The haunting beauty of that magic land had been his soul’s
dark wonder. He had known the language of its tongue the
moment he had heard it spoken. He had framed the accents
of his speech from the first hour…He had been at home in it,
and it in him. It seemed that he had been born with this
It felt different this time, as the day approached. Don’t get me wrong. I was pretty excited to be heading back overseas. But it felt different this time. I had been there before. This was the second time around. And the second time around, some of the wonder just ain’t there, just ain’t as strong as it was the first time, when the journey’s coming up.
But still. It’s a big deal, anytime you get invited anywhere to talk about your book. You bet it is. And it’s an even bigger deal, when you get invited to a far country like Germany. I mean, we’re talking pretty much halfway across the world, here. It’s not like meeting some local group of students, or some local book club at some suburban house. No. The local stuff flows in and out, around me, right here in my home setting. And it’s all good. But when you get invited across the pond, all expenses paid, that’s a little higher up there on the scale. I mean, someone seriously wants you to be somewhere, to talk about your book. That’s how I’ve seen it, felt it, anyway.
And the day just slipped up on me. When a big deal, a trip like that is coming up, I don’t pay it much mind, when it’s still months out. I just kind of keep an eye on it, sideways. Make sure I got my tickets bought, that my passport is not lost, and is up to date. And such stuff. About a week out, I start getting a little excited. And then, as the day approaches, it all sinks in, all fresh and wild.
It’s time. The journey beckons at the door.
And that’s how it felt a few weeks back as the first of the month got here. It felt like I had things to get done, some shopping to do, but I didn’t stress it much. And as usual, I packed the night before. This time around, though, I stared glumly at the big red suitcase. What to pack, to fill that thing? Sabrina had written me. “It’s hot up here in northern Germany right now. The grass crackles when you walk over it.” And I wasn’t sure, just what all to pack, when it came to clothes. A few pairs of long pants, khakis. A few pairs of shorts. A half dozen shirts, a few nice ones. I was on for the keynote speech on Friday night. Can’t wear shorts for such a thing, I figured. So I packed some nice clothes. And soon enough, they were both filled to the brim, my big red suitcase on wheels, and the little burgundy carry-on that I always keep with me. (And now that I’m home, I will say this. Right here. The big red suitcase has taken its last trip overseas. If and when I get back there again, to Germany, I’m packing light, and I’m packing my carry-on only. There’s no sense lugging a ton of stuff with you that you’ll never use, not unless you’re driving to the beach for a week. Then, maybe.)
And the day dawned, and I knew it would be a good trip. Sure, I felt it, the slight tenseness in the pit of my stomach. I always feel that, when heading out on a long journey such as this. But I could feel this was a good trip, coming up. Because a few weeks before, the email had arrived. From United. My seat had been upgraded to first class, at least on the trip over. A good friend of mine had told me. He had a half dozen or so free upgrades, from all the flying he does. He’d see if he could get me upgraded. Sure, I told him. I’d like that a lot. But I didn’t sweat it. If it came, it came. If it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t. And a few weeks before, here’s the email. Upgrade. To business class. Which is first class, for United.
I’ve never flown first class, ever. Always heard wondrous tales of how great it is, though. And I looked forward to it. That day, July 1st, my friend picked me up at work. He would take me to Newark, NJ, to catch my flight. I loaded my bags in the trunk of his car, grumbling at the large red suitcase. Wonder if it’s too late to repack? Nah, drag the thing along. This time. And we chatted, as we cruised east on the interstate roads. And he told me. When you’re checked in, go look for the first-class lounge. All you have to do is show your ticket. They have a real nice lounge, with free food and drinks. I gaped and nodded and listened in awe.
He dropped me off outside the United zone. We shook hands, and I thanked him. And went lugging in with my ton of baggage. The place was fairly crowded, for mid afternoon. But then I saw it. The first class check in counter. Not crowded at all. For the first time in my life, I trundled up importantly to that counter with my luggage. Stay cool, here. Act like you’ve been here before. Two very polite gentlemen greeted me. I extracted my passport from my trusty old messenger bag, slung across my shoulder. The same bag that accompanied me to Europe last time. The gentlemen remained very polite as they checked in my large red suitcase and printed out my ticket. That was fast. They bowed, then, and pointed me on. Next up, the TSA line.
I don’t like airports. No. That’s an understatement. I absolutely detest airports because I despise the monsters that are the TSA goons. It’s a colossal waste of public funding, that whole apparatus. And I’ve said it before, right here on my blog. I’ll drive two days one way, before I’ll walk that TSA gauntlet. But now and then, you don’t have a choice. Like when you’re flying to Germany to talk about your book.
And that day, the lines moved fitfully. In good time, I was through. No one had pawed me, so that much was good. I grabbed my bag and trundled away. More than two hours to kill. Now, for that lounge. I had never paid any attention to the signs before. Now, I noticed. United Preferred Customer Lounge. I found the lounge closest to my gate, and walked in. A long hallway. I handed my ticket to one of the very polite ladies behind the counter. She smiled and welcomed me by name. Mr. Wagler. She waved me in. And I walked forward into the holy sanctuary.
It was a big place, with many rooms and many comfortable couches and chairs and tables strewn about. I located the snack food, fixed me up a plate, and took a seat at the end of the bar. And I looked around me. These were all beautiful people, no doubt about that. You could tell. Nicely coiffed, mostly fit, nicely dressed in good clothes. These were people who were used to the best, used to getting what they wanted. They had paid whatever upcharge was required to fly first class to where they were going to. And people who can do that are a little bit out of my league. That’s just all there is to it. Not that I have any problem with any of all that. I really don’t. Live as well as you can afford to. I got no issues with what you have, or how you travel. And I’m sure not envious at all. More power to you.
I hunched down a bit on my bar stool, trying to exude confidence. I belonged here, with these people. Yes, I did. Well, today I did, anyway. The barmaid greeted me with a smile. What kind of scotch are you serving? I asked. And she knew what I meant. What kind of scotch are you serving that’s free? “Grant’s,” she said, and my opinion of the United special lounge took a pretty steep dive. But you do have Glenlivet? I asked. “Yes, but you have to pay for it,” she answered. “Eleven dollars.” Get me one, on the rocks, I said. I can’t drink Grant’s. I just can’t do it. So that’s what she did. I sat there and sipped my drink and ate my free food and surfed on my iPad and kept checking out the place and the people in it. They all seemed so relaxed and fit and comfortable. There really is another dimension out there, in life, at least when it comes to traveling in airports. That much I can tell you.
More than an hour later, I left the lounge, and headed to my gate. We’d be loading soon. And when the announcement came, I got up. Joined the very short line to first class. The mob of plebes milled about behind me as I boarded the plane. Today, I was a beautiful person, or at least pretending to be one. Today, I would fly in style. I found my seat, close to the back, by the aisle. A man in jeans and suit coat fidgeted there. I smiled at him. He greeted me. German accent. Then he abruptly got up and walked to the very front row of seats. Spoke briefly with a woman sitting there. Then he came back and approached me. Spoke in good English. “My wife and I are separated, because we bought late tickets. I’m back here and she’s all the way up front. Would you consider changing seats with her?” Well, what are you gonna say to that? No, I don’t want to? I couldn’t, so I smiled. Of course, I’ll gladly do that. I walked up to where the woman was getting out of her seat. She smiled and smiled and beamed. “You are such a kind, polite man,” she gushed. I just smiled. It’s OK, I said. But I was thinking. Aw, shucks, lady, tain’t nothing. Trust me, I’m just grateful to be up here in first class.
I settled into large soft luscious seat, and a very nice flight attendant stepped out of the front room and smiled at me. “Are you Mr. (I forget the name, but it sure wasn’t mine.)?” she asked. No, I’m not, I said. I’m actually listed in the back row, but I just changed seats with that lady. She wanted to sit beside her husband. And I told her my name. She smiled again, and handed me something that looked like a menu. “Can I get you something to drink, before we take off?” she asked. Sure, I’d like that. Do you have any single malt scotch, like maybe Glenlivet? I asked. “We only have Dewars,” she told me, and right there was my first little disappointment in first class. Come on. Dewars? Blended scotch? That’s not cool at all. Oh, well, I guess I’ll take it. With a little ice, please. At least Dewar’s was a step up from Grant’s, the rotgut they had tried to serve me in the lounge. Apparently the people who make decisions at United don’t have much appreciation for good scotch.
And no, I’m not a scotch snob. I just like good Highland Single Malt, that’s all. I settled back then, and just relaxed, and sipped my awful Dewars. Back in the sardine, uh, I mean the coach section, the plebes were loading. I could feel it, because that’s where I’ve always loaded before. People jamming bags in the luggage racks, bags too big to fit. And people lined up, waiting patiently, to get to their seats, and their own jammed luggage racks. And somewhere back there, about now, an orator was warming up. A baby, set to roar and scream all night, all the way over. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it all and felt it all. But not tonight. Tonight, I was up front with the beautiful people, traveling first class. And you can bet I reveled in every moment of all that.
Without going on too long, let me just say this. It was fantastic, the whole experience. I was seated way up front, by the window. And the seat to my right remained empty, right up until about five minutes before takeoff. Then a pudgy, stubbled man came rushing in, and seated himself beside me. A German, looked like. And I spoke to him in perfect German. “Sind sie von Hamburg?” His tired face lit up, and he rattled off a great torrent of German in response. “Ya, ya, Ich bin von Hamburg…” And a whole lot more. I waved in surrender. Ich binn nicht Deutsch. I konn ein kleine bissel sprechen.” And he slowed way down, and spoke in English. From bad connections all day, he almost missed this flight, this final leg to his home town. He had flown over to take care of some business for his company a scant two days before. And it was all one harrowing, hectic thing, to get back here to catch his flight home. Just that close, he had missed it. The man was quite the chatterbox. I settled in with my traveling companion for the next seven hours. He flew first class all the time, I could tell by watching him. And I just kind of did what he did, when he wasn’t noticing. At least I fancied that he didn’t notice.
It’s such a different world, in first class. They bring you a menu, and they bring you all the drinks you want, leading up to the meal. No single malt, of course, but just about anything else you can think of. Wine. Beer. Bourbon. (I settled for Jack Daniels.) And the server comes around. You get a five-course meal. A real five-course meal, too. Not served up prepackaged. Nah. This stuff is served up hot, on a real plate. I chose the fillet. I forget the side dishes. But they brought me a salad, first. Then another dish, then the main dish. I mean, this was all going on while the plane was flying at 38,000 feet. And, oh, I almost forgot. Before they serve you anything, they bring you a hot white towel. Wipe down your hands, wipe your face. Ahhh. That hot white towel just felt so delicious.
I chatted off and on, with the pudgy German to my right. I told him why I was flying to Hamburg. An academic conference. I pulled out a copy of my book and showed it to him. He looked all befuddled. “I can’t understand why anyone would fly you to Germany just to talk about your book,” he said, quite frankly. I chuckled. Can’t say I can, either, sometimes. But I’m darn sure going, if they invite me, and pay my way. He nodded and chuckled. “I can’t blame you for that,” he said. A hard-core German businessman, right there.
It’s a seven and a half hour flight, from Newark, NJ, to Hamburg, Germany. You leave the US in the evening, fly seven hours, and it’s morning in Germany. I was so enraptured by my first class surroundings that I had a hard time settling down for the night. You can lay those first class seats right down, flat, like a bed. And I did that, soon after dinner was served, and I had sipped my last whiskey. I huddled sideways, covered by a blanket. And that’s the luxury I traveled in, that night, on my way over to Leuphana University, where I was scheduled to do a keynote speech about my book on Friday evening. I’d get there Thursday morning, all strung out, from the time change. And by the next day, I had better be all settled, in my heart, to speak my heart.
I slept that night, off and on, and it was fitful sleep. Now and again, I glanced at the screen up front that showed the flight’s progress. And soon we were over halfway there. Soon, it would be morning, and soon I would disembark from the only first class flight I will probably ever see in my life. Now get some sleep. Of course, the harder I tried to sleep, the more I tossed and turned. And soon the plane began its descent. You can feel when that happens, from the pressure in the cabin. I sat up and opened the window shade. It was dawn out there, and I could see land far below. Germany. We had arrived. Lower and lower, and I could make out little clusters of buildings. And they stuck up like gashes in the sky, great forests of those ugly white windmills. The “green” movement is still gospel in Germany. I could tell, from all those forests of gaping, ugly windmills.
We landed, then, and I got to unload first, right along with all the other beautiful people. First class, you load first. And you unload first. I followed my peers through the labyrinth of rooms to the customs stations. There, a few bored border guys sat and stamped our passports. On then, to baggage claim, and then on out the door into the heat of the morning. And it was hot. I saw the young man standing, waiting. Benedict, a student assistant. He had been dispatched to meet me. I approached, and greeted him. He smiled and welcomed me. And soon we were on a regional train to Hamburg, then on to Leuphana. And it felt all different, this time. Besides being just tired, I mean. The lay of the land was familiar, because I had been to this place before.
From the train station, we took the bus to Leuphana University. Benedict helped me trundle my luggage a few blocks to the same hotel where I stayed last time. We stood in the courtyard in the stifling heat, while he called Maryann. I heard him tell her. “We are here, at the hotel.” A few minutes later, she arrived on her bike. Maryann Henck, one of the original gang of professors that brought me over the first time. She smiled and greeted me, and we hugged. We pulled my luggage into the lobby, and she helped me check in. We chatted right along, then, as I filled out paperwork to get reimbursed for my travel expenses. And then we took my stuff up to my room. All the shades and curtains were shut tight, but still, the room was overly warm. It was like a hundred degrees outside. And they don’t have air conditioning in their buildings, in northern Germany. It’s just not something they do, because it rarely gets hot enough that you need it. I need to rest for a few hours, then we can head downtown to the conference grounds, I told Maryann. She went downstairs and returned a few minutes later with a small fan. At least I’d have some air and some noise. I thanked her, and she promised to give me a wakeup call in a few hours.
I napped fitfully in the heat, on my half-sized bed. (Hotel rooms in Germany are very small, from what I’ve seen.) My body was six hours behind, and I was tired. That’s always the hassle of international travel. Your internal clock gets all screwed up. Around 4:30, my phone rang. Maryann. She’d be over in twenty minutes or so. I showered, then dressed in shirt, shorts, and sandals. Seemed like the natural thing to wear, in this heat. Maryann came knocking then, and as we were leaving, we met Dr. Donald Kraybill, and his daughter, Joy Kraybill. And a few other scholars heading out. Maryann guided us to the closest bus stop, and soon we were heading downtown, to the place where the conference would be held the next day.
It’s called the Glockenhaus, and it is one amazing old building. The old timber frame beams still stand, as they have stood since the place was built. I’m not sure exactly what all it was used for over the years, but it was built in 1480. Yes. 1480. Twelve years before Columbus set sail for new worlds. And I was reminded so many times, on this trip. Everything in Europe is so old. In America, around Lancaster County, if I see an old barn or stone house that was built any time in the 1700s, well, that’s pretty old, for here. In Germany, in Europe all over, a building from the late 1700s is still considered a baby of a building, pretty much, or at least a young child. A few more centuries, and you might delicately mention that the building is now an adult. The Germans don’t blink an eye about any of this. It’s the Americans who are astounded. And it’s all just astounding to me.
On the one end of the Glockenhaus, a small podium stood, and maybe forty chairs spread out wide in four or five rows. The conference, that’s where it would come down. And I thought about it, again. I couldn’t recall ever attending any academic conference, anywhere, any time, in all my years. I wasn’t sure what I really thought of such a thing. Probably like a writer’s conference, I figured. Where people get together to read their papers and slap each others’ backs and maybe make a few new connections. I just didn’t know. But whatever an academic conference was, I was walking right into one.
And we gathered to meet each other, that first night, all of us who came for the conference. Whether to just attend or whether we were speakers. It all seemed pretty surreal, maybe because of my jet lag. But I was actually here, in Germany, walking into an entirely new experience. A conference. And there, on that floor, I met Dr. Sabrina Voeltz for the first time on this trip. She was so busy with the scheduling of everything that was going on that I had not seen her before. She saw me from across the room and walked up to me. We hugged. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here, I told her. You did it again. You actually brought me back to Germany. And she smiled and beamed. And claimed they were delighted to have me. I’m always grateful to come, I told her.
It’s a lot of stress, to get a conference like that together. She didn’t say that, but I could see. And she had told me, but she reminded me again. “Tomorrow, I’m reading my paper in the conference. And it’s all about your book. I know your book inside out, from doing my research for the paper. Soon I’ll know it better than you do.” I laughed and told her. Look. I’m just happy to be here. If you present a paper about what my book is or isn’t, that’s just a bonus. And I’m really looking forward to it. After more small talk, she excused herself, to go look after the snacks and drinks that were being served. I helped myself to a bottle of good German beer and a plate of snacks. Small clusters of people milled about. I mingled here and there.
The heat was just oppressive, during every day I was in Germany. Over a hundred degrees, most days. But thankfully, it cooled down a good bit at night. A couple of evenings, the thunder showers moved in. And that night, when I got back to my room, it had cooled down outside. All I had to do was open the door to the outside patio, and let the cool air flow in. That chilled the room down, pretty fast. And that first night, in Germany, I slept pretty good. Yeah, tomorrow it was coming, the conference. And tomorrow night it was coming, the time for me to speak in front of a crowd. And I felt it, the tremor of nervousness. Oh, well, I told myself. You’ve done this before. You know the ropes. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Tonight, I would sleep. And thankfully, what I told myself was true. That night, I slept soundly.
Friday morning. The big day had come. I dressed in shorts and shirt and sandals again, and headed down for some breakfast. I’m not a big fan of breakfasts, back home. But I am, in the hotels of Europe. They take that meal seriously, over there. A huge buffet spread, with all kinds of cold cut meats, boiled and scrambled eggs, exotic breads, two kinds of granola, and three flavors of yogurt. And all kinds of jams and spreads that you can apply to the bread or toast. And juice and water and steaming hot coffee.
After chowing down on all the good food, even though I was not really that hungry, I walked outside to meet my driver, Melanie, a student assistant who would take me downtown to the conference. She pulled in right on time. I thanked her for coming to pick me up, and we chatted during the ten-minute drive. She was a student in the American Studies department, an assistant to Sabrina. A nontraditional student, I guess you’d call her. She made the decision to go back to college, after talking to the professors there. And somehow, she caught the vision that she wanted to teach English there in Germany, in their schools. And somehow, it came out, in that short drive. She was born in Communist East Germany. That was the life she knew as a young girl. I was fascinated. Shot all kinds of questions at her. And then we were there, at our destination, and she walked me to the Glockenhaus. I thanked her. We would connect again, before I left the area.
And things were all abuzz, there at the Glockenhaus. The Plain People Conference was open. I’ve never been to any academic conference before. Never. What do these people do, anyway? Get up and read their papers, from all I’ve ever heard. I guess you have to keep doing that, if you’re in academia. Go to conferences and read your papers. Keep your name out there, keep a record of where all you’ve been. It all seemed mildly senseless, I must say, as it all came down around me that first morning. I mingled, drinking coffee and water. And took my seat, then, in the very back row.
After an opening introduction by the moderator, the first presentation began. Presented by a professor and his doctoral student. He spoke first. Then she spoke. There were slides and quotes. The subject: From Plains People to Plain People: Mennonites on the Canadian Prairies. And it turned out that they talked mostly about Mennonite writers among the Plains People. Talk about a pretty obscure subject. I settled in, expecting to be bored out of my skull.
And right there is where I dropped any preconceived notions I ever had about what an academic conference is. In that first hour. Both presenters spoke so excitedly about their subject matter that you just couldn’t help but listen. I figured to take a few good naps, that day at the Plain People Conference. And I won’t swear that I never nodded off, for a few seconds. But I never slept soundly, because that was impossible. Time and again, throughout numerous presentations, I listened intently to the reading. And after it was done, I participated in the questions, too. It was all just astounding to me, that a dry place like an academic conference could be so alive with interesting talk. It really was.
After the first presentation was over, it was Sabrina’s turn. Her title of her presentation: Towards ‘New Memoir’: Ira Wagler’s ex-Amish Life Narrative Growing Up Amish. And you can bet I was all up and alert for what was coming in that little reading. The gist of her paper was this. There’s a new literary definition floating around out there, so new that it’s barely a blip on the radar. Some academic defined it last year, in 2014. And Sabrina spoke it, how it used to be, and what it all is now. In autobiography, the “I” character is pretty much flawless, always making the right decisions, always speaking from a distant mountain. I did this and I accomplished that. Which works, I guess, if you’re famous enough to speak from a mountain, and people will still buy your book.
The “New Memoir” concept turns all that arrogance on its head. The writer is humble. He doesn’t remember specific details, often. And admits that. He accepts responsibility and blame for his shortcomings in the past. And there is not a lot of dialogue in his story. A little. Not a lot. How is it credible, to have pages of dialogue twenty years after things happened? It’s not. And Sabrina had all kinds of charts and figures, up there on the screen. Wagler writes “I don’t remember” X amount of times. He writes “I’m not sure,” or “I can’t recall” X amount of times. And she pointed out how Wagler took responsibility for his actions or inactions, by quoting from the Nicholas Herrfort scenes. How I wrote about how very wrong it all was, that we stood around and did nothing to stop the brutal bullying of that tortured child.
It was all pretty astounding, to sit there and see and hear an academic person dissect my book. And I thought about it later. Writers write, to tell their stories. As honestly as they can. And it’s only much later, that the academic people come along. And sort and dissect and analyze and critique. That’s how it’s always been, I think. During the questions, after Sabrina was done, Dr. Kraybill turned to me and asked. “That is really interesting,” he said. “Ira, did you have all that in mind, when you wrote your book?” And I laughed.
Nope, I said. I had none of that in mind. All I wanted to do was tell my story. And it’s funny. There’s at least one one-star review on Amazon, where the reader rips me pretty bad. ”Every time something interesting is going on, Wagler writes that he can’t remember.” We all laughed. The questions and comments continued for ten minutes or so, and then Sabrina was done. I settled in my seat in awe. How many writers have ever seen and heard what I’ve seen and heard about my book? I mean, there was a presentation about it at an academic conference. A conference paper that will be published. Life is just pretty wild, sometimes, I gotta say.
Dr. Kraybill was up next, with his keynote address. He had the power point set up, on the screen. I had heard and seen the man before, and I knew he would be good. He was. It was a real treat for all of us, to hear his presentation. North American Amish and Mennonites in the Quandary of Modernity. The man is so knowledgeable, so polished, and so humorous. It was an honor to hear him, and the conference planners were fortunate indeed, to rope him in as a keynote speaker.
Lunch then. We split up, the men and the women, and wandered off downtown to find food. The men ended up at an outdoor café. I ordered a wrap and a beer. And it was all good, the setting, the food, the company, the conversation, and the beer. And after lunch we headed back. More papers, more presentations. I caught myself nodding off a time or two, after that food and beer. But amazingly, the presentations were delivered with such enthusiasm that you just could not fall asleep. And by mid afternoon, there was a break. There would be a round table discussion of some sort. You could choose to take a tour or the town of historic Leuphana, or you could join the round table. I chose to ask to be taken back to my hotel room. I needed some rest. And I needed to get ready, mentally, for my Keynote address that evening at seven. I told Maryann, and, as always, she took care of things for me. She arranged the ride back. And promised she would give me a wake-up call at 5:30.
And I thought about it, as I tried to relax back in my humid hotel room. (It’s tough, to live without air conditioning, sometimes. It reminded me of growing up. We never had it then, either.) I had my rough notes with me, for my speech that evening. But I thought about it. This is the reason you were invited, right here. Tonight. You know your stuff. One thought kept jumping out at me. Stay calm. Don’t get all fretful or nervous. If you can do that, you will be fine.
Maryann called me, right when she promised. I’m good, I told her. And a few minutes after six, my chauffeur, Melanie, appeared again. She had a class that night, but she could run me downtown before that. I had cleaned up a bit, and dressed in Khakis and a clean shirt. And shoes. You’re speaking to conference people, here. Dress for it.
Melanie dropped me off at the Glockenhaus, then headed back for her class. I strolled in. I still had half an hour, or so. I walked through the doors, and just gaped. The setting of the room had changed completely. Before, there was a little podium up front, with a few rows of chairs. Well. Now they had switched it completely. There was a small platform set up, off the opposite way, with about a hundred chairs facing it. There was a table on the platform, with a chair. And a mic system. And a camera, in the back of the room. They were filming this session. Sabrina saw me, and came over to greet me. What in the world is going on, here? I asked. I mean, this is a totally different setup, from what it was today. And she smiled at me, all brightly.
“There was a writeup in the paper, and we invited the public,” she said. “But somehow, the reporter forgot to mention the time and place of your reading. So I’m not sure how many people will be showing up.” The clock was ticking down pretty fast, by now. Seven o’clock was coming right up. I sat in the chair at the table, and checked the sound system. And laid out a few things. My reading glasses. A glass of water. A copy of my book. Some tissues. You gotta be prepared, when you go speak to any group like that.
And the people drifted in. There were probably a hundred chairs set up. Maybe sixty or so got filled. Maybe less. I can’t exactly be trusted about numbers on a night like that. I’ll always estimate high. (I gave Maryann my iPad, with the instruction. Take lots of pictures, from every angle. And did she ever.) And right at seven, Sabrina sat at the table and addressed the crowd. She spoke a bit, of how she had first contacted me. “When I first asked Ira if he would come over, he was hesitant. But he came, and talked to our students for a few days. They enjoyed him very much. And tonight, he is back, to talk and read from his book. Please welcome Ira Wagler.” The crowd clapped politely.
I stepped onto the platform and we shook hands. Then I sat on the chair behind the table. This was it. The moment I had long looked at with a little tinge of dread. I mean, I got invited to a conference, to speak about my book. They had valued me enough, to invite me and pay my way. My friends had done that. Sabrina, Maryann, and Maria. They had faith in me, that I would tell a good story. They had invited me to their conference, and placed me in a spot of great honor. And now it was time to speak.
It’s always a little bit of a blur in your memory, when you start speaking to a crowd like I spoke to that night. But amazingly, my admonitions to myself were right up front, in my head. Stay calm. Be yourself. You’ve been here before. These are just people. Talk to them. And I told them, right up front. This is an academic conference. We’ve heard a lot of very interesting papers, all day. And we’ll hear more tomorrow. But tonight, I’m not coming from any academic place. I’m the guy who’s here to tell you. I come from these people, and they are still my people.
And I took and kind of turned it in my hands and talked about it, my story. Where I come from. The Aylmer Amish world. That was all I knew. And it just depends on where you start, what all bunny trails you walk down, in a presentation like that. I settled in. And ten minutes in, or so, I read the first reading. About being sixteen, and how that suddenly makes you more than you were the day before. And how me and my buddies fretted and flailed, at that age. And then back to my regular litany of how it was, how it could be that a child of seventeen gets up in the middle of the night and leaves his world. The wonder and fascination of it. And the horror of it, too. The pain I caused my Mom, and how it still haunts me sometimes to this day. That scene, where a mother wakes up one morning, and her seventeen-year-old son is gone. And she has no idea of where he is, or whether he is safe. There is no human penance for that. There never will be.
And the people I was talking to seemed locked in and focused. Moving along then, I read aloud the scene I always read, my first date with Sarah. And I ran overlong. I usually talk for 25 or 30 minutes, then open for questions. I think I talked for close to 40 minutes that night. I apologized. Then asked for questions. And they came, rat-a-tat. Right along. The conversation meandered to a lot of different places, and I even got a chance to speak of what I believe today, as a Christian. Just because you reject your culture doesn’t mean you have to reject your faith. I’m a Reformed Presbyterian. And the question came, minutes later. What does that mean? It’s me, looking to and responding to God, for the undeserved gift of salvation. Responding, instead of trying to be all holy on my own, trying to walk the line by inflicting impossibly hard rules on myself. God is not about law or rules. He never was. And He never divorces His children. You don’t get to talk about stuff like that a whole lot, to any mixed European audience. And I wasn’t even looking for the opportunity. It just came, as a direct result of a direct question.
After half an hour or so of questions, I wound it down. Thank you. The crowd clapped politely for a few moments. People lined up, then, to get their books signed. I signed and smiled and thanked each one. And after the crowd had departed, Maryann and Melanie and I headed a few blocks over for an outdoor café and a large beer. I sure could use one of those about now. And that was my keynote speech at the Plain People Conference in northern Germany.
And I really need to wind this down, this blog. The next morning, Saturday, we met at a classroom at Leuphana University. The oppressive heat settled in. The room was halfway cool, though. And we heard a few more very interesting presentations. At some point along here, I realized that all the speakers at the conference either had their PhDs, or were working toward earning one. Except me. We heard that morning from William and Susan Trollinger (University of Dayton), from Joy Kraybill, and from Cory Anderson. And then I was part of a panel discussion. Me and Dr. Kraybill and Susan Trollinger discussed The Future of the Plain People. It got pretty lively. I pulled out my iPhone at one point and waved it around and made the point I’ve preached for some time, now. This little dude is gonna affect the Amish culture in ways that most people cannot imagine today. It was a lot of fun, being on that panel, and we actually went overlong, because the questions wouldn’t stop coming. And then, it, too, was over.
And it was over, too, the first academic conference I ever attended or took part in. Except for one last thing. There was a Barbeque, over on the school yard. We all walked over through the heat. It was a very nice catered affair, all set up under tent canopies. A nearby trailer kept the drinks cool. I sat and ate the food and sipped several beers. And just chatted with all the others.
After an hour or so, I asked Maryann for directions to get back to my hotel. I walked over and just settled in my room, to rest a while. The first stage of my journey was over. And I reflected a bit, on all that I had seen and heard so far. And all of it was good.
Tomorrow, there would be new adventures in new lands.Share