December 29, 2017

Vagabond Traveler: The Promised Land…

Category: News — admin @ 5:30 pm

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Living in the Promiseland,
Our dreams are made of steel.
The prayer of every man
Is to know how freedom feels.

There is a winding road
Across the shifting sand.
And room for everyone,
Living in the Promiseland.

—Willie Nelson, lyrics
___________________________

It seemed like an ordinary morning, a few weeks ago. Well, almost. It had snowed some, the night before. Just barely covered the ground. I grumbled to myself as I cleaned my truck, and got it all warmed up. Winter sure seems to be creeping in. I drove on down to Sheetz to grab my coffee, like I always do. And then I settled into my nice warm truck, to head to work. Such are my scattered memories, near as I can gather them, looking back.

I drove out and turned left. There was some light snow on the road. But I never gave it a thought. I accelerated out, then slowed up, to cross the railroad tracks. Bump, bump. I stepped on the gas again. And exactly right then, my world spun around and out of control. I’m talking literally, when you’re looking out the window.

My truck suddenly lunged out of the right lane. I can’t quite remember, it all happened so fast. I think my back wheels pushed around to the right. Ice. There was a layer of black ice under the thin blanket of snow. As the truck shot into the left lane, I instinctively stomped the brakes (big mistake) and yanked the steering wheel to the right. The wheels grabbed, and I was shooting toward the right ditch. So I reversed the wheel turning. To the left. The back was coming around. I was helpless. I haven’t felt that helpless in a long, long time.

There are a few things that happen, when you spin out on ice. Well, a few things that I remember. First, you grasp in a split second how utterly helpless you are. I remember that feeling of surprise and fear, when I realized my truck was out of control. And I remember one other thing about that moment. I remember looking ahead and around, to see if there was any other traffic, anywhere close. Thankfully, there was not. Not a car in sight, at least not anywhere close. So that much was established in my brain. If you hit something when you’re spinning, it won’t be another vehicle.

I don’t know. I was going twenty-five, maybe thirty. Not that fast, really. Except on ice, it’s fast. Oh, yes. It is. And the next two to three seconds were just about the wildest ride I’ve ever had on the road in any vehicle, anywhere. I had never, never had any kind of road accident before. Never, not even for a scratch. That history of clean driving was about to go the way of the dinosaur, for me. It was a wonder I ever held on as long as I did. But now it was over.

Big Blue kept sliding from one side of the road to the other. And then my truck just spun all the way around, clockwise. The tail end swooshed into someone’s yard, missed a telephone pole by less than six inches, and crunched into the little Railroad Crossing sign that was planted less than two feet from the telephone pole. The little sign flattened to the ground like a broken weed. The driver’s side tail light popped out and shot across the yard like it was propelled from a gun. And my truck finally shuddered to a stop, back in my own lane. Sadly, it was facing the wrong way.

Way back at the light on Rt. 23, several cars had crossed and were creeping my way. I blinked my headlights, then slowly crept off the road, into the drive of some commercial business. I parked and got out. I mean, I wasn’t hurt, or anything. But I was a good deal shook up. Whatever had happened wasn’t a fraction as bad as what could have happened. Had a car been approaching in the other lane, well, I could be with Jesus now. And had the rear of my truck crunched into that telephone pole, Big Blue would have been totaled. Those two equations shot through my head before too many seconds had passed.

There was a good solid dent bashed into the driver’s side, behind the rear wheel, just in front of the tail light. Looking at that dent, and what I did hit showed me how close I had come to smashing into the telephone pole. It was less than six inches. I calculated it all out later. Right that moment, I was worried about one thing. Did my truck still run, or was it damaged underneath, where I couldn’t see?

It wasn’t damaged underneath. I could still drive it. So I got back in and headed on toward my place of work. Very carefully and very shakily. And that little story is why I chatted with my Allstate agent later that morning. It’s also why I stopped at Enterprise and picked up a nice gray Jeep Wrangler (four-door) late that afternoon, and parked my truck at a local body shop in New Holland. I was turning in my first auto insurance claim, ever, for anything. And Allstate has been a real class act so far, I gotta say.

And my little spin-out that morning, well, I’ve looked back over it in just about every way there is to look at it. It was a tale of inches. Six inches one way, and I would have missed everything, would have driven off, blithe and scot-free. Like I always had, up until that morning. Six inches the other way, and Big Blue would have been totaled by the telephone pole. As it was, the little Railroad Crossing sign inflicted some damage and a lot of inconvenience. So it could have gone a lot better. And it could have gone a lot, lot worse. I guess I’ll settle for what actually happened and accept it. As if there is a choice. But still. There are different ways to calm your heart.

I’ve thought a lot about that morning, those road conditions, and what happened to me that had never happened before. Mulled over it a lot. And I gotta say. That morning was a microcosm of what my whole year has been like in a lot of ways. I was spinning out of control for more days than not, I think. I was walking calm, about half the time. At least I told myself that. But for most of the year, there was so much going on out of my control that I forgot to control the parts of life that I could. I’ve been there before, more times than I care to admit. And when I forget to control the parts of life that I can, it usually boils down to one word. Whiskey. Somehow, somewhere back there, I had chosen to embrace the one nemesis that can never be fully and finally slain.

It’s always a choice. Everything you do is. And there is only one person in all creation who is responsible for your choices. You. Always. Talk to me about addiction all you want, and how tough that life is. It still boils down to how you choose to deal with the aftermath of your previous choices. And no, that’s not trite or harsh. It’s just reality. I know what it is to be addicted. I know how hard it is. Trust me. I know, way better than I want to.

So, anyway. That’s where I was, for about the first eight months of this year. There was a lot of tension flowing around, for different reasons. My book was being shopped on the open market. And word from the field was sparse. There were other things going on, too. Other pressure points. There were. And I went for the “easy” way to deal with the stress of it all. I reached for the bottle. And I drank hard every day. It was a choice. It seemed like a choice I wanted to make. The easiest choice, on a table full of hard ones.

I had a heart checkup in June. About every six months or so, good old Dr. B summons me in. Does the basic stuff. Heart rate and blood pressure. And the big ten-thousand-dollar question. How’s your heart beating? Is the A-Fib back? I was nervous about that checkup, back in June, as the day crept up. So about two weeks before, I stopped drinking. Cold. As far as I knew, my heartbeat was pretty steady. But still. It couldn’t hurt to clean up a bit. Get the alcohol out of my system.

The day arrived, and I went in. And so help me, this is true. That very morning, I could feel my heart beating wrong. Erratic. I knew it before Dr. B told me in a sad voice. “You are in A-Fib.” We talked about it, and I told him I was nervous. He upped my dose of the one med I take, and told me to come back in six months. And this, too, is true. The next day, I checked my heart rhythm every hour for half a day. Solid and steady as a rock. Good grief. I called Dr. B’s office, and left a message. My heartbeat is back to regular.

But still. I knew the alcohol was affecting my heart in a bad way. I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it was. But I knew.

A little bunny trail, here. Sometimes you hear people say, when mentioning someone who passed on. “He drank himself to death.” And it is understood exactly what is meant by that statement. It’s something like this. Oh. That kind of man. Yeah, he sure didn’t have much self-control. He wasted his life away. He sure loved the bottle. He drank all that hard liquor. What a sinner. We can only hope he repented at the last second, and maybe just squeaked through the door into heaven. Probably not, but we won’t know for sure until we get there. If he made it, he’s probably stuck in a little room way down in the basement somewhere. We’ll have to go looking for him.

That’s what people think to themselves and mutter to each other. Not me. I don’t go there. I understand completely when I hear that someone drank himself to death. I understand the pain and loss and bitter sorrow that such a person could not face. I know the monsters that lurk in the recesses of the mind and in the dark corners of the heart. I know, because I deal with my own demons of what was and what might have been. I hear those voices calling in the night. I understand, because I poked my head through that door and looked around a bit. And I gotta say. It’s not a terribly scary place. I wasn’t frightened there, in that room where death is. I understand why people go there. And I understand why people choose to stay there.

It was pretty normal, what I thought to myself and what I spoke back then, when I was drinking hard. Let the book deal come through, I told God. Let me get it written, and then I’m done. I don’t care, after that. Just let me last that long. That all I got to live for. That’s how far I had stuck my head through that door. To get to where it seemed rational, such thinking. I knew it was a lie. But it was a lie I chose to believe. It was like my truck was spinning on the black ice, out of control. I felt helpless and hopeless.

People around me could tell there was something going on inside me, and that it wasn’t going all that great. Nobody said much. Not until two close friends told me, separately and privately. “You are not well. Your eyes look bad. The whiskey’s getting to you.” The weird thing was, those two friends didn’t even know each other. They still don’t. That jolts you, to hear two voices saying the same thing from two completely different places like that. And you hesitate, in mid stride. I have to at least hear what was spoken to me. Is it true? Be honest with yourself. And right there it is, one of life’s hard and fast rules. Be honest with yourself. I fought hard, not to be.

Somehow, a few slivers of light penetrated my brain. Just enough so I drew back from that destructive door I was hell-bent on walking through. Stop. Make sure this is where you want to go, before you step through. I mulled the thing over in my head for weeks. And I saw it. There. That other door is the one you want, not this one. And I wasn’t real sure how to get from the wrong door to the right one. Or that I actually had what it took to open the right door, once I got there.

I didn’t set out on a big, majestic quest, or anything. I just turned from the wrong door and stumbled along aimlessly, without a lot of hope in my heart. And then, one day, the right door inched open. And from somewhere, there came a mustard seed of faith. It was almost lackadaisical, how I chose to step through that door. I just decided one night. I’m going to quit drinking until I get a better handle on things. That’s it. There were no promises. No vows. Not to God. Not to myself. Not to anyone else. Just a simple, almost offhand decision.

And in the distance, the dragon of fear stood to block my passing, belching all the fire and smoke and noise and rage that only such a dragon can. I clutched my sword and tried to look brave. It was hard, not to turn and flee.

I remember the evening clearly, when it happened. Or didn’t happen. It was a Tuesday night, the last one in August. And I told the guys at Bible Study. There’s something going on. I’m not sure what. But I’m going to have to get a grip on things. The whiskey. It’s getting to me. And we talked about it openly, me and those guys. I would trust any one of them with my life. They would support me, they said, without judgment and without expectations. They meant it, too. If things got too hard, I could call on any of them at any time of any day or any night. I walked out of there, still not quite knowing. That night, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t have a drink when I got home. You can always make it through one night, I figured. I guess the future will take care of itself.

And it has. I have not had a drop of alcohol since that late August evening after the Bible Study. It’s always for today, that I’m quitting. Maybe tomorrow, too, but for sure only today. There are no promises. There are no expectations. There is only a man, walking along, with a heart of gratitude to God for all of life. That’s it. That’s all.

I don’t know where it will end, or how, or if it even will. I do know this. I’m the type of guy who can be cruising right along. And then, without a whiff of warning, I can go and buy a bottle of single malt scotch and knock it back in two nights. I can easily do that. And so far, I always have, at some point. But until such a time approaches, until temptation calls relentlessly from the old door, I’ll keep walking.

A long time ago, the Lord’s people were wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. They had fled Egypt decades before. And there were many misadventures. This had happened and that had happened. The people were compelled to wander the earth for forty years, until all of the old generation had died. And even their leader, Moses, was barred from entering the Land of Canaan. But before he died, Moses was led up to a high place on a mountain. “Look over there, across the valley,” he was told. “That right there is the Promised Land. The land where I will lead my people.” Moses got to see. But he never got to enter.

The first few days were the fires of hell. Being dry, I mean. And the first few weeks, as well, in waves. The thought was constant, gnawing in my head. A drink. I need a drink. After work, it was all I could do to wrestle Big Blue straight home, instead of heading over to Vinola’s. Somehow, I hung in there. I talked about it before, here on the blog. Almost immediately, the weight started washing from me. More than a pound a day. And that’s what kept me on the right path early on, I think. The weight. I was ashamed and beyond weary of being a big, fat slob. I was done being embarrassed at how I looked in polite company. Never again. That’s what I told myself. That’s what I thought. I never want to be this slovenly again. And day followed day, as night followed night.

Forty-five days. That’s what Sam the Counselor told me years ago, when I was thinking about putting the bottle down for a season. Forty-five days is how long it takes for your body to break free from the physical effects of drinking. After that, you’re clean. After that, you’re free, if you can stay that way. So that’s what I focused on, there at the start. Lord. Let me have forty-five days of freedom. Let me get to that place. And then, let come what may.

After those first few days and weeks, the fires of hell diminished a great deal. I watched what I ate, and didn’t eat a lot of that. And somewhere in those early days, I talked to my buddy, Mike the Barber. By then, I was grooming up a little, starting to take pride in how I dress and how I look. And I told Mike. I put the bottle down. I’m quitting, for now. I don’t know for how long. But it’s here and now. I got some serious writing coming up, I think. The vodka is done. And Mike cheered.

He’s a few years older than me, and he came from a similar place, years ago. He drank hard, every day. And he went to rehab, whatever that is. I’ve never “gone to rehab.” Not saying I shouldn’t have. I just never did. Anyway, Mike got himself cleaned up. He was told he would have to attend AA meetings for the rest of his life. He wasn’t having any of that. He figured it out for himself. I’m not knocking anyone who goes to AA. I’m just saying Mike didn’t. And that day, when I told him what I was doing, or wasn’t, he spoke life to me in a way that few people ever have.

He looked at me. And then he said. “When you wake up with a clear head, each morning is a new high.” I absorbed those words. It’s a code I have claimed and lived by since that moment. Each morning is a new high. It is. It really is.

And moving along, then, in this little tale of trucks spinning on ice and the Promised Land. The days moved on, then the weeks. And after six weeks or so, the pounds slid off a lot harder. I looked at the situation. And I thought to myself. If you’re gonna get down to the weight you want, you’re going to have to starve yourself. I don’t see any other way. And then we all know what happens when you quit starving yourself. All that big fat slob weight will come roaring back, the same as if you had never lost it. That’s what happens.

And so I was open to another road. Standing at a door leading to I knew not where. And just about then, my good friend, Ava Shank, came strolling along and nudged me online. “Here,” she said. “I’ve been walking this path over here, and it works pretty well. You should try it. I think it’s exactly what you need.” The path she pointed to? Intermittent fasting.

It was almost as lackadaisical as my decision to quit drinking was. I checked out the links she sent me. Researched things a bit. Eventually, I even ordered the book. Fasting is very much the “in” thing these days. It’s trendy. But does it work? That was my only concern. And then, back in early November, I decided to do it. I went to eating one meal a day. It was no big deal. I’ve never been a big eater. The alcohol was what made me bloated and heavy. So it was very simple for me to cut back to one meal a day. And the thing about that is, there are no limits. For that one meal, you can eat whatever you’re hungry for, and as much of that as you want. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the last seven weeks or so. Eating as much as I want of whatever I’m hungry for, once a day. I always finish off with a big old bowl of ice cream, topped with butterscotch. Now that’s the kind of “diet” I can wholeheartedly endorse.

Ira black vest

I love it. All the weight I had lost before has stayed off. Plus a little bit more. Not that I weigh myself much. But I’ve dropped a total of thirty-five pounds. Heading for forty. I’ve been shrinking where I need to shrink. My face is thinner than it’s been in decades. I keep notching up my belts, making new holes with a leather punch I bought for that reason. I’m wearing jeans that had been stacked in the corner, never to fit me again. But they are fitting. My winter coats are getting baggy. I figure to make this a long-term lifestyle. Although, like the alcohol, the less I think about it or plan, the better it will go, I figure, too. I feel great. Actually, I feel fantastic. Better than I’ve felt in twenty years. And Mike the Barber’s little observation holds true. I feel it, breathe it, when I wake up every day.

Each morning is a new high.

And I saw it coming at me, as December came knocking on the door. It was soon time for my six-month checkup for my heart. Time to go see Dr. B again. It was on my mind some. And that morning last week, when I got up, I told myself. Stop being nervous. You are feeling great. You should be good to go.

Early afternoon. I drove to the Heart Group in Lancaster and signed in. A nurse led me to a little room and checked my vitals. Blood pressure was totally optimal. My resting heart rate was sixty-one beats a minute. Sixty-one. That’s the lowest heart rate I can ever remember. The most relaxed I’ve ever been.

And then Dr. B came bounding into the room. We shook hands. I told him. I’m feeling better than I have in a long, long time. Decades. I told him about the lifestyle changes I had made in the last few months. No alcohol. The intermittent fasting, I told him about that, too. I have one meal a day. He looked at me, astounded. And he checked out my heartbeat. Deep breath, front, front. And deep breath, back, back. Perfect. We kept on chatting. I told him about the offer for my second book. I’m getting ready to wade in, to tackle some serious writing. He got all excited about that.

And he told me, “You look fantastic. You look alive. Your heart is strong and steady. Whatever you are doing, keep right on doing it.” He went on. “In my practice, almost all the people I see are sliding downward, at one speed or another. Some are slipping down slow. And some are sliding fast. It is beautiful and rare to see you actually grasping life, and making great choices. You have good things happening, here. I love it. Keep it up.”

I figure to do that, I said. Life is a beautiful thing. Each morning is a new high. It really is. But I’ll tell you right up front. I make no promises about anything. It is what it is, today. That’s all. Nothing more, and nothing less. Today is all I got. It’s all I ever had. He nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I understand. But you will never let the alcohol control you again. That’s what I’m sensing.” Yes, I said. Yes. That. The whiskey will never control me again.

We wrapped it up, then. He reduced my one remaining med to practically zero. Then he told me to come back for a checkup in a year if I want to. There will be no more summons. The ball is completely in my court. I thanked him. I’ll drop off a copy of my second book when it gets published, I told him. We high-fived on that note. And then I floated on out of there. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I don’t dance, but I felt like doing a little waltz, out there in the parking lot.

I’m not sure what the Promised Land looks like. The land where milk and honey flows. The land where you know how freedom really feels. The land Moses saw, but could not enter.

I don’t know what that land looks like. But I figure it’s probably something close to the world I’m living in right now.

Happy New Year to all my readers.

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December 8, 2017

Ninety-Six Years: My Father’s Road…

Category: News — admin @ 5:30 pm

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We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

— Tennyson, Ulysses
________________

I hadn’t really figured on writing about it, much. But as the date crept up, I looked at it. And thought about it. A rare milestone will arrive this Sunday, December 10th. It’s a place few people ever see. Ninety-six years ago on that day, my father was born.

Whatever the man’s strengths were, and whatever his flaws, it is a remarkable thing for him to reach the age of ninety-six. It doesn’t matter. Not at this stage. The work of his life, his faults and failures, the track of his deeds and how they healed or wounded those around him. He is standing where very few people have ever stood. And it is worthy of note when a man reaches the door of such a day as that. And however his sons and daughters may feel about a lot of things, it detracts not a whit from the fact that he now stands where he stands.

I proclaim it. We proclaim it. This is our father’s day. We celebrate, with him right here among us. This is our father’s road, our father’s world. And we are his sons and daughters.

December 10, 1921. It was a long time ago, any way you look at it. It was early winter. The cold winds swept in from the northwest and swirled through the raggedy little clapboard farm house, there in the Daviess country side. Farm houses back then were not insulated. It was just bare walls against the elements. I don’t know if there was snow on the ground, back on December 10, 1921. There easily might have been. I’ve asked Dad a few times, over the years. What was the day like, when you were born? He’s always been vague about any specific details. Which means he never asked about it, much, and doesn’t know. Either that, or the adults in his childhood world never took the time to tell him because it wasn’t important. Still. One can wonder, from here. And one does.

The world was a vastly different place, ninety-six years ago. Unimaginably different. The murderous Great War had just ended a few years before. And the Spanish flu was just winding down, too, about the time Dad made his appearance. It was a hard place he was born into. It’s probably about as much a miracle as it isn’t, that he even survived at all. But he did. He was a sturdy son, of sturdy stock.

He was born into a family that had its own dark mark of shame to bear, though. The Waglers of Daviess. I’m not sure if my father heard much about it when he was young. I know he never spoke about any of it to us. There had to be whisperings and knowing looks, and gossip, there in his childhood. There just had to be. There was a black stain on the family name. It had happened barely a generation before. Dad’s grandfather, his father’s father, Christian, was a deeply disturbed man. The pure Wagler blood coursed through him. I know a little bit about that blood. He recoiled, mentally and emotionally, from the harsh realities of life around him. Until he simply could not take it anymore. He shot himself in the head at age thirty-six, in 1891. A suicide is always a shameful thing, in the Plain cultures. There is dark sin, buried somewhere, some curse from way back. That’s what people think to themselves, and mutter to each other. It was exponentially more shameful back then, than it is now. It took a generation or two, to live down the stain of such a deep shame as that.

Dad came along quite a few years after that stain was unleashed. And his father, Joseph K., had managed to work his way up in status to an upstanding member of the community, there in Daviess. And he was a deacon in the church, yet. So the Wagler blood was struggling back to respectability, back in 1921.

Christian’s widow, Mary, remarried and moved out of Daviess with her new husband. How she ever attracted another man remains a mystery. He had to come from a hard place, too, I always figured. He was from Mt. Ayr, Indiana, and they moved to Nappanee after they got married. And Dad told me a little story, just last April when I was visiting him in Florida.

He went on a trip with his father, Joseph K. and his mother, Mrs. Joseph K. — Sarah, I think her name was. They traveled on the train. Dad was five years old. So this would have been around 1926. The Roaring Twenties. Wherever they went, they stopped in Nappanee on the way home, to visit Joseph K’s mom, Christian’s widow. They lived right there, in the outskirts of town, Dad told me. He and his parents arrived one day, and stayed overnight. The next morning, Dad decided to take a little walk, there in Nappanee.

He strolled about in the fresh morning dew, a little Amish boy of five. Blithely skipped along. Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and little barn door pants and galluses, I’m sure. And then he wanted to return to his grandmother’s house. He wasn’t sure which one it was, there in the row. The houses all looked the same to him. That’s what he told me. And so he just walked right on in, into the house he thought was the right one. It wasn’t. It was the wrong house. The woman of the place squawked in surprise to see a grubby little boy in her home. Dad was all embarrassed. He quickly ran out and over one house, to the right place. I had never heard this story before. I wondered what the world looked like to a five-year-old child that morning long ago, in Nappanee, Indiana.

The house is gone, now, on the farm where my father was born, and lived as a child. I mean, the house that was there, then. A new house was built sometime in the 1960s, I think it was. And the old barn still stands. And the well out front along the fence, buried and unused in the weeds. Those are there. And the public school where Dad attended as a young child. Parson’s Corner. It’s still there, right close to the farm. Not sure what it’s being used for these days. But it still stands.

And that period of my father’s life is about as blank to me as any. His young childhood. There were stories, I’m sure, that he told when I was growing up. I just don’t remember much of them. Maybe I wasn’t listening all that close. Still, in later years, I asked about that world. And Dad told me a little bit about it.

He saw the Great Depression before he was ten years old. I find that fact just astonishing, today. That my parents both saw and lived through a window of history such as that. They saw the dust of the dirt roads in summer, and they saw the ragged tramps walking those roads to nowhere. They saw the peddlers traveling door to door in rickety vans, selling what they had to offer. The market came to the poor country folks, back in those days. A sparse market, compared to the one we take for granted, but a market nonetheless. Dad spoke of the dry goods man, selling bolts of cloth for dresses and denim for Amish barn door pants. Three yards of this, five yards of that. The man kept a running tally in his head, and when it came time to settle up, he had the total price all ready. He never made a mistake in figuring, Dad claimed. He was a real math whiz.

It’s all a little foggy, those years in his life. And when he was a young man, those years are foggy, too. It’s kind of funny. Dad wrote a lot, in his lifetime. But he never spoke much about his childhood and young adult years. Back in 2011, one of his sons got a memoir published. Growing Up Amish. The son told his story. And soon after that, Dad announced to his family. He had some notes, he’d been keeping. He was fixing to come out with his own memoirs, now, too. I chuckled when I heard it. That’s great news. I’d love to read Dad’s memories, from when he was young. If that’s what it took to get him going, his son getting a memoir published, then that’s just fine. Dad envisioned a five-volume set of small books. In the last five years or so, he has actually come out with four of those five volumes. (If you want to order any of the volumes, call Gospel Book Store in Berlin, Ohio. They stock and sell and ship all of David Wagler’s memoirs.) The first two volumes are a gold mine to me. Most of the stories in them, I had never heard before. I’m glad he got them told. And even more glad I got to hear.

Moving on, then, into his teenage years. That’s when he met Mom. At least that’s what he remembers. Her father, John Yoder, had some livestock for sale. Some heifers. Dad was sent over to check the heifers out. I don’t remember if he rode a horse or drove a buggy that day. He arrived at the farm. The sun was shining. Whistling a merry little tune, he walked up to the house and knocked on the door, to see if any of the menfolk were around. The door opened. And there stood the most beautiful young woman Dad had ever seen. Ida Mae, it turned out, her name was. Mom. She smiled at him, shyly and sweetly. Dad was tall and handsome enough, I suppose. He reflected his mother’s blood and bone. Waglers are generally short. He was tall, with dark, curly hair. That morning, standing in the midday sun in front of that lovely young woman, Dad stammered and stuttered a little, but got the words out. He had come to check out the heifers that were for sale.

Mom smiled at him again. He felt light-headed. She was so beautiful. And she told him. The menfolk were all gone, this morning. She was home with her Mom and sisters. The heifers were out behind the barn, if he wanted to check them out. Dad thanked her. He turned and walked out to the barn. The lovely young woman disappeared into the house. He checked out the heifers and reported back to his father, who later bought them.

That would have been in the late 1930s, probably. And Dad somehow found reasons to keep lurking around Mom’s home place. They connected, and started dating. And things moved right along. They were married in February, 1942. They were very young when they started their journey through life together. And there was no way they could have known where the tides of life would sweep them as the years and then the decades rolled on like a flood.

And now, Dad is on the doorstep of ninety-six. He’s been alone for a few years. Mom passed away in early 2014, up in Aylmer, and was buried there. As most of my regular readers know. And Dad has spoken it. He never expected to last this long. His father, Joseph K., passed away from a heat stroke back in 1940. He was fifty-nine years old. Dad was nineteen. He didn’t figure to reach the old age he’s in. The Waglers just weren’t known for their longevity, that way. Maybe Dad got it from his Mom’s side, from her Lengacher blood. I don’t know. But here he is.

From here, today, I stand and look at who my father is and who he was in his lifetime. And I feel a tremendous sense of respect and pride. And, yes, I know. He was a deeply flawed man. That has come out countless times in my writings in the past. He was a hard, driven man. He was full of passion and desire and rage. The road he chose to walk was his own. And no, he didn’t treat Mom the best, on that road. Well. He treated her pretty bad, a lot. She endured a lot of senseless suffering. Until she was approaching the end of her own road. Then he cared for her with gentle tenderness, desperately, eagerly, like a child trying to make up for past wrongs. He was such a man. I look at all that unflinchingly and acknowledge his failures. But he was so much more than the sum of his flaws.

He was a man. A giant of a man, whose footsteps will remain imprinted in the earth long after his passing. He was all the maddening things a man can be. Stubborn. Focused. Bullheaded. Flawed. Unyielding. Cold, and kind. Distant, yet he cared deeply for his family. And where it counted, he wanted what was best for his children, his sons and daughters. He walked the path, he walked the road that he believed was the right one. He wanted his children to walk that road, too. And he sacrificed his own desires to do what he felt was best for his family. Most notably, he moved from Aylmer to Bloomfield, way back in my youth. He did that, so his remaining sons would stay with the Amish church. It didn’t work, of course. But he was willing to uproot all that he cherished, and take the risk. And he did it.

He was adventurous. Born of good solid Daviess blood, I don’t know where my father got his wanderlust. There was never any chance that Daviess would hold him. And once he forsook the land of his fathers, it was ever easier to leave the land he had fled to. I know his time in service camps as a conscientious objector during WWII vastly broadened his world. So it was a comparatively simple thing to move to Piketon, Ohio, then to Aylmer, then to Bloomfield. It’s OK. He wasn’t a nomad, but he didn’t hesitate to travel to a new place, a new world. There is always a place out there where things might go better.

He was a pioneer. My father will go down in history as one of the most visionary Amish intellectuals of all time. And yeah, I know. Some would claim that the term “Amish intellectual” is an oxymoron. I’ll stand with those who say it’s not. Dad was a writer, which is a little bit rare in the Amish culture. And writing was the true passion and purpose of his life. In defense of the Amish way of life, he cranked out voluminous amounts of words, from all the way back in his youth. He wrote because he had to, I suppose. I understand that. Compared to him, I got a real late start. And I’ll never match his volume. Never. It wasn’t until he followed his passion and his dream to launch Family Life, it wasn’t until then that his name became legend among his people. I look at that one single accomplishment as the major defining event in his long and productive life.

Such a thing had never been done before, at least not with any measurable success. Sure, there were wild-eyed Amish guys here and there over the years, guys who cranked out a little rag of some kind. They were never successful, at least not outside the boundaries of their immediate communities. The Budget would be an exception, but that was a newsletter that depended on its readers to provide the print. Family Life was a monthly magazine. With an editor and columnists and stories and serious historical research, and such. And Dad threw all he had, all his energy and drive and talent, into making the venture work. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. I have always admired him tremendously for pursuing his vision. That took guts, it took courage, and it took a bucket load of faith.

He walked alone a lot. I can’t say this for sure, but I’ve often thought it. Dad was a lonely man. He didn’t connect easily or deeply with a lot of people. Oh, sure, he did on a surface level. He was a superb salesman. He could jive and laugh and bow and scrape for a sale right with the best and brightest. But at a heart level, I think it was very hard for him to connect with people. He had very few truly close friends, at least not that I remember. I could be off a bit on this particular observation, but I don’t think I am. He was alone a lot, because you have to be, in your head, to really write. I know this because that’s how it goes for me. Writing is a lonely world.

And now he’s old. Now he’s turning ninety-six. Winding down a little abruptly, here. I didn’t know how this would all come out. In the end, I guess, my father was a man as he walked through life. Dad. A figure so vast in my world that it seems futile to try to express it. Or to commemorate the milestone he is about to observe. But still. You do what you can. You speak as you are able to. One of these years, it will be the last time his birthday is celebrated. Maybe it’s this year. Maybe it’s not. You just keep walking.

“And you, my father, there on the sad height,” Dylan Thomas wrote. “Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.” Those words have always spoken to me. Dad, I know you are on the sad height of a lonely world. A world where others take you by the hand and lead you to a place where you may or may not want to go. A world of loss and pain, where all but one or two of your peers are gone. I know you remember life from long ago, and look back fondly on the days of your youth. I know you miss Mom. I know the road has been long, and rough in places. And I know you are weary and simply want to rest.

Tomorrow is promised no one. It will bring what it may. Today is today. We are here, and this is now. At this moment, we choose to celebrate life, and all that life is.

A blessed Christmas to all my readers.

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