June 23, 2017

The Child in Town (Sketch #18)

Category: News — admin @ 5:27 pm


You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,
…back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for,
…back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed
everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the
escapes of Time and Memory.

— Thomas Wolfe

They walked in that morning at work, about a week ago or so. An Amish father and his son. I greeted them cheerfully, just like I try to greet everyone who walks in through those doors. They walked up to where I was, the father and his son. And the man told me. He needed some trim, to cover the sliding door track out by the silo, where he fed his steers. That made him a farmer. And we chatted right along about farming and such as I wrote up his invoice.

The boy hovered close to his Dad. Subconsciously. He wasn’t scared. Just in a strange world. And his eyes were drinking in every detail around him. There was something so symbolic about the two of them, standing there in front of me. And in that instant, it kind of rolled back on me, how it was in my own childhood, when it was my turn to go to town with Dad. I saw it again, in the wonder in the little boy’s eyes. Today it was his turn. He was enjoying every second of his adventure. And he would have all kinds of tales to tell his brothers and sisters, when he got back home.

I couldn’t help but smile at the boy. He was probably six years old, a miniature of his father. Galluses and straw hat, even down to the same color shirt. I smiled to myself about that. That must be a hifalutin’ Lancaster County thing, that any mother had the time or inclination to make sure her husband and son were dressed alike, right down to the same color shirts. Mom was way too busy with other things to ever worry about whether my shirt was the same color as Dad’s, back when I went with him to town. She never worried about anyone’s shirt colors, except on Sundays. That day, she made sure we wore white. Because that’s what she saw the men in her world wear, as she was growing up. It’s Amish tradition.

And it’s kind of funny, why a white shirt on Sunday was a big deal to Mom. She was pretty adamant about it. Because that little issue was a pet peeve of the Stolls of Aylmer. They were always poking and prodding around, trying to dig up ever more strict and strident ways to please the Lord. And somehow, they worked up a grudge against wearing a white shirt to church on Sundays. I suppose they were that way in part so they could separate themselves from some of the traditions they judged useless. Sinful, even, they told themselves. And so it came to be. The Stoll men liked to wear a blue shirt to church.

Mom wasn’t having any of that. White is what her boys wore to church. Always. White.

And I’ve thought about it now and then, over the years. Pondered things in my heart. It never really made any real difference, when it came to pleasing God. Whether you wore a blue shirt or a white shirt to church. It was just the idea, that the Stolls kept stirring around, and stirring around. Nothing was ever quite good enough, and nothing was ever really stable. It was all a lot of shifting sand. I think that’s why Mom reacted as strongly as she did.

Peter Stoll and his sons were among the original settlers of the Aylmer Amish community. And that community would be forever stamped by the wild strange deeds of their wild strange Stoll blood.

Aylmer was a great shining city on a hill, at least in a lot of people’s minds. The Stoll blood was a big part of the pride and passion of that shining city. A preacher and a deacon and more preachers were ordained from that family. Elmo Stoll was ordained to the pinnacle of power in the Amish world. A blue-shirt guy who became a bishop and a powerful leader. He wrote great moral lessons, instructing us all. As did others of the Stoll blood. Sadly, there was no referee there with a whistle, when the Stolls were riding high and strong those many years. I guess the referee was late, getting to the field.

Be that as it may. Back to the father and his son who were dressed alike in Lancaster County one day last week.

The boy hovered close to his father, but his eyes were drinking in every detail around him. And when I say hovered, I don’t mean he was clinging to his father’s shirt tail. He wasn’t. He wandered off the side on his own, there at the counter. To the next space over to my left, where I keep my little model pole barn. I had it built to scale, way back when. And we all use it to sell buildings, to point out construction details. I have a miniature tractor stuck in there, and a small horse stall, with a model horse. The little Amish boy was beyond fascinated by that little model building.

That thing attracted the boy like a magnet, pulled him away from that safe little radius he mostly kept around his father. He stood there and stared up into that little toy barn with wide and radiant eyes. You could tell. He was measuring the setup in his mind. Imagining how it would be, to have this barn at home. And you could tell he could tell it wasn’t going to happen. But, boy, did that kid have some stories to tell his siblings that night at home, I figured later.

And I looked at that little boy, and I watched him. And I saw it again, from the wonder that shone from his eyes. It came back to me, how it was in my own childhood, when it was my turn to go to town with Dad. It was a big, big deal. In more childhood worlds than just mine, apparently.

And I thought to myself. I sure remember how that was, back when I was his age. Just looking at that kid, there are a bunch of bunny trails I could go down, if I had half a mind to.

We took turns, me and my siblings, in the world we grew up in. We took turns at a lot of things. Of course we did. There were eleven children. A small army, when you think about it, that my Mother had to nurse and nurture, and my Father had to feed. And, of course, too, the older ones were meandering on into adulthood, by the time I came along. They knew what turns were. And I got to know, too, from the traditions that were established long before I was born.

I remember exactly how that was, to take turns to go with Dad, when he went to town. It’s a big, big deal, for any little Amish boy or girl to go to town. Dad usually headed out late on a Tuesday afternoon. He’d get his shopping done, then stop at the Aylmer Sales Barn on the way out. It was a huge deal, a great adventure, to go with Dad into the great and glittering world that was the town of Aylmer.

And you go from that world to the world I am in today. From what I see now, the town of Aylmer is practically a hovel. A bedraggled string of small stores lined up on the east and west sides of a crossroad with a stop light. We always heard that crossroad called a “square” when I was growing up. And that’s what I always thought a town square looked like. A crossroad. It wasn’t until we moved to Bloomfield, Iowa, that I ever saw my first real town square. All the stores were lined up around a city block, with the courthouse in the middle. That’s what a classic town square is. I never knew that, when we lived in Aylmer.

And I remember one of the first times I was ever allowed to go to town. It wasn’t with Dad. It was Mom who took me along. I’m talking memory, here. I’m sure Dad took me along before this memory, when I was very small. But on this trip with Mom, I was probably three years old. I’m thinking we went with an English driver. And I don’t remember a lot of the sights and sounds of that little excursion. Except one. The Canadian Tire store, just north of the square. Mom took me to the back of the store. And there, on the south wall, were shelves and shelves of shiny new toys. I remember the big bright plastic dump trucks.

I was a little curly haired Amish boy with large brown eyes. I stood and gaped at those bright new gleaming toys. And Mom smiled and gave me a dollar bill. “You can buy any of those toy trucks you want,” she told me. I remember that a clerk, or someone who worked in the store, came around and stood and talked to Mom. The clerk smiled and smiled as I picked out my toy. And when we got to the checkout, I proudly handed over my dollar bill. I’m not sure it was enough to pay for my truck. But I am sure Mom quietly paid the difference if it wasn’t.

And I took my toy truck home. And told anyone who would listen. Look. Look at what I brought back from town.

And now, back to the counter last week, for a moment. I smiled at the little Amish boy, standing there with his father. He smiled back, hesitantly. Almost, I was tempted. Say something to him in PA Dutch. His home language. That would surprise him, I bet. But I bit my tongue.

I’ve learned long ago not to let an Amish stranger know that I can speak his language. Nothing good comes out of that, usually. Besides, this guy looked like he came from the south end. He’d get all startled and suspicious if I spoke to his son in his native tongue. All kinds of awkward questions would follow. Had I ever been a member of the Amish church? Am I in the bann, excommunicated? It just wasn’t worth the time it takes to say, no, no, no. Yes, I was baptized Amish. No, I am not in the bann. They gape at you like you’re insane. I’m just done, explaining all that.

So I smiled at the little boy again, and turned back to finish my business with his Dad. Speaking all English, of course.

And right back now to the bunny trails. Taking turns was a good way to keep order and to keep life halfway fair, for us children. I see that, from here. And it was a good system. Dad always took one child with him. I rarely, rarely remember going to town with another brother or sister. It was just too much hassle for Dad, probably, to keep track of more than one of us at a time. And it was OK. The system worked.

Before you started school, you didn’t take turns, much. You were home all the time, and you got to slip along with Dad when your older brothers weren’t around. Only after you entered first grade did the real “turn” concept kick in. Near as I can remember, anyway.

And your turn was a sacred thing. I can’t remember that Dad ever denied a trip to town as punishment for the sometimes massive mischief we boys got into. I do remember the bitter disappointment of having a trip to town yanked out from under me. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, really. It’s just how it happened.

I was in first or second grade. Six or seven years old. And we had just gotten home from school one fine spring Tuesday afternoon. I think it was spring, because the sun was shining, and it wasn’t cold. And Dad was getting ready to head to town. The horse was hitched up to his rattletrap top buggy. And I guess he thought it was my turn. So he told me. “Get ready, you can go along to town.”

It wasn’t my turn, and I knew that. But the glittering vision of a trip to town with Dad made me less than honest. I never said a word. Just got all excited. All right. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here, before anyone can say much of anything. My brother Titus heard all the commotion, and he figured out what was going on. He came around, looking a little grim.

“It’s not your turn,” he told me firmly. “You went to town with Dad two weeks ago. It’s my turn.” And he turned to Dad. “It’s not Ira’s turn. It’s mine.” No, no, I protested. But I could feel the great shining adventure getting yanked right out from beneath my feet.

Dad looked at me, then at Titus. “Well, if it’s Titus’ turn, he can go along,” he said. I looked very sad. I don’t think I cried right there, as Dad and Titus trundled out the lane, and west on the gravel road to town. I did walk out behind the corn crib where no one could see me. And there I sobbed bitterly, wiping my eyes with a grimy fist. I shouldn’t have taken it so hard, probably. Titus was totally right. It was his turn. But that’s just how big a deal it was, to get to go to town with Dad.

And that’s how it went, as time went on. We took turns to go just about anywhere. Rhoda and Nathan entered the rotation when they started school. And eventually we grew out of that mode, too. I was probably twelve or thirteen, when I decided I was a little too big to ride with Dad to town. And by that time, my brother Stephen had turned sixteen and was running around with his own horse and rig. He slipped into town at least once a month, sometimes every few weeks. And it was just a matter of catching a ride with him, now and then. Never asking permission from Dad. Taking turns was for little children. And Dad never made much fuss as we grew out of that tradition. I guess he figured his boys were growing up and he wouldn’t interfere too much.

And back to the counter last week, one more time, for one more moment.

We finished up, then, me and the young father. He paid me, and I handed him his paperwork and told him where to go to load. They walked out the door, the little boy half a step behind his Dad. And no one thought much about any of all that. Except I couldn’t help but go back in my head, back to a little slice of life as it really was. And you see it when you see it. Some things never change.

Fifty years ago, a father and his young curly-haired son walked out into the beautiful sunny day, from some store in town. Fifty years ago, a young boy clung close to his Dad, as they stepped out into the street. His wide and wondering eyes drank in every detail around him. He was on a great adventure. And he was sure going to have some tales to tell his siblings when he got home.

May 26, 2017

A Frozen Moment in Time…

Category: News — admin @ 5:31 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

The photo came from nowhere, earlier this week. From my brother Jesse, from his home down south. He must have been rummaging around some old boxes, digging through some memories. And he posted a few pics on the family page on Facebook. A few pictures of scenes from Old Bloomfield, when Jesse and his family visited in 1986. Yes. Interesting. But then he posted the pic that made me sit bolt upright in my seat.

It’s a picture of my parents, Dad and Mom. David and Ida Mae Wagler. A pastoral scene really, on a sunny summer morning. They’re on the concrete walks, coming out of our old house to the east. Jesse snuck the picture from the kitchen window, on the second floor. With a real camera. There were no cell phones with digital cameras back then, that you could hide easily. So Jesse had to snap the photo with a real camera. And the scene he captured struck me hard in a place deep inside my heart. It was a place I had not seen in such a raw and real way in a long, long time.

Dad and Mom (Click to enlarge)
(t almost looks like a painting. You can click it to enlarge. Then click again.)

It’s the most casual of moments, frozen forever in time. And yeah, I know. Every photograph ever taken was a frozen second in time. The difference is this. There are no photos of my childhood world, my Amish world. Or very, very few. And there certainly have been no photos of Dad and Mom in the same scene. Such a thing was just an impossibility, where I grew up. I mean, it’s such a simple thing. Yet so far away. And that’s why it hit me so hard. It’s a scene I have lived and seen and felt a thousand times in real life, a long time ago. But I’ve never relived it, not quite like this.

1986. It was a fateful year for me. A brutal year. A year fraught with memories and nightmares. It was a year where so much came down, on one of the final stages of my long and tortured journey to break free from my people.

I thought they were old, then, my parents. And from my perspective at that moment, I guess they were. Both were gray-haired. Dad limped, and was slightly stooped. Mom, well, Mom was just Mom. Her smile always made her seem young, when she wasn’t, anymore. The astonishing thing is, I’ll be where they both were then, if I live another ten years. There is no new thing under the sun, King Solomon wrote. And it is true. He saw his own journey into old age. As did my parents. And I am approaching the door. It’s all pretty astounding, when you think about it.

Back the picture. 1986. That spring, I fled Bloomfield. After the Stud had passed, and I buried him in the brushy hillside by the creek. After I realized there was nothing left to keep me here. Not even my horse. After I broke my solemn promise to Sarah, to love her and protect her all our lives. And after we sat on the banks of the pond and talked, and after she spun that woven ring I still have today.

That was just the beginning of 1986.

And now, here is an old photograph from that year, a picture I saw for the first time early this week. An old shot of film, from an old camera. A mere fraction of a second, frozen in time. Yet that second in time triggers so many vivid scenes in my mind and memory. Scenes of darkness, and scenes of light.

It was a sunny summer morning, in 1986. And sometime that summer, my brother Jesse had made plans. He would pack up his family and go up to Bloomfield to visit Dad and Mom. A fairly rare occurrence, back then. It took fortitude, for the non-Amish children to even make the effort to go home and visit. Bloomfield was full of Amish bears. Dad was among the fiercest of those bears. It seemed like he grumbled and growled a lot when his wayward children came around.

They preached it, in Bloomfield. I can still hear John Yoder as clearly in my head, as when I heard him shout it in a sermon. When your rebellious children send flowers to their mother, that doesn’t mean there’s any kind of love involved at all. It just means they’re trying to soothe their guilty conscience. They know better. The roses should be rejected. Sent back, or dumped out in the trash. That’s a pretty brutal place to come from. It’s where Dad was in 1986.

So home wasn’t all that warm or welcoming to Jesse and his family. Except for Mom. She loved her children, all alike. And she always, always welcomed them to her home. Her heart was open. I guess that’s probably why Jesse even made any kind of effort to go visit his parents, back then.

He and his wife, Lynda, packed up their family. Loaded up the van, and headed north from their home in Abbeville, SC. It was probably a short trip, time-wise. After two days or so, Dad’s face got noticeably darker. And the air around home got increasingly chilly, even on the hottest summer day. So the “wayward” children never hung around that long. Looking back, I marvel that any of us ever made much of an effort to even go back home. That’s how unwelcoming Dad was. It had to be our Mother’s heart that drew us back. It had to be her openness, her smiles of welcome, her unflinching love.

In 1986, Dad was 65 years old. Young enough to be full of and fire and passion. And suppressed rage, never far below the surface. He knew what he knew. And he believed what he believed. It mattered not to him who got wounded along the way.

And looking at this picture, and how it ever came to be, I can’t help but remember, too. How other non-Amish visitors came around, and what happened. Years before, when we lived in Aylmer, Mom’s father and siblings would come to visit her about once a year, during the summer. They were Block Church people, who drove cars. Dad was always like a dark thunderstorm when they came. They didn’t stay long, maybe a day and two nights. I’m surprised, that they kept coming. I guess it was because they loved my Mom.

And one summer day, they showed up to visit. They always arrived unannounced. I figure they couldn’t tell Mom what they were planning, because she’d be forced to write them not to come. It was what it was. That night, there was a school meeting scheduled in the Aylmer community. Dad was going, which was fine. But he insisted that Mom go with him. To the school meeting, when her Dad and brothers and sisters were there for a brief visit. They were Block Church people, from Daviess. They weren’t worth valuing. Not the time they took to get there, or the time it took to be hospitable. Mom went to the school meeting with Dad that night.

Such was the fire and passion and senseless rage of my father in his younger years. The great writer, the great pontificator, telling others all about how it is to live right. It was a cruel thing for him to do. A harsh and bitter thing. And it was a brutal thing for my Mom to endure. She did it, simply because she had no other choice. I believe the Lord looked down and saw her suffering. And I believe He made sure her story would one day be told to all the world.

Dad was so full of the righteousness of his cause. I am often amazed, that he didn’t force himself to stop and think. Surely he could have looked ahead and seen that at least one of his children would write, as he wrote. At least one child would write what he saw in the world around him, growing up.

Surely Dad could have seen that one day, his children would go and seek out their Mother’s family. And make the connection he had worked so stridently to deny for all those years. It just boggles my mind, how shortsighted he was. So intelligent, and yet so obtuse. He sure didn’t take much time to look very far into the future. Or consider that one day, another story might be told.

He was a deeply flawed man.

The thing I’ve realized is, I’m every bit as flawed as he ever was. Just in different ways.

A bit of a bunny trail, there. I don’t apologize. Back, now, to 1986. And back to the picture.

It was a sunny summer morning. Maybe midmorning. The grass is lush and green. My parents lived alone in the big old house where we had all lived together, years before. So they had plenty of room for company. Marvin and Rhoda lived in a trailer house up the hill to the west. The Dawdy house would be built a few years later, in the north end of Mom’s big garden. In 1986, the big old house stood almost forlornly empty, except when company came.

That morning, I’m sure, my parents were up early. There were no morning chores to do, so Mom had breakfast ready when Jesse and his family got up. Eggs and toast and gravy and maybe biscuits. She fed them well. My parents may have already eaten by the time Jesse’s family gathered around. Dad was shunning my brother. No eating on the same table. All a bit awkward, yes, but such was the righteousness of his cause. And so they ate, my brother and his wife and children. Mom served her dark rich coffee and asked if anyone wanted cream. And smiled and smiled and fussed.

After breakfast, then, Dad took up his German Bible, and read a passage out loud. And this was the classic time for some admonition. At least when I went home to visit, it was. He had a captive audience. And he’d get all stern, talking about rebellious children, and how their duty is to come back to the church and be obedient. He might have gone a little easier on Jesse’s family, because Lynda was not raised Amish. There was no conceivable possibility that she would ever live that way. Still, he probably felt obligated to say a few words, at least. Just so he wouldn’t be found wanting on Judgment Day. So he could tell the Lord he had done all he knew to do. Ultimately, I think, it’s only fear that could ever drive such a motive.

And then they all knelt for morning prayer, back in 1986. Dad’s voice was still vibrant and strong. And his rhythm was flawless, the same lulling flow of High German we’d always heard, growing up.

And then the day unfolded. Dad had a little barn out by the west barnyard, for his horse. He parked his buggy there, too. And he went out and harnessed his horse and hitched it up. I’m sure it was Kenny, the bony old plug I drove after the Stud died. He brought the rig around to the fence by the walks, and tied up the horse. Mom wanted to do some laundry that morning. The washhouse is between where they are and the house, out of the picture. Dad started the little Honda engine, and Mom got her first load started. And what she’s carrying in that bucket is anyone’s guess. Maybe she was out feeding the chickens, or maybe those are wash pins in there. Who can tell, from this far out?

She was coming in from somewhere. And he was turning from starting the Honda engine, to walk to his buggy. He had business to do, at the phone by the schoolhouse, two miles away. Hardly a week day passed that he didn’t go to the phone at least once. Often more than once. That’s how busy the man always was, absorbed in his business affairs.

And they passed each other on the walks, there. Mom walking in. Dad walking out. And right that second, Jesse was peeking from the kitchen window, his camera aimed. And he snapped a picture.

And that moment, that morning, is now forever frozen in time.

A few words, about that little act that Jesse did. It was a bold thing to do, to snap a picture anywhere on the old home place. This was back in 1986. There were no cell phones with discreet digital cameras back then. If you wanted to take a photo, you had to do it with a real camera. And if Dad had caught anyone taking a pic with a real camera anywhere on his property, well, it would not have been a good thing. There would have been triple admonishing during the next morning’s devotions, probably.

A few other details from that peaceful sunny morning on the old home place in 1986. On the left, you can see the rear of a manure spreader. Not sure why Marvin would have parked it there, unless he was cleaning out the old raggedy barn, further to the left, out of the pic. The barn where I kept the Stud, and where my horse had died. We used to load that spreader by hand, with manure forks, pile it high. And the horses strained into the harness as the machine cut and scattered the manure onto the rich black bottom fields to the south.

And if you look behind the buggy, almost hidden, there sits an old battered Dodge pickup. Henry Egbert was on the farm that morning, for some reason. Maybe Marvin had some hay to haul, or maybe he was going to an auction somewhere. That old pickup had an old trailer attached. That rig right there is how I got my brand-new buggy hauled home from Mr. Mullet’s shop in Milton, a few years before that. It seems so strange, seeing that. Back then, three or four years seemed like a long time. Today, it’s barely a blip in the relentless march of time and history.

And I look at the picture, and I realize. Where I was during the summer of 1986. Out west, on the wheat harvest. Far away, out on the wild buttes of Montana, and then up into Alberta, Canada, driving a gigantic John Deere combine, harvesting acre after waving golden acre of wheat. Under the surface of the scenic calmness of the picture, a lot of troubled water flowed.

And I realize, too. Now. How brutal it must have been, for both Dad and Mom. To keep on walking forward through life, after their sons fled from home like I did so many times.
To face the people they knew were talking behind their backs. David Wagler. He has wild sons. They can’t seem to get settled down. Something is not right, there in that home. It had to be hard to smile at people they knew were thinking and saying such things as that.

Despite his flaws, Dad wanted what was best for his children. And he was willing to sacrifice for what he thought was best. Certainly he would never have left Aylmer for Bloomfield, had that not been the case.

And Mom, heaven only knows how much grief I caused her. I could do penance every day for the rest of my life, and it would never be enough. Ditto for penance for Sarah.

And just thinking, here. It had to be hard for anyone in my family who stayed behind every time I fled. I was running frantically into distant horizons with dark and dangerous skies. Into new lands, new places. Seeing and living new things every day. I left behind me a long and shameful trail of broken promises and shattered dreams.

Someone had to stay behind and pick up all those broken pieces. I look back on it all now, and it’s just unfathomable to me, how selfish so many of my choices were back then. And how I wronged so many people.

And no, I’m not beating myself up. I’m walking back, completely alert, to take a look. To grasp to myself a glimpse. And I’m reflecting on how it was, and how it went, from where I am today.

And today, I am at peace with who I am. And I am at peace with who I was back then.

That’s what the frozen moment from 1986 evokes from the shifting mists of memory and time.