decades ago, the OOM youth took to calling their Amish counterparts a derogatory name. O-mish. Which in PA Dutch roughly translates into the word, manure. Misht is manure. The OOM boys chuckled and chanted, as they hurled the stinging Dodgeball. “O-mish, O-mish” (Oh, manure, oh, manure). The Amish boys looked grim. They wouldn’t stand for that, not for long. And soon they came up with a chant of their own.

I don’t know who first said it. But it’s the term that stuck. At least part of it. The Amish chanted back the name, Martin, in PA Dutch. Maudy. But they added a word. Maudy-poopers. The O-mish word got lost over the years, as did the “pooper” part of the Maudy taunt. But Maudy stuck. And in all honesty, I can’t confirm that any part of this tale is actually true. It sounds like something that probably happened. So there it is. That’s why OOMs are called Maudys, if you ask me.

The OOMs are distinct when it comes to Plain cultures. And an undercurrent washes through, a hint of meanness, and a cantankerous character. You can dig into their history a little bit, and see. They have had splits and splinter groups and all manner of harsh disagreements. There have been fights about contract disputes, boundary lines, and whether there will be preaching from a pulpit at the church house. I’ve heard the echoes of the stories.

There are at least three levels of Old Order Mennonites. Joe Wengers are the most common. (and there’s another very important OOM surname. Wenger.) Then there’s the Pikers, who are very plain. The Thirty-Fivers are the latest large group to split. I think so, anyway. Thirty-five families broke away into a separate OOM group. I don’t know when, probably a generation ago or more. They are all intermarried and related now, and they are not allowed to go outside their group to find a partner to marry. First cousins marry first cousins. They don’t even get a marriage license (which I fully support, as an anarchist), they just get married in a church ceremony. Such a thing is simply unsustainable. The Thirty-Fivers are going extinct, I was told recently by a Joe Wenger Mennonite. The Pikers and the Thirty-Fivers are the plainest of the plain, among OOMs, I’ve also been told. Still, I’m not pouring any concrete around any of these details. I haven’t been around these people close enough to know all the intricacies.

Years ago, I was chatting with an old Amish woman, north and west of here, in OOM country. She was a widow, and she had seen many things in her lifetime. And we got to talking somehow, about the differences in the two cultures. I asked her a lot of questions, about the experiences she had lived all her life, around OOMs. She valued her relationships with them, spoke in the highest terms of her OOM friends. It was clear that the telling affected her, the feelings ran in her deep. But still. I nudged her. I know they are really good people. But there’s an undercurrent there. It’s hard and rough. There’s a mean streak. I can’t quite grasp a good word to describe it. Do you know what I’m saying?

She nodded reluctantly. Yes. She knew what I meant. And she told me, almost hesitantly. “It’s not all of them. But I know what you mean. And the best way I can put it. They just can’t let it go.”

And I thought of the old man sitting at the kitchen table, telling me in vivid detail the deep and cutting slight he had endured forty years before right after he bought his farm at public auction. Yes. The Amish widow woman said it best. They just can’t let it go. Some of them. Like the old man had chosen not to.

It’s a complex reality, the OOM world. Yeah, the negatives are what they are. But along with those come the good things, too. There are many. The OOMs value faith and family. Their women bear many children, and most of those children stay in the culture. They work hard, the OOMs, and they are among the most productive farmers in the world. They use tractors to til the earth, tractors with steel wheels. (Every summer, I buy the world’s sweetest cantaloupes from a Thirty-Fiver just north of New Holland on Hoover Road. They’re on a self-serve stand for a buck apiece. There’s a sturdy little wooden locked box to put your dollar in.) And they ride bicycles everywhere, with a little cardboard box strapped on the rack behind the seat. And often on a summer night, the OOM youth will swarm the roads in great rolling convoys of bikes. Right down Rt. 23 they go, their little red blinker lights flashing in wild and random patterns. It’s really quite a sight.

The group is tightly controlled by its leaders. Computers are forbidden, as are smart phones. I’ve said it before, about the Amish. The smart phones are going to affect that culture in ways that the Bishops simply cannot imagine today. And it’s going to happen soon, within a generation, I’d say. The Old Order Mennonites got that horse penned in, kept it from leaving the barn. Long term, I think they have a better handle on their survival as a distinct and separate group. Not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just the way it is.

They are a frugal people. Well, I guess tight would be a more accurate word. More harsh, though. Their farms aren’t quite as cleaned up as the Amish farms. They’re a little more ragged. But their houses look nice and worn and comfortable, too. In a tightly controlled world like the one they live in, being frugal is not only expected, it is the norm.

Years ago, my brother Steve was cruising around a few miles up north, around Voganville, one sunny Saturday afternoon. It’s Maudy country, up there. There were yard sales going on, and Steve stopped to browse a bit at one OOM place. They had a cooler there with ham and cheese sandwiches for $3.00 each. Steve overheard the house father asking his daughters. “How many sandwiches did we sell?” It was getting close to time to shut things down. Apparently they had not sold many. The cooler was still almost full. The house father looked glum. Then he took a marker and discounted the sandwiches from $3.00 each, all the way down to $2.50. Steve told me that little story, and we laughed and laughed. I mean, sure. People are going to rush in and load up on ham and cheese sandwiches for $2.50, where before they weren’t interested at $3.00.

Still. It all comes down to personal experiences, I guess. I deal with OOMs, some, at my work. Sell them building materials, and we have used OOM crews to install Graber pole barns. They are hard-working, like the Amish. And like the Amish, by far, far the vast percentage of them are as honest as the longest day in summer.

A funny thing happened one morning recently at the office. Well, I thought it was funny, at least a little. A local builder stopped in to pick up an order he had called in. He got to talking to one of the other guys in the office. While he was doing that, I chatted with his worker, an alert-looking young man. Turned out he was a horse and buggy Joe Wenger OOM. And he told me, in the conversation. He just got married last year. This was astonishing to me. Looking at the guy, you could hardly tell he was Old Order anything. You can’t really tell, looking at a lot of the younger OOM guys, when they’re wearing a jacket that hides their galluses. I would have guessed that he came from Plain blood, but not that he was a married, current OOM.

I asked him a lot of questions about the ways and traditions of his people and his church. There are two preachers in a service. Plus a deacon, who reads Scripture. Much like the Amish, that setup. They sing faster, though, in both English and German. He claimed the New York settlement of Joe Wenger OOMs will soon be the largest in the world. People are moving up there, because you can buy a farm for way less than the millions it will cost in Lancaster County. I found much of it fascinating, what he said. I kept asking questions. Our talk was a very genial.

Eventually, he figured out that I was raised Amish. He asked about it, and I told him. Yep, I wrote the book on that. I pointed to a poster of my book. He had heard of it, he claimed. And he felt like he had to admonish me a little bit. Good-naturedly, of course. “If you leave the horse and buggy, you’re never satisfied,” he said, stoutly.

I chuckled. I’m pretty satisfied, I told him. And I pointed outside. See that black Jeep out there? I drive that. If I had to go back to a horse and buggy, I would be extremely unhappy. I can’t even imagine such a thing. There’s not enough money to pay me to go back to that world.

“Yeah,” he shot back. “But you won’t be happy long, with that Jeep. What’s next? A Lamborghini? You know it’s never enough. You won’t be satisfied.”

That’s the kind of thing I heard many times in Amish sermons, growing up. Apparently Amish preachers aren’t the only ones who talk that way. (Decades ago, a well-known Beachy preacher thundered that young men who get caught speeding will be drafted to drive tanks in the next war. I mean, how ludicrous was that?) I laughed and laughed. Driving a Lamborghini has never been even remotely on my bucket list, I said. It’s just about the last thing I can imagine ever wanting to do. But even if I did, so what? Sounds like you’ve been listening to your preachers, there, a little too much.

I don’t know if he really heard what I was saying there, the nice young OOM man. Somehow, I don’t think my words registered, quite. And that’s OK. It was completely fascinating to me, just to have that conversation. To hear words I had heard so long ago, to hear that same message spoken by a young man from another culture. It was fascinating and a little startling, too. Still. Whatever our conversation would or could have been, it was going to be OK.

And there’s one more scene that happened, right that very week, along similar lines. It all got me to thinking, and then to writing this blog. Late one afternoon that week, a local builder walked in to pick up a few things. He’s OOM, I’ve known him for a few years. Good guy. Today, he was dressed in his Sunday best, with a plain, straight-cut suit and spiffy little black hat like the OOMs wear. I greeted him cheerfully and we chatted a bit about business. And then I asked what that was all about, seeing he was dressed for church like that. He looked somber.

And he told me. His twelve-year-old nephew had passed away the day before, and he was over at the boy’s home, making funeral arrangements. Wow, I said. I’m sorry to hear that. Such a loss has to be tough on his parents and his family. And on you and your family, too. We kept talking, and I heard how the boy was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia just this Christmas, less than two months ago. He never got out of the hospital after the doctors figured out what was wrong.

The Amish always have their stories about eerie and uncanny things. Not dark stuff, necessarily, at least not mostly. But strange and surreal events that unfold, guided by an unseen and supernatural hand. Every Plain culture has its stories of such happenings at such times as this. And the Old Order Mennonites tell their stories of comfort, too.

My friend’s young nephew was still conscious and talking, up until a few days before he died. One of the last things the boy told his mother. He wanted to come home, the next time it snowed. She made no promises, but smiled through her tears. She held her son’s hand and pondered his final wish in her heart.

My friend stood there and spoke the details of the story. His eyes got a little wet and mine did, too, when he told me. “Yesterday, it snowed. And yesterday, he went home.”

*************************************************************

And here, I cough politely. How about that Super Bowl? Umm. Who called it? I was a little off on the final score, sure. But I got the winner right.

I got together with some good friends on the big night. Only a few of us were die-hards. My brother Steve and I sat, glued to the game all the way through. We got tense a few times, we did. What a game it was. We shouted and high-fived everyone in sight after Brady’s Hail Mary was knocked down and time expired.

I’m happy for the Eagles. They never were intimidated, not in the least. When they had to score, or when they had to make a fourth down, they did it. That TD to Foles just before halftime was a thing of rare beauty. It was simply breathtaking, the sheer audacity of it. The game was fun and refreshing to watch.

I’m not taking anything away from Brady and the Patriots. Tom Brady played in eight Super Bowls in seventeen years. He won five. That is an accomplishment that will never be matched, I don’t think.

So congrats to Doug Peterson and his team. They are for real. And there’s a real good chance we’ll see more of the Eagles at the big game in the next decade or so.

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January 26, 2018

Dark Knight Rising…

Category: News — admin @ 5:32 pm

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“You were a knight,” said Merlin. “Somewhere in the world
there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat,
and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives
in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory.”

—John Steinbeck
______________________________

It was a lifetime ago, seems like. And it wasn’t the most logical thing I had ever done. Certainly not the most necessary. But it was something I had walked around and poked at and looked at from different angles for some time. It happened more than ten years ago, and it was the first time I had ever done such a thing. Back in 2007, toward the end of an extraordinarily messy and stressful year, I bought me a new truck.

It was a Dodge. And it was a big deal back then. A 2007 Dodge 1500. With a Hemi. Brand new. Fully loaded. With a sun roof. And a sliding rear window that opened with the push of a button. The color: A bold electric blue. Thus the name of my constant traveling companion and road partner since that day: Big Blue.

And it seems so strange in a lot of ways, looking back. Where in the world has the time gone? I remember telling a good friend, back when Big Blue was gleaming and young and new. I’ll drive it for five years or so. Trade it off, then. It’ll have some miles, but it’ll have some value. I chuckle at those words now. It was a naïve thing to say. But I had never owned a brand-new truck before. Or a brand-new vehicle of any kind, really. Well, unless you count my new black buggy, back in Bloomfield. I mean, a motorized vehicle. I had never owned a new motor vehicle before. My head was spinning a little. And I didn’t quite know what to expect.

I remember the night I drove it off the lot, after work. It was a Monday. I remember this from a couple of things that were going on around me about right then. I stopped at my brother Steve’s house on the way home. Proudly pulled up. Come out and look at my new truck. Look how the mirrors fold out if you have a wide load. Ain’t that the coolest thing? And everyone seemed excited and impressed.

And those first five years? Well, those shot right by as if propelled from a grenade launcher, is what happened. Whoosh. The days were gone, just like that. Then the weeks, then the months. And, yeah, a lot happened in those years.

Big Blue was simply a part of my persona, in my life and in the blog. We went on a lot of adventures together, me and that truck did. I never used it rough at all. Never abused it. Never so much as talked rough to it. I always changed the oil right on time. And the five-year mark, that would have been in 2012. The year after my book came out. I remember thinking about what I had told my friend, back when my truck was new. And I looked at my blue steed. It was just getting comfortable. Under a hundred thousand miles. Heck, it was still like new. And I figured back then. I’ll drive it until it gives out. I’ll run my truck into the ground.

And that truck was connected to me and my life like a thread. You think about it. Wherever I was at any given time of day or night, Big Blue was somewhere close by. Rental car trips excluded, of course. But still. The truck was my physical connection to wherever it was I wanted to go. For more than ten years. It’s a little startling to look back over all that time from a perspective such as that.

My truck was my truck. An extension of me, of what I did, and who I was. I was quietly content. It never crossed my mind, either, that my next vehicle might not be a truck. I mean, I was a pickup guy. And that’s as far as my brain went, when it came to what I was driving on the road.

Until last spring. And like a lot of things that come along and establish themselves in your mind and consciousness, I wasn’t looking for anything when it got here. I was heading down to Florida to see Dad for a week. The Enterprise people tried to shake a little toy Hyundai on me, when I came in that morning to pick up my rental. That’s what they had, and that’s all they had, the guy claimed. A Hyundai Elantra. And I was just as adamant. No. That will not work. I will not drive a Hyundai all the way to Florida. They don’t have any headroom. What else you got around here? There has to be something that will work. There has to be.

The nice Enterprise guy was pretty young. And he saw I was fired up, that I meant what I was saying. I will not drive a Hyundai. I will not do it. He was thinking to himself. Be that way. Still, he smiled politely. And he poked around on his computer. “I have a black Jeep Wrangler, here,” he told me. “For a small upcharge.” I interrupted instantly. I’ll take it, I said.

Had this been a scene in a movie, there would have been muted thunder in the background as the nice young man pulled up out front in the black Wrangler. Or at least an orchestra would have been playing. Cool looking little vehicle there, I thought to myself. I walked out and got into the Jeep. And drove home to load my bags. It drove like a little tank. I could get used to this, I said to myself.

It turned out to be way cooler than anything I had imagined. I mean, I didn’t know. So it’s easy, not to have imagined it. A black Jeep is a black Jeep. It stands alone. A dark knight. Instantly recognizable. It’s mean, lean, and wickedly cool. And I soon learned just from driving south and back, in those few days. It’s a Jeep thing. You wave at other Jeeps.

I had a wonderful trip, down to Pinecraft, to see Dad. We had a blast, he and I. Just hung out and relaxed. You can eat what you want, when you want. And you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, I told him right up front. Just nip it in the bud, I figured, any kind of contention. When a man gets to be the age my father is, he’s got the right to do pretty much what he wants. Enjoy life, I told him. There are no rules while I’m here with you. You don’t have to take your pills if you don’t want to, even. And if something happens, it happens. You can’t live forever. (He took his pills right on time every day, because he didn’t have to. He just decided to, on his own.)

My little black Jeep was a big hit wherever I went, down there with Dad that week. Everybody made a fuss. It was a blast to drive, locally and on the road. We just fit each other, the Jeep and me. And for the first time ever, my thoughts and desires strayed from my big blue truck. I didn’t stay true to my Dodge Ram 1500, 2007 model. I sure didn’t. My heart wandered. The thought kept running through my mind. I could live with a Jeep like this.

And by the time I got back home, the plan was anchored in my head. Somewhere in my future, there would be a black Jeep Wrangler. A two-door. This was firmly established. No hurry, though. All good things take time, I reckoned. So it would come when it came, the black Jeep. And I went back to living life as I had before. Last year was a little different. There were serious stressors, all around. I drank lots of scotch whiskey and fretted about whether my second book would sell on the open market. Until I didn’t anymore, and it did.

Fast forward, then. To now. The New Year came at me. And I thought about things. Well, backing up, a little. Late last year, me and Big Blue had our unfortunate little accident. We spun around on the ice, like a mad cow. My truck has a small dent in it, now. And I got to thinking, early on, this year. It’s time to get a few feelers out, to look for a Jeep. And not just any Jeep. A black Jeep Wrangler, two-door. I remembered, then. I have a good contact in the car business. Check with him. Let him keep an eye out for you.

I’m not sure when I first got to know Linford Berry. It was probably when my book came out, back in 2011. We were Facebook friends, so he may have been a blog reader before that, at least for a while. He lives down in Virginia, in good solid Mennonite country. Harrisonburg. And when I first met him, Linford was a pastor at a big old Mennonite church down in the area. I always had a little bit of a problem with that part of the equation. I’m not particularly fond of Mennonites. They make me skittish. It’s so close to the place I came from, and whether real or imagined, I always feel silent, pulsing judgment from that brand of people.

Don’t get me wrong. Next thing, I’ll talk myself into a hole, here. I never had any kind of judgment problem with Linford. Never felt anything but complete acceptance from him. But still. I have minor issues with the church he was associated with. The Conservative Mennonites. And they are not bad people, as in evil. Certainly, I have a lot more in common with them than I have with mainstream Mennonites from Harrisonburg. Leftist crackpots, a lot of mainstream Mennos are. Mad with rage. A year ago, many of their women donned pussy hats and raised their fists and marched and cursed Trump. The people who did that will never live down their vile and shameful actions. Menno Simons must be spinning in his grave.

All right. That was a bunny trail. I met Linford a few times after my book came out. Once, when he was in the area for a conference, he looked me up and we had lunch. I never was quite sure what he told the people at the conference. “I’m having lunch with that backsliding reprobate, Ira Wagler, to see if I can talk some sense into him.” Maybe he said that. If he did, he never let on. He was always completely accepting and open and very cordial to me. We had a fine time at lunch that day.

Linford dabbled in cars. That’s how he made a living, I reckon. Preacher pay ain’t all that great. And a few years ago, he quit his preacher job and went full time into his business, Mountain Valley Motors in Harrisonburg and Dayton. And he auctioneers, now, too. It was a little wild, to see him branch out into a whole new world and a whole new place. I cheered for him, though. I understand why people do that.

So, anyway. I messaged Linford, about the second day of the New Year. Hey. I’m wondering if you can help me. And I told him what I wanted. A black Jeep Wrangler. Recent model. Low miles. Two-door. Hard top. He had a few questions. I told him about what I wanted to spend. And I told him. There’s no hurry at all. Just keep an eye out. If you see something I might want, let me know. And he said he would. OK, then. I had done what I could do. Now. Wait.

And I gotta say. It didn’t take long at all. A little over a week, I think. Tell a car dealer you’re looking for a certain model, and he’ll lock on that scent like a bird dog. And the message came from Linford one day. A message, and some pictures. He had found something at an online auction. He thought I might be interested.

It was a Jeep Wrangler, of course. Black as coal. Two-door. Late model, 2015. Low miles, at 24,000. And it was loaded. There was a little bit of extra chrome on the mirrors and door handles and the grille. And fully automatic windows and locks. I had asked for those almost as an afterthought. Jeeps are stripped down, normally. Plain Jane. Manual locks. Crank the windows up and down by hand. I wanted something slightly more civilized. And now Linford was telling me. He had found it. And he spoke a price that was well within my range.

The online auction was going on right that moment. Right then. So a decision had to be made. Right then. I called Linford. And we talked about it. The price was good, well below market. Before hanging up, I told him. Go ahead. Get it. He said he would. And that’s how we left it.

It’s been ten years since I fretted about buying any vehicle like that. I needed to get a couple of things done. Call Allstate, and get the Jeep on my policy. And stop by PNC Bank just down the road. They know me there. I wanted a short-term loan, to get my Jeep bought. After I sold Big Blue, I’d shovel all that money right over. It’s been years, since I looked into getting a loan of any kind. The ladies at PNC smiled when I walked in. They’ve known me for years, all through the journey of the first book. And I told them. I need to see someone about a loan for a Jeep. My friend Stephanie ushered me into her office. Less than half an hour later, I walked out of there with a check for the full amount of the purchase, for a little over three percent interest. I was pretty amazed at how simple the process was. And I figure to have all that money paid back well before it’s due.

And then it was the logistics of getting my black Jeep home. Linford thought he could get it transported to his yard in a couple of weeks. He wanted to clean it up, make it smell like new, and change the oil. The days passed, and the Jeep still had not been delivered. It’s winter, I told my friend. Whenever you get it, let me know. And last Friday, he got the Jeep home to his yard. It would be ready any time after Tuesday of this week, I was told. Well. I needed to get four hours south, to pick up my wheels. I looked at my options. Then I called Enterprise. Can I rent a vehicle, for one way only? Down to Harrisonburg? The nice young man allowed that I could. I reserved a car, for Wednesday. I’d head down in the afternoon, then drive home that evening. And so my plans were set.

They didn’t stay set all that long. Sometimes, connections kick in, when you’re not looking for them. I told the people at work. I’m heading down to pick up my Jeep. My boss, Reuben, asked how and I told him. I’m driving a rental car down, one way. He looked at me. “Why don’t you let me fly you down in my plane?” He asked. “I’ll do it for whatever the rental car would have cost. Just consider it a perk, for working here.” That would be great, I said.

On Wednesday, shortly after noon, we drove Big Blue over to the Chester County Airport. A short time later, Reuben’s jet-prop plane was high in the air, heading south. After a little more than an hour of flying, we landed at Shenandoah Valley Airport. A little place with a single runway. We waited there, in the General Aviation Terminal. Minutes later, a black Jeep whipped in and parked. There’s my wheels, I told Reuben. We walked out. And there it was, all cleaned up and gleaming. My new black steed. I greeted Linford and introduced him to Reuben. We stood and chatted for a few minutes. Then Reuben walked back out to his plane for the flight home. Linford gave me the keys to the Jeep, and we drove the fifteen minutes to his office to fill out all the paperwork. And I signed over that loan check.

Linford has a real nice business going, there. He’s the only car dealer I know that I would trust enough to do what I did. We chatted and caught up a bit, as I signed here and signed there. He asked how the next book is coming along. And I told him. It’s a different road than the first book was. I’m just getting started, walking.

Dark Knight
With Linford, as I’m ready to head on out.

He handed me a file with my paperwork, and we walked outside to the Jeep. The Dark Knight. That’s the name I chose. It seemed fitting. Linford attached temporary tags and told me what to do when the title gets to me in the mail. And then we shook hands. I thanked him. Got into my black steed. Made final adjustments to the seat, and double-checked the mirrors. Shifted into gear and eased out the drive. And I crossed myself as we pulled onto the road. Lord, you are the giver of all gifts. Thank you for this blessing. Grant me safe travels on the road home.

I remember a little bit how it was, when I drove Big Blue off the lot, back in 2007. I was slogging through some tough times. The cold hard facts of life were raining down in torrents all around. Ten years ago, I was a little naïve about the human condition, about the utter depravity of every human heart. I was a little clueless about a lot of things. But somehow, there was always a tiny seed of faith that showed up from somewhere. And I can see so clearly in retrospect. It was always a gift, that tiny seed of faith. A gift, freely given.

And that day, the future stretched before me. Whatever it held, I was ready. I was cautiously optimistic in my new blue truck. Let come what may. Lord, I said. I’ve seen a lot of hard roads lately. And that’s OK. But I’m just asking. Let there be good things.

And now, it is today. Ten years on. I’ve traded Big Blue for the Dark Knight. And I stand by my steed, ready to ride. I can’t see into the future. But I’m eager and excited. There’s a new day dawning. There’s a new road rising. I look to the heavens with a grateful heart. And I believe, in faith.

There will be good things. There will be, because God is the giver of all of life. And all His gifts are good.

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It’s been a while. More than a decade. That distant roaring you hear is the sound of Eagles fans celebrating a very rare appearance at the Super Bowl a week from this Sunday. I’m a transplant here in Lancaster County. I don’t care for any teams from Pennsylvania. But of the state’s two NFL teams, I’ll take the Eagles every time. The Steelers are total anathema to me. I despise that team with a passion.

Many years ago, president Kennedy spoke in halting German. “Ich bin ein Berliner.” In that same spirit, I now say, “Ich bin ein Eagles fan.” For one day, I will cheer for the Eagles to fly. On February 4, 2018.

And regardless of how tired everyone is of the vile Patriots (I am beyond weary of them), one fact remains. Love or hate Belichik and Brady, they are the greatest coach/QB combination the NFL has ever seen. Brady is without question the most talented quarterback in history. The numbers speak for themselves. The man is a phenomenon. Just as well as not, he could already have seven Super Bowl rings instead of five. Little Eli Manning got in the way twice. Brady surpasses all who played the position before him, including Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. We are witnesses to greatness on the football field such as has never been seen before.

Still. There is a time and a season to all things under the heavens. Nothing gold can stay. Brady is the aging warrior. He’s been there many times before. He may win the battle, but this time, I think not. The Eagles have been underdogs so far, and they have been completely unintimidated. They will win their first Super Bowl, and it won’t be all that close. Eagles 34-20.

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