November 15, 2019

Vagabond Traveler; Songs of Autumn…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:00 pm


All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf,
the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes
again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark,
and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth…

—Thomas Wolfe

It’s that time of year again. Fall, drifting into winter. The clocks turned back an hour the other Sunday. I don’t know where it all goes, the days, the weeks, and then the months. The circle of the seasons. And every year it comes sweeping in at this time, a deep and abiding sense of foreboding and loss. Fall is the season of death, as the earth settles in and prepares for winter. In the spring comes new life. But not now. Now comes the darkness, the fruits of harvest on the farm, and the plow.

It always takes me back, this time of year does. Back to the escapes of time and memory, as Thomas Wolfe would say. Back to my days of childhood on my father’s farm. All things come from the earth, and all things must return to the earth again. The first frosts came sweeping in, cold and biting. The nights chilling down, the brown leaves raining from the maple trees, the first thin ice forming over the puddles and then the pond. The sun rising, clear and brilliant, in the east.

After chores, and after breakfast, we trundled off to school, swinging our plastic lunch boxes, hunched against the bitter northwestern winds. Above us in the cloven skies, great rafts of geese and ducks flew south in gigantic Vs, the geese sprawling sideways in the wind. Their high wild calls stirred a longing deep inside, an intense and quiet desire for a thing I could not speak. It was a yearning undefined that pulsed strong through my blood.

We had a mile to the west school. Half a mile to the east school, where all the children went through third grade. And one cold fall morning, we were walking along to school. Me and my little sister Rhoda and little brother Nathan. I’m thinking Nathan would have been attending the east school, the closer one. Anyway, it was fall, and it was cold. The ice had frozen over the mud puddles along the road. Rhoda, ever energetic and adventurous, decided to check the strength of the ice over a little puddle. She stomped on it, to see if it would hold her. And just that quick, the ice broke. It was a deep puddle, and her foot plunged in, all the way down. Her shoe was completely submerged and soaked with freezing water. Startled from the shock of it, she burst into tears.

Ah, Rhoda, I groaned gently. Not too harsh, she was upset. What to do? What to do? I was the older brother. I needed to look after my sister. Rhoda sobbed and sobbed and shivered. If I sent her back home to change socks, she’d be late for school. Plus, she’d be walking alone. After a few seconds of quick calculating, I told her to sit down on the side of the road and take off her shoe and sock. I sat down beside her and did the same. And right there in that bitterly cold morning, we switched. I pulled on the sopping freezing wet sock she had worn and gave her my dry one. And we got up and walked on toward school. That day, the cold wet sock dried in the warm schoolhouse. I thought about it, now and then, since that long-ago morning. I was the big brother. I was responsible to look out for my younger siblings. I didn’t always get that done later, in my running around years. That morning, I reckon I did.

This year, the brooding days of fall brought death. Just last month, it hit pretty close there at work. I’ve worked with Rosita Martin ever since I came to Graber. Almost twenty years. She’s actually the one who runs things there. And last month, one Sunday evening, here came a text. About her father, Kenneth Beiler. A well-respected man in the Beachy Amish circles, he had not been feeling well. That evening, they went in to the hospital to get him checked out, he and his wife. The news came, brutal and shocking. He was filled with a highly aggressive form of cancer. He didn’t have long.

I didn’t know the man well. Met him probably a few dozen times over the years when he stopped in to see his daughter, there at work. We usually smiled and chatted briefly. The family brought him home and prepared to walk with him through the final months. Except there weren’t months. Three weeks later, Kenneth Beiler passed away in hospice, where he had been taken the night before because of intense and unbearable pain. The funeral was at Mine Road Beachy Amish Church, which Mr. Beiler had helped found many years ago when he was a young man. And so he was respectfully laid to rest. The extended family grieves the loss of its patriarch.

And last week, death came calling fairly close to me. Well, it was close at one time, years ago. My ex-wife Ellen’s older sister Sue Brunk. She was married to a Plain Mennonite man, Tony. I never knew Sue that well. She was always kind, back when I was married to her sister, the few times I was around her. She never made any fuss, when our world exploded later. I’m sure she felt for us deeply, because that’s the kind of heart she had. Anyway, she was diagnosed some years ago with cancer, too. What kind, I don’t know. She gradually declined and wasted away, clinging on, getting better, then worse, then better, then worse. Like a roller coaster. It got so I almost forgot she was sick. Last Friday morning, I got the message on my phone. Sue passed away. The family gathered in the little Ohio community where she had lived and buried her. Grieved the loss of the first sibling to go, like my family did with Joseph last March. I sent my condolences.

Death came knocking, for those two families. It will come knocking again, for others. Soon. That’s just a fact of life.

And off on a little bunny trail, here, about the whiskey. Or the lack thereof, might be more accurate. I don’t talk about it all the time, but I’m still walking dry through life. It’s the norm, now. I can’t accurately express what a difference it has made in my life. How good I feel. I think it was mentioned before. There’s a whole chapter in the book about it. Whiskey and Me. Unplanned, that little narrative had been. It just came on its own. The dry life is a good life, I can say. I feel free, which is saying a lot for me.

So, anyway. The other Saturday morning, I stopped at the local bank to make a deposit and pick up some cash for pocket money. I strolled in. A beautiful, sunny day. I do most of my banking in the Christiana branch, there close to work. This was New Holland. I smiled at the teller and presented my signed checks to cash and deposit. She was real nice, she smiled back at me. And she was a little apologetic. She didn’t know me. Could she see some ID? Of course, I said. I dug into my wallet and extracted my driver’s license. Here you go.

She looked at the picture. My face is bloated like a fatted hog. And then she looked at me. “My,” she said. “You’ve lost a little weight.” Well. What do you do with that? Yep, I told her. I quit drinking two years ago. The weight just washed off, after that. She smiled. “And all that sugar you’re not taking in anymore,” she said. “Alcohol is loaded with sugar.” Yep, that too, I said. Whatever it was, I’m in a good place now.

It made me smile, that little incident. I hope to smile again, like that. The blessings of life flow strong.

Four or five years ago, I used to meet with a little group at Vinola’s every Tuesday after Bible Study. We took a break from those Tuesday night meetings this summer, still haven’t started back up. I’d like to again. Anyway, there was this eclectic group that got together at the pub. Had a few drinks. Sometimes someone ordered food. Greasy, late night stuff, there. A few of the guys who met us there at Vinola’s never made it to the Bible Study. They had an aversion to such things. They’d socialize with us later, though.

One of those regulars who would only come to Vinola’s was an atheist. Nice enough guy, a little younger than me. He wore his atheism on his sleeve. I took to calling him the atheist evangelist. If I talked to others about Jesus as much as he talked about his atheism, well, I’d be an irritating pest. Which is exactly what he turned into. A tiresome bore. He’d get all vitriolic and sneering at how stupid Christians are. I mean, a little bit of that is fine, if that’s how you feel. A steady dose of such poison gets old, though. Real old. Back in those days, my drinking days, I got all hot at the guy more than a few times. He was hard to like.

In time, the little Vinola’s group disbanded. The atheist went his way, and I went mine. At some point in there, we got disconnected on Facebook, too. I think he unfriended me about the time Trump got elected president. Which I was fine with. I got tired of seeing tirade after tirade with link after link, scorning and mocking all things Christian.

I was fine with not being friends. I mean, at some point, you just accept it like it is. The atheist was not a pleasant person, and I didn’t particularly like him much. What do you owe a person like that? Do you have to pretend to like someone who is so deliberately obnoxious? Why? We are commanded to love the unloveable. What is love, in this situation? To me, it was disconnecting and walking away.

The atheist stayed out of sight and out of mind. Until very recently. I got a private message from the man. I was startled to see his name. This could not possibly bode well. And in his message, he had a very explicit thing to tell me. It was about Kanye West, the singer. I know very little about Kanye and have never been a particular fan of his singing. He made a huge splash recently when he came out as a full bore Christian. His runaway hit album is titled, “Jesus is King.” I was glad to see Kanye’s conversion. The power of the gospel can reach anyone at any level. That’s what the atheist was writing to me about. He sneered about how stupid Kanye is, to pretend to be a Christian. Obviously a fraud. All for the money.

Back in the old days, I would have risen to the bait and responded in rage. The whiskey always triggered a strong reaction. The atheist knew that. He expected the old me to get riled up. It didn’t happen. I messaged back. What’s it to you? It’s absolutely none of your business, what Kanye does. And he came back with a string of sneering vitriol directed at Kanye. He’s a mental case who produces bad art. I don’t know what he was expecting me to say. I do know it wasn’t even tempting, to reply in kind. I shrugged and asked again. What’s it to you? Why do you care?

In other words, go away, and stop wasting my time with your silliness. I got better things to do. That’s how you can respond if you’re dry, and it’s real. I’m good, here.

Not long ago, I got a call from a young Amish man, a foreman in a local shed-building shop. I’ve worked with this guy for a few years. He’s young-married, with a young family. Three children, I think. So far. He and I have had many interesting and in-depth conversations about what it is to be Amish. I’ve wondered sometimes if he stays because he wants to, or because he’s scared to leave. It didn’t matter. I mean, I didn’t try to change him. He read my book and told me he enjoyed it a lot.

So anyway, that day he was calling to check on some invoices, and he had something else he wanted to tell me. Today was his last day at this job. Ah, I said. Sorry to hear that. I’ve really enjoyed working with you, and I have enjoyed our little chats. What are you going to be doing? He told me he was moving to a farm halfway across the county. That’s the traditional but increasingly rare dream for young Amish couples in Lancaster County. Farming. Most of them can’t. Price of land is too high. I’m happy for you, I said. I’m sure your children are going to love having their Daddy home more. Still, it’s gonna be different here, not talking to you now and then.

He agreed, he enjoyed our chats, too. I thought about something, then. And I told him. I know I promised you a copy of the new book when it gets published next spring. And I’ll still give you one. But I ain’t hunting you down. You have to come over here and pick it up yourself. Maybe we can catch up, then. He chuckled and allowed that he could probably do that. We said good-bye, and I wished him well on the farm. And I thought about it. People come and people go. Everyone keeps moving on. That’s life, I guess.

The other day, I did something at work that I had not done in quite a few years. I ordered a guy to leave and never come back. The man was basically a fringe lunatic. Last time he was there, several years ago, we had a knock-down, drag-out fight to get him to pay taxes on his purchases. He fought me for twenty minutes and kept waving a little card around, claiming he’s not a US citizen, and the Constitution entitles him not to pay taxes. He wasn’t convincing. His spiel fell on deaf ears. He paid.

I mean, the man was absolutely right about the foundational issue of his gripe. Taxes are immoral and they are theft. One hundred percent of the time, that is true. But I told the man back then, and I told him again that day. I do what it takes to stay out of a cage. That’s the extent of my respect for any human law. I obey, but I seethe, doing it. The state is a vile monstrosity of an idol that gorges on innocent blood. But if I gotta pay tax on what you buy, you are going to pay that tax. Period.

I was on the phone when he walked in this time. I recognized him and wondered. Did he remember how it went the last time? Apparently not. He laid his little card on the counter and was starting down that same tired old road with Mark, my coworker. I got off the phone and inserted myself. We got things to do, I told him. We don’t have time to argue. You will pay the tax. If you want the trim, pay Mark and go out and load. We ain’t going to fight you. Not this time. Take it or leave it.

Somehow, he got the idea I was being disrespectful. He got pretty livid. Launched into me. Verbally, I mean. Wagging his finger and talking real loud. “Don’t you dare disrespect me,” he hollered. I listened for a few seconds, then interrupted. Get out, I said flatly, pointing to the door. Now. Don’t ever come back. He wasn’t expecting that. He fussed and groaned and got all pissy. I was firm. Go. Get out. Now. Don’t ever walk into this place again, or I’ll call the cops. (I would have to be half dead before I’d ever call the cops for any reason, shades of my father. But he didn’t know that.) He muttered and grumbled. Then he left.

It wasn’t fun. And I never got angry at him. Wasn’t worth it. I don’t go looking for trouble. It usually takes a little time to get me worked up. But when I get yanked around like that, I just figure a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

A while ago, I sent an advance copy of Broken Roads to Dr. Donald Kraybill, the eminent and respected historian of all things Amish. I’ve always said. If Dr. Kraybill says that such and such a community has this many districts and that many families, you can take that information to the bank. I’ve always respected his research. He knows what he’s talking about. He retired a few years back, although he’s still active as a Senior Fellow at E-Town College.

I’m not all that tuned in to the hallowed halls of higher learning, but lately I’ve heard some mutterings that Dr. Kraybill’s work is under assault from at least one other professor in the Midwest. It looks to me like the classic scene, where the young lion attacks the old lion to make a name for himself. I don’t pretend to understand the insular world of academia. I met the main man attacking Dr. Kraybill a few years ago and wasn’t impressed. To be fair, he didn’t like me much, either.

Whatever criticisms one might have for Dr. Kraybill, he has always treated me fairly and with respect. I consider him a friend. A few weeks ago, he sent his feedback in a little blurb, with full permission to use his words anywhere I want to, verbatim or edited. I don’t know if the blurb will be on the back cover of the book, but I am grateful for his kindness and support. He didn’t have to do that. It’s a big deal to me.

“In this wonderful sequel to Growing up Amish, Wagler repairs the broken roads—the endless rifts with his father and others.

With audacious candor, Wagler reveals the darkest crevice of his heart, the sensitive soul of his people, the yearning of the human spirit. He fearlessly tells the unfettered truth. Raw truth about love, empathy, sin, salvation and reconciliation. His honesty refreshes. His brilliance informs. His courage offers hope.”

—Donald B. Kraybill, author The Riddle of Amish Culture

October 18, 2019

Sons of my People…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:04 pm


What is it that a young man wants? Where is the central source
of that wild fury that boils up in him, that goads and drives and
lashes him, that explodes his energies and strews his purpose to
the wind of a thousand instant and chaotic impulses?

—Thomas Wolfe

He walked in at work late one afternoon a few weeks back to pick up the order his father had called in earlier that day. A young Amish man, maybe twenty years old or so. He smiled at me shyly. We chatted as I pulled up the invoice and got his paperwork. I asked about the project they were building. At some point, his eyes focused on the book sign taped on the back of my computer screen, facing him. Most people who buy from me across the counter never see the sign. He did. I saw him locking in. And so, I asked. Have you heard of my book? Growing Up Amish?

He had. He looked at me and smiled again, an honest, open smile. “Are you Ira?” he asked. Yep, I said. Did you hear of the book before? “Yes,” he said. “I read it, years ago, when I was in the eighth grade.” And now, I gaped. His father was from the south end, that much I knew, just from talking to the guy when he called in the order. South-enders overwhelmingly tend to be plain and very conservative. How in the world did this boy get hold of my book when he was that young? Eighth grade. You have to have some nerve, to sneak around absorbing such contraband at that age.

You read the book? I asked, astounded. I am surprised. And he told me a little bit how it went. His older brother bought the book behind their father’s back, a year or so after it came out. What, seven, eight years ago, probably. And when the older brother got done with it, he shared the book with this young man. I’m a little astonished, when I think of it. Or maybe not. Boys will be boys. We used to hide many books my father would have burned, had he found them. This day, at the counter, the young Amish man kept smiling shyly. He liked the book, that was pretty clear. We chatted about the highlights of the story from the parts he remembered. We got along real well. He was a sharp young man.

We wrapped it up, then. I handed him his paperwork, and he walked outside to his English driver. They pulled back out to the warehouse to load. A few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was the Amishman, the young man’s Dad. He needed a few more pieces of trim. I took the details, wrote up the order, and walked out to the warehouse to track down the boy. He was checking out our warehouse, drinking everything in. He seemed young and eager, like a child fresh from the country. Which he was, I guess.

I handed him the new paperwork, and we stood and chatted some more, taking up where we had left off a few moments before. I came right out and asked him. Are you content being Amish? He grinned. You can tell when a smile is real. This one was. And he told me. He is completely satisfied as an Amish person. He’s dating and plans to get married soon. And he looked at me, smiling shyly again.

It struck me in that moment. This young Amish man was living in a world such as I had never known. He was content. Amish. That thought went against everything I had fought so hard for, searched for so relentlessly in my youth. He was content among the Amish. He was settling in and sinking his roots, right there close to his home place. You just can’t be against such a thing, I don’t think. Not if that’s the choice someone made. I guess I don’t have to understand everything, I think at such a time. At such a time as this.

You know what? I said. You are choosing to stay Amish. That’s completely OK. You found something I never could. I’m happy for you. I will say, I’m amazed that you boys got that book snuck past your Dad, but it didn’t seem to influence you in a way he wouldn’t approve of. I appreciate that you read my stuff. The boy smiled again. He thanked me. We shook hands. And that was it, for that little incident.

I thought about the young man a lot, that day and that evening. Mulled over things. It sure is strange, how some things are. You think you’ve seen about everything there is to see, and then something comes along that you hadn’t seen before. And I thought, too. The boy grew up in an Amish world that is a lot different from the one I knew in my youth. The world around here seems a lot more tolerant, not in all ways, but in many. And even in the south end, I’m sure, there are pockets of progressive thinking. I’ve often wondered how it would have been to have been raised in the Lancaster County Amish world. I think my breaking free wouldn’t have been near as frantic in this setting. Not that any of it makes any difference from here, I guess. Still. Such were the thoughts that were triggered by my encounter with the young man.

And then one day later, it came at me from the other direction, the thing that holds an Amish son to his roots. Around midmorning, probably, on a lovely, sunny day. An Amish contractor walked in to pay for the building package we had dropped at his job site a few weeks before. I’ve known the guy for years, he’s a farmer who builds on the side. We’ve always got along well. He’s from down south a ways. Middle-aged, I’d say. His beard is broad and wild and untrimmed, like Amish men do when they let loose. When they don’t care anymore. Down south, where they raise lots of tobacco. And if you feel led to go proselytizing in those parts, you won’t get far. So, I don’t. I meet people where they are and deal with them. That just works better. I smiled at my friend and spoke pleasantly. Good morning. Great to see you. Did you bring me some money? He nodded as he reached into the barn door pockets of his pants and pulled out his checkbook.

I pulled up his invoice. We chatted as I printed out his paperwork, and he wrote me a check. Talked about how the job went. It was the biggest project I had ever supplied for this particular builder. And somewhere in there, I told him, offhand like. I talked to your son a few times on this job, when he called in with measurements and such. He was real nice. I enjoyed working with him. He seems alert and capable.

The Amish man looked pleased. He got that “ah, shucks” grin, like they do when you compliment their children. He stopped writing and leaned into the counter and told me a little bit about his son. “He’s nineteen. That’s a big reason I even mess with building pole barns, is because he likes that work. He likes to build. The younger children stay busy on the farm.” His pride for his son shone through, but it was a modest pride. I understood completely. I come from that world. I nodded and smiled.

And I was impressed, I gotta say. Here was a father, connected to his son. Doing what he could to get the boy started in a trade he liked. And no, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of problems with Amish culture. I do. It will never be right, all that pressure that’s applied to Amish children not to leave. Still. Just because it ain’t right don’t mean it’s not real. That’s what that world is like, you think. But here was an Amish father, tuned in to his son in a way I could not have imagined in my youth. And I thought to myself, as I looked at him. Whatever your flaws, if you get that done, I respect you.

We wrapped it up, then. He reckoned there would be another building or two coming my way this fall, yet. So maybe I’ll get to work with his son some more. I’d like that, I said. He smiled and walked out.

And I’ve thought about it a lot, both of those little incidents. The young Amish man who seemed genuinely content to stay there. And now, the Amish father telling me how he is nurturing his oldest son. Well, he didn’t call it nurturing, and likely would be embarrassed at such a phrase, but that’s what he was doing. And I look at it all in some wonder. How can such a thing be, in such a restrictive setting? How is it even possible, that level of communication, in a culture where so many of the heavy things remain unspoken? Where there are no words to describe, I guess, sometimes there are deeds that do.

It struck me, though, what the bottom line had to be in both those families. Somehow, the parents in those families latched onto a basic, simple truth. They made their homes a safe haven for their children, a place the children wanted to come back to. How you get that done in the Amish culture without coercion is beyond me. But they did it. The son who was dating, fixing to get married soon, somehow he chose to walk in the footsteps of his fathers. And he wasn’t dull or stupid. In fact, he seemed quite alert and intelligent.

I’ve known a few people over the years who stayed Amish because it would have been more of a bother to break away than it was to just stay. Or that’s how it looked like to me. I’ve known Amish people who were so extremely laid back, it seemed like they could have just as well chosen to leave, but somehow didn’t get it done. I’ve seen people like that.

No separated group like the Amish will long survive the pressures of the modern age unless some good measure of the children choose to stay. Or can be coerced to. Each generation, or at least a portion of it, must keep walking in the way its fathers walked. Cultural survival is just not possible otherwise.

And it’s all OK. I’m not criticizing, here. Just leading up to the thought that I have not often met a young single Amish man who seemed so exuberantly sure of the road ahead. His feet were firmly planted on the ground. He would not wander, he would not stray from the old ways. It’s hard to grasp a road that was so unfamiliar to me, growing up. It’s hard to compute such a journey in my head.

It is what it is, I guess. As life mostly is.

Moving along, then. The book is rolling along quite nicely, thank you. Last month, a nice little package arrived at the Wagler household in New Holland. From Hachette. It was the page proofs. The book is typed up in proper format, and I get a stack of pages to edit with a pencil. Other than an inordinate amount of section breaks, the narrative seemed to be in good shape. I caught and corrected a few minor errors.

Earlier this month, I wrapped up the stack of pages and sent them back to New York City. And now, I wait. May, 2020, seems far away. Still. The journey rolls on at its own meandering pace. I’m trying to grasp the moments to my memory as they pass. I will say. I am tired.

Seasons come and seasons go. The tides of life roll on. And the blood lineage rolls on, too. I marvel at the beauty and timelessness of it. My nephew, Mervin Wagler (one of my brother Joseph’s younger sons), and his wife Marlene live in upstate New York in a small New Order Amish community. This past Monday, they were blessed with a hearty nine-pound son. He is welcomed by two brothers and two sisters. They named him David Wagler. The boy will carry my father’s name into future generations.

Mervin stated that young David Wagler is “stout as a bull.” Which is a good thing, if the boy is going to shake up the world like his namesake and great-grandfather did.